‘L’auberge espagnole de la Résistance’

…. which is, being very roughly translated, our pot-luck picnic on the Resistance trail.

Posh picnic?  I think not. But it's the taste  and the company - that counts.
Posh picnic? I think not. But it’s the taste and the company – that counts.

Jean-Charles has long wanted to get us up to Croquié, a village high above the road between Foix and Tarascon, for a walk with a 360 degree panorama of the Pyrenees, and a very moving monument to some of the Maquisards who died fighting in the French resistance in World War II.  This really was the last Sunday we could go, and the day was glorious: hot, with clear blue skies and views for miles and miles in every direction.

Neither Malcolm nor I is particularly on form at the moment, so while our Laroquais friends yomped up a semi-vertical path, deeply slicked in mud, we went part-way up the mountainside from the village of Croquié by car, and then walked on up by road (a road, however, closed to cars) to meet the rest of the group.

Our first destination was the Monument to the Resistance.  This site, with views across to the mountains dividing us from Spain, far-reaching from west to east, was chosen as a memorial site not because it was a war-time battle ground.  Instead it was a training school for resistance fighters from France, Spain and beyond.  There are no barracks, no lecture-halls, no buildings of any kind.  Instead the men led hidden existences among the forest trees and rocks.  And now there is a fine memorial to them.  Singled out were two men who died in nearby Vira (the area where we walked last week) a Maquis stronghold, one who died in our neighbouring town of Bélesta, and one who died following deportation.  There is a statue to these men, who are nevertheless depicted without facial features.  In this way they stand representative for all the men – and women – who died whether through fighting, by acting as liaison workers, or by offering essential support by giving shelter, clothing and food.  Individuals did not pass over to Spain from here: the border is too far away.  Instead they were driven to one of the freedom trails such as those near Oust and Seix.  Petrol?  It could be organised, albeit with difficulty.  A key man ran a garage.

The sculptor of this monument is Ted Carrasco.  A native of Bolivia, pre-Columbian art  is a clear influence on his work.  He seeks always for his pieces to be in harmony with the environment in which they are placed.  His monumental granite figures look over to the Pyrenees which were the scene of their fight against fascism and the Nazi occupation of France.

Time to move on, however.  Our path took us slowly upwards through forest, along a track which became increasingly snow-covered and tough going.  However, it was only 3 km. or so until we reached the top, where there’s a refuge dedicated to the memory of its original owner, Henri Tartie, known as ‘l ‘Aynat’ – the elder, in Occitan.  The original structure is tiny, but served as shelter to many a Maquisard .  Now it’s a wood store, because a newer concrete annexe has been added with cooking facilities so that hardy mountain walkers can rest, make a meal, and warm themselves up.

We commandeered a circular concrete table outside, with apparently unending views of those Pyrenees, and somehow squeezed all ten of us round.  We unpacked our food:  as ever there was wine to share, rhum baba à l’orange, galette charentaise, biscuits – all home-made, of course.  Malcolm and I knew it was our last walk with our friends.  The fine views, the fine company, the cheerful conversation had a predictable effect.  We became tearful.  But so grateful that this walk was a bit of a first.  Extra-special views, extra-special weather for March, the chance to get close to an important slice of Ariègeois history, and our extra-special friends.  We shan’t be with them next Sunday: there’ll be too much to do.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The two of us, just after lunch.
The two of us, just after lunch.

The long ‘Goodbye’ III

No, you haven’t missed anything.  There was a ‘Long Goodbye II’ – another meal, another great set of walking friends – but that time I didn’t write about it.

Vanessa, making us sing - and sing it right.
Vanessa, making us sing – and sing it right.

‘Long Goodbye III’ was on Wednesday, at the choir.  I thought I was doing the offering this time.  To drink, there was my home-made elderflower cordial which, added to a crisp chardonnay, made a rather different take on the kir with which they’re familiar.  I made sausage rolls too, using the fine English-style sausage meat produced by the talented Mister Saucisse, and hunted down some cheddar to produce cheese straws.

Vanessa curtailed our rehearsal, the party got under way, various people produced cameras and took lots of group shots. As we got organised for one of these, Robert, irritatingly, disappeared.  Then reappeared, bearing a rather large bouquet, which was, apparently,  for me.  Here it is:

A bouquet, a rose.  No wonder I look so surprised.
A bouquet, a rose. No wonder I look so surprised.

