Riding the Voie Verte from Lavelanet to Mirepoix (Part 1)

Before the holidays, determined to make a better job of it than last year, I started putting together a list of microadventures we could have over the summer. One of the things high on that list was riding the voie verte that is closest to us here: the 38km trail from Lavelanet to Mirepoix. My original plan involved an overnight camp, with James acting as chauffeur enabling us to ride the route in sections then spend the night in a tent before carrying on the next day. I originally thought three short rides with two overnights. Then I thought it would be fun to do this with friends. Then I decided the logistics of organising said trip with friends or even just between the two of us was giving me a headache and that I’d do it alone. Then I decided that it was too sunny and hot for any kind of bike ride let alone with children and a trailer, so sacked the whole thing off and tried not to be down about it. Did I let it go? Of course not.

Then we spent the morning up on the mountain at Bonascre where there are some pretty sweet looking downhill mountain bike trails. I got excited about riding my bike. I needed to ride my bike.

Me & DS having a “babychino” and getting fired up about bikes – Bonascre 2018

As luck would have it the forecast for the day after our visit to Bonascre changed from upwards of 30 degrees with full sun to an overcast morning topping out at about 24 with rain to follow. I needed something to do with the two smalls as James planned to work, so what to do, what to do? A morning ride then. Yippee!! In my head the route was 45km (I’m sure I’d read that somewhere) so I figured three rides of 15km would keep it nice and short for the smalls and also fit well around the weather forecast.

After an early start (as is usual these days) and a half-arsed attempt at breakfast, my two passengers were briefed and ready to go. I was worried that they’d both want to bring/ride their own bikes, only one of which has pedals, which would involve a whole lot of stop-starting, an epic amount of faffing, not least I still haven’t figured out how to attach their bikes to the trailer while they are also in the trailer. I was starting to get planning fatigue again so was relieved when DD said she didn’t want to ride her bike and just wanted a trailer ride. DS was not so readily convinced but I got around that by leaving his balance bike here accidentally on purpose. Oops, sorry. Car packed, children loaded and secured, bike unelegentally lifted onto the roof (I am soooo unfit!) and we were off.

The advice online is to start the ride in Lavelanet as then more of it is downhill than up. That certainly proved to be true for the first 5km or so. It was a breeze! The surface was good, there was plenty of shade (not that that mattered as there wasn’t any sun to hide from) and we were all happy to be off on a little adventure together. The last trailer ride was me and DS alone while DD was at maternelle – and he hadn’t liked it at all! But now with his big sister holding his little hand (cute), DS was calling out, “faster mummy!” too. Just brilliant.

Passing under a bridge en-route from Lavelanet to Chalabre

I didn’t want to stop to take pictures because stopping and starting was a massive faff, so I had the camera round my neck and took pics as we came to the main crossings or places of interest. I did really well on that front for the first half of the ride, which was actually pretty easy thanks to the terrain and the surface. We quickly got to the 8km marker and I was starting to think we’d shoot for 20km and not the 15 I’d planned.

By now the sun was out and I realised I had forgotten the suncream. Actually not forgotten but dismissed because we were half way out of the village when I realised I didn’t have it – and we trusted the meteo. Fools. Now DD was hot and hungry. Time for a snack stop. We pressed on, past La Peyrat, to the junction with the D620 just before Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers where I hoped there was a picnic bench. There was. We crossed over the road and stopped under a shady tree for a snack.  My kids are so spoiled: I’d packed apples. Just three of them. And water. They did the job. DD of course wanted more so after a happy little jump around the picnic table we continued on.

A snack stop alongside the D620 between La Peyrat and Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers

It was at this point that my legs started to feel like lead (I was pulling about 40kg in combined child-trailer weight), I was worrying a bit about the suncream, and the track surface turned from leg-friendly, trailer-friendly pedal turner to bumpy farm track and ever-so-slightly up hill. Not as easy goibg as before. DD was still mithering for food but DS was soon asleep, thankfully. I called James to report on our progress and requested lunch at the park in Chalabre for 12h30. Confirmation received, I started to fantasise about food, which is a bit tragic given I’d only ridden 11km by this point.

Voie Verte Lavelanet-Mirepoix: The bumpy approach to Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers

Full sun, some shade and still a terrible track, from Sainte-Colombe onwards was some welcome almost downhill again. I say almost because mountain bike plus trailer doesn’t roll too well on a rough track, so there was quite a lot of pedalling. DD helped to keep me motivated by whining from the back about being hot and hungry. I pedalled on. DS continued to sleep despite bumps and also the squeak that had developed, and eventually we arrived at our destination: Chalabre.

