I like quirky. My first wife was not quirky. The Ariege is quirky....art, lifestyle, modes of transport. To live & survive well in rural France you need often to be a bit quirky. Quirky has its limits, I suppose. But that element of not taking yourself too seriously is essential to living abroad and learning a new language. "Quirkiness" can be considered a good indicator that you are adaptable, 'polyvalente' in French. For in France you must be adaptable. Live life, wherever possible, as a 'French person' and all bodes well in the long term. Laugh at yourself a little and amuse others from time to time and doors will open. Les ariégeois have known much hardship but through laughter & humour their hearts are warmed, their friendship gained. If your first instinct is not to be quirky then possibly life in rural France is not for you? My non-quirky first wife came to just that conclusion.
My son commented this week that the Ariege is France's Scotland. It was an astute observation. He recently arrived from his hyper-busy world of Surrey. The contrast is enormous. The pace of life in the Ariege is gentle, nothing is ever rushed and can lead to occasional exasperation. Yes, the villages are timeless; to an adult eye we see rustic charm, character and opportunities. To a younger view all should make way for utility and ease. There are certainly comparisons to be found with our friends the Scots and the Welsh & Irish, for that matter. All mountaineous rural communities share common sentiments; proud traditions, self-sufficiency and an often rebelious nature. Through time this region of the Pyrenees has resisted Kings, Crusaders, modern occupiers and change as a whole. It has welcomed the persecuted. A recent painted message on a local wall reads "Refugees Welcome". Yes, the Ariege is unfinished business and in many ways I hope it remains that way for many years to come. It's charm is it's simplicity. That said, fine local cuisine is aplenty. Charming villages & hamlets are set atop nearly every hilltop. It is a lush, green landscape reminiscent of the Cotswolds with more than a hint of Tuscany. Vineyards face to the south & west to capture the most rays. And standing in the backgroud, sometimes unseen, sit the magnificent jagged peaks of the high Pyrenees. Walking, cycling and bird watching are very popular but yet there is so much more; the history of the Cathars, their castles & stories, extensive caves, pre-history art, markets and galleries. The Chemin de la Liberte WW2 Freedom Trail merits an entire library. Only 1 hour south of Toulouse and with Andorra at the other doorstep, the Ariege provides a timeless escape, just like the Highlands or the North Antrim coastline. Where the comparison with our Celtic friends ends is with the weather. With Autumn fast approaching, so does the finest time for visiting the Ariege Pyrenees. September and October often produce the longest, most sustained periods of clear, sunny weather with temperatures ideal for walking in higher reaches in particular. Couple this with amazing low cost flights to Toulouse from 10 Euros and you have a marvellous short or long autumn holiday opportunity.
The snowy picture at the top of this piece is supposed to be eye-catching and indeed snow has fallen on the high peaks at the time of writing, 11th Aug. Once the balmy days of Autumn have passed we can then begin to look forward to such bright days of deep fresh snow from November through to March. This photo was taken near the Mur de Péguère (1375m) the intriguing climb of this year's Tour de France. We snowshoe frequently in this area. Apline ski slopes are an hour away. Something for everyone at any time.
Winter is not all misery; we have had some fine days snowshoeing, but suddenly the days are longer, the birds sing in the morning, snow drops push through the melting snow and there is real warmth in the sun on your face. Spring has arrived in the Pyrenees. The first orchids are flowering. The Black Kites have returned. The swallows are a few days away.
The coming weeks are very exciting. We await the Bee-eaters, Hoopoe and Golden Orioles. The mass of orchids and other wild flowers will adorn the fields from late april. The summer raptors will appear; the magnificent Short-toed Eagle and the yellow-faced Egytian Vulture will once more been seen circling in the blue skies.
The snows will gradually melt giving access to the higher passes and peaks. The great bustle of Nature will return but the Ariege remains calm, unspoilt. The heady, busier days of August are still long off.
There are more and more cheap flight options to the Ariege & Occitanie, particularly to Toulouse. Come to see for yourself the magic that Nature has to offer.
If there is one bird found in Europe that encapsulates the beauty of Nature in one form, it is the Bee-eater. The colours speak for themselves. When the Bee-eater takes to the air, it's grace and agility match it's beauty on the ground. The distinctive call entirely befits such a beautiful bird. We have created a special hide to observe them at close quarters. It is then you also discern the caring characteristics between the pairs, the frequent courtship of exchanging gifts, dragonflies & other insects, to constantly reinforce their bond. Such a gentle, close relationship is in perfect keeping with the physical perfection of the Bee-eater.
Bee-eaters are present in the Ariege from early May through to mid September. Happily they seem to be thriving in the area, with colonies expanding. The Ariege is on the limit of the distribution of a species that prefers warmer, dryer climates.
