It can be quite easy to forget, at times, the sheer vertical scale of this landscape: despite the flatness of the plain of the Roussillon, our surroundings have a mountainous aspect which nowhere in Britain can match. One result of this is that you can change seasons quite easily - by driving up into the mountains. This means, for instance, that if you are lamenting the disappearance of the cherry blossom around Céret, (and it was lovely), then you can catch up with it again, perhaps by driving up Vallespir, on to the higher shoulders of Canigou. We did this less than two weeks ago, heading up towards Montferrer, and leaving the car at a viewpoint between that village and Corsavy.
One or two tracks lead you from a large parking area towards an easy ridge which takes you up to the craggy site of an old castle. This is a place that I first discovered on that momentous family holiday in a gite close to Montferrer, and have loved ever since. It has wonderful views, both out to the Roussillon and the Mediterranean, and up to the peaks and ridges of Canigou, still outlined with the brilliance of snow. We had our sandwiches up on the scanty ruins of the castle, admiring the slopes beneath us which were splashed with the softer white of the wild cherry blossom. Somewhere close by, a cuckoo was calling. While Martine dozed in the sun, I looked around the low walls and bushes and was pleased to find the first cowslips of the year - this is a plant I have always loved but not that often seen: I remember that when I was very small, we found expanses of it on the sandy coasts near Elie in Fife and, decades later, I was delighted to find some smaller but thriving colonies in similar places in Orkney. Here, it really seems, (mystifyingly to me!), to be a woodland plant- and, true enough, on a high, forest road on the south side of the valley, I found a lot of it growing on the verges and in small meadows, while driving around on Easter Sunday.
Here it was accompanied by the deep blue aquilegia or columbine, another of my favourite flowers. Again, slightly strangely, in Orkney, in the exposed and sandy conditions so prevalent there, we had a garden aquilegia of a deeper blue. It bloomed later of course, but seeded prolifically, and made a wonderful show in the summer.
On the way up to the castle, in the fast-growing young woodland we had looked at some beautiful wild anemones. Although you could justifiably call them "wood anemones", (and "the book" seems to suggest they must be anemone nemorosa), some of them, too, were distinctly blue in colour. This might be something to do with the nature of the local rock, perhaps, or a local variation?
Local walks at the moment are making me sneeze: I think it must be the heavenly scent of the false acacia tree, something like a white laburnum, but with thorns! The woodland paths are really lovely just now; although the big, white heather is fast going over, the wonderful, floppy-petalled, brilliant pink cistus is in full bloom, the smaller white one is just beginning and the soft broom is wonderful - the humming of the bees is constant at the moment. On my favourite walk recently, which is overhung with all these blooming bushes, I was trying to walk very quietly - it is actually quite difficult normally, with all the dry gravel, leaves, twigs and fallen acorns! On this occasion, though, I think I succeeded because I met a fox on the narrow path. Because there was no breeze and he did not get my scent, I had a few good views of him as he tried to assess whether the totally still figure in front of him was a threat. I think he was fairly old, or at least had hardly begun to moult out his winter coat, as he would hardly qualify as a "red fox" at all, looking mostly brown with a touch of grey. When he did decide that discretion was the better part of valour, he was, however, noticeably quick and light on his feet.
Our group is paying a lot of attention to bird-calls at the moment. Now that the wryneck has been triumphantly identified, I have been hearing it regularly from the house; they seem fairly vocal in flight. Birds heard one night, however, have rather stumped me; it was a beautiful night and just before bed I had gone out on to the terrace to look at the stars. As soon as I got out, I rather forgot about them, as it was clear that a few large birds were flying along the valley, calling as they went. The noise was very strange, vaguely like that of a goose crossed with a turkey, which is a description I immediately remembered Lesley had given to cranes flying at night. I went immediately to my trusty Bird-App, and spent the next half-hour listening to storks, geese, swans, even cranes - but the sound of cranes in flight was that of thousands of birds, while I had been hearing maybe three or four. In any case, why, around the 20th of April would three cranes be heading up Vallespir into the mountains? If they were not cranes, what on earth were they?