The taking of a long train journey probably ranks amongst my three greatest pleasures, unless I’m facing backwards during said, in which case it would probably rank amongst my three worst pleasures. Sadly it was in that vestibular-system confounding orientation that I travelled from Paris to Foix, a medieval city on the edge of the Pyréneés-Ariégeoises in south-west France.
All hope of reading or writing abandoned, I adopted a 700 mile grimace, stared out at the beige and graffitied engine sheds and listened to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN and then Laura Marling’s Semper Femina, and then Laura Marlin’s Semper Femina again, because I am, at heart, a drip.
My reasons for staying at certain of the places on my route, or, more to the point, why I’ve opted to stay at each place for a particular number of days (for, dear old darling reader, my itinerary is as rigorously yet abtrusely planned as an EU Parliamentary cycle) are sometimes proving elusive, even to me.
Case in point: Foix, known primarily to many French people for being referenced in, to quote my Parisian Airbnb host, ‘a stupid rhyme or poem’ (like St Ives to many British people, I guess); a medieval town on the river Ariège of mid-level historic significance and interesting but repetitive architectural tenor, surrounded by miles and miles of suburban sprawl. I’d elected to stay here for four nights, one more night than I’d stayed in Paris. My reasoning might have been at least partly based on the fact an Airbnb room in Foix costs about 30% less than in the capital.
Still bad forecasts accompanied me and as a hard a rainstorm as I’ve seen all year commenced just as I stepped off the train amongst the verdant, near-Spanish mountains. Fortunately my Airbnb host, whom I will call ‘Eloise’, out of reluctance to disclose her irl identity, and also to call her ‘my host’ over and over again like some sort of Henry James character.
Eloise greeted me by the station entrance with a fulsome, middle-aged grin and hurried me to her car. Damply ensconced therein, she asked me to remind her how long I’d be staying and, when I told her as many as four days, she shook her in head in pained incomprehension. ‘What are you going to do in Foix for four days?’ came the elucidation.
She asked me if I spoke French. I told her un petit peu and she told me it would be good for me to speak to her in French then. There then followed a faltering conversation about my trip, Eloise being somewhat more inquisitive than my Parisian host (who will now be retroactively named Meredith).
Any residual fear from Paris that I would meet French people only of a liberal, cosmopolitan stripe was extinguished when I told Eloise that I would be staying in Marseilles en route between Spain and Italy.
‘Ah Marseilles!’ she cried. ‘You must be careful!’
‘Pour quoi? I asked.’
‘Ill ya beaucoup de Musulmáns. You understand me?’
Dispiritingly, I did. ‘There are a lot of Muslims there’. I told her that didn’t seem like a problem and she said again ‘you must be careful there’.
Where Meredith had displayed a surprisingly lax attitude towards domestic security given where she lived, Eloise’s attitude seemed a little paranoid. As we rolled up to the house, a mile away from the centre of town in a quiet-seeming neighbourhood, she stopped and pressed a button on her key fob and a white metal gate at the end of the drive began to peel back with Bond-film gravity. Behind the gate stood a two storey detached dwelling with a large and slightly scruffy garden, which, due it’s dusty and gravelled-strewn surface and an unfinished garage facing the back of the house, felt slightly like a building site. But a very calm and quiet one.
Inside in the entranceway, overwhelming photographic renderings of Las Vegas and Disneyland served as wallpaper, and in the living room was a large glass cabinet of novelties and trinkets and figurines, perceptible from a distance to be too annoying to be worth looking at properly at. The bedroom was simple but spacious. Eloise tried to explain why there were no curtains on the window but I couldn’t understand her, even though she was speaking in English at this point. Instead, there was a mechanical shutter on the outside of the building which she could control. She would lower it every night she informed me and I must not raise it again until morning ‘because of the thief’, conjuring the pleasing notion of a single town thief adept at penetrating unfortified windows. And thief, or no thief, as JG Ballard once warned: ‘the suburbs are far more sinister places than many city-dwellers imagine’.
