OUYRE, a small village near ST AFFRIQUE, in the MIDI-PYRENEES FRANCE.
25th June – 6th July 2015
Reluctantly we departed Beziers and caught a regional train for Tournemire village where our Australian friend Larry picked us up and took us to his home near the hamlet of Ouyre. Bev and I visited Larry on the way to Normandy last year during Encountering the Past Part 2 and at his insistence we made a return visit.
Larry is what I call a ‘doer’, he is always doing something (he is definitely not a lounge lizard) and he will do anything for you. Bev and I met Larry about 10 years ago when our eldest son Tim was working with him on the Aboriginal community Yuendumu. Yuendumu is 295 kilometres north west of Alice Springs and sits on the edge of the Tanami Desert so it could be described as being in the middle of nowhere.
Up until the mid ‘90s Bev and I, like many white Australians, had not taken more than a passing interest in Aboriginal traditions and culture but once we started visiting communities we soon realised that our preconceived attitudes to indigenous people were far from accurate. One night during our first visit to Yuendumu Tim took us out to a massive swale between two deep red sandhills where we watched the sunset and the antics of two local boys who Larry was caring for. He fed and clothed the boys, making sure they went off to school each morning, proving what I said about Larry being a ‘doer’.
Whilst Tim was working at Yuendumu he decided he wanted to ‘get off the roof. Working on the roofs of houses in plus forty degrees temperatures was a little taxing and he thought it was time for a change. Tim left Yuendumu to do an accelerated teaching degree and since completing it he has worked on isolated Aboriginal communities in Central Australia, East Arnhem Land, Groote Eylandt and Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. During the winter period for the past eight years Bev and I we have been fortunate in visiting and working with him and community members, a truly enlightening experience. One family in East Arnhem Land took us into their family (our Aboriginal family name is Nungamajba) and on Groote Eylandt another family gave us country, a rare event.
Back to France: Tournemire village was deserted when we arrived, the locals had long since gone home as it was around 7pm. We had arranged for Larry to pick us up but about an hour after the appointed time he still hadn’t appeared. I suggested to Bev that if he didn’t arrive by dark we had the choice of sleeping in the station waiting room, which would have been a little uncomfortable as we had no bedding, or alternatively, find a room in the village and next day ride the sixty kilometres to Larry’s place.
With much gusto Larry finally appeared. He was late because he was off attempting, unsuccessfully, to borrow another car so we didn’t have to ride in the back of his work van.
Readers might think that travelling in the back of Larry’s van like we did could be a little dangerous but I considered it less dangerous than traversing steep mountain roads in a bus in Morocco, dodging traffic in Casablanca or travelling like the toddler with his daddy on the scooter in the next photograph.
France, like many other European regions, was in the grip of a heatwave. Friends in Switzerland reported that in some regions the mercury reached forty degrees, an all time high. In France the hot period is between the summer solstice (when we were in Barcelona) and the autumnal equinox (July and early September) and is referred to as the ‘canicule’.
Larry’s source of income was from house restoration for expat English and Australians. It is estimated that there are around five thousand five hundred Australians living in France and the reason for doing so include: a lower cost of living; the food is wonderful, particularly the bread; the cost of housing is less, especially in the country; in the villages there is a great sense of community; and living in France places one very close to the major historical sites of Europe.
Larry has made many friends in the region and one evening he took us to visit Sebastian and Veronica. What an opportunity it was to share bread and wine with a patriotic French family.
The house in which Sebastian and Veronica live with their two children is in part a converted barn. They have an intense interest in history and the traditions of French culture including the appreciation of fine French wines.
Prior to dinner Sebastian brought from his cellar a 1996 bottle of red wine which he decanted in readiness for dinner. The decanting of wine is no slap dash affair and, as Sebastian said, such a beauty needs to be handled with utmost care. The care is needed so as not to disturb any sediment in the bottle. The wine Sebastian decanted had lain horizontal and undisturbed except every five years it was rotated through 180 degrees. I noted that when he came up from the cellar he nursed it in the horizontal position and when it was turned into the vertical it was done very carefully, placed on the table and the cork withdrawn.
