Tag Archives: Le Kairn

Hide and Seek with Bears and Boys

Writing Residency Day 9 (last day *sobs*):

I understand now why mountainy people get up early:

1st photo: from my room at 7:30 am.

2nd photo: from the office window 7:35 am.

3rd photo: from my room again at 7:45 am.

So what does a writer do on the last day of a writing residency at Arras-en-Lavedan?

Easy: instead of doing one research trek, the keen writer does two. Especially when it’s so misty that there is zero visibility at the top of the mountain.

The first trek took me to the Col d’Arras, where I was sure I’d be able to find a path onto what looked like summer pastures under the Pic d’Arragnat. I wanted to know whether Eole, my protagonist, was hanging around up there.

Perhaps he was. But with heavy bracken vegetation and little grass, I didn’t think it was likely. OK, I admit I wasn’t very persistent. Nor would you be if you heard a kind of growly-barky roar in the bushes and you were very much alone on the mountain.

I hot-footed it back down the non-path, got lost, panicked, struggled over a barbed wire fence and landed on my butt in the mud. I felt much better on the other side of the fence, despite the ripped trousers, and even a bit silly. After all, I could easily have defended myself with my swiss army knife. Couldn’t I? That’s what the bloke in the shop said, anyway.

(Don’t tell my sisters about this: they already split their sides laughing the time, aged 10, I was chased by a herd of cows and ended up clinging to a pole in the middle of a field).

As I write this, I’m listening to brown bear noises on Youtube, and I must admit that the noise is exactly what I heard. Though I guess that’s like looking up illnesses on the Internet to check your symptoms.

On the subject of bears in the Pyrenees, the original race of Pyrenean brown bear died out and Slovenian brown bears were introduced in the 1990s. In 2016 there were 39 bears, of which 2 in – omigod – this area… perhaps its just as well I’m leaving tomorrow! And, reading on through my informative source, if you come face-to-face with a bear you should retreat progressively. Not panic and run. Oh dear.

My Col d’Arras mission had aborted but, happily unaware of the real possibility of meeting a bear, I decided to attack the mountain from further along. There was definitely a path from Arcizans-Dessus up to the Col de Liar, and it passed straight through the said pastures.

Arcizans-Dessus is a tiny village that hugs the flank of a mountain – and boasts 22 watermills. Here are a few of them, lining the Anisaous stream and looking like a Pyrenean version of a housing estate. Some of the cute mills have been restored as cottages, while one serves as a demonstration mill.

The photo below resumes my morning’s research.

It took me an hour and a half of walking up steep z-bends to reach the silent, deserted Col de Liar. I did hear the eerie ring of bells through the mist on my way up, and there was a cold bonfire spot in the flat land at the top – but there was no sign of Eole and his sheep.

At least I determined that what looked like lush green pastureland from a distance was actually bracken (animals don’t eat bracken), so I guess that’s why this land isn’t grazed.

Coming back down, I was struck by a change in the mist. High up, its cold fingers creep down your back, soak your hair and drip dewdrops onto your eyelashes. But lower down it feels warm and steamy, like a Turkish bath, and the sappy, green tang of bracken gives way to the sweet aroma of elderflower. I’ve never experienced this with mist before – so my morning wasn’t a total waste of time, after all.

Back in the village I visited the church (Eole’s mum is dead religious) and found this guy sitting outside looking at MY mountain. He was made by Pedro Frémy, who also made the village carousel I mentioned in Day 6’s post as well as the other metal beasties around the Maison des Arts. Cute, eh?

Finally, I went to Le Kairn for my 5pm talk about my novel Tree Magic. Once again, I had to struggle through the crowd to get inside (actually, there was a crowd, but they weren’t interested in me).

It was lovely to catch up with my Lumineuse writing group friend Min, and I was delighted to see Bob from Laguépie, who I met at the Parisot Festilitt last year, and who had driven for 5 hours to see me.

