My Pyrenean walking in 2011 effectively began when I arrived at a worldwide religious centre. Lourdes in the south of France, is a quiet little airport receiving specialist pilgrim flights from Manchester. I’ve been through it three times and it takes just minutes to collect your baggage and then when I got outside this year, a bus was leaving immediately for town. The journey takes about twenty minutes, cutting through French agricultural fields. On the distant horizon you can see the mountains. Two years ago I flew to Toulouse, noting the difference between the town, a night in a hotel, and the experience of walking and camping outdoors. Lourdes makes for another peculiar comparison.
Parts of the town are pleasant like other Pyrenean foothill areas but the centre is busy, commercial, and dense with religious tourism. In 2009 I passed through from Toulouse to Lescun and there was a coach load of nuns hanging around the station, and religious music piped over the speakers. You see ill people in the streets, either physically disabled or with indeterminate but obvious sickness. Roll up, roll up, get your cure all holy water and Jesus Loves You. I don’t know which is worse, the Christianity or the in-your-face commerce. Since both are rip-off nonsense I decided it’s satisfying when they are melded together as part of the same spectacle. Pay ten euros, and you too can have a tour of the grotto: a sort of Father Christmas emporium showing Lourdes history and posters of Popes. The Vatican are the Georgio Armani of this nonsense; Lourdes is the Lidl counterpart. The difference lies in the presentation and the show, not the essential content. Whether it’s the Pope saying Jesus is Lord in his purple designer finery or a two euro postcard saying the same, the underlying premise is no different. If I read E=mc² it doesn’t matter if it’s part of an Oxford University lecture, or written in a 10 pence book from a charity shop. Religions make naive metaphysical claims constituting nothing more than grandiose hope – and whether that’s substantiated with Vatican glitz, or a ten euro plastic Pope, the substance of the flawed claims is the same. Metaphysics is a cognitive rather than an imaginative concern, and it’s important to understand the difference.
According to the novelist Ayn Rand:
Religion’s monopoly in the field of ethics has made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life. Just as religion has pre-empted the field of ethics, turning morality against man, so it has usurped the highest moral concepts of our language, placing them outside this earth and beyond man’s reach. ‘Exultation’ is usually taken to mean an emotional state evoked by contemplating the supernatural. ‘Worship’ means the emotional experience of loyalty and dedication to something higher than man. ‘Reverence’ means the emotion of a sacred respect, to be experienced on one’s knees. ‘Sacred’ means superior to and not-to-be-touched-by and concern of man or of this earth…But such concepts do name actual emotions, even though no supernatural dimension exists…It is this highest level of man’s emotions that has to be redeemed from the murk of mysticism (The Fountainhead, introduction: xi).
Religion, in other words, undoubtedly involves a certain kind of emotional experience. The question is, what kind of experience it is and what the ‘emotion’ connotes. The psychological content of Rand’s observations is substantial. The implication is, a vast amount of unconsciousness exists within religion, comparable to the Marxist use of the term ‘consciousness’. That is, vast numbers of people are duped by institutional conditions, and are blind to their slavery. The situation is impossible in regard to any possible advance, because of the nature of the unconscious process. A believer can say “God has shown me he exists” and when this is examined, what you find is emotion – which the believer insists is evidence of metaphysics. You cannot gainfully challenge this because how someone construes their experience is personal and subjective and religion encourages the process: consolidates it, endorses it, and decorates it with symbolism inside places of so called worship.
The problem then, comes down to a failure to understand the nature of emotion and simple and core ideas of metaphysics. If we accept ‘God’ as an abstract possibility – and there’s no reason not to – the next topic is what the nature of ‘God’ might be and what the phenomenological implications of this are. Effectively, religion dupes people into thinking certain kinds of emotion will allow them to travel to a transcendent dimension – heaven – when they die. But, of course, they don’t actually prove this; they say if you believe it, it will be so. They never provide any proof, like a scam business which promises but never delivers. And – the only way of escaping this nonsense is to understand the nature of the emotions it entails, in regard to both psychology and metaphysics.
There’s currently a vigorous forum for religious refute with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins providing substantial ammunition and in the case of more retrograde Middle East religion, where even social practices are questionable, the writings of Hirsi Ali and others, the words of Salman Rushdie and others, further point the way forward. However the ‘atheist’ movement is strictly limited because it accepts, and is thus confined by, the argument religion proposes: they challenge the idea that we should ‘believe’ in God. There is no reason to accept this parameter, nor any great purpose in pursuing the topic: since a belief is not a fact. It’s pointless arguing about belief, because neither believing or not believing changes anything. ‘God’, should such a thing exists, should necessarily be regarded in real phenomenological terms: ‘believing’ it, or not, makes as much difference as ‘believing’ a bus will arrive in ten minutes. It might. It might not. ‘Belief’ is the factor for primitive superstition. It is not phenomenological ‘knowing’. Religions don’t ‘demonstrate’ God, and atheists don’t demonstrate ‘God’ doesn’t exist and – unfortunately – argue with believers using the terms of the believers, regarding their ‘belief’. The topic is more philosophically subtle and challenging. It is not confined to one or the other approach.
Kierkegaard sums up the matter up quite well:
Let us call this unknown something: God. It is nothing more than a name we assign to it. The idea of demonstrating that this unknown something (God) exists, could scarcely suggest itself to Reason. For if God does not exist it would of course be impossible to prove it; and if he does exist it would be folly to attempt it. For at the very outset, in beginning my proof, I would have presupposed it, not as doubtful but as certain (a presupposition is never doubtful, for the very reason that it is a presupposition), since otherwise I would not begin, readily understanding that the whole would be impossible if he did not exist. But if when I speak of proving God’s existence I mean that I propose to prove that the Unknown, which exists, is God, then I express myself unfortunately. For in that case I do not prove anything, least of all an existence, but merely develop the content of a conception (Philosophical Fragments, chapter 3).
Otherwise, arriving at the centre of Lourdes reminds me of my first time and evokes the same feelings: hurrah, now I’m in warm and sunny France. There was a two hour wait for the bus to Cauterets, giving me time to wander to the shops in search of methylated spirits. I asked for it in a supermarket, struggling with the pronunciation of alcool de bruler which is what you ask for in France. The product is slightly different to UK meths and appears to be related to its alcohol content: alongside it were two other fluids with different uses and different constituent proportions. The store didn’t have it but then I remembered the hardware shop where I’d bought a gas canister two years ago, and there it was on the shelf.
The bus to Cauterets takes about an hour and when I arrived, I sought out the hotel run by an Irish chap who has made his presence known on the internet. I’d sent him an e mail with a business proposition, regarding photography workshops in Cauterets which he might cater for. But the town has no suites of computers and in any case, he said, he was leaving the hotel at the end of the year because of insufficient business. I also asked him about camp sites and established that the one I knew about was too far from town and on the main road, but there was another which was closer and quieter. I walked to the edge of town, raised my thumb, and within minutes had a lift to the Vignemale camp site.
