Exploring the MIDI-PYRENEES of Southern France..... A rural journey that turns the “dots on the map” into people, places and memories!
© Rich and Pat Middleton
(Pause your cursor over the photographs for additional information)
I remember the time I tried to call home and the Australian telephone operator insisted that there was "no such state as Wisconsin" in the United States. But it DOES exist, I insisted, I GREW UP there!
"I'm sorry," she said, "but there is no such place."
One day you are scouring a map of France for a little dot that says "Castillon-en-Couserans." It's not there, so you look for the nearby market town of "St. Girons." It's supposed to be south of Toulouse (at least Toulouse is a dot) and this side of the Pyrenees mountains. So we turn to Google EARTH, and finally, we DO pinpoint St. Girons on the map.
"By golly, you are right! I did find Wisconsin!" the operator exclaimed!
And when we plan our visit to that tiny dot in the middle of nowhere, I feel my heart contract a little. How does one find transportation from dot to dot? How does one find a cafe, a hotel, the little pilgrim pathway marked with scallops that is called St. Jacques de Compostello when all there is, is a tiny dot? How does one speak "DOT"?
The WONDER of TRAVEL is that today, I no longer see "dots on a map" when I look for St. Girons. Our week in the Midi-Pyrenees along the Spanish border of Southern France is filled with faces and places, memories and associations. That is the sweet reward for the traveler.
Oh, yes! I know Castillon-en-Couserans! I climbed to the 12th century church at the top of the hill... and walked down through the steep, narrow, slate-paved pathways of the medieval section of the village. I lived on the main street in an 18th century mansion, in an apartment overlooking the River Lez, the foothills of the Pyrenees, and the day to day life of Miriam and Jonathan Peat, and their three young sons.
It is about to rain, and Jonathan is concerned about spraying his grape vines so the leaves don't mold. If Miriam wasn't already busy enough, they have just acquired two bleating lambs, and her 3 year old keeps leaving the gate open when he makes frequent forays to visit them.
I also know the vintner across the street from our apartment at "Le Clos Enchanter." He sells wine straight from the barrel and pumps it out of big barrels, like gasoline, into large plastic wine jugs holding four liters. Red, white and rose... for about 1 Euro per liter. Almost exactly the price of petrol, and there was generally a line of customers. He also sold boxed wines... good French wines, he said... and he knew just the wine the Peat family preferred when I was looking for a dinner wine.
There was a grocery store in Castillon-en-Couserans, but for nearly a week, we were blessed to purchase cheese from the fromagerie. The cheese maker took us to the storage room to pick our cheese from the ripening shelves. Our choice was a round cake of peppered goat cheese. Our sandwich meat was from the charcuterie next door to "Le Clos Enchanter" -- but it was the charcuterie in St. Girons, four kilometers away, that I save in my memories.
There, "Jambons du Pays" ... country salt-cured hams .... hung from the rafters. Sausages hanging on the walls had never seen the inside of a refrigerator. When I asked the proprietor if I might take a photo, she asked me to wait. She slipped out of her coat, into her white coverall. She was pleased that I offered her the opportunity to look at the screen of my digital camera. She was passionate about her traditional meats.
We arrived in St. Girons on the bus at 8 a.m. after a train ride from Toulouse to Bousserans. Both the train and the bus were filled with students who were boarding at various community polytechnic, or colleges. They didn't often find foreign travelers sharing their public transport on a Monday morning. They would live at the school or with local families until the end of the week.
Every village, every dot on the map, was made scenic by one river or another flowing from the Pyrenees. We often saw trout in the clear and smooth pebbled streams. All around us the snow-capped Pyrenees peaked over the foothills. Jonathan, and his guiding partner Phillipe, were both state certified mountain men. As guides for JONATHAN'S TOURS, they often led small groups into the Pyrenees to hike, or snowshoe or cross-country ski.
In our case, Jonathan's role was to orient us to neighboring villages, guide us on a hike into the foothills, and then set us on the St. Jacques de Compestello for a solo walking experience. Miriam Peat operated the B&B and GITE where we were to stay, at Le Clos Enchante.
While there were only the two of us during our early May visit, both Phillipe and Jonathan accompanied us on our first excursion.