A shady old railway bridge between Sainte-Colombe and the old station at Rivel

I didn’t get any photos from there, unfornately. We were too busy tucking into our picnic! I like Chalabre. We spend quite alot of time there these days – it’s where DS goes to crèche. I like it there. For anyone attempting to ride the voie verte in a day and looking for a place to rest midway – or a place to camp (there’s a municipal site as well as a nice but unofficial spot by the river) – you can do worse than the stop there. You’ll find some shops (chemist, grocer, butcher, boulongerie), which are open in the mornings and afternoons (usually everything is shut for lunch, so you’ll struggle between 12h30 and 2h30), and some cafes. The best place for a picnic is down by the river, where there’s also a little park. The park is tucked away under the big red metal bridge, which is the continuation of the voie verte towards Camon, over the L’Hers river. The park has shade and is a good place to contain small children while also allowing them to let off some steam in the playground, where there’s a climbing frame, slide, and a see-saw. Because it’s right next to the river, which you can walk down to to sit on the bank and have a paddle, or have yourself a proper cooling off just a few meters down where it gets a bit deeper. For grown ups sans children there’s a picnic bench there and, again, big trees so plenty of shade.

After eating our picnic and having a little play, we headed home. In the end we’d ridden 17km and just under half of the route. This makes the rest is manageable in a single day as long as I plan a decent midway stop. Now all I need is another un-sunny day. I’m sure one will be along at some point but until then we can settle back into good-weather-mode.

Part 1, done!

 

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Summer Holiday Survival Guide 2018

So far so good. Since I last updated the blog the French long summer holiday, les grandes vacances, started and we’re now the best part of four weeks in. We learned a few lessons last year that set us good stead for making a better job of it this year. Thanks to better planning James and I have managed to squeeze in a few hours of work meaning it’s been much easier to do a lot of fun things together as well.

Thankfully the crèche remains open during July, so it’s been business as usual for DS, and by enrolling DD into the Centre de Loisirs for two full days a week she’s had plenty of active play and also maintained something of a routine. In English-speak the Centre de Loisirs is the out-of-hours/holiday club, so it’s not school – there aren’t any formal lessons – but there are organised activities. There’s a small fee to pay but much of the cost is covered by the commune so it’s minimal. They stay all day (half days aren’t an option) and are provided with lunch and groups are split along similar lines to the schools, with places for three-to-sixes and another group for the older ones (up to 10, I think). I’d heard about it last year but was bogged down with all the admin involved in registering a new business and getting my carte vitale sorted out so didn’t have the mental bandwidth or the confidence in French to find out about any of this, I just heard other parents talk about it when asking them what on earth they were doing with their children during the holidays!

Having decided to investigate ahead of the holiday this year, I went along to ask about places and prices and generally scope the place out. I had pretty much decided that she would be going – it’s a nice looking place, a relatively new building with a large lawn area, plenty of shade, some climbing frames and other outdoor gear, plus it’s convenient given DS’s crèche is only a few minutes away – so it was really just about finding out what paperwork I needed and getting her name down! James was not so convinced (I’m not sure he’d even considered it until I turned up with the forms) but I made my case and with the go-ahead from him ran it past DD, who seemed quite into the idea of being able to play with other kids all day rather than being stuck at home with us. On the first day, with varying degrees of trepidation we all went along. (I should add this wasn’t a totally cold start: James had taken DD one Wednesday afternoon before the end of term, so they’d both met some of the staff and the other children and she was familiar with where she was going, and having had a nice time she was quite looking forward to it.) We received a warm welcome, one of the staff showed us where to find a peg for her hat and bag, and then took us into the main room where the other children were busying themselves. There were toys, play areas (some dens), some stencils and coloring pens out on one of the tables and a small group of the older children playing a card game together. One of her English friends was there, which was a brilliant stroke of luck. DD’s friend was also looking a bit nervous so after pep talking them both DD prized herself away from me and joined her friend at the table to do some colouring. Time for one last quick goodbye from me and a sharp exit!

James pretty much paced all day hoping she was alright and was keen to get her as soon as the day officially ended, so at 4.30pm there we were. Bad timing, apparently. I took DD’s sad face and clingyness to be a sign that she’d had a difficult day but it turned out that the upset was because we’d come to take her home and she still had playing to do! Plus they were just about to sit down for le goûter, which involved a squeezy compote, a drink, and a small piece of cake – nice. Who’d want to go home and miss out on that!? She wanted to join in so went off with the group into the garden while we sat and waited, all the while restraining DS who also wanted to get in on the cake/compote action but wasn’t allowed to join in.

The next day her friend wasn’t going to be there and from what she said they’d spent the whole day together and she hadn’t made any new friends. That would mean spending the day with a cohort of entirely French-speaking children, most of whom already knew each other from the village school. As expected she was a little nervous going in but soon drifted into an activity so away we went. Before leaving I asked whether she wanted us to come for her earlier or leave it until after le goûter and it was a hands-down 100% after le goûter – so that was that. We returned at 5 and all was well. Another successful day.