Then another gift.  This really is special.  The next village along, la Bastide-sur l’Hers, is home to a specialist knife manufacturer, of world importance in his field, Jean-Paul Tisseyre.  He’s been on our ‘to-visit’ list for ages, but so far it hasn’t happened.  Instead, one of his knives came to me.  It’s a Montségur.  It’s hand- cast in one piece with a mottled horn tip.  Along its back, you can see the profile of the Pyrenees, starting from Montségur and travelling westwards.  On one side of the blade, my name’s been inscribed.  It’s a gorgeous thing, which was given to me in an equally gorgeous hand-made leather case.   I’ll treasure it always, though whether I’ll ever risk taking it out hiking, as intended, is another matter.   The French, like the English, consider that  to give knives or scissors as gifts risks ‘cutting’ the friendship, so next week I’ll be sure to make a token payment: I have a purse full of English pennies for the purpose.

Isn't this a wonderful knife?
Isn’t this a wonderful knife?

Jocelyne, our choir’s senior member, gave me an everlasting rose….

The rose before being nicely arranged.
The rose before being nicely arranged.

…. and Marianne and Danielle have offered me a book in Occitan.  They thought I wouldn’t understand much, but some knowledge of French, Italian and Latin makes the whole thing pretty accessible.

My Occitan library.
My Occitan library.

Spontaneously, the group burst into song.  ‘Se Canto’, the anthem of the Ariege, obviously, which everyone loves to sing at the least provocation, followed by ‘Les Montagnards’: then finally the Cathar hymn ‘Can lou bouyè ben de laoura’, of which I was proud to know some of the words.

Those flowere, back home.  Can you see Montségur, Henri's version, in the background?
Those flowers, back home. Can you see Montségur, Henri’s version, in the background?

Malcolm – who’s not a choir member – and I were near to tears much of the time.  We want to go home, but how can we bring ourselves to leave this community where we’ve been so welcomed and happy?


A superior sunset

The sunset begins.
The sunset begins.

Sunset time last Thursday.  There in the  sky was a large, puffy, bruise-coloured cloud, washed at the edges with a soft copper tint.  As it swelled, it briefly developed brilliant aquamarine edges which had disappeared by the time I’d fetched my camera.


We watched from the window, we watched from the roof terrace.  Then I grabbed Daughter Number 1 who was staying for a few days, and we marched up the hill together to the square outside the Church to watch the spectacle from there.  Here it is.


The long ‘Goodbye’

We’ve been wondering for a while how to commemorate our leaving Laroque.  Not long now: we’re working towards mid-March.  We thought some kind of party, but with weather so uncertain, some friends away in February or early March,  the house gradually being more and more unpicked, and with no obvious alternative such as a village hall or room-above-the-pub, it was all a bit of a puzzle.

Then the walking group here in Laroque stole our thunder.  Subtle hints came our way, and we understood that we were at all costs to keep Friday evening free.  We realised that food was involved – of course, c’est la France – but other than that, were left pretty much in the dark.

Finally, the invitation became more specific.  We were to present ourselves at the restaurant up the hill, Table d’Angèle, at quarter to eight, and don’t be late.  So we did.  And there were 22 of our friends, our companions on Sunday and many other days of the week, ready to greet us as we came through the door.

Democracy was abandoned for the evening.  Choose where to sit?  Not a chance. We were instructed to do as we were told, and ushered to the centre seats, the places of honour.  So different from our very first community meal in the same restaurant, when we were pretty new to Laroque.  People then were wary, wondering how hard it would be to cope with talking to their new English neighbours. This time, we were all  laughing as we sat down together.  It was a  fine meal, entirely cooked and served by the immensely hard-working two-person team of Obé (named after Obélix of Asterix fame) and his wife.

We took our time.  There was plenty to eat, and lots to talk about, but finally, we took our last mouthfuls.  The evening was not, it seemed, drawing to a close.  Yvette stood up, a parcel in her hand.  It was this book:


They’d chosen it because they knew it would remind us of our home here.  But they thought that it linked too with our Yorkshire home, as the textile industries play such an important part in the history of both areas.

Then Henri stood up.  In his retirement he’s become a keen amateur painter, and his latest piece was done with us in mind.  Montségur, local landmark and place of pilgrimage.  Here it is: he’s presented it to us, and it will always have a place on a wall in our home, wherever we live in the future.Repas14

Henri had another trick up his sleeve too.  He produced a large jar of ‘confiture de vieux garçon’.  Not much jam about this.  It was  jar of red fruits macerated for several months in sugar and alcohol to spoon into a glass to both eat and drink.

'Confiture de vieux garçon'
‘Confiture de vieux garçon’

We put a jar of Seville orange marmalade for each guest at the meal (hence that ‘marmalade factory’) round the table, with instructions on how best to enjoy it.  We continued drinking, talking, laughing.  Somewhere in among, Malcolm made an emotional speech.  Blanquette de Limoux finished off the meal, and eventually, slowly, the evening drew to its close.

