Thursday, July 30, 2009


A must see destination on my itinerary. I had read a wonderful book during the depths of my despair a couple of years ago about a narrow boat that made its way from somewhere in the Midlands down to London, across the Channel and then through France to Carcassonne. I loved that book, i think that it gave me hope and I needed to visit whilst i was in the area. The main canal marina happened to be right outside the station, so i couldn’t really miss it. My plan was to dump my bags somewhere and scoot round the town for a couple of hours before continuing on to Toulouse for the night. No bag place, so i had to take everything with me. NOt too much bother apart from the fact that it was heading on 30 degrees and humid as hell. I sweated buckets and cursed my less than minimal luggage decisions, though not for long, make it a challenge, I told myself, something to rise against and overcome. It became easier after that. It was July 14th, the biggest national holiday in France and the place was packed. Narrow streets again, this time with thousands of people and stalls outside the shops, making the most of the holiday feeling. Sales everywhere, a reflection of the current economic climate, yet a fun and carefree atmosphere. I headed off in the wrong direction to the old town, checking after a while and having to turn back on myself. Once on the right track, decided that i should pop into the tourist information centre and grab myself a map. You know that the most famous firework display takes place this evening I was told. Over the castle, people come from all over france to see it. Decision made, i would stay here if i could get a room and see the spectacle.

A dorm room in an old convent, just outside the old city. Just what i wanted, and only £16 for the night, sheets were £3 extra but that was fine. I dumped my bags and went on an exploration of the old town. As with everywhere else, the crowds were amazing, the old town, within the ramparts were like a tube platform at rush hour, a mad crush everywhere. The town was great to see, though jammed with tourist shops and overpriced eateries. I did the rounds and escaped back down the hill into relative tranquility and more comfortable stroll, sans back pack. I had gathered that it would be prudent to get a decent spot to watch the fireworks fairly early on. People had started gathering in numbers when i came down the hill, so I had a bite to eat, purchased further provisions for later and made my way back to the river bank opposite the castle and found a near perfect spot. Perfect that was for the view, it was already rather busy and my place was on a steep, grassy bank under the shadow of the Pont Neuf and settled in. It was only half past four. I watched the hoards gathering on both sides of the river, children playing games and adults with their picnics and beers for a while. My Stephen King book of short stories came out and a couple of hours went by. My perfect spot was beginning to be on rather a steep angle, progressively more difficult to keep comfortable, but i had it now and wasn’t about to give it up. There was a rather lumpy rock to lean on that helped and the occasional couple of paragraphs standing up eased my aching seat. Folk kept arriving and most of the grass disappeared under their rugs and coats. I ate some more food and watched the pigeons for a while, gathering under the bridge then taking off and circling again for a while, I bet they were wondering what was going on, all these people disturbing their usual quiet evening.

Thankfully it was rather cloudy, else i would have fried, or shrivelled like a sun dried tomato, it was a lovely afternoon, turning into a very pleasant evening. The gathering continued to swell, more so now as it was beginning to get dark, more from the clouds than nightfall, but that came too, eventually. Kids started letting off little fireworks over on the far bank, creating a piss take of Oohs and Aahs from people around me, though I doubt they heard on the other side. The book came and went, short story after short story consumed, to pass the time as well as for enjoyment. It became dark and the lights went on, illuminating the bridges and the castle in an orange glow. That got more exclamations from the crowd and further people wound their way through the seated masses in search of a patch on which to sit. My extravagant patch continued to shrink until i could have leaned on my neighbours in any direction, I did keep space in front of me to stretch my legs and my bag tucked up by my side, provisions, book and camera ever handy. Voices of many nationalities ebbed and flowed about me in ever changing volumes, Italian, German, English and several other indistinguishables, all eager to catch the amazing spectacle that was soon to break loose. Fire ball poi swingers entertained across the water and tiny fireworks continued to be set off, crackers close by under the bridge giving everyone a start from time to time.

