One of our favourite things to do in Alet le Bains is take a walk through the foothills of the Pryenees. Walking up the fragrant mountainside in Spring is a real delight. Taking in the scented air you quickly realise why it smells so wonderful with a look at the local flora. Here you can find herbs like rosemary, thyme and wild garlic as well as my favourite aromatic shrub, french lavender, all growing wild.
There were lots of flowers bursting into bloom this time and we came across a meadow filled with these wonderful pink blossomed shrubs which the bees seemed to love. There are several local beekeepers who sell locally produced honey. Imagine mountain wildflower honey on toast for breakfast!
I thought I'd take a walking outfit shot to show I have a vaguely practical side and it's not feathers, fur and frilliness all the time. However I've artfully hidden my most horrible walking trainers behind the flowers for your benefit! I'm not much of a walker of hills and mountains generally and don't own the requisite walking gear or clothing (what to wear up a mountainside?) but I always pack a pair of trainers with me to make an effort for the Pyrenees. I do however, take care to opt for long jeans and something with a bit of a sleeve to avoid stings from the nettles that tend to line the walking paths.
This is one place where you really forget the world at large exists.
Pardon me if I get all David Attenborough on you but it always amazes me how much the mountainside is teeming with life and there is no better time to see it all coming out to play than in the Springtime. We spotted some wonderful colourful butterflies including this black and yellow fellow whose wings reminded me of the pattern on err, an Alexander McQueen dress (once a fashionista...)
I do love pointing out all the creepy crawlies and small flying creatures to Mr V. who would otherwise charge up the mountain oblivious. I studied biology and zoology units at university and truly loved those subjects (that is, until I had to dissect a cockroach for a practical). Despite their cute fuzziness these little caterpillars can actually give you a nasty, painful and itchy rash.
In the Autumn the locals like to go hunting for wild boar on the mountainside. During this time you can often hear the sounds of gunshot cracking through the trees and the baying of hunting dogs as they crash through the shrubbery after their prey. In the late evenings the locals will gather in the town to swap stories about the one that got away over a drink.
Here are just a few of the vibrantly coloured wildflowers that were on display on the walk down.
Sarah from Misfits Vintage commented on my last post on France that she "could so happily live somewhere like this, like Vianne from Chocolat." Well Sarah this post is for you! It is so true that the small medieval towns of this region are very reminiscent of the fictional town where Vianne arrives, bringing the culinary magic and joy of chocolate with her to share with its initially suspicious residents.
And here there is also great chocolate to be found! One of the shopping stops we made on our trip was this local artisan chocolatier in the tiny town of Couiza whose nougat is a long time favourite of Mr. V's. I was immediately taken by the gorgeous colours of the chocolate macaroons (pictured above), a pack of which made it into the shopping bag as well as a small bag of jaunty, foil wrapped chocolate sardines.
Hand made delights abound in this shop! How about chocolate fish and crustaceans...
Or take your chances on developing a sweet tooth for life selecting hand made chocolates of every description and filling from a giant chocolate roulette wheel...
Boxed delights - and yes a box of these beauties also came back with us under the pretense that it was for Mr. V's work mates. We managed to scoff the lot before it got anywhere near his office.
With the pace of mass production that goes with globalisation of industries gobbling up the artisan, it is comforting to know that there still exist pockets in the world where you can find authentic local produce, still being made with such love and passion that it borders on being art.
After the chocolatier we headed onto the perfumier. This regions produces some of the world's top quality essential oils and it's not hard to see why when you see the countryside around this area. We drove through fields of lavender in full bloom like the one above. Ah Southern France! It's just not possible to take a bad picture of the old girl!
We arrived at Solarama, a natural and organic cosmetics producer who started life as Fabrice Bardeaux, and whose eaux de toilettes waters and rose facial oil I have always loved. It was a long winding drive up the mountain to get there but I felt it was worth it for the wonderful Citron Vert and Lavender eau de toilette they make. We met the new owner who was a Californian lady and if you weren't just content with eating French chocolate well you can now also slather yourself in chocolate cosmetics that smell good enough to eat in the pursuit of beauty.
There was a range of shower gels, face masks, body creams and moisturisers to send any chocoholic straight to chocolate heaven with their heady mix of chocolate, coffee and vanilla scents. I silently cursed Ryanair's miserly weight limit and had to be content with my two bottles of perfume but was generously given samples of the entire chocolate range in little white plastic pots. A trip back with an empty suitcase is in order.
This area feels steeped in Vianne's chocolate induced magic. Our Californian proprietress told us the rather wonderful story of how she came to live in the area. At first she was visiting the region regularly on work related visits as an aromatherapist. During one such trip she attended a local barn dance and promptly fell in love with a local man. A long distance romance ensued until, at the age of forty two, she fell pregnant and decided to move over permanently. She now also works doing what she loves, running a cosmetics business using essential oils, natural and organic ingredients. Chocolate, flowers, love and passion. What more could anyone want!
