Friday, September 23, 2011

hosting hosts

 John and Julie were my first ever helpX hosts back in December 2006.  I spent a very enjoyable Christmas with them and great selection of helpers, harvesting flowers and enjoying the summer sunshine in New Zealand.  It was so good, in fact, that I returned for a second December the following year.
This time I was closer to home territory than they were, having flown half way round the world for a family wedding and to explore a corner of europe.  They had done a fair bit by the time we met up, an impressive tour of  the  westerly part of the Pyrenees and Bordeaux with two french helpers who had also visited NZ and then circumnavigating Spain and Portugal in a matter of days on their own.  I was charged with showing them as much of the rest of the Pyrenees as possible during their last few days on mainland europe.  
We met up in Ceret as the market was packing up and had a coffee and chat with Susan and Geoff whom I had just spent a great ten days with.  Grabbed some food at the supermarket as it closed and headed off.  John chucked me the car keys, he had had enough of driving in europe and was happy to be chauffeured for the rest of their stay.  Managed to find a sport/camping shop that was open and I grabbed a sleep mat for a bit of comfort as I knew that I’d be under the awning of their tent.  (Trust the Kiwis, they had brought all their camping gear over and were almost fully equipped for three.)
It was going to be inland to valleys and mountains as the two of them were through with the mediterranean coast as it was all high rise, touristy and spoiled.  I disagreed, having just spent the most amazing day the previous week at Colliure and knew that there was at least one unspoiled spot not that far from where we were.  We headed inland to a campsite destination and my first night under canvas in a long time.
Setting up camp
The campsite was great, as was our evening and a huge catch up on all the news that had gone on since I was last in NZ.  Scary stories about the earthquake and its continuing aftershocks.  Yes, it’s still going on to this day.  What other helpers have gotten up to, their two sons and their friends and folk that I got to know whilst I was staying. The catch up didn’t end, it continued throughout our time together and was wonderful, almost as if I have another life somewhere else that I hadn’t quite thought about enough.     It brought back the most amazing memories and reminded me how much I loved my time down under.  A band played outside reception, way into the night, Julie and I went to watch for a while but retired to bed long before they finished.  It was great to drift off to sleep listening to them play.

Port Vendres, neighbouring Colliure

After an uncomfortable night, the sleep mat did little to soften the lumpy ground, with less sleep than I had hoped for, we breakfasted and discussed  a plan for the day.  My enthusiasm for Colliure hadn’t gone unnoticed and we backtracked slightly to a beautiful stretch of unmodernised French mediterranean coastline, John and Julie were suitably impressed and I finally got the swim that I had missed on my previous visit.  We dined alfresco, overlooking the fishing port, a local dog doing two circuits for scraps by the time we had finished, before getting back on track.
Wine country, almost all the way.  It petered out when we hit the mountains, but continued a good way.  John being an ex vineyard owner and wine maker , amongst other things, was fascinated by the passing countryside and I made several unauthorised excursions onto dirt roads to get a better look.  Sharon, our sat nav lady was totally unimpressed by my lack of obedience when it came to taking her directions.  She insisted that I make a U turn at the next available opportunity on several occasions, otherwise went quiet for a while whilst calculating a new route after my ‘mistake’.  Thankfully I had half an idea of where we were supposed to be heading as the mountains didn’t half play tricks on her navigational skills later on.  We put it down to an insufficient view of satellites, obscured by solid rock and the amazingly windy roads that we took.

We managed Cos by evening, just up the road from Foix, a town I have passed through on several occasions.  Another beautiful, secluded, municipal campsite at an extraordinarily good price.  Municipal being the key word, we decided.  Sharon had just taken us up the most amazingly steep and narrow road, a short cut that was very impressive even though we were sure that she had gone off on one again.  So we were happy to arrive and set up camp again for the night.  My morning mattress find was a most welcome sight, not only did it make the night more comfortable, it provided us with seating for our evening meal.  I had pulled it from the bins outside the campsite as we left in the morning, managing to squeeze it into the already packed vehicle.  Thanks John for putting up with it in the back, it was most comfortable.

