Monday, June 18, 2012

from a song now playing on the radio: il faut aimer la vie (one must love life)

Part 1 Genius

A terrible thing happened last night at La Salamandre. Valérie, the hostess, served baguette slices with the meal. One bite and Ed looks me in the eye: chewy!

So I have to ask her – which bread is this?
Valerie tells me – it’s not from the village bakeries. We get our bread from Fournil des Alberes. Ask there for La Petrie baguette.

Oh dear. I know about the Fournil bakery. It’s right next to the supermarket, some 3 kilometers outside Sorède. We poked our noses inside last year and snubbed it instantly. So modern! Industrial looking! So not part of the old Sorède! Add to it now – baking the most perfect bread in France.

Sunday morning. I try to put up a post, but I can’t finish it. So, Happy Father’s Day to all dads. Now let’s go. We shouldn’t delay. This is the day we climb Pic du Néoulous, the highest summit of the Alberès (the eastern most section of the Pyrenees Mountains).

The tiny map from the Tourist Office (oh, what a mistake to use those!) estimates it to be a 3.5 hour climb (and nearly the same on the return). We’ve never done it. Last year we got lost halfway up the mountain. We’re going to give it a solid try again now.

The weather’s good: there is a slight haze coming in from the sea and, too, from the western mountains, but the skies over the Roussillon plain are a gentle cornflower blue. It’s Sunday. The beaches will be crowded. The trail almost certainly will be empty.

We’ll drive to the trail head and on the way, we’ll stop at this new fangled bakery and take a look at that damn loaf of bread. La Petrie. Just this once. Because we’re in the clunker anyway.

So, first stop: Fournil des Alberès bakery. Whoa, so much traffic in the parking lot! And inside – the place is absolutely buzzing! Loaves (oh! and pains au chocolat too!) fly into the oven, out of the oven, into ready baskets, lots of them!






There’s a constant line of customers and they buy not one but two or three baguettes...

(Happy Father’s Day to you!)

The volume here is so large that I’m thinking – this must be a chain. But it’s not.

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Talk about entrepreneurial grit and courage! Two years ago Castro, whom you see pictured above and below (Not Fidel, he tells me, not Fidel!), opened this place and began selling breads and pastries in a way that is just so modern and functional -- a food delivery system that you rarely associate with France. Especially rural France. At the Fournil, you drive up, you buy your bread, you leave. None of this ten minute chat with neighbors. Get your bread, perfectly made, exit.

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Yes, there’s a café at the side and you can get your café crème and chocolat chaud and we do. But most don’t.

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I study the list of breads and pastries. Oh! They have raspberry macaroons (on the website, you can watch a video clip of how they make them – it’s miraculous and simple and superb!) I ask about them, because I don’t see any on the tray of pastries. You’d like some for tomorrow? We’ll save you some! Just two? No problem!

So there’s the slow paced France. Where everything shuts down for three hours at lunchtime, where every exchange is valuable and not to be rushed, where café life flourishes, where wine flows, it seems to me, at every meal.

And then there is the driven France. The chef who works all hours, the one who wants to get out of the slow pace because he (and his wife) feels that his kids and he along with them, are falling asleep in the process. And Castro’s France – spirited, driven, geared toward great success. Locally. For now.

Isn’t it interesting that one doesn’t necessarily preclude the others.

Part 2 Up and Down

With all the fuss over bread and pastries, we aren’t at the trail head until 11:40. This time, I make sure that this is the correct starting point. I ask the person who lives just across the road. Is it? It is. And it says so, too. Okay. No question. Correct starting point. (Though the person who nods her head also suggests that it’s a bit of a long hike. Do we look like we’re mountain neophytes? Ed says yes we do.)

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It’s a warm day, but the mountain is forested so we should be in the shade. And we pack five bottles of water, two for me, three for Ed.

I comment how the trail markers this year are fresh and much improved. Yellow tags are there every time there is ambiguity. Finally! A well marked trail is as good as gold. Up we go.


Ed falls.

Ed never has fallen in any of the dozens of hikes we’ve done. But segments of the path are covered with loose rocks and fallen leaves. A terrible combination.

He’s not damaged except for ripped pants (wouldn't you know it, in the crotch) and a bloody elbow, but it is a good warning to both of us – slow down! And I find an assist – a stick to add balance. Ed will have none of it. You use clips for bicycling, why wont you use a walking stick? I don’t need it. You don’t need clips either but you use them. Yes gorgeous.

We continue. The cork oaks are lovely here – even if they always look a tad naked when half their bottom is take away.


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In the first hour, there’s shade, but there’s no breeze. Warm, sticky air brings out the buzz of flies. We have no desire to take breaks.

But then the trail opens up a bit. A breeze will pass through, then a stronger one and by the time we do rest, maybe halfway up, the air is significantly cooler and much more pleasant for a steady climb.

Two thirds of the way, we pause again. We see the peak – we’re making good time. I’m thinking this year, we’ll make it!