With this and another regular activity, which we we’ve been able to keep up, we’ve had a pretty steady routine on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, which I think has helped us get to this point without feeling too overwhelmed. On Thursdays DS had crèche and I had some meetings to go to, so we’d drop him off then James would come along with DD and they’d play in the park while I did my thing then we’d all head back to get DS and it was just the afternoon to fill: a regular Thursday but with some one-on-one time with DD, who would usually be at maternelle. Fridays were a definite holiday day with everyone at home, so a little more hectic but it felt like a three-day weekend and it’s been nice to have that time to wind down a bit.

This time last year we were four weeks in and already tearing our hair out wondering how do other parents cope with these eight long weeks. But the answer, in the absence of grandparents and extended family, is the Centre de Loisirs and crèche. Even with the two days at the Centre de Loisirs it’s been way more relaxed than term time as it’s a later start and both children are in the same town, so much less back and forth, saving time and money.

With the extra time we’ve also been able to accomplish some really nice “firsts”, including:

  • first family camping trip. I can really vouch for the HiGear Zenobia Elite 6 and like it so much we may even make a video review next time it’s up.
  • first time swimming with arm bands (feet off the floor!) for DS
  • first vegetables from the garden (two different types of courgettes plus cucumbers, chard, and haricot vert)
  • first time putting her face in water for DD (she’s been scared of getting her face wet ever since we took her Puddle Ducks at 9 months so this was a Big Deal)
  • first time catching a cray fish
  • first time feeding caterpillars and watching them turn into butterflies (they were cabbage whites)
  • first snake sighting! (this was on the path outside of DD’s school on one of the last days of term)
  • first invitation to a school friend’s birthday party
  • first bike ride, just me and DD, with her hitched up to my bike using the old Trailer-Gator I bought for my eldest nephew 10 years ago!

And probably a whole host of other more mundane things too. Lots more blog fodder for when the time allows.

But what of the next four weeks? Well, pretty much the whole of France is going to be on holiday so I’ve decided I’m not going to beat myself up about getting next to nothing done. Is anyone? We have a couple of other camping trips lined up, if we can just figure out some good dates with the camp sites, plus some day trips and play dates. Then, with the heat and now both smalls confident splashing around in the water with their arm bands on, I envisage spending as much time as possible in a lake or river keeping cool. They play so happily outside, the time flies by.

I had thought about some bigger adventures, wanting to do a small overnight trek to a mountain refuge and back, but just thinking about the organisation – and in this heat – I’ve decided that’s the kind of trip to make when they can walk all the way and also be persuaded that they want to do it, rather than being dragged into the unknown. Family camping with all the mod-cons is a good option for now.

Now to let a few pictures do the talking…

A large blue tunnel tent surrounded by tall conifers with camping chairs and stove on the ground outside
Our Family Tent: the HiGear Zanobia Elite 6
A yellow globe zucchini cut into three pieces
Sweet and Tasty: Homegrown Yellow Globe Courgette (Zucchini)
Four children looking down into container of water
Studying the day’s catch: a freshwater crayfish

 

What We Did in June

Wow, June already. It’s been almost a month since I last managed to write something. Time is flying. May has been pretty non-stop, so while I have a big bunch if ideas for posts about specific things, I think I’m going to settle for a recap – placeholding for a future in which I have more time to get back to this. So, since my last post, life has looked like this:

  • Tax returns submitted: 2 (yay!)
  • Public holidays: 2
  • Strike days (impacting school): 1
  • Days parents spent at our house after their flights were cancelled due to the aforementioned strike day: 6
  • Blog posts written: 2, but on my work blog, which is all about IT stuff. The two posts are Your Website and GDPR: Privacy Policy and Consent and Are You GDPR Ready?, if you’re interested.
  • Tick bites: 2
  • Trips to A&E: 1
  • Days at the seaside: 1 (Argeles, very nice)
  • Other countries visited 2 (Spain & Andorra)
  • Sewing projects completed: 3
  • Worm bins sorted out: 1
  • Days without any rain at all: Maybe 2?
  • Bike ride, with and without the trailer: 3
  • Episodes of Fargo watched in one sitting: 1

Lots of blog fodder there – just no magic time-making machine, unfortunately!

And because, as the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words, here are a few photos.

A Trip to the Tax Office

Well, that went pretty smoothly, I thought. After a mix up over the rendezvous, which left me stranded in the foyer, waiting expectantly that the next time the door opened my name would be called (and that I’d recognise it), I managed to see the guy and it was all checked in 15 minutes! It was a bit of a close call: the shutters were about to go down and I was still sitting there but the guy was very gracious (I think he felt it was partly his mistake) and showed me to his office where he patiently took me through the forms.

