Tuesday, June 22, 2010

the sweet long hours of daylight

This is the day I love to wake up to, more than most any other – the one brimming with daylight. And when it’s over, I feel a twinge of sadness, for we are then one step closer to the short cold days of December.

Ah, the lovely pastel colors of a summer evening!

How should I honor this longest day of the year?

Wake early and watch the light emerge. When the sun (assume there is sun; a cloudy day takes away some of the pleasure) rises to a lovely warm place, get going. Spend all the hours outside, use no artificial light at all. Stay close to nature. Eat outdoors. All meals. Then, listen to music, outside still, as dusk sets in.

That last element is easy in France. Some twenty-five years back it was proclaimed that on the day of solstice, the streets should ring with music. And there will be singing and if you’re inclined, dancing. On this day, every town and city street is filled with music. The villages, perhaps worried that the National Fete de la Musique would reveal no local talent, often bring in outside musicians to the village square. Sorede brought in the Buenasuerte band and the villagers ate and drank and tap tap tapped to mostly Andalusian rhythms.

But that’s giving you the ending. And there was so much more to revel in – from the first step out to greet this most brilliant June day.

When the wind cavorts through the Rousilion plane, it so often leaves behind a deep blue cloudless sky. The longest day of the year is, this year, a fantastically clear day. Gusts still shake the branches of trees in the morning hours, but you can tell that it’s a half-hearted shudder. Things have settled down. People come out of hiding. The normal rhythms are in place again.


We pick up our pain au chocolat...


...and take them to the cafĂ© bar. The trick is to find a table half bathed in sunshine (my half) and half covered with shade (Ed’s half). We evaluate each of the tables that spill out onto the village square. It is at once a lovely and ridiculous routine.

Ten o’clock. Time to get going. I have in mind a hike up the mountains just to the east the great Canigou peak. I have a “light” (meaning it’s glossy but lacks detail) description from the tourist office of a five hour circuit up the Pyrenees Roussillon and it sounds exactly right: a varied topography, and a good elevation (slightly less than 1000 meter ascent to the Pic des Sallines, which is at 1333 meters, or close to 4500 feet, a reasonable goal for a day hike). About half of the loop is on the Spanish side of the mountain – which makes it all rather unique.

The hike begins in the tiny mountain village of Las Illas. And let me say at the outset that the day had two and only two scary moments and the first one was on the drive into Las Illas.

Single lane mountain driving makes my skin crawl. I’m okay if I’m on the side that hugs the mountain. I’m less okay if the road trickles to a few clumps of dirt at the edge of a precipitous drop. The way you handle oncoming traffic is you assess: is there room, or do you back down to a wider spot? It’s not an evaluation I want to be wrong in making.

You could say we crawled to Las Illas. Not knowing if there would be oncoming cars, I took the turns very very slowly. Had there been hikers on the road, I dare say they may have outpaced us at certain junctures.

When the village buildings came into sight, I breathed the heaviest sigh of relief.

The trail began with a yellow marking, easily found at the side of the village restaurant. Sometime in the middle of the hike, we would be switching to a red and white GR trail (part of the Grand Routes system of trails that criss cross Europe). It was not clear when the switch would take place, but I assumed it would be obvious.


Up to the first mountain pass we climb. The markings are done well. And within a half hour we are on the ridge and in Spain.

Coll de Lly. This is not an insignificant mountain pass. It is one of a handful of trails used by hundreds of thousands of republicans fleeing the Spanish fascist government in 1939. Ed, who has a fantastic memory for historic detail (at the same time that he has very little memory for events in his own life), talks about the fighting that took place during the Spanish Civil War as we walk along the ridgeline.

It is so quiet here now. The views extend to the mountains and even to Spain’s Costa Brava. The wind doesn’t bother the southern slopes and the air is almost completely still. I find myself removing layers, allowing the warm air to brush against me as we move along the well marked trail.



Butterflies flutter, bird sing. We pass small meadows of wildflowers. Spanish lavander grows in clumps between the rocks. Sometimes the path is wide, sometimes it narrows and requires careful footing between boulders.







