Wednesday 7th May
Time to record a few thoughts and impressions of life in the French Pyrenees.
I arrived on Sunday 4th after a trip by train and bus up from Barcelona, and one night in beautiful Girona. Everything went exactly as planned – trains, buses etc. Very easy to find the way to Pont de Reynes – and to find Robert waiting at the bus stop to drive me up the last 6km to my mountain home for the next 2 months. (Robert’s an English guy who’s been working here with the family)
My studio isn’t much bigger than a large caravan, with a tiny en-suite attached. But it opens onto a small wooden terrace that overlooks the whole valley and mountains all around. It’s underneath the main family house and quite self-contained. The house is a big stone cottage that’s been added to over the years, built on the side of a heavily wooded canyon, one of many canyons in the region. Apparently the wild adventure sport of canyoning is a tourist attraction in these parts, but there are signs on the road up here that say that it’s prohibited in Can Guillet, ‘our’ canyon. I don’t think I’ll be trying to explore its higher reaches but it’s lovely to see the rocks and forests out of my windows and to hear the river and waterfalls pouring down.
The house is fairly isolated, though other houses can be seen down in the valley. It’s also surprising how many houses and little farms you go past on the walk down the long winding road. It’s a 6km walk down to the main road with spectacular views in all directions. There are even snow-capped mountains in the not far distance. Once down on the main road, there’s a little bakery and a couple of small restaurants (not much goood according to the locals), but from here it’s possible to catch the bus. The bus system is amazing – not very frequent, but only costs €1 for any trip, no matter the distance. I’ll be able to travel all over the Languedoc Rousillon region for very few dollars. (€1 = approx $1.50) – and there’s so much to see and do. Wonderful walking, ancient abbeys, forts, art galleries and museums, and delightful French villlages, coffee and pastries….
Yesterday I walked to Ceret, the nearest market town, another 3 km along the way from Reynes. There’s a kind of bike path/walking trail from Reynes so you don’t have to walk on the busy main road. And visiting Ceret is something I’ll be doing often because it’s the only place I can get internet access. This is going to be my biggest challlenge of the whole two months – living without a home computer and immediate access…. but it’s part of the experience and might be good for me (I hope! )
Apart from an excellent cyber café, Ceret has shops, supermarket, post office and all the other necessities. It also has a superb Modern Art gallery, which I visited yesterday. Many of the best-loved French and Catalan artists seemed to have lived and worked here at some time and it was fascinating to see all their tributes to Ceret… Picasso, Dufy, Chagall, Miro and Pinkus Kremegne, among others. I hadn’t heard of the last one but he seemed to be special in these parts. I spent a very enjoyable hour or two in there.
I’ve also arranged to have some 1-1 French conversation lessons withNatalie at the cyber café once a week. I’m managing with the basics of the language but still get very tongue-tied when I try to have any kind of chat for more than a minute. Understanding the written stuff is easy … and I can get the gist of what’s being said…. but trying to speak is another whole issue.
While I’m sitting here tapping away at this little tablet, there’s a mist hanging over the valley and it’s quite a bit cooler today than it’s been up to now. The first two days were hot and brilliantly sunny – just as the south of France is supposed to be. I’m sure there’ll be lots more wonderful days ahead.
Another lovely blue sky sunny day. I made it a lazy day, reading, snoozing, picking cherries from the garden. This is the centre of cherry growing in France. The French word is cerise… so no surprise how the little town of Ceret got its name. There are cherry trees all around just dripping with fruit. The garden here at the house is huge and the property seems to include the canyon and the surrounding mountains. It’s a beautiful place to walk around, clambering over rocks and up and down lots of levels. When it gets just a bit hotter I’m going to take advantage of the natural rock pools in the river. It’s really all quite idyllic, a truly lovely place to live – despite, or because of, its isolation and position overlooking the valley. Jocelyne and Jean-Pierre have made it into a more than just a home. It’s a whole natural and spiritual way of life for them. I’m quite envious.
It’s been good having Robert here to speak English… he’s been a ‘woofer’ for years (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)..but is starting to assess his future and recognises that he’ll have to back to the UK some time and try to get a ‘proper’ paid job… He’s 52 with no money and not entitled to health benefits etc in Europe. A really nice guy… I wish him well. We’ve shared lots of travellers’ tales over the past couple of days.. one of the joys of travel, meeting kindred spirits who’ve been to many of the same places.
The past two weeks have been a great opportunity to get the feel of the Languedoc and this part of the French Pyrenees….. towns, villages and major cities. My table is loaded with maps, timetables and all the general guff about getting around and what to see. Not that it really matters because you could go anywhere in these mountains and valleys and be surrounded by spectacular views and amazing medieval history. There are forts, castles, towers, cathedrals, abbeys and old stone villages which all have a story to tell. And, of course, there are modern-day bakeries, shops, art galleries, markets and festivals.
Jocelyne and Jean-Pierre who own the house where I’m living are the kindest, loveliest people. Mostly I live quite independently and happily down below in my studio, but I have total access to the garden, the fruit trees, the river and its swimming holes (still too cold for me…) and I’ve been invited up to the house a couple of times for apperitifs or lunch… all organic salads straight from the garden. The house is a wonder of art and architecture. Lots of levels and interesting spaces which combine natural timber and stone, inside and outside. It’s a house made for people to relax, communicate and enjoy. I’m still a bit limited with the communication aspect, but they speak a bit of English and I muddle along with my French.
The weather has been typically Spring-like and quite changeable. Quite hot in the beginning, but with an occasional windy, misty and overcast day. I’m sure it’s going to get even warmer in June.
