Our children have just enjoyed their two week winter break and as in the past few years we headed to the mountains for a week of skiing. Back to the Pyrénées and even though it is said that familiarity can sometimes breed contempt, it seems, certainly in our case, that it breeds appreciation and liking.
We were back in the same area once more, Barèges/La Mongie, but we were staying in a different village, negotiating new hairpin bends on impossibly narrow roads, never knowing what was around the next corner or whether we would be met by another breath taking view or a local driver in a 4×4 in a very great hurry with no desire to pull over for a tourist!
Before we left home last year Roddy and Millie did a dry run with the snow chains in the safety of our own drive, making sure they were familiar with the slightly complicated routine of how to fit them. Fast forward a year and Roddy asked me if we shouldn’t have a practice the day before we left to refresh the memory. I was in a rush and replied on the run over my shoulder that there was no need, “we’ve never had to use them before, they always clear the main roads, even when we had a foot of snow dumped on us last year, we didn’t have to use them” I said and with that, the chains were carefully stowed in the boot of the car and the conversation was forgotten.
That was until we were nearly at our destination. Our blissfully easy four hour drive came to a grinding halt when we were greeted by two gendarmes, indicating for all cars without special winter tyres to stop and fit their chains before they could go any further. By now the snow was falling quite heavily and the temperature was well below freezing. Roddy got out muttering a few swear words under his breath, I tried to smile, knowing I was not going to be popular. Millie, gallantly volunteered to help, the perfect assistant. In bitter conditions they scrabbled with frozen metal nuts and bolts, trying to make some sense of the instructions once more, it was quite impossible to turn the tiny screws whilst wearing gloves and bare wet hands turned icy cold in the blink of an eye.
The car next to us was having similar problems and for over half an hour they fumbled with the frozen links, struggling to get them correctly into place, clapping their hands every few seconds trying desperately to keep the circulation going. Eventually Millie solved the problem becoming the heroine of the hour and gingerly we backed out into the road and with some trepidation continued winding our way up the mountain feeling the crunch of the chains as they gripped the snow underneath us.
But whilst speeding down a mountain was the main object of our holiday it wasn’t the be all and end all. There is always just so much more to experience and enjoy. No two places are ever the same. Yes, the buildings are all of a similar style, with their trademark slate roofs and walls of local stone, but each and every neighbourhood has its own unique features. We were staying in the tiny village of Viscos and we wasted no time in exploring the steep alleyways in the evenings. There is a small hotel with an excellent restaurant
and incredible views but what struck us the most was how the locals quite obviously take great pride in their homes.
That doesn’t mean everything was new or perfect, but everywhere had the air of being loved and cared for.
The ancient communal laundry was well preserved
and many old doors had a splash of new paint.
What I love the most though is the use of stone without cement or mortar, each and every one having been very carefully selected and placed by hand as if piecing together a giant jigsaw puzzle.
We skied the same slopes as in previous years but with the addition of a few steeper, more daring runs to keep us on our toes. We ate lunch in the same restaurants, the menu reassuringly French, although for the first time I noted that there was a special vegetarian plate on offer. Lunch is always served between 12 and 2.30pm and just about everyone comes to a standstill, the queues are enormous, this is where our Englishness comes to the fore and we stubbornly ignore our pangs of hunger. By skiing through the lunch hour we have pistes virtually to ourselves and the most perfect two hours imaginable. Then we stop at just gone 2, whereby we can find a table easily, and we don’t have to wait!
Don’t be fooled by those blue skies, after two days of blizzard conditions the sun came out to play but the cold still seeped through even the toughest of clothing. We covered up every inch of skin at all times and whilst we got super sporty
some people found a more sedate way to enjoy the mountains!
A couple of times a week Barèges hosts an evening market.
There is the wonderful familiarity of stalls bursting with local produce, but there is also the thrill of something different. As in just about any French market we came across happy, smiling vendors, one senses they are always so proud of what they have on offer. The market concept might be the same throughout the country but there are certainly regional differences. Some of the cheeses were quite uncommon to us and the variety of saucissons had us drooling. Four for 10 euros, and before the money had even left our wallet we were already mentally savouring a slice around around the fire accompanied by a robust red wine.
We bought homemade organic macarons for dessert, the children having eaten several samples choosing the flavours they liked the best!
Our home for the week was the beautifully restored house below, restored by the French owner, Céline, it enveloped us in a wonderful mixture of modern and vintage luxury. Each night as darkness fell we braved the cold for a few seconds to jump into the fabulous hot tub, soothing aching muscles and looking up at the stars in the dark inky sky above. Then we gathered around the fire, telling stories of the day, embellishing the truth a little, recounting what we perceived as brilliant skiing and laughing until the tears fell as we remembered a hilariously embarrassing fall.
We couldn’t leave without finding the time to take a look inside the charming little church, the église Saint-Pierre. What is perhaps a little unusual is that it has two bells rather than one and they strike every hour during daylight.
The exterior is not grand but the tiny interior is full of wonderful statues and oil paintings. There is only room for a very small congregation, but as always on our travels, we found the doors were unlocked and we were instantly seduced by a feeling of great peace and calm as we stepped inside.
A simple plaque remembers those who died during the First World War. Reading the few names from this tiny village, we instantly noticed that four were from the same family and I felt tears well up in my eyes, so so sad. I glanced across at my own children and whilst we enjoy the present and look forward to the future I know we must never let them forget.
And what a beautiful place to be laid to rest if you come from the village and the mountains.
I have never seen this type of headstone before, there were several, all very similar, wrought iron crosses, presumably locally forged and also tombstones of the heavy local slate.
Now we are back home, the children are back at school and we have snow, the first time in eight years, but that’s another story. We may have stayed in France, but a change is as good as a rest, we love the familiarity of the French way of life, we feel very comfortable with it, it’s like a second skin, we know how things work. But at the same time it is great fun to explore a different place, same routine but different surroundings, it certainly works for us!
If you would like a wonderful Pyrénées experience and are looking for somewhere to stay you can find details of the house we rented through Airbnb here. This week I am also adding a new section to the website www.ourfrenchlifestyle.com with links to a few very select hotels, Chambres d’hôtes and houses to rent throughout France which we would highly recommend from personal experience, and this house in Viscos will certainly be one of them. It is just an idea to help you with any future travel plans, because I would always far rather stay somewhere that a friend has raved about. Where we rest our head for the night really does make or break a holiday.