La Côte Vermeille

Amelia and I took a short holiday last week-end, and discovered another beautiful corner of France.  When I say a corner, I really mean it as it is the southern corner of the Languedoc-Roussillon, bordering the Catalan region of Spain.   The weather was poor, but fairly warm, however, we found the Pyrénées-Orientales absolutely beautiful, and at this time of the year the mountains were full of wonderful wild flowers.

We stayed at the beautiful coastal town of Collioure.


On Sunday there was a picturesque street market selling original Catalan goodies.

1- Street Market
Collioure street market

After a short drive south we approached the town of Cerbère only four kilometres from Spain.  The walk along the rocky coast let us see the wild flowers, some quite different from those in our own region.

2- Towards Cebere
Looking towards the town of Cerbère and the Spanish coast

The hills were truly alive with wild flowers.

The clumps of flowers were quite stunning against the rocky coast line.

The little flowers were very delicate


The area is also called the Rocky Coast and I must admit that looking way down towards the sea it was difficult to get a sense of the size of the rocks, like little islands


I tried to catch a glimpse of the cormorant, spreading its wings..


On our return we could look back at Collioure.

Looking down towards Collioure
Looking down towards Collioure

The guidebook we bought from the tourist office proved to be somewhat lacking in clear description, nor were the mountain paths very clearly marked.  Nevertheless we had a few wonderful walks in the foothills of the pyrenees.  Rocks have always fascinated me; their forms, their colours; their size, all seem to me as interesting as the flowers growing beside them.  The contrast often between the rocks, the wild rosemary, the lavender and other wild flowers was impressive.


At the edge of the paths I could often find trees growing out of almost no soil.


This was certainly the area for the Quercus suber, commonly known as the cork oak.

Quercus suber
Quercus suber

Close up I was almost feeling sorry for the trees with their barks removed.  I hoped they did not feel the cold!

Quercus suber
Quercus suber

I loved seeing the wild almond tree so high up the mountain..

Wild almonds

The natural rockery gardens here and there


and the vivid colour of the wild – I don’t know which type of – euphorbia  was quite cheerful.


But seeing wild cistus with its crinkled petals was something else.

Grey-Leaved Cistus (Cistus albidus)
Perhaps it was Grey-Leaved Cistus (Cistus albidus)

The mist was beginning to come down rapidly and I was not quite sure if we were actually on the right path.  The guidebook referred to various passes like the Col de  la Serre, and the Col de Mollo, but in the mountains there are no panels naming the rocky  corners and one pass looks like another.  Perhaps we were not as well prepared as we should have been and so our three hours walk had taken over five hours.


No, we were definitely on the wrong path, as the only way to cross the river was to take our shoes and socks off and roll up our jeans

IMG_3017The evening was fast approaching and coming round a bend in the path I was surprised to see a head peeping out.


Looking up, we could see the farmer bringing the rest of his herd down the mountain.


We were lucky to cross the rushing water as half hour later, on the bank of the river we saw a house.  I am sure, however, that if that boulder had rolled a few feet further along the house would no longer have been there.  We had reached the little village of Rimbau with its few scattered houses letting us ask for directions.


We got back to our hotel safely, but I did remind Amelia along the way that alternate accommodation could have been found for us in the shepherd’s hut, if all else had failed – she did not look impressed.


Bees in the trees

Flowering Plum

This is my favourite time in the garden when my plum tree is in flower.  It heralds the official opening of springtime in the garden.

Bee gathering plum pollen

It attracts honey bees in their hundreds to fill the canopy with a constant motion and buzz that adds to the cloud of its special bitter sweet perfume that floats over the garden.

Bumble bee in plum tree

The bumble bees like to take the top flowers but this one has fallen asleep and stayed for the night amongst the flowers.

Carpenter in plum tree

The carpenters have been very active early this year and visit the plum tree as well as the spring flowers.

Goat Willow

The plum tree is not the first tree to provide pollen to the bees.  We have a willow at the bottom of the garden which I think is a goat willow (Salix caprea).  It is an old tree which we have inherited but it provides the much needed pollen very early in the year.

Bee flying to catkin

At this time of year it is mainly honey bees that come and load up with the pollen.

Wild bee in willow

There are also wild bees like this one and bumble bees that need the valuable pollen.

Apricot blossom

The apricot blossom just doesn’t do it for the bees.  It comes a poor third choice when the plum and the willow are flowering.  I have a feeling that the apricot tree produces flowers at intervals so that it can increase its chances of fruiting in case it produces flowers when there are not so many pollinators around.  I’ll try and keep a closer eye on it this year.


The spring flowers provide colour in the borders.

White daff

And the daffodils brighten up a day when a thick grey blanket of cloud covers the sky and prevents any chance of a glimpse of the solar eclipse.

Hellebore (1)

The Hellebore provide lots of pollen too but it seems to be more appreciated by the bumble bees.

Bumble bee in hellebore

The bumble bees are difficult to see in the Hellebore but their loud buzzing gives them away.