It’s a quiet and fairly small site with views back down the Cauterets valley and good facilities. My pitch was next to a friendly couple from Toulouse who invited me to sit with them and we discussed British riots, French riots, ghetto areas in both our countries, attitudes to the family in France and the UK, and Canadian social policy. About a week later I met a man who said, half seriously, we were having a “revolution” in Britain. It wasn’t anything of the kind; it was young black criminals (initially) then white chav criminals realising if they acted in large groups to some extent they could get away with arson, violence, and looting. The same happens on problematic Manchester council estates. The fact that the hideous youths are young teenagers doesn’t mean they’re not a threat if there are ten or fifteen of them fully aware of the power of their assembly, like packs of wolves, with bricks or knives instead of teeth.
My Toulousian companions were planning a pleasant day with a drive and stroll to a lake with food, wine, and books. I didn’t ask what books though it may have been interesting; it was certainly interesting that they were so inclined. As with my first walk across the Pyrenees and my first night at the Lescun camp site, I felt divided: families were lazing in the sun and these two were going to read beside a lake whereas I was setting off on a journey. Part of me felt I wanted to do the same as them, characteristic of a holiday rather than athletic adventures. Some years ago, within an eight day trip to Eskdale, I discovered such pleasures: that you don’t have to walk every day and a leisurely day off with a pub lunch in the sunshine makes for a lovely holiday.
I was once told the two most important French verbs were to be and to do. The linguistics correspond to a psychological and philosophical topic. Mountain walking is a vigorous doing activity and yet, unless you are a peak bagger, the doing is a means to achieve a quality of aesthetic, contented, organic being: to feel yourself part of a bigger universe without the taint of stupid or vicious society. The third most important French verb is perhaps avoir, to have, but its significance is more prevalent in society than the mountains. I left for France when appalling criminal youths were rampaging in pursuit of possessing and having. Mountain walking is about having less, environmentally and in terms of your daily living, which is paradoxically more. You don’t possess the mountains, you travel over and through them, and this quality of movement – doing in order to be, accumulating just innocent poetic memories – refreshes the soul while it exercises the body.
Day One: Moods, Cauterets to Vignemale
My companions left the camp site before me, and we exchanged happy goodbyes. They were fluent in English but wherever possible, I like to exercise my basic French. Bon vacances. Merci. When are you leaving, they said. I said in half an hour or so, that I was tired. My plan was not demanding, so I had some leisure. Walk back into town, hitch a lift where the road turns up for Pont d’Espagne, and make my way to Oulettes de Gaube, the refuge beneath Le Vignemale. It’s a wooded valley track reminding me of walking the Marcadau valley, the forest area walking to Candanchu in 2009, and walking from the Wallon refuge to the Aratille lakes.
It was a day of sun, rain, clouds, and moods. Now I’ve seen some of the Pyrenees I’m less upset with bad weather, less concerned that I must have good views with blue skies. I wanted to see the Vignemale properly after 2009, when the skies were grey and heavy. But it wasn’t so important. I now love the Pyrenees, not with the freshness of a first date and vivid impressions of hair, face, and frock, but with more balanced experience: I still love you in jeans and an old tee shirt which is rather as the Vignemale appeared, in drab colours of grey again, and bursts of further rain as I ate in the refuge. I enjoyed being back at the refuge. There was the table where I’d sat writing my diary, two years ago. There was where I ate, opposite a British couple one of whom later came to my tent with some after sun gel to heal my badly burnt face. It was notably good vegetarian food on that occasion, with adzuki beans for protein. The staff were nice again, one man I recognised and two pretty teenagers one of whom may have been there before, asking sweetly if my meal was OK. They stood around rather than retreat to the kitchen after serving food, with laughter, smiles, and the happy craic of the hills. One of them went from table to table making enquiries which I shortly realised was a singing request. It was the man’s birthday and everyone burst into joyeuse anniversaire! joyeuse anniversaire! joyeuse anni-vers-aaa-aiire, joyeuse anniversaire!
I couldn’t converse with anyone for language reasons, but enjoyed the refuge evening. I briefly considered sleeping there but decided it was too busy and in any case, I prefer to camp. Unfortunately the timing couldn’t have been worse when I left the refuge and firstly I got wet, then I had to pitch my tent in the rain so everything was wet. I spent about an hour wondering what to do, sponging up pools of water in my tent and trying to make myself comfortable. In a break in the rain several people walked past my tent from the camping area aiming – I suspect – for the refuge of the refuge. I considered it myself but the fuss of packing up again and getting no sleep in a dormitory discouraged me.
Day Two: Continuing Moods, Vignemale to Bujaruelo
And then it changed: it was a beautiful sunny morning and there, finally, was the Vignemale in her full glory. My pitch was directly behind these boulders:
When the sun spread far enough to reach my tent I laid everything out to dry and had a leisurely contented breakfast: a spicy soya pate squeezed onto baguettes. This was walking in the Pyrenees, what I wanted. I set off late, about 10.30, up to Col de Mulets which was as devastatingly windy as it was before. I was unsure of the descending path and asked a few people but they didn’t know either; it appeared straightforward but as it wasn’t actually visible I didn’t want to take any risks. The upper Ara valley is rather bleak and boring but I knew this from 2009 and it was only a passing section before – so I’d heard – the lower area was supposed to be attractive. It certainly is, when you reach Bujaruelo, but I had to endure more heavy rain before I got down to it. There’s an interesting ravine area which then melds into woods and idyllic riverside fields. My impressions of the Spanish Pyrenees, based on views from Le Taillon, were not encouraging. From Le Taillon it all looks bleak, dusty, and barren. Some areas are like that but some are not; Bujaruelo is green, lush and fertile and I liked it very much. It’s craggier than the French Pyrenees, which I find less attractive, but more diverse in terms of the trees and vegetation.
When I reached the Bujaruelo camp site next to the refuge, I was rather dismayed. It was big, full of people, and an unlikely place for a peaceful night. I spoke to the bar girl who said she’d never seen it like that before. A party looked impending; one chap was wandering around with a guitar.
I had a good meal at the refuge of goats cheese, salad and fries and chatted with a Spanish girl who treated me to shoulder touches, bringing her drink to my table, and enthusiastic interest in my company. She was a second year student at Valencia University studying psychology and when I said “Freud? Jung?” she said “Fritz Perls,” who I studied at Lancaster University. It was interesting looking at her essay and picking out words, names and concepts I knew about while knowing almost zero Spanish: Maslow, hierarchy of needs, Carl Rogers, empathy, and so on. This is why we got on well. Someone once told me about Spanish friendliness and how they will invite you to join them if they like you, which they probably will, within ten minutes or so. “You come out with us! You come to bar with us!” etc. and her invitation was forthcoming: she invited me to join her at another table when her friends arrived, and into her tent “if you don’t want to sleep”, she said, after I’d told her that’s what I needed. Nice company, but not to camp with: her tent was the big one on the right, she said, designed to accommodate group size fun.