It is a dream of a hike.

Within an hour we reach an old (seventeenth century) sanctuary – lovely and remote, with commanding views over the Spanish mountains.


A stream emerges here from three spouts and Ed convinces me that the water is purer and safer to drink than what we find in the tap back home. (We carry a pack with plenty of water, but on a sunny day, plenty can be happily supplemented.)


The final climb to the Salines summit is absolutely breathtaking. To the south – the mountains and the coast of Spain. To the north west – Canigou and the Roussillon plane.

I try to patch together a 180 degree panorama for you, but it’s my first attempt and I am still clumsy at it. But you can see the Spanish mountains to the left and the Canigou peak to the right. The ridge line here is just at the border.


Let me add just a few regular photos from the point where we pause for lunch. Yes, I have Pic Canigou to my side. The mountain I have yet to write about. (The Spanish Pyrenees of the second photo are behind me.)




Having reached the summit, it’s now time to begin the descent. At first it is a snap. The trail is well marked, the path is stony but manageable.


But less than an hour into the return, we come to a crossroads. The glossy brochure says au col des Cireres, tourner a gauche (turn left). We are at the col des Cireres. There is a small arrow pointing to Las Illas in completely the opposite direction (to the right). Do you follow the brochure or the sign? Both have trail markings: the desired red and white. We take the wrong one and we'll be at the wrong end of the mountain, very, very far from where our car is.

It’s almost a coin toss.

We stuff the brochure into the pack and ignore it. A few steps further, Ed mutters -- of course, someone could have moved the sign...

But we continue. And not too long after our chancy turn we encounter a pair of hikers. Let me say now that they took the worry off the rest of the day for me. They're from Scotland and they’d been walking the Pyrenees for days. They had maps we could only dream of. We were on the right trail.

We give them space and then continue behind, relieved.

About an hour before reaching Las Illas, we come across a mountain farm. Back in the woods, we noticed a hose bringing water down to the farmstead. It had sprung a leak and I wanted to relay this to the farmer.

Noticing my camera, he asks if I'd like to see (and phtograph) his small sheep herd. Real Catalan sheep! – he tells me with pride in heavily accented French. You're from The United States? Ah!!



He thanks me again and I leave, following the road now down to the mountain village of Las Illas. A few minutes later, the farmer passes us in his big boat of a car. I’m impressed that he dares attack the narrow road in it. He pulls over and leans towards us.
You know, I’ve been to Canada! Last year! To Montreal!
To visit friends or relatives?
No, to hunt.
He waves and rumbles forward.

In Las Illas we meet our Scottish pals from the trail. Ed buys a round of drinks at the village bar – Sangria for us, pints for them. I’m thinking Sangria, with all that fruit juice, is a lighter option. I have a bit of driving ahead of me.

The sangria is delicious. I ask the server if it’s a home recipe.
Yes, of course, I make it from scratch.
With what juice?
Yes, what fruit juice do you use?
Oh, no fruit juice! I use mainly wine and then add a drop of... (she rattles off a few more potent beverages)

That one small sangria may well take the edge off of driving back along the narrow lane. We linger a while longer before returning to the roads.

In the evening I have a more fruity sangria on the village square.


I think about how lucky people are, here and elsewhere in France, with their well developed social spaces. If you live alone, or even with your partner, you still have many daily opportunities for social exchanges -- at the bar, cafe, on the village square. We lack such places and I think we are poorer for it. If you want to celebrate the Fourth of July or just the fact of waking to a bright morning, you can do it alone, you can do it with friends or family, but you have to plan for it. You cannot drop in and exchange a few words with people you know as the whim strikes you.

Ed and I eat a simple meal at Chez Patou, just at the edge of the square.


He's not the type to stay and listen to the boisterous music, but I am. After dinner I linger as he trots back to the apartment. The last wisps of sun still touch the corners of the Sorede buildings as the musicians play their guitars. The moon is out, the day is nearly done.


And before I know it, the electric lights take over and the longest day is not a day anymore. Sorede is still tapping to the rhythms, but it's time for me to head home.