Amphitheatre of the Gods

This week I went on my second full-day walk and it was one I was quite excited about, taking us in a long loop up from Alet-les-Bains to the hilltop hamlet of St Salvayre and down via the vineyard and farm at Les Payroulies back along the river to Alet.

Alet is one of my favourite little villages in this area. With half-timbered mediaeval charm, a lot of history, a ruined abbey, grand villas, abandoned spa hotels and a spring water source with supposed digestive properties, it would be a honey pot for tourists if located anywhere else in France. Being relatively isolated off the beaten track it is comparatively little visited – at least in the off season. We walkers were among the few out and about at 9.30am and it was the hardy core of the walking group (and me), with a stiff climb on the agenda.

Our first destination was the hamlet of St Salvayre, at an altitude of 600 metres above sea level. Meaning a 500-metre climb out of the starting blocks.

Just a short walk out of the town centre is this little rural charmer. It looks occupied, so is probably not for sale.

The initial climb is through leafy woods, past the local quarry. The early light picked up the hues of the autumn leaves to warm our way.

The climb was gentle, and steady, but we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The reward was spectacular views of the surrounding hills and countryside, veiled in early morning mist.

The first sign of civilisation was the farm at the spot known as Brides, signalled from afar by the sound of mountain goats, the scent of the buck, and the ringing of their bells. In these parts you ‘slow down for animals’, not children.



From there it was on over freshly ploughed fields and into the woods again, with the vistas becoming ever grander the higher we climbed.


A long section of bush bashing was required to make our way up a stretch of fire break following the line of the telegraph wires. The poles are a mix of concrete and wood. Those that are not concrete have been rigorously worn down by the back scratching of passing wild boar and are at risk of imminent collapse in some cases. At any time the lights may go out. Those with walking poles definitely had the advantage on this stretch.

Nearing the top of the climb, and approaching the 600 metre mark, the grand chain of snow-capped Pyrenees proper revealed themselves in all their glory, like the amphitheatre of the gods.

And finally, after three hours of steady climbing, we reached the hamlet of St Salvayre, at the crossroads of country mountain passes and our lunch site, a welcome break.

   

A stone laid in the church dates it to 1686. I’m told it was built using stones from the ruined Abbaye de St Hilaire. An earlier church is said to be located further down the hill. Something of Mary Magdalene is rumoured to be buried there?

Boar paws remain nailed to the barn door as proof of the success and superior skills of hunters past.


As we break for lunch on available rock seats, the local farmer rolls up in his tractor for his own lunch. No bread and cheese sandwich ever tastes so good as that waiting at the end of a hard walk. The flask of mead shared round by one generous walker was also welcome.

An old road marker is well worn down and the letters practically illegible, but looks to mark the road to Alet.

Picking up our packs and poles once more, bellies full, more than half the planned route was still ahead of us – but downhill. More care was needed on the descent as the deep blanket of fallen leaves hid treacherous tree roots and rocks underfoot and the path was narrow in places.

The slow pace meant those with eagle eyes were able to spot the mushrooms growing bountifully among the leaf litter, camouflaged right by the path’s edge. Grisettes, they are delicious fried in a little butter.

There was also much of interest in terms of dainty flora in the fields and woods.

Cresting the final hill, the remaining downhill stretch of the walk was through vines, with the local vineyard, the Domaine de Payroulies, always  in sight in the valley way below. The barking dogs and mewling baby lambs signaled our arrival to the farmer long before we got there.

Our reward was a tasting of the local tipple, regaled by the original owner and winemaker, who now does more of the ‘storytelling’ than the production, which he has passed to his son. The original blend ‘Methode Ancestrale‘ is a single varietal and comparatively fruity. The more recent ‘Cremant‘ is a blend of three varietals and comparatively dry.

After placing our orders for cartons of our favoured tippled, it remained for us to toddle home along the path back to Alet, following the river and the railway line all the way.


  

The merry band of walkers gathers at the last railway bridge before the homeward stretch.

Back at Alet we pass the source of the local spring water, where believers are filling up. There used to be a bottling plant here and Alet water was exported nationally and internationally, before going bust about 10 years ago.

It’s been another great walk, and a great way to explore the hinterland behind Alet.

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