Yesterday I said a temporary goodbye to the river Viaur, swollen by the night’s heavy rain and hailstones, and to the heron who is on the weir every morning outside my tiny house in southern France. My friend Rob drove me 6 hours, past Gaillac and Toulouse to the Pyrenees, along the steep sides of deep valleys with a silver ribbon of river below, past ski resorts, and over the Spanish border to the tiny village of Farrera, 1365m above sea level, in the ancient county of Pallars Sobira in the Catalan Pyrenees. In the darkness we couldn’t see the mountains around us but sensed them as the road wound steeply up and up and round and round on itself. We arrived to a welcome from the director of the Centre d’Art i Natura, Lluis Llobet. I am spending three weeks here as writer in residence. We sat down for the evening meal with the other artists in residence: Quelic Berga from Barcelona, Tuula Närhinen from Helsinki and Anna Rubio, who lives in Farrera.
Woke to see what a beautiful place I have arrived in. Organised my desk and walked around the valley to the nearby village of Alendo. Belled sheep are jumping along the ridge sounding like a Balinese Gamelan. Two black mules graze in the valley. A tired grasshopper sits on the path. Dark mountain peaks stand proud of brilliant white wisps of cloud in a blue dream of sky. I am fascinated by the drystone wall constructions. The houses have stones jutting out to sit on, rest your basket on, or for the postman to leave a parcel, or there are cubby-holes in the walls for post or lamps or bottles of milk. There is nothing extraneous. These useful extrusions and intrusions are integral to the houses. The rose window of the old church is created with what looks like a cartwheel. Grey and brown slate roofs are like fish scales. Tall, thin poplars in the valley are growing densely and looking like a green sea, waving. The tree-clad mountainside opposite has the occasional autumnal splash, tree tips dipped in intense red.
I am planning to start writing a novel here that I am calling A Morsel of Love’s Bread, and its Knife, which is adapted from a line of poetry by the Troubadour Duke, Guillaume IX of Aquitaine, written in the 11th century. Guillaume’s poetry is a paradox: half of his surviving works are very raunchy and the other half are heartfelt lyrical love songs. He will be one of the characters in my novel.
At dinner we talk about the origins of the Centre d’Art i Natura which opened in 1996. The Pyrenean villages were steadily depopulating during the 20th century. By the 1970s many where empty and abandoned and Farrera itself had only a handful of mostly aging residents. After Franco’s death in 1975 some of the young people from Barcelona and elsewhere started to move out of the cities, seeking a new rural lifestyle living on the land, as they were also doing in the UK, migrating to villages in rural Wales, Cumbria, Northumberland and the Scottish Highlands. Lluis and his wife Ceske were amongst those who moved to Farrera and there were also new inhabitants from Ireland, Bernard Loughlin and his wife Mary, and occasionally their friend Colm Tóibín whose novel The South, is set in Farrera. I’ve borrowed it from the library here to read.