Wednesday, 19 July 2017

French Pyrenees

Driving over the mountains and towards France.

A good omen at the start of holidays!
Cross the border and the change is so sudden.
So the end June is nearly here, the end of the school term. This means a few things here - firstly for teachers it means reports, exams, marks and a bit of a crazy finale to the teaching year. After all this is done, gangs of Teenagers are roaming the streets with not much to do other than sit around, play with their phones and let off fire crackers in the streets. This brings me to my next point - the festival of Sant Joan. Here in Catalonia, kids and adults alike look forward to the 23rd, and with the setting of the sun fireworks are booming and exploding everywhere, bonfires are burning and general chaos rules. I don't hate fireworks, they're entertaining and beautiful (although very expensive and possible a waste of money for just pretty colours and noise), but in the hands of kids and teenagers, and silly adults, they can become a deadly weapon. I've celebrated Sant Joan with friends before here, and in a controlled environment it's fun and the kids love it. In the wrong environment, where adults are drinking and don't seem to be aware of the risks, or don't care, this is a recipe for disaster. Spain has it's good and bad points, one of these being the lack of control with fireworks - a double edged blade in my opinion. In the UK, like Australia, fireworks are forbidden in the hands of the public, special shows and events are held with experts and always the fire fighters standing by - here in Spain there is very little control, kids are allowed to purchase and ignite crackers and rockets, parents even buy them these deadly toys. The middle ground for me is to leave the country for the weekend, to keep my eyes, hands and sanity intact, and so I crossed the border in France, where they don't even celebrate this day.

The mountain road to France.

Our first little hike to have lunch over the border.

French sausage!
Every French town has a War Memorial.
Living just outside of Barcelona, as I've mentioned before, is a very handy location. The border of France is only an hour and half away to the North. I remember watching some RomCom from the 90s (of which I can't quite remember the name of, or don't want to admit which one it is...) where some friends in London had piled into their little car and were inviting their other friend to 'come to Paris for the weekend,' and I just thought that would be the coolest thing to be able to do... well now I can just 'pop to France for the weekend,' pick up some wine, cheese and mustard, and be back in time for tea. I still find this incredible! I was going away with an ex-colleague, a hiker and nature lover just like me, so I knew it was going to be a relaxing yet active weekend. As we drove along the C-17 through the mountains, heading towards Puigcerdà and the Pyrenees to the North, we didn't have the radio on, we didn't talk that much (not just for the sake of talking), but looked out the windows, enjoying the view of the greenery and blue sky - I enjoy this kind of travelling where I can just sit and enjoy, no chatter or noise, with a smile on my face. This was also a good time to be getting away, as many people are still working, or just have the one day off, but come the start of July "Operacion Salida" kicks off - 'Operation Exit,' or as I call it, "Operations get-the-hell-out!" The cities in Spain are emptied on mass - cars, campers and vans all head out of the cities in search of a patch of sand and a view of the sea. Better to head for the opposite direction too, for higher ground - head for the hills.

The misty mountains at Col du Chioula.

I could watch clouds all day long - better than a television!

Cows enjoying the fresh mountain grass.
Crossing the border into France is an immediate change - as clear as if there was actually a line drawn across the road itself. Once over the border, having driven past the now defunct border-check station, everything is in your face French - but in a good way! Signs have changed language, houses have become cuter and their window shutters wooden and slightly worn (but with that French charm) workers are drinking Kronenbourg rather than Estrella, and everything just seems lighter and better. I truly love the feeling of being in a foreign country, which Spain no longer really feels like to me anymore. It's the Australian in me again, but it's incredible how you can still just cross a line in a car and the whole culture and atmosphere can change too. The only thing that happens in Australia when you cross the border are the number plates and maybe the police uniforms. Bourg-Madame is that border town, a place I've driven though a few times, always wanted to stop in but never have - it's small and probably not very interesting at all, but it has this appeal to it somehow. Before we checked into our accommodation, a little Gite (a French b&b basically) in a tiny French village, we decided to go for a quick hike and have a lunch with a view. We parked the car, well into the mountains now, and hiked up for about 40 mins to a place called Col du Chioula at 1400m. The weather wasn't sunny and warm, but that was an actual blessing as Spain had been having a heat wave for the last 2 weeks - August weather of 34c+ but in June. It didn't rain either and the clouds put on a spectacular show for us - they covered the valleys like a pale, fluffy sea, moving and swirling around in silence, while their higher cousins continually shifted and moved around above, threatening rain but never carrying through. At one point we were worried about a thunder storm, and being at the top of a mountain is not where you want to be then, but it never did trouble us. We had our 30 min break at the top, munched on French spiced salami, crusty bread with slices of fresh country cheese, and washed it all down with a lovely French malt beer. No better place to be!

The view from the Gite of the old Romanic church.

A cute little french house and it's garden.

The Saint-Lizier Church and square.
The cloister in Saint-Lizier.
I had a great night's sleep in the Gite, in the attic so it was nice and quiet, and it was also free of snorers, my absolutely travelling bane. I won't mention the name of the place where we stayed, the village or the BnB (which was great - lovely owner, good food and wonderful location), as although I highly doubt hordes of tourists will come charging in after reading my blog, some places are better left a mystery and discovered on your own. Today we were heading off to see a big market in the area, only held on Saturdays, and to do a bit of city sightseeing - tomorrow would be back to the mountains. These places I will mention as they are already 'on the map' and a tourist destination. The first place we stopped for the morning was a lovely little place called Saint-Lizier, a town of about 1,500 people, but a long history. The Romans were here in 72BC (weren't they everywhere?), and in fact Pompey himself paid a visit on his way back from fighting in Spain, and even today you can still see  parts of the 3rd Century ramparts in the now Bishop's Palace. It was very quite and slightly drizzly, so I ducked into the church to get out of the rain and was impressed by the cloister. Again, quiet and very few people, just the two of us and two Brits also admiring the church, which is the way I like it. I don't know much about the church, but the columns around the cloister were very intricately carved, each one unique, with strange animals and weird shapes and patterns. There was no information, I don't know how old it is or anything, but that's fine sometimes, I just like looking at these things, not always needing to know the How, When and Why. We wandered around for a bit, enjoying the small streets and boutique shops (or what look like boutique to me, but are in fact just French), before moving on to the big markets in nearby Saint-Girons.

