Living here in the Ariège you’re never far from the sense of walking on an earth that’s been inhabited by humans for tens of thousands of years and holds its share of mysteries and secrets. Walking locally, near any of the dolmens or caves or just out on the rocky limestone crags, it’s hard not to be affected by the ‘ancientness’ of it all and to feel something of the spirit that moved those first residents. On this day of winter solstice, I’m going to share with you just one of the Ariège’s largely unknown earth mysteries.
Just south of Tarascon, near Ussat, is a prehistoric cave known as Bethléem. This cave was later fortified and used by the Cathars as a place of initiation to the ultimate status of parfait, but its origins as a place of ceremony are, it seems, much, much earlier…
Enter the cave through the arched doorway and the first thing you notice is something that looks like a dolmen – unusual in an indoor setting; it’s actually a large, ancient granite ‘altar’. And at noon on the day of the winter solstice – and for two or three days before and after, but at no other period of the year – the sun manages to penetrate deep into the cave and illuminate the whole surface of the granite altar. In order for this to happen, the cave has to be facing exactly south, the height of the entrance needs to be in a certain proportion to its depth, and the top of the mountain opposite needs to be lower than the sun at its zenith. What are the odds of all those things being in alignment? I couldn’t begin to calculate. This extraordinary phenomenon lasts for around an hour, during which time the light gradually invades the cave and seems almost to swallow the stone altar.
For the first humans it can only have been a proof of the immense power of the elements, of divine inspiration: something to be fêted and celebrated each year. Who were they? How did they stumble upon this particular cave? What form did their spiritual ceremonies take? And what kind of inherent power drew the Cathars, thousands of years later, to use this particular cave for their most profound and esoteric initiations and (reputedly) to keep the Holy Grail here? We can only imagine, only feel.
And sadly, very sadly, it seems that we twenty-first century humans will no longer be permitted to experience this extraordinary, and largely unknown, mystery for ourselves, because in 2006 the cave of Bethléem was firmly barred to all comers, with a metal grille closed with no less than three locks.
A little farther along the path, though, is the still-accessible Grotte de L'Ermite, where just a few minutes later, and again only at the winter solstice, the sun illuminates the cave through its narrow, slit-like entrance. To all intents and purposes, this just isn't possible, as the sun appears to be firmly below the mountain. However, suddenly and for a few minutes only, it reappears, courtesy of a narrow rift in the rock face, just enough and perfectly situated so as to let the light flood into the cave ...
Solstice blessings to you all!
Special thanks to Les Amis du Sabarthez for use of their photos and video.
How lovely, said one of our guests right at the end of our season, to have a five month holiday every winter … Sad to say, the reality is rather different! We're now well and truly embarked on Maison Grillou’s equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge, doing all the little (and occasionally big!) jobs to keep the place in excellent repair that can’t be done between April and October when you’re all ‘in residence’. This year we're having a major focus on the gardens, which so much suffered over the last wet winter and spring. I lost count of how many times I apologised to new arrivals for the state of them; although you were all very kind and brushed my apologies aside, we knew that they were well below par! Hopefully those of you who are coming back next year will see the difference.
new things ...
When rain has stopped garden play, I've been working away on some new pages for our website. I've long wanted to include some specific pages on birdwatching
and hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them! And I've finally
(sorry!) found the time to set up a new sub-site for our recipes
. I've a bit of catching up to do, so you can expect a bit of a flurry of new entries over the winter; after that I'll try and add something new at least once a month. If you don't want to miss the latest recipe, just add your email address to the box on the page and you'll get notifications by email.
I'm currently writing our new birding files and wrestling with creating an English-French dictionary of the names of all the birds found in the Ariège. Although my French is good, it hasn't, so far, extended as far as gobemouche gris
or sitelle torchepot
... and why is it that a mouette rieuse
isn't, as you'd expect, a laughing gull but a black-headed gull? It strikes me that for travelling birders a little pocket size 'bird name reader', covering different languages in much the same way as a menu reader, would be an amazingly useful thing. Why has nobody produced one, I wonder? Or do you know different?
Bookings have come in really early for next year. It's great so see so many of you coming back again - and equally exciting to welcome lots of new people too! A quick update: so far we have 15 weeks booked for 2014 across L'Atelier d'Artiste and La P'tite Maison, with the first two weeks in July fully booked in both. Traditionally, the next big booking flurry will be in January so if you're hoping to get the days or weeks of your choice, don't leave it too long ...
