Thursday, 25 August 2016

Sunrise at Red Rock Bay

Walk along East Coast Path. (South-east Scotland)

The day started off grey-skied. I was so ill-prepared that I forgot various things. Most importantly I only realised once I was at the bus stop, was a sleeping bag. We were going to camp (C was bringing the tents) and I'd quite forgotten about a sleeping bag. I phone C – and he had forgotten to  pack his too! But he hadn't yet left his house. I'll bring two he chirrups. I was beginning to feel that this was a doomed expedition but he'd lost none of his optimism. For I'd remembered that we'd have to carry everything as we walked. I'd been thinking when I suggested camping out, of how much I had enjoyed camping in France. But then, our tents were parked on a campsite and when we walked we didn't have to carry anything. I phoned C again to say I wanted to call it off. Instead of camping we could just go for a walk that day. C's phone was switched off.

When we met up, he was cheerful. It's fine, I don't mind carrying both tents he said. So I could hardly complain about my much smaller pack with only overnight things, spare clothes, food, book, notebook and my sleeping bag transferred from his pack. Yet even that came to feel very heavy. And C's, which I tested, was so heavy I could barely lift it.

But as we walked, the grey clouds flicked their tails like fish in the sea of sky and headed south. We walked north along the cliff path looking down on greyish sea turning to blue. There were some rocks by the bays and inlets that were folded with careful precision, an arrangement of time and slow movement. 

Rocks must have a very different sense of time to us I say. We look at dragonflies and think what a short life they have and feel a little sorry that it's so short. Maybe rocks look at us and think the same. 

They look like a loaf of sliced bread says C. 

My goal was Eyemouth and coffee. None was available in Burnmouth.  As the cliffs and shoreline are ragged and indented, so the path weaves around the sea edges.

When we finally were in sight of Eyemouth, it still look a while before the path dipped down to the harbour piled with fishing creels and lobster pots at the end and several fishing boats on the oily water. 

The breeze vanished and I suddenly felt I was in somewhere quite unfamiliar, some small town in an unknown part of mainland Europe, hot, still streets on the other side of the harbour. I felt exhausted, my shoulders ached and we sat outside at the first café we came to. The coffee was delicious. One of the things I'd forgotten was my water bottle which I'd filled, ready to pack, then left behind. But there are shops in this small town and I bought a bottle of water. Totally revived, we continue. 

The path goes up  the cliff side and skirts the caravan site. It was now late afternoon and we were thinking of finding a place to pitch the tents. We had seen one perfect place on the way to Eyemouth and considered going back there. No let's go on I said.

There are fields of ripening grain on our left – wheat and barley, all yellow against the blue of sky. It was a pleasure to walk in this warm sunshine these rich colours on either side, and a slight breeze.

And after the path went inland a little, to skirt a fjord-like cleft in the land, then came back on the other side of the inlet, there was a flat and grassy place beside the sea, covered with clover. I like this I said, let's camp here. It was a sheltered bay, no wind, no midgies. The shore was red stones and the cliff was red rock.

A ring of red stones on the grass showed that others had camped here, and made a fire. And we did too, once we'd put up the tents as there was plenty of dry driftwood sticks lying on the red-stone beach. 

As we ate our provisions a flock of birds flew overhead, heading out to sea. We couldn't make out what kind of birds they were, not seagulls – possibly they were pigeons going home to St. Abbs, where there's a colony who live in a dovecot there.

One solitary wide-winged bird wheels and cries along the cliff-top. It felt as if it was coming to see us, marking our place and passage, a cliff-top guardian.

The sky, a newly perforated container, leaks light, and a bank of clouds turns deep pink, a series of ruffles that look solid as cream. C looks through his binoculars. They look like the surface of a planet he says.

We sit by the fire, watching the clouds fade into blue-grey then merge with the night.
To go to sleep listening to the sounds of the sea.

During the night I hear a few bird calls and several loud barks. I thought it was a dog, a wild fierce sounding dog, a guttural warning in the night. Always ready to mine a bank of unformed fears I conjured up a molosh, one of those huge mastiffs that protect flocks and will attack anyone coming near their flocks unless their master calls them off. But there were no approaching sounds, no more barking. In the morning, C, who had heard it too thought it might have been a deer or a fox, very unlikely to have been a dog.

From the tent I watched the sun rise over the water, appearing briefly between ledges of cloud. 

These pictures were taken from the tent (hence the line of the guy rope), as it was a chilly morning and I was not ready to get up yet. I don't think I have ever seen the sky and sea this golden colour before. When I've seen photographs like this I've assumed that the colours have been altered, but I haven't changed anything in this photograph. And this golden colour was exactly how it was, the sky, the sea and the air all around. This was taken a few minutes before 6 am. Just as an experiment though, I pressed the 'image colours adjust' button, which usually enhances the colours - and this is what came out - very different!

The sky became overcast but after we packed up we headed to Coldingham Bay, then on to St Abbs, to wait for the café to open so I could have the necessary morning coffee. 

My back was aching in various places now. We followed the Creel Path to Coldingham and got a bus back to the city, a strange place full of bustling people. And I came home to my wondrously peaceful house and garden. Where today the sun shines in a late summer, insects pursue their busy lives and the shadows of rowan and cherry trees have stretched their shady, cooling fingers. 

On the Creel Path

Monday, 15 August 2016

Saint-Exupéry - La Guerre est une Maladie

photo credit:Vagabond Productions

I recently went to see The Nine Lives of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, (Vagabond Productions) in the Edinburgh Fringe. I wept at the end.  I've been fascinated by Saint-Exupéry's writing and his life for some time, and the play made me return to a (still unfinished) piece I wrote a few years ago. I've included some of it here.

There was a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Flight to Arras in my parents' bookcase. It had a creamy hard cover and the title was written in gold letters on a black background. As a child, I was too busy reading my own books but I liked its appearance and its foreign sounding location, its whiff of the exotic.

Wikimedia Commons: St-Ex in Toulouse, 1933


My first introduction to Saint-Exupéry was at school, where we read Le Petit Prince in French class. I don't remember making any connection with the author of Flight to Arras, the cream-covered gold-lettered book.

I was in my thirties before I read Southern Mail and Night Flight. Books I was grateful to have come across, grateful that they had been written.

After my parents died I looked through the bookshelves but I couldn't find that book that remained so clearly in my memory.

Two years later, my son is studying at flight school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is over on a visit and one morning he appears wearing a T-shirt with one word written on it – Aéropostale. Where did you get that T-shirt? I exclaim. He thinks it was in Des Moines. But he hadn't made any association between that and Saint-Exupéry. I tell him – Aéropostale was the name of the company that Saint-Exupéry worked for, when he flew the mail planes. You remember The Little Prince? Of course, he says, you read it to us.

After he has returned to Tulsa, I go to a second hand bookshop looking for books by Saint-Exupéry. I find Southern Mail and Flight to Arras. I send the former to my son, and I keep the latter and finally read Flight to Arras.


La guerre n'est pas une aventure. La guerre est une maladie. Comme le typhus. (Saint-Exupéry) (War is not an adventure. It's a sickness. Like typhus.)

All casualties from WW1 are listed in books that are open to the public in the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. Their regiment and place of death is also listed. But not the specific place of death. Only 'France and Flanders'. My father said it was not known where his father was killed. 'Somewhere in France.' What he did not seem to know was that more information was available, if one knew how to go about looking for it. I did not know this myself until someone in a French class I was teaching talked about his researches into the place of death of a relative in WW1. It was possible to find out, he said. Nowadays with the internet of course it is much easier, and I made my own researches and eventually discovered where my grandfather was killed, and visited his grave, near Albert and Arras.

