Peaks and Geeks

“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.” (Yeats)

Possibly because I grew up by the ocean in Bunbury where the tallest natural structure was a sand dune down the road from Hungry Hollow beach, or possibly because I’m contrary, I’ve always been fascinated with mountains. They’re so imposing. So awe-inspiring. So….mountainous. I have no urge to climb them. I just like to look at them. In all their seasons; in shifting light, snow-capped or summer-swathed in green, I am enchanted, mesmerised, compelled and overwhelmed by them.

The bloke and I spent part of our honeymoon ten years ago in the Swiss Alps, which was my first experience of proper mountains. I was beside myself. I was an emotional tsunami of joy. There was an unfortunate incident that may or may not have had anything to do with the gallon of Bacardi and soda I drank at the local bar (‘The Snow Boat’) one late, snowy evening. I staggered back to the hotel, propped up by the bloke, periodically hurling myself into snow banks to make angels and then I stayed up late feverishly crafting a group email to all of my friends. And acquaintances. And my boss. It included such glowing musings as the now notorious: “Mountains, what are they?”. There was something about Heidi and an urge to frolic with goats and drink milk from a bowl. You get the picture. Cruelly, the bloke likes to remind me of my shame now and again, mostly whenever I come over all earnest about anything much. All he has to do is squint meaningfully off into the distance, stroke his chin and say mountains…….

I’d like to say I’ve grown more sophisticated with travel but, well, no. I’m as easily lost to bouts of misty-eyed wonder as I’ve always been. The two months we have spent in the French Pyrenees have been beyond incredible. Leaving aside 17,000 square kilometers of mountains for a moment, the people are delightful, the cheese is brilliant, they squeeze a good grape, and I’ve spent more time frolicking through meadows of buttercups and violets and poppies than is good for anyone trying to maintain some scrape of personal dignity.

Bedous, which is our local village, is tiny and delightful. It’s in the Valley Aspe, surrounded by an array of glorious peaks, with a population of less than 600. There are walks and hikes everywhere you turn. The food is brilliant. Our favourite restaurant overlooks a river with a view of slate roofs, stone houses and a rainbow of coloured wooden shutters. It serves a set menu of whatever the chef fancies is good that day, he tops his rose up regularly from a cask in the fridge and he likes to play records while he cooks. He is particularly keen on jazz fusion. His gloriously elegant wife hosts. Bedous also has a very successful rugby club which has been vanquishing their local rivals all season. I have been hanging out at the pitch a lot but not for the rugby.

One of the attractions in the Aspe Valley and its surrounds is the bird life. This part of the Pyrenees is one of the best places in the world to see raptors and carrion eaters. The mountain ranges provide brilliant nesting spots for red kites, peregrine falcons, and a variety of eagles and vultures. I have been on a mission to spot vultures since we arrived because I’ve never seen one. There are plenty wheeling high over the peaks but I really wanted a closer view. The Pyrenees have Egyptian vultures, the Griffon vulture and the awe-inspiring Lammergeier, or ‘Bone Breaker’ vulture, which eats mostly bone marrow and accesses its dinner by dropping the carcass from a great height onto rocks to crack open the bones. The acid in its stomach is strong enough to dissolve any small bits of bone.

Vultures are scavenging birds, so they only eat dead animals. They don’t have the strength in their beaks or claws to carry live prey. Along with eagles and kites, they were hunted and poisoned into near extinction at one stage, and in the 1960s there was only one small colony left in the Pyrenees. There was also a farming policy as a result of mad cow disease to remove the carcasses of livestock so that took away a crucial food source. There are now programs to protect them across France, which involve new farming practices and nature reserves. It’s clearly working. The place is riddled with vultures. They’re like seagulls. Only bigger.

They are incredible to see. Beasts in flight. They’re over a meter tall and their wing spans are almost three metres wide. So impressive. When they unfurl their wings, you half expect a menacing cry to follow but they apparently only growl like puppies a little when they’re feeding. They glide for up to seven hours a day in the sky looking for prey and use thermal air pockets to stay aloft because flapping those enormous wings takes a lot of effort.

I have spent a lot of time in the last eight weeks trying to track them, including stealthily clambering up mountains, and lying still for hours in patches of wet grass with my camera at ready in well-known vulture hangouts across the valley, to no avail. Once a few loomed low over a paddock containing a couple of sickly-looking donkeys and I nearly saw them properly but I was distracted by a dog scuffle that broke out at my feet at the same time and I missed it.

Long story short-ish, I could have saved myself the trouble and wandered down to the Bedous rugby club on a Wednesday or a Friday morning where the groundskeeper has been feeding vultures and other raptors for some years now. His name is Guy. The local supermarket donates meat past its sell-by date and he sits in his back garden near the railway line, next door to the club and cuts it up the afternoon before.

At least an hour before he arrives, the red kites begin to circle in numbers. I counted roughly one hundred just this morning. Others hang out in the trees that fringe the oval, clearly to get a good spot early. The vulture colony lurks further back on a nearby rocky outcrop and waits. At ten promptly the groundskeeper emerges with his blue bucket and is immediately surrounded by a Hitchcockian cloud of hungry raptors. It’s an all-you-can-eat free-for-all and quite the vision. Of all of the participants, I’m not sure who is the most excited, me or the birds. Honestly, watching these magnificent creatures, hopping about at his feet like chickens is one of the most beautiful and wonderous sights I have ever seen and I’m not ashamed to tell you that I was once again overwhelmed with the emotion of it and burst into tears.

