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.

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