I need to write something about the few days I spent travelling with Helen, Steve and Kate (friends from home). I took the train up to Toulouse and met them on their way down from Paris. We had 2 nights in Toulouse in a budget hotel in a seedier part of town, so probably didn’t get the best impression of this city, but it’s not a place I particularly want to visit again. Of course we ‘did’ the cathedral and other little churches, but mainly just strolled around visiting a market, watching artists by the river and eating and drinking. Next day took the train to Carcassonne where we had a great apartment in the old part of the city. Unlike Toulouse, Carcassonne had an immediate magic about it. Dominated by its massive castle, it’s a city one could spend ages in. It’s also on the Canal du Midi which would be a great trip to do on a barge some time. Carcassonne is world heritage listed, truly a lovely place. We spent most of a whole day inside the castle walls. As well as the structure of the castle itself, there are dozens of little shops, hotels and restaurants tucked into narrow streets and corners to tempt the tourist visitors. All quite delightful.
From Carcassonne, it was on to Montpellier. Accommodation here was in another apartment about 10 minutes by tram from the huge central plaza, Place de Comedie. The tram system is fantastic…these modern, smooth machines snake their way all over the city and are as attractive as they are functional. They completely outdo the rattling, advertisement-covered trams in Adelaide. The Carcassonne ones are decorated with flowers, sea-creatures or elegant wallpaper, depending on which route they’re on. Everyone uses them because the streets inside the centre of the city are too small for lots of cars anyway. There’s also a little tourist train that winds its way around town – a much more tempting option than the hop-on hop-off buses that many cities have (and that I dislike intensely.) I don’t think we saw a great deal of what Montpellier has to offer, but Helen and I did visit the Museum of Languedoc and took in ancient Roman finds, as well as artworks, furnishings etc of more recent centuries. As a group we spent quite a bit of time in the open-air bars around the Place de Comedie and enjoyed watching the world go by.
I bid au revoir to the others in Montpellier and took the train by myself to Avignon. Seemed the best time to continue the touristy stuff while I was so close.
The major sights in Avignon are the Palace of the Popes and the Bridge made famous by the little song (Sur le Pont d’Avignon etc…). I visited both and learnt a bit in the process. Back in the Middle Ages, the centre of the Catholic church was in Avignon, not Rome. The Popes used to travel much more then through their vast tracts of land in Europe to consolidate and expand their dominance. Central France on the mighty Rhone river seemed like a good place to settle down at the time. Over the course of a few hundred years they built their huge palace, adding to and changing it over time. One really has to see it when in Avignon, but I think I’ve just about reached my limit when it comes to more vast draughty halls, stone stairways, ancient kitchens, store-rooms, cellars and chapels. This one was pretty impressive, but they all get a bit the same after a while.
The Bridge was interesting though…once upon a time it completely spanned the huge Rhone river, linking the territories of the Popes and the lands of the kings of France. Now it’s a bridge to nowhere. It stops in the middle of the river. It was destroyed by floods many times throughout the ages and historians today don’t really even know all of its story. There’s a project under way at present to rebuild a kind of virtual model of what the archaeologists and scholars have been able to piece together. Apparently they do know that it was originally built when a shepherd had a vision telling him that a bridge should be built in that location….hmmm? The little chapel in the middle of the bridge provided shelter to pilgrims back in early days. I’m glad the shelters for modern day Camino pilgrims are a bit more comfortable. Even a bunk in a dormitory beats a cold stone floor above a raging river.
Before leaving Avignon and taking the train back to Perpignan (then the bus home to Reynes), I spent an hour or so wandering in the gardens high up overlooking the city and the river. Great views. Also, mustn’t forget the lovely art gallery which was once the home of a great couterier and collector. He’d acquired some beautiful things, including many Impressionist paintings. There also happened to be a visiting exhibition of Toulouse Latrec. After my day of sight-seeing, I found an attractive little hole-in-the-wall restaurant for dinner…only one other woman in there and she turned out be American, extremely friendly and interesting and as fascinated with the Cathars as I’ve become. We had a very pleasant evening comparing notes. She was off to join a group doing water colour painting in Provence
Lots more to write, including a record of the day Helen, Steve, Kate and I hired a car in Carcassonne and explored some of the old Cathar villages…but the Cathar story deserves a whole entry of its own, so enough for now!
Tuesday 27th May
Several days to catch up on now, because it’s too easy to drift into the slow lane of life on a beautiful mountain in the south of France. Sleeping, reading and doing simple daily chores fill the hours when I’m not out walking and finding little mountain paths in the woods, or going down to Ceret, or enjoying a few glasses of wine with Robert at the end of the day…. or doing any of the other things that make this all so lovely and French.
However ….. we’ve also had a crisis in paradise up here over the past couple of days. Jean-Pierre has walked out. After 30 years of being with Jocelyne, he’s left. Robert and I arrived home from a superb day out on Sunday (more about this in a minute) to find Jocelyne in tears. She was sobbing in French and wanting to talk to Robert so all I could do was give her a hug and disappear to my little nest down below. Robert came down later, quite stunned, but still unaware of what actually happened, or why.
Now it’s 2 days later and there’s still been no word from J-P, and Jocelyne is still understandably quite fragile…. but I’m getting to know her better and Robert is being his very kind self and we’ve all been doing things together. We’ve just come home from a lovely drive through the mountains to the old stone village of Coursteges, almost on the Spanish border. We climbed to the top of one of the mountains, up a rocky stone stairway and a little path through the woods to emerge on what felt like the top of the world. Snow-capped mountains in one direction and the Mediterranean in the other – and all around us the most beautiful mountain vistas, valleys and the tiny village way down below. Impossible to describe the grandeur of the Pyrenees. Back down in the village again we had an excellent lunch at a petit café – the only place to eat – run by a couple of lovely Belgian women. The outing was good for Jocelyne, and a real bonus for me.
