Never miss an opportunity to enter a boulanger’s shop in the morning. I recommend it. The smell of the fresh bread and pastries, the look of their stacked fine golden familiar shapes. The appetite for a holiday breakfast and the anticipation of that first bite of crunchy crust. The taste of the soft white bread, with butter and tea. It’s all right there in the ringing of the bell when you open the door and step inside to the cheerful ‘bonjour’ that awaits you.

It’s a familiar ritual now and one I wouldn’t miss whenever I’m in France. John and I head down into Bielle early – it’s no hardship. We prepare the breakfast table and Der and Pad arrive in. Der was out for a morning stroll, into the church too but there’s no Sunday Mass there because there’s no priest to say it, I guess. There’s chat over the food, our walk for the day is planned. We’re in a calm anticipatory mood. We make our sandwiches, fill our bottles, check our packs, don our boots and shoes and hats and go.

It’s an extra pleasure to head off from our own door onto the path and up the hill. Over the brow of a Col in the distance we counted over sixty large birds soaring in the bright warming sunlit air. We’d seen more than twenty red kites in a dusky field the night before but this was something else. We wondered if they were kites again but it was too far to see. Later in the week, we’d realise they were vultures.

The Plateau du Benou is striking in the morning autumn light, under the clearest and purest of blue skies. Literally not a cloud passes over us.

We were out for about five and half hours over the day but it wasn’t hardship, even the pull up the steep little conical hill at the end of the plateau, wherefrom the view was enough reward. More red kites and some eagles high above in pairs. Kestrels closer down, hovering over a small wooded area. Cattle and sheep all over the plateau, ringing out a medley of bells that a campanologist would be proud of. Or one of those Caribbean steel bands.

And great benign horses, mares with foals – huge things with long manes and massive hooves and rippling shining flanks, calm as you like, as we walked past. From the top of the hill at the end of the plateau we counted over 200 animals spread out without a fence, nor a gate, nor a tether, nor barbed wire. Roaming at will around the valley, undisturbed by and undisturbing of all the people walking around them and past them, not a bother in the world, in harmony comfort and ease. Where would you get it? Not in Ireland anyway.

There were many people too up there, – it was a sunny Sunday afternoon – though almost all had driven. They picnicked and strolled and children ran and played on the soft grassy soil.

We took a detour going back and dragged ourselves up another incline to a series of cromlechs on a height looking south down the valley, a massive drop below us. Dozens of stone circles set among small trees over the ridge, with the most amazing view far down below and up to the high white mountains in the distance. The valley, flat and green as a billiard table was set out below, a river and a road meandering through it.

That evening as I sat to write in the waning sunlight, with walnuts falling through the big tree below me, the local farmer moved some animals to a higher pasture for the night. The sun was dropping lazily behind the ridge. A breeze picked up and a helicopter, large by the sound of it, made its way along the valley to the north. The leaves rustled, the shadow of the hill lengthened out before me. The bells of the cows in their new pasture rang above me. The evening cold made its presence felt, it was time for a beer and another restorative brotherly dinner.

Then I was in shadow and my three brothers were inside clinking glasses, saying ‘Go mbeirimid go léir beo ar an am seo arís’. I put down my pen and notebook and picked up my folding chair and I joined them.

 

Distance covered: 14km; Altitude gained: 1034m; Highest point: 1106m

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