We also went back into a tiny Fortnum and Mason type of shop which sells every kind of delectable food you can think of (including a few pots of jam made in Tiptree, Essex). Most of the stuff is local of course - huge radiant tomatoes and peaches, packed black pudding, variety packs of epicurean olive oil, various local cheeses made of sheep's milk or goat's milk, some wet, some dry. The hams, whole legs of the poor piggies, are hanging in array up by the ceiling. Some are €50 or €60, which is about twice the supermarket price, but some, near the door, are €200 or even €300. These will have been fed on the best chestnuts or acorns, hand-reared, cossetted, before their final terrible day of reckoning. This is the kind of ham which is sliced quite thinly and costs £1 a slice, and tastes like every wonderful memory you ever had….
Loaded with tins of oil and packs of cheese, we set off north, up the valley of the Rio Cisca, under the big sign which assured us the Bielsa tunnel into France is open 24 hours a day.
Here we were getting up into the real mountains, where the great molars of limestone with their seductive stripes and weathered cliffs rear up as implacable reminders of man's puny condition. We live on a planet made of rock. We live in the stone age. In the end, gravity and time will pull us down - and these mountains too, to crumble into dust and pebbles. In the old meaning of the word, these great mountains are awful - nowadays, people say 'awesome'. We get a Gothick thrill at how big they are and how small we are. No matter that we have split the atom or gone to the moon - we are still just tender animals, and these ranges were here long before we were ever thought of, and will be here long after every mammal has been scorched off the planet.
We saw no mammals, just a couple of buzzards and a kite.
Bielsa is Ainsa's little brother up the road - a skinny village with more and very attractive architectural treasures, and more contamination from a Spanish cultural point of view. That is to say, being so close to France, they actually offer lunch about 1pm. We had been up a side road - 10km of glory - to see the base of Monte Perdido ('the largest block of limestone in Europe') - and decided to make this our last Spanish meal. At a café, where some tables were set for lunch, a lady was sitting at a long table, and I picked up a menu to see what was on offer.
She snarled at me in French: 'C'est prie!' ('It's taken!') meaning that she was guarding every seat and I should not approach her. It was shocking, how rude she was. I said politely 'C'est pour voir' meaning I was just looking at the menu. I was thinking, no Spanish person would have been so hostile. Andrew said to me, I should have said, 'Madame, you flatter yourself. Why would I want to sit with you….?' I wish I had said it. Actually, come to think of it, she did actually look like a frog.
The tunnel of Bielsa actually takes you through from Spain to France and of course, although the climate must be different on the north-facing side, it doesn't properly explain the profound, shocking difference when you get through. The mountain side in France is absolutely bare (rain shadow?), and cropped by sheep which are themselves shorn to within an inch of their lives. The road signage is IN YOUR FACE - in control, in charge. They do things THE FRENCH WAY in France, and no-one is going to make any mistake about where you are. This is France! This is THIS village, this is THAT village. Do this. Do that. A distinct cultural difference.
The roads stayed empty for us, though there were a few scary moments around about 5pm when the Sunday lunch-hour ended and tous le monde was heading home. Aaaaagh! Jean-Pierre and his family all warm and glowing, overtaking a slow-moving farm machine, and thus on the wrong side of the road at top speed heading straight for us….. Neeeeeeowwwwwww!
Satnav guided us faithfully across the tiny roads and rivers to Sheila and Chris's house… we suddenly recognized landmarks and then here we were.
It was about six o'clock, hot, the pool was waiting. Kersplash!
Now for a few days doing not much. Unwind.
I am mourning Spain. We've had a marvellous 3 weeks there. I started to read a bit of the great Bill Bryson while we were on the road, and see that he is quite a role-model for this writing, and produces in me moments of helpless weeping laughter as he describes what he really thinks as he meets various people on his travels. Such a personality could never have been kept in Ohio.
I think I need more laughs in this. Am I brave enough?