Sadly, Robert’s leaving here at the end of the week to go to another job…and I think Jocelyne will definitely miss him. (I’ve just heard that there’s another English woofer coming on Friday… Jocelyne tried to cancel him, but Robert persuaded her that it would be good to have someone here to help, and she can always send him away if it doesn’t work out…)
The day the Jean-Pierre drama happened – but before we knew about it – was one of those days when you know you’ve had the privilege of seeing and experiencing something quite special. Robert and I had borrowed the car to drive up to the Cathar castle region, about 2 hours from here – and we got to climb up to the incredible ruins of Queribus and Peyrepertuse, a couple of the last bastions of safety for the Cathars before the armies of the Popes and French kings destroyed them for ever. The castles (more like forts) date from around the year 600, and while they weren’t owned by the Cathars, they provided shelter for them during the days of the inquisition and mass killing. The Cathar story is one of the most tragic and brutal of any history I’ve ever read. I’m at a complete loss to know why I’ve never heard it before. The Roman Catholic church of the Middle Ages was hell-bent on expanding its power and dominance, so the tyrannical popes and their henchmen bishops, cardinals and noblemen set out to torture, rape and murder anyone they deemed to be heretics or non-believers. The Cathars were a peace-loving, Christian people who lived a simple life opposed to the material wealth and power of the church of Rome. And Languedoc (this region) was where their faith and culture was strongest. You need to read about the prolonged massacres, sieges and tyranny that occurred during the 12th century to get even some idea of the evil that was carried out in the name of Catholicism. I picked up an amazing book in Carcassonne that tells the whole story – brilliantly researched and very readable. It’s called “The Perfect Heresy” by historian Stehen O’Shea.
The castles are dotted on mountain tops, way up where eagles fly, all around Languedoc – and all have a very bloody history. The world below seems to spread forever with magnificent valleys miles down below the huge stone walls. How the marauding armies ever defeated the people inside is impossible to imagine, though the book provides some of the barbaric details. Even by the standards of the Middle Ages, the cruelty and inhumanity was appalling.
All the big cities in the Languedoc – Toulouse, Beziers, Montpellier, Albi and others – played a part in the Cathar drama for over a hundred years. It’s little wonder that even today the Catholic church is not strongly worshipped in these parts.
Robert and I climbed to the top of both castles we visited and it wasn’t too difficult to imagine what it must have been like to see huge armies of knights and foot soldiers advancing in the valleys below. But of course all was quiet and peaceful as we sat on a rock and enjoyed our picnic of bread, cheese, tomatoes, olives and wine, overlooking what felt like half of France and Spain.
This wasn’t completely my first introduction to the Cathars ….. When we were in Carcassonne, Steve, Helen, Kate and I hired a car for a day and drove to some of the smaller villages that also had a role in the Cathar story. In some places it felt as if not much had changed since the Middle Ages…. an old abbey at Lagrasse, another fortress high on a hill at Lastours and a beautiful bridge and ancient village streets at Minerve. Minerve was once home to a Cathar community, but the entire population was killed by Simon de Montfort in 1210. Modern-day historians have built a model of the deadly trebuchet that was used to pound the village with rocks and destroy the only path the people had to get down to their water supply in the river. Unbelievable, sadistic, power-hungry mania swept across the region until every one of the Cathars had been eliminated. Sadly of course there are more recent, similar atrocities to remember (the Jewish holocaust, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Syria etc) but it remains unfathomable to me how mass murder could have been masterminded on such a scale by the proclaimed head of the dominant church. In the name of the God they believed in. If anyone gets to read this, I urge you to Google the Cathars … and, in particular, have a look at Queribus and Peyrepertuse to learn something of the story and to see how truly beautiful these old ruins are, sited on their mountain tops.
But now on to happier things, and back to the present day – the Ceret market. I’ve been to some pretty spectacular markets over the years in many places, but Ceret on a Saturday morning would have to beat them all. Every winding street through the whole town is lined with the most attractive stalls and umbrellas, and everyone is there with their baskets to buy delicious local cheese, wine, fruit and vegetables, as well as clothes, hats, arts and crafts, baby pigs, beautiful fabrics, towels, linen, shoes, bags, books, flowers…. everything and more. There’s music, wine, coffee and food in all the cafés – and this all happens every Saturday. Next weekend is the big annual Cherry Festival in Ceret, so the streets will be thronged with people, music, dancing and celebration.
I’m still doing the long walk down the mountain nearly every day (6km), either by the road or on the narrow tracks through the woods -and then up again at the end of the day. Thank heaven for the Camino, I say… I’d never have been able to do this if I hadn’t achieved the Camino. Walking here every day reminds me so much of all those weeks in Spain… even the little paths look and feel the same. I almost expect to meet up with my Camino buddies at the next bar along the way. I’m still enjoying every minute of it and each day seems to bring a new surprise.
Just remembered …. Robert and I went for another drive before he left … up the valley to visit old friends of his at a vegan commune. Only three people left living there and a good veggie garden, but it seems that they barely eat anything … only what’s in season in the garden. Robert told me he just lived on carrots when he was there. Anyway, it was an interesting old house and a different way of life. We meandered our way back through the small villages dotted along the valley and stopped off at a bar for lunch.
