After a busy return to real life after the holidays (September), we launched ourselves into a new phase in October and it has flown by with not a minute to spare to update the blog. So what have we been doing in all this time? Well…
We went to the park.
We walked. Some shorter walks together as a four and a longer one with friends.
We enjoyed the autumn sun and went to the free theatre festival, un pave dans la malle, which is just up the road. This year DD was old enough to enjoy a show and we saw a really funny one about a miniature circus with a terrible safety record (all the miniature circus creatures were killed off one by one!) Apart from the climbing inside a horse routine, which I think was a bit too much, it was excellent. A really good choice for the five year olds – and lots of adult jokes to keep us entertained. Or so I’m told. My French as it is I think a lot of the nuance was lost on me though so I probably enjoyed it on the same level as the kids.
We had visitors (my parents).
We had a lot of problems with the car. It needed new suspension (or something), new tyres, and new brakes. It was VERY expensive, although we saved about 300% on the cost of parts thanks to Magic Mark (as I call him) and his generosity in buying and shipping parts to us from the UK for only a small markup. If you’re anywhere near to Huddersfield and drive a VW, Skoda, Seat, or Audi then look up IVS Huddersfield because their service brilliant.
I managed to get out on my mountain bike and ride a local event. I got a free beaker for the trouble but had to pass on the buffet after so I could get back and rescue James (he was ill and would have preferred me to stay home, I think
We had a lot of fun in the new bike park at Quillan, which thankfully wasn’t washed away in the terrible floods that were experienced in our area during this time.
The tragedy of the month of course being the floods, which washed away many roads and bridges, devastated communities and also took many lives. It reminded me of floods we had in the UK many years ago and also to be grateful that we live on a hill – and to add “make sure you’re not next to the river” to the land or house buying checklist! Floods can and do happen and living so close to the mountains colossal quantities of rain can fall at any time.
DD rounded off October with her first proper (as in, the first year she’s known about and been interested in) Halloween, complete with trick or treating. Boy do the old ladies of Fa know how to load kids with sugar. We’d heard that in years past they collected about 12kg of sweets and I’m sure that if the total was totted up this year would be on a par with that. She ate her own body-weight in sweets on the night itself and brought as many back. They’re in a cupboard, out of reach, and despite the best efforts of James and me to have one now and again, as well as of course letting the two smalls have some, we still have a full Tupperware of them. Still, she had a lot of fun and the makeup job James did on them both was excellent. Picture to follow! (once I can get it from James’s camera.)
And now it’s November.
Temperatures have fallen a bit and there’s been some rain but in between, so far, we have sunny days. It’s warm in the sun, so it’s a shame that we are living in this East-West facing house as we don’t get much benefit from it and it will stay that way now until next Spring. Needless to say the wood burner is on. We intended to wait until November 1st to light it but had to concede defeat on October 29th on a day when there was no sun and the temperature was in single figures. Chilly – and the house was starting to feel damp.
We have a lot on in November too – and are busy working away on house plans. At the end of next year the thermal study parameters for new builds change, meaning it will be more expensive to insulate a house. We need to find land before then and get a permit. Having our plans at the ready will make that easier. Aside from work, life, kids, etc. that’s our focus for now.
Un Pave dans la Malle
An annual theatrical festival in Lieurac, Ariege. Over two days (the weekend) and everything free (except food and drink!)
IVS Huddersfield for Magic Mark (he can keep any VW going way past it’s recommended shelf life, even if the customer moves to another country!)
VTT Ronde 3 Quilles
A regular mountain biking event in Quillan. Routes are usually 15km, 30km, and 45km. There’s a very impressive buffet at the end. Entry gets you a beer and hotdog token too. And there’s the free beaker.
When a friend suggested joining them for a walk naturally I agreed. We don’t get out on “proper walks” as often as I’d like and making a date with someone else is always good motivation. Said friend suggested tackling the Pic du Bugarach. Okay, I said. I checked the route she was thinking of, plotted it in GPSies to verify the ascent and distance info – 7km there and back with 500 metres of ascent. On paper? Fine.
The idea didn’t sit so comfortably though. We really haven’t done much walking as a four which meant that we didn’t know our own or each others limits. Was this mountain walk the best way to find out? If we were still in the UK the first mountain walks with the children would be to somewhere we already know and had walked without children in the past. I wasn’t comfortable that our first big walk would involve taking our two small children onto a mountain I did not know.
I Googled for pictures, hoping to find some reassuring pics of a the paths up to the top. Nope. The one walk write up I did find was from the route we’d decided not to take as was longer with 200 metres more ascent and also looked to involve a rocky scramble towards the end. Given we’d most likely be carrying the two youngest by that point, we all agreed that route was a definite No. I found lots of pictures of the peak. And I also found this video. Look, I love a good ride the mountain video. They give me the chills and make we want dust off my body armour and hit the trails. But this wasn’t about me or my bike. This was about my family tackling a mountain walk for the first time.
By now my perspective had shifted from being 80% sure it was do-able to about 80% sure it was a Very Bad Idea. I had an alternative route – en Pays Cathare from the excellent Les Sentiers d’Emilie walking book series – and we’d discussed doing that instead of the peak if the weather wasn’t ideal. It was a great relief to see that storms were forecast because it meant everyone was amenable to a change of plan and walking the lower level route.
The route we took, described in the book and signed locally as Sentier du Pont Romain, is clearly waymarked by a horizontal yellow line. It leave the village, past the school and the small bouladrome, onto a wide open track through fields with just cows, butterflies, crickets and the odd (lost) hunters dog for company.