When the shutter was down and the light was off, the room was pitch, pitch black and pretty terrifying to wake up in.
Despite the paranoia and the gaucheness and the suggestion of xenophobia, I was finding it hard to dislike Eloise. She was friendly and curious and kept offering me food and drinks. I told her I was planning to head straight into town to eat and she said she’d give me a lift, which I accepted as it was still raining, though less hard now. She was on her way to work anyway she said; apparently being an Airbnb host doesn’t pay all the bills and her main job was cleaning offices in town after the other workers went home.
We got into a different car from the one she had picked me up in - I saw Eloise helming four different vehicles over the course of my stay including a pushbike and a pick up truck - and her husband, a slightly Shane Ritchie-esque guy in shorts and vest, got in the front as he was heading into town too. He and I exchanged pleasantries in French (he spoke no English) and he remarked that my French was good and Eloise interjected that it wasn’t but that it was getting better, which I thought was generous given that I’d been in her company less than an hour. They dropped me off on the edge of the centre-ville, just as the evening sunlight was picking out a few conclusive raindrops.
I’d arrived at a sort of plaza, covered over by a grand awning. I looked up at it and was transported back to childhood and an uncanny feeling I used to get when regarding such structures, probably due to my brain freaking out at the apprehension of being both inside and outside at the same time. Half of the ground-space under the awning was filled with tables and chairs belonging to restaurants adjoining the plaza, while the other half was accommodating some kids with micro-scooters, a beleaguered dog and an assembly of raffish middle-aged tinnie-drinkers, whose rowdy outcries punctuated the otherwise steady scene. To the immediate east, a mountain loomed.
I drank a demi under the awning and phoned home. I then took a little dérive through the narrow thoroughfares, which were adjoined by tightly compacted houses, all more or less alike in their slanting, wooden-shuttered irregularity. There was a dreamy intimacy to the quiet streets whose shops were now mostly closed. Affixed high on the sides of buildings, round every second or so corner were speakers, our of which music blared during commercial hours - at this moment, ‘What’s my Name?’ by Snoop Dogg.
I reached a tavern with an irresistible façade – all half-timbering, gothic lettering and stained glass – and duly stepped inside. I don’t think it was in any way explicitly signed as ‘a tavern’ but in my fantastical would-be medievalist mind, bars had become taverns and would stay that way until I reached Barcelona.
A couple with young children were eating dinner and they bade me a bon soir. I approached the bar and asked for a Demi, prompting the elderly old tavern-keeper to run round to me in a polite flurry, asking where I’d like to sit. I said outside and he practically shoved me out there and told me he’d bring my drink. On reflection it may have been more a brasserie, than a tavern.
As I sat and struggled with the cryptic crossword, a van pulled up a few metres away, out of which a couple of lads leapt and started strewing what looked like police tape across one side of a small junction. On second glance I noticed that the tape actually bore the logo of international sports goods conglomerate ‘Decathlon’. Moments later a flurry of runners came tearing by. Very French, I thought – setting out the barriers for a race while it’s happening.
This sluice of aspiring Paula Radcliffes outlasted my demi and, when I’d paid for my drink in the patient and customary way, I edged my way along the street, against the, by now, funny-costumed and jocular flow, to a restaurant that Eloise had recommended. Here the most vegan item on the menu was ‘mackrel et frites’ and I tempered the guilt of eating this with a glass of house red, which cost about one euro and tasted as good as any wine I’d ever had before (there might have been a touristic confirmation bias at play here, I’ll admit.)
The street was clear of runners as I stepped out again but a few streets away, in another plaza, the arcane and nonchalantly demarcated course found its end and the runners stumbled over the finish line, most of them laughing. The spectators were all laughing too, for some reason. For a moment it felt like the entire race was some kind of joke that I wasn’t in on, but then I’ve had a similar feeling maybe eight or nine times per day throughout the trip. This gregarious, and oddly alienating, atmosphere permeated the centre-ville, and might have been slightly anticipatory in quality because, it turned out, the Tour de France would be rolling its dope-ravaged way through Foix at some point later in the month. The discovery of this fact piqued my interest briefly and I had a moment of thinking ‘oh maybe I’ll get into the Tour de France’ this year. A fortnight on I’ve made not even the most desultory effort to do so.