Sunday 1st June
This weekend is the big Cherry Festival in Ceret… markets, music, food, wine and crowds of people. Everything is decorated with cherries and every second market stall is selling them. All the restaurants have menus based around this little red fruit too. I had a fantastic night last night at the huge open-air Festival feast in one of the town squares. There must have been 500-600 people seated at mile-long tables, absolutely filling the square, sharing a great dinner with lashings of wine, armfuls of baguettes and non-stop music, singing and dancing. I went with Sue and Simon, our English neighbours…. they come and stay in their French home just down the road from Jocelyne’s whenever they can… lovely people.
There’s no doubt about it…. French, Spanish and Basque people really know how to enjoy themselves. Everyone sang, cheered, linked arms and swayed to the music… even stood on chairs and danced. The band moved around between the long tables and kept the party atmosphere swinging. All great fun! Got home around midnight
Other events of the past week have included Robert’s departure and Nelson’s arrival. Nelson’s another Brit, and another gentle, semi-hippy soul. He lives on a river boat on the canals in England and comes to France occasionally to do a bit of farm work or similar. Jocelyne is glad he’s here to give her a hand on this huge property. I hadn’t realised just how much land she and Jean-Pierre own until I went with her on an introductory tour when she was showing Nelson around. And it’s even more of a paradise than I’d realised…there are secret paths up the canyon and through the woods that lead to beautiful natural swimming holes, rocky outcrops and old stone-walled terraces with yet more gardens. On one little terrace, some former friends and helpers built the most exquisite little cabin which the family have enjoyed over the years. You’d never have any idea it was there, but when you make the climb up the rocks there’s this gorgeous place with a little kitchen, and sitting room, and tiny bedroom up a ladder in the loft. We sat in the garden enjoying the peace and stillness, and the views across distant mountains to the sea
There’s still no word from Jean-Pierre. Jocelyne’s putting on a very brave face and trying to be philosophical but there are still tears from time to time. A day or two before he left, Robert suggested that we all go for a drive to Coursteges, a village almost on the border of Spain, about an hour from here. A tiny place with an ancient Roman eglise (church), a few old graves, typical shuttered houses and a pretty little café/store with a sunny terrace where we had a simple lunch of locally grown chicken, sausage and salad… after we’d climbed one of the mountains. Up, up, up a rocky track and through a forest until we emerged at the top with a view of snow-capped mountains on one side and the Mediterranean in the distance on the other. A lovely place to just sit and share some time. I couldn’t keep up with all the conversation in French, but I think I’m getting better, and Jocelyne and I communicate well enough with her bit of English and my attempts at francais. (Sorry, I just realised I’ve already written about this ….)
The following day (Wednesday) Jocelyne and I went into Perpignan to both buy new walking shoes. My old faithfuls are still going strong after 5 years of hiking in Spain, the Cotswolds, Scotland and the Adelaide Hills, but they’re looking fairly battered and must meet their demise soon. She took me to an enormous outdoor sports store (more like IKEA than Kathmandu) and we both came away happy. I found a pair for half the price I’d pay at home.
French lessons with Nathalie continue each week but it’s still hard work. I really like her so will keep trying. She also had a little stall at the market this weekend selling her hand-crafted fabric necklaces and bags… I bought one, of course.
Later… Sunday evening:
Having lazed away the morning reading and writing, I decided to walk down to the Cherry Festival again. Nelson came with me, across the mountain on the little paths. He’s a very pleasant guy and I think he enjoyed the walk and the beers we had down in the town as much as I did -also, the tradtional music and dancing we watched in the streets, the same slow circle dance I saw in Odena on the other side of the Pyrenees 2 years ago – the Sardane.
The days drift by…. only 4 more weeks here
Friday 6th June
I’m sitting on an ancient bench under a 12th century bell tower in the village of Villefranche (near Prades) in the middle of the Pyrenees. Came up here this morning on the €1 bus – about 3 hours from Reynes, via Perpignan. It’s another quaint little place, like a mini version of Carcassonne…ramparts all around and the houses and shops protected from the marauding Spaniards a couple of mountains away. There are so many of these old fortified towns and villages. A few centuries ago it must have been quite noisy with every lord and nobleman wanting to conquer his neighbour’s territory. Of course it’s all flowers and tourist delights these days with a photo opportunity around every corner. I’ve just had lunch of the most perfect crepe and café au lait in one of the many picturesque little bars down one of the narrow streets. My plan was to visit this valley for a couple of days and take the Petit Train Jaune (little yellow train) up to Mont Louis… but found out on arrival that the train was vandalised during the week and is not running at present. Guess you can’t live under a lucky star for ever! However, I can still get up there by bus later this afternoon so I’m whiling away time now tapping out this diary note… and life remains very pleasant. I’ll stay overnight in Mont Louis and return ‘home’ some time tomorrow.
Before trying to remember and describe the last few days, it seems I need to explain who some of the people are that I’ve been writing about. Have had a few emails from confused friends trying to sort out who’s who! Here goes…. skip the next paragraph if you have a handle on all the characters in this story ….
