Wednesday, September 5, 2007

From Toulouse to the hills by train

There was the usual high speed train trick: somebody started to move the platform. A few minutes later the train is darting forward, uncannily smooth for its speed.

The sun is out here just as it was at home, but here its heat seems stronger. Pale stony soil and bleached stubble stretch out on either side of the track's low embankment. Grey woods look even greyer in the distance, and cars as small as toys shoot along on an invisible road. There is an un-English absence of hedges. Suddenly against the sky I see a stepped wall of bells, improbable and over-dramatic as stage scenery.

We slow in respect of a small town but don't stop, like passing a lesser picture in a gallery. By unspoken agreement all buildings are ocher, cream, pale grey - anything but white. When we pass a lone exception it is clear why: it seers the eye with brightness, even in autumn.

Then for once the train is delayed, and we wait and wait in the middle of the faded dusty landscape. The small far clouds are unmoving and even in September the sun bakes the train. I look out and long for the garden I have been ignoring for the last six moths, and the verdure of England at the end of a wet summer.

Eventually we move off towards the next town. Gardens, edged with serried ranks of trees, all contain some version of a swimming pool. The houses are small, single storey, with shallow-pitched roofs bearing inter-crinkled red tiles. Everywhere everything looks rectangular. At each few houses there is a well, an orchard, immaculately tended rows of vegetables.

A line of plane trees, like English willows along a riverbank, marks a canal, from which a barge protrudes above the horizon. A few minutes further on, a driveway through fields is picked out by a double file of mediterranean pines.

Without my noticing, the clouds have gathered, and the light is no longer as clear. Vines replace stubble, overlaying each hillside with a directional grain as though a comb had been passed through them. Like trees in a plantation they seem a muddle until you reach just that point when you see plumb along the line. Each vineyard brings yet more long green walls, all on little wonky legs.

Beyond Carcasonne we travel up the valley of the Aude, through towering gorges with the modest river that carved them bubbling along below. The water is shallow and beautifully clear; as usual with natural things I ask it its prayer, not really expecting an answer. The following day I lean over the bridge on a wander through town and a reply comes to my mind. It is what it does, and it does what it is. So I began to write.

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