I sneaked into the showers, and then there were two alternatives: another camp site further down the valley I knew nothing about, or a nearby wild camp. It was now about eight o’clock and not the time for further effort or risk, so I decided to camp wild. There were bushy areas nearby, but on flat grassy fields where campers were strolling. In search of somewhere more private I waded across the icy river and found a quiet glade in the woods. I was uncomfortable with this because it was a hideaway rather than a pleasurable camp, and I couldn’t see into the black trees. If I were a murdering lunatic, it would be a good plan: stalk the surrounding area of a busy camp site and I would eventually find a vulnerable victim. Such things do happen, but very rarely. I decided this was emotion rather than reason, and if I closed my tent I’d get some peaceful sleep. The problem was looking out and seeing black shadows and trees, not knowing what was there. Under the protection of my tent and statistical probability, I slept well.
I was thus in bed at ten, worrying about psychopaths, before the party started back on the camp site. Sad perhaps – in other circumstances I might have joined the Spanish girl – but I wasn’t in the Pyrenees to party. I got a good ten hours sleep, making up for a deficit.
Day Three: Spanish Valleys, Torla
The question of the day was whether to backtrack about thirty minutes to visit the Otal valley, which a Spanish couple the previous day had told me was very beautiful. The deciding factor was the weather; the skies were very cloudy and under such conditions the most spectacular places are dull. My downhill route, I realised, was on the GR10 and my private woodland camp not so far from the path. I enjoyed the track for an hour or so beside the river and then saw a sign to a camp site I decided to follow: it must be the site I considered last night. This was for research purposes should I ever be there again and it’s a lovely site: small, peaceful, with a cafe bar with a good view down the valley. I decided to relax with some food, a second light breakfast after bread and soya pate at my tent. A nice fresh salad, and I sneaked out a hunk of baguette from my rucksack to have with it. I realised – actually I knew this already – my breakfasts were inadequate. The problem is the amount of food you have to carry and how much it weighs.
It was a pleasant mid morning break after which I decided to walk down the road, rather than return to the riverside track which was hidden in the shade and lacking any views. The day had brightened and when I reached the valley floor I enjoyed the track to Torla. It was a simple path without any challenges or demands, through tame countryside. Undramatic, but very soothing. I reflected that I’d enjoy many such days, along a long distance non mountainous path: a walking holiday somewhere like Provence.
It was siesta time when I reached Torla; I searched for the camp site but then saw it at a distance back where I’d come from. I wanted supplies and a half decent evening meal and decided to find a guest house. Most of them were about forty two or forty five euros, then I found a more back street place charging thirty five. Perfectly nice, although the elderly receptionist was strange and unpleasant. No hello, no goodbye, no acknowledgement of my thanks, he just stared at me with a lizard-like dislike as I struggled to communicate, remembering ‘unos noches’. After I’d settled and snoozed in my room I decided to pay before I went into town for food so I didn’t have to encounter lizard-man again in the morning. I realised – in the morning – there was still the matter of returning the key but I didn’t want any more irritation with his surly attitude. I left the key in the door which would inevitably be collected by the cleaner.
My evening meal was cheese sauce pasta in the bag boiled in my room with bread and tinned green beans. I decided against the inevitable difficulty of finding a vegetarian restaurant meal and the tiresome awkwardness of its formality: laying the place, waiting for it to appear, waiting for the bill, on my own in a restaurant.
Day Four: Ordesa
I decided I wanted to see Ordesa. It would be different, I knew that, from mountain walking as such; it’s a big canyon which is another kind of landscape. I took the bus up to the opening of the canyon; they run about every fifteen minutes. The walk begins along a pleasant woodland track with hordes of people which gets a little irritating. A Spanish chap I ate with two years ago in Candanchu described his people as ‘noisy’. I said I liked Spanish people, which as a general point is true. But I realised, he was right: shouting kids, men with bear-like voices, were jarring me away from enjoying the unfolding path. They were different from the French, who tend to be a little quieter.
The woodland track gets a little boring but after two hours it opens out and you get big canyon views instead of snatched sunshine and peep holes through the trees. The final grassy area of the canyon is beautiful, but also touristy: a paved path with children, families, and elderly day trippers. Only when you start climbing out of the valley up steep zig zag tracks do you find any sense of natural wildness. Ordesa is a spectacular canyon but probably not a walk I’d repeat. What you see – worthwhile as it is – is limited compared to a mountain vista.
When I saw Perdido looming up ahead at the end of the canyon my feeling in regard to climbing it was confirmed. From photographs it seemed somewhat barren and featureless, and this was evident when I saw it. Refuge Goriz is the obvious base from which to climb Perdido; I decided to continue with my plan and move on the following day. I had a cold shower at the refuge, conversed with a couple from Montpelier, then had a good sleep enjoying my pitch above the canyon. It took me six or seven hours to walk up the canyon and then up to Goriz.
Day Five: Nourishment, Goriz To Gavarnie
I slept for nine and a half hours which is optimum for me, more soundly than the previous night in Torla. I don’t really like hotels or guest houses. It was interesting exploring the route up to the Breche De Roland, bleak but rewarding, filling in gaps in my knowledge. I’d seen down into that area, now I was walking up it. The colours of the rocky strata were such that I’ve never before seen and I was pleased with my photographs. The final part of the route is a narrow crumbly path where you use a bolt attached chain to stop you slipping and falling down steep slopes. I’d heard about this – I remembered – and felt it wasn’t for me. There’s a route to Perdido from the Breche De Roland which goes this way. I didn’t enjoy it as such, in the way some people do, but I found it quite comfortable to undertake this section.
I enjoyed seeing the Breche de Roland again; I decided not to go up Le Taillon again because it wouldn’t give any great variation on the views I’d already had. I was planning a descent down the scrambling and climbing route which takes you down to the base of the Gavarnie cirque, as the most interesting option. But then I realised the views are not especially interesting once you’ve seen Gavarnie, I went up that route in 2009, the alternative path had no scrambling or climbing and had views across to the Vignemale which I’d enjoy – but hadn’t done in 2009 when mist came down and gave about twenty foot visibility. I was pleased with my decision.
The Pouey Aspe valley, I realised, is notably beautiful and ideally my route would have taken me along its length rather than crossing the Breche which I’d already seen; there is such a route, crossing from Spain to France. In the lower part of the valley I saw a man camped in a scenic little area and was tempted to do the same; I had enough supplies for a night in the wild but I was looking forward to the comforts of a camp site and access to shops. It was my third time on the Gavarnie camp site and the first time, in 2009, I spent two or three nights there. I thought I liked it but it’s rather unsatisfactory next to the road, a loud river and sometimes (on this occasion) close proximity to other people. I set up my tent and dragged myself to the supermarket, exhausted, for pasta, beer, tomato sauce, an avocado pear, cheese, peaches, soup, and yoghurt.
