I could define my experience in Toulouse up until now by the depth of emotion I have felt: adventure, enjoyment, fascination, and a growing confidence of feeling at home in this new city. The place where I have felt the greatest sense of wonder and well-being however, was in the Pyrenees. In fact, the Dickinson Center excursion into the mountains inspired me to return to this marvelous part of France.
In the beginning, I felt like I was in another world from where I had been living for the past three weeks. I woke up from a much-needed nap on the bus to discover that the landscape had totally changed. In Toulouse, we were in a vast plain. Here in the Vallée du Louron, the view was dominated by steep slopes covered with trees. Looking up, you could see little villages all around. At the rocky summits, a bit of snow remained despite the mild temperatures in the valley.
Even though the landscape was totally different, I knew from the moment we arrived that this place was as much a part of France as Toulouse. The staff of the Germ Mountain Center welcomed us with all the grace and hospitality I had come to associate with the French in Toulouse.
The first thing we did was to help prepare dinner for that night. We made garbure, a mountain specialty consisting of vegetables, pork, ham, and duck.
Next we visited a cheesemaker who specializes in tomme des Pyrénées. The sheep at the cheesemaker were very well cared for, and by the quality of the cheese, it showed. We saw the barn where the sheep were kept, and then we had the chance to try the cheese. It was delicious, the best that I have tasted so far in France.
In the afternoon we hiked through the mountains. Of course, they are quite impressive, but walking that mountain path gives you a whole new perspective. We started at the top, following a winding path that led gradually down into the valley. After so many hours of hiking, we very much appreciated a stop into a café in one of the villages in the valley. At the end of the day, we climbed back up to the mountain center (in a bus) to taste the meal we had helped to prepare earlier.
The next day, we woke up for another brief hike. Our guide brought us to a bluff with a spectacular view of the valley and helped us to make charcoal for drawing. We used these little charcoal pencils to draw the landscape. Even though I am terrible at drawing, I found it relaxing and meditative. It allowed me to closely study the marvelous view. We spent a few hours admiring it, as well as napping and sharing a meal with some very curious goats.
After a relaxing morning, we visited a beekeeper. I knew basically nothing about how honey is made, so the experience was very interesting for me. For example, I learned that depending on the time of year, the honey will taste different, based on the kinds of flowers that are in bloom.
Since it was very warm while we were there, the bees were working. The beekeeper explained to us that the bees normally do not work in the winter, but due to climate change, they work more, but die earlier. That is one reason why beekeepers are more important than ever; climate change is affecting bees everywhere.
Even after we left, I wanted to come back to this place that had so greatly enchanted me. I have returned to the Pyrenees twice since the excursion to go skiing. Just this past weekend I skied in Val Louron, and sometimes I could catch sight of Germ, the village that had so warmly welcomed me before. Sitting in a chairlift reminiscing, I realized that I would always remember this excursion as the time I found magic in the mountains.
Click here to see a video of Dickinson in the Pyrenees, made by Naomi Johnson.