Almost perfection

A mystic and poetic portrayal of the grape harvest in the town of Salses, in northern Catalonia

Women Travellers in Catalan Lands

There did not seem much sleep that first night, the church bell declared every quarter of an hour with a querulous dissatisfaction: before five o'clock in the morning a harsh réveillé rang from the belfry and a quick sound of pattering feet brought us to the windows where dawn was breaking clear over a square “Place” planted with plane trees. Under a pink and blue sky hurrying figures were setting off for the vineyards: the day had begun. By breakfast-time wheels sounded, and henceforth until dusk grapes poured into Salses and a procession of empty carts rumbled back to the fields, curving horns in the distance, sheepskins nodding and swinging, brass flashing on the harness of the great, wide-chested horses.

Across the “Place” goats began to wander, singly and little groups, no goat-herd to be seen, collecting themselves before going out to feed. They sauntered casually, stopping round the planes to butt each other and pivot on their hind legs, to pick up stray grapes, but they all disappeared in time round the same corner.

It was when we were leaning out of one of the windows that we first saw Canigou, distant, in the north-west: a blue mountain standing up alone with its first whitening, towards the top, of early snow. One thought of it as a high priest over the land in some faint white vestment. It never afterwards quite lost that connection of itself with the country as a sort of medium and officiate.

But the moment was calling us down and out: the vintage was in the air, irresistible. Almost every other building we passed was a “cave”; comportes with their wooden handles, that are like goats' ears, stood stacked against the houses, or passed loaded with black grapes, or swung full of grapes on wind-lasses to upper floors; men with bare feet and legs stained red with wine wandered along the street; red juice ran in the gutters. A few minutes' walk and the village was left behind; we were out in the open; acres and acres of vines stretched at our feet and away over all the miles between Salses and the sea, flat as a green carpet. Near at hand lines of figures were stooping amongst the vines, a man with a white umbrella stood looking on, and carts were waiting. We made for the spot. Grapes at last: blue grapes, blue as the sky, and some of the thick leaves a rusty red of autumn, wine-coloured leaves. The sun poured down on the men and women snipping off the bunches and tossing them into baskets: their clothes, drenched in the early morning dew, were sun-dried enough now. [. . .]

Salses in the heat, stretched in front of us, a line of stone houses and flattish red-tiled roofs, the little seventeenth-century church belfry topping the line. Away in the haze Canigou was an insubstantial manifestation. Behind Salses came, close, the range of the Corbières that shut out France. One saw those hills then only as pitilessly bleak, unwinking in the sun, a stony glare. They could wait it was the village, close, that attracted: the vortex that had got such a drag on the fields all round us: one was bound to be pulled in. We were there, in the “caves” themselves that afternoon,[. . .] Treading was going on, not with any show, one or two men only, plunging half way to their knees in the trough, wading in a shiny, slippery mass, treading it with a light, springing action, putting into it some of the life and joy that the wine would give. From the trough went the pulp into the great vat to bubble and seethe and eddy for eight days. A squeezing of its brains for the wine, and the eight days over, a pouring out from the bottom of the vat of clear life. Somehow or other the men at work seemed to answer to an intimate demand that wine-making made on them: it was almost as if it were a sort of sacrament at which they officiated, the suggestion given was so definitely a reverent feeling for the wine: themselves part of the vintage, built up on it, saturated with red wine, its tonic flavour in their very language, virulent, direct. The twilight when it came moved to the march home from the vineyards. There was singing along the road, footsteps quick and quiet, some of the labourers carried grapes, some went to hold candles in the dark sheds-half an hour's work more to finish. The housewives must have gone straight to start “potage” and “bouillabaisse,” for wood fires began to send up their scent, Salses burning incense to its yearly rite.

Isabel Savory

Isabel Savory (1869-?) was an English writer and sportswoman remembered today for her participation in several hunting expeditions. Born into an affluent family of Weybridge, Surrey, during her childhood she was keen on such male-dominated outdoor sports as golf and fox-hunting. Extremely active and self-reliant, in 1886 the death of her father endowed her with enough money to travel and pursue a more adventurous life. She spent a year travelling with some friends across India and the Himalayas. A Sportswoman in India (1900), the book she wrote about this expedition, became a best seller and made her popular among middle-class women readers who saw her as a representative of the audacious “New Woman”. A year later she trekked in Morocco and wrote the Tail of the Peacock (1903). Her third travel narrative, The Romantic Roussillon: in the French Pyrenees (1919), relates the excursions that she made through all the Catalan counties of southern France. A vague reference to the pre-war years suggests that they probably set out in September of 1918. One of the first places described in this book is Salses, known as the northernmost boundary of the Catalan-speaking territories. Savory arrived there during the grape harvest season. The grape growers had replaced the old vines with new phylloxera-resistant grafts. Savory represents the people at ease with the landscape, calmly reaping the earth's bounty.

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