Originally it was hoped that Christmas would be spent in the Pyrenees, south of France with some friends. This was postponed due to the likelihood of heavy snow and risk of not being able to leave (not that I was complaining) but alas the weather forecast didn’t come to fruition and it was quite fine. So we rebooked for mid-January which again was forecast to be quite cold and snowing but we couldn’t miss the chance to visit our friends whilst living so close.
We flew with KLM from Southampton to Toulouse via Amsterdam. I was quite shocked at the flight time of 45mins to Amsterdam. Fortunately our hosts came to meet us at the airport; however there are a number of transport options (bus, train, and rental) that you can take to reach the south west. We found that booking a car hire with the flight booking worked out to be about £12/day but weren’t going to risk driving it on the right or on ice!
The view as we drove south was of snow-capped peaks disappearing as the sun lowered leaving a glowing red hue. Turning towards Saint-Girons and the Bousenac region, the temperature dipped to 5 and icicles were forming on the rock walls by the roadside. The valleys here can be very cold as the sun doesn’t reach it and further uphill it can be quite variable. On reaching Massat (alt 600m), we turned sharply and wound our way to reach our humble abode (alt 950m). We were lucky the roads were not iced over. After our long journey we settled into the converted barn with a glass of champagne.
This is what we got up to….
We woke to active snowing, whirling winds and everything was coated. The view of the valley opened up at times as the sun peeked through the clouds.
We remained quite comfortable, wrapped in mohair blankets and were treated to a number of delectable French delights. I enjoyed drinking the ‘Ricard Pastis’ aperitif mixed with water which resembles an aniseed flavour. A newly purchased contraption appeared on the table with two folding arms incorporating some heating elements. This is known for its’ effect on ‘Raclette’, a specific cheese variety that melts quite easily once heated. What a perfect day to make hot gooey cheese! It was never ending gooey madness that topped our boiled potatoes, baguette and locally smoked wild game sausages. Everyone should experience this! The afternoon was spent snow shoeing and meeting a local donkey. The shoes make the task of snow walking much easier especially up and down slopes.
We woke to the snow covering even more than yesterday and decided on a walk to the local Boulangerie (bakery) in Bousenac. The roads remained quite icy and with the steep gradient, caution was necessary. This bakery seems quite ordinary from the outside. When stepping inside there is a window looking through to ovens and work benches, and a simple wooden display for the counter. The baker dressed in a fluro striped knit first trained and was very successful as a patisserie chef. His patisserie delights are available on a Sunday only (it was Saturday), however there were a couple almond croissants idling in view. They have been named France’s best. I agree. We filled our 60L rucksack with baked bread and returned up the hill passing a number of hunters and their hounds. They spread out along the ridge and have the dogs work up the valleys in hope of spooking an animal towards the ridge.
Yesterday we made an extreme sled track down the hill, though on waking today, it was completely covered so that was about 40cm! Still determined to have fun, we dug the track out again and enjoyed the ride on the unsteerable sled. This weather is quite extraordinary as we learn the region has been snowless for the past three years and even a fire raged on the opposing ridge last week!. Access to anything else is very limited as the snow plough visits once at some stage during the day. The region is also quite well known for its’ ‘Cassoulet,’ a soupy stew with beans and duck which is truly tasty but indescribable by me as consumption was swift.
Again we woke to at least 30cm of snow overnight so the car that we left up on the street was boxed in on all sides. Today we shovelled it out and despite it being quite fluffy, it was very hard work took well over an hour between two of us. We enjoyed an afternoon walk exploring the road surface to see whether we would get out for our departure. It wasn’t looking likely as river streams converged on the road at junctions and pooled on the road. No doubt with some cold weather overnight, these areas will turn to ice and become very slippery. Walking in these conditions can be quite slow.
Our final day in the region was ominous as we stepped out onto the snow and realised it was packed hard. An interesting picture captured of a snow slip frozen in time.
I was able to run across patches up to 50cm in depth without it falling away. That wasn’t what we wanted to see when we were about to drive off the mountain. Locals soon told us that we were very brave (or our host was) to even attempt it. It wasn’t at its worse and thankfully the snow plough had been through but the road was still covered. We lost traction a couple of times and had to reverse uphill for a passing car, but otherwise we got there albeit at 7kms/hr. Strange though, that Massat and Saint-Girons had fine sunny weather and no snow in sight. It just goes to show the variable weather. We took the train from Foix to Toulouse (£8) before spending a night and flying out the following morning.
Despite being snowed in for a week, the opportunity to relax in good company was rejuvenating. The surrounds were beautiful and it was okay to remain indoors, reading a book, indulging in food and wine. On a better day there are a number of lovely cafes, restaurants, markets and activities such as skiing, hiking and cycling available. As snow remains a novelty for us, we enjoyed it often, chasing the dog, throwing it, building sled tracks or snow shoeing. Varied transport options are available and this region would be a great getaway to explore.