I had to spend a couple of days in London this week, and with the best part of a Friday morning going begging before my flight home I decided to revisit an old haunt, Borough Market. We were quite fond of this place in our resto days - the retail 'farmers' market' bit, with all sorts of interesting producers, hadn't been going for very long and it seemed very 'real' and non gastro-porn-y. And it was always good to nip over the road and have a coffee at our coffee bean suppliers, Monmouth Coffee.
Nine years on and my experience was very different. I'm sorry if I'm going to upset anyone here but to be honest, this time I just found it contrived and pretentious. I mean, there are only so many 'hand-dived scallops' and 'seriously stretchy sexy mozzarella from happy Hampshire buffaloes, bathed in a zesty house-made marinara' a girl can take ... There were more cameras than shopping baskets. The queue outside Monmouth Coffee was nearly 100 people long, mainly dark-suited types and Japanese tourists. And what on earth was asparagus doing at a so-called farmers' market in October? After no more than 15 minutes, feeling rather seriously disillusioned and pissed off, I made an excuse and left.
I don't know whether it's changed, or whether my 7 years in France have changed me. Our Saturday market in St Girons knocks Borough Market well and truly into a cocked hat, and does so without any such celebrity luvvie-ness or pretension. It's one of the best markets in our region, yet few people outside the Ariège have ever heard of it; the TV 'chefs' who frequent Borough would weep if they found it, but fortunately (for us) they stay away. Our market remains quite simply about good food, produced locally and without fuss, with no hoo-ha or nauseating clichés; it's also about a weekly diary date full of life, conviviality and good humour.
It's so good that it's worth, if you can, organising your arrival and departure dates around it; those who arrive chez nous on Fridays have the very best of good fortune as they can fill their baskets to their heart's content then feast for days on the contents. But please, once you've discovered it, keep it to yourself ....
Yes, I know the summer has only just begun, but we're already getting enquiries (chapeau to such organised people!) for next year. So we thought we'd better get our skates on, sort out next year's price structure, and open up for 2014 bookings.
Our 7 night rate for L'Atelier d'Artiste is just a bit under 1.75% higher than last year - I wish we could keep it the same, but many of our costs, especially electricity, oil and diesel, have risen by over 10% in the last 12 months with more increases in the pipeline. As far as La P'tite Maison goes, our longer-stay (5 nights plus) rate has increased by 4% to reflect the fact that guests now have access to our all-singing, all-dancing summer kitchen/dining room and so can effectively chose to cater for themselves for the vast majority of our season; it also means that it will be possible for us to provide store cupboard basics like oil and condiments in the summer kitchen to make things easier for everyone.
We've increased the rates for shorter stays by a slightly higher percentage to ensure that it remains viable for us to continue to offer shorter breaks as well as flexible arrival and departure days; during 2013, however, over 90% of our guests have booked for 7 nights or more so most people aren't going to be affected. And in any case, as one of our guests said recently, you get a lot of bang for your buck here!
You'll find all our 2014 rates here: http://www.grillou.com/prices-and-booking.html
And especially for our previous guests ...
I know a lot of our previous guests read this blog, so in advance of the newsletter that you'll all receive in September here's a piece of news just for you. We've met some truly lovely people here over the last 2 years, many of whom we now think of as friends, and really love having people come back ... so if you've stayed with us before, your 2014 stay will be at 2013 prices, provided that you book at least 5 nights and pay your deposit before 31 December 2013.
How to bag your preferred dates ...
Last year we started taking 2013 bookings in earnest in November (while we were on holiday - wouldn't you just know it!), with another very busy peak in January. By March we had very few dates left in L'Atelier d'Artiste, and lots of weeks already booked in La P'tite Maison. June and September are always very popular because they're such good months for walking and in fact both months booked up first, with July and August in hot pursuit.
Don't forget that you can arrive (and leave, if you must :) ) on any day of the week; both last year and this though the most popular arrival days for stays of 7 nights or more have been Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
As ever we're not using an availability calendar during 2014 - our particular brand of flexibility just makes it a little too complicated. We like to think that we're pretty good at responding quickly to your emails though and will always do our best to get you a response within hours, often less.
So Méteo France had it right. We got the torrential rain - three weeks' worth in one night, with more following on. When it eased up slightly on Friday afternoon, I couldn't resist going out with the camera ...
And just to give you an idea of the speed and the deafening noise:
The good news though is that the forecast is vastly improved from tomorrow; although it's going to take a while for the ground to dry out and the gardens to come back into beauty, we're hopeful that the worst of this spring's weather is behind us!
