Thursday 31 October 2013

farewell summer, welcome autumn

A rainbow over our valley, October 2013
Slowly but surely, it feels as if the darker days are getting further away. The rainbow has finally appeared after the storm.

The hillsides around the village are starting to turn from green to gold to rusty red.

Spring is usually thought of as the season of renewal. Yet for me this year it is in the Autumn that I can feel myself waking from my hibernation, venturing out into the world once again. Reconnecting with my surroundings, and slowly finding peace with my life and myself.

I've just got to remember to go slowly, that's all...

I hope this will also be true for the wider valley community as we move into Autumn and brace ourselves for Winter.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

la balaguère

The wind turned last week. The sound of banging shutters has woken me early almost every day since. Yesterday, we were back in t-shirts, sweltering in unseasonal heat. The digital thermometre outside the pharmacie read 25°. Summer seems to have ridden back into the Valley on the the tail of the southern wind, la balaguère, riding in at full speed.

Halfway to Spain, via the col des Mulets

Some Valley dwellers will swear that the balaguère drives people to madness. Others will say that the warm wind sweeps a feeling of restlessness through the Valley.

But for me, the balaguère is always a source of comfort. In the heart of winter, it takes the chill off even the most bitter of days. When I’m feeling blue, downtrodden by the season, this warm wind fills these sails of mine with hope and expectation. It blows from the plains of the Sahara, sometimes bringing sand to turn the snowy mountain sides pink.

And sometimes when the balaguère blows that dust-laden wind stirs up a wanderlust deep inside of me. In this golden atmosphere, strange, unreal, windswept moment, the southern wind seems to be beckoning me elsewhere…

Over the weekend, we took the wind up on her offer.

More about that adventure later...

le soleil des herbes

La Carline appartient à la famille des artichauts.  "Cardouille" et "cardon" sont les autres noms désignant la fleur de cette plante sauvage. Les paysans la cueillaient pour son cœur comestible et se servaient des feuilles épineuses pour démêler ou carder la laine de leurs troupeaux.

Cette plante a la particularité de capter la lumière solaire en s'ouvrant en son centre. Mais celui-ci se referme lorsque tombe l'humidité et qu'arrive la pluie. La cardabelle une fois séchée est, dit-on, un porte bonheur que l'on accroche volontiers à la porte de sa demeure.

Saturday 26 October 2013

au bord de la mer

La Bretagne en famille...c'était déjà il y a un mois...

On est sur une plage, au presqu'île de Crozon. On marche sur une plage bretonne. Le sable mouille sous les pieds. On respire l’air de l'Atlantique.

On longe les vagues charges d’écume, des explosions blanches. La mer est agitée cet après-midi. Elle s’est retirée loin des dunes. La grande marée. 

Nico est dans les vagues avec mon papa. Je marche avec nos mamans, au bord de la mer. On les regarde surfer.

Je suis au sable, au vent, au ciel, au ciel. Je suis avec ceux que j'aime le plus au monde. Je marche d'un pas nouveau et je me sens bien.

Thursday 24 October 2013

heavy dew, morning mist

Heavy dew and a strong autumnal sun made for a magical, misty morning stroll up in Gavarnie this morning. 

The Silver Birch and Beech trees are just starting to turn on the northern slopes, and the purple crocuses sprinkle the grass around the hay barns.

Tuesday 22 October 2013


I love this  in-between, autumnal time of year, with her orange sunrises and foggy mornings. 

I love waking up early, stepping out onto the balcony and enjoying a cup or rooibos whilst looking up at the morning clouds hanging low over the village...wondering if they will break and let the sun say bonjour or if they'll churn up a rainstorm instead.   

This is the typically foggy weather of the month of Brumaire, the second month of Revolutionary calendar which was momentarily adopted in the wake of 1789. Brumaire runs from mid-October to mid-November and expresses—rather than marks—Keats's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

Saturday 19 October 2013

walking out

People often ask me, where did it begin?
Muscles tensed. One leg planted firmly on the earth, the other swinging forward as a pendulum. Heel touched down and my body rolled forward onto the other foot. The legs reversed position and the whole thing started again.

As simple as that. We met in the village library. But it began on the mountainside.

