Saturday, 26 July 2008

It could only happen in France

At this precise moment in a mairie somewhere in the department of Tarn, Jean-Louis, a sixty-eight year old artist, is doing the whole wedding thing - ceremony, family, friends, ring, knees-up - and marrying his partner of twenty-odd years. Nothing unusual there, you may say. Well no, until you discover that his partner died nearly four years ago .

The story is that although they'd been together since the eighties, they decided to wait until they'd both retired from their artistic lives to get married, but Sod's Law kicked in and she became seriously ill. They embarked on a plan for a 'death-bed' marriage, but this too was stymied when she lapsed into a coma and then died shortly afterwards. Undeterred, he vowed to honour his promise to her and go ahead with a posthumous marriage ceremony. Extraordinary, but true. So intrigued was I when I read about this in our regional newspaper this morning that I just had to find out more.

So, having firkled around in the bowels of some French legal websites, I can now reveal that posthumous marriage became enshrined in the civil code here in 1959 after the disaster of the Malpasset dam, which broke on the night of 2 December 1959 killing more than 420 people. Amongst the victims was a young man who was due to marry 15 days later and whose fiancée was pregnant. The public was said to be 'traumatised' both by the event and by the young woman's plight; after Le Monde took up her story and supported her desire to marry her dead fiancé, the National Assembly almost immediately proposed an amendment to the marriage laws which was passed, without opposition, just a week later.

Mind you, you've got to be pretty determined because you can only marry posthumously by decree from the President himself, countersigned by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Justice. You have to prove that the dead person had consented to marry and that marriage was already on the cards, and you have to demonstrate that you have 'serious reasons'. Some 50 applications are received every year; only a handful receive consent. It took Jean-Louis three attempts before he got his, but get it he did and by the time you read this he'll be a married man, with his marriage backdated to the day before his partner died.

And as France is the only European country to legalise posthumous marriage in this way, it really could only happen in France.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Le Tour

This morning dawned a bit like a Turkish bath, and the climb up to the cols from Rimont was a bit hot and breathless. About two thirds of the way up to the Col de Rille, where the Tour was to join the road towards Crouzette, we started to see the cars parked along the side of the (single track) road. And then more. And more. And more, in every nook and cranny. We were early; most of them must have been there since the crack of dawn.

When we reached the Col de Rille, we realised that this was going to be in fact a better place to stop than Crouzette, because from there you can see right down into the valley and get a early glimpse of the riders as they make the climb up from Riverenert. So, with some relief at not having to climb another 390m in what was now pushing 30 degrees, we decided to stay put. It soon became apparent that our rather mean, fits-in-a-rucksack picnic was simply not going to make the grade; people had walked up from their cars (the col road itself had been closed to traffic since 6am this morning) with tables, chairs, numerous cool boxes, china plates and proper glasses, cloth napkins, radios, blankets, umbrellas, games, granny, and probably a few kitchen sinks as well. I even saw a TV. We really should know better by now and we slunk with embarrassment into our shady vantage point, hoping that nobody would recognise us, and settled in to enjoy the party.

And party it was. With over an hour and a half to go before the caravane, everybody - and there were hundreds of people, with more arriving all the time - seemed determined to have a good time. And then someone spotted the caravane down in the valley below and as word went around, everyone got into position ...

... as a seemingly endless procession of bizarre sponsors' vehicles came through, throwing freebies (aka tut) to those of us lining the road. It's clearly de rigeur here to do everything possible to get as much as possible, even if you don't really want a selection of keyrings, flourescent wrist bands, pretzels, fridge magnets, hats, biros, licorice sweets, and all the rest; I was so entranced by watching the antics (and rapidly filling shopping bags, obviously brought specially for the occasion) of my 'neighbours' that I came away with only a bottle of water and a spotted Champion baseball cap, though John in his usual fashion did rather better. (I read somewhere that over 12 million promotional items are distributed every day of the Tour!).

Then everybody sat down again to examine their treasure and eat their pretzels and snigger because they'd got more than the next family while we waited another hour or so for the real business of the day. Word got out that a few riders were some 15 minutes ahead of the peloton. Suddenly a hush descended as we spotted the first Tour helicopter, closely followed by four more; TV cameras set up just opposite where we were standing (did you see me on telly? Did you?). The helicopters circled, the tension rose. Suddenly, a lone rider flew past, followed a minute or so later by 12 or so other riders - if you'd blinked at the wrong moment, you'd have missed them, and many did. The helicopters flew lower and the tension rose higher as we waited for the peloton. "Le voilà!" we all said simultaneously as the rest of the riders appeared at the foot of the valley, and we all got into position again ready for their appearance at the col.

Though I've watched the thing on television, I never really appreciated just how extraordinarily fast they go. It seems - and I know it's not before you all rush to tell me so - effortless.

And then they were gone.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008


This is going to be a tough week.

Tomorrow is Tour de France day; as it does most years, the Tour is wending its way through Ariège and we'll be joining probably hundreds of other people at the Col de la Crouzette, just a few minutes south of here, to watch the whole shebang. It's going to be a pretty tough climb, on some very narrow and twisty roads, with the last kilometre reaching a gradient of 13% ...