Two green and white Finance Publiques folded leafletson a green folder

I was worried before going in about my lack of French and his potential lack of English. While waiting I’d noticed there were leaflets in Spanish and Dutch as well as French (none in English though) and overheard some German speakers in the queue so felt sure they were used to dealing with non-natives, but to what extent? To avoid the embarrassment of him starting a proper conversation with me and my just staring blankly back at me my opening shot was very much, “Hi, this is my first tax return. But I’m learning French at the moment.” He asked me if I spoke Catalan. Er, nope. I said English, he smiled and said, oh dear, and from them on it was all about the paperwork which, despite looking ridiculously complicated, turns out to be fairly straight forward. As it was we muddled along with only one or two tricky moments of total incomprehension: thank goodness for Reverso and a good 4G signal!

All good, but it’s not quite done. At least now I have all the info I need to fill in the remaining boxes – once I’ve found the supporting paperwork – then the last job is to pop back to the office, join the lengthy queue, and submit it. Since it’s a pretty solid fined-if-you-miss-it kind of deadline attempting to post it seems like a bad idea. By going in in person I’ll have a receipt and will know for sure that it’s not sloshing around in some sorting office somewhere in France.

In future years I’ll be able to do all that online, however it’s required that the very first return is submitted on paper. One for me, one for James (if we were married our had a PACS then we would submit a joint one) and we’re done. It’s one of those easy when you know how jobs and I’m glad I decided to go down this route rather than do it myself. Of course my tax situation is pretty simple; I don’t have homes in or income from other countries, rental income, subsidies or grants for this, that and the other. I can imagine it can become a proper headache if that’s the case – but for anyone else who has relatively straightforward finances, I say definitely do it yourself. I had help from Kate (Admin Angel) in Esperaza, who went through the main part of the form with me and told me what I needed to get together, then just went in with my dossier of paper so someone official could check it with me. It worked well and saved me a good amount of money. I’ve no idea how much accountants cost here but in the UK I was paying £150 to have my tax return sorted out. I would assume it’s comparable here. All in all, a job well done. And testament to how far I’ve come in the last 18 months that I can now boldly march into the tax office for a meeting! Go me!!

(After writing and posting this I realised that the post I drafted while sitting in the waiting room and couldn’t find was published and not, as I thought, lost. I assumed it had been deleted when I leaped up from my seat to try and get someone’s attention before getting locked in. This one is the replacement – thanks for reading 🙂 If you read the other one, now deleted, you might be comforted do know that it wasn’t long until I found something to eat. I had an apple in my bag all along!

How to check if a French Business is Legit

If you’re living or maintaining a home in France, it’s highly likely that you’ll need to employ someone to do some sort of work for you, whether that’s build or update a website, plaster your living room, fix the roof, or help you with your paperwork. Often we find the people we need through word of mouth or online recommendation, but in order to protect yourself and ensure that the person you hire is legally registered, you need to know their SIRET number. If they don’t have one, they’re not registered, which means they don’t have any insurance and also that their work is not guaranteed; it’s standard that any building work is guaranteed for 10 years but this is only if they are a properly registered business. Even if they do give you a SIRET it’s worth checking that the number they gave you is actually their number, because it’s not uncommon for an unscrupulous trader to give out a bogus number.

Luckily, there’s a really easy way to do this online. Simply visit the Info Greffe website and type the number you’ve been given into the search box.

A search box entitled Recherche with a magnifying glass button
The Search Box on the Info Greffe Site

It’s really that simple. You can also search on the business name, name, postcode, and SIREN. Useful stuff which could help you in the long run, especially with building projects where the “good price” you’re quoted may come at a cost, especially with “seasonal traders” who come for a few weeks or months a year, which seems to be a thing here. Getting your money back should anything go wrong could be a major headache so do your homework beforehand and be prepared to pay more for the real deal. You can’t know in advance that they’ll actually be any good but at least, if they’re registered, if you’re not happy you will have legal recourse to repairs and refunds.


Image copyright iStock/tumsasedgars

A Day in the Woods

Yesterday, except for the bit where I lost my bank card and DS screamed the whole time that I was on the phone to the bank, I think we had the perfect day. The sun shone, we met some friends, we played in the woods. All Day Long.

