Caterpillars and Carbon Monoxide

Against a background of the terrible and sad news from Toulouse, the March sunshine has brought with it a choking smog that has covered Paris for more than a week.   Some rain or wind would be welcome to blow away the air pollution that has passed the European safety level 28 times since the beginning of the year.

To try and escape to some fresh air, last weekend we caught the train to Fontainebleau, for a walk in the forest.  No sooner had we started into the forest, we were confronted by a swarm of one of the most dangerous animals in France, advancing down the path towards us…

The Pine Processionary Caterpillar is a remarkable animal. Springtime is the period during which these gregarious caterpillars descend from the nests they build in pine trees, and march across the forest floor in single file, looking for a hole in the ground in which to pupate.  These “processions” are spectacular – the one we saw in Fontainebleau was 3 metres long, and we estimated it contained more than 100 individual caterpillars.

Apparently, caution must be taken when approaching these caterpillars, because their spines can detach, and if inhaled or in contact with skin, can cause violent allergic reactions in humans and domestic pets.  We got close enough to take some photos, but not close enough to be poisoned.

Luckily, no other dangerous beasts crossed our path.  The forest was still wearing its brown winter coat, but signs of spring were everywhere – finches were nibbling on buds on trees, and magnolias were just beginning to burst into flower. We’re still waiting for a storm to blow away the pollution over Paris, but this walk in woods was a welcome respite.


Rambles around Rambouillet

The excellent maps produced by the Institut Géographique National (IGN) make it very easy to put on a good pair of walking shoes and launch into the French countryside. It’s one of my favourite activities: at walking pace, you can better understand a landscape, you can avoid the crowds and make unexpected discoveries.

When I lived in Alsace, IGN maps of the southern Vosges were pinned across my apartment walls. And everywhere I’ve lived since my collection of maps (and walking experiences) has expanded.

These few weeks of rest between jobs end on Monday, so this week has been a last chance to enjoy some parts of the Paris region I hadn’t yet seen.  Yesterday I caught a train from Gare Montparnasse to Rambouillet and set off on a circuit through the Forêt de Rambouillet, one of the largest forests near Paris, 200 square kilometres in size. As usual, I took some pictures.

The Château de Rambouillet was a royal hunting lodge from the 1500s onwards, today it’s a summer home for French presidents. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing reinaugurated “presidential hunts” in the 1970s, and the goddess Diana with her attendant dogs and stags still watch over the park.

Walking out of Rambouillet towards the village of Gazeran, fields of wheat bend in the wind.

Once inside the forest, Rambouillet’s oaks stretch for miles and miles…

This is a forest where Scouts and ramblers make mysterious magic circles of unknown purpose,

A forest where witches might lurk in hidden cottages,

A forest which is empty during the week, save for a few deer and the lone walker.