The weather forcast for the weekend being for possible snow as low as 1400m, we aborted out mountain hiking and decided to hire a car and tour the foothills instead. The four of us (a friend of Jenny's called Philippe came along) set of on Saturday morning and worked our way in leisurely fashion up the Garonne, visiting small villages and staying off the main roads. (Thomas, who did all the driving, liked to drive slowly and preferred the small roads, so I navigated us along single lane country lane roads.)
At Muret we visited the church, which had a chapel to St Dominic commemorating the battle of Muret (1213, when Simon de Montfort defeated a much larger army led by the King of Aragon and the Count of Toulouse). There was a prayer book there and I was sorely tempted to write "libre Occitan!" in it (Oldenbourg's book on the Albigensian crusade makes St Dominic seem less pleasant than Simon de Montfort!). The church at St Bertrand de Comminges was the furthest point we reached, unfortunately too late to get inside - this church is perched majestically on a hill and has great views in all directions. Here the rolling plains and gentle hills of the Garonne valley give way to the foothills of the Pyrenees, which rise quite abruptly and are still almost completely forested. From further back the Pyrenees themselves were visible -- at first one mistook the snowline for the horizon, then one realised there was a thousand metres of speckled snow clad peaks camouflaged against the white/grey sky of an overcast day. Ah, how I longed for the mountain! We spent the night in the youth hostel in Saint Gaudens, which has a lovely Romanesque church and, in the valley below and prominently visible from the town centre, an immense cellulose factory, whose appearance at night - with lights and smoke/steam rising in plumes - was almost surreal. It didn't even seem ugly, so overwhelming was it.
Today we wandered even smaller roads through tiny mountain villages (communes). These seem to occur every 2km or so along every stream, and are much smaller than English (let alone Australian!) country settlements and far more densely packed. Every one has a church and a town hall, however. (There are, apparently 36 000 communes in France, so this means there are an immense number of churches.) Some of these hamlets were terribly run down; often even the churches were falling apart. It started raining and we ran out of time/daylight, so my plan to get us back to Toulouse without using any big roads couldn't be used. I regret not having had a chance to walk in the Pyrenees proper, but the weekend was a lot of fun and an excellent complement to everything I've read about French rural history. I'd really like to come back sometime and walk the length of the Pyrenees in June or September... [Vic, Val, any other walkers - can I tempt you?]
Jenny has just rung Paris and it looks like I'll be staying in a run-down hotel in the Latin Quarter (500m from Notre Dame!) for 100 francs a night (plus 20/night to use the shower). Tomorrow may be my last chance to read email before I return to London, though I'm sure I will find a Net cafe somewhere in Paris.