Bugarach: ‘Doomsday Destination’

Aude, France, Pyrénées, Walking

Cold.  Pale thin fog baffles the contours of the hillsides, and those of the distant castle at Coustassa.  Glimmering frost bristles the short maquis grass beneath our feet.  A watered lemony sun high above us attempts to burn winter away, and eventually does so.

That’s when we have our first view of Bugarach, the imposing thick-set mountain which dominates this part of the Aude, because it stands alone, rather than as part of a range, and today is pretty much thatched in snow.

Bugarach has been in the news for a while.  Here’s BBC’s ‘From our Own correspondent’ back in July 2011:

‘According to an ancient Mayan calendar, at some point towards the end of 2012, the world will come to an end.

It is not clear how that will happen, but apparently humanity does not stand a chance – except for those who seek shelter in the area surrounding Bugarach.

Just 200 people live there all year round, but doomsday believers and spiritual groups are convinced the village has magical powers, thanks to the local mountain – the Pic de Bugarach.

For years, rumours have circulated on the internet that extra-terrestrials live in the mountain, and come the apocalypse, the top will open and they will emerge with spaceships, and rescue the local inhabitants.’

Although it’s quite hard to entertain the idea that the mountain might be some sort of underground UFO car park, there are plenty of people who have done so, and with great fervour.  Here’s today’s Daily Mail, which has been talking to Jean-Pierre Delord, Mayor of the tiny village of Bugarach (pop. 176).

‘On Wednesday, he will close the village for five days to anyone who doesn’t live here or isn’t already booked to stay, and draft in hundreds of police, military, firemen and Red Cross to ban any gatherings, shut off the mountain and arrest anyone silly enough to try flying over it.

‘What if tens of thousands of people turn up?’ he says, throwing his arms up in the air. ‘I have no way of knowing what will happen. I have no crystal ball! I don’t care if people want to chant naked or talk to the trees, but I have to protect my villagers. I am responsible for them.’’

He’s not over-reacting.  Local house-owners have been able to rent out their homes for the period in question for astronomical prices, and even camping spots are going for 400 euros a night.  For most locals though, the whole thing is at best a nuisance, at worst a real headache.  The nearer we get to December 21st, the more people descend on the area, and the police and army are already involved in keeping order.

We enjoyed our views of Bugarach, as ever.  We spent time pretending to look for UFOs and generally mocking the New-Agers who are so convinced by the end of the world as we know it.  Then we got on with the business of enjoying our walk in the here-and-now.  Here are some photos of our day.

A very English Sunday walk

Aude, Walking

If you go on a walk near Limoux in the Aude at this time of year, you’re entitled to scenery like this:

Vineyards near Villar -St-Anselme

In our walking group here in Laroque we all take turns to organise the weekly outings.  And this week, it was the two of us, the only English, who were in charge. We decided on an autumn walk among the vines round Saint Polycarpe, near Limoux.  The weather forecast wasn’t great, but the rain promised to hold off till 3 o’clock.  But no.  English leaders, English weather. Think of us plodding through the mud as the rain increased in intensity, long long before 3 o’clock arrived.  Everyone blamed us, of course.  They think this is the only kind of weather we know, back in England.

It all began so well….

Above Saint Polycarpe, 10.00 this morning.

Lunch was early, at Gardie, but we didn’t beat the rain.  We had our break in the bus shelter, for goodness sake, and got togged up like this immediately after.

The clouds descend…..

And the gloom.

Can’t see much.

Saint Polycarpe’s down there somewhere…

Still, nobody complained.  We got our fresh air and exercise, and our friends had a thoroughly good time holding us responsible for the rain and mud.

PS.  Dangermouse update.  We caught him last week.  He is no more.  He was a rat.  Eurghhhhh.

‘All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin’ *

Ariège, Aude, Food & Cooking, Pyrénées

Autumn colours beginning means it’s harvest time for foragers

I’ve written before about the ‘au cas où’ bag: the carrier you always have with you on a walk, ‘just in case’ something tasty turns up and demands to be taken home and eaten.