Intricate and individual carvings in the Saint-Lizier church cloister.

The Bishop's Palace in Saint-Lizier.

The castle of Foix.
A man brushing his cat by the window.

I do love French markets - they do it like nobody else! There is food, but such a range of bread, sausages, salamis, cheese, meats and many other things that you could just eat right there and then. The vendors were extremely friendly, handing out free samples and talking about their products, in English for me or letting my friend practise her French, and weren't upset for bothered in the least if we didn't buy, but were just happy that we have them some time and enjoyed their products. Who says the French are rude? I have to disagree totally with this - they are friendly on the mountain and in the cities, putting up with my near non-existent French and helping in any way they can. I Think maybe people think this due to the accent when French people speak in English - it's a hard one to lose - or maybe it's the fact that not many people speak their language, relying on English, and so can't communicate properly and then think it's the local's fault. Either way, for whatever the reason, I think French people are lovely. After lunch, the drive back to our hostel took us through Foix, a small city that lies just south of Toulouse, and also is very close to Spain and Andorra. I've been here twice now, and both times the weather was cloudy and threatening rain, and although it's quite beautiful in this weather, I would love to see it with sun and blue skies. The main thing you notice about Foix is the castle, which you can climb up and to and visit, it has a great view of the city and surrounding country, but also you can see the 3 tall towers from nearly anywhere in the city - great for getting your bearings. Small cobbled streets, shuttered windows on houses and some very old buildings in the Old Town, some of which are still timbered structures that look at least 400 years old. The castle was originally the site of a Roman fortification, but later become a formidable fortress in the 10th Century and was able to withstand the Albigensian Crusade between 1212 and 1217, but the castle finally surrendered in 1290. The Cathars, a group of people living in the South of France and also Northern Italy, were not true Catholics according to Pope Innocent III and so in the 13th Century he declared a crusade to wipe them out. Today, ruins of impressive castles can be seen all over this area in France, around Carcassonne and Toulouse, the only reminder left of these persecuted people.

Hand-made coffee and tea mugs in Saint-Girons - far too lovely to use really.

French villages are gorgeous, no matter the weather.

The walk to l’étang de Comte.
The natural baths.
Dinner at the Gite was great - as much fresh, crunchy salad as you could eat, fresh baked break and a generous portion of vegetarian lasagna. Washed down with a few French ales and it was perfect, the only thing to do now before going to bed was to take a quick hike up the hill to the natural thermal baths. It was dark and a little cold, but we found them and spent the next 30 mins lying there enjoying the warmth more than the smell, which was a little too much like rotten egg for me. The last day in France, before going back to the Real World, we set off to hike to l’étang de Comte, the Count's Pond. It would only be about 1:45 to the lake (it was small, but still more than a pond in my opinion!), but it would be all uphill there - but that means all downhill on the way back! I love this side of the Pyrenees, so green and lush, and real mountains covered in trees - it's much the same in Andorra, which is only a stone's throw away really. Thought the end of June, it felt like Spring here still, with flowers covering the grass, butterflies everywhere and plenty of water too, with small streams running across the path to meet up with the main river in the valley. We met some friendly local horses along the way, a special breed called The Mérens horse or Cheval de Mérens, still occasionally referred to by the older name of thevAriégeois pony. They are smaller than most horses, jet black and live in the mountains - riding school around the area have them and during the Summer months let them range and feed naturally in the mountains for a week or more at a time, and hike up and round them up when needed.

The view from the l’étang de Comte.

Spring (love) is in the air!
So green and beautiful.
Well hello there!
We ate lunch while the horses munched on theirs, but they come over for a visit and a pat (also a sniff and hoping for some bread) once they realised that we had some food. Their owner made an appearance, feeding them salt, checking their tails and legs, making sure they were all well, before hiking off. Even though they are 'half-wild' animals, they are still very much looked after. We reached the lake and I decided to jump in for a swim, although the crowd on the other side never set foot in. The water was freezing (the reason why nobody else was in!) but refreshing for the 10 seconds that I could stay in without turning into an ice-block. Out of the water the sun was warming and just enough to dry my smalls before getting dressed again and heading down. This weekend was just what the doctor ordered - no fireworks and nothing but peace and quiet, good company, great food and beer and and some hiking in the mountains too. The weather had also been good, cool and cloudy for the most part but a cool break from the Spanish sun, with the weather giving us picture perfect blue skies on the last day for the hike. Nothing lasts forever, and it was time to go home. If things lasted forever, or they were the same every day, then they wouldn't be special, and you wouldn't miss these things and wouldn't want to re-live or remember them. As much as I love seeing a place for the first time, a stunning church, a quaint village, a new foreign country, sometimes revisiting that place, where you've had experiences, memories and maybe even good friends, can be even better as it's excitement, appreciation and wonder mixed in with the feeling of actually walking down Memory Lane. Until next time France - I know you'll be there waiting for me, and I can't wait to come back.

The 'l’étang de Comte,' or Count's Pond. More of a lake if you ask me.

"You're in a good place," my feelings exactly when I'm in this country.

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