A bonus post for the Summer Solstice

Generally, we don’t make much of a thing of the Summer Solstice: we simply mourn that the day after, the days start getting shorter again.

But when I was looking for a post-from-the-past to reblog for June, I came across this one, and was reminded of a Special Summer Solstice.  Montségur, for the uninitiated, is a startling tump of a mountain celebrated as one of the last strongholds of the Cathars, a mediaeval Christian sect.  It’s a potent landmark in the Ariège.

June 21st, 2011

Summer solstice, Montségur

All this time we’ve been here, we’ve not seen the sunrise over Montségur.  Today, midsummer day, I decided to change all that.  Me and 99 others……

I arrived at the car park just after 5 o’clock,  at the same moment as a hare which had for at least two frantic minutes been trying to out-run me.  And I realised I was not alone.  It was still dark, and quite a difficult business to trek up a steep, slippery rocky path.  Other more provident people had torches, and everybody helped one another.

The route to the top. Still pretty dark.

Towards the top, the night sky was slowly washed from inky blue to delicate blues, pinks and greens by the sun which was still well below the horizon.

I found a couple of friends there, and a vantage point relatively distant from the crowd crammed into the castle ruins.  They had come to see something special – the rays of the sun as they poured through the ruined windows.  I decided it was too packed with people to feel special in there.  I’ll come back another day soon, to see for myself.

What I saw was quite wonderful enough: a rich copper disk slowly mounted above the line of mountains in the distance,  tinting the sky ochre, rusty-red, sugar-pink, finally emerging so fiery bright I could no longer look at it.  Some locals burst – quite beautifully – into song.   Occitan/Ariègeois stalwarts, ‘Quand lo Boièr ven de laurar…’ and, inevitably, ‘Se Canto’.

Gradually the whole sky lightened and brightened, turning the entire landscape crisply clear.  I strolled round the summit – it was surprisingly easy to get-away-from-it-all, before skidding and climbing my way down to the car park again….

Montségur casts a shadow on the hillsides beyond. The car park’s still full.

….and there were my companions who’d provided torchlight.  They were hitching, because their car had failed to start.  We journeyed back to civilisation together, ready to resume normal service.  It was 7.30 a.m.

Almost deserted again, Montségur in the early morning light

Snapshot Saturday: I’d rather not be in a mudslick

This week’s WordPress Photo Challenge invites us to show images of where we’d rather be at the moment.  Well, I’ll tell you where I’d rather not be, and that’s here, in North Yorkshire.

I love Yorkshire, and I’m happy to agree that it’s ‘God’s own country’.  But frankly, life here is a little trying just now.  Like most of England, we had The Beast from the East a couple of weeks ago bearing snow, blizzard and fierce wind.  And much of the rest of the time it’s been raining.  This photo was taken a couple of months ago: since then, things have only got worse.

This is what our country walks have become: Nutwith Common in January

So how about a little trip back to the Ariège, where we lived from 2007 to 2014?  Here’s a selection of photos, all taken there in March or very early April.  Down in the foothills of the Pyrenees where we lived, blossoms were out, and wild daffodils carpeted the more out-of-the-way hills.  At the weekend we would head off for Montségur and higher land to enjoy the snow that was still thick there.  We were never fans of snow-shoeing, but now I’d be more than happy to exchange their crisp deep snow for our thick deep mud.


Click on any photo to see it full size.

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?


What a difference a year makes…..

This time last year, and well into March in fact, I did little but moan about struggling around in snowshoes on our Sunday walks.   Here’s a picture I took on March 4th last year.

Buried information board on a local snowshoes expedition last March
Buried information board on a local snowshoes expedition last March

And here we are on February 23rd 2014, enjoying full-on Spring.  These are shots of some of our daffodils in the garden, taken today.

Daffodils in our garden this evening.
Daffodils in our garden this evening.

Today, Joseph led us on a walk from the foot of Montségur to the Roc du Banquels.  It’s one of those walks where from Step One, you’re climbing, ever upward.  We whinged about it, and one of our number, who’d gone and left his hiking boots in a carrier bag in the car park at Laroque (you know who you are, M.rc.l) even had to jump ship.

The walk begins.  That's Montségur you can see.
The walk begins. That’s Montségur you can see.

Ever onward, ever upward.  It was warm though, and we brushed past trees covered not in snow as last year, but with tightly-furled leaves about to burst into growth, and catkins.  Eventually, as we reached a height of some 1,200 metres, we did reach snow underfoot.  It wasn’t very deep though, and walking through it wasn’t too much of a challenge.