Indeed, we’re already at the cliffs that jut out in front of the peak. You can see them from Sorède – here you go, they look like this from down below:


I toy with scaling them, stick and all...


But change my mind early on. I want to get to the top.

The peak stands at 1256 meters (4121 feet). It is exactly at the border with Spain and as you can see in earlier photos, there is a tower, so there must also be the road that somewhere leads up to it. But it’s a long curvy road that follows the ridge for many miles. On the French side at least, the best way up is to hike the trail.

The last hour is through a most lovely forest of tall trees. 

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Ed wants to pause – always wanting to smell roses along a hike path. I want to chug along. He is the sailor who like the sea, I am the traveler who loves to get off the plane and finally settle in.



Again the trail opens up. The sea is there, of course, with the tail end of the Pyrenees cascading into the water.


We haven’t seen a soul until nearly at the top when we run into...


...a bull. I say soothing words about my love of cows and bulls, about how I haven’t eaten beef in ages (Oh! I forgot about Barcelona!), about how bull fights horrify me. The bull contemplates my stream of words, buys it all and moves on.

And now we truly are at the top. Here, we encounter a couple of hiking groups. None are from our trail. We’re at the intersection with the GR 10 (the trail that goes through the entire Pyrenee range, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean) and a few other trails. And here, too, on the Spanish side, we see pastures with cows grazing.


There is, in the distance, the Costa Brava, and to the west -- faintly, half hidden in puffy clouds, the taller Pyrenees. 


But mostly., what you experience is the wind. I take a few photos and we huddle behind the stone post...



... and I twist Ed’s arm to pose for a photo taken by a fellow hiker...

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...and we try to make friends with a young bull (note how he pushes back with his hooves) -- one that has climbed up to see what the commotion was about...


...and then I’m ready to retreat. The wind is cool, too cool for me if we’re not moving. And in truth, there are finer places to rest just before you reach the tower. The barricaded tower gives the peak a bit of an industrial look. It’s much nicer on the meadows just a few feet below.  There are views toward the plain, the sea and faintly -- toward the small etang right by it.


And now we are in reverse mode and the going is slow, because we want to be careful. We follow the yellow trail again. Easy. Familiar now.


Until it somehow doesn't feel so familiar. I ask Ed -- where are the fallen trees we had to crawl over on the way up?
Oh, we must have walked around them.
And do you remember this fence?
I think so. But I don't remember this gate.
We really have terrible memories! ha ha ha... 

Confidently, we descend. The warm air at the base is now again filling in the spaces in the cork oak forest. It’s very late in the afternoon. The colors are gentle, the scent is lovely.


But when we come head onto a dirt road, we know we are terribly, terribly lost. Yellow trail? Yes. A yellow trail. Our trail? No, not even close.

It is at this miraculous moment that a pair of hikers comes along. Well equipped with a good map. We study it. We’ve walked down toward the wrong village. Not Sorrède at all. This is leading towards neighboring LaRocque. Our car is many miles from there.

Nice, super nice hiking couple (from northern France) takes pity on us. Come down to LaRocque, we'll give you a ride to your car, they tell us.

We follow them, so very grateful for their offer. But oh my, do these people fly down the mountain! No roses for them, not even a pause for water. I worry that our shoes – not great hiking material by any means (travel light!) will slide us right into a couple of broken feet and twisted ankles, but somehow we manage to keep up. Here’s a blurry photo (snapped while running behind) of our most genial friends from Brittany.


And this is not Sorède.


...It's LaRocque.

Part 3 Le Racou

It’s nearly 8 in the evening. There isn’t even a question. We’re pumped up from the hike, the getting lost part, the final run down. To the beach, the closest lovely little Racou.

It’s Sunday evening. People are leaving. It’s not empty, but you have the feeling you’re among true beach lovers – those who can't quite get themselves up and away.

Happy Father’s Day to you!

We plunge in and the water is bracing and wonderful against our overheated bodies. Ed swims, I tread and I can’t remember ever a better moment in the sea.

We shower, shake off the excess wetness (no towels... who knew we’d be swimming) and go across the road to an old favorite pizzaria. Oven baked pizzas with mushrooms and olives, a salad, a small carafe of rosé. Food that tastes so wonderful because somewhere along the way we never had a chance to eat that most perfect baguette. It’s in the car, waiting for the lunch that never happened. (Whatever portion Ed manages not to eat on the way home or the next day will go to neighborhood chickens that happily accept donations of stale baguettes.)

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Our car is parked by the beach and so I take one last look at the last group finishing their supper on the sands...


...the beach, empty, in hues of pink and orange...


It’s after nine. The sun has nearly set. When I stay in a place long enough I get to know where you can catch a good sunrise (at home – along Lake Waubesa) and a good sunset. We’re minutes away from one such spot, just outside Sorède.


As I pull up to the side of the road, the sun makes a final dip behind the hills to the northwest. It’s a beautiful evening to be out and about, with a bit of salt from the sea still in your hair and a feeling of contentment that comes after a long day of mountain climbing.