Islands on the Skyline

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Barèges has the most snow it has seen for 30 years. The children are in awe.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It is immediately obvious, of course, that everything is old. Sometimes very old.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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69 thoughts on “Islands on the Skyline

  • Thank you Roddy – I adored this post. From your fascinating recanting of your summer on the farm and the tantalizing notion that one day you might share the restaurant chapter too, to the familiar delight of the villages, barns, monolithic mountains that are my heart (though for now they are Alpes not Pyrénées but may yet be either or others still). I am your reverse, the mountains have my heart but my soul is called by the sea. Your proses, your pictures do wonderful justice to Susan’s blog and I have absolutely adored this posting. I hope the family are having a fine time being hot-shots on the slopes … this is a snow year to bottle, I think 😊

    • Osyth, thank you for your kind words. You obviously feel the same way as I do 🙂 The restaurant story will have to wait, though it is a tale to tell – there are three Vietnam veterans, nine dead chamoix, a Super 8 tape of Judy Collins and the grandmother’s granddaughter to add to the mix. The last person was a beautiful girl who I got to know well and wanted to kiss behind the haybarn. Alas, I was too afraid of the pitchfork; my faint heart won no fair lady that summer.

      • Good stories are always worth the wait! And wait I shall until the time is right …. yes, I do feel the same way which means I can only live in certain parts of France – highly frustrating when I see the exact place that would fit our criteria and then realise it sits at low altitude and too far from the mountains. Hey ho, like the stories, I have faith that the time will reveal the perfect plum for the plucking. Meanwhile, I just enjoy what we have 🙂

  • How beautiful Roddy. We were in the Pyrenees last October. There was only snow on the highest peaks at that time. It was so stunning ; as you said the small houses and barns, some centuries old clinging on to the sides of the hills. We ventured up as high as the tree line to magical small lakes for a picnic with friends. Just perfect.

    • Hi Ali! I expect Bob took a ton of photos, too – right? It’s such a photogenic area with so many different views in every direction. I find all mountains are like that. No wonder the ancients revered them…

  • What a beautiful post, so descriptive that it makes it seem like we are all there with you. At times I long for such a quiet, measured life in a small town. I live in Southern California, by the ocean, we are fortunate that we can drive to snow covered mountains in winter in an hour and a half. But the Pyrenees is a whole different world. Gorgeous!

    • Hi Pam, too early still for insects really. I am sure there may be some moths at night and spiders in dark corners, but I didn’t come here equipped with either the right camera or the desire to search for insects – way too much snow to have fun with instead 😦 Suggest to Susan that another insect post is overdue, I’d love to do another 🙂

  • I so enjoyed this Roddy, I grew up in the mountains and now my only visits are once every few years, your descriptions made me miss them more than ever.

  • Hello Susan and Roddy – what a lovely post with great photos. I have not been to the mountains for many years but this brings it all back. They certainly are a special breed of people. It looks like you certainly have some snow, I hope you all have a wonderful time!

    • Hello Phil, good to hear from you and hope all is well your end, I suspect you are all hunkered down at the back if the shingle, stove aglow? Where was it you used to go to? Did you ski? Hope Mrs C is well and spring is springing slightly?

  • I feel breathless after reading your post, as if I’ve been breathing the thin air up in those mountains with you. Thank you for allowing me to tag along, even if only virtually. Your photos and writing are spectacular.