Maybe they’d heard I’d be serving Pineau after the talk?

Pineau is the traditional aperitif in the Cognac area, and I’d brought a bottle for a farewell drink with all the lovely people who have hosted and befriended me this week: Françoise Gourvès, stained-glass artist extraordinaire and also my host at the Maison des Arts; multi-talented Karine from Le Kairn; Dominique Gainza with the strong, cheese-stirring arm muscles from the Val d’Azun sheep&goat farm; and Véronique the costume queen.

Many thanks to you all, and also to those who couldn’t make it: Alex from the mairie & Maison des Arts, Pascal Gainza, Valentine from Le Kairn, Caroline the costume-maker, Charles the Mayor and all the individuals who answered my (sometimes strange) questions.

And thanks to you who have followed these writing residency blog posts and those of you who came to my talks.

I’ll calm down now, and go back to my monthly posting habit.

Bye-bye, Arras-en-Lavedan. I’ll be back to say hello (with more bottles of Pineau) before too long.

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Spying and Lying

Writing Residency Day 4

I wonder if people in the village noticed the way I hung around today, scribbling in my notebook and taking photos of strange things like the grill on the road?

Perhaps the old man I said hello to was suspicious. Perhaps that’s why he came out and pretended to be weeding while I was taking a panoramic photo from his front gate – though it’s hardly my fault that my protagonist is going to live in his house (not the one in the picture, I hasten to add).

Luckily I had my map. Maps are useful for times when people are unlikely to understand the link between research and peering in through windows to take photographs. I think I convinced him I was lost… And actually I learnt he was born in the valley and knew the names of all the mountains. And he also told me loads of useful stuff about sheep.

Yes, today was calm, which meant that after a morning of writing I let myself slip into my protagonist costume and go for a walk around the village of Arras.

There’s an art circuit where you have to find what features in the landscape the silhouettes on the signs depict, and my protagonist thought he’d take a photo of one for you.

Outside, I discovered the mist had lifted from the valley and the sun was coming out. I had water in my bag, boots on my feet, a map in my hand and a swiss army knife in my pocket. (The swiss army knife was in case I saw the bear).

So it was no surprise that my protagonist found himself walking up to the top of the nearest mountain instead of around the village. The tops of mountains are much more his type of thing.

I say mountain but, at just 1097m, the Mont de Gez is really a hill. It was playing at being a mountain while all the real, rocky mountains were being snooty with their heads in the clouds. There’s a gorgeous view from the top: you can see valleys heading off in all directions. A group of dancers in a previous residency created a stunning video set there.

On my way home, I popped into Le Kairn, where I managed to get a photo of Karine. For once she was actually sitting down, relaxing – well, testing new recipes (read ‘eating lunch’ there). So here is the lovely lady! You may recognise her from one of the many mountain refuges she’s worked in.

Back at the Maison des Arts, I was surprised to find the doors wide open and the exhibition rooms empty.

Had thieves broken in? I hoped the man weeding hadn’t given the police a description of me.

Then I remembered: it was the final day for Raphaël’s photos and Roxane’s ceramics displays: tomorrow, Véronique Strub is moving in with her Dracula costumes.

Which means, I suppose, that I may bump into headless, half dressed vampires in my museum if I happen to go sleepwalking.

Never mind. It will be worth it if I can see how costume-makers work, in which case I’ll talk more about Véronique and her project later this week.

In the evening I watched the clouds lift as I wrote, and it wasn’t until night had fallen that I remembered my walk around the village.

Hoping the man wasn’t still out weeding, I picked up my camera and went out on a night expedition (with my swiss army knife).

I may not be courageous enough to spend a night alone at the Col des Bordères, with Pascal’s sheep and cows, but the village was another matter.

And this is what I saw: cool, huh? An owl and THE EYE!!!

Now it’s time for bed. Tomorrow I’m going to brave those hairpin bends and crazy French drivers and hit the heights (which is what my protagonist does the minute he can).