After several days here (I’ve accomplished a lot already!) I feel settled in the Pyrenees, nourished by the beauty and rewards of these mountains. Breakfast today was half a baguette with soya pate again, supplemented with muesli bars an hour or two later. My lunches so far have been half a baguette or so with either cheese or Quorn slices brought from England: these last very well and provide light, tasty protein. I supplement my food with occasional treats which revive my appetite: so far, two peaches. The problem with too much of that is its weight.
Refuge Goriz to Gavarnie didn’t seem to be a long way on the map but it’s quite a substantial walk, and it took me about nine hours to do it. Last year there were moments I was so exhausted I was fed up with the whole experience. I think that was mostly because I didn’t eat enough and then had to struggle through hypoglycaemic fatigue. This year I’ve been more careful – it doesn’t need much, just a couple of muesli bars or handful of nuts, taken at intervals, to make all the difference.
Day Six: Rest
A toddler’s crying woke me up, otherwise I had a good sleep on my excellent new Neo Air sleeping mat. It rained around seven o’clock but fortunately cleared up leaving me with a lovely rest morning, sunbathing and making plans. I nearly didn’t bring my guide book – I thought a map would be sufficient this time – but I’m glad I did. On a fairly long trip it’s quite likely you’ll reconsider your plans on the basis of weather and preferences and it’s nice to browse, reading about other areas. Last year I decided carrying a small novel would be of great benefit but unfortunately I forgot this. I’ve been reading Tinkers by Paul Harding: long enough for hours of good reading, not too long and heavy for the rucksack. Waiting for a bus, sunbathing, resting in your tent, killing time in a cafe; these moments are transformed with a good book. I had my MP3 player with Cormac Mcarthy’s The Road and a selection of jazz, but it was malfunctioning and audio is different. Psychologically, it has elements of a conversation with someone compared to the literary imaginative experience of reading.
I decided on a full days rest but another camp site night would get depressing, so I planned to undertake the short trek up to Espuguettes later in the day, also conveniently shortening the walk to Heas. I didn’t take a rest at Torla – I realised – so I had another day to plan for and decided to walk the Tromouse cirque. This is an example of the importance of having a guide book, with its ideas and advice.
I had a nice lunch – half decent food with the options of a supermarket rather than the restraints of a rucksack – and a shave. I had numerous sores on my feet I was covering with fabric plasters; this happened when my sandals were wet for long periods and then cut and rubbed. I realised it wasn’t advisable to walk through rivers not caring about or even enjoying the cold water. Apart from that my Keen Boulder sandals were, once again, excellent footwear: light, cool, and nimble. I did notice I slipped a little more than I expected once or twice and on inspection the grip has worn somewhat; they’re still useable but after three years I will have to replace them quite soon, keeping the older pair for lighter walking and leisure wear although if it’s warm enough, my favourites are my Teva F1s.
As the day progressed it clouded over and rained again so I snoozed in my tent, did more planning, and when the rain stopped bought bread and provisions. This meant I didn’t walk up to Espuguettes. Days like this are rather grim but unavoidable with lengthy mountain trips. It’s not the worst. The most awful experience is when you are trapped in the mountains without the comforts of a valley and a small town, and it doesn’t need the Pyrenees to make you understand this. Three cases come to mind. The first was being stuck in Upper Eskdale’s Great Moss in a foul morning of wind and rain, knowing I had to move on but would rather not do so when it was so uncomfortable. What happens is a silent battle between going half mad stuck inside your tent, and the prospect of misery outside it. After a few hours, I felt I simply had to get out and face it – I couldn’t stand the incarceration any longer. The second time was a pitch below Aran Fawdry in Wales when it was raining in the evening, and still raining in the morning. The conditions were even worse and could have been quite serious in terms of wet and cold exposure; it was impossible to avoid the former and the latter is the main factor which kills people in the mountains, apart from accidents. Fortunately, the wind and rain thrashed across the tops but died out when you got lower. I finished the walk under crappy grey skies, but in relative comfort i.e. warm and dry. The third bad memory concerns being tucked into a grassy plateau below Coniston, with similar conditions.
Getting wet in windy or cold conditions is a major problem. I wasn’t equipped for it in Wales because I’m a three season walker and always choose very carefully when I undertake my trips, which means for much of the time I don’t walk. British weather doesn’t allow it; for most of the time, it’s crap. I write now, September 11th, two weeks after returning from France. We’ve had about one and a half days of sunshine. I wanted to be in Wales again today – I have two lovely empty days – but it’s crap. The webcams show grey skies and rain.
The weather can be severe in the Pyrenees. The day after this one I met and conversed with two Brits spending six weeks travelling France and the Pyrenees in particular, who reported hail stones the size of golf balls. But generally, a Pyrenean summer is much, much better than a UK so called summer: more stable, usually sunny, and pleasantly hot. Despite this, I had strange moments when I was pining for Scotland and even Wales – which, though I quite like the place – is aesthetically inferior to the Lake District, to Scotland, and most certainly the Pyrenees. It was a quality of experience I wanted where you have more freedom and control with easy information about the weather, easy solutions with food and – most importantly – the freedom of a car to drive to another valley, shelter in if it’s raining, or return home if the weather is bad enough. You’re far more exposed in the Pyrenees: committed to being there and to what each day presents, wherever you are. You can feel paradoxically trapped, because of this.
Although I did nothing this day, the recuperative effects of it are valuable. Even if you do a two or three hour walk, it’s not the same. I understand wild animals rejuvenate themselves by lying on the ground, which has magnetic properties; I spent most of the day doing that. I enjoyed a stroll into town, down to the end of the village and the memories it has for me. Last year this is where I first arrived; the year before, in front of the information centre, is where I struck up conversation with two Brits. I’m now more familiar with the Pyrenees, and more relaxed about being here: the travel, the distance and foreignness of it is a less pronounced feeling. It’s less ‘different’ or alien but – I noticed – that also means slightly less exciting.
Day Seven: Gavarnie To Heas
I was woken at 7 am by voices on the camp site. It wasn’t loud but after a peaceful night, it jarred me awake. Eight and a half or nine hours sleep after a full day’s rest is OK though; that would suit me and I was immediately excited at the prospect of the day under the clear morning skies: back to the hills! I’ve never seen anyone do this – comment about how much sleep they get and how they feel accordingly – but all my life getting enough sleep, and feeling tired most of the time because I don’t get enough, has been a personal problem. A colleague said she feels ill when she doesn’t get the sleep she needs; so do I. She said it’s like a disability – yes, it is, which is why I notice the hours I get in the hills, just as I do at home. My first hill trip was a school outing to Wales, and I remember feeling terrible. We were told big steps are what tire you when you walk up the hills, so I diligently tried to avoid this. But I still felt terrible like I wanted to lie down and sleep just where I was, and at that point I realised there are different kinds of tiredness and my experience was not as she described.