Some friends are organising regular get togethers, just a day every week when like-minds meet up in a local park. The kids can play in the woods, the stream or on the swings, we can chat as well as join in with the little ones, we build a fire and cook together. Yesterday P kept the two eldest girls busy by mixing ash from the fire with water to make a black paste. They painted every bare inch of themselves, spread a lot of it on their clothes and faces, and had a great time. The younger ones tended to muddle around, exploring cautiously either with a parent in hand orbiting us close by. The sun shone, we found a leech in the stream (not a snake, sadly, but not an earthworm, much to P’s relief!), contributed sticks to the shelter that S has started to construct, and had fun defending their space which, according to DD, was a wild panthers’ den for most of the time.

Five hours of play later we were on our way home with smiles on our faces, the smell of woodsmoke in our clothes and two very tired children. Days like this are why we’re here, why we uprooted our family and moved to this back-end-of-nowhere part of France hoping to find a house or piece of land to call home and also find a way to live day-to-day, as financially free as possible. We’re not getting so far with the house/land but we do have a place that feels like home and the money side of things is work in progress. Yes, there are definitely challenges: the language being the main one. It’s too quiet for some with a slow pace of life but we’re getting the hang of it and we really feel the difference during the times we’re back in the UK; too busy, too many people, not enough mental or physical space. Days spent mucking about in the woods are normal here. There may come a time when we all need more than that but for now it’s perfect and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

The only downer is that we were all so busy enjoying ourselves, there aren’t any pics to share. Next time. Because I really think every blog post needs a picture, here’s one from walk we did the other day: DD and James walked and talked while DS and me followed along behind saying, “choo choo!” Happy days.

And adult and child walking in a disused railway tunnel followed by a small child in a green helmet on a balance bike
Walking through an old railway tunnel on the Lavelanet-Mirepoix Voie Vert

A Short Walk along a Long Distance Path (GR7)

We used to walk a lot both before DD and when she was still small enough to carry. Since having DS and also moving, we’ve mostly been limited to short works to and from the park or thereabouts; walks of a distance just far enough for the big one to walk both ways and the small one to walk or be carried as far as he wants or is able. It causes that parenting conflict where on the one hand you don’t want to be wishing their little lives away, but on the other you do kind of look forward to being able to do some proper walks again. The only way round this with children of their ages (2 and 4) is to carry the little one and make sure you have the capability of carrying the bigger one once she decides she’s had enough. When you’re carrying the little one, is often within the first 5 minutes of the walk, so we always have to factor that in when thinking about distance. Sigh. That means it’s really much simpler to walk with just one of them and, if it means carrying, that’s definitely easier with the little one.

So when DD was going to play at a friend’s house just over the hill I decided that, rather than just stay at home and try to get DS down for a nap (he’s started napping in the morning again!) I’d pop him in the sling and walk over to meet James and DD, then catch a lift back. I wasn’t exactly sure how far it was – there wasn’t time to check an online map or plot the route – so I figured it “wasn’t far” (that’s a technical term) and allowed myself an hour to get there. It was a cool weather day, warm but overcast, so a good temperature for walking, especially with a sling. I wasn’t worried about route finding because for most of the way, until the path rejoined the road, I’d be following GR7. GR is short for Grande Randonnée, which is the designation for a long-distance route that is well marked using the standard. There are over 100 of these criss-crossing Europe. GR7 is 1900 km long, starting in Spain then passing through Andorra and into France. The French part is 1400 km long. The section I was walking was from Puivert in the direction from Chalabre, heading North.

The Walk

This was a pretty interesting walk. There was plenty to see nature-wise with lots of spring flowers on the edges of the path both in the field and through the woods. There was plenty of evidence of the damage done by the moth that invaded last year – the Pyral du Buis (Box Tree Moth) – which I wrote about in a blog post. At the time I was quite blase about it. I don’t think I realised just how much boxwood was around here as I am more accustomed to the smaller-leaved versions that we have in the UK than the larger-leaved variety that’s around here. Now winter has passed and everything is greening up it’s really obvious how much damage there is. All along the first half of this week, where the landscape is open, the box has been decimated. This picture is an example.

Three boxwood bushes with brown leaves damaged by the Boxwood Month (Cydalima perspectalis)
The Impact of the Damaged Boxwood on the Landscape

Here you can see the damage close up.

Brown leaves of boxwood plants
A Closeup of Boxwood Damaged by the Boxwood (Cydalima Perspectalis) Moth

It wasn’t until I got deeper into the wood that I saw healthier specimens. Perhaps those within the wood were protected by the trees, out of sight, perhaps? Either way, I do wonder whether we’ll see them again this year given how much damage they did. There may not be much left for them to eat. I also worry a little about the fire risk given there’s so much dead vegetation around. I’m not sure how prone this area is to fires but I know that they get them regularly further down the valley, however, there also seems to be much less box down there and I’m not sure the moths ventured that way. Time will tell on the fire front.

