The English word ‘souvenir’ comes from the same word in French; in French le souvenir can be the memory itself, or, as it is in English, the keepsake in which the memory is signified. Photographs are my mementos, my souvenirs, but some of my clearest memories of our long walk in the Pyrenees never made it onto the camera.
Mealtimes, for example.
In Granès, on the eve of our sixth day, we dined at long tables with a dozen or so French-speaking horse-riding tour-guides! A circuit of les “Châteaux Cathares” (the “Cathar Castles”) is often done by horseback and our lodging in Granès is a common transfer point. We happened to be in town on the same day as the end of one equestrian circuit and the start of another, so there was lively conversation around our table: amongst the two sets of guides, who came from all over France, and ourselves, when my French could keep up. I’m not sure if it was all the wine, or trying to process the crossfire of conversation in a language that I struggle with, but the next morning as we set off again, my head was still buzzing with a pastiche of sound snippets and image fragments from the night before.
The route from Granes to Quillan follows the GR (“GR®” Grandes Randonnées / Long Distance Footpaths) along a well known path that used to be an important link and means of communication between the small Pyreneen hamlets. We traverse the high saddle of the Col des Trois Quilles before arriving in Quillan.
The first half of our walk was through woods and countryside, interspersed with tiny villages. Granès had a population of only 124 people in 2007, and the nearby towns are of similar sizes. In the morning, although part of our walk was on bitumen, the only vehicle we passed was the regional mail van, and the only others we noticed were tractors in the fields and a Citroën, parked in its old garage.
For us, one of the nicest things about this day was that the Trip Notes were relatively believable! After the five hours suggested walking time, we were actually sitting in the sun in the centre of Quillan, drinking coffee and beer, and people watching.
Because Quillan is a town of reasonable size (population 3,406 in 2007) we were booked into a hotel and needed to find our own dinner. We were reading the ‘Specials’ outside an Italian restaurant when the owner leaned out of an upstairs window and directed us to the English menu on the opposite side of the sign-board. He knew no self-respecting French person would be reading a dinner menu at only six in the evening! They wouldn’t even be open for another hour, so we sat outside the tabac downstairs for some kir, and some more people watching. A sketch artist would have had a field day – though many many of the resulting drawings could easily be mistaken for caricatures.
It was the Saturday eve of Palm Sunday, and a parade of residents filed past us on their way home after church, clutching small boughs of greenery representing palms. Old men in battered felt hats and shiny grey suits shuffled along side matronly women in black dresses, black sweaters, and kerchiefs. An impossibly thin, tall woman with her grey hair pinned in a perfect french roll, wearing oversized pearls and a cream and navy wool suit, circa 1960’s, crossed the plaza with her friends, similarly decked out in Sunday best that looked as if it had been washed, polished and mended every week for forty-plus years. In ancient times, Quillan was a major stop-over between Carcassonne with Perpignan. Today, the population is not only reducing with each census since the mid-seventies, it is ageing significantly and a staggering 17% of residents are 75 or older.
The evening ‘bar’ crowd sharing the tabac with us were of two different groups, distinct from the church-attenders. A small group of round-faced middle-aged male British expats with large bellies and large beers alternated between their outside smoking table and watching the soccer match on TV indoors, while a larger loose group of Hispanic-speaking itinerant workers came and went, kissing cheeks with each other, sitting, sharing news, smoking gitanes and drinking pastisse (the ubiquitous anisette liquor) before kissing cheeks again and moving on. Resembling gypsies of old, these people all had black hair, dark colouring, and handsome angular features. One bent-over tiny old man with a wizened face, tattoos, earings and dread-locked hair limped in with his large pack and medium-sized dog, like a character out of a French version of Charles Dickens.
How I would have loved to have taken pictures!
But, sometimes it does not feel appropriate to ask. More mental images that never made it onto the camera ~ mes souvenirs ~ my memories.