Four years ago, I walked towards the summit, step by step. Not my first steps in the Pyrenees. But my first steps walking out with Nico. 

Four years later, and we're still walking together, through the mountains, the valleys, the world.

Thursday 17 October 2013

le pic du Bergons (2,068m)

Prelude: Four years ago, I bagged my first ever Pyrenean summit, the Pic du Bergons, whilst out on one of my first mountain walks with N. Here's a little flashback to that memorable day...
0h00: Departure at 10am from the Vallon de l’Yse (1,500m). Driving up from Luz to the estibe (summer pasture land), our walk is nearly over before it begins as we are momentarily stuck behind the broken down lorry of a farmer on his way up to collect his cattle. The hills are truly magical this morning. The autumn sun plays games in the fields, picking out the contours of the estibe and throwing the hillsides into dramatic relief. Gently ascending, we pass through clumps of burnt ochre and crimson, ferns and blueberry bushes now past their summer best.
1h20: A well needed water break. I greedily break into my dried fruit provisions. Perched on a rocky outcrop, we spy the white dome of the observatory on the summit of the Pic du Midi, two valleys away from us.

The observatory atop the Pic du Midi
1h50: Arrival at the Col du Portillon and I'm blown away by the view. Looking down, the EDF hydroelectricity station at Pragnères nestles in the valley bottom, a long way beneath us. Before us, all the jewels of the Pyrenees glisten in the sunlight; across the border lies the majestic, snow-capped peak of Monte Perdido, the various peaks of the Cirque de Gavarnie with their emotive names (L’Epaule, La Tour, Le Casque etc.) and the Brèche de Roland, flanked by the Taillon

Sheltering from the icy breeze whistling up the side of the valley, we walk just below the ridge towards the summit. They weren’t joking when they said the terrain here is ‘escarpé’ (steep). At one point, I make the mistake of looking down and have a little attack of vertigo. It doesn’t last long though as despite being momentarily frozen with terror, I realise that I have no choice but to go on...

Looking towards Gavarnie, the Brèche and the Mont Perdu
2h10: We’re at the top and I’ve conquered my first summit in the Pyrenees! Ok, so it’s still not the Vignemale…but I’m getting there slowly! We celebrate with a picnic, made all the better by the panoramic view, and after I have a sneaky kip in the midday sun. Later, I learn that our picnic spot has a supernatural reputation; according to local legend, the caves on the southern side of the Le Bergons are supposed to be inhabited by fées (fairies). In days gone by, foolhardy shepherds, attracted by stories of fairy gold and beauty, would often venture onto the steep slopes…and often fall to their deaths.

Down from the summit, along the ridge

We descend in a leisurely fashion, following the ridge down the other side of the Bergons, before eventually dropping back into the estibe, now drenched in the hot, sun of the late afternoon. 
Getting back to the car, I’m pleased to note that unlike previous walks big walks over the summer, my left knee is not in agony and I’m feeling pleasantly tired, but not exhausted. ‘How much ascent have we done then?’, I ask, expecting it to be around the 300m mark. ‘Oh about 568m’ comes the reply. 'You've got be joking, that's actually 68m more than the last one!!’ and I have to be picked from the ground, not from exhaustion, but rather amazement.
A traditional barn

Monday 14 October 2013

dresser la tête

On passe la plupart du temps à regarder nos pieds ou devant nous, alors quand exactement lève-t-on la tête pour regarder en l'air ?

Quand enfin je me redresse. Quand enfin je me lève la tête, enfin, je me retrouve face à la montagne. L'immense montagne. Et moi et mes soucis retrouvent leur taille normale.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Gavarnie, le sentier des Espuguettes

The Cirque de Gavarnie never fails to enthral me. I have walked here in every season of the year and also of the soul. Sometimes I walk here alone,  often with friends and occasionally with family.  Even on the occasions I have had to share Gavarnie with some of the thousands of tourists who flood along the mule path from the village to the Hôtellerie du Cirque every year, there is still something quite magical about the place.
Cirque de Gavarnie

Gavarnie village at 1375m above sea-level lies at the foot of a mountainous barrier which creates the phenomenal cul de sac of the Cirque. It is a vast amphitheatre of rock gouged out by a glacier, streaked with waterfalls and interrupted by two giant steps of limestone capped with snow and ice most of the year. The rock bands forming the semi-circular wall rise abruptly for over 1300m to a group of five 3000m summits on the frontier ridge.
Towards Espuguettes

This weekend was the occasion to discover a new path, towards the Refuge des Espuguettes on the east side of the valley. We were joined on our walk by a German-Turkish couple, who were walking together in the Pyrenees for the very first time. Despite an occasionally chilling wind, we were blessed with clear blue skies and sunshine, affording clear views of the ravishing beauty of the Cirque, the 3000m peaks towering all around and the Brèche de Roland.

