A heavy breath of smoke and things smoked wafts through the open doorway. It’s the scent of silver plumes spiraling from heavy stone roofs, the deep odor of smoked meats and the tang of clothing dried around the fireplace. It’s also the only sign of life in this shuttered village shadowed by the damply wooded Pyrenean foothills. Like other valleys, it’s seen a steady population decline from the end of the 19th century, although descendants of the original emigrants sometimes return to their ancestral homes during the summer months.
But the voices I hear aren’t always French. There’s a scattering of English incomers settled in this wilder western side of the Ariège département of France, following their dream of a new life across the Channel. The western Ariège, however, is a long way from sunny gourmet France, being a place of stubbornly rooted wildness. People talk about leaving England for the French way of life and an old-fashioned sense of community, then end up leaving their families to live amid the ghostly silence of abandoned and decaying houses. Some feel disquiet when they realise they share the landscape with a growing international community of pierced and dreadlocked incomers. What the French call the neo-ruraux, or marginaux, these seekers of an alternative way of life sometimes squat in empty barns, using adjacent battered vans as cupboards and wardrobes.