From what I understood the first thing to do after withdrawing the cork is to read the cork. If there is no wine leakage, unlike the stain on top of the above cork, the wine could be a counterfeit. When screwing the corkscrew into the cork the point should not go in past the base of the cork or pieces of cork and cork powder could contaminate the wine. If it was stained red for its entire length it could mean the wine had oxidized, making it unpalatable.
The reason for decanting an old wine is to isolate sediment. Some people actually strain the wine through muslin cloth. When decanting it is recommended not to slop it, it’s preferable to have the wine gently run down the inside of the decanter, similar to the way Sebastian is doing in the above photograph. The wine is then allowed to breathe. Some people leave the wine to breathe for up to four hours. Currently there is a debate as to how long a wine should be left to breathe (air). Some say if left too long the wine oxidizes, others say a longer period allows the wine to come alive.
After watching Sebastian carefully decant the wine and in light of its age I had to ask about the value of the wine we were about to drink and his reply was ‘in the vicinity of a thousand Euro’ ($1500). Personally, and no offence to Sebastian, I couldn’t taste the difference between it and a cheaper bottle of supermarket wine. I must add, though, I am not a wine drinker therefore I am not in a position to judge. Sebastian’s interest in vintage wine is a matter of history and tradition. Interestingly, he told me that for him the date of a wine reflects historical events at the time. The 1996 bottle we drank was at the time when communist countries were gaining their freedom and if a bottle was laid down in 2015 he would associate it with the mass movement of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe.
The reason I am not a wine drinker is because back in the 1940/50s my mother insisted I have a daily dose of a tonic (I won’t mention its name as it is still available) and I developed an extreme dislike to it. The tonic contained creosote, iron, manganese, sodium benzoate and sodium salicylate and it was the taste of this tonic that steered me away from drinking wine. I reckon both red wine and the tonic taste the same.
To close the wine story, as we left Sebastian’s home he gave us a bottle of 1990 vintage wine. At first Bev suggested we couldn’t carry it as our bike panniers were packed to overflowing. After a little consideration we thought it would be bad manners not to accept. I asked Sebastian its value and he said if you went to a restaurant and ordered this wine you could pay several thousands Euros for it! From now on I will be travelling with a fortune in one of my panniers and I hope we can at least get it to England where we might share it with friends.
Sebastian is at the head of the table and on his right, going around the table in a counter clockwise direction is Larry, friends Remy and Olga, Larry’s son Milan, Sebastian and Veronica’s son Celestian and their daughter Eloise. Olga is from Siberia and married to Remy.
Whilst visiting Sebastian and Veronica it was not all wine talk. Sebastian took us for a tour of the house and what I enjoyed most was getting into the workshop and garage. If a house has been in the one family for two hundred years there is a chance that a certain amount of stuff has accumulated and the following photographs clearly show what I mean.
Remy in the previous photograph is a motor mechanic so I think Sebastian should get him to restore this classic so when Bev and I next go to France we can go touring in it.
Zorro is Spanish for fox and was the secret identity of Don Diego de la Vega, a fictional character created in 1919 in California. Zorro roamed about Los Angeles when it was under Spanish rule. When I was a child one of the few books I owned was an adventure book which contained Zorro adventure stories.
The term ‘suicide’ comes from the fact that if the door was opened accidently whilst travelling airflow would drag the door open and there was a chance a passenger next to the door could easily be sucked out.
Cars manufactured in the early half of the 19th century had forward opening doors. According to Dave Brownell, former editor of Hemmings Motor News, they were popular with American mobsters during the gangster era as passengers could be pushed out of moving vehicles easily. I remember riding around in my father’s first car which was a Morris eight. It had no doors they were an optional extra and my father couldn’t afford optional extras!
Petrol motors on bicycles were legal in NSW up until recently but a teenager who was given one met with a fatal accident. The government’s knee jerk reaction was to simply ban petrol motors on bicycles despite many people using them responsibly as a mode of transport.
