Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The ultimate French gîte experience

I’m writing this in a small chalet 3000 feet up a mountain in the Pyrenees, huddled in front of the burning remains of our wood stock in the sitting room where we’re holed up due to the risk of avalanches. Until this morning my car was immobilised by snow and ice on a 45° degree slope overlooking a 300-foot drop, there are only a few euros left on our landline phone card and the nearest shop is ten miles away. Yes, you really need to ask the right questions when reserving a gîte in France.

All we wanted to do was what thousands of people do all the time and what we’ve been doing regularly since arriving in the south of France in 2004 : book a gîte and have a rustic family week away from the grime and incivility of the city. Sometimes our criteria have been financial, sometimes geographical and this time we knew what we wanted : peace and quiet a long way from anyone, days spent hiking and a week’s worth of good nights’ sleep. After typing the dates and ‘Mountain’ into the website’s search engine, the second or third option appeared to be exactly what we wanted. It was. It still is, really, but we forgot to take that one big, unpredictable element into account when running for the hills : the weather.

Our chalet is, literally, the last house in France before you inadvertently trip over the border into northern Spain. It’s at the end of a dead end road six miles after leaving a village which, lacking any form of commerce or actual living resident, was a dead end in itself. The occasional sign reminds us we’re in bear country, otherwise there’s nothing. The road climbs and climbs until it reaches a car park . Beyond that, there’s a steep, cement path marked ‘Residents Only’, and it’s there that the fun really starts. Our landlady advised us not to stop on the slope and we could see why. Still, an Audi A3 eats this kind of challenge for breakfast, even loaded to the gunnels with all a family of four needs for a week (and some). We snaked around the breakneck turns and ended up in front of an extremely well-appointed little house where the waiting owners made us very welcome. They told us the best places to go for shopping and told us to call in case we needed anything. The telephone was there because ‘there’s no mobile reception up here at all’. No matter, as we don’t have a mobile phone anyway.

We unloaded the car, got straight and then headed back down the mountain to get some bread, fresh vegetables and meat. We found everything we needed in an Intermarché about 15 miles away which was just as well, as there was nowhere else this side of Zaragoza to buy anything. Having crawled back up the mountain in first and second gear we settled down to our first evening away from the madding crowd. I still had work commitments in the city, so the idea was for me to pop down every couple of days for a few hours, then drive back to the welcoming familial embrace. I was to leave the next morning and come back around 8pm that evening. Then it started snowing…

Nothing had prepared us for that. The first drops were more like sleet, so I tried to temper the children’s excitement and told them it wouldn’t settle, more to appease myself than anyone else. After all, if snow had been forecast, the owners would have told us, wouldn’t they ? How easily we slip into the city dweller’s facility of explanation. We, whose lives present us no surprises on terra firma, suddenly forget that not every part of the world is as easily navigated as our urban spaces. We woke the next morning to see a thick blanket of snow as far as the eye could see. I wasn’t much pleased, knowing I had to leave for work in a few hours’ time and didn’t fancy phoning in my excuses the first time I was needed that week. After breakfast we took a little walk and found that the track was completely clear. Panic over, I could leave in peace. Less than two hours later I was back home, an easy run if ever I’d known one, phoned the gîte, where Mrs. F told me it had stopped snowing, packed a few more pairs of gloves and snow wear, closed the flat up again and went off to work, blithely saying I wouldn’t be phoning later as there was no need.

I left the city at 6pm and got to the dead-end village at around 7.30pm. It was perfect ! No trace of snow, the sky still the right side of dusk; I was going to be back among my loved ones by 8pm ! So I carried on along the dead-end road, past the bear sign and started to climb. I noticed there was a bit of snow on the ground, but it was clearly no big deal. Eventually, there were no more tracks in the snow ; I was boldly going etc. Only having gone up twice before I couldn’t remember exactly how many more times the road twisted and turned before it reached our house, and it was that that caused my undoing. I just ploughed on, the Audi sinking deeper and deeper into the snow until I had no way of turning round and much less any way of continuing. Climbing a 45 degree rise which ended in a sharp turn overlooking a huge, sheer drop, the car skidded to the left. By this time, it was almost pitch dark. I reversed a few feet down the slope and pulled the car as far over to the side as I could. Pulling on the hand brake with as much strength as I could muster I said to myself ‘This is a nightmare’ ; I had images of becoming one of testimonies delivered by a mountain rescue officer : ‘He was completely unequipped for the mountain ; you can’t get round these roads if you’re not driving a 4x4’ in front of a backdrop of a helicopter lifting my body out of tangled wreckage at the bottom of the valley. Pulling my bags out of the boot of the car, I set off to the chalet on foot, arriving frightened and in a filthy mood, realising I should have phoned Mrs. Fingers before setting off after work.