Lots of people have a rather rose-tinted view of what it's like to run a chambre d'hôte. "Are you going anywhere nice today?" guests ask us, as they set off for a day's walking. Others, I'm sure, have fantasies that we spend the afternoons lounging around on sun beds, glass of rosé in one hand and book in the other.
The reality is somewhat different. Don't get me wrong, we love doing it (otherwise we wouldn't), but - um - we don't do a lot of lounging around. Our day starts well before 7am with bread making and/or a trip to the boulangerie along with preparing all the other breakfast goodies, continues through spending time with our guests at breakfast, organising people's walks, making picnic lunches, sometimes a trip to the market, cleaning, washing, ironing, cooking, gardening, repairs ... then on into hosting dinner, which often goes on close to midnight, clearing up afterwards and laying the table for the next day's breakfast.
And then there are the things that are completely unforeseen but which demand your full attention, right now, whatever and however many other things you're doing. We have one of those on the go at the moment.
You may know that we, like the rest of France and western Europe (right down towards southern Italy and Spain, in fact), have been in a period of truly execrable weather since last autumn. Quite apart from months of uncharacteristic cold, grey days, we've had several times more rainfall than usual with the result that the ground is now totally waterlogged. So when it rains (as it's been doing rather a lot this month!), the water no longer has anywhere to go. As a result the rivers are running perilously close to the top of their banks, the fields have turned into bogs and water just sits on road surfaces instead of draining away. And this week, although we're on a hill, our parking area (that's been in use winter and summer for I don't know how many years without problem) gave up the ghost and - well, floated away ...
The sight of our guests - supportive and understanding though they were - wading through slimy mud every time they got out of their cars was not a pretty one, and we couldn't put off the inevitable - Something Had To Be Done. Over the years we've learned that if you run chambres d'hôtes, you have to be able to turn your hand to pretty much anything, without spending too much time thinking or arguing about the whys, whethers or hows. So yesterday morning I began scouring the remaining - er - slime off the surface, while John set off on the first of many journeys with the trailer to collect enough crushed limestone to make a hard standing, eventually to be covered in the same gravel as the driveway. By the end of the day, all the mud had gone, and we had a third of the area covered with the first coat of calcaire. So far, so good, so fun.
But today was another day. A day with an Orange Alert weather forecast for torrential rain and high winds ...
John's the shoveller ...
I'm the barrow - um - woman ...
... raker ...
... roller ...
... and general messer-abouter
The things we do for love, eh?
... and seven wet, backbreaking hours later you have the beginnings of what's called in French un hérisson - a level and solid base over which to lay wood, stone or gravel.
Un hérisson also means a hedgehog.
No, I don't know why either.
This was going to be the winter when all the work was planned well in advance and down to a tee, there was plenty of time to do everything without any last minute panics, and we'd be able to take a much-coveted day off every week. Hah!
It all started so well. We had three projects for this winter. First was to 'relook' (and yes, that is a word. It's French!) our farmhouse kitchen. Second was to have a new bathroom installed for us - the last remaining room in the house still in the eighties, with navy blue sanitary ware, no shower, and white tiles that were separating in a sheet from the wall more each day. And third was to create a summer kitchen in one of our semi-open barns, complete with gas hob, plancha, fridge and lots of worktop space, so that guests in La P'tite Maison could cook for themselves if they chose to. That meant pointing up one wall, lime rendering and then limewashing the other, doing something with the rather sad looking woodwork, building made to measure wooden units and putting down a floor.
We found someone to take on the bathroom project, and for once we agreed that he would do everything, from knocking down walls to installing bath and shower and the rest, right down to decorating and tiling: a real clé en main job. He reckoned on four weeks - five at the outside - and would start on January 3rd. Fantastic - no guests in January, so no problem using La P'tite Maison's shower room.
Lovely December weather allowed us to get a head start on the summer kitchen. Working with lime mortar meant that we couldn't work if the temperatures fell below 5 degrees, or would do so while the mortar was going off; the last couple of weeks of December saw sun plus spring like temperatures of 18 degrees so we took full advantage of it, working as many hours as we could given the short days. We raked out the old joints between the stones then pointed them up with a simple lime mortar; it was slow, painstaking work that neither of us had ever done before but we both found it bizarrely addictive. It was looking good ... but then as if by magic, on New Year's Day it all went pear shaped, with low temperatures and heavy rainfall. Fortunately we'd filled our last joints on New Year's Eve ...
