Walking in the rain

29 Sep

I woke up coughing and spluttering. At home I take Echinacea tincture at the first sign of a cough or cold, and it usually goes away within a few days. Without it, unfortunately colds very quickly lead to chest infections for me, so I inwardly kicked myself for not packing my special bottle. We wanted to make the most of our last full day in Esperaza though so we decided to take a circular walk along the Savonet mountain bike trail from the cottage up to Pailhères and along to Soubirous. Not the ambitious walk we’d planned from Quillan, but then that’s just another reason to come back to this part of the world.

After a false start when we set off without waterproofs and the floodgates opened, we eventually made our way up the hill, enjoying the magnificent views of Rennes-le-Château and the limestone gorge in front of it. At Pailhères we were greeted by three friendly collie dogs wanting cuddles – one in particular didn’t seem to want me to stop stroking his head and face. When we stopped for lunch under the shade of a big tree a few minutes later they reappeared, and tried to steal our snacks! Fortunately they only escaped with the olives.

Shortly after Pailhères the road turned into a mountain bike track, surrounded on both sides by wild flower meadows. We watched a rain squall head our way and only just had time to slip our jackets on, but our shorts and shoes soon dried out in the sun.

There's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing!

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing!

Back in town we were just in time to visit the patisserie, where Rich picked out a chocolate tart. Sadly they didn’t have anything gluten free, so I bought a posh yoghurt from the supermarket instead. Whilst Rich headed home I ventured into the local art gallery. Expecting landscapes, it was a bit disconcerting as an atheist to find that every piece related to a religious epiphany, so I quietly made my excuses and left.

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Rich proved yet again that he has a talent for rustic french cooking and served up a tasty chicken and tomato stew for dinner, after which we enjoyed a final evening stroll to the Monday night artisan market. It sold mainly non-artisan tat to be honest, but Rich was intrigued by the campervan wine bar, and the singer and her DJ partner belting out French classics. We certainly don’t get treats like that down the car boot sale.

The Sunday Market

25 Sep

I woke in the early hours wondering why there were disco lights shining through the bedroom window at 4am. Slowly it dawned on me that I couldn’t hear any music, and that I was in fact witnessing lighting striking over the Pyrenees in the distance. I do love a good lightning display. It’s the thunder that’s the scary bit.

Whilst I hate shopping in department stores and even supermarkets, I do appreciate a proper market, and Sunday is Esperaza’s main market day. The stallholders started setting up at 6am, and when we could no longer contain our excitement, we headed out to investigate the town’s social engagement of the week. Oh my. Market heaven. Fair enough there were a few tourist tat stalls, but otherwise it was full of fresh fruit and veg, cheese from all over the region, wine, fresh and processed meat, fish, and cakes. By the time we found the gluten free stall I was in heaven. They’d even bussed tourists in from neighbouring towns – I heard accents from as far afield as Australia and Ireland, and talked with British expat stallholders selling honey and cupcakes.

We filled our bag with produce, enjoyed coffee and chai latte from one of the refreshment stalls, and headed home feeling like locals. But I couldn’t resist sneaking out again to buy lunch, and returned with a huge rotisserie chicken and caramelised garlic and thyme potatoes. There was even enough for lunch the following day. Now we know why Saturday night was so quiet – everyone was gearing up for this, and for making the most of a sunny Sunday. Beats sitting in a pub watching footy. Well it does in my mind anyhow.

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After our post Sunday lunch nap we donned our walking shoes and headed west of Esperaza to explore the second half of the Dinosaur Trail – up onto the ridge, down into Campagne-sur-Aude, past the Limoux  dinosaur wine factory, and back along the River Aude. It was ten degrees cooler that it’s been most days, making for a very pleasant walk. We even saw some other walkers, confirming that no one in their right minds walks when it’s any hotter! Ah well. Lessons learned.

Dinner was followed by a stroll over to yet another festival – this time a wine and paella one, complete with brass band, on the opposite side of the town square. We didn’t go in as neither of us are fans of what I’d called ‘oompah’ music, but it was interesting to watch the huge vats of food being prepared. That is until rain literally stopped play sadly. Still, at least it meant that I wouldn’t be kept awake by drunken trombonists!

Soft beds and baddy backs

22 Sep

It didn’t take long for my back to start complaining about the soft bed. Some people love soft beds. Sadly we don’t – Rich because of the NF2 tumour on his spine, and me because of the EDS. When the pain got too much I made up a bed on the floor using all of the spare duvets I could find.

