Chateau Valmy springs up into the sky, its midriff resting on a thicket of green treetops that spread a blanket across the Albères mountains that stretch out behind. The Chateau reminds me of the lyrics of the Joni Mitchell song, a glorious place where there are “ice-cream castles in the air”.
Driving up by the vineyard that lies on the sloped hill leading to the castle, the fairytale comes alive. I think about younger days before bills and mortgages when I dressed up in flouncy dresses and dreamed of possibilities that I would grow up to live in a palace. Somehow, the plan went a little awry.
By the way, in case of any doubt, the first picture is of my chateau.
But does anyone really want to clean such a big, old, dusty castle? Imagine the upkeep and constant maintenance. I can already hear the rattle of weary pipes and hours spent hanging around for plumbers to come to the rescue. And the onslaught of guests and unwanted family!
And with a winery on-site, it would be so tempting to have a tipple too often! And with a wonderful restaurant, I would most certainly suffer frequent bouts of gout!
Perhaps, in the end, my little abode is quite suitable for my humble needs. Besides, the Chateau welcomes mere mortals to go, flake out, rollick around and cause mayhem and all of it, without having to clean up afterwards. There is nothing else to do, but pack your bags and go!
That day I parked the car, intending to take a little stroll. The winery is closed for now, the eagle spotting area shut for the winter. I was there to follow one of the many walking paths, to walk my way into a clearing. I had been away and I arrived back late at night in St. Cyprien to find roads blocked, diversion signs, drenched streets.
As the windscreen wipers swept the raindrops back, driving in the dark, wet conditions, I assured myself that normality would be restored by sunrise.
The next day, when I saw the mayhem on the beach, at first I couldn’t fathom the sight of the upheaval; it was like a graveyard after the invasion, as though nature had come to slaughter the earth from the sea. Countless tree branches and roots eradicated any sight of sand.
Paper, cans and bottles, fragments of rubbish and waste littered everywhere. Misplaced tree-trunks lay dead as carcasses, their roots were detached, like chopped off, discarded giant-sized carrot tops. Large upturned tree roots with outstretched fingers trailing bit-ends of loose, dangling threads went crawling into the air. The whole effect was surreal, as though we were on a planet that had been destroyed by futuristic aliens, or we had been flung back to a time when the earth was inhabited by dinosaurs and monsters.
People were peppered everywhere, they stood gawking, shocked; some had metal detectors, others were stepping over mounds of debris, examining their contents and more took photos of the scene. Seagulls flew, nervy, flappy vultures hovering over water; they were also searching, looking for any pickings they could get from the murky water.
And yet, the sea rolled in, endlessly, rhythmic in motion. The waves curled up high, braced like Flamenco dancers raising their skirts. There was something victorious and triumphant as the waves threw the dancers skirts up and down and then the powerful sound when the waves broke, gushing and spreading out glorious frills of white froth that splayed along the shoreline.
I remembered a taxi ride I had taken a few years ago in Sri Lanka The chatty driver related a story about when the big Tsunami hit. He scrambled up a tree and looked right at the giant wave headed directly towards him. Wide-eyed and still looking scared when he spoke, I will never forget his words.
“I was a diving instructor for fifteen years before that day,” he told me, ” And I swear, as long as I live, I never want to see the sea again.”
The Indian ocean was just behind the street alongside us as we drove, and it really struck me about how his fear of the sea overwhelmed his love of it. Lives were lost that day, but, it seemed that many survivors changed their lives. When the diving instructor walked off the beach that day, he never looked back.
Back in St. Cyprien, the sea continued to roll in, like dogs chasing cars. Waves had muddy, murky coloured bellies. The sound of the sea, I thought, was mocking us, showing off its strength, showing us how it just how easily it could cough up trees and spew up piles of rubbish.
A week earlier, I walked along the beautifully flat manicured sand. Now, I felt as though we were spinning around in a washing machine and, there was nowhere to go but the hills.
And so I took myself off to hike, to find a clearing, to breathe in some peace. Even driving up the avenue at Chateau Valmy when I saw the beautiful blossom tree that overlooked the vineyard, I knew I was in the right place. The vines were devoid of any grapes at this time of the year, of course, they stood, rows of miniature trees, their wrinkled barks and arms outstretched like old drunks already, trying to prop each other up.
I wouldn’t recommend that any sane human try to follow any of my hiking routes, as I have a haphazard way of walking the hills. Growing up in a small country like Ireland, I always felt safe: around every corner, I was bound to bump into some helpful soul, or at least see signs of life, maybe a farmhouse, or a road, in the distance. I am happy rambling, aimlessly and potentially forever.
Wanting to discover hiking in this French region, I thought I would have to buy maps, research and find routes on the internet. Then, I met a local mountain-runner who assured me that it was really easy, which was all I wanted to hear, of course.
He implied that I was being ridiculous when I expressed fears about going out alone. So, I threw caution to the wind, as I do.
This is not a story about getting lost. Anyone can, and should go there, as it was well-marked and as simple as I was informed. And it was also really marvellous.
I followed the signposts, which said it would take 2.30 hours to get to the Torre de la Maçana, a 13th century Tower that I could see far away at certain points on the route up. On the way, there are two Dolmens. In a natural setting, there is a mystical significance, an appreciation and drumming up of a sense of the presence of the prehistoric men who built monuments there in those chosen spots.
When I got to the Tower, if I wanted to, I could spot all my enemies from here, like they used to do from this observation post. I looked down at the white sailboats on the sea that melted into the sky. Snowy Mount Canigou was a startling sight to one side and on the other side, the whole landmass started as far away at Collioure and straddling along as far as the eye can see on the other in a whole panoramic scene that made me wish I was Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” I wanted to fling out my arms and dance around in the grass; but, I didn’t. I sat down and ate my lunch and came the whole way back down to earth.
When I arrived back to my apartment block, my french neighbour approached me to enquire about my whereabouts. He was curious when he saw me carrying a rucksack and wearing mountain boots. I often wonder if he knows his nickname is “the Concierge”, as he fetches and carries information to all the neighbours. Exhilarated, I told him about my day in the mountains.
Alarmed, he waved a finger at me.
” Be careful of the bears,” he warned, in french, ” You know they like women around here. They are french bears, after all, and they are especially fond of foreign girls. ”
And then he strolled away, laughing, leaving me baffled and wondering if I am I now to go into the woods and fret about frisky “Ours” in France?
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