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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ax Les Thermes, France, Part Deux – June 17-24, 2012

Fearing that the memory of a place is often better than a renewed experience, it was with some trepidation that we returned to Ax Les Thermes; but it was only the tug of the Aventura that made us pull away after sixteen days.  Our final days here were filled with awe, in particular the hike to Etangs Noir and Bleu off of the Col de Pailheures and a chance bonfire celebration in the town center.

The hike, well documented in the picture link above, was simply stunning.  I sat at our first break, gazing across the valley to the numerous peaks and said to SP, “Surely this is one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.”  We have seen some stunning scenery on our various hikes in various countries, but for me, none tops the view from the pass down to the Etangs Noir and Bleu.  Definitely a Must See if you are in the area and in reasonable shape.  (The hike from the parking area to an excellent view spot is only 1.5 miles but took us an hour—I am a slow hiker.)

Our second awesome experience started as a long-hike day but sadly we couldn’t fulfill that goal as the Orlu National Reserve does not allow dogs on the trails.  Heading back through town, we noticed a stage being constructed and some chairs being set outside in one of the main squares.  So that evening, too lazy to make dinner, we opted to head back toward all that activity.  It turned out to be the Feu de la St. Jean, clearly a festive occasion for the locals.

When we arrived for dinner, there was a DJ playing great dance music (at least half of which was American, including Prince [!] and MJ) and we watched as people cut loose.  In particular, we watched one couple who was clearly doing the Texas Two-Step to a number of songs (and, amazingly, tempos.)  At a break, we approached them (OK, I dragged SP over) assuming they were from Texas and we might actually be able to have a conversation.  In addition to the Two-Step hint, they had on blue-jeans (real ones, not the faded, lined and ripped “fashionable” ones), the lady sporting cowboy boots and the gentleman wearing a Route 66 t-shirt.  I was giddy with anticipation.

Turns out they were from Paris.

Fortunately, their English was much better than my French and we learned that they had visited various places in America, including Texas where they learned to two-step.  On a holiday themselves, they were thrilled to have happened upon this celebration and a chance to work out their moves.  They were a delight.

During dinner we also made note of the numerous men walking around in long-sleeved black shirts, occasionally sharing nips from a leather wrapped flask.  But during the dancing, they were nowhere to be found.  When the DJ music ended (or so we thought) people began moving toward the Casino and, thankfully, SP suggested we head over. 

Turns out there was a giant pyre being prepared for lighting and, lo and behold, the men in black were at the top of the stairs singing glorious spiritual songs.  (Yes, my French is bad, but my Italian, which is what it sounded like, is even worse.)  All I know is that they sounded wonderful.  There was a short break in the singing while they lit the pyre and the bonfire shot sparks up into the dark night.  What an incredible sight!  You would never see this in California (where most towns don’t even trust the people with sparklers on the 4th of July); a giant open fire with children playing not 20 yards away, and only a flimsy barrier to separate.  The fire was so large and so hot that I had to keep backing away.  The chorus returned to singing as we all gazed at the flames, a short video of which can be seen here:

Thus ended our last weekend in Ax-les-Thermes; it was one of the towns that we discovered during the Great Recon Mission (see previous postings for more details) and one that made us sure we wanted to do the Aventura so we could “stay as long as we want in one spot.” 

How wonderful that occasionally new experiences outshine even great memories.