We had asked Jonathan to lay out a program that might be appropriate for two mildly active seniors who had a particular interest in heritage and natural history. Jonathan kindly picked us up in St. Girons, but a brief taxi ride for about $10 would have brought us to doorway of Le Clos Enchante. That same afternoon, Jonathan took us out in his well-used van to get an overview of the territory, the main rivers, the villages (not even dots on the map!) of Engomer, Alas Arrout, Audressein and several more shepherd villages in the foothills that probably no longer had names!
Suddenly, Castillon-en-Couserans was not just a dot on the map! Instead there were stone homes, most dating from the 17 or 18th centuries. Some older. The Pyrenee foothills are steep, appropriate mostly for goats and sheep, and shepherds. The villages were built up the hills. One stone home just uphill from the next. And flowers!! If their homes were of gray slate, their lives were filled with color. The green of the hills, the sparkling white of the mountains, the azure blue of the Mediterranean sky. The colorful gardens and flowering trees, wildflowers in spring bloom made every turn a photograph (and we took some 1500!!).
Phillipe's role on our first day hike was to fill us in on the heritage and natural history. He was extremely knowledgeable and enthused about sharing details of life in the Midi-Pyrenees. This is historically both a barrier and a cross-road to Spain. Easily passable by locals, particularly the French and Spanish resistance in WWII. But also by the Hibernians, the Celts, the Muslims, as they washed back and forth between Spain and the Frankish kingdoms.
The population in this region is perhaps one-tenth of what it once was. So, many of the stone homes are unoccupied on a full time basis. Instead of supporting 20,000 people, one might now find 2,000. Rather than becoming Shepherds, the young men are moving to the cities.
As a result, this region is on the dawn of becoming the least populated area of France, and ripe for development of outdoor recreational activities from Kayaking to hiking, snow-shoeing, skiing, hunting, and fishing. Brown bears have begun to make an appearance again in the foothills and Phillipe is carefully monitoring one of the first dens to be located in hundreds of years.
Phillipe professed to speak only French. A bare minimum of English which meant we were lucky to have Jonathan as our guide. Smoothly bi-lingual (I'm sure Jonathan spoke many languages, including Greek and Spanish!) he translated Phillip's heritage and natural history commentaries throughout the day.
People often ask us about how we cope with language issues. I speak French less than fluently, but I use it as much as possible and it adds layers of richness to our travel experience. So if you do know another language, even modestly, by all means visit the countries that use it!
But there was a good reason we chose Jonathan Peat from among many outfitters and tour organizers on the web. Jonathan was raised in Britain, so he spoke perfect English!! And he and Miriam provided both apartment and B&B accommodation in one of those rural villages. We felt very comfortable that there would be at least one person in the area who would be able to communicate and hopefully be a touchstone for us in this unknown region. Jonathan, we found, responded promptly to emails and even took the effort to phone us to cement our relationship and our travel plans.
Because I often travel alone, I love B&Bs in the USA for the same reason. I have someone to call if I need directions, someone who is expecting me for the night, and someone who might help me out in a pinch. And usually someone with a special interest in local history.
Upon arrival, we were completely delighted with our JARDIN Suite with kitchen and a balcony overlooking the gardens. Every suite in the 25-room "Clos Enchante" had been modernized and tastefully decorated.
It soon became clear that Jonathan and Miriam would be those people that we could rely on in France.
Our rooms at Le Clos Enchante.
Our garden suite is available for longer term rental, so if you were thinking it would be nice to spend a month or two in a rural village of Southern France, this will meet your needs perfectly. The suite included not only an expansive view of the foothills, but a kitchen, dishes, pots and pans, coffee pot, and spices.
To finish this story on our visit to the Pyrenees and our hike on the St. Jacques de Compostello, please CLICK HERE. (currently under construction).
WHEN YOU GO TO THE PYRENEES:
To learn more about Jonathan's Tours in both the Couserans area of the Pryrenees and on the Isle of Crete in Greece, visit Jonathan's Website at http://www.jonathanstours.com
Contact details for Jonathan's Tours and accommodation:
Jonathan and Myriam Peat
58 av. Noël Peyrevidal
09800 Castillon en Couserans
Tel and fax : 0033 561046447