Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Slow Road to Salau

At half past eight yesterday morning it was foggy, and I was up my ladder, paintbrush in hand. At half past nine the sun started to come through. Knowing that it would probably be our last chance this year to get out amongst the extraordinary autumn colours here, we needed no persuasion to down tools and set off in the car on the Slow Road to Salau, the last village in the Haut Salat before the Spanish frontier.

After the obligatory coffee and croissant stop, this time in the bar at Castillon that we got to like so much in our Ariège holiday week, we set off down the Bethmale valley towards the Etang de Bethmale, which must be one of the department's most contemplative places. Amazingly, we had it to ourselves, and could contemplate in peace. After a while the sun disappeared behind the peaks just to the south and we moved onwards to the Col de la Core, a few kilometres away, from where there are amazing views to both east and west. The Col de la Core is part of Le Chemin de la Liberté, a path that commemorates one of several secret escape routes in World War Two; as one whose father spent the war years in the RAF and who as a child was fed a diet of war films, I can't help but find it a moving experience to walk in the footsteps of those who found refuge on these trails.

Our Slow Road took us down through the small town of Seix and out along the valley of the river Salat, through the village of Couflens and then on to Salau where we stopped to explore the small Romanesque church. Salau has, appropriately, a real end of the world feeling. By car there's nowhere else to go but back where you've come from; on foot, however, a three and a half hour walk will take you up to an altitude of 2087 metres to the Port de Salau, the border with Spain. This is a path that's been in use as a trade (and contraband!) route since medieval times and links between those living on either side of the (relatively recent) frontier have always been strong; the first Sunday of August is the occasion for Les Pujadas, a meeting of people who have walked up from both sides to celebrate the links between them.

We didn't have the time to do the whole walk, although it's On the List, and we will, one day, when life returns to normal (!). We did, however, walk briskly up above Salau to two rather impressive waterfalls, one short and fat, the other long and thin, and found ourselves in a lovely but un-named cirque. My map tells me that there are nine springs here that jointly form the source of the Salat. In true mountain fashion the mist started to roll in and within a few minutes we were surrounded by cloud; time to make an excuse and leave.

On the way back through Salau we were a bit taken aback to come face to face with what could have been an inner city estate in Toulouse, or Birmingham, or London: five seventies-style concrete blocks of flats set on a desolate piece of ground just outside the village. Bearing in mind that Salau, together with its neighbouring (larger) village of Couflens, has a population of just 81 people, at a density of 1.4 persons per kilometre, my mind boggled. Google, as ever, was my friend, and later told me that they were built to house workers at the tungsten mines at Anglade, closed in the early 1980s. (But who lives there now????? Some, at least, are clearly still occupied. Bizarre).

And today's been rainy and windy, with a snowstorm of leaves, and I've been back up my ladder. Carpe diem, and all that.

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