The snow begins.
The snow begins.

Our efforts were rewarded.  As we panted up the final slope, we saw before us, clearly defined against a bright blue sky, a large and craggy rock over which juniper bushes straggled .  This was our destination.  We ditched our sacs and walking batons in favour of scrambling up those final few metres, searching for tiny footholds and clumps of juniper to help us on our way.  There far below was the summit of Montségur.  Beyond it, Laroque, St. Quentin.  In another direction, the lac de Montbel, its usual Mediterranean blue. Look towards the Aude, and looming out of the mist was the immense peak of Bugarach.  It’s nearly 60 km away, but is so imposing that it makes its presence felt even at this distance.

We sat awhile, enjoying our magnificent vantage point and the warm sun.  Heigh ho, time to go –  before the sun sets behind the mountains and we all start feeling cold.  Going down’s always quicker than climbing up.


We almost scuttled down the slopes, and were taking our boots off ready for our short ride home just as the sun began to drop behind the high peaks.  An excellent afternoon.

Catkins on the way down point towards Montségur
Catkins on the way down point towards Montségur

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

Something old, something new

Lac de Montbel from La Régate
Lac de Montbel from La Régate

Our new friend Jenny-from-Bilbao came for a flying visit late last week, so we did a quick Cook’s Tour of some of our favourite spots.  Roquefixade, of course, Montségur: and then on a bright Autumnal Saturday morning, we finished off by a quick look at our local lake, Montbel.  It’s a man-made reservoir, actually, but it looks as though it’s been there forever, and fish, herons and humans all appreciate its cool expanse of water as a change from all those hills, mountains, rivers and streams.

What a difference a day makes.  Sunday sulked.  It rained in the night, it rained in the morning, grudgingly cleared up, then spent the rest of the day teasing us with odd showers which never quite decided whether to go for a full-blown drenching, or merely hang around as damp atmosphere, cloaking the landscape with fog.

So our planned walk from Croquié, with its promise of stunning views as our reward for a stiff climb was abandoned.  Instead we met at 1.00, we hardy types, and Jean-Charles proposed what I thought was little more than a walk round the block.  ‘Just up to Tabre, along the ridge and back’ he said.  Well, Tabre is the next village along, Mirepoix direction, so that sounded easy enough.  So off we went, along a bosky path, through Tabre, up a hilly climb to great views back to Laroque.  A long and often muddy forest track took us past further views, over the Douctouyre valley, and circled us over and past the next village along from Tabre, Aigues-Vives.  Down we climbed again, and took paths through fields back to Laroque.  A fabulous walk, all 15 km or so of it, and almost every step of it previously unknown to us.  And we pride ourselves on having got to know our patch pretty well.  Thank goodness for local friends who carry on helping us to discover even more.

The path home from Tabre
The path home from Tabre

Snowshoes III: The very last episode

I’m not doing raquettes (snowshoes) ever again.  Never.  If I ever show signs of changing my mind, lead me into a darkened room, talk kindly to me, and sit with me till the feeling passes.

I have no idea how I got through yesterday.  I must have done though, because every move I make causes some protesting and unhappy muscle to complain vigorously at the pain it endured on our expedition, and is still enduring now.  Five hours walking, with half an hour off for lunch.  Something over 600 metres up, 600 metres down – that’s nearly 1900 feet each way in old money.

I said last week’s sortie was tough.  Compared with yesterday’s, it was a stroll in the park.  I said last week’s was ‘an upward slog: unremitting, tough’.  Yesterday’s was a vertical slog: unending, unforgiving.  Last week, the snow had been deep and crisp and even, and easy to walk on.  We had crunched satisfyingly upwards through the forest, and our descent had been a brisk and easy downward march.

Yesterday, following a warm and sunny week, the snow was soft and our snowshoes sank deep.  Bad enough on the upward route march, but coming down, we all skidded, slipped and lost grip of our poles as they plunged into unseen cavities.  I made landing smack on my back and descending bumpily downwards, legs waving helplessly in the air my personal speciality.

Still, it was good to see Montségur, looming above us at our starting point, providing points of reference throughout the day.  Soon after we started, we were level with the castle at its summit, then it was below us, and disappeared for a while as we plodded upwards through a stretch of forest.  At lunchtime it was impossibly far below.  As we ate, we enjoyed plotting the landscape for other landmarks: Lavelanet and Laroque of course, the lac de Montbel, and far north of us, the Montagne Noire.