View from the Col de la Crouzette, taken last September

It's a funny thing, the Tour - even if you're basically not remotely interested in cycling, it still kind of hooks you in (it's got nothing to do with men in Lycra shorts. Honest. No, really). Watching the ascent of le Col de Tourmalet in the Hautes-Pyrénées (2115 metres and designated as 'hors catégorie' - beyond classification - in other words, so difficult that there are no words to describe it!) on France 2 yesterday was pretty awesome and puts the word fitness into another universe. It must be amazing to be able to do something like that. Next lifetime maybe.

And then, of course, there are the festivals. Like much of France, Ariège breaks out in a veritable rash of them in the summer. Unlike much of La France Profonde, however, we're not talking small scale village fêtes devoted to celebrating figs, or snails, or pigs (though we have those too). No, we're talking music festivals and film festivals and classical concert series and celebrations of different world cultures and big, all-singing all-dancing recreations of Cathar history or Neolithic cave life and ... well, you get the idea.

This weekend coming we'll be at Terre de Couleurs, Ariège's answer to Glastonbury, where Toumani Diabate (outstanding Malian kora player - he of The Mandé Variations) is doing a gig alongside a dozen other world bands in a small village half an hour's drive from here. From there we and our tent will be hot-footing it to Tarascon, a small town just south of Foix, for at least one or two days of Tarascon-Latino, where for six days and nights there'll be free concerts, art, dance, crafts and food celebrating south American culture, no doubt in a characteristically boisterous way.

Last night we were in Pamiers for the mother of all Latin festivals, the Pamiers Fiesta. Quite why one of France's least populated departments should host one of France's biggest fiestas is slightly beyond me, but voilà, it does, and all the better for us. With about 15,000 inhabitants Pamiers is effectively our capital, although it's not the préfecture, and in Ariège terms it's certainly a fairly dynamic town. It takes a while to 'get' Pamiers; it's not immediately striking like Foix or Mirepoix, but it's got some lovely historic bits, a good feel and lots going on. I like it. Gabriel Fauré was born there and there's a major Fauré festival every year.

The Fiesta is an annual four day jolly that's in its 13th year and attracts around 120,000 visitors every time; they, like us, come for the numerous (free) flamenco, salsa and other Latin musicians playing in various stages around the town, the carnavals, the food, and the huge buzz. Last night was the last night, if you see what I mean; we'd hung on for three nights because the weather wasn't being particularly fiesta-like and try as I might, I couldn't really come to terms with partying in a fleece. Yesterday, however, was warm and sunny, and all was well. We started by trawling the twenty-odd tented bodegas that had sprouted in the 'gastro-village' offering food from around the Latin world, trying to decide what to eat; after going round in ever decreasing circles at least four times (I'm a typical Libran; I can do big decisions no problem, but make me choose food and I'm a dithering wreck) John pushed me decisively into a tapas bar where we ate - er - tapas at a long and loud table.

We went on to a superb flamenco concert in car park turned Plaza Sevilla, then on to an Afrocuban percussion-dance gig in the main square; from there to a very lively and energetic salsa group on the main stage, and finally on to another late night salsa band. Danced out, we finally called it a day (night? morning?) at a quarter past two.

Phew. Time for bed, I think.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Grillou goes to the seaside

Yes, we've been on holiday. We decided to make the most of the fantastic weather (not to mention the fact that it was the last week before Les Grandes Vacances), packed the tent, and drove the 150km to our 'local' seaside village, Gruissan, for a few days of R&R.

Gruissan is a pretty good mix of fishing village, huge nature reserves, modern port/marina/resort and wine-lovers' paradise.

Apart from having five huge beaches (and I mean huge. I mean driveable-along. I mean ones where you get your car stuck in the sand and have to be towed out, after half an hour of hot but fruitless digging, by a fortuitously passing 4x4. But that's another story), Gruissan has several étangs, or salt water lagoons. In the winter, masses of pink flamingos, egrets, avocets and other waders take up residence (the bird list runs to over 200 species); in the summer you have to be content with countless species of butterflies and a richness of plant life that puts even Blakeney Point into the shade. Apparently it's one of the only areas in France where garrigue meets saltmarsh head-on, hence lots of rare plants and every ecological protection label going. One plant is so rare that it's almost on the edge of extinction: centaurea corymbosa only (and that's as in nowhere else in the world) grows in a 3 square kilometre area here, and less than 500 individual plants reproduce each year. Isn't that extraordinary? And scary? Here it is:

Wine lovers will need no introduction to La Clape, the 15000 hectare massif between Gruissan and Narbonne, where we spent a couple of days wandering in the garrigue - some of Languedoc's best wines are produced from around 30 small and passionately run wineries here. La Clape was an island until the eleventh century, when the rivers silted up. It's been inhabited since Neolithic times (several dolmens, but they're not easy to find!); later on Roman centurions from the 10th legion, who were given land to build villas on the massif, planted the first vineyards. The herby smells of the garrigue, shimmering light of the water and the ubiquitous chirping of the cicadas combine to make it a very sensuous, as well as strangely beautiful, place in high summer.

Parts of Gruissan give me a sense of déja vu; walking by the saltmarshes, with the sea in the distance and the avocets calling, I can almost feel myself to be back in north Norfolk, on the coast path from Cley to Blakeney:

Except of course that Cley doesn't have these: