Tag Archives: transhumance

Wet Sheepy Stuff

Writing Residency Day 2

Following yesterday’s apprehensions, something did go bump in the night. Several times. It was rather like a severed head bumping–… actually, let’s not go there. I kept my eyes squeezed tight shut so as not to discover a ghostly lady in long skirts standing over me, and soon fell asleep again in my museum.

As predicted, today was very sheepy and very wet. I’m proud to announce that I did the transhumance (accompanying the sheep from the valley to the mountain pastures), and I did it no less than twice.

The first was the traditional ceremony, in which flocks of sheep left from their individual farms and joined at Estaing, where they took the road up to the Lac d’Estaing lake.

There were three types of flock:

 

 

 

 

In other words: flocks of sheep; flocks of tourists walking behind each flock of sheep; and flocks of cars, driving behind each flock of tourists, which walked behind each flock of sheep. (I could go on with this game, but I’ll stop there).

It was a fascinating sight, and I particularly liked the way the sheep would snatch mouthfuls of grass from the verges at any opportunity. One flock of 5 sheep was led by a pony and children from the local villages, who sang their hearts out during the whole length of the 12km (4-hour) hike.

 

 

 

 

At the lake, the sheepdogs rounded the sheep into pens, the tourists bought local products and then everyone went off for a good, French midday meal to the music of clanking sheep-bells.

 

 

 

 

The sheep contented themselves with chewing the cud, sleeping, er…praying? singing? (look hard at that last photo, behind the black sheep).

 

 

 

 

Three hours later – I’d had lots of time to study the sheep, take photos and scribble notes by then – the flocks were blessed by a priest.

This particular priest was a visitor from Madagascar, and I loved his big smile.

He flicked holy water from a red bucket (that made me smile) over the flocks –  and then over the crowd (though I’m not sure if this was protocol or him having a laugh).

I caught the shuttle bus back ‘home’ and just had time to dry out my coat and trousers before I met up at my next appointment.

This was at Pascal and Dominique Gainza’s farm, where I’d been invited for a proper, real-life transhumance. An evening transhumance.

Someone, however, was missing.

“Where’s the dog?” asked Pascal.

I don’t know if this is tradition or real life, but the next 15 minutes were spent driving around the village looking for Dora the border-collie-cross. Without Dora, we could forget taking the sheep anywhere.

We eventually found her hiding in her kennel, and proceedings were able to begin at 7:15pm. 

What came next was the most magical of mountainous experiences, and I felt very privileged to be included.

With Dora nipping at the sheep’s heels and Pascal and Jerôme telling sheepy anecdotes, we threaded through magnificent, ancient woodland to the Col des Bordères at 1500 metres high.

From there, we continued upwards, arriving at a tranquil pasture as dusk fell, three hours after we left the valley.

The sheep amazed me because once we were past Aucun, they knew exactly where to go – even turning left at a road junction. They did ignore the No Entry sign, though.

I swear the horned cows we met in the open pastures recognised the sheep. They joined the woolly party and continued heading upwards all together after we left them, no doubt gossiping about the shameful behaviour of that good-for-nothing Sally Sheep from the neighbouring flock.

Or perhaps they were heading to a cow-bell rave party on the heights above the Col du Soulor.

In any case, we headed back down the track in the dark, admiring the lights of Arrens and Marsous from our lofty lodge. And I resolved that one day I would spend a night up on those restful pastures.

Many thanks to Pascal and Dominque for their generous invitation.

(The late hour and misty weather explain the poor quality of photos – nothing to do with me being exhausted).

And, by the way, I may not have done any proper writing, but I had some fantastic experiences and took lots of notes. Does that count?

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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