Palm Sunday. Hotel Cartier, Quillan.
My husband and I sat in the hotel breakfast room, people-watching surreptitiously over our coffee and croissants. The only other occupant of the room was a woman in walk-pants, about my age, with a round quirky face and short curly hair. She sat in a booth opposite us, unhurriedly drinking café au lait and thumbing through a glossy magazine. Meanwhile, in the hotel lobby, a fit-looking man of about the same age, in impossibly-short shorts (of the kind only Europeans would wear), woollen socks and solid hiking boots, hoisted a large back-pack onto his shoulders and paced: alternating between coming into the dining room to talk to the woman; checking the roll of topographical maps and guide book he was carrying; and querying the elderly proprietor in the lobby as to the best routes out of town.
It was the first morning of the second half of our walk through the Cathar Castles of the Pyrenees. I have written before about the colourful characters that inhabit the region, and once again we were to find the people on the road every bit as fascinating as the area’s history and scenery. The two French-speakers we’d been watching seemed to be together, yet they were so clearly not marching to the same rhythm!
After our breakfast, we too, got instructions from the hotel proprietor and, leaving the French couple behind, set off on a shortcut to find the sentier Cathare (the Cathar trail). We strode out at a good pace, reaching Ginoles, the first of our Pyrenean villages, ahead of schedule.
From Ginoles, it was all up hill! Literally.
Up a coline de schiste noir, a black oil shale hill, radiating with heat and riddled with loose stones that threatened the safety of our ankles, knees and hips, we played leap-frog with the French couple: over-taking or being over-taken by one or both of them, each time with a polite “Bonjour!”, as we made our way up the seemingly endless hill before entering a pass through the forest and coming out the other side at Coudons.
According to our notes, there was a restaurant at Nébias offering regional cuisine (Restaurant Le Thury, 66 Allée Promenade – no internet!). Not withstanding how good our packed picnics had been along the way, we were ridiculously excited by the prospect of eating our lunch in chairs! We sat at a plastic table outdoors in the sun, savouring our main course and salad with wine, and enjoying our coffee with desert.
We walked down from the castle above, following the Troubadours’ Pathway, into the town of Puivert – possibly the most picturesque and charming town we had visited in the Pyrenees – to seek out our accommodation: Le Relais des Marionnettes. Here we got to meet a whole new cast of characters.
Our charming, articulate and rather bohemian hosts, Michel et Françoise Dubrunfaut, moved from Paris to Puivert ten years ago to follow their passion. In a chaotic workshop, crowded with fabrics, papers, paints, and clay body-parts, they create the most amazing marionettes. He moulds, carves and paints the faces and bodies, while she creates the costumes. Although many were caricatures, some were incredibly lifelike. With pride, Michel showed me his rendition of Mstislav Rostropovich, the celebrated cellist and conductor (1927-2007) as he looked, seated on his chair at the foot of the Berlin Wall playing Bach Suites, on the 11th of November 1989 when the Wall came down.
At 7:30 in the evening (the magic hour in the Pyrenees) we were downstairs in the common room, and over drinks (muscat, kir or pastisse) we met the other guests: seven other hikers from different parts of France, on various stages of their passage along the Cathar Trail. Katherine and Renaud, the couple we had been ‘meeting’ all day were from Paris. They, and two women, nurses from the Chamonix region, were walking the same direction as were were, while the other three women were walking the opposite way. Over a superb dinner of vegetable and nettle soup, rattatouille and chicken fettucini, and the best strawberry shortcake I’ve ever eaten, stories of walks across France and around the world bounced around the table (in French, of course) at a rapid rate.
That evening, the characters from the road danced around in my head, like marionettes on strings – each with it’s own own unique personality and story.
‘Till next time: To your health!