Goodnight, sleep well.

That’s SO Cheesy!

Writing Residency Day 3

Did you think that life in the mountains was tranquil?

I did. But that was before I met Françoise and Karine; before they introduced me to the friendly valley folk; before I got talking to the artists and culture-lovers who drop into Le Kairn bistro-bookshop.

It’s non-stop activities and invitations here, I’m telling you. If you want to meet like-minded people, Arras-en-Lavedan is the place to be. Even some famous bloke from French television will be here on Thursday, so I hear.

 

 

Anyway, after the exertion of yesterday’s transhumance, today was a little less physical but just as wet and busy.

It was also far less spooky (although the exhibiting photographer here at the Maison des Arts, Raphäel Paya, did have a go at making me scream).

 

 

First of all, I drove back to Pascal and Dominique Gainza’s farm in Marsous to learn all about a special technique. So here’s today’s challenge: look at these photos and guess what Dominique is up to:

Yes, she’s making cheese – today’s batch was Tome Des Pyrénées made from ewes’ milk. She also makes goat cheese and mixed-goat-and-ewe cheese, all of which you can taste and buy at their farm.

I’m not going to try to teach you all about cheese in a 500-word blog post, but if you read the novel I’m researching (and writing in the small hours here), you’ll pick up some tips. Here’s a brief explanation to go with the photos, though, because if I keep meeting interesting people it will be ages before my notes become a story.

Before we entered the room, which was lightly perfumed with ‘suckling baby’, Dominique had already begun her daily task of heating a vat of the day’s milk to 55°C. While we watched, she made the milk curdle by stirring it with that strange guitar-like instrument. Then she de-curdled it, this time stirring it with her arm for 30 minutes until the curds and whey separated. Next, she gathered the curds, threw away the whey (ooh, those words sound nice together), gathered up the curds into a doughy ball, which she cut into chunks and kneaded into the moulds.

I had lots of ideas while watching and listening: muscular right arms; music and goats; listeria and salmonella… And I liked the mix of traditional and modern when Dominique stirred with her right arm and answered her mobile phone with her left.

But time was pressing, and I had to go to Le Kairn to prepare my Tree Magic talk. In reality, this meant eating lunch with Karine and meeting French writer Manoell Bouillet, who had dropped by and introduced herself to Karine.

Manoell writes plays and creates soundscapes, and may help Karine create a poetical circuit around the village. I told you Le Kairn was a networking hotspot. Karine went back to work behind the bar, Manoell and I had writerly discussions – and then I introduced her to Alex (who I met on Saturday, and who works on the art circuit in the village) before welcoming my first talk guest.

Here’s a photo of me during the talk. There are actually at least 500 fans sitting just out of sight and lots of security guards to keep back the screaming crowds who forgot to book and couldn’t squeeze in.

Seriously, it was great to meet some readers and discuss writing experiences. The lovely Scottish playwright Gloria Carreno was a real inspiration to me because she writes plays in English and French.

She has produced them in Edinburgh and London – in fact one is currently under consideration with La Comédie Française – and it was fascinating to listen to her experiences of how a script becomes a play. She’s also keen to meet other playwrights – and theatres which would like to produce her work.

With the day’s activities over, I was able to return to my little room, where I typed long into the night.

Tomorrow is going to be a calm, writing day.

In theory.

Behind the Scenes at the Maison des Arts

Writing Residency: Day 1

Have you ever been locked up in a museum overnight?

No, me neither, but that’s exactly what has happened to me tonight in the empty, locked-up arts centre. And there’s an eye looking at me through the window. I know it’s just part of an exhibition – at least, I presume it is – but it’s kind of spooky.

Outside, thunder swallows the sound of cowbells and the wash of invisible rain. And every so often, the church bell chimes. I could be feeling lonely and scared – but luckily I have company. I have the company of a mountain. Let me explain.