I found another tavern – beautiful dark wood furnishings, smart brass bar fixtures, jolly yet debonair patrons, bla bla bla – drank a couple more demis, failed to finish the cryptic and called it a night.
The next morning people are selling antiques and jewellery and PlayStation 2 games from stalls in a car park on the edge of the old town. This sight solidifies the image of Foix which is forming in my head: a relaxed town with few pretensions, despite its geographically and architecturally rarefied aspects. People stop and chat in the street. They sit in the parks reading or looking at the sky. The tinnie-drinkers are ever-present by the awning and nobody takes offence at them. There’s an apparently harmonious diversity amongst the populace in terms of class and ethnicity (though the fact that Eloise felt no abashment in being, upon meeting me, immediately racist somewhat belies this observation.)
No clear political affiliations are manifested, save for a few old anarchist and antifa posters on one old phone box near the swimming pool. Modish posters advertise upcoming arts festivals, some with an emphasis on ecological themes. One morning a guy ties up a donkey, loaded with effects, outside the supermarket and goes into buy bread. Hikers drop in from the mountains to eat lunch. One evening at sunset, a German-looking guy in serious rambling gear turns up in the tavern asking for a room. Witnessing this, I begin to regret my largely pre-orchestrated, Airbnb-reliant approach and wonder whether I should been more freewheeling, until I hear that the cheapest room is 50 euros for the night. The maybe-German lad swallows and hands over his credit card.
I pass the stall-holders and begin winding my way up to the Château. The door and shutters of one house are open, and a stubbly guy with a close-ish shaved head steps out to smoke. Behind him a hippyish woman is drinking coffee in an artfully basic kitchen. A girl of about two sits in a high chair playing with her breakfast. I feel suddenly curious about property prices in the town.
Seen from the castle gatehouse, terracotta roof-tiles form a sea of soft waves and sudden angles, concealing a thousand Saturday mornings, and nudge the eye upwards and beyond to close and distant mountains.
Within the château walls I receive an enthusiastic crossbow and longbow demonstration from a thin, goatee-sporting guy of about my age, dressed up as a medieval archer (him not me). This might have been me in another life (and still might be in this one). I get to have a go with the projectiles and receive a ‘pas mal’ on both counts.
Higher up the hill, in the castle proper, I join a group tour and understand only the proper nouns. Through private study of the English-translated information boards I discover the kind of potted history you’d expect: built on a 7th century fort, castle was important strategic stronghold for Cathars, Simon de Montfort failed to capture it twice, Henry IV (yeah that one) ‘owned’ it for a while and had a bed here (which is still on display) but he never came to sleep in it.
I buzz off this medieval fix all afternoon. Later: another night, another tavern, little progress with the cryptic.
The following morning it’s time to have a tilt at one of these mountains, the one just to the east of the town. N.B. I can find no info online about the name of this mountain which kind of implies it’s maybe not a mountain and is rather just a big hill, but without solid evidence to the contrary I’m going to keep thinking of it as a mountain.
Eloise has told me about two walking routes up the mountain:
‘The yellow route and the red route. You take the yellow route first and then come back and do the red. Be careful to stay on the route or you will end up in Spain.’
Being, as is established, cravenly respectful of the compass of the tourist realm, I set out with every intention of heeding her advice and join the route via an inauspicious, even spooky, dark and over-covered alleyway between two houses by the river. This leads to a rough and rocky up stairway, past me down which a group of exhilarated twenty-somethings comes.
One of them wishes me ‘Bon appetit!’ and I wonder what the fuck he’s talking about until I remember there’s a big baguette sticking out of my backpack. The most vegan lunch to be found in the supermarket was some bread and cheese and tomatoes and crisps (genuinely, there was no hummus).