Well, at this time of year, it isn’t really a case of ‘au cas où’ .  You’re bound to find something.  A fortnight ago, for instance, Mal and I went on a country stroll from Lieurac to Neylis.  We had with us a rucksack and two large bags, and we came home with just under 5 kilos of walnuts, scavenged from beneath the walnut trees along the path.  A walk through the hamlet of Bourlat just above Laroque produced a tidy haul of chestnuts too.

Yesterday, we Laroque walkers were among the vineyards of Belvèze-du-Razès.  The grapes had all been harvested in the weeks before, but luckily for us, some bunches remained on the endless rows of vines which lined the paths we walked along.  We felt no guilt as we gorged on this fruit all through the morning.  The grapes had either been missed at harvest-time, or hadn’t been sufficiently ripe.  They were unwanted – but not by us.

So many vines: there’ll be unharvested grapes there somewhere.

The walnuts we’re used to in the Ariège are replaced by almonds over in the Aude.  You have to be careful: non-grafted trees produce bitter almonds, not the sweet ones we wanted to find.  But most of us returned with a fine haul to inspect later.  Some of us found field mushrooms too.

Today, the destination of the Thursday walking group was the gently rising forested and pastoral country outside Foix known as la Barguillère.  It’s also known locally as an area richly provided with chestnut trees.  Any wild boar with any sense really ought to arrange to spend the autumn there, snuffling and truffling for the rich pickings.  We walked for 9 km or so, trying to resist the temptation to stop and gather under every tree we saw.  The ground beneath our feet felt nubbly and uneven as we trod our way over thousands of chestnuts, and the trees above threw further fruits down at us, popping and exploding as their prickly casings burst on the downward journey.

As our hike drew to an end, so did our supply of will-power.  We took our bags from our rucksacks and got stuck in.  So plentiful are the chestnuts here that you can be as picky as you like.  Only the very largest and choicest specimens needed to make it through our rigorous quality control.  I was restrained.  I gathered a mere 4 kilos.  Jacqueline and Martine probably each collected 3 times as much.  Some we’ll use, some we’ll give to lucky friends.

Now I’d better settle myself down with a dish of roasted chestnuts at my side, and browse through my collections of recipes to find uses for all this ‘Food for Free’.

I think these chestnuts represent Jacqueline, Martine and Maguy’s harvest.

* Two lines from an English hymn sung at Harvest Festival season: Come, ye thankful people, come’

Capital Capitelles

Ariège, Aude, Patrimoine, Pyrénées, Walking

The first capitelle on our walk

We’ve been walking north of Carcassonne today, with our friends Barbara and Tim, holidaying in the Aude from North Yorkshire.  When we decided to go and explore the curious stone huts called capitelles in the scrubby garrigue near Conques sur Orbiel, we assumed they were something like the orris of the Ariège.  These too are small sturdy dry stone wall huts: but orris were used by upland shepherds.

The dry stone walls of the capitelles

Capitelles are quite different.  Following the formation of France’s Second Republic in 1848, everyone wanted something to call their own.  Here in Conques, the poorest members of society looked beyond the village where they lived for some way of acquiring a bit of land  and earning some extra money. They realised that the dry impoverished soils of the garrigue were good for only one crop: vines.  As the peasants started to work the land to plant their vines, they dug up stones – hundreds of stones.  And they used them in the first place to make low stone walls marking the limit of their territory.

That south-facing door’s not very big

After that they built small huts to shelter from bad weather.  These round or square huts are in the form of a dry stone wall rising to a semi-circular vaulted roof also in stone: no mortar, no foundations, a bare earthed-floor and a single small door, always facing south.  They were all built by1880 or so, and the peasants who built the huts and worked the land here would have done so in any spare time left from their ‘day jobs’ as farm labourers.  And this continued till the Fist World War.  Men left to become soldiers, and at much the same time phylloxera struck.  This double blow meant the area returned to uncultivated garrigue, and only recently have the capitelles been restored.  They add interest to a stony landscape characterised by scrubby vegetation, low trees and shrubs and bright ground-hugging summer flowers.  I’d have said distant views of the Pyrenees too, but today was misty and overcast, so Barbara and Tim had to take our word for it.