But my father had not known. France and Flanders. All his life, he did not know. But did he have some idea? Was that why he kept a copy of Flight to Arras in the bookcase? Or was it just a coincidence?

Saint-Exupéry was born near Lyon, into a large family. When he was still a child, first his father and then his younger brother died. Apparently the last words spoken to him by his younger brother were those he put in the mouth of the little prince – go away now, because if you stay you will think I am suffering.
When still in his teens, Saint-Exupéry persuaded someone to take him up in a plane. A deeply feeling and sensitive man, his passion for flying equalled his passion for writing, and the two were deeply intertwined. He was one of the first to fly mail planes for the company that became Aéropostale – to north Africa and later, in South America.

Wikimedia Commons:Breguet 14 used on the Casablanca-Dakar route

By the outbreak of WWII he had published three books, Southern Mail/Courrier Sud, Night Flight/Vol de Nuit and Wind, Sand and Stars/Terre des Hommes. They were extremely successful. In the first part of WWII, he flew sorties over the area of Arras.



It's 1940. The German tanks are pressing through northern France.
We stand to the enemy in the relation of one man to three. One plane to ten or twenty. After Dunkerque, one tank to one hundred, Saint-Exupéry writes in Flight to Arras. He is the captain of a team that makes reconnaissance flights. He is asked to make a sortie that the major admits is 'awkward'.

When a sortie was not 'awkward',
he writes, one plane out of three got back. Naturally, the ratio was not the same when the sortie was a nasty one. But I was not weighing my chances of getting back. …....The Group was to lose us more or less as baggage becomes lost in the hubbub of changing trains......

Flight to Arras is a description of that sortie. Mixed in with memories of childhood, it is also a meditation on victory and defeat, on what it means to be human, on duty and responsibility, on death.
'If I am alive' I said to myself, ' I shall do my thinking tonight.' Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.

His books have been described as the best books about flying that you will ever read. They are, but they are more than that. Meditations on the nature and the meaning of human existence, Saint-Exupéry, particularly through his experience in Flight to Arras/Pilote de Guerre, peers into the nature of the human soul, having been confronted with his own death.

...true we were already beaten...yet despite this I could not but feel in myself the serenity of [the others] I was filled with the sense of my responsibility. And what man can feel himself at one and the same time responsible and hopeless?

What am I if not a participant? In order to be I must be a the liberty not to exist. There is no growth except in the fulfilment of obligations.

After Paris fell, he escaped from France via Portugal and joined his wife Consuelo who was in New York. His aim was to convince the Americans to join the Allied armies, help defeat Germany and liberate France. But while he was there he discovered that his books had sold so well that he was now fêted as a literary star. And he was miserable because he was there in New York and not fighting with his fellow Frenchmen. He was considered, at 43, much too old to be a pilot. Sometimes he would lie for hours on his bed, consumed with misery. He could not bear to think of others fighting in France, while he was not. However, while in New York he wrote Pilote de Guerre
/Flight to Arras, describing that particular sortie he made during his time stationed in the north of France. He also wrote Le Petit Prince at this time. But all he really wanted was to participate in the war again.

Eventually he persuaded the authorities to let him go back, and take part. Stationed in north Africa with the Free French Air Force, he made several reconnaissance flights. 

On 31st July 1944 he left base on a mission to collect intelligence on German troop movements in and around the Rhone Valley in preparation for an eventual Allied invasion of France. 
He did not return.