Tragic decimation of the many boxwood trees aside, there were plenty of living plants to see – and evidence of wild animals. I took as many pictures as I could but DS started to get impatient with my stops and starts so I gave up after a while. Here are a few plant pics that I managed to grab, of the Early Purple Orchid and a small blue flower I’m not familiar with and need to identify. I also saw two different types of vetch, cowslips, clover, buttercups, another small blue flower on a tall stem which as bit like self-heal with a more orchid-like flower so another one to identify.

A purple flower on a all green stem on a grassy track
A slightly out-of-focus (blaming DS for wriggling) Early Purple Orchid
Small blue flowers amongst the wet and dry grass
A small blue flower to ID later. Any ideas?

One of the reasons I was keen to do this walk was that I hoped it would be cycle worthy. Which it is, absolutely is – on a mountain bike. It’s up there on there on my to-do list and will be welcome relief from sensible trailer-friendly tracks and tarmac. Oh yes.

But it’s really not one for the trailer. It nearly wasn’t one for a child-carrying solo parent: at one point there’s a fairly steep near-on scramble up a muddy, and slipping in the damp, bank. There were just enough rocks for me to get a steady footing and we made it. It was made all the more exciting by DS cheering me along with fearful cries of, “No, Stop!” – which suggests he didn’t have every confidence in me, the cheeky little so-and-so. We made it, of course, and continued, but it’s something to consider if a near vertical scramble isn’t your thing. I did wonder how that would work out for someone travelling with horses or a pack mule. Or actually just on a mountain bike. Can I get my bike up there by myself? There’s only one way to find out.

A muddy bank with rocks on a path lined with yellow broom plants
The steep and slippy bank rising up into the woods towards Col de Lapeyrouse on GR7
A rocky path through woodland
Rocky happiness, right there. I want to ride my bike, tra-la-la…

Having done it on foot I’m quite excited to the point of impatience about the possibility of scaring myself shitless clattering down the rocky descent from the Col de Lapeyrouse to the D121. It’s been a while since I’ve ridden anything that hectic – maybe Potato Alley in the Peak District comes close? I’ll find out, soon I hope, and will then report back. See, now I’m excited about it again!

A rocky path lined by tall boxwood trees
A landscape very similar to the labyrinth at Nebias – hardly surprising since it’s just up the road!

If you’re interested in the route and the map, read on.

The Route

From the village, cross the D117 and follow the D121 up the hill and towards Saint-Jean de Paracol. At the turning to Métairie d’on Bor, turn right onto the track and then immediately left. Follow this track through the field (conveniently edged by electric fence) and up towards the woods.

The rest of the way is easy to find as it’s an obvious path and waymarked using the standard white and red lines.

This is a one-way route so you can either come back the way you came or take the D121. It’s not as picturesque but is a pretty quiet road – no problem if you’re riding and not likely to be a problem on foot either. In future I hope to explore a few of the other tracks around and pick the brains of knowledgeable locals so that I can make it into a more interesting loop.

Map and GPX Track Download

To view the full-size map or download the GPX track, click on the map below to go to the main GPSies site.

//www.gpsies.com/mapOnly.do?fileId=zutrkceruzqgcash

Where to Park, Eat, Pee, etc.

There’s parking outside the Mairie in Puivert, in many side streets, or in the small car park on the D117.

As far as eateries go, there’s nothing at the Tougnets end so take food and water with you. On your return you can try: the Brasserie du Quercorb (an English-run microbrewery, civilized enough to also serve tea and coffee but no food); Adeline & Joan, a cafe/bar that has a menu and a small shop area – excellent coffee and free WiFi too; or try one of the buvettes down by the Lac du Puivert. Of the three that are there, my preference is for the L’escale.

Toilets can be found next door to the Mairie and also at the Lake.

Accessibility

Definitely not suitable for pushchairs, wheelchairs, or bike trailers! Also not recommended for anyone who is uncomfortable walking on steep or unsteady ground. A walking pole or stick is recommended.


Have you followed this route before? Are you planning a walk that way in future? A ride, maybe? Please comment and share your story!

Why You Need to Know about Processionary Caterpillars

It’s Spring, at last (at least it was a few days ago – it’s raining again today and feeling more like Autumn again, but hey ho.) At this time of year everything comes alive and the ground starts crawling with critters. Most of these are harmless, friendly even, but then there are a few others we have to watch out for. One of the most prolific of these is the pine processionary caterpillar which, after having spent months in their fluffy-looking nests high up in the pine trees, make their way down to earth for the final stage of their life cycle (as caterpillars) where they then burrow into the ground in order to pupate, hatching a short time later as the Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea Pityocampa).