Close up of a carefully constructed roof

Our socially mobile terraced house: or ’génoises’ – a history

Ariège, Aude, Patrimoine

You might have thought we were pretty ordinary types living in an ordinary old terrace house – an ex-butcher’s shop for heaven’s sake – in a run-down ordinary little town.

Well, you’d be wrong.  This house, and the neighbouring ones, was built for minor nobility.  We haven’t scoured the archives or talked to the Oldest Inhabitant to find this out.  We just know.

And this is how we know.  Under the eaves of our houses are three rows of génoises, resembling a child’s drawing of ocean waves, but turned upside down.

Three rows of our génoises, underneath carefully picked out in terracotta paint to show them to full advantage

Back when our house was built, some time in the 18th century, the number of rows you were able to have denoted your social status. Artisans were permitted one row, shopkeepers two.  Minor nobility – ahem – three.  And if you were directly in the service of the king, then you could claim four rows.

You’ll see houses with génoises south of a line that runs pretty much from Bordeaux to Lyon.  It’s thought that the technique, which is Italian, was introduced firstly to Provence and then more widely, by artisans from Genoa round about the mid 17thcentury.

Here at Villar Saint Anselme in the Aude is a rare building with 4 rows of génoises. Look carefully: the swallows – no respecters of status – have built their nests on the undersides

By the nineteenth century, the social implication of the number of rows of génoiserie had pretty much disappeared: people contented themselves with one or two rows for decorative purposes.  We’ve seen our house on a late eighteenth century plan of Laroque, so we know the house, complete with génoises, must have been built by then.

And a family with pretensions to nobility lived in a tall, narrow terraced house?  Admittedly with some nice features, but still nothing fancy at all.  Well, inheritance laws in pre-Revolutionary France had estates divided up between all the heirs, so land and property became shared into decreasingly smaller parcels.  Families graced with extensive land and properties were few and far between.  This helps explain too why the agricultural revolution taking place in England from the 18th century took no hold in France.  Tiny farms resulted in small-scale farming and a near-impoverished peasantry.

And at some point, the house passed into the hands of the previous owners’ family and became a butcher’s shop.  Now it belongs to (almost) the only English in town.  Its noble origins are long forgotten.

A ruined castle above spring flowers

Aude, Patrimoine, Pyrénées, Walking, Wildlife

We ‘do’ ruined castles here in this part of France.  And last Sunday we Laroquais from the walking group ‘did’ one that was new to us.

We went off to the Aude, near Rennes-le-Château, for a long morning’s march and a final energetic upward scramble to Bézu and the few castle ruins that are left there.

I was going to tell their story.  But then I found another blog to do the job for me.  Follow the link!  Some of the research here has been fostered by the – to me – unaccountable interest in Dan Brown’s books, but the page on Bézu is mercifully free of his influence.

I’d sooner simply share some of the photos of the day, many of them of the flowers we saw.  May, as in much of Europe, is a glorious time for them.  The dry, thin soil of this part of the Aude nourishes small, bright ground hugging plants: they show themselves off perfectly against a backdrop of alternately red and rather white earth.

I’m going to go on being lazy today.  If you can name the flowers so I don’t have to, I’d love to hear from you.

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On the path of Cathar shepherds

Ariège, Aude, Pyrénées, Pyrénées Orientales, Walking

Montaillou

Yesterday we walked through Montaillou.  It might seem a tiny and unremarkable village now, but it’s the place that’s maybe done most to contribute to our understanding of turn-of-the-14th century village life in the Languedoc when religious strife between the Catholics and the Cathars was at its height.  This is a big subject: it deserves more than passing mention: a future blog maybe.