  • May Roddy, this is awe-inspiring. For a Swiss girl, (and, btw, having received 8 excellent photos just today from friends staying in Zermatt, CH) this makes my heart sing. I don’t know what I love more, your wonderful, wonderful writing, your talent for observation, your tales or the magnificent photos. Where was it you worked in a summer? Was that something like a ‘land-service’? I did that with 13 years, during summer hols an association ‘employed’ (sans argent, just bed and food, and very hard, very long work) young people for 3-4 weeks to help farmers with their work. That was, in my case, the year I ‘acquired’ my life-long allergy to all things hay, grass, many scents, pollen etc….
    HH and I also stayed in the Pyrenees just once for a few days, when we were ‘selected’ to join a Russian choir for a concert of the German Requiem by Brahms…. We had very mixed weather and the cold fell heavily and quickly in the evening. We remember buildings with ‘special equipments’ showing us the necessities of this ‘land’, so different to other regions in France. Very interesting.
    Thank you so much for this splendid, informative and beautiful post. Dodgy knees or not; I know exactly what you’re saying (having just told our friends in Zermatt that I too ‘donned’ two dogdy knees – in 2 consecutive years! – in that lovely village, many moons ago) – and I fête you as a worthy replacement for Susan, so that She can race the ski-pistes with your children in peace and care-free! Enjoy the last days and have another raclette!!!

    • Hi Kiki – what a wonderful reply. I shall fill you in on all the details when we see you in March, but suffice to say there is much more of the story to tell. It was in Switzerland, yes, but I’ll tell you all then. Looking forward to seeing you both!

  • A great post! Thanks! Loved the photo with the cat. It’s snowing here today at Lake Tahoe in the Sierra. There’s something ethereal about snowfall, isn’t there?

  • Hi Judy – there is indeed something ethereal about snowfall. I love the padded, muffled silence on a fresh snow morning, and the sound of footsteps as they cut a new path through it. Even as an adult, I still enjoy the thrill of fresh snow, but I dare say the mountain people do NOT! At least by the end of the season, anyway…..

  • Thankyou so much Roddy for this wonderfully descriptive visit to the Pyrenees! As an Aussie sweltering in 35’C temps today your snowy photos are a delight! We have a little house in the Snowy Mountains in Victoria and love going there during our 3 months snow season each winter ( Mother Nature permitting!), however despite the magic of Aussie eucalypts in the snow, the history and age old surroundings of the Pyrenees and your wonderful old village have a true meaning of winter. Another area to pop on my wish list! Have a wonderful holiday and I hope Susan and the children enjoy their snowy slopes. Xox

    • Hi Susie! I can well imagine how nice it must be reading about ice and snow for you! I hope you manage to visit the Pyrénees one day. They are certainly a little different to the Snowies! We did indeed all have a great time. Thank you!

  • What a stunning landscape. Anyone living in it would have to have a particular world view, an attitude that someone from a fishing village might not understand! I loved your landscapes and your memory of haying. It’s always good to have someone’s insights about a place. Thanks!

    • Glad you enjoyed this, it was fun to remember a bit about times far ago! I remembered a whole more too – but that is indeed for another time! And you are so right – the people who live in a rarified atmosphere do indeed have a rarified outlook on the world.

  • Hello Roddy: I keep on thinking I am almost a newbie on your family bloig , , , but this is the second or even third time I have loved a journey to the Pyrenees with your family! A part of France I have only ‘visited’ sitting on the back of a photo-bike during almost two decades of Tour de France! Love your photos and the family story and the history. The utter peace transports itself to summery rural Australia . . . and the blue of the sky shows at least some of the weather experienced brought outdoors joy!

    • Hello Eha! Do you have your picture yet? So happy you are not yet tired of us writing about the Pyrénees! I hope we managed to cool you all down a little. Thank you for your kind comment, as always – I certainly don’t consider you a newbie in any way, shape or form…. 🙂

  • Roddy,
    What s delightful description of the mountains and of the life style of the inhabitants of the ancient villages. You are an excellent writer and I have immensely enjoyed your post.

  • I always think there is nothing like the clean fresh mountain air to completely revitalise us. Enjoy your time even if you are not skiing, you can still enjoy the great outdoors.

    • Indeed, and that is just what I did, though the children did drag me up a mountain on our last day on snowshoes, my left knee is still not talking to me. But the fresh air was most welcome 🙂

  • Sounds as if that summer was one you will remember always. Making memories is just what you are doing with your family now, your children will thank you.