In 1998, a fisherman found, south of Marseille, an identity bracelet with the names of Saint-Exupéry and Consuelo engraved on it. And a few years after that, pieces of a Lockheed Lightning plane were discovered on the sea bed near where the bracelet was found. French investigators later confirmed that the wreckage belonged to St. Exupéry's plane.

a metaphor comes into my mind. ….the individual is a mere path. What matters is Man, who takes that path.
(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras)

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Satie Synchronicity

Wikimedia - Portrait of Erik Satie by Suzanne Valadon

A case of synchronicity. I've adored Erik Satie's piano music since I first heard it decades ago. So when I saw there was a show on during the Edinburgh Fringe called Erik Satie's-Faction, I went to the press office to get a ticket, intending to review it. I saw the show on Friday, and I was working on the review this afternoon, and had Radio 3 on in the background, as I often do, when I realised I was listening to the very show I had seen live a couple of days ago! I'd had no idea it was going to be on the radio (and it was actually part of the Proms).  But though I recognized quite a lot of it, there were differences in the script (and more music). For example, in the radio programme, the part about Suzanne Valadon, the painter who Satie fell in love with, was not mentioned. (Their relationship was brief, as she did not return the intensity of his feelings, and had other lovers, which tormented Satie with jealousy.)

Wikimedia - Bouquet de Fleur par Suzanne Valadon
But I smiled particularly at one part, where Satie is talking about critics. And this part was definitely in the show. Also the fact that it was on the radio meant that I could make a note of his actual words which I was too covered with a kind of amused embarrassment to write down at the time (and besides, he'd taken my notebook!).

In the actual performance, I was sitting in the front row, which was on a level with the stage, scribbling away in my notebook. And when Satie (played by Alistair McGowan) started to talk about critics he suddenly turned to me and fixed me with a hard stare. He'd been talking about animals and then he said 'there are no critics among animals, this particular art-form is quite alien to animals, a human critic's brain however...' And this is where I got the hard stare...'is a store, a department store, you can find anything there, bed-linen, travel rugs, a wide range of furniture, French and foreign writing paper, gloves, umbrellas, hats, walking sticks....'. He then walked slowly over to where I was sitting and took the notebook very gently out of my hand and held it up for all to see. 'The constant gleam of pride in the critic's eye means he can't always see the pain he causes in his victims …'

This delighted the audience of course as all eyes turned to me. 'But I have never understood' he went on, 'why artists are so touchy about what critics say about them in their reviews. These artists, they should follow my good example...' and he hands back my notebook, walks back slowly, still looking at me 'I – am dazzled by the very presence of a critic, he shines so brightly that I blink for more than an hour after he has gone, I kiss the footprints of his birkenstocks...' (I was wearing sandals – the word he uses on the radio is 'slippers') 'I drink in his words from a long-stemmed champagne glass – well, it is only polite.'  

Alistair McGowan plays Satie

Oh I wish I'd been more quick-thinking and said – but I will write a good review, of course I will, I've always loved your music and I love you too and I would have stayed longer with you than Suzanne did!

Erik Satie's-Faction plays at The Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 12.50, daily (except 9, 16 and 23) until 28 August 2016
Starring Alistair McGowan

My review is up on Cafe Babel

Wednesday, 20 July 2016


In the village of Monségur

Monségur, Languedoc, France in June 2016

You could call him the Magus of Monségur. He always carries a staff with him and wears a wide-brimmed felt hat. He has a solidity of presence, a compact energy and deep brown eyes which when they look at you give you the sense of looking into expanding ripples on water surface just after a stone has been thrown in.

We follow him into his living-room which is lined on all sides with books – on history, anthropology, mythology, poetry, the esoteric and occult, shamanism, art,
Rennes-le-Chateau, the Cathars, whole sections devoted to books by Lovecraft, Poe, William Blake, Otto Rahn, and many others. The log fire is burning, fills the room with the sweet smell of wood smoke. He goes into the kitchen area to make us coffee and we arrange ourselves on various deep armchairs and gaze around us at the pictures on the walls, some of them painted by his mother he tells us, an artist and anthropologist in South Africa, but who returned to live in Ireland. He shows us one of her paintings that isn't on the wall – a beautiful detailed depiction of 'Goblin Market'.