I’d read le Roy Ladurie’s book on Montaillou more than 30 years ago,and never dreamed that I might one day live in what the tourist offices are pleased to call ‘Cathar Country’.  So it was the shepherds of Montaillou I was thinking of as we began our Sunday walk.  They would come to the annual fair at Laroque d’Olmes, a good 40 km from where they lived.  They would drive their flocks long distances for good pasture, and as national boundaries meant little in these mountain zones, their fellow shepherds whom they met in their travels would sometimes be Spanish.

Blossom and snow

We too were climbing out of Montaillou.  The paths seemed unchanged through the centuries – short springy turf with early spring flowers pushing through. Pale pink and white blossoms busting open.  Narrow streams cutting deep channels through the turf.  Thick forest climbing the slopes.  Patches of snow made the going a bit tough from time to time.  It was warm and sunny, the slopes were steep and sometimes hard-going

Those peaks appear

Then suddenly…suddenly, and so unexpectedly, we reached the top of our first climb.  Around us, to east, south and west were the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees, glistening white against the blue sky.  Above us, skylarks called and swooped.  Later, Danielle remarked that she felt as if at that moment she’d received a special gift: that perfect view, the clean clear air, the singing birds which were the only sounds.  She voiced, I think, what we all felt.

A few of those unending peaks

We keep walking

More distant peaks

We hadn’t reached our highest point: we climbed onwards, always with those snow capped mountains at our side.  And then we were on top: handy rocks provided seats and shelves and we unwrapped and shared our lunches, lingering in the sun, drinking in the views for well over an hour.

Picnic spot

The afternoon walk begins

Soon after lunch, we turned our back on the snowy mountains.  As we faced the hotter, drier Pyrénées Orientales, the equally high peaks there weren’t covered in white.  Our path was downwards now, and soon we had to pass the ski station above Camurac.  Built long after those years when snow could be relied upon throughout the winter, it was an area of scalped earth, snow machines and all-but-redundant chair lifts.  My Montaillou shepherds certainly wouldn’t have recognised it.

The walk draws to a close

But then it was forested paths again, open pasture and spring flowers.  We finished the walk passing a collection of horses, Thelwell style ponies, and appropriately for Palm Sunday, a couple of friendly donkeys.  A good day.

M et Mme Bibendum

Aude, France, Travelling in France

Bibendum himself, or Michelin Man.

We want a job.  Not any old job.  We want a job that equips us with a Michelin book of maps, a decent lunch allowance, money for petrol, and a green felt tip pen.  We don’t even expect to be paid.

What we want to do is become Michelin Inspectors.  Not of Michelin starred restaurants – though perhaps they could send us to dine in one from time to time.  No, we want to inspect all their ‘green roads’, the ones they regard as especially scenic and maybe worth a detour.  And we want to make suggestions of our own,

The D6 for instance, from just outside Mirepoix to Castelnaudary.  How could that not be a green road?  The route twists and turns, echoing the contours of the wonderful rolling hillsides, with the most majestic of the peaks that the Pyrenees can offer as a distant backdrop.

The roads round Castelnaudary, all innocent of green route status

Or the D625, which brings you back from Castelnaudary another way.  Compared with those, some of the highways in the centre of France which are rated green are rather dull.  ‘Huh! Officially pretty?’ we snort, as we drive along the endless D 976 near Romorantin.

Really, they should give the job to us.  We know a route that’s worth a detour when we see it.  And we’re both pretty handy with a green felt tip pen.

By the way, I forgot to take my camera with me on Friday when we drove along the above-mentioned D6 and the D625.  Please accept a view of the Canal du Midi in Castelnaudary itself in lieu.

Plateau de Sault calling

Aude, Pyrénées, Walking

Down here in the foothills of the Pyrénées, nobody’s interested in how far you walk as you stride up the mountainside.  It’s all about the DNV (dénivelé, or number of metres you’ve climbed – and remember a hillside can go down as well as up: coming up again after a descent starts the DNV counter all over again).  On Thursday, we did 791 metres.  That’s 2959 feet in real money.  Our mileage was less impressive:  19 km. or 11.8 miles – in the circumstances pretty damn’ good.