Yesterday, 3rd June 2016, we had a veritable 'feast' of vultures and eagles in the mountains above Tarascon, Ariege. First came the Griffons, as a single, a pair and finally a group of 4. Then a Booted Eagle circled for a number minutes followed quickly by a very rare sighting of a Black Vulture.
The Black Vulture is normally found in Spain and around the Cévennes region of France. This may be a transiting bird between the French & Spanish breeding areas or could possibly be a new resident. We shall investigate further.
Around the same time as this sighting, we saw a Booted Eagle and soon afterwards a Short-toed Eagle. Just before 4pm, when we were considering finishing, a pair of Golden Eagles circled for a number of minutes above our heads. Finally, after many long-distance observations, a Bearded Vulture was spotted close-by, fying against the forest background and then suddenly arriving on our Col for a magnificent fly-by (1st photo). What a 'finale' to a 'feast' of magnificent birds!
I hope to be displaying some 90 x 120 prints in Carla Bayle in June. Will let you know the 'developments'!
On Monday 14th March 2016 a friend phoned me to ask if I would help him collect some large gate posts from a local farm to use on the new public footpath we have created around the village of Sieuras. The farm was a 20 minute drive away; on arriving we immediately saw a Short-toed (Snake) Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) above the farmyard, a magnificent spring arrival and a relatively familiar sight in the area. On the way home we made a small detour to see an Eagle Owl in a local quarry; sure enough he was there, sleeping and occasionally preening. He is a permanent resident. As time was becoming short we did not visit our nearby orchid field to monitor progress; the first flowers have appeared in recent days. Swallows & Black kites have been oberved since the 10th. The great surge of life has begun again.
This photograph was taken on Sunday 13th March 2016 in the Pays D'Olmes area of the Ariege, SW France at an altitude of 1600 m. There is at least 1m of snow at this level, with significantly more at higher levels. The temperature during the day at lower levels is a pleasant 14-15 degrees C. A perfect combination of high snow and early spring sunshine! Over the next few weeks it is easier to access the higher areas as the roads become clearer. A great time to visit the Pyrenees.
The Pyrenees rise to 3100m at their highest point in the Ariege. Each year, this being later but no exception, immense amounts of snow acumulate above 2000m, closing all high-level paths, particularly due to the threat of avalanches, just as in the Alps. The high level routes do not become safely accessible until mid-July. However, there are many options on lower slopes not threatened by avalanche. Here, such as at Mont D'Olmes, you can enjoy early spring sun and snow into early May. Nordic ski areas such as Plateau de Beille provide an excellent opportunity to try out snowshoeing.
The beauty of the Pyrenees is that there are always opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors at any time of the year, in generally uncrowded places that are inexpensive.
The World has always been a big place...in a physical travel sense it has got smaller, more accessible, although aircraft now fly slower than they did 50 years ago. Non-stop travel seems to be the way ahead; 17 hour flights to become the norm. Is that for you? No, me neither. I like my travel plans to be smaller scale, more intimate and personal. I have exacting needs. My attention span is short. That is one reason why I live in the Ariege. I have everything I need within 3 to 4 hours to enthrall and entertain. Ocean, mountain, mystery and grand design all at my 'fingertips'. That is to say the rolling, thundering Atlantic or the more soothing Med, the Pyrenees chain with volumes of history and Barcelona a pleasant drive away through snow-capped mountains.
My shopping needs are small but if the inclination arises, Toulouse fulfills. Andorra offers duty free enticements and fine skiing. I don't like mass tourism; that is another reason why I like the Ariege, although contrary to running a travel business. Real life, real food, real villages & real humour. Pretty and authentic. Sometimes wild but shelter & a warm welcome are at hand. Expect the unexpected. This is a different France, a unique character fashioned from a hard environment, harsh history, rebellious nature but from a warm heart. Catalan & Occitan still influence, culturally & in the kitchen. Everything stops for lunch. Good wine is here. And this is still a wilderness. Bears roam, vultures soar.
So why not join me in my smaller World? What we offer is a chance to taste, to explore, to experience. We can point, encourage as much as you need...but the choice is yours. We know here, we love here. We think you will too. And indeed, you may feel that 17 hours is a small price to pay for finding a new World at the end of your finger tips!
Winter has arrived in the high Ariege! We decided yesterday 29/11 to have a quick trip up to Mur de Péguère; to walk up to the Cap du Camil. Great, very clear views.
The skiing season is getting into swing.... Ax 3 Domaines has 15 pistes open (but check online before travelling!).
Forecasting sun this week. Road access only....clear & easy drive.
Plateau de Beille is planning to open on Sat 5th Dec. 50 cm snow at 1800m. Access road clear.
Time to profit before the crowds arrive! :)