I phoned my friend Simon for a chat and he suggested heading to the mountains for a picnic the following weekend. Good idea, though I do know that such affairs with Simon involve plenty of time, an open wood fire, meat and often an overnight stay.
Bagneres de Bigorre market, that Saturday, was lovely. The first time I had been there for over a year, the sun was shining and the narrow streets and small squares bustled with spring excitement as folk mingled, shopped and caught up with friends after a winter of cold and often grim weather.
Simon and I crossed paths almost immediately, arranged a place to meet and carried on with our shopping. I bumped into Dominique, a host from several years back and had a good chat. Several stall holders recognised me from my local Wednesday market trips closer to home, everyone has time for a few words, so my shopping trip took a fair amount of time.
We met up, was introduced to Sabrina, Simons girlfriend and Nina who was to join us for the afternoon, had a leisurely coffee in the sunshine, watched the world go by for a bit before heading to the mountains. We stopped for wood on the way and installed ourselves on a favourite patch for the duration of the picnic.
Fire lit, we settled down to enjoy the impressive view in front of us. For everyone it was different as we had valley, pasture, snowcapped mountains and distant activity of the glimpse of a cable car accessing the observatory on the highest peak in the region to take in. The savage beauty of the mountains surrounded us. There were patches of snow fairly close by that hinted of recent coldness yet frogspawn had already hatched into millions of tiny tadpoles in ponds of water, obviously warmed by the intensity of the spring sunshine.
Simon cooked his, now famous, chicken on a string. I have blogged about it in the past and enjoyed several such meals. It always tastes exquisite, probably because you sit round the fire and watch it spin and cook for the whole two hours it takes, frequently discussing other such occasions or food in general. Nibbles of saucission, nuts and cheese were passed round and the wine flowed. Our glorious sunny morning turned into a sporadically cloudy afternoon and the temperature started to drop. No problem, just a few more clothes. The chicken, as ever, was absolutely delicious, moist, succulent and probably all the better for being ripped from its bones with our fingers, almost too hot to hold onto, grease running down our hands and, for me, with a frequently vegetarian diet, a real treat. Lovely.
Conversation continued into the evening. The weather turned and we huddled under a hastily constructed shelter that protected us from the wind and the worst of the rain, the radiant heat of the fire warmed us as the light faded and day passed to night. We snacked on bread, cheese and fruit in the evening and retired early to our respective vans.
I snuggled into my bed in Percy, piling high the blankets and sleeping bags to ensure that I stayed warm through the night, half expecting a dusting of snow in the morning. Most of the bedding was quickly discarded as I warmed my cocoon, falling into a deep and satisfying sleep without delay. The early morning light woke me, brilliant oranges, pinks and greys quickly turning to blue, blue and more blue. A couple of isolated clouds and, on opening the door, surprisingly warm air.
We breakfasted on vast quantities of toast, home made jams, steaming tin mugs of tea and a few slices of fire cooked bacon, a new find at the market - someone who produces real, english style bacon all prepared on the rekindled open fire.
After a leisurely start the three of us headed off to stretch our legs for the first time this season. A light hike of a couple of hours to a low peak some 400 metres above our camp site. It was tough going and we took it right slow. Sabrina left Simon and I after half an hour or so, returning to the van to read and enjoy the sunshine. We persevered and hit the peak without too much of an ordeal. I vowed to get out more, stretch my legs and get in a bit of decent exercise on a more regular basis. Gardening and land clearance is strenuous, but in now way energetic enough to get the heart and lungs working properly. It will be done.
The views were stunning and the sunshine warm. We snacked on bananas, apples and a handful of nuts whilst taking in the scenery, chatting about our winter activities and achievements and being thoroughly warmed by the spring sun.
An easy descent, reminding me that there were yet more muscles in my legs that needed to be put through their paces more frequently. I can think of no better place to do it either.
Sabrina had tended to the fire and on our return proposed a light lunch before heading back to civilisation. Pan fried mackerel, purchased fresh the day before and kept cool in the mountain stream ever since. Food and the french go hand in hand, the appreciation and excitement over every meal, however simple and light leaves me slightly lacking in my english mentality. Rarely do I come across a meal that is fast here, eat and go is not part of the mentality here. Enjoy, savour, discuss and take your time. It was gone four in the afternoon by the time we said our goodbyes and headed back to our respective homes. An amazing weekend spent in great company.