A silk cocoon hanging on the tips of a pine tree
Silk Cocoon of the Pine Processionary Caterpillar
img_1760
The Distinctive Pine Processionary Caterpillar
I first saw these on a walk with DS and DD last year. At the time we didn’t know what they were but luckily I knew better than to touch an unidentified furry crawly and rightly too, as it turns out. Because as harmless as they appear – how much damage can a small fluffy looking caterpillar do? – they are in fact quite toxic. Not so bad to healthy humans;  we can expect a rash, which can be pretty nasty – the picture on Google images don’t look all that appealing but, risk of anaphylactic shock aside, it’s usually a localised reaction somewhere on the body and eventually clears up.  As with all things of this nature it’s best to keep your kids from picking them up or rolling around on the ground anywhere where they’re likely to be found. For dogs (and sometimes cats – although cats apparently keep their distance more often than not) they can be fatal, as a friend living in Spain, so a few weeks ahead in the life-cycle, discovered just a few weeks earlier. Her dogs made it, luckily, but it was a close shave and one she could have avoided if she’d known more about the dangers beforehand.

Personally, while I’m usually quite nervous of pests (and general pestilence) in this instance I’m mostly just relieved they’re not spiders – which is what I thought they were when I first saw the giant cocoons on the tips of the tree branches. But then I don’t have dogs. For any doggy owners, there’s some really useful information on this website and a very thorough write up of a doggy encounter with them on this other blog, ouiinfrance.com. In short, to protect your animals you need to prevent them from having any contact, not only with the caterpillars themselves but also with the spines, which are the cause of the problems. If they have an encounter with any caterpillars the advice is to get them to the emergency vet, so if this is you – go now. Go!!

The question I have though is how to get rid of them and what is being done about it because they really are prolific and I can see that if no action is taken this problem is only going to get worse. In future we may end up in closer proximity to them – while they’re around now there aren’t any particularly close by so unless my cats wander off into the woods, which are about 1/4 of a mile up the road, they’re unlikely to come into direct contact with them.

While these are common across much of Western Europe, different countries have different policies, as you’d expect. In France there’s a directive which places the onus on the land owner but requires action at the local level to be enforced. All good with the obvious problem that unless it’s enforced – and I’d say from the number of nests around here that it isn’t –  it’s unlikely to make the least bit of difference. Plus there’s so much land and so many owners, many of whom are scattered over the entirety of the globe, which means and not all land has an obvious owner, or at least not an owner on hand to actively manage it. Since the pesticides that were used to eradicate them are now banned (good) the best methods involve removing the nests and burning them (not good since fires can easily get out of hand and the act of removing the branches/nest can spread the dangerous hairs) or traps, which are the most ecological solution. The basic principle of the trap exploits a weakness in the caterpillars programming. You see these creatures, once they leave the nest, head to tail, seem to have no compulsion to go around anything, so as soon as they hit the barrier they just go round and round. Or rather, the first one goes round and round and the rest just follow! This discovery was thanks to a French naturalist, Jean Henri Fabre, who wrote a book entitled The Life of the Caterpillar (which is available to read online) about them. One day while studying them he managed to coerce them into forming a loop, so they were all equally following and leading, walking in circle. To his surprise them they continued this way for the best part of four days. Fast forward to today and four days is ample time for a trap to be set up and emptied. Game on.

The traps are designed so that a small tube leads out of the barrier into a collection bag, which you can then dispose of safely. There’s an official product, called Eco Piège, which you can pay upwards of 35 euros for (yeah, right), or you can go DIY.  Some cheap and cheerful DIY barrier ideas include using pipe lagging, some pipe and a bin bag, as in the picture below, posted by Linda Garnett to Facebook.

CaterpillarTraps_LindaGarnett
DIY Processionary Caterpillar Trap using Pipe Lagging
Another simple idea used recycled water bottles – but of course now I can’t find the photograph to share. Also I’ve seen pictures of clear plastic gaffer-taped to the trunk of the tree, kind of like a large buster collar (the kind you put on your dog or cat to stop them scratching their stitches out). However you do it, the best approach seems to be one that involves funneling them into a container that you can easily seal in order to limit your contact with them.

As an alternative to catching the live caterpillars and then having to dispose of them, Farber recommends checking the tips of the trees for eggs and removing the branch tips before they hatch, so no cocoons or dangerous fibres to have to deal with. That might be a worthwhile approach if you’ve only got a few trees in a fairly small area and can easily keep a close eye on them but on the scale of the problem as it seems to be around here, that would be a lot of work!

So there you have it. You have been warned! Personally I hope I never have to put up with these on my doorstep but, if I do, at least I’ll have some ideas about how to get rid of them. And in the meantime I’ll be keeping myself, my pets and my kids well out of their way!

28/04/18 Update – I managed to get an up-close cocoon shot so have added it above. 