He has pledged himself he says to protect the pog – the mountain – with the ruins where the Cathar castle of Monségur once stood, on the top. As is the tendency of new religions, to replace the sacred sites of the former religion, the Goddess of Monségur was present before the time of the Cathars (1100-1200s), he says. And as well as the pog itself, the surrounding mountains are full of old legends and folk-tales.

In the kitchen, as we make coffees for six people (Nescafé Espresso – recommended) he tells me that the castle is still seen as a heretical place, rather than being included and sheltered under the protective umbrella of the Catholic church, as a sacred place. And did you know he says, and he looks at me as he talks, as he looks at everyone – not glancing which might suggest he was furtive or indifferent, not staring as if you were an object or a minion, but a look held long enough that makes you feel included, a fellow-traveller on the path. Did you know that every year the villagers in Monségur had to perform a ritual penance for having offered sanctuary to the heretical Cathars? They had to drag a cross to the site where the last Cathars were burned.  Otherwise they would suffer a papal anathema. And that this practice lasted up until the 1920s?
I had not known.

Later, he takes us up a path where there's a good view of the surrounding mountainsides and deep valleys and points out what he says is called 'montagne de la Frau'. I wondered, he said, why it was called the mountain of the lady, until I realised that it came from an old Occitan word, which translates into French as 'frayeur', in other words, the mountain of fear. He didn't elaborate on why it was given this name, though hinted at various folk tales from which the name derives. 

Over lunch, he drops it quietly into the conversation that once people have been living here for a while, they begin to have very interesting dreams. 'And they start to say things like – I could really do with some chain mail or – I need to find a sword' – and he smiles. 'It could be something in the morphic field.' (Rupert Sheldrake's work on morphic resonance includes his theory on how memory can be inherited).

Formerly living in South Africa where he was an anthropologist and film maker (he still is, you can see a clip from his latest film The Otherworld/L'autre Monde here) he has lived in 
Monségur for over ten years and gives guided tours of the area. He also talks of the current plans by the commune to make improvements to the area around the pog and its ruined castle. To create a visitor centre, to fence off the hillside and, possibly, to have the castle floodlit, which he says would be detrimental to wildlife. (Since then the Mairie has responded and made a clear statement that there are no plans to fence off any areas or restrict access or have it floodlit, to the relief of all those who were concerned.) 

The castle of Monségur

After another excellent lunch, climbing up the steep path to the pog of
Monségur crowned by its castle ruins, we witness a turning point in the weather. The fine rain has stopped, the mist is clearing, leaving just a shelf of clouds high up in the sky, and filmy wreaths of mist around the mountain tops. The higher we climb, getting ever closer to these clouds, they begin to break up and sunlight pours through like flattened gold coins on the surrounding plains and mountains.

 This marks the end of the days of rain and cloud, the end of the moody reign of damp and veiled vision, of separation from the sun. The clouds thin out and disappear, the late afternoon and evening shine with reflected light. Warmth and sunlight return to the south.




Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Sacred Places in the Rain

Although the recent political events have occupied a lot of my thoughts recently, I've decided that, at least for now, I'm not going to comment about them here. I've written about them elsewhere but I'd like to keep this as a place where I write about things I enjoy, travel, writing and good books!

Languedoc, June 2016


one of Alet's city gates

The next day it rained. I wonder if there is something about rain that shrivels the memory, covers it with a wet rag so one is confined to a compressed vision, a shrunken horizon. Little can be seen outside the car windows except the wet green of passing trees and shrubs, and the hypnotic movement of the windscreen wipers. And when I think back to visits to various places in the rain, there is a sense of being in a small place, attention fixed on detail, usually of interiors. So it can be just the kind of day to visit inside places, which was what we did.

First of all, the church of Saint Polycarpe in the village of the same name.
The monastery and church of St Polycarpe was founded several centuries ago. You can read a detailed history in French here, and see various photographs, all taken in fine weather!

The monks built a wonderful aqueduct, and you can see that its arches are in two distinct styles, both romanesque and gothic.


