Tuesday 10 June 2014

out of the woods

It’s just gone 4pm on a stifling hot Monday afternoon in June. We're on our way back from Brittany, back down south to our valley home.

And we’re still driving, driving, driving through the Landes. Over 300 miles of France lies behind us, but we’re not out of the woods just yet. There is still at least another four hours until we reach the mountains.

Nico is valiantly driving on, despite the heat. I'm staring blankly out of the back window, mesmerized by the flickering light passing between this endless stretch of pine-trees, gorse and bracken.

In most literary accounts, the Landes, this seemingly endless stretch of wilderness between Bordeaux and the mountainous border is often described as despairing and relentless. Many writers see it as a deliberate attempt by the inhabitants of the south west of France to create such despair amongst outsiders attempting to journey through it, that they give up and turn back round before arriving chez eux, thus leaving them in peace.
In some respects, this interpretation is correct. As believe it or not, this stretch of ‘moor land’ (literal translation of ‘landes’) is entirely man-made. Up until a couple of centuries ago, this area which is as flat as a pancake was nothing but a fairly impassable swampland, notorious as a place for outlaws and epidemics of malaria. Starting in the mid sixteenth century, successive powers ordained the reclamation of the land through the mass sowing of gourbet (marram grass) and the planting of thousands of pine and gorse seedlings. The work continued through successive generations. By the time of Napoleon III, the mouth of the Adour river was finally fixed at Bayonne and most of the coastal and inner marshland had been converted to dry land. The early nineteenth century was the glory days of the area, as the pine trees supplying both timber and resin became the fortune of the department.

Today, these same trees are still an important asset for the area. They are also a rather welcomed change after the mind-numbing monotony of the road  for the past eight hours since we left Brittany early this morning. The yellows of gorse and greens of ferns at the feet of the towering pines sooth my tired eyes as we journey yet further south…

…We’re still driving through the Landes, but the landscape is at last becoming noticeably less flat. Soon we shall arrive at Aire-sur-Ardour for a welcomed stretch of the legs by the river. Then it will be another hour and a half before we get that elusive first glimpse of the mountains just north of Tarbes. If we manage to get there before the storm breaks, that is…

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