Last year when I arrived at Gavarnie my plan was aborted with the mist, cloud and rain. It was awful arriving from England in such weather and when it was the same the next morning – even worse. I got a lift with a pleasant German chap to the Pineta valley where it was sunny, so I missed two days of the Haute Route I was now addressing. Gavarnie to Heas is the start of the second stage. Up to Horquette D’Alans, passing the Espuguettes hut, then down into the Estaube valley which is very scenic and enjoyable in the lower areas. As with Marcadau it’s a popular place for day trippers and families. To finish the day nicely after Lac Gloriette, the first or second car responded to my thumb in just a few minutes, and gave me a lift down to the main road – a long, windy, and boring tarmac descent. Then again the second or third car within a few minutes took me to the Heas camp site, assisted me with enquiries, and turned around to drive back down the valley. I’m not sure where they were going but they extended themselves to assist me, as happened two or three times last year in the Benasque valley. Then finally – the camp site is a delightful place, quiet and friendly and family run, with a little restaurant which makes a huge difference to your trip. I didn’t know it was there, and was planning on boring rucksack meals.
It’s pleasant to shower, sit at a table, and have a simple enjoyable meal: pomme de terres, salades de tomates, et du fromage. Pleasant to converse a little, practising my rudimentary French, and have a laugh with the couple who had given me the lift, who returned to eat there. “Je n’aimes pas l’Angleterre. Je prefere le Francais avec le montagne, le meteo, et le paysage”. Much laughter. “Oui, c’est vrai!” – which it is. They asked me when I was getting up in the morning, suggesting “Cinq heures?” “Non! le vacances!” – more laughter. It’s fun to express yourself in another language, conveying feeling and being understood. Their holiday was over the next day, so I said “c’est la vie”. I was tempted to invite myself onto their table and enjoy their company a little longer – they clearly enjoyed mine – but fun as it was, it was about nine o’clock and I didn’t want to interrupt my walk, camp, sleep, wake rhythm which entails being in bed at ten or ten thirty. It would stimulate me too much if I spent time talking and having a laugh, when it was time to start preparing for bed.
I enjoyed the previous days but this – finally – was the Pyrenees I’ve known before and still love: the mid section starting at Lescun and finishing at Viados/Soula where the character of the mountains changes, technically and aesthetically. They get rougher, harsher, like Wales is compared to the Lake District. Climbing to the Horquette D’Alans I kept stopping and gazing with pleasure, drinking in the panorama: Breche de Roland, Balaitous, and the lovely Vignemale separate and distinguished in the distance evoking memories of being there, sleeping at Baysellance, climbing Le Petit Vignemale, then coming down that valley and how that felt, reminding me of the Lake District and the pleasure of the end of day descent. Places I’ve walked before, seducing me with their charms. It’s like the yearning for a lover, poignant, when you only see them briefly. You look out and remember, and want to be there again. You roam your imagination, and embellish it with distant views and any recollection you find: the cold night at Baysellance, sitting in the hut reading photography magazines, the woman who came into the hut and stripped down to underwear because she had no choice about privacy: such is the tapestry of life. The cloud that descended and wondering where exactly Gavarnie was, the next day’s walk; watching the storm in the distance wondering what it was like to be there, after narrowly missing the heart of a storm earlier in the day but being close enough to understand how powerful they are: enormous claps of thunder slapping and echoing across rock, valley to valley, up and down and over these wonderful Pyrenean mountains.
I hope the good weather lasts – I wrote – and I’m particularly looking forward to Barroude. I’d perhaps like to have a gentle day here enjoying the camp site and walking the Cirque de Tromouse which I can see from my table, and then moving on to Barroude. I have the time for this, but the uncertainty of the weather worries me: I don’t want to miss out on Barroude and find it covered in cloud as did Graham – a chap I met last year – who said, irrespective of that, it was still the best part of his walk so far doing the length of the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. I’ll see how I feel tomorrow.
Day Eight: Tromouse
I decided this is probably the best area of this trip (Gavarnie to Parzan), justifying more time spent here. So don’t worry about what lies ahead – enjoy the best part of it. It was pleasant to relax in the morning, sit on a chair in the shade of a tree and then depart, leisurely, for Cirque de Tromouse. It’s not the same as a through walk – which is the best – but I did want to see Tromouse if the weather allowed it, and fits my itinerary well. I had two or three days for contingency planning if I was stuck somewhere in heavy rain, a storm or even snow, which is unlikely but possible. If the weather is good it means you have spare days to deal with, and I hadn’t really planned for that. Tromouse was using up a day.
Tromouse is worth visiting if you want to rest in Heas in for a couple of days, enjoying the camp site with its adjoining little restaurant. I don’t think it’s worth a special diversion, or a special mention in a trip of ten days or so. But Kev Reynolds’s recommends it in his Walks And Climbs book, and I recommend that you know about it as an option. The walk starts as a pleasant valley trek beside a river, opening out to a vast upland area that’s interesting to explore; I was pleased with the photo opportunities. The lakes here are one of the key attractions, but unfortunately they were dried up. I felt sorry for sheep and cattle panting in the heat, lying on the mud rather than drinking water they obviously needed. Presumably they can survive this for a few days, before the farmer gets worried and has to take action. There is water there, not too far away, but I wonder if sheep and cattle know it’s there or have the intelligence to look for it. It was as if they’d given up, with their water supply gone missing. I tried not to disturb the poor creatures when I walked past, compelling them to stand and move because they were alarmed at my presence.
I was quite tired despite a light pack and the relative ease of the day; I think this was because again I hadn’t eaten enough. My habit is to ignore this, and push on. In the Lake District once, a passerby asked me if I was OK. It turned out that she was a doctor, alarmed at my appearance: pale and weak and staggering. “You look like shit” she said; thanks doc! I had some fun telling her it was her day off, so she shouldn’t be doing this. She was insistent I stop and have a couple of muesli bars, so I sat and pretended to do this then when she was gone, sneaked away. No not really – I did sit and have a little snack and, as she said, “it’s much better that way”. I ate better this year in the Pyrenees than last, when on occasion I was so tired I was fed up with being there. I had regular snacks every two hours or so – a muesli bar, a handful of nuts or both together, which I enjoyed – but on occasion I once again couldn’t be bothered. I lose my appetite when I walk and unappetising food –unavoidable two day old baguettes for example – adds to the problem.
I decided on the quickest descent, and the use of my thumb. I spent a depressing ten minutes thinking it wasn’t a good area to hitch – but then a car stopped on the tortuous windy road it would take about two hours to get down, which a car achieves in about fifteen minutes.