The church dominates the tiny village. Like many French churches it has a bullet-proof look of walled fortress doubling as refuge and sanctuary.

But it is quite different once you step inside. It seems smaller, much more intimate and the walls are a pinkish colour. This and the simplicity of the interior – there's just a few frescos on the ceiling, and three small stained glass windows – give it an attractive and restful feel. 


And even its jewel at the far end, under the altar, could easily be overlooked if you didn't know what to look for. And in the dim light, they are hard to discern.
These are relics of Saints Polycarpe and Benoit, although the monstrance – relic holder and ceremonial object – which is studded with gems and held by silver angels at each end, was rather disappointingly empty.

In the porch, before going into the church itself, a spiral wooden stairway snakes up into the bell tower.

I climb up and there's a small square gap in the wall, which is where I took this photo, looking down on the church. 

After another fabulous
déjeuner, this time at Limoux, we visit the nearby Orthodox Monastery of Cantauque.

Monastery courtyard

The monk who shows us round explains that because there is no French Orthodox Church they had to choose which orthodox church to be under and decided to be under the Romanian Orthodox church because he said, they had many links with that country. They had previously been based in the Holy Land near Jerusalem but when their monastery there closed in 2002, they moved here. They have seven monks, most of them French, but there is also one Romanian and one Albanian. They try, he said, to be self-sufficient, and on the surrounding land they grow crops and have a flock of sheep.

This capital carving (below, on the right) depicts the legend of Saint Martin's cloak. Don't you just love those stories which become the best-known information about saints? Saint Martin, on horseback, on seeing a beggar in rags, apparently cut his cloak in two, and handed half of it to the beggar.

This wikipedia link also gives the derivation, which I did not know, of two familiar words. Apparently the priests who cared for Saint Martin's cloak in its reliquary were called cappellani from which we get the French chapelains and the English chaplain. And the small churches originally built as places to house the relic were called 'capella' from which we get the word chapel.

It wasn't raining any longer as we drove home through the damp and misty air. Leaves on trees and bushes were glistening with hanging drops of moisture. But the peaceful atmosphere of the monastery stayed with us.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Rennes-le-Chateau & A Twilight Encounter

Rooftops of Rennes-le-Chateau

Henry Lincoln, one of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, is a friend of J's. He still lives in the Languedoc and gives talks and guided tours of the area. His prodigious knowledge of the history, geography, literature and mythology of the area means that he is frequently sought out by
researchers who are writing books or making films and documentaries.

With Henry's backing and encouragement, J and her husband, who sadly died a few years ago, started the Saunière Society, named after Bérenger Saunière, the priest at Rennes-le-Chateau (from 1885 - 1917) who suddenly became extraordinarily wealthy. When I first became aware of the Society, in the late 1990s, Henry was a regular speaker, drawing large crowds with his charismatic stories of his researches and discoveries in the Languedoc. Nowadays he does not travel so much.  

For most English-speaking readers Holy Blood, Holy Grail was where they first learned about the sudden wealth of Bérenger Saunière and the mystery of Rennes. (Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code acknowledges Holy Blood, Holy Grail as one of its sources.) This story has intrigued many people since then and several books have been written about Saunière and the mystery, some offering theories as to his sudden wealth, some linking him with Cathar treasure, others with treasure buried there when it was known as Rhedae, and said to be the capital of the Visigoth kingdom, or buried by more recent (19th century) rich people of the priestly or royal class, before they fled to Spain because of the French Revolution. There are other theories too, leaning more to religious or spiritual practices.

Inside the church at Rennes: Saint Roch, patron saint of pilgrims

I only know the most basic facts about the place, the priest and the mystery, but I enjoy listening to others who are funds of information about all of them and clearly find it all fascinating. The book that I read (after Holy Blood, Holy Grail) in order to find out more about this particular subject that arouses such interest and emotion, is Vi Marriot's The Fool's Coat.