This morning I left Pau: I could say ‘with a heavy heart’, but, actually, if there’s one thing I love more than the town of Pau, it’s what lies south of Pau…

The weather wasn’t promising and there were no mountains in sight – until I reached Lourdes, when I was able to make out some dark outlines on the horizon.

My excitement doubled, tripled, quadrupled as I turned each bend and saw the sketches of mountain gradually become rocky reality, patched with snow. By the time I reached Argelès-Gazost, the peaks began to look familiar from last year’s camping holiday.

Arras-en-Lavedan is 2km up the Val d’Azun valley from Argelès, and I overtook several brave (crazy?) cyclists on their way to the Cols d’Aubisque and Soulor before I turned off the main road and into the heart of the village.

Most of the village is below the road, its narrow streets winding in a seemingly haphazard way around the small barn-houses and colourful gardens.

The Maison des Arts, with its stone tower and metal sculptures in the grounds, brought back memories of the day I spent here last summer, discovering this exhibition centre and chatting to Françoise Gourvès, one of the Abbadiale association members responsible for the exhibitions.

Françoise showed me to the living quarters: a bare, roomy bedroom with creaky floorboards and a desk.

But I hardly noticed the bedroom. My attention was immediately drawn to the window, and what lay outside. At least, what I thought lay outside.

It was a steep, wooded valley with a cute, pointy mountain at the top, poking the tip of its nose into the clouds. The trees waved the tips of their green fingers at me in the breeze, and when I opened the window I was charmed by the riot of exotic birdsong. The whole scene was enchanting.

And then the sun broke through the clouds.

What I’d been admiring was simply the foreground of my view. Before my eyes, the clouds lifted and out of the mist loomed another triangular peak, but higher. And then a third. The effect of the misty apparitions was like the double and triple of a rainbow, and I had to watch them for a few minutes before I was convinced all the peaks were real.

Luckily for Françoise, the mist drifted back across the peaks and I was able to leave the window and concentrate on what she was telling me – which was that some costume-making artists were meeting for lunch at Le Kairn bistro-bookshop, and that I could join them if I liked.

Le Kairn has only been open for 3 weeks, and Arras is a tiny – albeit dense with artists – village. So I was in no way prepared to see it installed in a huge building in the most prominent position next to the mairie.

The next surprise was the range of books: there’s an eclectic mix of unusual works, organised by theme in such an unconventional way that you spend hours browsing because you keep coming across something unexpected. This bookshop is going to become a reference in the whole region, I believe – and people will come to the village just to linger and buy. There are even books in English.

The bistro side is light and airy, perfect for writing while drinking a coffee. My attention was caught by the artistic tabletops, covered by pages from books, handwritten manuscripts and pictures from graphic novels.

And it was here that Karine, the owner, served us a Ploughman’s style lunch followed by the most delicious strawberry tiramisu. I was welcomed into the group of costume-makers, who were preparing for the Dracula open-air theatre play to be held this summer near Gavarnie. I’ll tell you more about them in a future blog post, as they will be in residence with me later this week.

While Valentine was taking my payment, Karine mentioned a local shepherd who told her I’d be welcome to visit. So that’s what I did. I met Pascal Gainza, from Marsous, who turned out to be the husband of Dominique, the friendly goat farmer I visited last summer. Pascal invited me to take part in his private transhumance – the moving of the ewes (a ewe is a female sheep, in case you’re a townie) from the valley to the mountain pastures for the summer.

‘Be here at 6:30 tomorrow evening, and we’ll show you the best viewpoint up there,’ he told me, adding that the Estaing transhumance is good for folklore traditions, but it’s better to see a real one.

So that’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow: firstly a touristy transhumance festival in the morning, then a real one in the evening.

At least, that’s what I’ll be doing if I survive my first night locked up in the museum. Actually, I have to go now, as I’ve got a burning desire to see where that staircase leads. And what’s behind the door at the top.