This week's Friend Friday is about hair care. Friend Friday is run by Katy of Modly Chic.
As I've had a few comments on previous posts about my hair I thought I'd divulge a few things about my crowning glory. My hair is naturally curly or sometimes more accurately naturally afro frizzy. It is not what I would say is very "fashionable" hair, with perhaps the exception being this season apparently. That Topshop Boutique Spring Summer show last Fashion Week? The one where all the models came down the runway with triangular shaped, candy floss manes, like seventies disco divas who had come off worse after a fight with a crimping machine? Well that's exactly what I look like when I wake up in the mornings!
I struggled with my hair as a child and teenager and it was a source of huge insecurities. My hair changed as I grew up and moved countries so I struggled to adjust to its changes on top of all the other growing pains. It went from unruly and wavy when I was small to unruly and frizzy as a teen. I was always teased about it by other kids and in not very nice ways. People used to call me names, throw all sorts of things in it and I once had a jellyfish squashed in it. I used to come home crying from school begging my Mum to let me have the money to get it chemically straightened. Thankfully she managed to talk me out of it. It was only in my early twenties when it had settled from the more afro frizz of my youth into a mane of thick glossy curls that cascaded down my back that I finally came to appreciate it. And of course now it is the perfect hair to have as a flamenco dancer!
1. How often do you get your hair cut?
Getting my hair cut is like going to the dentist. I cannot bear it. My consistently bad experiences with hairdressers over my lifetime has led me to have a deep suspicion of them. Curly hair gets tangled up (surprise surprise!) and there are so few hair stylists out there who seem to be able to deal with it. I have not come across very many who have not just taken to viciously wrenching a comb through my wet hair in their desperation to detangle it and by doing so have pulled heaps of my hair out, caused me pain and probably permanently damaged my hair follicles. And on top of it the worst ones have been blatantly rude to me over the fact that its "too long" and "too tangled up".
So I would say the most frequently I cut it is once a year. I have gone for five years without cutting it in the past. I feel hard pressed to justify the expense for the ineptitude and the resulting torture I have to endure.
2. Do you go to the same stylist each time, try someone new, go to the cheap hair cutting chains or live it up in a salon?
Finding a good stylist who understands curly hair is very hard. I found one in Australia when I was visiting my family and she did such an amazing job that I would wait to return to Australia to get my hair cut with her. But then she stopped working and I was bereft. I usually try new stylists every time I get my hair cut and have to say I am usually pretty disappointed each time.
There are no cheap hair cutting chains in London that I am aware of. They are all heniously expensive salon prices unless they are barbers! (Please, if you know differently, I am all ears!). I have found a cheap hairdressing chain in the south of Spain which I've been to when I'm over there. I went in the hope that with all those Andulacian ladies with curly hair over there the stylists would be a bit more savvy, but it was still surprisingly hit or miss.
3. Do you color your hair? How often? What’s your natural color?
I have never coloured my hair except for an experiment with a packet of vile smelling, dark brown, natural henna tint which didn't have much effect and gradually washed out. I don't colour my hair now even though I am getting the odd new grey hair sprouting every so often. I cannot be bothered just yet to start all that time consuming routine and expense which will inevitably come later in life and I think it isn't good for the condition of your hair to colour it often.
I have always loved the natural colour of my hair because it looks deceptively black but, seen with some sunlight behind it, most people are surprised to see it is actually shot with a deep red. Almost every hairdresser I have ever been to has commented on it because it is quite unusual. My maternal grandfather was a red head and I never knew him as he died when my mother was a child, but he left all his children and grandchildren this little genetic tweak as his legacy.
4. The one thing you always do to keep your hair looking great is:
I use products specifically for naturally curly hair and tons and tons of heavy duty conditioning treatments and leave in conditioners. I try not to wash it too often as it strips it of natural oils and being porous it can dry out too much with over washing.
5. What hair trend do you love and wish you could rock?
The only hair envy I have is probably of people who don't have to do much to their hair and they leave the house looking "done". But apart from that I don't do hair trends nor pay much attention to them. I couldn't care less if frizzy or curly hair is deemed in or out. As frustrating as it can be at times I like having curly hair and wouldn't change it for the world.
I am interrupting my blogging broadcast of French travelling delights to bring you an announcement: The World Did Not End On Saturday!
This is a post inspired by my fellow fashionable flamenco blogger Dusk whose thoughts on the predictions of the impending apocalypse struck a chord with me. Whilst reading the Saturday news online over my morning coffee I found out about the Rapture theory and I realised that at precisely six o'clock in the afternoon, when an earthquake of biblical proportions was due to hit London, I was due to go on stage to dance a solo for a charity flamenco show. How poetic that it should be a charity gig in aid of the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
As Dusk herself said "Only Christians need apply" and she was looking forward to "seeing all these people floating in the air on their way to heaven." It made me consider what we all believe in. What our life philosophy boils down to. How logic can be overridden to the extent that people would give all their time and life savings to promote an idea rather than do something to improve things for their fellow man suffering on the planet in the here and now.
