Tuesday, August 17, 2010

summer skiing

Yesterday we headed back into the mountains, a route I recognised and was excited to take.  Back to Lou Rider, high in the Pyrenees to visit Claire and see the chalet in the summer sun.  The whole area had a different feel, the summer holidays, roads were busy with cars packed with people.  Caravans and campervans, badly driven, argued with massive trucks on the narrow winding roads through villages and struggling up steep mountain passes. The fields were lush and green and the snow capped peaks that I remembered, naked rock, glinting in the summer sun.  Not a complete transformation, but  a surface change, like a redecorated room or a picture seen in a different light. 

The chalet had not changed one bit, yet looked different in its lush green surroundings, the winter gray banished and almost half a year away.  The winter snow equipment looking strangely out of place and useless, as cows and sheep grazed peacefully on piste routes and under ski lifts that I remembered from my last visit.  Thousands of people must do the same each year, but it felt quite special and different to see my winter playground without its thick white carpet of snow.

After a quick stop to say ‘Hi’ to Claire and see the chalet, we drove up the mountain and parked in a familiar spot, the 11 minute gondola lift took over twenty minutes in the car, following the route of a blue ski run that I had taken so many times last year.  The dark tunnel under ‘Mirabelle’, doubling as a bit of shelter for the cows on their summer pasture.  The whole summer, winter transformation of the high pastures means so much more to me now that I have seen footage of how the farmers and shepherds carry out their work and the impact of the changing of the seasons on the movements of rural mountain life.  Skiing must bring some welcome cash to these poor, remote areas and welcome employment for those who have little to do during the dark winter months.  

Our plan was to hike a short distance on the GR10.  A mere stroll compared to its whole length.  Starting on the Atlantic coast, this famous trail winds its way through the Pyrenean mountain range, ending up on the shores of the Mediterranean sea.  It takes weeks to complete as a whole and people return to the region year after year in order to do it in stages.  I guess I should get a map and mark on my one completed section now.  Our section was relatively flat with some stunning scenery.  The first section, across the bowl that is St Lary Soulain Ski Domaine during the winter months, then round following the contours round a ridge into an adjacent valley high up above a lake.  The water a deep blue green, nestling between shores of dumpy alpine pines and scrubby juniper way down in the valley.  Tiny people could be spotted heading this way and that, completing their days activities, out in the wild mountain ranges, mere dots against the massive backdrop of ancient rocky landscape.  We headed slightly up hill across fairly open terrain and over a small ridge to reach our lunchtime destination.  A morraine dammed lake of deep crystal clear water.  We knew that there would be a few people there from the number of cars in the carpark, but we were not prepared for precisely how many.  Almost the complete shoreline was taken, groups of picnickers evenly spaced with their baguettes, cheeses and bottles of wine, relaxing in the summer sun after a good mornings walk.  Thankfully we were late and most of the groups were rested and eager to continue on their way.  By the time we had chosen a spot, scrambled there and decanted our provisions, the throng were dissipating, throughout our meal more headed off and the mountain side became quiet and  peaceful again.  The water was shockingly cold, probably due to the depth of the lake and because of the addition of late melt from a significant fall back in May.  Vanessa managed to immerse herself momentarily but decided that it was too cold to swim.  I cooled my feet which was cold enough by far.

Scattered cloud made the walk much more pleasant than had the sky been clear blue all day.  Enough sun to make everything look great

The two and a half your return walk was slightly lengthened as the police checked the mountainside from a low flying helicopter.  It traversed the region several times, popping back up from below frighteningly close to the ground with a thundering racket in a rather menacing fashion. We wondered what it would be like in times of war to be chased by such a machine, and, more immediately, who they could possibly be looking for. Our conclusion that it was someone from ETA on the run. The walk back continued to bring back memories of last winter and a stream of virtual skiing  possibilities.  The pistes look far steeper now than when they are covered in snow, and the bits imbetween that I remember throwing myself down with excitement, almost too steep to be possible.  Snow must do strange things to perspective and meddle with ones eyes.  

It was lovely to see Claire again, and in much better spirits than I remember her during the winter.  Hopefully the difficulties that must have beset her back then are well and truly in the past.  Chester, the dog, however, had become uncertain again, probably not surprising after a constant stream of guests this last few months, not to mention the continuing helpX assistance in the chalet, he leaped about and barked wildly then decided all wasn’t right and headed off to a safe distance to survey us unthreatened.

Monday, August 16, 2010

no kitten pictures

I escaped the crazy life of the mountains earlier on in the week and have spent a couple of fun packed days with Vanessa and Lisa again.  Yves, a friend of Nellie’s offered me a lift to St Gaudens when he left the village on Monday, which was nearly to where I needed to be.  A short hitch and a phone call and I was collected from the centre of town.