The path zigzags laboriously against the sheer gradient and the town grows slowly more toylike as I make the 10 minute climb to the beginning of the yellow route. This takes a similar approach to its forebear as it snakes into a wood and then out again to reveal a series of farming terraces, a range of graduated terrace steps on which the wily hill-farmers of Pech, lacking access to good old fashioned flat fields, would grow crops. These low walls of earth, reinforced by stone, were designed to, as well as resisting the gravity-obeying tendencies of mountain soil, radiate heat from sunlight onto the crops. I arrive upon yet more remnants of agricultural yore and return sisypheanly to the beginning of the yellow route.
The red route, initially, is as well marked as it’s yellow confrere and regular markers draw me on in thigh-punishing ascent. Soon though, the path branches in several directions – off into a field, off into one section of woodland, off into another section, off into another. I follow what appears to be the road most travelled by and I am soon gratified by the sight of another red daubing on a cairn-ish rock. But soon appear other markings: a red and white strip and an orange one.
Determining to be extra-fastidious in my path-following from now on, I enjoy a long stretch of flatter ground which at last takes me out of the woods and onto a wide and sunlit upland, from which I can see the now model village-seeming city and, away to the south and west and south-west, spectacular Pyrenean vistas, of a kind I’ve long dreamed of seeing.
I go an hour without seeing another person - discounting those in cars, halfway to the horizon, beading along the motorway – and then start to feel peckish. But, given how good this sandwich is probably going to be, I reckon the effort-reward ratio to not yet be in my favour and that I should give it another hour.
The path bends sharply uphill towards another wood and here, in a patchily lit clearing, I’m confronted by a ruined house.
[n.b. I’m aware that I keep switching between tenses (probably as a result of writing in intermittent bursts), and here I abandon the historical present in favour of the past tense, which is a shame because it’s a fantastic tense but there’s no way I’m going to back to edit it into a state of coherence now].
The darkness within poured out through its rough door and window spaces. It had a tortured physiognomy. A chill would have run down my spine were I not so claggy and warm from walking.
‘Amazing! A ruined farmhouse! What a cool thing for an intrepid young lad to stumble upon! In I go…’ is what I wish I’d thought.
Instead my inner mon’s reaction to the discovery was more like: ‘oh shit! This is exactly the sort of place a murderer would live, or, only slightly less ridiculously, some kind of criminal gang or other deviant sect, lying in wait to steal the baguettes of walkers who stray off the red route.’ I didn’t go in.
I’d go in on the way back, I decided, utterly ignorant as to whether or not the red route (assuming I was even still on it) would return me this way. I passed the roof-less shell of a barn and entered the wood. Here two deer flashed across the path ahead, causing me too shit myself even more. And then I heard voices. Shouts and laughter, male and female, were emanating from verdant depths unknown. I stopped, hardly breathing, and listen closed.
There were two of them at least. I could hear them talking high-spiritedly, but my lack of familiarity with the French accent and dialect left me unable to characterise the speakers and what danger they might pose. It might have been the mountain gangsters out on the march… Then a dog barked. I decided it was time for lunch and retreated.
In a field overlooking the terrible structure, I found a vantage point on a log from where I’d see anybody leaving the wood or the house. Either, I figured, I’d see the laughers emerge or, by the time I’d dealt with the Great Sandwich, they’d be at a safer remove.
I washed my hands, using just a few drops from my water bottle, as I knew I should ration it in case I accidentally went to Spain. Then I split the long loaf and stuffed the pre-grated coagulated bovine casein into the doughy ravine, before popping about 12 cherry-sized tomatoes in there too, to add taste, texture and nutritional grace. I tucked in heartily, without forgetting about the crisps side, and looked out across the mountain scene, feeling like someone who might be depicted on one of those little badges walkers used to nail to their sticks.
As I reached the midpoint of the baguette I heard the voices again, now closer than before. Then barking from two different dogs.
