For a week we have swapped the gentle flatlands and mild temperate climate of the Charente Maritime for an altogether more rugged terrain, the Pyrénées. This is another side to France, where deep in the mountains slate roofs replace our familiar red terracotta tiles and granite replaces the pale Charentais stone. Standing amidst houses that have hugged these slopes for hundreds of years, there is not a soul in sight; nothing stirs but the village cat, perched incongruously like a small snow-leopard in a tree. When the snow falls, it doesn’t make a sound; it’s a strange anomaly in the vast space stretching out to the valley floor below my feet. This is the closest to silence as one can get, high up close to the sky.
Today’s post is coming from Roddy, who thanks to a dodgy knee can no longer enjoy the thrill of racing downhill. Instead, he spends his time walking and taking photos. I, of course, am off to the pistes to re-enact various Olympic events with the children, but I know you are in good hands.
It is good to be back, sandwiched between enormous lumps of rock that reach to the very heavens, as we snake the car up the wet road into long valleys of shadow, where villages perch high above us like islands on the skyline, and the heater ramps up the warmth as the altitude builds.
The children squeal at each new vista, and as the bends open out I always look up to the ridges and peaks, to where humanity has clung for centuries in villages and barns built long ago by simple hard work and a devotion to special circumstances that people who live in the flatlands can never truly appreciate.
Occasionally up very high, on the snow-line, you see a barn that seems so impossibly lost that it seems churlish to wonder at the weight of work and time it must have taken to put it there by collecting, shaping and using materials found on location.
In many ways I feel at home in the mountains, for a long time ago I chased the good snow on skis when and where I could, and once I even worked a summer on a mountain farm – four months of hard sun-burnt labour that taught me more about mountain people, and their way of life, than a lifetime on skis would ever have shown me. It was a man I skied with who offered me the work, with a family who owned not just the farm, but also a busy mountain restaurant at the end of a cable-car ride from the village below. Above us loomed two great mountains and a glacier ran between them, a haven for summer walkers.
A summer hay season is an interesting matter – it entails six weeks of scattered manual labour on slopes that often cant under your feet at 60˚. There is an array of lethal pitchfork weaponry for gathering hay, and then there are rides to hilltop pastures on a tractor-trailer ensemble that lurches and leans dizzyingly over the steepest drops; as a bonus, you get to know well a group of very assorted people, from the many children who help to pick up the loose hay, to a grandmother who could fill a cart by herself in an hour, a whirling dervish of a spectacle with a pitchfork so huge, but so light, that the tines of it glinted like knives as she flailed. When the hay season ended, I was put to work in the restaurant, helping to service 1000 lunchtime covers every day for another six weeks – but that’s another story.
That working summer was a great way to learn at firsthand the intimacies and intricacies of an island in the sky, a community full of stubborn, knowledgeable, kind and generous people. I learned more in that time about the mountains and their people, about their way of life, their customs and their practicalities, then I would ever have learned in a lifetime of skiing. At the end of it all, I had become a friend of the community, and I was no longer just a visitor.
Here, in the Pyrénees, I can also see the same measured character of living, where millennia of alternating implacable seasons ensures life is lived to a rhythm that has not changed for centuries. Sun, grow, harvest, cold, snow, melt, sun, grow, harvest…. and that is before we even talk about cattle, cheese, smoked and cured meats and a plethora of other seasonal chores and produce.
Where we are in the Pyrénées this week is but a short hop away from the town of Luz-Saint-Saveur, itself just 10 minutes drive from Barèges, our gateway to the snow. We are staying high above the valley floor in a village called Viscos, and from the road below, it is another of those islands in the sky that I feel a kindred towards.
Barèges has the most snow it has seen for 30 years. The children are in awe.
To someone who has never visited a mountain range before, it can come as a surprise to see how these small villages survive, clinging to what appears to be a barren mountain slope, seemingly populated by just trees – fir, larch and beech.
A stroll around such a small scattering of buildings, typically centered around a church, leads to more questions than answers if one has an inquiring mind. Paths go here, and steps lead there – cobbles glisten in the rain and snow, and then shine polished in the sun.
At a glance it all seems cluttered, but then on foot, doorway by doorway, the soul of the community starts to manifest itself, where the odd helpful sign is a taciturn nod to the visitor – a reminder that you are welcome, but you are not really part of this careful community that lives at the edge of nature, on a boundary where geophysical circumstances demand courtesy between all, and where children learn quickly the special skills that are needed for each season.
It is immediately obvious, of course, that everything is old. Sometimes very old.
The temperature and weather conditions up high mean wood can survive a long time, sometimes for centuries. Stone buildings can be even older; these are structures built layer by layer, with each slate slab or granite block a hand-crafted work of art itself.
Typically the buildings lie snug into the hillside, carefully positioned to avoid the worst of not only weather, but also of what may come from above – snow, ice, water or even rocks. There are few villages that have suffered major catastrophes – most only grew from a single building after decades of careful surveillance, and there are always stands of trees above the roofs, a measure of security that will never change.
The houses of most villages follow the lie of the land, too, each one pays homage to its neighbour and while a village may appear to jostle ungainly against a skyline, a person will soon see that it is all one jigsaw, with each weathered part tucked securely into its place.
To stay for a day or two, perhaps a week, in such a place is a tonic, one that reminds me of the measured way of life some lead. It’s a good place for a fire, a cup of hot chocolate, and an appreciation of how life really revolves around each season’s call. I am a sea-person in my heart, but my soul will always look to the mountains, too.