Such a memorable evening.  We’re touched beyond measure to have been so welcomed in Laroque, and that our friends chose to mark our departure with such careful planning and generosity.  It’s unthinkable not to come back, and often.  We’ve insisted too that they must all plan a visit to come and discover Yorkshire.  Like the Ariège, it’s splendid walking country.

Thanks , Jaques and Yvette, for most of the photos.  Mine seemed not to cut the mustard this time.  Too busy having a good time I suppose

Striding into the new year

I’ve been in a difficult mood all week.  This down-sizing malarkey isn’t suiting me at all.  Though I haven’t been down to the tip yet to excavate for my lost goods, it can only be a matter of time.  I gave some books to a friend this morning, books dating from my student days, then took them back from him.  ‘I will give them to you’, I promised, ‘but I just need a bit more time’.  I haven’t read those books in 40 years.  But I might.

So to distract myself, every afternoon this week I’ve set off on my self-imposed challenge.  I want to see how many more short walks, each lasting two to three hours I can discover setting off from the house.  We know such a lot already: at least four different ways to get to and from Léran, two to La Bastide sur l’Hers and several other shorter ones in the same direction.  Walks to and from Dreuilhe, Lavelanet, Regat, Tabre, Aigues-Vives, Campredon, Patato (yes, really), Fajou…..

The area we’ve explored least lies westwards from Laroque.  There’s a small and charming village called Esclagne about two and a half kilometres away as the crow flies.  I reckoned I could find any number of ways to get there and back, and so far this week I’ve come up with three – and that’s not counting the road, obviously.

French maps (I need to whisper this, in case anybody French is listening) are not a patch on our UK Ordnance Survey maps, mainly because they’re hopelessly out of date. Paths peter out, if you can find them in the first place, because as in England, not all farmers welcome ramblers.  Yesterday I scrambled under several barbed wire fences, and several more electric ones.  Waymarking tends to be unreliable too.  The path along the ridge leading from Laroque to la Bastide offers no possibility of going wrong.  There’s a cliff-edge on one side, and thick woodland on the other.  Nevertheless, it has trusty yellow waymarks painted on trees or rocks every few yards.  But get yourself into territory where there are multiple five-lane-ends, or a couple of tracks that might or might not have been made by resident deer, boar and badgers, and you’re abandoned to your fate.

Still, Esclagne is mounted  attractively on a hill top.  You can see it once you’re in the area, and if you haven’t managed to track down a suitable path, all you have to do is choose fields with not-too-cruel fencing, not too boggy, no bulls in sight, and walk.  It’s a chance to come upon herons startled from their familiar deserted feeding ground, make friends with affectionate donkeys, or simply enjoy the views.

Esclagne has some 115 inhabitants.    Even such a tiny village qualifies for a mayor and town council, a town hall, and a community notice board filled with all kinds of official pronouncements.  The inhabitants are no longer dominated by farmers and agricultural labourers, but townies looking for a peaceful retirement.  Unlike their British counterparts, they are not resented.  They haven’t priced the country folk out of suitable housing.  There’s been enough and to spare since the first world war, which emptied the villages of their menfolk.  Those who weren’t killed often didn’t return, preferring to make an easier living up in the more prosperous north.  Still, it’s not a lively village.  There are almost no children living here.  I did spot a traffic hazard though: a busy group of hens all foraging around the traffic signs warning of (a) a 30 k.p.h speed limit and (b) speed bumps.

So that was Esclagne.  I consulted the map, found yet another path worth exploring, and after 10 minutes or so found myself dumped once more at the edge of a wire-fenced stubbly field.  Never mind. I could see Laroque ahead of me at the bottom of the hill.  Just point myself in the right general direction and head home.  Another successful walk.



Janus in the Vatican: an image from Wikipedia
Janus in the Vatican: an image from Wikipedia

We’ve all heard of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, endings and transitions.  He’s the one with two faces: the grizzled lived-in one looks back towards the past, while on the other side of his head is the younger version, looking with optimism and hope to the future.  He puts himself about at this time of year, and indeed gives his name to January.

He’s been putting more energy at the moment however, into clambering inside our heads, mine and Malcolm’s.  He’s got us at our own game, as we look both forwards and backwards at every moment

The grizzled half of my head is fully occupied in reminiscence.  It doesn’t even try to understand why anyone would want to look at a  future in England.  It thinks about our walks, particularly our Sunday walks with our Laroque friends. What scenery!  However characterful, green and lovely English scenery might be, nowhere is going to provide the snowy summits of the Pyrenees as a backdrop to every walk.  And there’s something about those midday picnics too which I’m not expecting to see repeated at an English walker’s lunch spot.  The aperitif that gets handed round, the bottle or two of wine,  two or three home-made cakes, coffee and digestif…..  And last Sunday, a mid-December Sunday, it was so warm that one of our number  stripped off his tee-shirt to get the sun on his back.