Suddenly two spaniels came haring out of the wood and towards me! The curious creatures didn’t apprehend my presence immediately as they sniffed around the pathway to the house. My heart was thumping now. The tree-shrouded voicings grew louder still. What figures were about to emerge? Spaniels didn’t seem like the kind of dogs gangsters or bandits would have but maybe they do things differently in the mountains. Here they came… Human forms, out of the arboreal gloom…
It was… a little girl, of about five. With a stick and a small backpack, she skipped into view, closely followed by, presumably, her parents, a middle aged woman and man whose dress and general bearing suggested they were not about to rob me. They saw the house, looked slightly surprised by it and then walked straight inside.
I watched them explore the various hidden spaces while finishing my sandwich and crisps with a coward’s solemnity. Eventually they emerged and set off downhill, chucking me a loud ‘bonjour’ as they passed. The spaniels came right up and, seeming to smell my cowardice, fixed me with onyx-eyed stares before tearing away after their owners.
I went to look in the house. There wasn’t much in there. No contraband or accessories to vice. Decay and plant-life were enthroned amongst broken furniture – a broken bed, some old chairs, a few pieces of antique farming equipment. Half the ceiling had fallen in. The staircase was still intact but, even in my now slightly less melt-like state, I wasn’t bold enough to climb it, primarily because I thought it might collapse, but partly because I feared what might be waiting upstairs.
Three or four odd and old shoes had been left on a windowsill. Outside on the barn a keystone read ‘1912’ but the house itself looked older.
A little less ashamed of myself, I set off in search of another red marking.
Let me now bring this already long and embarrassing tale to its end and tell you that I then accidentally followed the red and white path for a couple of hours, but not as far as Spain - just down the other side of the mountain whereupon I realised my mistake and had to walk back up again and then down the side I’d come up initially, to get home.
The Sunday evening brings (back to the historic present, excitingly) the much awaited First Conversation with a French Person that Doesn’t Qualify as Emotional Labour Necessitated by a Commercial Transaction. After dinner (crepes; the wheels have fallen off the entire vegan project by this point) I go back to the tavern, the one where the German hiker turned up late the previous night.
As I walk over the plaza under the awning, I notice a fracas between a tall, hefty and slightly dishevelled-looking guy and a shorter, skinner but also slightly dishevelled-looking guy. Both are middle aged and the shorter guy appears to have his son with him. The big guy has the smaller guy by the scruff of the neck and is giving him an earful, but it’s unclear what his tone is; he’s being aggressive but also it seems desperate somehow, like he’s asking for something from the shorter guy, as much as threatening him. The son looks embarrassed. I pass them and go into the tavern where I order a demi, and sit at the bar trying to make some headway with this accursed cryptic.
The tavern is nearly half-full but there’s a calm atmosphere within, muted almost. A moment later the big guy, just seen altercating outside, saunters in. There’s a subtle ‘here he comes’-type ripple from a couple of lads at the end of the bar. The big guy sidles up next to where I’m sitting and orders a wine. He already reeks of booze. The barman asks him what kind of wine and he thinks clumsily for about 20 seconds before answering ‘rouge’. When this has been served to him, he sits down next to me and says something to the lads at the end. They don’t take much interest and he quickly turns to me and asks in French about the crossword. I think he’s literally asking what it is and I try to explain, in French, the concept of a cryptic crossword. He doesn’t really seem to get it but says it’s très intéressant. His general bearing is much gentler than the first impression suggested, childlike almost, but like a child that is who’s had far too much wine is as big as Peter Schmeichel.
He’s certainly une caractère and I’m happy enough to be distracted from the cruel puzzle. He asks what I’m doing in Foix and I say I’m travelling but straightaway the conversation starts to falter because he can speak almost no English and the wine is impeding his comprehension of my already obtuse French. He looks genuinely pained that he’s failing to communicate. His eyes are doleful which softens the bully-ish macro-vibe. He crunches up his face when he fails to articulate his next question, and I try to tell him not to worry about it and then he grabs my hand. I tell him not to worry again but he’s still got hold of my hand.