Sebastian and family have a close connection to the past and as we toured the house he told me about a few of the family heirlooms.
Another piece of history Sebastian introduced me to was the work of author and cartoonist Hugo Pratt. Hugo Pratt (1927-1995) was known for his descriptive adventure writing and his artistic ability. Sebastian showed me one of Pratt’s books, La Maison Doree de Samarkand. What fascinated me about the publication was Pratt’s wonderfully executed watercolour drawings.
Following is a description of adventurer Corto Maltese drawn from the Hugo Pratt official web site www.cong-pratt.com Cong is a Swiss company who has exclusive rights to the late Hugo Pratt work. If you are fascinated by Pratt’s work it is worthwhile visiting their site.
CORTO MALTESE EXTRACT: ‘Corto Maltese, a cult favourite in one of the best European graphic novels, is a veritable legend in twentieth century literature. He’s a traveller, a sailor who combines Mediterranean looks with Anglo-Saxon culture. Corto, meaning ‘quick’ in Spanish, was created in 1967 by Hugo Pratt, a native of Venice. Corto is an anti-hero who prefers his freedom and imagination to wealth. He is a modern Ulysses who takes us travelling to some of the most fascinating places in the world’.
An anti-hero is a central character in a story who lacks conventional heroic attributes. Batman and Robin were anti-heroes in my younger days.
Another reason I was drawn to the book La Maison Doree de Samarkand was the mention of Samarkand. The ancient city of Samarkand sparks in me a sense of adventure that I think was inspired by stories I read when I was young.
The ancient city of Samarkand is in Uzbekistan and is located where a number of the many silk roads from China to Europe converge. Traders and travellers passed through Samarkand leaving behind them their stamp of cultural diversity. If you look closely at the faces in the previous two photographs (Pratt caricature drawings) the cultural mix is easily discerned.
Over the centuries Samarkand gained a reputation of being a mysterious place with connections to days of Silk Road grandeur. These days travel brochures often quote ‘ the Golden Road to Samarkand’ in an attempt to lure the adventurous traveller. It is not hard to get to Samarkand as many European and Asian airlines fly to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, then local transport takes you to the city.
Samarkand has been on my bucket list for many years but to date a visit has not eventuated. In 1970 I went close when travelling overland with my friend Ian. We hitched a ride with an Englishman who had driven his Landrover from London to Colombo in Sri Lanka and he wanted a couple of passengers to share the return journey. Portion of our route is shown in red with black dots on the following map. On another occasion in 2001 Bev and I were within striking distance of Samarkand when we visited west China but just before we got there the Twin Towers event happened and most borders in Central Asia closed so there was no chance of crossing from China into Uzbekistan.
On the above map I have shown the towns of Urumqi and Turpan where Bev and I visited in 2001. Also marked on the map is the Wakhan Corridor. This corridor has also been on my bucket list for many years. Being a surveyor in the past I am fascinated by borders and how they came into being. I’m anxiously waiting for a documentary filmmaker to produce a film on unusual borders of the world and I hope the Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Chinese and Pakistan borders (Wakhan Corridor) are included.
After drawing the map I looked at it and recalled Hussainiwala, travelling through the Khyber Pass, walking in the mountains behind Kabul and the road to Tehran. Therefore I thought I would attach a few photographs I took in 1970 so you can see what the countryside looks like, if you haven’t been there.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s the Americans and the Russians were upstaging each other in an attempt to win the Iranian government’s favour and one way was to build roads even though there was very little traffic.
When Ian and I travelled through Afghanistan in 1970 King Zahir Shah ruled the country and under his rule the country began developing into a modern society. Communication with the outside world improved, international flights made stopovers in Kabul, traffic was flowing freely through the Khyber Pass and women attended university, some even in mini skirts. Unfortunately development came to an end in 1973 when the cousin of a former prime minister staged a coup and the king was deposed. The new ruler had communist leanings and when his regime came under threat in 1979 the Russians invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to maintain the status quo. The Soviets withdrew in 1988 leaving the socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan to rule. The PDPA was ousted by the Mujahedin who established an Islamic State. As we are all aware the Afghanistan of today is sadly in a state of turmoil and official advice is simply ‘do not go there’.