As adults I think we would have marched along the track keeping an easy pace but for four children there were so many things to stop and see it took us about an hour! About 10 minutes into the walk we rounded the bend to find the three girls sitting on the side of the track with their backpacks open. Snack time, apparently. The book said it would take 2 hours 20 minutes but I had a feeling that estimate was a little on the low side.
After much stopping and starting we arrived back at the road, which we then followed up to the vulture observation point. Our friends had already been there that day, we were late to they’d popped up to kill some time, but no-one minded arriving there again. It was a great spot to stop, with picnic benches, and safely away from the road. Since everyone was hungry we decided to stop there and eat.
The vulture observatory is well worth a visit. There are boards giving information about the different types of vulture that have been seen locally (there are four species) as well as other birds of prey. For the children it’s a really nice to play and there’s an oak tree that’s perfect for climbing. Of itself it doesn’t justify a day out but by including it within all or part of this walk, you can easily fill a few hours. The birds are easy to see – you can use the fixed binoculars that are there or free to use. If you have some of your own, take them. I had the foresight to take mine, not even knowing about the vultures, and was glad I did. With clear optics you get a really good view: just scan along the tops of the rocks and trees of the ridge opposite the viewing spot and you’ll see them. When we arrived there were two sitting on the ridge and by the time we left about six were circling the rocks, possibly in anticipation of our sandwich remains.
Continuing on, we passed some sociable donkeys who came plodding across the field to say hello, before reaching the main feature of the walk: an Roman bridge. It’s not the original (it was rebuilt a few years ago) but it’s a replica. And the photo in the image doesn’t do it justice because it’s quite a feature. Take a look at the pictures below and you’ll see what I mean.
The first picture is from the book.
The second is one I took. And the third one, from the same spot as the second but with someone walking over it, shows the scale. Dramatic, eh?
How high is that bridge?
Uh, okay. That’s pretty high!
Actually, marginally more dramatic than it appears because what the photo doesn’t show very well is that there’s a a drop the height of the bridge the other side of it. We were going to walk over there with our children. Hahahahaa. Not worried about that at all. Okay, maybe worried.
We’d promised the children another snack (DD knew I had biscuits) when we got to the bridge and also a paddle. At first glance it looked like the last place you’d want your kids to be but just around the corner, before the rapid descent under the bridge, the river was quite wide and shallow. It was a really beautiful spot, perfect for a future wildcamp and perfect for the pit stop we’d promised.
We sat for a while, cooling our feet in the river. The two older girls were busy trying to hatch their vulture eggs (we’d got eggs in our picnic and they’d decided they were vulture eggs) and the little ones were sitting and exploring the rocks. The water, being in quite a shady spot, was unfortunately a bit too slipping to paddle in safely, so we didn’t stay long. Plus we were still only half way on our walk and with all the stopping and starting it was nearly 3pm! Four hours since we left the cars.
Then it was time to pull ourselves together and cross the scary bridge. At least we knew there wasn’t anything hiding underneath it!
Crossing the bridge wasn’t nearly as heartstopping as we thought but it’s much more of a challenge than we were expecting. James walked over the DD and I was with DS, who was on foot. The approach was too steep for his little legs and since I wasn’t too keen on him scrambling up I carried him. I’d say that James hid his nerves well as he watched while I carried DS on my hip with one hand and the cuddly toy, a child’s rucksack and my walking book in the other, but he really didn’t. Our friend’s little girl, a natural climber, particulary enjoyed it – fearlessly looking over the edge and smiling away. (I spotted a few big fish down there as I walked over but for some reason no-one was interested in going back onto the bridge and taking a better look!)
From this point on it was a little tough as the path winds up the hill. There’s a clear path but it’s quite badly eroded by heavy rain. The older ones managed it – sometimes needing a hand to hold – but it was too difficult for the little ones who soon ended up on our backs.
Once at the top, the path bears left and leads back towards the village. For the most part this was an easy walk. I’ve noticed that children really lose themselves in the woods and the walks where you can’t see too far ahead go smoothest. The journey back was broken up nicely by finding some “dinosaur bones”. To you and me that’s the remains of a cow who met an unfortunate end at some point in the not so distant past. We couldn’t find the skull, unfortunately, but having picked over the rest we were soon loaded up with our treasures.
From here, after another short climb and another post-climb rest stop, it was a fairly short and easy walk back to the village, which was lucky because we’d just about run out of water by that point.
Just before arriving back at the car we found figs and blackberries, so we stopped one last time for a quick forage before finally making it back.
Despite the whole day being a significant deviation from our original plan, we definitely made the right call. The walk was just enough time and distance-wise with enough interest along the way and places to stop.
Since this was the longest walk we’ve done as a family it was a useful test in terms of kit and supplies. Taking advice from the Adventure Queens Mums Group on Facebook, I’d made sure to pack some sugary treats for when the going got tough. That worked out well. My friend had done the same (Pain au Lait, yum) so between us we had plenty of “bribe food” as well as proper food and healthy snacks. By the time we got to the end our picnic had all gone and not far from the end we were almost out of water. I wasn’t too worried because I knew we had some more in the car but James wasn’t happy about it so he went ahead.
Although I’ve had it a while (I bought it back in the UK when we were planning to do some “proper walks” with DD) it was the first outing for my shiny blue Vango Traverse 40L Rucksack, and it was brilliant! I’ve not carried a rucksack that size in a while but since I often have a small child on my back. It looks like they’re now only 50 quid in Amazon – a bargain! The best feature was “AirVent back system” which keeps the back of the pack away from your body, keeping you cool and dry, which was perfect in the heat (it was about 25 degrees for the sunny bits.)
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.
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.
Here you can see the damage close up.
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 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.
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!
If you’re interested in the route and the map, read on.
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.
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.
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!
a blog about family life in France, discovering a new place, new people, and learning a language