I pull away with a chuckle but this happens two or three more times. I look up at the lads at the end of bar for some sort of bantering acknowledgement but they just look awkwardly away. The big guy then thrusts his hand at my thigh and I have to sort of gesture ‘don’t do that, old friend’ without using words. N.b. It’s not the idea of a man flirting with me that’s freaking me out here; I’ll happily have a flirt with a stranger of whatever gender, just not one who I know to be drunk and apparently given to aggressive confrontation and arbitrary tactility, and who is also twice my size with hands like big steaks.
I shift away a bit but decide to give him the benefit of the doubt and ask him a thing few things about himself: he works on the SNCF (the French railway network), he’s been in Foix about eight years, he moved here for the tranquilité. But he’s really beating himself up about not being able to communicate, and then, after he gets tactile again and I turn back to the cryptic, he sits there almost growling and slapping his palms on the bar. I finish my beer and bid him ‘bon chance’ (bit weird in hindsight) before bailing to another tavern. Perhaps he posed no danger and it was unfair to dismiss him like that, but he was not much fun to talk to. Not quite what I was after from my first proper tête-à-tête. But then beggars can’t be choosers.
The next morning Eloise is getting stressed about coming up with more things for me to do in Foix, having exhausted all her usual suggestions. Eventually she decides that I should go to Andorra (100km away) and tells me her friend works there and will give me a lift. But it turns out the friend is on holiday so instead Eloise tells me I should go to Ax-les-Thermes, a town about 50km away, which, as the name suggests, sits on some thermal springs and has baths for swimming. So I go to Ax-les-Thermes and swim in the baths. It’s the first hot and sunny day of my trip and I float around in the outdoor pool looking at the mountains, wild against the blue sky. I gain nothing in the way of social or cultural edification here but it’s self-care to end all self-care.
On the way back to Foix, when I get to Ax-les-Thermes station, a boy of about 12 wearing massive headphones with a microphone attachment says something to me. Unsettled by the previous evening’s encounter I, pathetically, try just to smile and walk away but it turns out he was telling me that the train has been replaced by a bus and if it weren’t for him I would have missed it. The winding bus trip back through the mountains is the stuff of daydreams and I listen to Semper Femina again.
When I get back to the house Eloise has made waffles and mint tea which she serves ‘in the real Moroccan way’. So she can’t be a total Islamophobe, I think. But then maybe this kind of cognitive dissonance is not all that uncommon in the racist mindset.
The next morning I’m up before the sun to get the train to Barcelona. I have to perform the Crystal Maze-worthy task of taking my bags out to the street, opening the electric gate, running back into the house to leave the keys and then running back out again before the gate closes (presumably so The Thief can’t get in). It takes me three goes but eventually I slip through just in time and off I go, with jocund day standing tiptoe on the misty mountaintops.
So that was Foix, welcomer of hikers and medievalists, enabler of Saturday morning family idyls, (false?) promiser of tranquilité.
Unlike Paris, I leave Foix with no rueing of opportunities missed (failure to complete the crossword aside). Maybe I’ll come and live here one day with my own little family, in our own little shutter-fronted medieval townhouse, and we’ll walk in the mountains and go to Ax-Les-Thermes for a treat every once in a while. Or maybe I’ll never come back here again. Time will tell.
P.S. Speaking of ‘time’, I found the ‘Foix’ poem/rhyme on a postcard…
Il était une fois
Dans la ville de Foix
Une Marchande de foie.
Qui vendait du foie.
Elle se dit ma foi
C’est la première fois
Et la dernière fois
Que Je bends du foie
Dans la ville de Foix.
Which I think translates as:
It was once upon a time
In the town of Foix
A merchant of liver
Who sold some liver.
She said to herself, my faith,
It’s the first time
And the last time
That I sell some liver
In the town of Foix.