In Barcelona we met an Afghani, Muhamed, and we discussed with him the Afghanistan of today. Muhamed is a qualified electronics engineer and after escaping Afghanistan he now lives virtually stateless selling scarves to tourists. Along with many other political refugees he is under constant threat of arrest for illegal vending activities. When the police are known to be approaching the vendors quickly fold up their wares and head off and as soon as the police have gone they lay out their wares once more.
Some vendors have string attached to each corner of their sheet so when the police are sighted they simply pull the strings, which makes a quick foldup and getaway.
When talking to Muhamed I told him I was going to write briefly about Afghanistan and he suggested I show some photos of how beautiful Afghanistan is and make sure I inform the reader that not all of the country is dangerous. I have since found out there are a number of adventure companies taking people to the northern Afghanistan border. One I came across was Untamed Borders Adventure Travel, so if you have aspirations to visit Central Asia it might be worthwhile contacting them. Whilst researching travel in Central Asia I also came across a great read, allthewayfromstockholm,com, which deals with a couple of cyclists who rode from Stockholm to China.
One comment on the web, and I quote, ‘I wouldn’t use this picture to promote travels in Afghanistan, because quite honest, it looks as charming and inviting as a stone quarry or open coal pit’. I’m inclined to disagree. Look at the amazing geology to be read, the beautiful glacial water, the sheer remoteness and ruggedness of the landscape and the element of freedom…not at all crowded like La Rambla in Barcelona!
The Wakhan Corridor was created to stop the expansion of the Russian Empire into Central Asia. The British were worried that if Russia continued its expansion to the east their control in India would be lost. By creating the Wakhan Corridor they in effect drew a line in the sand.
Following are a few images taken during our visit to Urumqi and Turpan in 2001 and after that we will go back to Sebastian and Veronica’s place in southern France.
The following photographs were taken by me (prior to digital cameras) using a Fuji 6 x 4.5 120 roll film camera. The camera provided colour transparencies that were scanned and digitalized enabling them to be used here.
Monkey (Journey to the West) is a Chinese folk tale attributed to writer Wu Cheng’en. The Journey to the West published in the 16th century is considered to be a Chinese classic and relates to the travel experiences of a Buddhist monk gathering sacred texts. Arthur Waley translated it to English in 1942.
Nearby to where the above photograph was taken is a Monkey Magic monument and the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas which Bev and I had the privilege to visit. I will write more about the caves and Monkey when I write about our adventures in China at some future date.
The Heavenly Mountains stretch through China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and are approximately 2 500 kms long.
The yurts in the preceding photograph were not for the tourists but were the homes of the locals. Traditional yurts were covered with animal skins or felt, however these days the traditional outer skin is covered in part by plastic sheeting.
That’s enough of my bucket list ravings. I now take you back to Sebastian and Veronica. Before taking you for a tour of Sebastian and Veronica’s garden I would like to mention that I have already written a narrative of our 1970 overland journey and I will publish it and the stories relating to our journey to the centre of the earth in west China once I get Encountering the Past Part 3 out of the way.
Seeing this artefact stirs my curiosity, who made it, who laid therein and what were the circumstances relating to why two bodies were laid to rest together and how come the bodies were not allowed to RIP.
The region where Larry, Sebastian and Veronica live is particularly picturesque and during the week we took a ride around the area and visited some Australians who have a cottage in the delightful countryside.
That’s the end of another post and even though this post had a personal aspect to it we trust you have enjoyed the read. I suspect that as senior years draw closer for us there will be less travel and my writings will lean more towards memoirs. The next post takes us to Limoges, famous for enamelling and pottery for centuries past.
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American politician Hubert. H. Humphrey (1911-1978) said:
‘The greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it.
This applies to Bev and I as we travel the world Encountering the Past.
Footnote: A few months after leaving the Midi-Pyrenees region our friend Larry and his son Milan returned to Australia and they are now based in Broome in the far north of Western Australia.