Day two was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me.  Back to Foix and then Tarascon sur Ariege, where I had stayed with Donna.  I pointed out her house on the way up the valley to Col de Port, a saddle that took us over, deep into the mountains.  We stopped off for a bit to head further up the hill on foot to enjoy the view.  I knew it was there after doing the same with Martin, Virginie, Cat, Freddie and Felix last summer on our way to Andorra.  It was as stunning as ever, I love nearing a crest and a wonderful view unfolding in front of you step by step until you reach the top and can see right down the other side as well.  The climb was much easier this time, probably fitter but the lack of smoking makes a huge difference too.
Onwards, back to the car and down towards Massat.  I pointed out Justin and Emily’s as we dropped down into the valley, no time to stop and I would have feared for the car on their steep, unmade track if we had. I hope they are doing well with their pigs and the twins that were born whilst I was staying.  An odd mix, but that’s how it sometimes is in the mountains.
A little stroll round the sleepy little town and on to find a picnic spot for lunch.  We made the only shop in town with minutes to spare before it closed for the obligatory hour and a half for lunch.  I recalled a raucous evening at the local bar last summer, where the locals were out in force and the music played way into the night.  We enjoyed the timelessness of the old town with buildings that had been there long before New Zealand had even been discovered by Captain Cook,  their hand hewn roof tiles and shuttered windows aged by centuries of exposure to the elements.  
Our route continued down the valley to St Girons, Totnes of the Ariege, with much a similar feel.  Either you know it or not, I shan’t be trying to explain it here.  But we stopped en route, a quiet patch of grass by the river for lunch, the mattress was invaluable again, I even saw Virginies’ crazy painted car whizz by.  Its a small world we live in, or is it just that valley?
Back out of the mountains and across the plains between St Girons and Lannemezan before heading up another valley.  The expansive sunflower and maize fields stop as soon as the land starts to rise and land use changes to smaller pastures and woodland, further up the valleys as the mountains rise, the fields are forced to the flatter areas, forests clinging to the steeper terrain, colonised by differing species depending on orientation.  
I had forgotten how picturesque this particular valley looks in summer as I have usually visited during the winter months when it is dank, damp and grey.    Talk turned to skiing as I set the scene for where we were heading and explained how I had come to spend the last two winters at Chalet Lou Rider.  Saint Lary Soulan was beautiful in the sunshine, a ghost town compared to mid winter, but still with plenty going on and a good feel to it.  We headed up the steep mountain access road into very familiar territory.  It seemed strange to be there in the hot sunshine, to see the ski fields lush with pasture and cows grazing under the lift lines.
Clare greeted us from the balcony with news that the kettle was on for a cup of tea.  She had guessed it was our car heading up the hill and was prepared.    Clare had one helpXer, Tom, who was staying for a couple of weeks and doing some amazing painting work round the property.  Chester went mad with excitement, bouncing, barking and leaping about when he realised that I was someone he already knew, but soon quietened down with the sight of John and Julie, though he did become more sociable later in the evening.

Julie, John, Me (Sam), Clare and Tom
We all chatted in the sunshine on the terrace, prepared dinner and dined with two french guests who were staying for a few days.  It sounds as if the chalet is going to be busy next season, with Christmas and the New Year almost completely booked already.  It was great that John and Julie had run a vineyard restaurant in the past, as they could appreciate the challenges of catering for a seasonal trade and were fascinated by the set up and how it all worked.
I slept in a regular guest bedroom upstairs and was woken to the smell of croissants wafting up from the kitchen.  I imagined momentarily that it was cold and snowy outside and I was about to head off for a day skiing, it wasn’t about to happen with the twenty or so degrees and bright sunshine, but we did head up the mountain for a quick stroll and to explain the extent of the domaine that was used in the winter.  Julie, I know, was most tempted to keep her bag packed when she got back to new Zealand and return to helpX and ski through the winter, she’d love it.  John, being less sporty was not so keen.

Julie checking out the ski fields and being very impressed

Being a whistle stop tour, we were off the mountain by midday and stopped to eat lunch in a sleepy little village on the way on to the plains.  A local chicken joined us almost immediately, determined to be fed.  John fed it most half a baguette in the hope that it would leave us alone, but it persisted until we were almost done, then a man from the fruit and veg stall by the road came and claimed her back.  We weren’t sure whether he was happy that we had fed his chicken or not.
The afternoon continued hot outside as we headed north east towards Toulouse and our final nighttime destination.  The roads were long and straight, passing through still more familiar territory, Vanessa and Lisa’s, Cherry and Chris’, Pascale and Christian’s, all not that far from the route that we took, through fields of maize and sunflowers and sleepy villages enjoying the late summer sunshine.  
We hit Toulouse just before rush hour, with the help of Sharon, found our hotel, a tiny 36 euros for a room for three just down the road for the airport. Handy for the following morning and the eight a.m. car drop off, the most compact room I have ever seen, a double bed with a single ‘bunked’ overhead, just enough room for a table, chair and preformed en suite shower room rammed into the corner.  It did the job, and for the price, we were happy.
A final meal in the centre of town, reminiscing about the action packed few days that we had spent together and of John and Julies’ whole French, Spanish and Portuguese whistle-stop tour.  We sat outside on a terrace enjoying the warm evening air just opposite the restaurant that they had eaten their first meal in France just over three weeks before.  I had thoroughly enjoyed myself and feel proud to have been able to share my knowledge and experiences of this corner of the world with two very dear friends.
Sharon gave us one last treat whilst returning to the hotel.  She got mightily confused and navigated us five times over the same roundabout, including a detour of more than half an hour.  Don’t you just love sat navs.  
We slept soundly, returned the car and said our good byes at the airport before continued on our separate journeys.  John and Julie to London, Edinburgh and then back to New Zealand.  Me, northwards to revisit Nicolas and to see my first possible plot of land.

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