The next morning, we grabbed a shovel and set off to try to clear the snow from in front of the car. I was able to get it onto the flat after the dangerous corner and thinking that none of the houses were occupied, left it in front of the final slope which led to the car park. We’d come back in the afternoon to finish the job. After breakfast, we headed left out of the chalet to wander a way along the GR10 hiking path. As we were heading back, we could see a young man heading towards us. Was that our car blocking the road further down ? There’s a man who is furious because he can’t get to work, let’s go and sort it out. He worked for the commune and had been phoned by the only resident between our car and the chalet. When we all met up at the car, the man was understandably irate : Did I realise this was a public highway ? What would have happened if there had been an emergency ? What the hell was I thinking of etc. He calmed down very quickly after I offered my profuse apologies and the assurance that there was, in fact, no-one who was more upset by this than I. When my Mrs. F later told him I’d arrived late evening and that we’d already moved the car that morning he relaxed even more. I’d have felt the same if I’d been in his position. He and one of the commune workers then helped me get into the car park which at least meant I was in no-one’s way, anymore. They didn’t leave it there, though : they told me to drive back down to the bear sign and leave it in the little parking area there. When it snows, the snow plough goes that far and no further i.e. even it cannot navigate what I though I could do in an Audi A3. They shadowed me the whole way down, making sure I didn’t slide off the road, too. Not a bad gesture from someone whose day I’d just ruined. At least now I can return to the city when I need to and can get far enough back up the mountain to be with the family afterwards. If the snow stays the whole week, we’ll have to cart our cases and bags a good mile to the car when we have to leave, though.

Being in the mountains is not about driving though, is it ? It’s about going out for scenic rambles and hikes, building snowmen with the children and admiring the breathtaking views where only bears and deer roam. Well yes, if you don’t want to risk your life. Apparently, we’re in avalanche country and hiking when it’s sunny is dangerous, particularly as April snow melts much more quickly than the winter variety. We hear it every night, anyway : from about 1am onwards there’s a regular thundering rumble which is another fifty pounds or so of snow falling off our roof. It kept us awake the entire first night, so factor in my panic last night and this week is not turning out to be as restful as I’d hoped. In fact, about the safest thing to do is to sit in front of the fire and watch TV, which is a declaration of bankruptcy if ever I heard one. Maybe the gîte website is a sort of assisted suicide site where you can choose your preferred natural mode of popping your clogs among superb scenery. I’d give you the address but I don’t fancy a court case…

I suppose the message is this : no matter how bright you may think you are, you can always unwittingly end up in a situation where you are less than a complete novice, and that in the middle of a country you think you know well, having done nothing more subversive than clicking your way through a seemingly harmless online reservation. We can get so easily disconnected from the vagaries of nature if we live in the city, especially if most of our sorties are the the sort of innocuous, climate-controlled lunches out in the country we indulge in every few weeks or so. You take a step back and say to yourself : We booked somewhere 3000 feet up (even if we thought it was only 2000), didn’t even put €10 on the prehistoric mobile phone we’ve got for this kind of escapade and think that a modest family saloon, however high quality it may be, will behave like a 4x4 if we need it to. If, despite having avoided the traffic for nigh on half a century you're still as blissfully ignorant of life outside your immediate comfort zone as I am, take no chances when plungeing into nature: ask more questions than you need to and don't forget the people giving you the information are so familiar with the vagaries of their environment that they'll probably subconsciously assume everyone else is, too. Better to plan for something and not need it than the other way round. Happy travels!

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