See you tomorrow for the next writerly instalment – a wet, sheepy one, judging by that thunder and the new whiteout view from my window.

And, yes, by the way, I did get some writing done between today’s social encounters.

Will it Get my Goat?

Oh no, here I am, back with more puns in my blog post titles. Today I’d like to share some exciting news that doesn’t get my goat at all – though I’m hoping it will allow me to get to know goats better.

I have been invited to be the writer-in-residence for a week at an arts centre in the heart of the Pyrenees.

In case your French geography is rusty, the Pyrenees are the pointy mountains in the south west of France, between France and Spain. They are also my favourite part of the country, which may be one reason why my novel-in-progress is partly set there.

Back in the 1990s, when I was studying French at Pau university, I used to walk along the Boulevard des Pyrénées every day and gaze at the mysterious peaks. Nowadays, I spend some time there every year (and cry when I have to leave).

Houses in the Val d’Azun

One misty day last summer, while my intrepid family were out potholing, I went to the Val d’Azun to research my novel setting. I stopped at the village of Arras-en-Lavedan, a few kilometres from Argelès-Gazost (and 25km from Lourdes), which is renowned as being a village of artists.

There, I discovered the Maison des Arts and met the curator, Françoise Gourvès, who is also a stained glass artist. She told me all about the association Abbadiale, which organises the cultural events and art exhibitions in the centre.

There was a wonderful display of paintings, ceramics and sculptures, as well as a permanent outdoor circuit around the village’s works of art. I was blown away by a video of a contemporary dance group who spent a week in residence there and created a dance on a peak above Arras-en-Lavedan.

I stayed in contact with friendly Françoise and, when she heard I needed to come back to the Pyrenees to research goats and ewes, she invited me to be their writer-in-residence for a week. This corresponded with the opening of the village’s new bistro-bookshop: Le Kairn.

Of course, I accepted!

So I’ll be staying in Arras-en-Lavedan from Saturday 3rd to Friday 9th June. During the week I’ll be researching and writing my novel (which is not only about goats). I’m particularly looking forward to the ‘transhumance’ event on Saturday 3rd June at Estaing. This is when the local shepherds, accompanied by the public, move their flocks from the valley to the mountain tops for the summer ‘estivales’ period.

I’ll also be reading from my novel Tree Magic and giving a talk about the journey to publication. This will be held on Sunday 4th June at 3pm at Le Kairn. As I’m there for a week, I can also make myself available one evening for readings and writerly discussions – so let me know if you’re interested.

Why not come and meet me and get your copy of Tree Magic signed? I’ll have some copies to sell, and we can share our experiences of writing, reading (and goats).

While you’re in the Val d’Azun, why not make a day of it (or even a weekend if you fancy the transhumance festival on the Saturday)?

Yes, I know they’re not goats – but they are Pyrenean sheep.

In the morning you could visit the Pyrenean trekking and traditions festival ‘Eldorando’ in the nearby village of Arrens-Marsous. You could have a lunch of local products there – or come to Le Kairn bistro for a meal – and then visit the permanent and temporary exhibitions at the Maison des Arts. As well as the permanent exhibition, Roxane Lasserre will have her ceramics on display and Raphäel Paya is exhibiting his photos until 5th June.

Then, if you’re not too tired, you could come and meet me at Le Kairn. It won’t get my goat if, after all that activity, you fall asleep during my talk!

Please let me know if you’d like to come, via my Facebook author page or blog contact tab, in case the arrangements change. I hope to see you soon.

Here are some practical details:

La Maison des Arts (next to the church at the bottom of the village): open Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday from 3-6pm.

Le Kairn (route du Val d’Azun): open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 7pm (open every day in the holidays).

Eldorando: 2nd-5th June. Nepal is the country of honour this year. Entry 2€ / day.

Tourist Office Val d’Azun (Place du Val d’Azun, Arrens-Marsous) Tel: 05 62 97 49 49