Jocelyne and Jean-Pierre own the beautiful place where I’m living…except that Jean-Pierre has unexpectedly taken flight, after more than 20 years with Jocelyne. This happened about a week after I arrived (though the two events are NOT connected, I hasten to add!). It’s a bit of a mystery because he seemed such a happy, outgoing, crazy Frenchman, and they seemed to be great together. Things have been a little fraught since he left, but Jocelyne is putting on a brave face and seems to appreciate having company around the place… the company being me and one or other of the 2 English guys who’ve been at the house since I arrived. The first one was Robert who’s been woofing around France for many years (Woofing = Working on Organic Farms.. voluntary work for food and board). He had another (paid) job lined up so had to leave soon after Jean-Pierre’s departure, but another helper arrived the next day. He, of course, is Nelson. So, as you can see, all these people are new to me, but we’ve become like a strange little ‘family’ up on the mountain. Jocelyne is lovely, and the 2 Brits have both been gentle, kind, interesting guys. To complete the picture of friends and neighbours, I’ve also really enjoyed meeting Sue and Simon who live in London but have a French home about 10 mins walk from Jocelyne’s place. They’re going back to the UK today but have entrusted me with a key to their house so that I can use their wifi, borrow books etc for the remainder of my stay. This is a huge bonus for me, and very kind of them. Nearest internet and wifi otherwise is 9km away in Ceret…unless I strike it lucky in a bar somewhere
Anyway, back to the diary….while the bell above me in Villefranche chimes every now and then, and people continue to stroll through this little square…..
On Tuesday, I took myself to the beach on the bus. Argeles-sur-Mer and Collioure are not far away, but the bus took ages, winding its way through every little village en route. But I enjoyed just going with the flow and exploring Argeles when I got there. It’s a very laid-back south-of-France holiday resort place…lots of tourists, restaurants, shops etc and a beautiful wide beach. No one in the water, but lots of people soaking up the sun. I discovered the next bus would take me onto Collioure, and from there I could get back to Perpignan and on to Reynes. And what an absolute gem I discovered Collioure to be…if anyone is planning a trip over this way, put it on the itinerary. It’s gorgeous…a mix of Crete, the Greek islands and a dash of the Cinque Terre, all sprinkled with French chic. Yes, a bit touristy, but so pretty that you just have to love it. The beach is overlooked by a massive fort/castle and there are great walks all around. The shops have beautiful local arts and crafts, trendy clothes, delicious ice-creams and everything else that makes you feel you’re in a special kind of heaven.
The next day was another trip to the beach – but this time it was in the car with Jocelyne & Nelson, so it only rook 25 minutes! Jocelyne, of course, knew the little secret bays and beaches, so we found one all to ouselves and had a gorgous swim in the crystal clear Mediterranean. Then went for a walk around the beach-side paths, past quaint holiday houses, and had coffee at a bar overlooking another beach.. and then had another swim. It was a great morning, and really good to see Jocelyne being happy. Nelson has proven to be a great companion for her and very capable with all the work that needs to be done around the huge garden. He and I also share the odd cup of tea together (unlike Robert, he doesn’t drink wine). We continue to analyse the Jocelyne/Jean-Pierre situation without yet coming up with any answers.
Yesterday (Thursday) was my French lesson in Ceret, so I decided to try a new walk to get there, via a little chapel that was supposed to be worth a look. Turned out to be quite an adventure, and a 4 &1/2 hour hike across mountains, getting lost in the woods, and just having to try to find any path that would lead to a bridge across the river! Finally made it but then had the mental exhaustion of French conversation to follow. I dreaded the 6km walk back up the mountain to get home, but fortunately got a lift almost straight away with 3 young NZ guys who were staying quite near…amazing who you meet in the mountains in France!
So that brings things pretty much up to the present.
Later, same day (Friday)
Left Villefranche at 4.45pm….on the first bus going further up into the mountains. There’s no doubt about Villefranche being a lovely little place, but a couple of hours is more than enough to enjoy it. Hanging around for a bus tested my patience. However, coming up here to Mont Louis made it all worth while. Would have been brilliant to have been able to come in the Yellow Train, but the bus trip was spectacular too. I have no idea what the elevation is here, but it’s well above the snow-line and the road just kept climbing up one hairpin bend after another. I thought the mountains were high around Reynes (and they are) but they seem like foot hills compared to this. I’m writing this on the balcony of my hotel looking out to snowy mountains only a stone’s throw away across a beautiful green valley with little chalet houses dotted around… a lot like Switzerland. The sun is still shining and it’s 7.30pm. I went for a walk in the walled, historic village opposite the hotel when I arrived, then came back and had a swim in the indoor pool…decided to get my money’s worth. It’s costing $A90 for the night, but hey…once in a while there’s no harm in a bit of luxury…besides, there wasn’t any other choice!
There’s wifi down in the bar, so I’ll go and get myself a beer and do some emailing Haven’t decided what I’ll do tomorrow….
Saturday 14th June
Last entry finished up in the mountains at Mont Louis, over a week ago, so there’s heaps to fill in.
On the home front, there’ve been a couple of developments. Jean-Pierre came to see Jocelyne one day – looking completely “lost and distraught”, according to Nelson – primarily to tell her that the partnership is definitely over and that he’s going to Africa to work as a mechanic somewhere in the mines. She’s bearing up pretty well considering (guilt? relief?). On reflection, it seems too easy to cast J-P as the bad guy in the situation. I don’t think he’s a bad person and I’m sure it wouldn’t have been easy for him. I just wish them both well. (Having done the same thing myself some years ago – i.e. walked out of a marriage – I can’t pass judgement).
Jocelyne has to sell the house, of course, but that might be happening sooner than she thought too. An estate agent brought a couple here this week to look at the place -and they seemed interested. Phil and Graham …. from guess where?? Sydney!! They were here for 2 1/2 hours and I reckon they’d be perfect new owners… fit, strong guys, mid-forties and rich. They own houses in London and Bondi, so why not add another gorgeous place in France?
