The lizards are out. "Stogger", "Lizzie" and "No-Tail" have lost their initial reserve and now go about the daily business of bug hunting with scant regard for our human presence. We feel welcomed by their ease at the Mas del Bartranou. Lizzie and No-Tail scamper unabashed across our doorstep in the morning sun, while Stogger preys on dazed moths gathering around the courtyard light at dusk. His portly form is deceptively quick as he closes in on his choice of lightly grilled local produce. While the smoke from our own barbeque drifts on the evening air, we feel privileged to share this seclusion with mini-dinosaur neighbours: their unpredictable but benign company a reminder that our own home is a long way north.
Here among the thickly wooded hills and sloping vineyards of French Catalonia, life flows in a cadence of heat and light. All around us, the grapes swell in ripe bunches that will soon ferment into a ruby wine filled with summer warmth. Cicadas pierce the silence with their arid chatter and wild mint yields up its scent as feet brush past it. Above all, the sun presides over the mountains and valley, the pantiled village roofs of Sorède and away down to Argelès and the sea: a hazy wedge between land and sky. From this distance the only hint of a bustling resort in the grip of August are the ant-sized cars that ply the D618 to the coast. Up here, we share Les Albères with the lizards.
The climate suits us and the living is easy. The rhythms of our day slow to a less frenetic beat and the kinks in our North European neck muscles are soothed by the sun's deep heat. We bask like lizards as the children roam the orchard and vineyards on increasingly independent adventures. Their small bodies pedal confidently away down the winding track to favoured vine locations where they sit in the shade to play convoluted games of make believe. After the confines of a small city garden, the sense of space and freedom is immense.
We use pushbikes to explore the local villages and verdant lanes of the Tech Valley. Wherever we go, from a quick trip to the boulangerie for morning croissants, to a full day's cycle en famille, the welcome is warm and accommodating. French drivers seem genuinely considerate towards cyclists and in restaurants and cafes they are obligingly prompt with our orders.
We alternate days amongst the tourists on the Plage Du Pins with secluded swimming holes high in the gorge behind Sorède. We enjoy lazy beach picnics and then wallow in the sea or splash through freshwater pools, scattering waterboatmen as we go and shrieking at small fish that tickle our toes.
When the Tramontane reaches shutter banging proportions, we head for the hills and Ceret's Musée d'Art Moderne. The natural awe of the Canigou is lost in cloud, but we can marvel at the genius pencil strokes of Matisse and Picasso ceramics so delicate in form yet so violent in bull fighting imagery. Our valley fills with mist and we drive across to Spain to find sun and surrealism. There is novelty value in travelling across borders with the Euro and in Dali-mad Figueres there are plenty of trinkets on which to spend it. Unsurprisingly, the children are keener to purchase Barcelona football kits than a flattened pocket watch, although they are impressed by the Mae West arrangement and the Dali-catessen where we stop for lunch.
The single track of Le Petit Train Jaune barely clings to the mountainside as it pulls us high into the Pyrenees from Villefranche de Conflent to Mount Louis. We snake our way up the passes in a steady climb over bridges, streams, villages and roads to the edge of the tree line. It feels cold when we stretch our legs round the ski resort on top - until we realise this is comparable to an English July. We rattle back down as an autumnal dusk settles with the smell of wood smoke in these elevated valleys and resume our summer in Les Albères.
We are spoilt for choice by the selection of local produce in the markets and shops. Seafood and charcuterie, cheese, bread and wine make this a quintessentially French affair. At the Mas and in nearby restaurants, we enjoy a range of gastronomic delights, including smoked sanglier, a wild boar dish. The animal is apparently still at large in the Pyrenean foothills hereabouts and we awake one morning to the sight of a hunter striding past the Mas with his gun, accompanied, somewhat unstealthily, by a pack of bell collared dogs. We imagine he is on a sanglier hunt - although surely the boars will hear the dogs coming. They soon disappear into the woods and we hear no more. However, that evening, as we sip digestifs beneath the stars, and watch Stogger stalking moths again, our ears prick up to a sudden strange groan that seems to come from just beyond our faint circle of light. It is neither cat nor fox, of that much we are sure, so is it a sanglier who has survived the day? We push shut the courtyard door, just in case!
We decide we won't ever leave and double our efforts to assimilate Gallic culture: watching Qui Veut Gagner Des Millions and a scary Anne Robinson clone in a French "Weakest Link" while preparations for dinner are made. But of course, we do. As the early sun streams once more through our bedroom window, we pack our things in readiness for our Grand Depart. The children wave goodbye to their vines and we all bid the lizards a special au revoir. We leave relaxed, with a host of happy memories and a promise to return. The peace and tranquillity of the Bartranou estate have been the perfect setting for a family holiday, but perhaps I shouldn't be telling you …!
Mas del Bartranou, Les Albères (AL99)
Moseley, Birmingham, UK.