A couple of weeks ago, we decided that perhaps one way, if not actually to avoid the heat but at least reduce its impact, would be to head westwards into the mountains. Our plan was quite simple: we would aim as directly as possible for the moderately fast road to Quillan and Foix and beyond, as far as St Girons, when we would head south into the great mountains and return home, slowly, via various deep valleys and the cols between them.
It was fairly hot the day we travelled, and we decided that some of the valley campsites would be like ovens unless well provided with shade. The first few we saw did not inspire us and we ended up in one of our favourite valleys, the Vallée de Bethmale, where we idled round a most attractive little location, the small lac set in its (relatively) cool beechwood.
During the night, however, our delightful breeze turned into a major, buffeting, gale-force tramontane - 'though the air itself remained soft and balmy. It was so strong that not only did we not get a moment's sleep, but we decided that we must lower the "tent" of our VW van, for fear that its structure would be harmed by the violent gusts. The morning dawned calm, hazy-to-overcast and peaceful - but we were far from rested.
For some reason which no doubt seemed good at the time, we decided to do a walk from this col into the mountains, to an étang which did sound truly delightful. Well, to cut a long, hot story short, bits of the path were indeed lovely, but others were horrible - and, quite soon, the light clouds rolled away, the sun blazed out, and the humidity rose to about one hundred percent.
Let us omit the details of the sweaty toil up the steep, rough track and concentrate instead on the good bits.
The first led through the cool blue-green of high beechwoods, out into a large clearing, full of countless wildflowers. It was magical; there is no point in trying to list the flowers, it would just be quicker and simpler to give you a book of mountain flowers - most of them were there. One of those which caught our eye at once was chicory, common enough in places by the roadside, but we had never seen it so spectacularly in a mountain meadow. And there was a thalictrum, one of the rue flowers, that was lovely, and further on, some of my favourite dark columbines- but dozens of others as well.
But it also became clear that there was another group; there were some below us in the cirque, and we looked down on the great span of their huge wings. Our view was good and there was no doubt they were griffons. Martine tried to photograph them, but they were, effortlessly, moving quite fast on the thermals and remarkably soon overhead- where they were joined by yet another group from behind us. We concluded that we were watching at least thirty of these huge birds, and then, as we did so, several of them began to land on a dramatic rock pinnacle some distance away, but clearly seen with the binoculars.
So there, on a craggy rock, with the glory of Pyrenean peaks behind them, catching the sun as they wheeled round to join the others, we watched this astonishing wildlife spectacle - as dramatic in itself as something out of Africa. This is, indeed, glorious mountain country.