But now back to my travels……
Last Saturday dawned pleasantly up in Mont Louis, but soon descended into a comedy of errors….or got lost in translation somewhere. I’d called into the little tourist office in the old walled town, and had good news to start the day…the little Yellow Train would be running again! Great! After the disappointment of not being able to ride in it the previous day, this was positive. So, with only half an hour ’til the next one was scheduled, I hot-footed down to the station 1km away only to be told by the station man that “non, non” the line was still broken and there would only be “le bus“. Slightly peeved, I resigned myself to wait for yet another bus, when what should rattle into view but a very bright yellow train! I don’t know who had their wires crossed, but clearly there WAS a yellow train going somewhere with a whole lot of people on board. So – who knows or cares where it came from – I decided on the spur of the moment to take a ride further up the line and see where I got to. It turned out to be a pleasant trip for an hour and a half, sitting alone in the open-roofed carriage, surrounded by mountains and valleys, going to La Tour de Carol, on the Spanish border. Unfortunately though, there’s not much to do in sleepy little Tour de Carol on a very hot Sunday afternoon so I mostly ended up waiting, waiting, waiting for a bus to take me down again. But at least when it came, it went all the way back to Perpignan.
Going back down the mountains on the bus was actually more visually stunning than the morning’s train ride. I think it must be best to take the train through the gorges and ravines on the lower section of the line, but I guess that’s the section of track that’s still under repair.
The towns and villages in the high Pyrenees are obviously popular ski resorts. They all looked a bit sleepy in the summer sun, but I can imagine them turning on the charm -and the cash registers- as soon as the snow arrives.
It was fabulous to visit this region, but I’m still glad I’m living near Ceret and Reynes. Until it got really hot here towards the end of the week, we had a few days of sheer perfection ….warm and sunny and so peaceful in the garden. I took a book and a pillow down to the rock pools in the canyon one afternoon and lazed away a few hours in bliss. It doesn’t get dark until about 9.30pm either and the evenings are gorgeous.
Major outings during the week have been a couple of bus trips. The local bus authority that operates the 1 euro buses also runs a program of very cheap half and full day trips to places of interest – even to Barcelona and Montserrat. On Wednesday I did a trip to Collioure again. The bus took a very scenic route along the coast, past miles of lovely beaches and hills covered with terraces and grape vines. There are wineries everywhere – a lot like the southern vales at home, only more mountainous. Then we had 3 hours in Collioure before the bus came back. I swam, took photos, and wandered through the pretty shops and little streets again. It’s quite touristy, but very relaxed and welcoming.
My second Escapade (what they call these bus trips) was to Empiabravura and Figueres in Spain, about an hour away. Ben (my son) and I enjoyed Figueres and the Salvador Dali museum when we were there 2 years ago. Wish he could have been here this time too. First stop, Empiabravura, is an amazing, over the top artificial kind of brash tourist place, with over 30 km of canals snaking their way between white wedding-cake type houses, and boats of all shapes, sizes and bank balances motoring around. If you think you’ve seen floating palaces anywhere, believe me, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen Empiabravura…..though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It was so good to get to Figueres which, despite hordes of camera clicking tourists, and souvenir shops with every Dali icon imaginable, is still rather a charming, quirky old city. And it has one of my most favourite museums in the world….the Dali Jewels. I loved this collection so much when I was here the first time I even bought the TV shirt. So it was wonderful to have another opportunity.. the sublimely beautiful diamond and sapphire ‘eye’ is still one of the most perfect things I’ve ever seen. Salvador Dali was truly a genius, whatever one thinks of his surrealist paintings, and his influence on the art in the streets of Figueres is evident everywhere. I’m very much looking to another bus Escapade in a week or so to Cadaques where he lived for most of his life.
Sunday morning 15th June
Must finish this today and wander over to Sue and Simon’s to send it off. It’s been so good to have access to their wifi close to home. Haven’t yet decided what to do with the rest of the day…the options are many.
Had a very enjoyable evening last night over dinner with Jocelyne, Nelson and good friends of hers. A strong mix of French and English spoken throughout the evening…. I’m finding I can understand a lot more now, and even join in conversations a bit. It really does require constant exposure, so I’ll probably lose it all again at home.
I’m still walking a lot. This week, during the heat, the old song about mad dogs and English men popped into my head often as I trudged along in the sun…but mostly I enjoy following the little paths through the woods where local farmers and others have probably trudged for centuries. Of course I still hitch-hike back up and have met some lovely people this way. 2 days ago a couple of French holidaymakers drove me all the home, then came in and shared a bottle of wine with me. I invited Jocelyne down to meet them and they discovered by an amazing coincidence that Patrice came from the same small town where Jocelyne grew up, over near the German border. It is indeed a small and wonderful world!
Friday 20th June
Enthusiasm for this journal is waning a bit, but of course there’s more to record so I can be sure to remember it all in future. And, naturally, there’s another episode of ‘Passion in the Pyrenees’ to relate. The tale of Jocelyne & John-Pierre has taken another turn. … now definitely a soap opera, with one of the main characters on his way to Africa…..and the other two…. well, you wouldn’t believe it in Mills & Boon.
The fact is that Jocelyne and Nelson have now hooked up together!! Within the past 10 days or so, they’ve become an item, with lots of coquettish giggling on her part, and gallant strongman stuff on his. It could be quite sickening except that in a funny way, it does seem genuine. I became aware of it about a week ago and couldn’t help wondering at the apparent craziness of it. Jean-Pierre has only been gone for a matter of weeks, and Nelson has only appeared on the scene since then. However, Jocelyne is certainly no longer the grieving, jilted lover – she’s enjoying more than just Nelson’s shoulder to cry on these days….
