Friday, 31 August 2012

Cathares and Canadairs

Since we've been here we've somehow stumbled into the habit of taking a few days out during the last week of August to explore and get to know our area better - we call it our Ariège holiday. And this year was no exception - we blocked it in the diary many months ago, and then when we found out that the village boulangerie was also taking its hols this week there was really no argument (unless you're one of the people who wanted to stay with us. Sorry).

Having spent a manic two days turning the last few hundred kilos of plums (okay, I exaggerate. But not by much) into ice cream, sorbet, sauce, compôte, jelly and sweet chilli jam, we decided to take Sunday gently, starting with a long slow breakfast reading the papers in Foix before setting off on our first walk, a circular walk around and above the ruined Cathare château of Roquefixade and the village of the same name. This is a great walk and one that many of our guests enjoy - short enough for an afternoon, easy enough for almost anybody yet hugely satisfying and with breathtaking views.

Looking down onto the medieval village

First glimpse of the view south

And it just gets better ...
The château is quite literally 'fixed to the rock'

Back in the village, a lovely gîte d'étape for a beer afterwards

Then it was on to Puivert, just over the border into Aude, and one of our favourite campsites:

'Our' pitch looks right over the lake 
Here's the view - yes, another Cathare château
How do you tear yourself away from that? Well, you don't, really - you have a coffee and pain aux raisins, then a swim, then another coffee ... and then it's midday ... Eventually you decide to spend the afternoon walking the part of the path around Lac Montbel, a few kilometres away, that you haven't yet done.

You could think yourself on the Med ...
And yes, the water really is that colour ...
On our way round, I was struck by a very strange, small cloud in a dip over the mountains to the south - it seemed to be a very strange shape. I put it down to a local storm, hoped it wouldn't make its way north, and thought no more about it. After a very hot walk, with no sign of a break in the weather, we landed back at the wonderful guinguette L'Ecume des Jours (recommended, both for its genuine beach shack atmosphere and for its slightly alternative twice weekly concerts) for a beer, and we were just enjoying the bizarre sense of feeling as though we were on a Greek island when suddenly two big yellow planes flew right over us. "They're Canadairs!" I yelled, as I leapt up to see what was what. A Canadair is a water bomber, or fire fighting plane; they fight inaccessible forest fires by scooping up water from the sea or a lake, and dropping it over burning forest. I first encountered them many years ago in Corsica, and although I've watched them several times since both on the French coast and in Greece I've somehow never lost the thrill of seeing them in action. Half the customers of the guinguette followed me over to the beach to wait for them to come back; we weren't disappointed, and cameras clicked wildly, mine included:

So skillful, the way they scoop up the water
I could almost touch this one
Altogether the Canadairs came back 5 times. After the first time, the local pompiers arrived, blue lights flashing, with several landrovers and a boat, presumably in case someone was unfortunate enough to get in the way of the planes. A siren now announced the Canadairs' arrival and drew an increasing number of spectators from the villages around, and the whole place began to feel like a big party. And then suddenly, it struck me. The odd looking 'cloud' that I'd seen nearly 4 hours earlier had been smoke; great chimneys of it were now rising from the exact same spot.

Later, I discovered that the fire had been a reprise of an earlier fire at L'Hospitalet: the one that Margaret wrote about in her blog just a few days ago. Scarier than that, I learned that the new outbreak had been discovered at around 4pm. I'd seen the smoke - although I hadn't realised that was what it was - two hours before that. I shuddered.

I did a lot more than shudder the next day, though you'll have to wait until the next post to find out why. In the meantime, enjoy a couple more of the Cathare châteaux we took in on the trip:

This is Usson, in Donezan, one of my new favourite places
Montaillou, made famous by the author Le Roy Ladurie

Friday, 24 August 2012

Stress management

No, not us. We're fine; having a whale of a time, in fact.

But our grounds and our plants aren't. If they had blood pressure, it would be through the roof.

For the last couple of weeks we've had temperatures of 36 degrees or so most days (and for the last week they've not dropped below 22 at night); this month so far we've had just 2 hours of rain, all at once. And this year, our rainfall is running at between a half and two thirds of what was once considered 'normal'. Same thing last year. Compared to what friends in Spain have experienced so far this year, it may not be much to write home about.
But ...

... this is the Pyrenees. The ecosystems here have developed in response to a certain climate - if you look at detailed meteorological  maps, Grillou sits almost exactly on the borderline between Mediterranean and Atlantic climatic influences, giving us a healthy mixture of hot sun, clear unpolluted air, gentle breezes and enough rain to keep Ariège that amazing green colour that so struck us when we first came here one September many moons ago. When we started to look for the place to live, we discovered that once you went over the border into Aude the summer greens turned to browns and quickly found that our hearts were here, with the best of both worlds.

Now, as Bob Dylan, said, the times they are a'changin'. This is our lawn field today:

Trees are shedding their leaves as if it were November:

Lots of shrubs - the same shrubs that have struggled to re-establish themselves after the Big Freeze in February, when we had temperatures of minus 18 or lower for 2 weeks - are doing the same:

Who have thought that I'd have to spend half of yesterday raking up leaves?

The several-hundred-year old oaks that stand guard over our land are seriously stressed out, and we quite literally fear for their lives if we're now seeing the beginning of a new and very different pattern of extreme climatic conditions. And here's a sad sight: one of our wild cherry trees completely uprooted itself a couple of days ago and is now leaning at a precarious angle - the ground is so dry that the entire root ball has upended. The only question now is do we let it fall, or cut it down?

It's the same story in the woods around us, and we're acutely aware of how tinder-dry everything is - one stray spark could start a wildfire which would spread like - well, wildfire. We've not quite banned barbecues yet, but we do make sure that everyone who's using one has several buckets of water to hand ...

Our stocks of rainwater ran out a long time ago so we're having to resort to the hose to keep things alive, like the multitude of colourful pots that greet you on arrival:

And the roses, which by now should be preparing for their second flush:

The good news is that we're having a fantastic crop of tomatoes that taste as though they've been grown in a hot Provencal climate. And then there are these - would you believe that this vine is only 2 years old?

We and our guests have moved on to Spanish time - dinner has moved itself slowly forward to around 9.30 as it's just too hot to think about eating before then - and we're all making good use of the shady 'Zen' terrace:

The heat is considerably less intense today - only 27 degrees at the moment - and there are rumours - only rumours, mind - of a little light drizzle tomorrow. Then we're back up into those thirties again ...

And then we're into September and October, which traditionally are Ariège's most beautiful months - warm, golden, balmy. But who knows, this year?