Then the illuminations dimmed and went out all together and a quiet descended on the crowd. A little later a slow hand clap indicated that they were beginning to get restless. THat worked and a single starburst lit the sky. Followed several seconds by another, then another leaving slow moving puffs of smoke to drift off across the night time sky. Then it really began, a volley of shots went out, barely visible tracers rocketed into the sky over the battlements and all at once the sky was filled with light, huge chrysanthemums of bright white light, arcing outwards and upwards in all directions, bathing the area in an eirie glow. The river worked a treat, doubling the effect with reflections from its glistening surface. This was going to be one hell of a show. Red followed white, then greens and blues. A constantly changing theme of starbursts for several minutes and then a bit of a lull. Multi coloured rings of light, like diagrams of the planets in orbit, great circles with stars and flowers inside, and then huge red lovehearts filling the sky. That really triggered some grand appreciation. Fans of buzzing and crackling spirals leapt from the ramparts, huge plumes of single and multicoloured explosions, green over red, then blue over white and just because it is France, red white and blue again and again and again. More high in the sky explosions big stars re-exploding into smaller stars, some screetching, others cracking like thunder, deafening out the Oohs and AAhs from all around. Simple columns of white, probably thirty in all, plain, then topped with red, changing to green, then orange and purple, then red and gold faster and faster, more and more intense and then it died. Right down to a red glow, as if the castle itself was on fire, it started on one tower then spread slowly, with smoke billowing, to the ramparts and to all the other towers right across the hill until the whole of the skyline was burning, or so it seemed. The red glow continued to glow and the smoke continued to billow for a good while, every thing was calm, the sky was still and the crowds were quiet, and it continued to glow. Probably for about five minutes, a good interlude, time to recover and prepare for the next visual onslaught. It eventually came. Cascades of silver, from the tops of the towers and along the ramparts, pouring down like rain, cold wet rain, extinguishing the glow like water would have done, returning the castle to stone. Then up into the sky again, more balls and stars, slowly to start with, then gathering pace, just like before, only different. Clever waves of light, moving from left to right across the sky then back again, in greens then blues then oranges and reds, constant or fading leaping and jumping, ever reflected in the river below. THe display built itself into a frenzy, larger and larger bursts of colour, layer upon layer of effects into the finale, first gold chrysanthemums lighting up the sky, dying in a rain of glittering particles, a few to start with then more and more, exploding and raining down until you couldn’t distinguish between them fading momentarily before being replaced with the brightest ever of silver stars, huge globes of lights, one on the left then one on the right, centre, left, right, fill in the gaps and repeat faster and faster, louder and louder until there didn’t seem to be any space left for more and with one last almighty explosion the whole thing came to an end.

The spectators went wild, whistling and clapping, shouting and cheering, then almost immediately began to disperse. Within ten minutes the grassy bank was clear of people, the rain began to fall and everyone headed home. I marvelled at the fact that i had patiently waited almost half a day for half an hour of visual heaven and even more so when i got to street level to see the roads filled in all directions with thousands and thousands of people. It had been worth it for me, and by the looks on their faces, i can confidently say for most of them too. I got myself a well deserved carton of Frites from a stall on the way back up the hill, only £2.50, a real bargain, they were delicious, let myself into the convent, upstairs to the dormatory with its parallel rows of beds, had a quick shower and slept quite soundly till the next morning.

Will add photos when I find a faster connection - been waiting an hour for them to arrive.................

Thursday, July 23, 2009

temporarily out of service

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A, hopefully bqck in zifi zorld next zeek qnd zill bring you up to dqte then;

Love to you qll


Saturday, July 11, 2009

a bit of rain

I am glad that I have been getting up nice and early to do my weeding in the sunshine before the day becomes too hot. Just an hour or so’s opportunity to cool off in the pool once my chores have been done before the sun disappears behind dark clouds and the first large spots of rain appear. The quiet of the hillside is slowly transformed by the sound of rain, quietly at first then louder and louder as the sky darkens and massive raindrops descend from the sky. Spouts of water leap from the tiled roof in an arcing trajectory, landing several feet away from the wall below, excavating great holes in the flower-beds and splashing the lavenders with mud and stones.

Its absolutely chucking it down again. Every afternoon for a couple of hours the heavens open. Lightening sparks the lights on in the house making the electricity points crackle and hiss and thunder crashes through the valley, shaking the windows and occasionally making the whole house jump. The meandering stream in the gorge at the back of the house has turned form a gently babbling flow with sun drenched boulders ready to sit on and cool ones feet into an angry thundering torrent, laden brown with eroded soil, crashing down over the boulders throwing up a haze of spume. The little irrigation channel, barely a trickle at the start of the week, overflowing with muddy, foamy water and pushing relentlessly on to wherever it flows, carrying with it all sorts of debris that it has picked up along the way.

It’ll clear by about five and the sun will shine through again. The promise of another glorious day in the Pyrenees tomorrow, but we have come to know that the promise is only good until lunchtime and then the heavens will open again. It happens sometimes, they tell me, a cycle of daily storms, it can go on for weeks and weeks, until an extraordinary high or some other event intervenes and the summer balance is reset. I hope so, because judging by the quantity of rocks and mud being washed off the mountainside, the hills will be flat and the mediterranean will be filed with sludge if this continues for much longer.

Friday, July 10, 2009

one evening

Benji thought it would be a good idea to take the truck to the end of the road to catch the sunset one evening. An excellent idea. We all piled in, complete with champagne, glasses, cameras and had a great ride up the track, bouncing about in the back of the pickup like a load of kids.

The view from the lookout was outstanding. Snow capped mountains to the south, the little village of Massat, nestling snugly at the bottom of the valley, just below us. The sun had just disappeared, leaving behind it a wonderfully coloured sky, dotted with shapely clouds in the warm evening air. We found a clear patch of heather amongst the bracken and watched the view for a while. Ages in fact, spotting images in the clouds and trying to describe where to see the running kiwi, a great white, a dog trying to catch the moon, and the nose of the dog turning into another dog, still trying to catch the moon. The toil of the day melted away as the champagne worked its magic and all that was missing was pudding.

