Along the Pyrenees 4: Massat, mountain capital of countercultures

Another nomad told me that in Ariège, Massat, a village south (and therefore uphill) from Saint-Girons, was the hippies’ HQ. So I decided to go, mingle, and see what happened.

As I drove up the valley toward Massat (you pronounce the t), I went past several organic vegetables and fruits shops. On the road, more and more converted vans and old camping-cars. Virtually every single vehicle had scrapes; a consequence of mountain roads’ tight corners, with  drink- and drug-driving added. Visible tattoos, piercings, dreadlocks, or at least 2-length hair became the norm. Suddenly I was unsure I would be cool enough for this place.

As I settled for a dip in a torrent, up and away from the village, a couple joined me. We bathed, naked in the cool water, before we knew each other’s names. Then they took me in for the evening. They were staying in a tiny hamlet perched above the valley. It was a stranger’s house; they had met him a month ago at the market, and he was looking for someone to look after the house while he was away at the lunar month-long Rainbow festival.

My hosts had gathered nettles and mushrooms, and he prepared a rice, nettle, soy and mushroom soup for us all. In their thirties, they were Spaniards, wandering, whilst figuring out their life options. They had just found out she was pregnant. The conversation rolled easily. We spoke alternatively in French and in Spanish, with some English. I left them that night, feeling like I had found my tribe.

The next day, I hung around in Massat’s triangular market place, the beating heart of the village. Throughout the day, the butcher’s shop, wine shop and the bureau de tabac, and a few cafes and bars catered for tourists and locals. After a while, and despite the pleasure locals showed when bumping into each other, I sensed there was something in the air, too, something like a simmering anger, a brewing rebellion.


I left eventually, and by the river found a camp of punks. Most were hungover from the night before,but they welcomed me and offered me food. The gendarmerie turned up; there had been too much music, too late, so they gave the whole camp twenty-four hours to leave. That soft-touch approach – no rooting around for drugs, for example – is unusual in France. Either way, that was my luck. I left.

Massat comes to life in the evenings though. That night, I met a long-haired, tattooed and pierced, gnarled old hippie. He explained that the mayor, faced with a big rise in covid infections, had cancelled the evening market planned for the week after. Craftspeople would not be able to sell their wares – jewels, knives, walking sticks, honey, jams, potions of mountain plants. That explained the brewing rebellion in the air.  

We then talked about covid, “une grippette”, a small flu, according to him. According to him, facemasks, PCR tests, hand-gel and vaccines all introduce into our bodies products that will make us controllable by 5G, once it is switched on. Lockdowns were excuses to keep people at home whilst they installed 5G relays. Towards the end of the evening, he was talking about concentration camps being secretly set up in the mountains, about taking up arms when government officials would come to hunt them down to be vaccinated. I felt sorry for this man, and a bit scared of him, too.

The next evening, I met a pair of metal detectorists on holiday in the region. They live on the Mediterranean coast, but come every year to prospect out of the way places for metal finds. Sometimes all they find are 1980’s paté cans, which they take down to recycle; they call it “dépolluer” “depolluting”. But they also find treasures. The next day, they showed me them: Gallo-Roman rings used as coins, coins from all eras, sheep’s bells, hunting or World War II cartridges, even a toy soldier. Their expertise was impressive, but they complained about the law in France, which makes their activity illegal, as disturbing archaeological finds. It stops them from accessing the archaeologists’ expertise; and it stops the professionals even knowing about their finds.

Massat was not the party capital I was expecting; but I left it enriched, my head full of those faces, conversations and life choices. They say travel opens the mind; in Massat you need an open mind, or it will be blown to pieces.

Published by languagesandlights

Solitary vagabond, philosopher, writer, poet, teacher

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