I'm the sort of person that would write flamenco under religious belief in my national census form and every day I strive to learn something from its mantra of "a vivir el momento". Live for the moment! Because it is futile to predict and worry about when it is all going to end.
Like Dusk I wouldn't have qualified for redemption. According to theory I was due to perish on stage. But living for the moment means showing no fear. Instead of heading for the hills in a futile attempt to escape punishment by fire and brimstone I spent two hours (yes, two!) ironing my bata de cola and worried myself about the rapture of my audience instead.
Anyhow I think I'm more of an Earth bound soul. If I'm doomed to stay here I can't say I'd feel hard done by. To me there will always be plenty of heaven to be found right here. It is my personal belief that there are many ways in which we can "find God" if that is what you want to call it. Mine is through my art.
And before you tell me that all human endeavour is but mere folly let me share with you the dictionary definitions of rapture:
the state of mind resulting from feelings of high emotion; joyous ecstasy
an expression of ecstatic joy
the act of transporting a person from one sphere of existence to another, especially from earth to heaven
Nothing describes better what I feel when I'm dancing. So perhaps at six o'clock on Saturday I did actually encounter the Rapture. If so I'd happily repeat the experience! Or at least by posting this, reclaim some of the essence of the word for the many joys of our world rather than for the obsession with its destruction by earthquake and fire.
And anyway, I can't think of a better way to go myself. Consumed by fire in the throes of this passion? What a way to go.
The long shadows cast in the late afternoon sun on the ancient stones of the medieval city of Alet Les Bains are nothing short of magical. This is the town where Mr V spent many a summer holiday growing up and where we stayed over the long weekend.
Alet Les Bains started life as the seat of a Benedictine Abbey in 813 and has a source of natural spring water. Nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees next to the River Aude, this tiny village of five hundred or so inhabitants was once a highly influential town in the history of the Catholic Church. In the twelfth century it was where church meetings were conducted and the town attracted pilgrims. Nostradamus is even rumoured to have either lived or at least regularly visited Alet.
During this time the Languedoc region was home to the Cathars, a religious sect who were persecuted and eventually wiped out by the Catholics. Many legends and religious conspiracy theories about the area have sprouted up over the years on the basis of this dark history. This is the area which features in the controversial book "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" whose authors tried to sue novelist Dan Brown for plagiarising their work in his novel The Da Vinci Code.
These days there are just whispers hinting at its immense history and the bloody religious wars it has endured in the architecture, the ruins and the layout of the town, as well as in the surrounding area which is peppered with the majestic ruins of Cathar castles.
Life is quiet in Alet now. In fact the silence is almost deafening.
Alet used to be a walled city and above you can see the remains of the old city wall. This is a place which is still steeped in the old ways of doing things. Life is still in many ways carried out at a pace far from that of the modern world.
The newly paved road you see in the picture above and below was laid using manual labour. We watched fascinated as one man hand sprayed sticky black tar onto the road flanked by two others wielding wooden boards to prevent the houses on either side being splashed. They were followed down the road by another man tossing the gravel out over the freshly laid tar with a shovel in well practiced arcs.
Many of the original villagers are ageing and there are several foreigners who have chosen to retire here. Whilst we were there we heard the cathedral bells tolling to mourn the passing away of a villager. There is also an old tannoy system that announces when market sellers come through the village offering their wares.
Many of the locals take pride in keeping their neighbourhood looking pleasing to the eye from the street.
Up until recently this building below was a convent housing an order of elderly nuns.
If you stay in the town on the eve of the First of May as we did this year you could witness a very particular Alet tradition in the spirit of April Fool's Day. On this night the local youth get up to mischief and collude to take any loose lying or detachable objects around the town and pile or hang them up in the main town square as a bit of a joke. In the morning the bewildered and disgruntled owners of the missing objects will make their way into the square to retrieve their belongings. This year with all the roadworks going on they had a ball moving all the barriers and witch hats into incongruous locations in the square as well as peoples bins, pot plants, bicycles and even window shutters and gas meter lids. However this time, the older locals were suitably scandalised, complaining angrily that they had taken things too far as some people's flowerpots had been damaged, bemoaning what had become of the youth of today and demanding that the Mayor intervene and put a stop to it all.
Mr V. happened to walk by the young scoundrels as they were moving things about in the late evening and they stopped to wish him "BonsoirMonsieur!"
