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Frontiers and comfort zones.

A Letter from the Pyrenees

Frontiers and comfort

Frontiers and Comfort Zones. When Collette’s sheep charged into Spain from their neighbouring pastures, they had no idea they were crossing a frontier. The concept of country did not apply. I have been over that same border many times and although, cognitively, I knew I was in a different country, not once did I hear strumming guitars or the pounding feet of flamenco dancers. The landscape, however, did change and, to put it simply - France is green; Spain is ochre. The natural crenellated fortress of the chain, extending from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, erects not just a cultural barrier but also a meteorological one. Consequently, it rains more on one side than the other. I have no doubt, however, that sheep are unaware this. Like most creatures, they only have their own interests at heart. “The vegetation is different,” Collette informed me. “The grass, the flowers…” So, her flock was simply hurrying to their currently preferred restaurant. I conclude that, according to sheep, France tastes different from Spain. That’s my experience, too. One of the challenging things about living here is the unpredictability of the weather. You can wake at dawn to find a white curtain drawn over the view which, by ten, will have dissolved into a wall to wall festival of colour. The reverse is also possible. And on these occasions we are apt to ask: “I wonder what the weather is like in Spain.” When we first started coming here the frontier was manned by police and customs officials. Those based in the little village of Urdos, the last settlement before the border, would stop cars in an apparently arbitrary manner demanding passports, examining our vehicle, looking us up and down as though we had arrive from another planet. At other times they would just scowl and wave us through. The actual line between the countries is several miles further on and reached by a poor road that, in places could barely squeeze through the gap between the River Aspe and the mossy cliffs. On arriving at the wide Col de Somport, motorists would be funnelled through checkpoints in order to undergo a thorough interrogation by humourless men with military style uniforms and serious guns who had great difficulty believing we wanted to visit their country simply because we liked it. These days, of course, it is quite different. Thanks to the Shengen agreement, we come and go as we please without inspection or intimidation. Furthermore, in 2003 a tunnel under the mountains was completed securing passage between France and Spain at times when the Col is blocked by snow. Inevitably, this has resulted in more traffic in the Valley d’Aspe but, more positively, it has made a trip to our neighbouring country a far more casual excursion. And, thus, it is a regular occurrence. The nearest town of any significance is Jaca. Within sight of the great peaks but rooted firmly on the plain, this charming place has the best of both worlds: a benign climate and easy access to all the mountains have to offer. No surprise, then, that it is a popular tourist town, both in summer and in winter. It is, however, a town that retains its charm by resisting the pressure to dumb down seen in similar situations around the world. Jaca is good at doing its own thing. Carrive before the fall

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