Friday, June 25, 2010

between the mountains and the sea

Which would you pick? For me, the weather plays a role. If it’s hot, mountain hiking is exhausting. If it’s cool, a beach is unappealing, except for, perhaps, a lonely stroll, if the sands are easy to walk on.

Mountains offer interesting climbs. Days at the beach can be monotonous.

And so the debate continues in the quest for the best possible place to regenerate your body and spirits.

And how fortunate that I am in a place that has all options before us. Indeed, a day can have a mountain climb, followed by a cool down in the sea.

But first, the essentials: bread for the day.


...and other treats. Flan, a framboisine. Oh! Are these the last ones for us this year? Maybe. Though there are still two days of bread left. The essentials: must hold on to the essentials.

We walk through the village with an open laptop in hand. It’s an experiment. We want to see how many public use WiFi spaces there are around the village. We look odd -- burdened with technology (or liberated through its possibilities, depending on your perspective).

Not many Internet spots. Most people do not create a public line, even though they can do this and by doing it, they can themselves freely make use of any such spots throughout France. But then, I remind myself again that most people in the village appear not to have computers. This in itself speaks loudly about the demographics of Sorede.

We pass a school. Still in session. I think the term ends this week. The kindergartners are putting on a “circus” for their parents and grandparents. It’s truly adorable and so colorful that you may as well regard it as a canvas of Fauvist strokes.


It’s 2:30. I had suggested a hike from Algeres-sur-Mer, over the mountain, all the way to Collioure. From there, we can take the train back to Algeres.

It’s not doable. Not at this late hour. The hike is a five hour one and the train schedules aren’t aligned well. And so we leave the car at the Algeres train station and plan out a loop into the coastal Alberes hills just south of town.

Again we rely on a tourist trail map and again it confounds us. The hike up to the Chapel perched high above the Mediterranean forests that cover these hills is supposed to take maybe 90 minutes. We must have taken a wrong turn because after climbing for 90 minutes, we see no sign of a chapel or a summit or even a ridge line. Views, yes – very nice indeed. Up the coast, to the beach towns, the etangs...


But no chapel.

And it is a hot climb. When the path widens, there is no protective shade. We have four bottles of water and still we’re rationing it. I’ve packed a nice lunch, but I can tell Ed wont want to eat. Melon, yes, that he’ll manage. We haven’t enough water to allow for a pleasant baguette and cheese break. (Though in the end I break down and have mine. On a hot day, I can make do with less water than my traveling buddy.)

The forest here is different than the forest we hiked through west of Sorede. We see mainly the cork oak...


...sometimes skinned at the bottom of the trunk of its bark. The trees appear to thrive in spite of this, but it is an odd sight to see them in this way. Like a Catalan man in the cut off pants that are so common here.


As we continue to head toward the crest of the hill, we think that surely we’ve deviated from the proper trail. And again we are saved by fellow hikers. It's truly remarkable: we encounter no one during our rambles and then, at a fortuitous moment, we run into someone who actually knows the terrain. Two men tell us that we’re on the right road. And they explain how we can find the shorter path down.

A very long climb up a not insignificant dirt road finally puts us at the entrance to the chapel.


It’s past five and still it feels very warm. I tell Ed that immediately after we come down we can head for the sea. I hope we don’t get lost though... I say this with a smile, because somehow, we always do get lost. Ed laughs at the comment. The town and sea are straight down, the path is visible, I think we’re set.

But five minutes into the descent, the path diverges. One fork has the yellow blaze on it, the other path has nothing. We’re torn. Finally we take the one with the yellow marking, concluding that it surely is marked for those who hike up from the town. Surely.

Not so. After descending sharply, the trail begins to mount. We cannot believe it. Around each bend we expect to see it continue sharply down toward the town, but it does nothing of the sort. Indeed, 45 minutes into the descent, it’s not a descent at all. It’s climbing back up!


We reach a camp spot. No one is there. The air is still. The mountain forest obscures views to the sea. Maybe it’s a slight deviation, I'm thinking. Maybe now it will take us down the mountain.

And again we are disappointed. Up we go. It’s after 6 p.m. We are completely lost. We have no choice but to follow the yellow trail. At one point, we find a telltale "X" in yellow, warning us that we have taken a wrong turn. We cannot find the right turn.

How on earth did we manage to get lost now, on this last big hike of our stay in France?

We follow the path, not trailed anymore. Up it goes and around the corner, and -- what?! We see that we have looped our way right back to the Chapel.

It could have been much worse. At least we know that the one remaining visible path must surely be the right one. Ed concludes it’s a long roundabout way to town, but our conclusions have thus far been meaningless and hopelessly incorrect.

Eventually we see that this path does lead down to the sea. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that it does not come down to Algeres-Sur-Mer.

But the second good news item is that it, instead, leads down to the beautiful winery of Valmy, at the doorstep of the Chateau of the same name.


We are dangerously thirsty as we make our way just before seven (closing time) to the tasting chamber of the winery.


We are offered samples of the wine and even Ed, who typically does not like or drink much wine, does not decline. After two samples, and an agreement to purchase some for home, Ed nudges me to ask for water. They refill our bottles and then refill them again and we are now truly happy and not caring at all that we have some kilometers left before we are in town again.

And, Ed reminds me, the bakery in Algeres has late hours. And great mille feuilles (or as he so sweetly mispronounces as mille fleures -- a thousand flowers).


And finally, five hours after starting the hike, we are in the car again, driving just the few paces to the little beach community of Le Racou.

By eight, we are on the sands that descend into the calm bay.

Like the day before, fewer than a handful are actually swimming. Sprinkled on the beach we see families – many are ending an afternoon by the sea.



Even as some are just unpacking a supper, or at least snacks and an aperitif.


Some are finishing a conversation – on a raft on the water, or even in the water. The French never seem to have enough of it – a stream of words, provoking a response, and then another, and so on.


I wade in the cool sea and the feeling of being overheated slowly ebbs. The clear waters of the Mediterranean create the needed balance. The day can now be checked off. It’s a good one, following a stream of other good and balanced days.

In Sorede, we throw down our pack and water bottles back at the apartment and head up to the village square. It’s nine, and the sun is in its final descent. The colors now are bold and magnificent. The pastel tones are gone. A burnt orange has taken hold of the hills, almost matching the tiled roofs of the village homes.




We eat at Chez Patou. Sangria to start the evening, and the fantastic 12.50 Euro menu for me: I pick the Mediterranean tomato salad and the local fish from the sea. (And ice cream for dessert.) I don’t recognize the name of the fish, but I’m told it’s fresh and covered in a seafood sauce.



Both are wonderful. The cook – the mother of the waiter – comes out occasionally, but only to talk to her son. She looks like she works hard, too hard. They must net so little from a meal like mine. Maybe in season (in the next two months), the numbers work more in their favor. Maybe.

It’s late. The swallows are madly searching out their last supper. Ed is at the edge of sleep.



Or maybe over the edge. The walk back is short. Past the bar with the soccer match, past the shuttered bakery, through calm streets, home.