After spending every single xmas of my life in Shropshire, my family had been inivited to change that in spectacular style by going to a village in the Haute-Pyrenees this year. I was going to fly to Toulouse, spend a weekend there before meeting my mum + partner and travelling down to Tuzaguet for xmas week, my brother joining us there.
I was getting an early flight and it was a bit of a tight time schedule. In these circumstances I become disproportionately irritated by even the tiniest of delays – one girl didn’t have the right money for the bus and as she spent a whole 20 seconds fiddling in her pockets for her change I glowered at her as if she’d pissed on my sofa. In fact I got to the airport with plenty of time, and the trip down was wholly uneventful.
La Ville En Rose
Toulouse is apparently the 4th biggest city in France, though it didn’t give the impression of great size – or in fact of great interest. Actually it felt a lot like Cardiff, a very pleasant city to live in, but not a must-see for tourists.
It’s a prettier city than Cardiff, with the red brick that is its trademark fitting well within French architectural traditions, rather than looking like an 80s English suburb. However, attractive as it was, I got the feeling I have in a lot of French cities, that a bit of architectural innovation might make it a bit more interesting.
The main tourist attractions seem to be the churches, particularly the colossal basilica of St-Sernin (outside, inside), which is certainly impressive, but a little austere – particularly after the churches in Venice! The rather oddly-shaped St-Etienne was actually more appealing, but my favourite place was the 14th century Augustine monastery which doubles as a museum/gallery.
The building itself is lovely, in excellent repair and surrounding a small but pretty garden for temporary culture relief. The exhibits are a curious mixture, lots of Romanesque statuary (not particularly exciting), some 14th century sculpture which was better, and amazingly preserved. It’s impressive enough for sculptures to survive intact for 700 years, but that their colouring has survived too is incredible. The next, and best, but was some 19th century sculptures, including a really nice juxtaposition of two pieces by Alexander Falguiere. One was of a standard turn of the century bourgeois figure, but opposite and facing him was a Cardinal in full on Old Testament, casting out demons, pose; semmingly castigating the laxness of contemporary bourgeois morality. The bourgeois didn’t seem too bothered though.
Upstairs were a couple of rooms of 18th – early 20th century paintings. There were far too many works for the space available which created an overall effect of clutter. It is probably a bit tricky to build an annexe on to a 14th century monastery though. There was some good stuff though, a couple of nice minatures by Toulouse-Lautrec in particular, though my favourite was La Soif D’Or by Thomas Couture, with its uplifting image of a father trying to pimp out his daughters to a bored looking rich moneylender.
After that, met up with my mum and Peter and drove down to Tuzaguet.
Was really stunningly beautiful views (we didn’t quite get this sunset, but even so) and some nice countryside too. The villages were “only” picturesque, but so what. Best thing was the weather which was absolutely best of both worlds. Where we were was really warm, at least in the sunshine as we got day after day without any clouds. But 30 minutes drive into the mountains and there was loads of snow to ski in or admire according to taste. I did try cross-country skiing and really took to the ascending/flat parts of it, but descending was a nightmare as my (actually quite good) balance skills were not up to deal with my inability to bend my knees, keep my weight forward or push out with my heels. The people from the family we were staying with who were trying cross-country for the first time said that it’s much easier to slow down on downhill skis, but I didn’t believe them sufficiently to try it!
We got on really well with them as a family, a shared taste in games being the essential factor. Most interesting was playing a Peruvian game called Sapo, which involved chucking brass weights ideally into the mouth of a (brass frog) but more realistically into other holes and scoring points for it. The missiles were pretty heavy, I was pretty rubbish, and it was set up in the kitchen so I was terrified I’d break something. Fortunately I didn’t.
Got lots of books, and some nice clothes for xmas. Wasn’t sure when I’d get to wear the long-johns, but the arctic weather that has struck the UK over the last week has made them very welcome – it’s far colder than it was up the mountains! Got quite a lot of exercise, including 15k hike with my mum and brother to the (stunningly located) Cathedral at St Bertrand des Comminges –
Combined with the day’s skiing I feel rather less unfit than normal post-xmas, despite the usual gluttony.
On the trip back I read Mark Watson’s Crap at the Environment, a sort of primer on what to do if you are worried about climate change but don’t really know what you can do about it, written as his voyage of self-discovery. It was quite funny (he’s a comedian) but it was perhpas not the best book to read on a flight as I spent most of the time wracked with guilt. Oh well.