I’ve not been judging my meths use very accurately; several times my stove has burned minutes longer than needed, but if the one litre bottle last me the whole trip it will work out quite well. I’m very pleased with my new Caldera Cone for ease of use and efficiency, my Neo Air mattress which is lighter, more comfortable and packs smaller than a Therma Rest, and my ULA Conduit rucksack which is lighter than a Golite equivalent with better straps, more comfort, and excellent features. In particular, the lower zipped ‘area of the Golite Jam is awkward and makes no sense. You can’t access the contents easily because of the weight and pressure from the main compartment; it would work better just having one space not two. The Conduit uses a stretchy panel where I stuffed my jacket, baguettes, map, book, and Goretex rain trousers. It’s a very flexible feature – you can use it for storage overflow, easy access gear, or wet gear. My only concern is the durability of the stretchy fabric, which is like a heavier version of women’s tights. Surely that’s not going to be tough, I thought, and treated it accordingly for a few days. Then I reasoned it must be capable of some abuse or they wouldn’t be using it, and started to stuff gear into it more robustly. I’m still unsure about it, but it’s been satisfactory so far.
It’s always the same: I’m now halfway through my trip; the days go so fast it makes me wonder about a full three week or even four week plan in the future. But after this, there’s only one Pyrenean area I’ll consider exploring – the Carlit region, further east, which would perhaps mean travel to Barcelona. My impression is the Lescun to Parzan/Viados/Soula region, together with the Posets area, is distinctively my favourite in terms of character and scenery.
Another noteworthy point about the Heas is the convenience of the paths. Both of them – to Tromouse and Barroude – start and run along the field area just outside the camp site. I changed my first pitch on the site when I was woken at about seven in the morning by walkers going past, about ten feet away, making their way up to Tromouse.
Day Nine: Heas To Barroude
It was an overcast morning bringing slight disappointment, because this was a day I’d been looking forward to. As well as Graham’s comments last year, the books describe Barroude as “magical”. But it was hot and sunny after a couple of hours, and my spirits lifted. The start of this trek was exhausting because I’d had so little breakfast. The bread I’d bought in Gavarnie was insubstantial and foul. It seems there are degrees of ‘white’ bread where even more of the wholegrain nutrition is removed and you end up with flour which, when chewed, becomes an unpleasant paste like substance. I decided to boil up one of the rice sachet meals I’d brought with me from England, but the rivers were dry and I needed my water supply to drink. Fortunately I had some oat cakes with me brought from home which, with cheese, proved quite sustaining.
The path from Heas goes up a ravine, across a plateau, further up, then onto another plateau beneath the final, zig zag climb to Horquette Heas. The views there are superb: across to the Breche de Roland, the Vignemale, and the Neouvielle massif on the other side. The sign gives you the direction for Barroude, but this is where I went wrong – following the indication of the sign for too long and misunderstanding the book. The latter says you reach another path and bear right, which is not wholly precise. What it means, more accurately, is ‘at which point you bear right’. Fortunately a signpost lower down revealed my error, pointing back the way I’d come for Barroude; after the studying the map I realised I had to retreat back up the hillside, adding another hour to my walk.
When you retreat in unfamiliar terrain, it gets confusing. You have some knowledge of the path, since you’ve just walked it, but not as much as you think: you don’t have a clear idea of did you go this far, and did I really come this way, and I don’t remember that particular view. In fact I was on the correct route again, confirmed when I saw another signpost pointing to Barroude, but I felt anxious until I saw this.
Barroude was not as idyllic as I’d anticipated; on which point I also don’t, contrary to what books say, especially rate the Vignemale area either. But it was beautifully silent: path, lakes, and eventually the Barroude hut, underneath the towering wall which is the other side of the Tromouse cirque. I was exhausted when I arrived at the hut, barely able to exchange pleasantries, but after a beer and a rest felt a little better. I arranged my meal, set off to pitch my tent somewhere quiet, then came back to eat. It was a good meal, with jolly company; although I barely spoke to anyone because of the language barrier, I was comfortable with that.
A very interesting and enjoyable walk; the kind I want from the Pyrenees and the kind I had on my first Lescun to Gavarnie trip. Heas to Barroude has got big views, interesting valleys, evocative outlooks onto distant areas (the Neouvielle region), quiet tracks below towering rocks, and finishes with the silent amphitheatre and lakes of Barroude. I rounded off the day with a naked wash in a lake; it’s an ordeal sometimes, when it’s cold, but I hate feeling sticky and dirty for bed and then again the next day, when I start walking.
Day Ten: Barroude To Parzan
The weather today was very changeable; for about half the time there was no sun and a little rain. This suited me though: I spent a leisurely hour or two photographing the Barroude lakes in sunshine, and there were sufficient intervals of light to take photographs for the rest of the day. I enjoyed the scenery; it was a nice valley down the other side after you climb up to Port Barroude, but characteristically Spanish rather than French. This entails craggy limestone rather than smooth hillside, which I don’t like as much.
It only took four hours to climb Port Barroude and descend to the Bielsa valley, but then it took another hour to get down to Parzan – with a lift, after walking for about forty minutes. This is not a good valley for hitching. I didn’t know whether to go left or right for Parzan, but fortunately made the right choice: downhill, to the right.
I’d describe this as a ‘connecting’ day rather than a walk you would especially like to undertake. It’s enjoyable, in the way that being anywhere in the Pyrenees is enjoyable, but it doesn’t have any great interest or purpose except that it leads from Barroude to Parzan. When I got to the village – a petrol station, restaurants, shop, and some houses up the opposite hillside – I bought fresh bread, cheese and a tomato, and enjoyed these on the seat outside the shop, where I ate last year before continuing my Haute Route trek. I threw away the Gavarnie bread in disgust; it was 3 pm and this was a delayed lunch, so I was very hungry. When I stop and relax, and have decent things to eat, my appetite is OK. When I’m walking, and only have two or three day old baguettes, it isn’t.
I bought more food and drink for my evening meal then went back to the guest house I slept in last year, and was given the same room as last year. Same price I think: twenty euros which would exchange for roughly the same figure in pounds. It has a kitchen which I much prefer to the expense, formality, and vegetarian issues you find in restaurants. I had more bread, a tomato, the same packet pasta meal I think I had last year, and cooked green beans from a bottle. A Spanish couple joined me in the kitchen; he was a sociology lecturer and spoke fluent English so we had a conversation in which he said he did his PhD at Edinburgh University. I told him how I would like to have access to the Pyrenees as he did, living in Pamplona; he said he went walking there every week or two. We swapped notes about different areas and different experiences; they were walking the HRP from Lescun, going onto Soula just as I did in 2010.