We moved inside to relook the kitchen; not a hugely complicated job, just new paint (home made, of course!) on the walls and on the wooden units, the resurrection of an antique Norfolk pine dresser that we'd brought with us but had never got round to homing, installation of a new oven, fridge, extraction system plus posh new gas hob (and that's another story!) and some new textiles. Three weeks of chaos (no kitchen, no bathroom!) and living on stuff we'd prepared earlier and it was done. Apart from the hob, which is still a Hob In Waiting 11 weeks later.
Meanwhile we were having our wettest January for years, with three times the normal amount of rainfall; the garden turned into a sea of mud, our track into a series of potholes and the potager into a lake. The rain continued into February and early March, sometimes falling as snow; sometimes we were blocked in, the Pyrenees had their snowiest winter for more than 30 years and the highest temperatures stayed well below 3 degrees. Our builder, for reasons best known to himself, got further and further behind to the point where if we were to see a finished bathroom before summer I had no choice but to take over all the decorating, tiling and other finishings. Then he came back to start plumbing stuff in and left the handbrake of his Landrover off. During the morning it rolled its way down the drive right into the back of our car, doing 1000 euros worth of damage .....
The bathroom still isn't finished in spite of the fact that we ended up taking on more and more of the work ourselves, and it's all getting more than a bit tedious as we keep discovering issue after issue (testing his own work doesn't appear to be amongst our builder's skills). But last week the temperature finally rose just enough for us to get back to the summer kitchen. The rendering is done, and the wall will be lime washed when it's all gone off, hopefully in 10 days or so. Next week we have a huge delivery of materials arriving for the floor and will start levelling up.
The good news is that spring is springing at last; the birds are singing, the violets are out and the grass is growing all by itself.
The bad news is that we're a good six weeks behind schedule. We'll do everything we can to make up time, but we have less of it to spare (!) now that we're moving into full guest flow and I'm sorry to report that due, as they say, to circumstances completely beyond our control, the summer kitchen won't be functional before the end of May at the earliest.
Oh, and we're still waiting for a day off, a bath, and a new hob, not necessarily in that order!
This is probably an unusual kind of blog post for a maison d'hôtes. If you don't like reading about the blacker side of humanity, look away now; otherwise read on. But first, a story.
As many of you know, a few months ago we were adopted by a dog called Hobo, who simply arrived one day and never left. After much detective work, we discovered that Hobo has a long and complicated history; he's originally from La Réunion, a tropical island that's a département d'outre-mer - a fully fledged part of France (and the EU) in the Indian Ocean. Brought to the mainland by a member of his original owner's family, he then moved on again to live in Clermont, a village near us, with yet another member of the same family; sadly though one of their existing dogs had other ideas and did everything she could to make his life there untenable. Eventually Hobo took matters into his own paws and set off in search of a safe forever home where he could finally, after three traumatic years, settle down; after weeks of roaming the hills and checking out many dozens of local houses, he found us, and we're very glad he did.
Hobo's previous human told us he's a greyhound-dalmatian cross. Knowing him as we do now, his mix is fairly evident: he's like that well-known illusion of two faces and a vase - sometimes when you look at him he's an (almost) spotless dalmatian, other times he's clearly a greyhound. We think his greyhound ancestry may actually be that of a Galgo (Spanish greyhound) - possibly the most abused dog breed on earth. And that's where this blog post really begins.
the galgo's plight
The galgo is an ancient race of sighthound - one of the ancestors of the dog we English know just as a greyhound. Like greyhounds, they're gentle, loyal, loving and laid back creatures, often described as 40 mph couch potatoes.
Galgos have been used, and are used to this day, in rural Spain for hunting and for hare coursing. They're considered to be a tool, as is a gun, rather than a living creature and most live pretty miserable lives, usually just shut away in a shed when not 'in use', fed on bread and water and possibly the occasional scrap. Worse, they're seen quite simply as disposable. When the short hunting season is over, tens of thousands are abandoned or brutally killed every year by their owners, to whom they're no longer considered to be any use. Campaigners estimate that more than 50,000 dogs, most between 2 and 3 years of age, are massacred by the owners in Spain every year, though some believe it to be more like 100,000.
Killing methods are brutal and sadistic, especially for those dogs deemed too slow or inadequate in other ways, who are considered to have shamed their owners. Dogs are thrown down wells, tied up in plastic bags, injected with bleach, hammered, mutilated ... tied behind moving vehicles with bets taken on how long they'll survive ... used as bait in dog fights ... and then there's the 'typewriter': dogs are hung by their necks from a tree so that their hind feet just touch the ground - their scrabbling, which sounds like someone typing, keeps them (barely) alive until their strength gives out and they're hanged. The 'lucky' ones are abandoned, thrown out of a car by a motorway perhaps or simply dumped on the baking campo.