And what a puddings they were, check out the trifle and black currant tart. MMmmm. Donna is the pudding queen. She lives down the road and is a great friend of Justin and Emily, it seems to be her role at the moment to provide great puddings for the workers at the house. They raise our spirits and fill our bellies, she does a great job. Thank you Donna.

climbing rocks

Donna is not just a fabulous cook, she is a great climber too. Ayleidh and I spent a great day being introduced to the rock faces of the local valley by Donna and her climbing mates Tom and Tez. They loaned us climbing shoes, amazingly small yet grippy as ................feet and encouraged us up progressively steep and high cliffs, manning the safety ropes and offering words of wisdom as we scaled ‘4c’s’ and a ‘5a’ faces. Exhilarating, challenging and definitely to be done again, though without a safety rope, I wouldn’t have left the ground.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


We (that is me and Ayleidh, another helpXer) were given the use of the car on one of our days off and headed off to explore. One of the French builders had told us that Andorra was food for cheap booze and fags, plus it was a country that neither of us had been to, so that is where we headed. It was only three hours away, along interesting alpine roads with stunning views and the weather threatened rain, so not ideal for a long hike.

It is a funny little place, perched high up in the mountains, touting its duty free merchandise from almost every shop we came across. Supermarkets packed almost entirely with alcohol and tobacco products, chocolate, sweets and if you were lucky, cheeses sausages and hams. We wondered if the locals had to go to France or Spain to do their regular shopping. One of the guys at the farm had asked us to pick him up some tobacco, so we did, getting over twenty pouches instead of the three he was expecting with the 40 euro he had given us.

The hills were festooned with ski lifts waiting for the snow, as were the cafes and bars, all patiently sitting out the quiet of the summer waiting for the cold and the winter fun to begin again. I had often wondered what a ski resort felt like out of season, and now i know. Sort of a dejected calm, having a snooze in the summer sun and recharging its batteries, the sound of the bells on the cows jarring the tranquility from their summer pastures, but only slightly.

We reached the capital, without realising it, and spent a good twenty minutes driving round looking for signs to Andorra la Vella before we discovered that we were actually there. It is small and compact city, incredibly squashed and crammed into every flat space within its valley. Tall thin houses bordering narrow streets, car sales rooms on two or three floors, so many ski and motor bike shops, that wonderful european way of looking terribly modern and yet keeping all the old buildings together and intact. The occasional burst of sunshine shining through the clouds to light up the window boxes of red geraniums and multi-coloured washing hanging out to dry. The minute we decided to get out of the car for a wander, the heavens opened with an absolute deluge of film set style rain. We stayed in the car and drove back to France, happy to have at least seen a bit of Andorra.

Back on the farm. I suppose that it is a farm, as they have chickens and pigs, cows and goats, dogs and a cat, pastures, barns and an orchard, living was at a fast pace through the day. Eating out morning noon and night was wonderful, with the mountain views, fresh air and quiet. Proper French style, with plenty of bread and cheese, salads and tasty dinners in the evening. Wine and beer flowed into the evening, folk chilled after a hard days graft as the sun went down and the stars went up. time for a bit of satellite spotting before retiring for the best nights sleep in the world.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Justin and Emily's farm

I made it to France just over a week ago. Flew to Pau in the Pyrenees with the lovely Ryanair for a few pence, before getting the train to Foix, several changes later and with the addition of bus journeys due to a local strike.

My idea is, that whilst I am waiting for my work visa for the US to be processed, I should fill my time constructively (by help exchanging) learn more of a foreign language (French), see some more of the world and be somewhere hot, in preparation for the California summers, and not spend too much money.

So far, the plan is working like a dream. I am in France, have spoken a little French, though I am staying with English speakers at the moment. The weather is scorching hot, even for here. I have spent very little money as my first host lives in a tiny farmhouse perched on the side of a steep, steep valley, deep in the mountains miles from anywhere and I have been maxing out on the constructive side of things.

Los Laous has the most amazing views of wooded slopes, the sounds of a stream in the valley, birds in the trees and the occasional deer, Oh, and the constant drilling, sanding and planing going on in the house. It is, at present, a building site, the house is in the process of being doubled in size to allow for twins, arriving any minute.... and the house is far from ready. A new kitchen has to be fitted now that the floor is down, wood burning stove, central heating, solar panel combination installed, windows fitted, I am glad that the weather has been kind this last week. Painting is progressing a pace, along with rendering the outside, fitting windowsills, doors, deck to the balcony and on and on and on. Justin and Emily, my hosts, have gathered an amazing team that get stuck in and get things done, friends and family, the occasional paid builder and helpX, though Ailedh and I have been the first real help through that organisation.

As usual, my skills have been well utilised. With all the building work going on, the hillside garden had been somewhat neglected so I was set to work getting it back into shape. Weeding, planting seeds in unused areas, supporting beans, peas and tomatoes, installing irrigation and making sure that it was all watered as necessary. Additionally, got to move their cows into an expanded pasture, spend a day felling trees and building a new pig park, great fun hauling tree trunks and slashing brambles with a French guy. Strimming nettles and docks from the steepest field I have ever been in. Mixing cement, peeling old render off the walls, cooking dinner and on and on and on.