Shearling biker jacket: Oasis; Draped silk print minidress: Kaylee Tankus; Black Rat leggings: Sass and Bide; Biker boots: Gap; Bag: Marc by Marc Jacobs
I've finally trawled through the photos of our French sojourn over the May bank holiday and put together some posts of our short stay there. I did actually wear a Union Jack blazer on my first day there. Funnily enough nobody lynched me! Just a few bemused grins from the locals. In fact there seems to be curious fondness amongst the French for this flag - opening up a local furniture catalogue and there was an entire furniture range dedicated to London chic with the Union Jack plastered over everything from chests of drawers to rugs.
I have been visiting the Languedoc region regularly for over a decade now as Mr V's parents have a house here and the area is like a second home to him. There are many things I love about the South of France. Here the people enjoy a very laid back lifestyle where everything stops for lunch and a siesta.
I especially love French pharmacies as they are packed with wonderful, local brand beauty products. Our first port of call is usually a town called Limoux where I take the opportunity to buy skin care products from the local pharmacy to last me a year. My red paper bag in the photo above is filled with lotions, potions and creams from Nuxe, L'Occitane and Caudalie. It's sometimes a struggle to get to the pharmacy before the early closing time for the long lunch hour but when the lady there sees me coming she quietly turns her sign around from fermé to ouvert and lets me in. She always tosses a generous pile of little sample tubes of products into my shopping bag which are invaluable when I'm travelling.
Once I've filled up my goody bag its off to lunch in the town square.
If Lamb kebabs French style don't appeal there is always good old steak-frites!
There was little chance of being bombarded with royal wedding media coverage here - the locals are far too obsessed with rugby.
I adore the shabby chic of the houses with their colourful shutters and facades full of character. I always enjoy seeing the cheerful combinations of colours in which some are painted and the delicate, lacy, wrought iron balconies.
Though we thoroughly indulged in all things French during our four days there our ride was distinctly Italian. Our hire car ended up being a zippy little Alfa Romeo. I'm not much of a car girl at the best of times but this car totally charmed me with its chic red leather seats (which went quite nicely with my Union Jack blazer) and its gutsy engine.
It was a great little companion for a short trip which required it to manage mountain bends and steep slopes. What really won us over was its driving performance getting us to the airport on time after a wrong turn cross country that could have been truly disastrous!
There'll be more from our French trip soon!
Union Jack Blazer, Topshop; White tee, Cos; Denim Shorts, Zara: Tights, Falke; Biker Boots: Gap; Pendant: Vintage; Bag: Marc by Marc Jacobs
Since I got back from France the soles of my shoes have hardly touched the ground, I have been that run off my feet and today has been the first opportunity to visit blog land. Lo and behold, a Friend Friday post subject was calling my nom de plume so loudly that I had to spare a moment to do a quick post, complete with some nerdy shoe statistics collated by a shoe obsessive about her own collection!
Given that this Friend Friday is about shoes it would be rude of me not to participate! See Modly Chic for the other participating blogs!
Did I tell you that when I was a child my favourite fairytale was The Shoemaker and The Elves? Therein lay the inklings of a passion bordering on vice!
1.What is your go-to pair of shoes?
I own so many more high heeled shoes than other type of shoe. Here's a pie chart to prove it. Yes. I categorise my shoes in Excel. I need help.
Despite my love of high heels you won't find me walking around for hours in them. I'm more likely to wear trainers, flat sandals, ballet flats or sensible wedges and change into high heels when I get to my destination, be that if I am working in an office or for an evening out.
My Moroccan slippers
Espadrilles from Spain
Lately I have been wearing more wedges as I find them easier to walk in.
In winter I live in flat biker boots.
And here is a breakdown of the Veshoevius shoe collection by shoe type:
2. What goes into your shoe buying decisions?
Errr.. primarily pure unadulterated lust!
The devil is in the details...
And occasionally necessity...
My flamenco shoes
3. The majority of the shoes in your closet are what color?
Looks like black to me!
Part of my shoe collection
4. When it comes to design shoes what are your favorite brands and why?
I am a shoe tart, in love with all and faithful to no brand. But I have to say that on the basis of analysing how many designer pairs I own relative to high street pairs I am not really a big buyer of designer.
When I have indulged I tend to buy from different designers rather than just one. Past purchases include beauties from Alexander McQueen, Georgina Goodman, Marc Jacobs, Katia Lombardo, Pedro Garcia, Mui Mui, and D&G to name a few. What prompted me to part with my cash was usually a design I really loved and that they were on sale!
5. If price wasn’t an issue, you’d own which shoe?
These gilt babies by Alexander McQueen. You don't want to know what they cost! Eye watering doesn't even describe it!! I could probably buy a small second hand car and never have to wear flats to navigate the tube again! (Though it would justify the purchase of a new pair of driving shoes...)
Guess what arrived in time for me to take it with me to Spain to wear at the feria? This amazing rendition of a bullfighter'...
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