  • Just a delightful look at the mountains…… is so nice to see the photos of the Pyrenees in winter, I enjoy watching each summer as the Tour de France rides through the area. I love seeing the snow scenes! Thank you Roddy for this tour.
    My heart and soul resides in verdant countryside…..give me a vast green field full of cows, a stream, wind swishing through the trees, and a dog to walk beside……..and then I am HAPPY!

  • Patricia, hopefully the mountains still looked vaguely familiar with snow on them? 🙂 I love the countryside too, so understand where your heart lies, no problems! What sort of dog would you be thinking of is an obvious question, though.

  • What a wonderful picture you paint with your words Roddy! What is it about the mountains and water? I love our ( rather small and insignificant!) mountains in the Lake District, which suddenly appears like a whole new world once you turn off the M6! I also love water, not necessarily the sea, but also rivers, creeks and lakes, which have so much character in shape, colour and vegetation, they always delight the eye. To have mountains and water as in our Lake District is perfect for me. But having read your post, I am now drawn not only to the majestic landscape of the Pyrenees, but to the communities and the antiquity in their buildings and way of life. I think I’ve just found another ‘adventure’ for my husband and I in our retirement!! Thank you.

    • Hi Marian, you are so lucky to be close to the Lake District; some of Susan’s ancestors come from that area, and a few of them are quite well known (hopefully for the right reasons!). I’ve been there a couple of times and thought it a glorious part of the UK. If you get to the Pyrénees I hope you don’t find them too gaunt and forboding…..Thank you for your kind comment, too 🙂

  • Roddy, you are definitely Susan’s Best Kept Secret! Every sentence, every paragraph I felt like I was “living” in the moment with the Hay’s family in the “more rugged terrain, the Pyrenees.” I can still hear ” the children squeal at each new vista.” I will always visualize the charm of the Pyrenees; and the enduring villages that surround her.
    What a wonderful narrative writer you are. Like Susan’s musings, your Pyrenees Insider Itinerary shares the “magic” and the “beauty” of a region I have yet to discover. The Hay’s family continues to put me in “AWE.”
    It was also enjoyable to learn a little more about you and your earlier years.How fortunate for you and the community that you were offered a job and decided to take the offer. I have always felt it’s those unexpected “gifts” in life that “mold” us into our better “self.” Lucky man you are Roddy Hays in more ways than one!
    Seriously, you and Susan both have a “gift” of picture taking and writing, now don’t you stay away too long.

    • Stephanie – thank you for your kind comment! I am happy to replay you with words you enjoy…. you know what I mean 😀 So happy you enjoyed the story and the photos, and yes, the serendipitous moments of life are certainly life-changing! I could fill a book with the ones I have enjoyed, although – to be fair – I may have missed my opportunity with some of them.

      • I see a book somewhere in the horizon for both you and Susan. Please Please think about doing one. With the compassion and knowledge you both have for the beautiful things in life it could only be a “Best Seller.”

  • Hi Roddy,
    Lovely photographs, the Pyrenees are so majestic,especially covered in snow. Your narrative and pictures have confirmed that Harry and I will go and have a look next time we are in France. Cannot ski for the life of me but I do enjoy the stunning vistas. Enjoyed your post very much. I am sure you and Susan and the children will have a wonderful time.
    Hopefully 2019 will see us swing past your place again.
    Virginia K

    • Hi Virginia and Harry – sorry for the delay in replying! How are you both? Hope you do come back, we would love to see you all again – and yes, the mountains are well worth visiting….

  • Hi Roddy and Susan
    Thank you for sharing your holiday photos with us. They are stunning. I cannot believe the beauty and grandeur of the area you are in. I love your narrative Roddy especially hearing how much you learnt while working on the mountain farm. I hope your knee is better soon. Take care for now.

  • It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d without a doubt donate to this excellent blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to new updates and will talk about this website with my Facebook group. Chat soon!

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