As things stand at the moment, the only - and I mean only - future for a galgo is outside Spain. As the horrific plight of these dogs becomes more widely known, so do the number of rescue organisations that not only bring as many dogs as possible out of the country for treatment, rehabilitation and rehoming but campaign for laws with teeth that will put an end to the barbarism that's going on under our noses, in a supposedly civilised European country.
what we're doing about it, and what you can do
What we'd really like to do is adopt lots of galgos ourselves! And who knows, maybe one day we will, just as one day I intend to go and spend some time volunteering in one of the rescue shelters in Spain. However, that's for the future. For now, we at Maison Grillou have decided to support galgo rescue in other ways.
Those of you who knew us in our former Norfolk incarnation will know that each year we used to donate a percentage of our takings to a particular organisation that inspired us, and set up ways for our guests and customers to do the same. And as we set off into our second year here, it's time to do the same. So this is what we're going to do during 2013.
1. For every booking of 5 nights or more during 2013 we'll donate 5 euros - 3 euros for shorter bookings - to one of our chosen rescue associations. We'll also invite our guests to match that sum if they feel moved to do so.
2. We'll donate the small additional charge - 5 euros per night - we make for our four legged guests to one of our chosen rescue associations.
3. On a personal level, we'll sponsor or 'virtually adopt' one or more galgos via a rescue association. Often dogs need extensive (and expensive) veterinary treatment before they can be rehomed, or are considered too old or ill to be rehomed and instead are given a home for life at a shelter or with an association member - all of which costs serious money and can only happen if people are willing to help meet the costs.
find out more or join in
Many of our guests so far have been dog lovers, and I know that at least some of the readers of this blog are too. If you've been shocked or moved by my far-too-brief resumé of the plight of the Spanish galgos and want to find out more, these are the associations we're going to be supporting:Lévriers sans Frontières
, a French association working through a number of partner refuges;Scooby Medina
, an extraordinary place led by an extraordinary man, Fermin Pérez; the largest refuge in Spain;Galgos del Sol
, a small refuge based in Murcia that organises adoptions to the UK (I know two lovely people who've adopted a dog through them).
All have websites full of information - often harrowing - and stories. We'd really love it if you were inspired by what you've read to find out more and perhaps to support them too.
Down here in the foothills of the Pyrenees we've been seeing some truly exceptional weather conditions since the beginning of January. At our meagre altitude of 501 metres (which is nevertheless halfway up Snowdon) it's been raining. And boy, what rain: three times the average rainfall for January, ditto into the beginning of February, with many days receiving 2 or 3 centimetres - a couple of days ago I had to stop the car twice while driving back from Toulouse, so heavily was the rain falling. All around us lakes have appeared where once were fields, tiny streams have become raging torrents. In spite of the fact that we're on the side of a hill, our grounds are waterlogged, the potager is actually under water and the parking area just a sea of 10cm thick mud. Then yesterday it started to snow; it's snowing as I write and forecast to continue on and off for another week.
But that's nothing compared to what's going on in the Pyrenees proper, which are experiencing record breaking snow depths. The picture above is of Cauterets, a bit farther west along the chain, currently the snowiest ski resort not just in France but in the world: on Tuesday the depth of snow measured a record breaking five and a half metres; yesterday it was approaching six, even more than Mammoth Mountain in California which generally has more snow than anywhere else; I've just read that it's now at eight, and still falling fast. What makes it exceptional, and a record, is that 7 metres of that have fallen in just 3 weeks.
We're not quite approaching such hallucinatory levels here in the Ariège, though some of our ski resorts (such as Goulier, which so far today has had 80cm of snow) are closed because ... there's too much of the white stuff! The classes de neige - ski holidays - of 500 school children from all over France were cut short yesterday so that they could be bussed home before heavy snowfall today made access out impossible (bet their parents were delighted. Not). Access from France into Andorra is impossible, and the train service south of Ax les Thermes is blocked too. La Chaîne Méteo tells us that a sequence of Atlantic depressions is pushing across us in waves and meeting a static cold front of air to the east; it also tells us, depressingly, that we have at least another 7 to 10 days of this to come. I'm not sure whether to order a snowmobile or a boat .....