Day Eleven: Parzan To Neouvielle
A rather strange day. It’s depressing being stuck at the Parzan guest house (same as last year) and depressing waiting for a lift (same as last year) down on the road. In 2010 I waited about forty five minutes before I gave up, and then walked to the start of my walk to Viados. It’s not actually that far – I didn’t realise this – but still, a boring tramp up the road it would be pleasant to deal with within ten minutes or so. This year my plans were more ambitious and I waited nearly an hour, at which point I’d decided I’d start walking. Two Spanish brothers slowed and stopped for me, then took me as far as the Bielsa tunnel before driving back down the valley. I thought if I walked up the road I might get a lift more easily, reasoning that hitching at Parzan is very difficult. I’m not sure if it would be better up the road; the only advantage is the ‘atmosphere’ or the ‘appearance’ when you are standing as a walker at a remote spot. Hitching at Parzan is perhaps more ‘touristy’, and the traffic is perhaps more local than the activity of holiday makers. If you’re just driving down the road to a shop, or going home, or to visit your family, I think you’re less receptive to the plight of a hitch hiking walker. But the traffic higher up the valley is the same traffic, so the only advantage is the ‘presentation’ when you raise your thumb. I don’t think there’s a clear answer, but Parzan is definitely a dead spot for hitching and I was probably very lucky just to get up the road to the tunnel. Not managing to do so would have presented me with a serious problem.
I continued to raise my thumb at the other side of the tunnel, and was continually ignored. The road down to France is downhill however, and even with a heavy pack I don’t mind that too much: it’s going uphill, and even along the flat, that exhausts me. I walked down for about two hours, then when I got to the valley floor near Piau-Engaly waited another thirty minutes for a lift to Fabian. I’d had enough; I didn’t want to do any more walking along the road. Thirty minutes is not too bad. The French are definitely more hospitable in their attitude to hitch hiking. As I was waiting a man raced up the road in a truck and slowed when he saw me, and asked me a question. “Pardon”? “Blah blah, Piau-Engaly?” “C’est la!” I said, pointing to the junction which leads off to the town, which was now hidden. I wonder if he detected I wasn’t a French speaker, since I dealt with his enquiry just as efficiently as if I had been. It looked a very attractive town with neat and freshly ploughed fields, a river, and soaring heights all around. I’d like to have walked there to see it properly.
When I got to Fabian I waited another thirty minutes or so for a lift, this time with a man going to meet his daughter after walking in the hills. It took about twenty minutes to drive up into the mountains. The road would be dreadful to walk; it’s long, boring, and very steep. We only managed a crippled conversation – he had almost no English at all and I’m not exactly Proust, in terms of my French. In total, it took me about five hours to get from Parzan to Oredon in the Neouvielle region. When I arrived, my plans went askew again. The refuge, and the whole area, is a large day trip site with parking for hundreds of cars. I didn’t want to stay at the refuge, and the 7 pm – 9 am camping beside the lake was a bizarre prospect, like sleeping in a city park. I thought there was some mistake when I was told you can camp there. My plan was to spend two nights at Oredon, and make a climb to Pic Campbeil which is the highest in the Neouvielle region. I set off to investigate camping at Lac Aubert, quite a long journey of about two hours, and found it was a pleasant option. Food was now problematic, if I wasn’t using the refuge meal service. I decided to skip Pic Campbeil, enjoy the overnight camp, and continue with the route I had in mind. This meant three spare days I didn’t know how to use, but then I suddenly realised I didn’t have to hang around in Bareges: I’d have time to go back to Cauterets and enjoy more walking in my favourite area. I had my usual cold wash in the nearby lake, taking a slight risk that a fair maiden might see me and swoon at my nakedness; but she’d get over it.
Day Twelve: Refuge Bastanet
Not a very good day. Oredon and the surrounding area is not a good place to spend any time – it’s a touristy, easy access zone with coach parties and shouting Spanish children. I encountered a party of walkers just as I was setting off, delivered to the car park by coach, getting advice from the guide about the wildlife. You go to such places for direct experience – not being ‘told’ there are goats on the hills and eagles in the skies. It was a ‘city’ experience, being transported into the hills, organised and contained by the guide. The party were following her around, insulated from the real thing. Bah, humbug. It took me a long time to finally get away from this, when I started the climb up to Col d’Aumar.
I enjoyed the views from the Col but after that the path was rocky and fussy, and the rewards not that great. Then I lost the path, the cairns stopped, the mist came down and I could see very little, and then it rained. The route wasn’t in the guide book; I’d planned it using the map and the landscape didn’t provide enough information. I was following vague tracks though a forest, hoping what lay ahead was navigable and passable. All I could do was use a compass direction and stick to it: using, I thought, what is probably a recognised technique. If you have no path to follow, can’t navigate with map and geographic features, you have to follow a direction within a compass sector: I was going east, but it was impossible to follow that precisely so as I deviated to the north, then deviated to the south, I checked to ensure that it was still roughly the right orientation. This was a temporary break in the mists, showing the terrain I was walking:
The problem was it wasn’t a significant route like the GR10 or HRP but a little backwater path – designated on the map, but I had no guide book notes. I saw a large lake through the mists, then it was obscured again, and reasoned it must be Lac d’Oule. If I headed for it, I’d know where I was. When I arrived there my navigation problems were over, but it was still grey and rainy and I decided I’m not very enthused by the Neouvielle area. It’s too ‘fussy’, without the big valleys and open hillsides of my favourite areas.
It’s about two hours up the hillside to Refuge Bastanet, from Lac d’Oule. It’s an attractive little hut above the Bastanet lakes, with friendly staff. They usually are – but not always. The woman at Ayous jarred me a little, making a big fuss that I hadn’t pre ordered a meal (2009), and the woman at Renclusa (2010) annoyed me when she tried to insist I had to sleep in a busy dormitory when (I finally established) there was another room completely empty.
I’ve been wondering if I might return to the Pyrenees a fifth time, and I’m not sure. My impressions, gained from internet photographs, have been confirmed in regard to the different areas: Spain, Ordesa and Neouvielle are not my favourite kind of landscape and the one area remaining I thought I might explore – Carlit and Canigou – gives me the same feeling. I had a conversation above Gavarnie which also confirmed my impressions about Aigues Tortes: “it’s not like here,” they said, and described how you are often walking over “boulders” and how there are fewer people there. I don’t like the touristy aspect of places like Ordesa and Oredon, but elsewhere I like the opportunity of meeting a few people throughout the day and in the evening. And if few people visit Aigues Tortes, there will be a reason for it: it’s less scenic.