Having not had very much sleep we abandoned our plans to catch the very early train to Quillan and walk up the nearest big hill. I do get frustrated that sometimes our health stops play, but we’re both guilty of trying to do too much, and the secret to managing our health quirks has been to accept them, modify our lifestyles where we can, and just get on with doing things, even if we have to do them differently. Both of us have stopped really caring what other people think, and whilst we’ll never climb Everest, we do still manage to have adventures which some might class as extreme.

Over a late breakfast we decided to catch the 11.45am train to Quillan, and just amble around for a few hours. Described as the gateway to the Pyrenees, Quillan is a very attractive town with plenty of facilities, but for us it lacked the small town charm of Esperaza. After exploring the side streets we found a shaded bench by the ‘washer women’ section of the River Aude – a natural beach which once served as the town’s laundry room. Whilst tucking in to our picnic of boiled eggs and salami we were overjoyed when four catalan horses and their owners joined us, and waded into the water for a paddle. Two of the horses playfully splashed their owners, and then lay down for an impromptu bath. We certainly choose our picnic spots well.

Back to the cottage on the 1.56pm train, in time for a nap before an early evening stroll along part of the Dinosaur trail – up past the cemetery and onto the hill marked by a cross, from which there are far reaching views over the town. Esperaza is very pretty to look at, but we suspect that there’s real poverty here. Food stamps are common, there’s definitely not much work around, and large families live in small properties. Whilst there are quite a few expats living out here, there’s a noticeable discrepancy between their wealth and that of the locals.

Dinosaur bones

12 Sep

I woke on my 39th birthday feeling relieved that the migraine had passed. Leaving Rich to sleep in, I snuck downstairs for toast and jam, and waited patiently for him to get up so that I could finally open my pressies. We tend to buy each other experiences rather than material gifts, and as always his offering was extremely thoughtful – a weekend in a yurt in the middle of nowhere. We’d last stayed in a yurt two years ago, just before we got married and held our wedding party in this one, and we’ve been desperate to spend more time in one ever since.

Whilst I enjoyed my second breakfast of gluten free madeleines and fresh apricots, we decided that we’d spend the day visiting the Dinosaur museum, for which Esperaza is renowned, and then have a spot of lunch in the nearby T-Rex cafe. That a museum of this size can survive in such a small town, is testament to the passion and energy of its founders and supporters, and to the wonderful quirkiness of the town’s occupants. As both Rich and I both have geology degrees and a thing for fossils, we thoroughly enjoyed looking at the exhibits, and even bought t-shirts.

The hat museum is next door, and whilst they had some lovely hats for sale, it didn’t have quite the same appeal as the dinosaurs. Still it was free to look around, and so a worthy option if you’re on a tight budget. We scuttled around it quite quickly, and then found a table in the cafe for what we thought would just be a light bite, but ended up being a meal big enough for a family of five. Never before have we been unable to finish a plate of salad and chips, but in France food is king, and lunch is taken very seriously, so we must have seemed like lightweights.

We took our coffee outside to enjoy the afternoon breeze, before enjoying a short stroll around town to look at the fountains and campervan park by the river, and returning home to read in ‘the cave’. Once Rich had prepared the pasta sauce for my birthday dinner we sat in the square to people and cloud watch. Today was definitely a chillout day. More of the same please.

Heatstroke

9 Sep

There’s a very good reason why locals don’t walk in the Pyrenean foothills during July. It gets hot, much hotter than we’d expected. Still, hindsight is a wonderful thing and we’d thought that setting off early again would allow us to escape the midday sun. It didn’t.

We walked north from the cottage to Croux via the ridge, back down towards Fa in the south, and then finally east to Esperaza. Whilst there was a very much appreciated breeze on the ridge, along with fantastic views over both Esperaza and Antugnac, the cool air disappeared as we descended. As always we’d packed our sunhats, lots of water, sunscreen, sunglasses and mineral replacement tablets, and stopped for regular breaks to make sure that we didn’t dehydrate.

The trail was well marked and in a good state of repair, and as was the case in Romania, we were more often than not surrounded by butterflies. Just above Fa, we also came across a very fat affectionate little Shetland pony who we nicknamed ‘little saucisson’, tethered to the side of the track. It was hard to drag ourselves away as he so loved being cuddled, and was obviously very well looked after.

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By the time we’d reached the outskirts of Esperaza though I was feeling the effects of mild heatstroke and not really taking much in. My head felt as if it was melting, and my body as if it was walking through cotton wool. Rich had already realised that I needed to get out of the sun, mainly because I’d sworn at him earlier when he’d berated me for letting my hat blow off.

I’d very much gone into auto-pilot and don’t remember much of the walk home from there, only that when we got back to the house Rich forced me to drink several jugfuls of water, and that I then had to lie down in the fortunately very cool bedroom.

