We set off at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, 17 of us, up the mountain and through the trees and high grasses still wet with dew. Getting the kids up that early was no easy feat, but by the time they had sleepily chewed their way through breakfast, the sun was up and the excitement of the excursion was beginning to rouse them to their usual, boistrous selves.
We were going to hike from my husband’s village in the very, very south of France to the nearest village in Spain, as the crow flies – up and across the Pyrenees. It’s not far, really… only 25 km, which is nearer than the nearest big city, Toulouse, 120km due north.
Easier said than done.
I have reached the unfortunate age known as “middle age” – those crappy few years where you are neither young enough to look good and do stuff with grace, nor old enough to tell everyone bluntly and concisely what you think of them without the excuse of senility and a cane to hit them with.
The youngest member of our group was 7, the oldest was 72… but we lost him after one hour when he decided to turn back before it was too late. “With age comes wisdom”, I pointed out, but we soldiered on (anyway, my husband would not have let me chicken out at that stage). 4 1/2 hours up. 1 1/2 hours down, by which time my husband was the oldest, and the two of us lagged behind the herd like the gnus that usually get eaten by the cheetah. “But the scenery!”, he exclaimed and waved his arm about in a large gesture. What scenery? I was mostly intent on grimly climbing the next yard, one step at a time.
We made it. 2200 metres above sea level, with a climb of about 1400m, I had reached the Col du Marterat without (entirely) losing the will to live.
On the other side, down the first slope, there is an ice-cold lake into which some of the guys dipped their feet to cool down. Not me. I had blisters the size of airbags and was not going to even attempt to take my shoes off for fear of never being able to put them back on. I did, however, accept a lump of bread, cheese, and local pork liver sausage to replenish my depleted energy supplies, plus a handful of crisps and a few swallows of water from one of the many mountain streams.
Our Catalan friends came to meet us a few hundred yards above the road where they had parked their cars. They drove us down to their picturesque village called Tavascan, all stone houses and geranium pots. This cross-border friendship is a relic of harder times – times of war – when the Spanish walked north to escape Franco and civil war, and Jews hiked south to flee Nazi persecution. The Germans had come all the way up to Ustou during the occupation. No-one talks about it nowadays, but even I had heard that old Nenette, who is very popular with my kids for giving them Kinder chocolate, had had her head shorn in ’45 for having (allegedly) been rather popular with German soldiers, too. The “underground” (over-the-mountain, really) railroad that saved hundreds of Jewish families from certain death by crossing the Pyrenees had been a dangerous activity. Nowadays blisters and a twisted ankle are the only thing to fear, as long as you prepare properly and consult the weather forecast before setting out.
Wednesday to Friday were feast days in Tavascan: food, drink, music, dancing, more food, much more drink… For the absolute delight of the children, the fire brigade of the village filled much of the municipal basketball court with water and foam, creating an odd, middle-of-the-day Ibiza foam disco. All I wanted to do was sleep. Middle age. Pfffft!
We drove back through a valley I had never visited before and that is known to be the Spanish king’s favourite ski resort: Baqueira. The view was breathtaking (and I had the leisure to enjoy it). We stopped for lunch under a forest of parasols and enjoyed a bottle of chilled Rosé (You wouldn’t drive there for the food, but the decor was nice.)
Back in Ustou, it was our turn to host the Catalans from Tavascan. Only three of them hiked across (most of the other French guys did, too, but they are young and strong), but the weather was fickle and strong drizzle set in towards the end of the night. No matter. Old and young danced for hours. There was food, drink, music, more food, more drink… Duck hearts, mushroom risotto, sun-dried tomato tapenade, marinated salmon, cousterous (marinated pork ribs), cheese, salad, roasted peppers, zucchini soup…Thank Goodness I had kids to put to bed as an excuse to leave and put myself to bed. It was one in the morning, but the 7-year-old pleaded for 10 more minutes, the 11-year-old told me not to worry “Je vais veiller ce soir!”, which roughly translates into “I’ll party until dawn”, and the 13-year-old told me not to worry, he’d walk home whenever. Yeah. Right.
Festivities drew to a close on Sunday afternoon. We drove up the mountain once more, walked down a dirt road and settled for a meal at the most agreeable restaurant d’altitude I know: Le Chalet de Beauregard at the Col d’Escots. It is runs by a friend of ours, the very talented chef Paul Fontvielle, who also runs Le Carré de l’Ange in the historic cité of Saint-Lizier. The sun peeked out occasionally, but the cloud bank was low and the view of the summits limited. We ate l’Azinat – a kind of cabbage soup – that wonderfully warmed us and helped settle the stomachs of those who had slept the least since Tuesday night. It was followed by stuffed veal with bolets, morilles and girolles mushrooms in a delicious cream sauce and – Yum! – hand-cut chips heaped high on serving dishes. Dessert was a warm blueberry tart.
Our Catalan friends have gone home. Most of the locals and semi-locals from the Toulouse area have returned to work. Lucky us, we’re still on holidays. But on a diet. No more wine. No more blueberry tarts. “Una ensaladita y un vaso de agua, por favor.” Middle age sucks.