He’s set to go back to the UK next week, but they’re already talking about “the future”. Nelson actually shared the details with me over a beer last night. I’d been wondering how he was feeling about this very obvious turn of events but it hadn’t really been my business to ask, so I was pleased when he raised the subject. He said it happened quite suddenly – but it seems it didn’t take him long to think it was a good idea. He is a bloke after all, and she’s an attractive French woman….. and they are both sufficiently unconventional for it possibly to work. She’s a free spirit (or will be when the house gets sold) and he lives on a boat … so who knows? And it would make a fabulous TV soapie. Too bad I’ll probably never get to see the last episode. (Aha …. see the very end of this post for the outcome …. )
They’ve gone away for an overnighter somewhere today – and I’ve also been away for a couple of days during the week but I still feel included as part of the household, despite the changed dynamics. We had another lovely, relaxed dinner together last night with Carmen & Yves, friends of Jocelyne’s. Nelson and I still struggle along together when the conversation is all in French, and life on the mountain goes on very happily. I can’t help wondering though what all Jocelyne’s friends are thinking. Jean-Pierre must have been a big part of the house and the wider friendship group for a long time. But, c’est la vie, I guess.
While all this has been going on, I’ve continued my jaunts around the countryside making the most of the remainder of my time here. I traveled up to Quillan on Tuesday (2 buses, 3 hours total journey, all for the equivalent of $3). Met 2 extremely nice Perth women on one bus – kindred spirits, my age, also enjoying the benefits of the €1 bus system. Shared tips and hints about places to see, things to do. I stayed 2 nights in Quillan and did day trips out from there. It was only 1 hour from Carcassonne so I went up there again to take a boat ride on the Canal au Midi. A peaceful trip, through a couple of locks, but obviously not as much fun as it would be to hire a boat with friends and spend a week or more cruising through rural France. Saw plenty of pleasure craft doing exactly that.
Another side trip from Quillan included a couple of hours at Arlet- le-Bains, a beautiful medieval village with Roman remains, a 9th century abbey, 12th century merchant houses and even an ancient house where Nostradamus is said to have lived. There are so many of these old villages tucked away in the countryside, and each one has its own magic.
Just before this little trip, Jocelyne, Nelson and I visited Palalda, not very far from home…it’s exquisite, especially when the Sunday market is happening with little stalls set up in tiny squares and stairways. We also saw art and craft exhibitions, and a terrific permanent exhibition on the life and work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh who spent the last years of his life in this valley. He’s the Scottish architect and designer responsible for many of Glasgow’s fine buildings – and, like many other artists, he loved the life in France.
While in and around Quillan, I also visited a special perfumed garden near Limoux. What a heady mix of colour, design and scents it was. A lovely way to pass a couple of hours.
I headed back to Perpignan on Thursday morning – partly to give me time to explore more of this city, but also to ensure that I could actually get back. There’s been a train strike on for about 3 days which has also affected some of the bus services. Fortunately I had no trouble but I hope it’s resolved before I have to get to Barcelona for the flight home….
Perpignan is quite a big, spread out city and supposedly the most international city in France, with 25% of its residents being Catalan, another high proportion north African, along with a smattering of everything else. I found it very attractive, built on both sides of the little River Basse, with big parks, gardens and avenues of huge plane trees, Catalan architecture and a typical jumble of winding narrow streets in the historic sector. A great cathedral (of course) where an organist was pounding out some stirring music, and next door a very old cloistered cemetery….no graves in it any more, but some quite moving sculptures on the theme of peace and tolerance. I enjoyed seeing more of the city, having really only been acquainted with the big bus and train station until now.
Still Friday afternoon – a bit later
Took a break to wander round the garden. It’s quite relaxing having the whole place to myself while Jocelyne and Nelson are away. I have to feed the cat later. Just picked a bowl full of raspberries for dinner. I’m invited to pick whatever I want any time… there’s masses of stuff growing everywhere. And it’s been interesting to see how the seasons and crops change as time goes by. Even in the 7 weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen the cherries and strawberries come and go, and now it’s time for apricots and raspberries. The fig tree outside my window was just a bunch of heavily pruned sticks when I arrived…..it’s now totally covered with big green leaves. Also all the snow that was capping the peaks on the biggest mountains nearby has now completely disappeared. May and June are lovely months to be in this part of the world.
With just over a week remaining here for me. I wonder how Jocelyne will be when Super Nelson leaves? Maybe there’s still another episode in the wings before I write the final pages of le Journal de Reynes.
Wednesday 25th June
Should have realised….just because it’s my last week, things don’t stop happening. So here we go again…..
After one day of peace and solitude at home while Jocelyne & Nelson were away, I needed to get out on Saturday, so took the bus to Collioure again. A long trip, via Perpignan this time, but well worth it for the pleasure of getting to the beach and swimming in the Med again. J’adore Collioure…it’s such a relaxed, anything goes, sort of place with none of the pretentiousness of other Mediterranean resorts, but so, so pretty
Arrived back at Pont de Reynes ( the local bus stop) at 8pm, all set for the walk up the mountain, only to find Jocelyne and Nelson waiting in the car for me to go to dinner at Annie and Gerard’s place. Wasn’t aware I’d been invited, and looked quite disheveled with bathers still on under clothes etc, but threw the towel and backpack in and went off with them to the nearby village of St Jean Pla de Cour. And what a treat the evening turned out to be! Annie and Gerard are the loveliest couple, both artists -she’s a painter, he makes wooden furniture – and their house is like something out of a story book. A tiny village house in a corner of a little square, but the cosiest place inside, on 4 levels, with narrow stairs, great wooden beams, an absolute mass of paintings and bric-a-brac everywhere, and a roof-top terrace overlooking the village, the bell-tower and the surrounding mountains and valleys. We sat out over dinner on the terrace ’til midnight. There was music coming from somewhere all evening too, because it was the Festival of Music in all these villages this weekend.