Clearly written, Vi's book gives you the facts and the story and suggests possible answers to the mystery without wandering off into partisan or over-dramatic speculation and I would definitely recommend it. Available here and also available from Saunière Society,   which has the biggest selection of all books connected with this subject, and many others too.
The Society I should add, has meetings in various parts of the UK, with speakers on an incredibly wide range of subjects. Just to mention a very few of my favourites – Stephen O'Shea on the history of the Cathars, Lyn Picknett on Giordano Bruno and John Dee, Sylvia Franke on the Cathars and the Grail, Geoff Palmer on the history of the slave trade in Scotland and Terry Boardman  who takes the long view on history, referencing the work of Rudolf Steiner. 

The website of the Saunière Society gives details of forthcoming meetings.

Stories after all are what make us as human beings, what fire our imaginations, inspire and enhance our consciousness, infuse our lives with richness and possibilities. 'Who we are' – beyond our bodies, which don't change very much – are surely the stories that we tell about ourselves – to ourselves or to others – stories that come from our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and relationships, our actions, impulses and desires. We are brought up on stories if we're lucky, and continue to be fascinated by them, listen to them, tell our own, share them with others. Whether or not we believe them to be true, that's another matter, but the effect they have on us and our imaginations, that's surely one of the joys of life.


Inside the Villa Bethanie, built by Sauniere in early 1900s

Rennes-le-Chateau – or  Rhedae as it was known then – is said by some to have been the capital of the Visigoth kingdom and if so it must have been an important and significant place, and surely, so I imagined, much bigger than it is now, a small hilltop village. Though the interest of the past few decades has certainly put it back on the map, for treasure hunters of both the literal as well as the spiritual kind.

From the top of the hill at Rennes we looked out across the surrounding hills with the villages and small towns in the valleys. It is impressive landscape, even on an overcast day, the thick grey wads of clouds pacing across the sky.

I was last here 26 years ago. It seemed to seethe then, with a manic energy. Huge banners were stretched across the streets, massive placards shouted to you about 'the secret' – the Church, the priest, the treasure – and you were invited to go and view the films about it, visit the 'terrible' Church, buy the books etc. The narrow streets were packed with people. We did not stay long.

Today, all these years later, there's hardly anyone in the streets, a few visitors only in the church, the Museum with its brand new visitor centre, and the bookshop. J has been coming here twice a year for decades and knows lots of people, the bookshop owner and the owner of the restaurant, Le Jardin de Marie, with its wide terrasse on the top of the hill. The owner, Morgan Marrot – I've known him since he was a little boy, says J – is fun and friendly, full of laughter. 

Several friends join us for lunch here. We sit inside as it's a little chilly. The food is marvellous and the scent of the wood-burning stove brings back so many good memories of other times I've spent in the south of France.

View over the surrounding countryside from la Tour Magdala in Rennes

In the evening, back in Alet, I go for a walk on my own, one of the GR routes which follows the river for a while though the trail is high up, with a view overlooking it.

On both sides of the path the steep hillside is thickly wooded. The clouds have almost cleared and the evening is fine. The path crosses over a bridge – underneath it is the railway bridge, which soon disappears into a tunnel in the mountainside and below that, is the road and the river Aude.


There's a small tower-like building beside the path just before it crosses the bridge. I imagine it has something to do with the railway. It's cream coloured plaster wall is painted with red graffiti – OCCITANIA, LIBERTARIA!  it announces.

I don't want to be out walking in the dark, so I follow the trail for about an hour then turn back. The evening is turning dusky, mysterious, the mountains in the distance, deep green against the pinkish sky. 

On my right, on the steep slope between the path and the river, I hear a rustling sound, quite loud. It continues, as if something is trampling along a parallel path among the trees and bushes. I stop and listen. And then suddenly, only a few metres in front of me, a dark stocky shape jumps across the path and immediately disappears uphill into trees and undergrowth on the other side. 

A wild boar! It's the first time I've ever seen one. What a gift!