But we didn’t know the statistics till we’d finished.  We were far too busy having a very special walk.

To reach our departure point, you leave Belésta via a switchback forested road, over the Col de la Croix des Morts, and emerge onto a high and slightly bleak plateau.  This is the Plateau de Sault, home of the region’s potato growers.  We stopped at an insignificant track signposted Langrail and parked the cars.  As we got our boots on, we met another walker on a brief holiday from his home in Durban for a good long solitary hike (‘Durban?  Where do you suppose he meant?  Durban-sur-Arize in the Ariège?  The one in the Aude? South Africa even?’).  He was the last person we met all day.

It was the 14th March.  There were large patches of snow all along our route.  Yet we wore tee shirts all day and became lightly bronzed in the hot sun as we crunched through that still hard-crusted snow.  Through the forests we could see the peaks of our more local mountains: Maguy, born and bred round here taught us how to recognise each one.

Then, quite unexpectedly, we emerged into a splendid expanse of pasture interspersed with areas of snow.  In every direction, there was a distant fringe of mountains: our day-to day familiar slopes, the more distant and higher peaks of the Hautes Pyrénées,and behind us, bereft of snow, those of the Aude and Pyrénées Orientales. It was a really special pleasure to tramp across this apparently unending pasture, enjoying views of our constant neighbour Montségur, as well as the towns and villages where we all live, and much further away, the Montagne Noir, with the sky clear and blue above us.

It kept us happy till lunchtime.  We’d arrived at a refuge by then, thoughtfully provided with a table and benches in the sunshine.  After the picnic, we left our rucksacks with Gilbert, the honorary man in the group and went off to investigate the Belvédère, the local viewpoint.  Craggily folded rocks plunged down deep towards the Gorges de la Frau and still we had our views of Montségur.  We were impressed.

Our route for the day was a simple there-and-back.  But the views were quite different, looking towards more eastern slopes so we didn’t feel at all short changed that we were repeating our route.  And most of the return was downwards too.  Which was helpful.  When you’ve climbed 2000 feet or more, it can get quite tiring as the day nears its end.  Lucky that there was cake and tea to look forward to.

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“Vaut mieux le vin d’ici que l’eau de là”

Aude, Food & Cooking, Walking

It was a walking day again yesterday – Malcolm too this time – this time with the new hiking group at Laroque.  The walk, again amongst vines, but in the more Spanish style garrigue around Esperaza, was relaxing and fun, but the highlight of the day was lunch.  We sat by a vineyard, either in the sun, or shaded by a shapely and statuesque holm oak tree, and unpacked our rucksacks.

Under the spreading holm oak tree we laid our picnics out.

For a picnic on a walk, most people put together a chunk or two of cheese and sausage, a bit of fruit, and stop at the boulangerie on the way to pick up some bread.  We all did that….but…. there was food to share too.

Phillippe, Sylvie and Jean-Charles opened wine.

Jean-Charles offered peanuts.

Michel produced home made charcuterie (dry cured sausage).

So did Phillippe and Sylvie (boudin blanc) – theirs was home made too.

They brought some of their daughter’s home made goats’ and sheeps’ milk cheese.

I made a drenched lemon cake.

Yvette made crisp chocolate biscuits.

Jean Charles brought an ‘artisanale’ fruit cake.

Then he came round with coffee.

And finally, Yvette offered plum eau de vie made by her grandfather in 1985. A little dripped onto a sugar lump and scrunched is the perfect end to a perfect picnic.

Then we all lay around in the sun for half an hour while we digested that little lot.

That’s the way to do it, eh?  And as everyone said, as we finally decided we ought to have a go at walking off all those calories, “Vaut mieux le vin d’ici que l’eau de là” : it’s better to have a drink among friends than to be no more for this world.

As we ended our walk, we found an electricity substation, handy for the graveyard, that reminded us that death is an ever-present threat.  Definitely a good thing to have shared that food and wine at lunchtime.