The Brèche de Roland and the Taillon from les Espuguettes

Thursday 10 October 2013

mushrooming, Mont Agut

 Walking down from the summit of the Mont Agut, we come across some immense, globular mushrooms, nestled in the dry grass. 

Nico's eyes light up with pleasure. "Oh excellent," he exclaims with joy before kneeling down for a closer look. "Des coulemelles! C'est trop bon ça!". 

And thus, in a field high above Betpouey, armed with a pocket knife and a paper bag begins another of my initiations into French life: location, identification, retrieval and later dégustation of wild mushrooms. 

However, once off the mountain and back down in the village, my initial joy of foraging in the wild gives way to a few nerves. What if we have just gathered, at best some hallucionogenic specimens, and at worse, some toxic and potentially lethal fungi? 

I trust Nico,  but just to be on the safe side, we consult both field guide and the Internet. Nothing to worry about. The specimens waiting patiently on the worktop are indeed edible. I am delighted to find however that this variety of wild mushroom, like many others for that matter, is endowed with a number of pleasingly evocative vernacular names:

- chevalier bagué (a "ringed-knight")
- nez-de-chat ("cat's nose")
- parasol ("sunshade")

In Limousin and the north of the Périgord, they are known as filleul ('god son or daughter'). And in Poitou-Charente, they call immature coulemelles 'bonhomme', a word often used by children for "man"), when the hat is still unopened. Nico assures me that this is when the mushrooms are the most flavoursome.

Fresh, the mushrooms have a wonderfully earthy smell. Cooked in the oven with copious amounts of olive oil and fresh parsley, they have a nutty flavour and a meaty texture just like aubergines. 

I never expected cat's noses to be quite so delicious...

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Mont Agut (2157m)

Our first weekend back together in the valley. It was the sort of day when everyone was outside who could be. 

The mountains beckoned...and we obliged, with a climb up to the Mont Agut.

Oh, it's good to be back in the valley. And it's even better to be back on my feet again.

Thursday 3 October 2013

Bretagne, en famille

Brittany is behind us, bringing a smile to my lips as I think of the stories yet to share.

 The sun shone on us, despite forecasts that suggested otherwise.

The Atlantic sparkled. The hills spread out in folds of velvety green.

The Kouign-amann was plentiful. The mussels straight from the sea. 
 We took to the narrow paths to walk the coastline and beaches. All to ourselves.

We swam, surfed, rock-climbed and rambled beneath mackerel skies.

In a barn at Plonévez, we ate crêpes oozing in salty butter and watched couples dancing Breton dances to our great delight.

A fest-diez, a traditional Breton knees-up in a barn, complete with bagpipes, crêpes and cider
And so, we are home from Brittany, remembering our time there with both sets of parents with great fondness.

I hope to find myself there again sometime soon.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

pastures new

Summer ended in a flurry of planning and packing for a brief sojourn back to homeland for me in Dorset (UK) in September. I returned to France in the last weekend of September, refreshed, revitalised and ready to get stuck into new projects and adventures!

Back in the valley, I was greeted by autumnal weather. Yesterday morning, I woke up in the dark, and there was frost on the roofs. As the last of the lingering tourists and curistes head back to their homes, the village is becoming quiet again.

In the Pyrenees, the autumn is always a time of ebb and flow...a season for change...a time for new adventures.

With the first sprinkling of snow up on the summits, it will soon be time to bring the animals from the high summer pasture lands back down to the fields around the valley.  We will wake up one morning soon to find all the leaves have changed.

Old things are coming to an end. New things are happening...and we're looking forward to exploring new pastures and having new adventures!