I’m not sure what the mountain folk make of me, to be honest. I think I am becoming a regular sight, crouched in ditches or teetering off high fences taking random photographs of birds and weeds and rocks. To me, it’s all beyond beautiful but must be pretty ordinary if you live here. Maybe not. Maybe you never get tired of the rippling chatter of hedge sparrows and swallows dancing through the air like fairies in flight or the joyful sight of rambling roses and carpets of wild mint and strawberries that scent the air as you wind your way through. There is so much life here, even tiny flowers and weeds find their place in the most inhospitable of beds; crumbling stone walls, steep rock faces, and cracks in roads and fences. They’ll grow anywhere. I love their grit and optimism.

And this part of the Pyrenees is so close to Spain. We nipped over the border to Bilbao to visit the Guggenheim Art Museum a few weeks ago. One of the most incredible feats of architecture I have seen. We saw the giant Jeff Koons flower puppy outside, constructed in 1992, it’s a monument to the sentimental, with no other meaning than to inspire happiness. On the other side of the museum, near the river is Maman, by sculptor Louise Borgeous, a huge spider over nine metres tall, inspired by her mother, a weaver. Bilbao is a gorgeous city, well worth the trip. We stopped off in Saint Jean du Luz on the way back to the Pryennes and treated ourselves to a hotel by the ocean in the latter. So gorgeous. Right on the ocean, the swimming pool is heated seawater and you can swim while gazing over the beach to the old Napoleonic fort that guards the coast. Back in the day, Louis, XIV once moved the entire Versailles court down there to marry Marie Teresa.

We had dinner in the hotel and were watching the sunset over the ocean feeling pretty happy with our lives when I had such an unexpected and overwhelming wave of longing for home. It hit me like a train. I think my heart felt it before my brain caught up because one minute I was lovingly holding my husband’s hand over champagne and an amuse-bouche, gazing at the sun setting over the sea when I realised I hadn’t seen an ocean sunset for six months and I completely dropped the bundle. I wasn’t just shedding the odd gentle pretty tear either, I was honking. Obviously, I panicked, and so did the bloke. I tried to make a quick dignified escape to the loo but was waylaid by at least five concerned waiters on the way, who clearly thought we’d had some kind of awkward uptight English bust-up. Anyway, I over-explained the situation in broken French and English, which didn’t help because I was howling too much to be understood in any language. Tres mortifying. For a woman having the time of her life, I have been crying a lot.

But what an adventure. I can’t even begin to process it. Not just the experience of looking out at so many new worlds, but also the six months Glynn and I have spent with each other. We’ve been together every day. We talked about it before we left, we love hanging out but we were also prepared for bickering or occasionally being sick of the sight of ourselves and each other. But it’s been wonderful. I love travelling with him, he is so brave and curious and friendly, always kind, good at meeting new people, and always willing to have a shot, even when he’s apprehensive. I didn’t think I could love or like him more, or that I could learn more about him after fifteen years, but there you go. He’s still my favourite place. He’s been playing some brilliant music too. I asked him to chuck together another playlist if you’re interested. Here’s the link.

Glynn’s Pyrenees Spotify playlist

In the last six months, we’ve been to London, Scotland, Norway, Germany, France and Spain. I might have to stop saying I’m not very well-travelled. I can hardly believe it. In the meantime, I guess this latest post is the French equivalent of my rambling well-sauced Swiss missive but this time I am completely sober, so in that sense at least, I am very much matured. Like a fine French wine. Hic.

What I’ve been reading

I enjoyed Ariadne, if you like Greek Mythology it’s fun. It retells the legend of the Minotaur from his sister’s point of view, but I think its selling point as a feminist interpretation is a bit strong, considering she ends up mooning around after Dionysus on a small island off the coast of Troy. I absolutely loved Lessons in Chemistry which I have been saving for my holiday. If you want a book that eviscerates the patriarchal structures of 1960s America in an easy, fun and charming read, this one’s for you. It’s smart, readable and adorable. I’ve also read a preview copy of the new AJ Betts, One Song and I am SO in love with this book. I think it’s her best yet. Maybe that’s because I felt like she had gone back in time, reached into my teenage chest and torn out my still-beating heart. She has a gift that way. More on that soon so keep an eye out on my Facebook page Gillian O’Shaughnessy or my Facebook bookclub, Reading Between the Wines.

17 thoughts on “Peaks and Geeks

  1. Goddamn, Gillian! Your heart! What a big open thing it is.
    Thankyou for taking this walnut-hearted reader along on your emotional and the physical journey over the past 6 months. I reckon that Bloke is as rapt with you as you are with him 🥰.
    And thanks to him for the great music again (still sad about Saturdays without “Not Cricket” 😔).
    Bring your woollies – Freo is bloody freezing, but on the up side, the Dockers won last week! 💜
    Sarah x


  2. Don’t come back. Your travel writing is so wonderful.
    Actually, come back – but do keep blogging. I get so pleased when I see there’s a generous new work from you. We’ll be impoverished if you stop them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love so many things about this blog. You wear your heart on your sleeve Gillo and Glynn is a very lucky man. The Pyrenees look delightful. We train travelled around Switzerland a few years back, but would love to stay for a month or so in a little village somewhere. Safe travels for your homeward bound journey ❤️❤️❤️


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