A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 20 July 2007

A Walk In The Ariège

During this period of rest and recuperation, I thought I might describe a wonderful walk I did in September 2005. The location was the Ariège in the Eastern Pyrenees. This is the last really wild part of the Pyrenean chain before it sinks down into the gentler Albères and finally descends to the Mediterranean. I arrived late at my chambre-d'hote accommodation, the Domaine Fournié, an absolutely charming 18th century manor house on the edge of Tarascon-sur-Ariège. Fearing the weather would break (which it did soon after), the next day I drove straight to the start of a short but ambitious high route I'd planned weeks before. My car sped up the stunning Vicdessos valley, skirting the extraordinary Grotte de Niaux which I would visit in the morning (this proved to be a magical hour's underground trip with flashlight to see some very atmospheric cave paintings of horse and bison, ibex and stag). I climbed higher and higher till I could go no further without damaging the car's suspension - finishing up at the southern end of the dammed Lac de Soulcem. The altitude was already 1600 metres and I couldn't wait to start walking! I headed up grassy slopes to the west, slopes strewn with autumn crocus, a flower I'd never seen before in the wild. Purple with yellow stamens, it's not actually a crocus but a member of the lily family. It grows from a corm and is poisonous. The rather nondescript LBJs (Little Brown Jobs for non-birders!) I glimpsed - as they shuffled about the rocky outcrops, looking rather like dunnocks - were alpine accentors. Another first. Higher and higher I climbed - following a proper path now, stepped in places - and entered a beautiful high valley which had been carved by the Ruisseau de la Gardelle, passing the relics of some ancient orries, or shepherds' huts - a reminder of the practice of transhumance which was so common here in the past. Here I met the only other person I would see all day - a small, thick-set Frenchman with walking stick, leathery, sunburnt face and Dali moustache - his sun hat covering a mass of curls. Blue-winged grasshoppers jumped around and butterflies I'd never seen before alighted on heather and bilberry - Cleopatra's Brimstone, Mountain Clouded Yellow, Piedmont Ringlet. (I did brief sketches and tried to identify them later!) A tough scramble up more steep grassy slopes took me to the tiny jewelled lakes of the Etangs de la Gardelle. Now I'm 2370 metres high. The sky is blue. It's warm. The silence is astonishing. The calm, windless peace is healing, relaxing. I perch on a rock by one of the lakes and eat my lunch - baguette, fromage, jambon, succulent pears and greengages I'd purchased the day before from a speciality food market in Foix. No better picnic spot. Ever. Finally I tear myself away and boulder-climb along the rim of one of the turquoise lakes and up to the col on the skyline, the highest point of the walk at 2476 metres. I'm so absorbed in watching the darting Iberian Rock Lizards at my feet - their iridescent tails flashing green and blue in the sunlight - that I slip on wet grass and fall heavily, tumbling over grass and rock and stream-bed. Eventually I come to rest and groan to myself: if you're injured, no one will find you here. Then I rationalise: stand up. If nothing's broken, everything's OK. I slide gingerly down the slope beyond the col, thankfully with only grazes and bruises. The view is massive and astounding: a huge granite amphitheatre of grey, jagged rock. No trees, little vegetation. In bad weather, in winter, this place must be desolate and dangerous. The Pic de Montcalm behind me and Andorra over the high pass in front. Cutting short the full round, I take a quicker zig-zag path back to the flat floor of the Soulcem valley, where there are black ponies, and sheep and cows with muted, clanking bells round their necks. There are more orries along the track back to the car - built of stone, with low turf roofs, some still retaining little wooden doors. I reach the car and return quickly down to the Ariège valley to nurse my wounds and reflect on a momentous day in the mountains.

1 comment:

dritanje said...

A great description of a wondrous place, all those flowers and birds (I don't know the names of hardly any birds or flowers). You were lucky that nothing was broken, thank goodness.