New plum flower
Baby plum tree’s first flower

My plum tree is so important in the garden that I can’t quite imagine the garden without it.  In the summer it provides a cool parasol to dine under.  Its strong branches can support a swing.  It even has its own bee hotel!

That is why we were excited to notice what looked like a baby growing in the hedge nearby.  We looked after it and planted it out last autumn.  We were not sure if we had been looking after a “foundling” and that it would turn out to be another tree but this year it has flowered for the first time.  The flowers looks the same as our plum tree and it has flowered with it at this early time, so we are very happy that the plum tree is not on its own any more.

New home for an old trunk

It all began some eight years ago.  The large building next to our house was always called by the previous owners the atelier, so Amelia and I have kept that name.  It is more than a barn.  It stores all our garden furniture, the ride-on mower, the wood for the fire place, and a variety of objects that Amelia keeps asking me to throw away but I tell her that they might come handy someday!

Most years we have had a variety of birds nesting inside it, including wrens, redstarts, and house martins.  But some years ago I noticed a barn owl flying in and out late in the evenings.  I love barn owls and decided to find out how I might be able to give it a home. Many sites including the Barn Owl Trust in the UK have advice on how to build and erect a barn owl nest.

I looked for a simple way to erect a nest, and eventually I found an old trunk in the local charity depot called Trois Francs Six Sous.  This totally volunteer run organisation operates locally but is similar to the Emmaus charity stores.  Emmaus is an international solidarity movement founded in Paris after the war by the Catholic priest and Capuchin friar Abbé Pierre to combat poverty and homelessness.  The expression Trois Francs Six Sous refers to something that costs ‘next to nothing’ or as we might say in England ‘tuppence’.

The old chest itself proved an interesting item for me.  In it I found a little booklet about 5 cm long with one side the face of someone unhappy and the other a happy face.


It was a small saints day calendar  with the first page indicating the year of its publication.


I have no idea of the exact age of the trunk, but I would guess that it is easily over a hundred years old.  It was beautifully made with two bands of material on the outside.  I was pleased that I could give it a new life.

I cut a square hole at one end of this chest and one third along the chest I placed a partition going three quarter up from the side.  By the time I had finished making the nest it was quite heavy and although Amelia was willing to help, I had to lift it and climb up the ladder to fix the trunk  nearly four metres high inside the atelier along the wall.  It was not an easy task!  I just hoped that one day the owl might fancy using it


The top of the atelier is open to the outside so the birds can easily enter and leave at their pleasure.  After nearly two years of patience, recently I have seen plenty of evidence of the presence of the barn owl with his pellets (not so bad), as well as large white splashes (not so good) in the atelier.

Eventually yesterday I decided to do something that I rarely like to do which is to try to investigate if any bird had actually visited the old chest.  So I put up the ladder and stuck my camera just on the inside at the edge of the partition, and took two quick photos.  The quality of the photos are not so good as I was obliged to use my old Canon Powershot.


Just beyond the partition, I saw the evidence that I had hoped for:  a single barn owl (tyto alba) or as they call it here effraie des clochers.  


I understand that it is quite difficult to determine the sex of barn owls, although I hope I will be corrected on that.  This bird has been visiting us for a number of years and I am not sure if he is a confirmed bachelor or not.  I just hope that he is happy in his home and that this year he will find a mate.


Many happy returns

Purple crocus

All it takes is a little bit of sunshine and splashes of colour return to the garden.

Willow stamens

After all the rain the plants are ready for the big opening.  There is not much pollen on the willow yet, these stamens were the only ones I saw and they were high up, but it won’t be long.

plum flower

I saw my first blossom on the big plum tree in the garden.  In warm years so many bees come to the plum tree when it is in flower that I can hear the buzz from about 100 metres away.

Red Camellia

The red Camellia provides more than colour.

Halictes bee in Camellia

The thick layer of petals has been providing a comfortable B&B for this little halictes bee.

dandelion and bees

The dandelions are out and this one is being shared by a honey bee and a solitary Andrena bee.  I look forward to the return of the bees and butterflies in the garden.

Barbastelle bat

One returning visitor came as a surprise.  My husband spotted him at the end of February and he is still with us.

Barbastelle bat 27.2.15

He is a Barbastelle bat (Barbastella barbastellus).  Barbastelle bats often pass the winter in underground caves or cavities.  As he has decided to take up residence behind our living room shutter again I would presume he is starting to get active.  Once again I presume that if I have been seeing butterflies during the day he will be finding moths (to which he is partial) during the night.  I can keep an eye on him during the day by looking in sideways without disturbing him and I have noticed that he changes position between roosting on the wooden shutter and the stone wall of the house.

This means that it is the third year that we have noticed a Barbastelle bat in exactly the same place (see last year “A furry visitor”).  They have been known to live for 23 years so it seems likely that it is the same individual.


The warm damp weather is ideal for the green tree frogs ( Hyla meridionalis).  They have returned to bask in the sunshine in front of the dining room window.  Often we hear them before we see them and they are difficult to see until one of them moves, as you can see on the picture above.

This is my favourite time of year in the garden as everything makes its first appearance.