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Sarah’s Impression

A real traveler recounts her visit to our region:

The problem with getting behind is that experience doesn’t wait. I’m sitting down to record idyllic scenes from Mosset, a French village unsure if it’s medieval or modern, but we’ve already been through city shock in Barcelona, a cruise on the Mediterranean, and the heart of Genoa, Italy. But Mosset was the pinnacle of our adventure. The buildings are stone with their wood doors set on iron hinges; at times the blacksmith’s hammer can be heard echoing through the village at dusk. A tree has been growing out of the church tower since mid-eighteen hundreds. At one point during our stay, a bearded man with gentle eyes, a sack, and a hoe on his shoulders showed up at the door like a vision of peasantry from the past; he was once a Franciscan monk but now cultivates an artistic garden and paints silk tapestries. Of all the places I looked forward to visiting on this trip, this destination held the most excitement for me: mostly because of who I was going to see, and partially because of the mystery of where we were going. Before arrival I only knew that my old sitter, Avery, waited for us in a one-room mill somewhere in the Pyrenees of southern France. Nothing could have prepared me for the piece of paradise we experienced there.

Some of my earliest memories include Avery, but she moved before I was ten and I hadn’t seen her since. Perhaps it was strange of me to ask sixteen years later if I might crash her current place in France, but I’d always felt close to her and it may be her influence I have to thank for my wanderlust. We’re both travelers and seekers and we connect through an unspoken mystery I won’t even try to explain. Still, it was a bit of a shock to walk off the train and discover I now stood a head and shoulders taller than someone I once squinted to look up at. Yet besides that slight change in perspective, she hasn’t changed a bit from my memories – still glowing, energetic, and beautiful.

Coming from Switzerland, where you can’t find a loose end if you tried, we had initially thought the French a bit smelly (it’s true), tardy (delayed trains), and disheveled (crumbling buildings). But in the same day we made those judgements, they were cut down to size with a little history and French hospitality. Us and our two backpacks barely fit into Avery’s two-door hatchback, but we wound our way up the valley and past the hot springs to Mosset, a village stacked upon itself against a mountainside. If the Alps shrouded their grandeur from us, the Pyrenees rolled out theirs with style. The region of Catalonia is as ancient as the mountains around her, and what we’d mistaken as unkempt buildings are the ruins of medieval history. Stone towers are staggered every few mountain peaks as an ancient message system to warn off sea-faring invaders, and forever-old aqueducts still provide water to crops and animals. Terrace after terrace mount the hillsides, and each farmer is assigned a day and time they are allowed to gather water – the schedule has existed for centuries. And perhaps the French aren’t quite as timely as the Swiss, but their cuisine puts simple cheese and bread to shame.

After parking the car near two rosemary bushes bigger than the car itself, we crossed the threshold into Avery’s kitchen, dining room, bedroom, and den. It was homey, spacious, and cozy all at once. Sitting down at the wood table, we started off with white wine and moved to red throughout the meal, as any customary French citizen would do. The first course consisted of what I inadequately dubbed a “flower salad:” mixed greens and tomatoes seasoned with sprigs of dill and parsley and set off with rose petals, nasturtiums, and any other edible flower or herb she’d found growing nearby. Eating an orange blossom on a fork seemed strange, but it only took one bite to convince me; my mom may now have to chase more than my horse from her flower beds. The explosion of sweet flavor flew backwards and upwards such that I smelled the flower after I had tasted it – from the other side of my nose! And if the salad wasn’t enough of an experience, it was followed by vegetables roasted in olive oil and fig vinegar, sausage anointed in homemade apricot sauce, and a dessert of thick yogurt with lemon shortbread and rum-soaked cherries, garnished with lavender and served in terra cotta mugs. Every French meal is wrapped up with the steam of a hot drink, and we sipped on tea picked from a garden tree while nibbling squares of dark chocolate to bring it all to a close.

I can’t detail each of our meals: but I can say we had at least three glasses of wine at every dinner (and most lunches, too) and that courses are a far better way to eat a meal than throwing it all on your plate at one time. One day we packed wine, cheese, bread, and patĂ© onto a mule and spent the day trekking about the Pyrenees examining ruins, finding wild plants, observing landmarks (such as the tipped-over mountain where the aliens were supposed to have returned in 2012), and learning about the history of the region from our very knowledgable guide, Pierre. Not only does Pierre rent out his donkeys and mules to adventurous tourists, but also his yard as a campground. Carly and I spent our nights on mattresses inside one of his little white circus tents near a rushing stream, complete with an extension cord and floor lamp.

If you want to share a little piece of this paradise, Avery is starting a business guiding slow bike tours through southern France. We visited several of the stops that will be a part of the tour…and might I tempt you? At one ancient monastery we visited a fifty-year old olive orchard and received a crash course in the making of olive oil, finishing up by tasting various oils and learning to distinguish their quality (a spicy aftertaste in your throat is good!). At the next stop we met Vincent, a bear of a man in love with his bees and a self-proclaimed honey thief. His methods of bee keeping are so simple it’s profound: keep the bees happy. We wandered amongst the homemade boxes of hives with zero protection in complete safety, mindful to quickly cross the ‘shipping lanes’ as the worker bees zoomed in from the mountainsides. On one box he popped open the lid and we jumped back in alarm – but he laughed, gesturing inside. “Look,” he said, “my girls are so kind. They even put it in jars for us!” After that delectable sampling, we strolled the beach and finished the evening at a French winery run by Englishmen, listening to the beats of a live band while eating our picnic dinner and dancing into the sunset.

There is so much to Mosset that I don’t have room to speak of: the natural pond that is actually a filtered swimming pool, the old hotel over the hot springs, the dogs waiting outside the library for their owners…the unpredictable hours of the stores and the volumes that could be written about the agriculture and wild plants. But you’ll just have to craft your own adventure and discover them yourself. Why not? As the French would say: profitez! Go for it, follow your dreams, live vibrantly…profitez!

Read Sarah’s full European adventure…

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