I love visiting hot countries, but despite my best efforts, thanks to a condition called POTS (Postural Tachycardia Syndrome), my body sometimes finds it very hard to regulate its temperature, even with meds. I’ve learnt to accept that I’ll usually feel unwell at some point during a trip, and we just factor in downtime to accommodate our medical quirks. This means that we can still travel our way. Unfortunately on this occasion I woke to a full blown migraine, leaving Rich to batten down the hatches whilst I divided my time between the bed and the toilet.

Cassoulet

5 Sep

To try and avoid walking during the hottest part of the day, we forced ourselves to get up early. Neither of us enjoy road walking and the road to Couiza was suprisingly busy, but most of the drivers gave us a wide berth – something which sadly doesn’t happen in the UK. In fact sometimes I’m sure that some drivers deliberately aim for walkers and cyclists.

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Once we’d passed through the town and set off up the hill to Rennes-le-Chateau we had the footpath to ourselves. The name might be familiar to fans of ‘The Davinci Code’ as this is where the book was set, but as I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories I won’t go into the numerous histories associated with the hilltop village. All you really need to know is that it’s a very pretty place, has a church, and would make a good base for exploring the Cathar Castles in the region. Fortunately, by getting there early we were able to look around unhindered by the reams of tourists which descend on this place in search of buried treasure.

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We headed north towards Coustassa and it’s Cathar castle remains, but had to divert thanks to an unfriendly landowner and lots of barbed wire along the track. This then meant having to sneak across another landowner’s land but fortunately she was very friendly, as were her dogs, and took pity on us when we tried to explain what we were doing. We stayed on the south side of the River Sals, following tracks back in to Couiza and then up to the train station for a picnic lunch in the station shelter.

Whereas in the UK regional train services look very much tin cans on wheels, in Southern France they’re mini versions of the inter-city trains. Even the conductors look glamorous, making us feel quite scruffy. They’re superbly priced too – 1 euro per person per journey no matter where you get on along the Aude valley line between Carcassone and Quillan.

After jugfuls of cold water, cool showers and a nap Rich set to work on his version of a local cassoulet, the regional dish. Leaving it to simmer in the oven we then took our glasses of wine over to the square, to sit and people watch. Squares in France seem to serve the same purpose as hot pots in Iceland. They’re where the locals go to meet, gossip, do business, and have fun. If only ours were used like this back home. Instead, the green opposite our house is full of dog poo and overgrown bushes.

Church bells

1 Sep

The music stopped suddenly at 2am. But then the patriotic singing started. What with the sound of drunken men bonding, and the festival day stalls being dismantled, there was no possibility of sleep for me even with my super dooper earplugs, so I kept reading until 4.20am when peace finally descended. At which point I realised that the church bells continued to toll through the night, every friggin 30 minutes. Rich of course was oblivious to it all, and slept soundly. Still, he’s used to dealing with a crotchety sleep deprived wife.

Whilst I snoozed Rich nipped out to the local mini-market across the square and returned with a breakfast fit for a king – fresh apricots, yoghurt, magdalenes for him, rice cakes for me, and eggs. We’ll not go hungry here, that’s for certain.

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We then thought we’d try and walk to the nearest Intermarche, to buy supplies for the rest of our stay. Unfortunately, as walkers, sometimes we assume wrongly that everyone else likes to walk too, and that the local infrastructure accommodates this. Realising a little too late that the D118 is a very busy road running the length of the Aude Valley, and that there’s no footpath, I try not to panic as we walk along the verge with cars and lorries whizzing by. I’m not worried about myself, just about Rich’s balance, as having no cochlears means that sometimes he’s a bit swervy. Within 20 minutes we’d reached the safety of the car park though, and decided that we’d get a taxi back.

Fortunately the Intermarche was quiet, and very well stocked with gluten free produce. When I asked one of the checkout clerks for a taxi number she very kindly called one for us, and within minutes we were being ferried safely back to Esperaza. After a late lunch we followed the example of the locals and headed off for a siesta in what we’d already started to call ‘our little house’.

By 6pm it was still 28 degrees C outside as we headed out for an evening stroll along the river. The Aude is very beautiful, and surprisingly fast flowing in places, hence its appeal for kayakers. Walking past lots of gardens and allotments it’s clear that self sufficiency is taken far more seriously here than it is in the UK, where sadly gardening is still seen as ‘uncool’.

After 4 miles of walking in hot sun the house felt wonderfully cool on our return, like a little cave. Houses here are designed for comfort in all weathers, whereas back home we tend to suffocate on very hot days as houses just haven’t been built with global warming in mind.

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