The Pyrenees: always there.  The constant backdrop round here
The Pyrenees: always there. The constant backdrop round here

The grizzled half of my head realises that tomorrow’s concert with the choir will be my last one ever and makes sure that my eyes mist over and my throat constricts as I try to follow the music.  It points out that those summer evenings spent in our back yard over a leisurely meal and  glass of wine are now things of the past.  Those moments with friends, those trips to explore, discover and re-discover the area we’ve called home these last few years area are all but over.  Grizzled Janus is holding all the cards when he’s in the mood.  He knows very well that we’re finding it tough to say ‘Goodbye’ to all this.

Ripon Canal in spring (Nigel Homer, geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons)
Ripon Canal in spring (Nigel Homer, geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons)

But Janus has two equally potent faces.  The young version is optimistic and cheerful.  He points out that we’ve never fancied growing old, much less infirm in France, and this is the moment to get involved in life in Ripon,  a community where we already feel comfortable, but where there is so much more still to discover.  Much of what we most appreciate in France is available to us there too: wonderful walking scenery and an active community that welcomes people who want to join in.  Theatre and concerts will be within easy reach and we’ll be able to mix small-town life with easy access to bigger towns too.  And do you know what? I’m going to appreciate those English summers, if not the winters so much.  I can’t be doing with those days when the temperature is in the high 30s: and I used to be a sun-worshipper.  It’ll be good to return to speaking English and to understand most cultural references : though I expect we’re dreadfully out of touch.

Thwaite in the Yorkshire Dales  (David Dunford, geograph.org.uk. via Wikimedia Commons)
Thwaite in the Yorkshire Dales (David Dunford, geograph.org.uk. via Wikimedia Commons)

Dear two-faced Janus, you’re a terribly mixed up sort of chap.  We expect to be terribly mixed up too.  We made a decision, and we believe it’s the right one.  But we don’t think  we’re going to get through the next few months without periods of excitement, periods of mourning, periods of confusion.  Often all on the same day.  It’s probably all going to be a bit exhausting….. and it might end in tears.

The winter playground up the road

Our Thursday walking friends opted for a day with raquettes today: snowshoes.  Earlier this year, I’d vowed never to indulge in this particular form of masochism again.  So we didn’t.

But the idea of walking near crisp white snow, with views from the clear air of a mountain top across to wooded slopes cloaked in snow, and as-yet uncloaked valley bottoms, appealed.  We’d pop up to Mont d’Olmes.  That would do the trick.  It’s the nearest place round here for winter sports, so maybe we could watch some of the action, and sit down for a bit clutching a strong shot of coffee or a mug of hot chocolate.

That was the theory.  We always forget how far away our friendly neighbourhood mountain really is.  Once you turn off the main drag to follow the road that goes only to Mont d’Olmes, you still have 8 miles of climbing to do.  Soon the sides of the road were boundaried by walls of snow, while the rocky mountain sides to which the road clings were home to packs of giant icicles and glassy pillars of ice, and still we drove on upwards.

And then we dumped the car.  As discussed, we weren’t equipped with snow shoes,  so we chose to finish our climb using the road.  We passed the chalets hired out to holiday-makers, all clearly shut up, the stairways to their doors still buried deep in the snow.  The only people we saw were tradesman in the area to do running repairs or make improvements for the hardly-started season.

And then there we were.  Mont d’Olmes The Resort.  Like most ski stations that aren’t really up and running, it was just a bit depressing.  It’s focussed on a few shops and a hotel that look exactly like a suburban ’60’s shopping centre.  And nothing was open: not even a single bar.  A few snow buggies were zipping around, their drivers busy with routine cleaning and maintenance.  The slopes themselves were scoured with the tracks left by weekend skiers.  There even were a couple of skiers.  But they had to manage without benefit of ski-lifts or any of the other infrastructure that would have made their day out less labour intensive.

Great views though.  White sparkling mountain sides above, more sparsely covered rocky crags below, and a shockingly blue sky.  And we had the place almost to ourselves.  It’ll be a different story at the weekend.  The car parks will be full, the bars, shops and restaurants busy, and above all the slopes will be crowded with hundreds of locals enjoying their very own neighbourhood winter playground.  Unlike us, they’ll be joining traffic jams on the way both up and down the mountains.  We got what we needed.  A decent walk in the sharp cold air, some deep-and-crisp-and-uneven snow, snowy peaks outlined against a clear sky, and a bit of peace.