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Talking Location With Michelle Lawson – the Ariège Pyrenees
13th March 2019
#TalkingLocationWith… Michelle Lawson, author of A House At The End Of The Track, memoir set in The Couserans, Ariège Pyrenees
The first time I drove into the Ariège, it felt as if I was crossing a humid jungle. I sensed the steam rising from the steep wooded hillsides as the morning rains evaporated in the heat of the August afternoon. I was on a mission to explore the lesser known département of the Ariège, particularly its wilder western side that’s still known by its former designation as the Couserans. The name no longer has any official status but it conjures up images of stubbornly-rooted wildness and the bravery of the locals who led so many to safety over the Pyrenees in the Second World War.
Driving along any of the 18 river valleys that radiate from the Couserans requires concentration and I avoided the temptation to look up at the houses huddled into steep hillsides; shades of brown and grey with the occasional rebel in dull pink. Many of these old houses had been built at the time of a rapid population increase in the mid 18thcentury, although the expansion was short-lived, since the area’s resources could not sustain the growing number of inhabitants. There followed a steady population decline. One can still come across narrow valleys and shuttered villages that feel entirely detached from the 21stcentury.
Now the deserted houses and barns of the Couserans are slowly being renovated. Some are holiday homes owned by descendants of the original emigrants. Others are inhabited year round by an international mix of incomers seeking an alternative way of life; what the French call the neo-ruraux,or marginaux. What interested me was the gradual incursion of English incomers to this part of France. The numbers are low compared with regions such as the Dordogne and around Carcassonne, but English voices can nevertheless be heard here and there.
The Ariège seemed an odd choice for a Francophile, as it feels a long way from the rest of France. My interest sparked an idea to gather the stories of the English who’d chosen to move here. For some incomers, it just happened to be where they’d seen the right house, never mind that it was in a place they’d never heard of. Some told me how they loved the wildness, the walking and the strange mix of people that they found when they got here. Others lamented the fact that gourmet France hadn’t quite reached the Ariège.
Writing a book about the incomers led me to become more acquainted with the landscape into which they’d planted themselves. Each summer I walk above the tree line to the old stone huts of the summer pastures, stepping to the chime of the cloches around the cattle necks. And as the roads become narrower, the green gives way to vast grey expanses of boulder rubble and the shimmer of water in the hollows gouged by long-ago glaciers.
The GR10 long-distance trail passes through the Ariège and it’s possible to cover sections as day walks. Park at the Col de Pause and you’re face to face with the Couserans’ best known mountain, the ‘shouldered’ Mont Valier. Follow the crazy zig-zags of the track up to the pea-green lake at Areau and carry on to the frontier ridge, from where you can gaze down the other side into Spain.
Mont Valier itself can be tackled by following a trail along the Riberot Valley. You’ll see the immense Nerech waterfall well before you pass beneath the cascade. Above you sits the Refuge d’Estagnous, which played a crucial role in wartime escapes over the Pyrenees. Today it offers bunks, tents and dinner with wine included, at a height of 2,246m.
The towns and villages of the Couserans remain small and centred on the rivers. Seix, for example, has a population of just 842, although in summer its narrow lanes and the banks of the Salat are swelled by a further 1200 or so. Saint-Girons is the place to go for shopping and the large Saturday market. But for me, it’s the wildness that brings me back.
Wherever I am, the tang of wood smoke transports me back to the Ariège, a place characterised by the smell of smoke and of things smoked –the silver plumes that spiral above heavy stone roofs, the deep odour of smoked meats from an open doorway, and the scent of clothes dried in front of the fire. I’m sure I leave a similar trail in my wake, and to me it embodies the Ariège way of life.
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