Another Side Project: What’s On?

It’s Easter. In the UK this means a long 4-day weekend and the start of the school holidays. In France it means a long weekend (3-day) and the start of many activities, with the school holidays coming later.

There really is an awakening this weekend. There are so many activities on but as myself and others have noticed, finding out about any of them is near on impossible unless you either know someone who is going and who passes the information onto you or you happen upon a poster pinned on a tree, a post, or outside a local mairie’s office. And so the side project is to set up a Facebook group and website that will enable us to share information about the many great family-friendly activities in the area. I have a couple of motivated friends so now all we need is to carve out time to make it happen. Watch this space!

Until that’s up and running I wanted to make sure the full list of everything going on this Easter weekend (that I know about anyway) is all in one place. So here’s a post about it.

Friday 30th March / Vendredi 30éme Mars

16h-20h Mask-making Workshop / Atelier Masques – Puivert 11230

In advance of the Bal Mâsque event tomorrow, the second mask-making workshop is on in the afternoon. Everything supplied free of charge. See below (Samedi 31eme á 16h) for the details. See also pics of the 2016 event on the MJC website.

Saturday 31st March / Samedi 31éme Mars 

10h “Vibes” info here – Chez Adeline & Yoan, Puivert 11230

10h á 17h Big Air Session – Monts d’Olmes, Montferrier 09300

For bigger kids who like chucking themselves around in the snow, there’s an airbag up at Monts D’Olmes all day. Free of charge – just pay for your lift pass (it looks like it’s in the park so not accessible from the lower slopes. More info on the Monts D’Olmes website.

15h Fundraiser for the Twilight Dog’s Home – Moulin de L’evêque, Rivel 11230

There’s nothing on their Facebook or web pages but the signs are on the streets and I know a few people are going along, so it’s definitely on.

18h á 22h Bal Masqué, salle de la Mairie – Puivert 11230

Sunday April 1st (Easter Sunday) / Dimânche 1ere Avril (Jour de Pâques)

14h a 18h Easter Carnival / Kermesse Déguisée de Pâques – Quillan 11500

Date/time info (and description, in French) on the Facebook page.

Monday April 2nd (Easter Monday) / Lundi 2éme Avril (Lundi de Pâques)

11h Easter Egg Hunt / Pâques chasse aux oeufs gratuit – Les arpents verts Km 14, Belvèze-du-Razès 11240

An Easter egg hunt, followed by petanque competition – buvette on site. Advertised as a family event.

See the full event details on Facebook.

12h Omelette de Pâques – au Lac á Puivert 11230

Details of this one are to be confirmed (keep an eye on the MJC Facebook page) but it’s a French tradition to meet on the Monday, a public holiday, and cook/share omelettes. No chocolate eggs here!

Other Events

27th March to 2nd April / 27éme Mars á 2éme Avril – Escale á Sete 34200

Further afield (Sete) but it looks like a very nice event for anyone into boats! Info on the Escale á Sete website.

And that’s not all. I’ll update this post when I have more info.

Five Online English-French Translation Tools

Life is most certainly getting the way of my good blogging intentions, so here’s a quick post with links to some useful French translation sites. It’s by no means exhaustive – more a way of me keeping track of the list I have so far – and I’ll update it in future, when I have more time.

My Top Five English-French Translation Tools

Stabouli

https://www.stabouli.com

This is a new one to me but it looks interesting as it’s just an English-French translation tool. I haven’t had much chance to use it yet but I know that will change. With a few months of use behind me I hope to have some idea how it compares to other tools I’ve been using, nameley:

Reverso

http://www.reverso.net/text_translation.aspx?lang=EN

This is an excellent translation tool, far superior to Google, which really does come up with some dubious translations at times. Reverso also has an excellent dictionary, which gives context-based translations.

Google Translate

https://translate.google.fr

Google Translate is probably the least accurate but also the most convenient. Perhaps this is most useful in the web browser, allowing you to quickly translate a page from French (or any other language) into English. It’s not perfect but you can get the idea. If you’re using this for translation from English to French I recommend running your text through another translation tool as well and then cross-checking any differences. Google seems to simplify translation and doesn’t account for nuance. It’s the quick and dirty option.

Linguee

https://www.linguee.com/english-frenchL

Linguee is fantastic dictionary and als very useful for translating short phrases – definitely one of the best translation tools that’s out there given it takes context into account. There’s now a mobile app, which I’m yet to try out.

Cambridge Dictionary

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/translate/

Whenever James sees me using Google Translate he berates me for forgetting about the Cambridge Dictionary translation tool. This is his favourite. I use it as one of my go-tos for double-checking Google’s efforts.

 

 

 

a blog about family life in France, discovering a new place, new people, and learning a language