Best of all were the cloudscapes: massed plump white cushions of cumulus with wispy brushes of cirrus above, turning a more characterful and moody grey in the afternoon, foreshadowing the evening’s expected rain.  We were just back at the cars when the rain arrived a little ahead of schedule, with a brief hailstorm of pencil-point-sharp hailstones to encourage us on our way.  We didn’t need telling twice.  Home comforts have never seemed more inviting.

Snow Shoes II, The Sequel

We walkers of Laroque got our snowshoes out again today (well, in my case, I borrowed some), and went for a much more local sortie, just above Montferrier and en route for the local skiers’ playground, Mont d’Olmes.

How different from our last walk.  Instead of wide open snowfields with distant views, we had woodland walking and bright sunlight casting blue shadows across our path.

Instead of gentle slopes rising and falling before us, we had an upward slog; unremitting, tough.  Micheline and I, discouraged and tired, failed to reach the top, and missed the prize: a frozen lake with snow-clad views in every direction.  Most of the party stayed with us and kept us company.  Though our views were less exciting than those of the intrepid climbers, our picnic was the better one.  We low-achievers had wine, home-made cakes and hot coffee with us to supplement our bread and cheese.

And the journey down was completed in record time.  We arrived home as our gardens were gently baking in the last of the hot afternoon sun.  More of the same is forecast for several days: there won’t be much snow left this time next week.

A Mediaeval picnic

Montségur in the morning mist

Saturday morning dawned damp and misty. This was fine by the 100 or so walkers who gathered bright and early in Lavelanet for the annual Marche du Tisserand. The walk, organised by the town’s Musée du Textile, celebrates the ancient ‘chemin pavé’ used by the cloth workers who lived in Montségur and walked this path to bring their produce down to Lavelanet to be sold. Saturday’s walk, the 27th, was for fun, and nobody would have had more than a light rucksack to carry. The full three hour trek (6 hours both ways of course), steep and stony at times, when laden with goods to sell one way and perhaps provisions for the household the other must have been a slightly different matter.

This time too, there were goodies at the top for the walkers as they finished their ascent. The mayor of Montségur was there with an aperitif for everyone, and we at Découverte de Terres Lointaines were there too, with a mediaeval picnic we’d been preparing .

Who knew chopping coriander could be such fun?

The cooking took several days, but the research, with the help of the Museum at Montségur, took weeks of researching, testing, tasting, rejecting, trying again… Still, eating’s always fun

Though curious, the walkers were suspicious too. What would a mediaeval picnic be like? Heavy, probably, with mountains of flatulence-inducing beans. Tasteless too maybe.

What a surprise then. Here’s the menu:

Spinach tart with lardons: we could have used nettles or any of a whole range of herbs, but settled on the more widely available vegetable option.

Poichichade: this herby chick pea paté, which we served on hunks of organic wholemeal bread, is a close cousin of hummus, but without the tahini. It went down well.

Broussade:  star of the show! A very tasty mix of smoked fish and curd cheeses. This really is one for anybody’s dinner table. Simple too. Recipe below.

Pets de nonne: basically deep fried choux pastry, puffy and light. Here’s the story. Back in the Middle Ages, the bishop of Tours was visiting the Abbey of Marmoutiers to bless a relic. Whilst preparing a meal in his honour, a novice let fly an unfortunate noise of the kind familiar to those of us who’ve eaten far too many beans. To cover her embarrassment, she busied herself dropping the choux paste she’d been making into some handy cooking oil so that it sizzled loudly. The pets de nonne were born.

Fromentée sucrée:  cracked wheat cooked with milk and honey. If you like rice pudding, you’d like this too

Gâteau de fruits secs:  a rich and heavily fruited pain d’epices style cake.

Just before the walkers arrived: The picnic on its thoroughly modern paper plates.

The congratulations when they came – and they came in quantity – were tinted with some astonishment:  ‘It was so good. We never expected it to be so tasty! Well done’.

But after eating, drinking and lots of talking, it was time to dance. Zingazanga had been playing loudly throughout the meal, but they turned their attention to teaching us simple steps and dances from centuries ago. Even I with my two left feet joined in.

Let the dancing begin


• A quantity of as many varieties of smoked fish as you can decently lay your hands on: we used smoked salmon, herring and haddock.
• A more-or less equal quantity of brousse. This is a curd cheese made from the milk of sheep, goats or cows. A mixture would be ideal, and failing that, any soft curd cheese.

Broussade in the making

• Paprika
• Chopped dill
• Seasoning.

Process half the fish coarsely, and finely chop the rest. Mix with the other ingredients. That’s all. Enjoy with some good bread and a probably thoroughly un-mediaeval green salad.

Plateau de Sault calling

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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