On Monday I went up the valley to Prats de Mollo again…I’d enjoyed it the first time, and wanted to do some walking in the area. Actually took the bus to La Preste at the end of the line, beyond Prats, but found nothing much there except a couple of posh hotels with thermal baths and pretty mountain scenery. Treated myself to coffee and chocolate cake while waiting for the next bus down again. There was some sort of fête day in Prats (they have so many festivals and holidays over here…there’s always a village with something happening) but the market and festivities were happening a way out of town – too difficult to get to without a car. So I watched the men playing boule for a while (we call it petanque)… and then set off on a lovely walk through the forests. There’s something quite exciting and beautiful following little paths all alone in the mountains. I had a map, and the trails are fairly well way marked, so there wasn’t really much risk, though I wouldn’t have liked to sprain an ankle or meet a sanglier (wild boar) on the track. Speaking of these animals, there are apparently loads of them in the Pyrenees We saw some in the car headlights on the way home from Annie and Gerard’s place the other night….three fat, piggy bottoms scurrying along and down into the trees
While I was waiting to leave Prats de Mollo, a huge thunderstorm struck. It had been threatening all day, but the skies opened with a crash just before the bus came along. It rained heavily all the way back down the valley (about an hour’s trip) and I was anticipating a long, wet hike back up the mountain when I got to Reynes. However, who should be at the bus stop again but Jocelyne and Nelson….he was catching the bus I’d been on to get into Perpignan to start his journey home to England. So after fond farewells and French kisses, Jocelyne and I waved him off and we drove home in comfort while the rain continued to pour!
It’s been a bit cooler since the storm, which is really quite pleasant. It’s .still definitely summer, but not the hot sun and high humidity. It was perfect for my outing yesterday. Went on another bus escapade to Cadaques in Spain, where Salvador Dali lived most of his life.
Back in 1930 when Dali discovered the little fishing bay of Portlligat about 1km from Cadaques, there were no roads, only mule tracks across the mountains. Today there’s a fairly tortuous winding mountain road into Cadaques, frequented by tourist buses and holidaymakers, because apart from the lure of the Dali house, Cadaques is a very attractive Spanish village with pebbly beaches, colorful fishing boats, boutiques, bars, restaurants and all the other essentials that tourists want. The Escapade bus was only there for 2 1/2 hours, so I had to move fast to find my way on foot to Casa Dali and have even a remote chance of actually getting a ticket to go inside. You’re supposed to book way ahead to get a ticket, and I found when I got there that the next places wouldn’t be available until the evening. However, the woman at the ticket office said to come back in 10 minutes in case there were any cancelations for the 4pm visit. And, guess what, my lucky angel was working overtime again….I got in! You have to go with a guide, only 8 people at a time, because some of the rooms are quite small and there are little stairways and terraces poked into tiny corners. But I’m so happy to have seen it…it’s totally unconventional and beautiful with windows and mirrors designed to capture superbly framed views of the sea and the gardens outside, an amazing collection of decorative objects and furniture, a couple of original, unfinished paintings in the studio, a stunning phallic shaped swimming pool and courtyards, and one room full of photos of Dali and his wife Gala with other artists, actors and the rich and famous. They lived there until Gala died in 1982, at which time Dali stopped painting.
The house was created throughout the 40-50 years they lived there…a kind of labyrinth of beautiful spaces, cobbled together brilliantly as they added new rooms and terraces. In a way, it’s exactly what Jean-Pierre and Jocelyne have done here, and many other beautiful French and Spanish houses too. Curves, twists, up and down, nooks and crannies where you’d least expect them and fabulous Catalan wrought iron balconies and balustrades. What I’d give to have some Gaudi or Dali inspiration in the round building I live in…
Had my last French lesson with Nathalie in Ceret yesterday. Sadly I don’t think I’ve improved much despite her best efforts and an hour of total French conversation each week. I still sound like a stuttering 4 year old most of the time. It’s quite depressing not being able to have a proper conversation with all these lovely people I’ve met. They all have enough English to get meaning across both ways. Jocelyne’s shared more of her story of life with Jean-Pierre with me too. She’s still keen to talk about Nelson and possible options for the future. He certainly arrived at a special time for her, but I’m not sure if she’s more in love with the idea of having a lover, than in love with him. However it’s still a happening thing so will be interesting to see what develops.
This morning we went to the beach again – Jocelyne, her 80 year old friend Danielle, and me. Went early and had a glorious stretch of beach almost to ourselves. The sea was reasonably warm, and from the water you could see all the nearby mountains, including the Canigou still with a bit of snow on top. What an amazing place this whole region is…no wonder it’s such a popular holiday destination. Apparently from next week on, for all of July and August, it’s standing room only everywhere. Argeles-sur-mer is described as the camping capital of Europe. There are camping grounds all over the place and hundreds of big RUVs cruising around already. It could all be like a massive theme park when the masses move in, so it’s a perfect time for me to be saying Au revoir to the Mediterranean
Only 3 more days before I take the train down to Girona, then bus to Barcelona airport.
YEARS LATER (2020) – here’s the end of the story of Jocelyne and Nelson ….
I kept in touch with both Jocelyne and Nelson for a while and even met up with Nelson a few times in subsequent years when I was in Europe. It turns out that it all became very difficult maintaining the relationship beyond the initial flourish. Jocelyne was distraught again and wrote to me for help in tracking him down.
I provided as much sympathy as I could but was NOT going to get involved any further. Nelson had made it clear that he wanted out. She later wrote and told me about the new man she’d met … a Parisian!