Sunday 15 March 2020. With Spain now in lockdown, we could no longer use the air tickets we’d reserved out of Barcelona. Overnight, I had reconciled myself to waiting out his virus in France. Staying put and concentrating on LEGO and crafts seemed more sensible than making a run for it though countries in lockdown with no guarantee we’d be allowed on the plane.
The kids were keen to stay home all day, but I declared that in afternoon we would be going for a hike. Things were changing fast because of the virus and,we didn’t know how much longer we’d be allowed to head out on the trails. We needed to make the most of this freedom in case it didn’t last and we were confined to our tiny garden for weeks on end.
Not that I thought that would happen in the Ariège. Seriously, the risk had to be low, but the way things were going nothing could be ruled out.…
Ignoring the children’s moans and groans, I pulled out our little guidebook of local walks, searching for something kid-friendly and within half an hour’s drive.
The Chapelle de St Barthélemy looked beautiful. A small stone chapel perched high on a cliff with stunning valley views and a gentle looping two-hour trail. I popped the book in my pocket without reading the instructions. It was all in French anyway so we’d figure it out on the trail.
We wound our way up to the mountainside village of Larcat, wedging the car into a small gap at the base of the village fountain. We followed the hand-carved signs for the chapel, walking between stone walls and climbing into the pastures.
The skies were clear, the sun was warm and the air rang with goat bells as we meandered along the narrow track. Every half an hour or so, we passed fellow hikers, giggling sheepishly as we stepped dramatically into the pasture to “garde une mètre” when passing. Here in the clear mountain air, social distancing seemed extreme. Laughable even.
Nearing the top of the hill we entered the forest, following the trail of iron crosses through a dappled copse to the stone chapel on the cliff edge. It was a breathtaking spot with wide views stretching from the talc quarry at Luzenac near our home, all the way down river to Tarascon-sur-Ariège.
The children ran ahead to the table d’orientation, while I paused to read the laminated paper pinned to the chapel door
In 1854 a cholera epidemic ravaged the local population, already weakened by the potato famine…
I stopped reading. An epidemic?! I don’t think I need to read this sign today. Laughing at myself, I snapped a quick picture and texted my friend Vivienne.
‘This chapel is dedicated to the survivors of a cholera epidemic. Seriously what were the chances of picking this walk today?’
Within minutes she replied. She had been googling.
‘Holy cr*p, just read the bit about them killing the inhabitants of the infected hamlet! Hopefully that’s not a tradition around here!’
‘What? I hadn’t read that’
‘Yes! They built the chapel as penance.’
I felt a chill run through me.
Beautiful as the day and the chapel and the view were, I couldn’t wait for the children to finish their snacks so we could head down the trail. This sun-dappled picnic spot felt suddenly morbid, spooky and dark. Things were starting to get very strange. I tried to laugh it off, but I just wanted to get home. Was this a sign?
Later that evening, I pulled up the photograph of the chapel history on my phone.
Terrified of the cholera outbreak, the villagers of Larcat had put in place a strict quarantine. One day, a group from the high village of Sarradeil in the neighbouring Aston valley arrived. Their village had escaped the virus, but they were starving and had come down the mountain seeking food and shelter. That night as they slept, children curled alongside their mothers, they were massacred by the villagers of Larcat.
Ils sont morts de la peur, de l’ignorance, du rejet de l’étranger…
They died from fear, from ignorance, from the rejection of foreigners…
They were massacred to protect the village from the contagion, but cholera came anyway several weeks later, killing 115 of the 700 Larcatois. The survivors saw the loss as a form of divine retribution for the murders and renewed their commitment to God, building the chapel on the hill and conducting an annual pilgrimage that continues to this day.
I took a deep breath. What struck me most was that these events took place in 1854 – not 1584. Was this where we were heading now? Social anarchy, fear of strangers… Would we be criticised or even attacked for staying in France or using up precious medical resources if we got sick?
It seemed impossible to imagine, but so much was happening that seemed beyond the realms of belief just a few weeks ago.
Did this mean it was time to go home?
Or would I regret overreacting, giving up this hard-won dream for the sake of momentary panic?
I slept fitfully that night.