There was much excitement when I arrived as there is a new addition to the household, a small black kitten that apparently escaped from a recently collapsed barn and took refuge with them.  Very timid and quite lost, but demanding for food and attention in a scared yet persistent sort of way.  Already named, ‘Brian’ is just about touchable and I think will soon be in complete control of everyone else on the property.  She sleeps on the seat on an ancient tractor in the open barn and mews incessantly when hungry, supposedly a farm cat for mice and snakes, she gets a rich and varied diet from the kitchen.

During my last visit, we had picked up the details of a local garden that is open to the public by appointment so we decided to give it a viewing.  Quite excellent and not that old.  It was amazing to see how mature some of the plantings have become in just 19 years.  I was trying to imagine how big things would have looked back in England and reckon that they are a good third larger here.  It was a rambling place with a variety of themed areas including a bamboo collection, medieval gardens, large potager and plenty of art, sculpture and pottery dotted through the gardens.  Some good ideas for the future for all of us and a great place to spend an afternoon.  Shame I have no idea of the name, else I would leave a link or further details.  We stopped for a drink in Aurignac and caught the sunset from  the old tower at the top of the village, I remembered being there last year for a concert, Rock and Roll covers with very french accents. Had a quiet meal back at the farmhouse and ended the day with a “treat” of some english TV.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Dir. Massat

Cat, Freddie and I took an afternoon off from the building site, borrowed the hippy car and went for a drive in the mountains.  We decided that we didn’t need to go for a walk of any size due to the fact that we had pulled and chopped wood for most of the previous day and had had plenty of exercise.

They are both Law students, studying a combined French English Law Degree.  The first two years of the course are in London and the second two years in Paris, so they are in france to improve their language skills.  Enthusiastic and great fun, they are up for trying all the tasks here, up on the roof, pulling wood, pointing, although the heavier tasks are taking their toll on the young desk bound students.

We chose a route that took us over a couple of high passes and through remote small towns and villages.  Caught glimpses of ski lifts and buildings looking strangely out of place in their summer pastures, herds of cows wandering the hills accompanied by the incessant clanging of the huge bells that they wear round their necks paragliders rising on thermals and playing in the wind, a 2CV, crumble down ruins, people having picnics in the oddest of places and some absolutely stunning scenery.  

What a great way to spend an afternoon, relaxing and sight seeing at the same time. 

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

building renovations

Sorry to post such a disappointing post about Sex in the Garden.  Unfortunately I have nothing more exciting to report on that front.   There is a weekend party at Nicholas in a couple of weeks time, with two french gay rugby teams and a whole load of English guys.  I have planned my itinerary so that a return visit is en route to my next hosts.

I strangely find myself 'home alone' in the Pyrenees.  My hosts have gone away for a few days and I have the house to myself and a car at my disposal, so life is good.  Will head for the hills as soon as the weather clears for some mountain air and a good bit of hiking.  No doubt the sun will reappear and the temperatures will rise to the mid thirties again which will be a welcome change after nearly a week of cloud and storms and cold weather.

Have been busy here with all sorts of full of projects.  On the evening of my arrival I found myself on the roof helping Martin complete some roof tiling, the first side of two roofs are is now complete after several days work.  Assisting with cutting, shaping and fitting window surrounds made out of green oak and secured into their openings in an ancient stone building that they are renovating here.

We have pulled tree trunks out of the woods and down an old track to be cut for firewood.  Using the traditional method of nailing an iron pin with metal loop into the end of the trunk and securing a length of rope, then running like a madman down a steep track, guiding the wood and keeping the momentum going until you get to the bottom.  The wood is then cut and loaded onto the truck and taken back to the house and left for two years to dry so that it burns well.  Strange to be cutting wood for burning in the winter of 1012. 

Stacking, transporting and unloading of roof slates, the slates needed on the second side of the roof were hoisted up on pallets by an old and temperamental  crane, unloaded by hand and stacked on walking boards on the roof timbers.  A certain calmness and concentration was needed to take the piles of slate from the pallet dangling above the building and place them correctly so that they were well supported and safe on the roof until they are needed.  The crane is leaving site soon, so plenty of lifting jobs are being completed before its departure.

Repointing of the old stone walls is an ongoing task and takes an age.  The finish is striking and quite different to the work I have been involved with in the past.  The lime based mix is applied to a moistened wall by means of a giant syringe, it ensures that the deep cracks are well filled and all the joints are covered.  The mix is then smoothed onto all sides of the stones by gloved hand to ensure good adhesion and then left to dry for about 12 hours.  Once the mix has ‘gone off’ a bit, any excess or untidy mix can be cleaned away with a wire brush to give the desired finish.