I’m not sure where else I could walk. The Dolomites look interesting but are perhaps not so accessible for walking. I think there’s more climbing there, taking advantage of the vertical crags and the via ferrata. The Alps are over developed and expensive, and often technically demanding. The Pyrenees are about the same, technically, as the British hills. North America has excellent walking and I’d enjoy meeting the people there, but it involves an expensive and long haul flight and then further overland travel. The Corsica GR20 is perhaps too much of a commitment, and it’s very busy. I’ll have to research it. Maybe I’ll consider Corsica – Graham from last year, walking the HRP, said he would go back to Corsica and do it again; I dodn’t remember clearly but I think he said he’d already done it twice. The Picos de Europa are attractive, but it seems getting there from an airport is problematic: the advice seems to be you hire a car, which is too expensive and I’m nervous about driving on the right and think it could be dangerous for me to attempt it. I’d enjoy a prolonged low level walk (Provence perhaps), and might do that some time but not in preference to big hills.
I finished the day with the usual cold wash. I’m slightly short sighted and couldn’t discern to what extent I was visible to people across the lake: could they easily see I was naked, or would it require an effort of perception? Either way I didn’t care because irrespective of that, it was a significant distance and if any ladies started swooning, there were people nearby who could come to their aid.
Day Thirteen: Neouvielle Lakes To Bareges
Quite a heavy thunderstorm last night. I was aware of the flashes, thunder and rain, half asleep through closed eyes, but felt content in my tent. The pressure builds and has to be released, and it’s better at night than in the daytime. My camping spot, right beside Lac Superieur, was an attractive and quiet little place with the scent of pine trees from the hills, and the occasional lap of water. I had a good night there. My tent was wet in the morning, but as soon as the sun reached me it was immediately warming and drying. I watched the light spread across the land and down the hill, noticing the transition from shade to colour, night to day; yin, as the Chinese say, changing into yang.
I enjoyed the first part of this walk, and then up to Pic Bastan, but after that it didn’t inspire me and I found parts of it irritating. The area has rocky paths which means for long periods you’re hobbling – treading carefully – rather than walking. My route was, like the previous day, a plan I’d made from the map rather than the GR10, GR11, or HRP paths. I was a little apprehensive about this because it was a big area and no one was around. But, I reasoned, it should be within my navigation abilities, and it was; except when I confused Lac Horquette and Lac Bastan, but I consulted a French couple and they clarified the matter. Doing this kind of walking shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you’re not following a major footpath, you won’t have guide book advice and have to use your map and compass and make judgements accordingly, and the slightest error can have significant consequences. I was confused with the lakes because I hadn’t noticed you had to descend to Horquette; there were a few gradient lines on the map but only a few millimetres across and easily missed. In my mind – there was no reason for this but I suspect it’s a common experience – I expected one thing, which turned out to be something else. I had the idea, which I hadn’t substantiated, that the lake met the path directly without any descent. You also have to familiarise yourself with the scale of the Pyrenees, and develop a ‘sense’ of distance and how it corresponds to the map.
When I got to Pont de Gaube, which is a large parking area presumably designed to facilitate the Tour de France which runs through here, it took about ten minutes to get a lift down into Bareges. I wasn’t sure how the hitching would be, but it appeared to be the more favourable French terrain where hitching is relatively easy. I could have walked down to Bareges, but it was boring and tiresome and would have taken about an hour.
I walked the length of the village looking for a room – there is a camp site nearby but I couldn’t see it – and decided on a sweet little guest house with wooden floors and a pleasant Madame who seems to live there on her own, after losing her husband: family pictures line the walls. I ate in my room – it’s too much trouble and expense with restaurants which invariably don’t understand vegetarian food – and enjoyed the comforts of the protected indoors. Whatever happens, I’m safe. If it rains, I’ll be dry. If it’s cold, I’ve got blankets. It it’s windy, I don’t care. The shower was pleasurable, hot, and relaxing, and I didn’t have to worry about swooning damsels watching me.
This layer of protection, I reflected, is necessary for the lives we lead; we have to be protected from the elements. But it’s this remove from nature, this distance from its sensory facts, which is one aspect of why we walk: to feel nature and be a part of it.
Day Fourteen: Bareges To Cauterets
As soon as I was in a room indoors I disconnected from my 10 pm bed time rhythm which has naturally suited me. I woke about the same time though – seven o’clock – which means a sleep deficit when I function best on nine or nine and a half hours. The day was misty, then it started raining, then raining harder. I had coffee in a bar to kill time, trying to read a French tourism brochure.
Then I moved to a pizza cafe and had a good meal – the first I’ve bought – and lingered again, sheltering from the rain. A bus to Pierrefitte, then another to Cauterets, and I’m back where I started at the Vignemale camp site. It’s depressing. What you need with hard rain is the comforts of the indoors with a book, jazz, or company, or a snooze on a bed. But I’m reasonably content now, settled on the camp site with its showers and some decent food from town: bread, an avocado, tofu from a shop I remembered from last year, and a delicious pastry I also had last year; and the skies are clear again but with no sun. But there’s more to come – two days to fill with indeterminate weather. Les vacances est fini, the woman at the camp site said; there are few people here now. Perhaps this is the end of summer. I may explore the Valle du Lutour but only in sunshine. The good thing is I’m back in the valleys; it’s dreadful being stuck in the mountains in rain, cloud, and cold. In that respect, this is good timing.
Day Fifteen: Rest
The morning started unpromising with lots of cloud but fortunately no rain; then it became bright and sunny until two thirty when it clouded over. I have two days to play with, and decided to rest and sunbathe. I enjoy lazing around on camp sites: you’re out of doors but have shelter and facilities and (on this occasion) the comfort of a chair and metal table. I listened to jazz on my MP3 player, had a good lunch of tofu, tomatoes and a fresh baguette, then laid down and snoozed in my tent. Then I went into Cauterets for post siesta shopping: fruit, tomatoes, baguettes, yoghurt etc. It’s surprising – again – how quickly a day passes in inactivity. Reading and planning, I decided against a walk to Pic de Campbales which requires a trek up and back down the Marcadua valley, which I’ve done before. And the views and the experience would overlap my camping at Wallon two years ago, and my walk up to Grande Fache. I like the idea of an easy stroll up and down the Valle du Lutour before I get the bus back to Lourdes, but only if it’s sunny.
Day Sixteen: Valle Du Lutour
A very pleasing day, different from the uncertainty of the previous two. The morning was cold but as soon as you were in the sun it was warm, and that continued. I walked into Cauterets and got a lift in about two minutes up the road to Le Railliere. In fact I was confusing it with La Fruitiere, the start of the Valle du Lutour, but it made little difference: another hour of woodland walking in a leisurely day.
The valley is a delight. The path is good, the beckoning mountains interesting and attractive; the river, waterfalls, shrubs and trees all beautiful. I think I prefer it to Marcadau. It’s more compact, better arranged in terms of scenery and the culmination – Lac d’Estom – more satisfying than the Wallon refuge area, lovely as it is. I had a late lunch of bread, cheese, tomatoes, and beer from the refuge; then I paddled, ambled, and dozed in the sun, remaining there about two hours. Then I enjoyed the descent: the light was different, the path pretty to follow while warmly illuminated in the afternoon sun. This was Sunday and families were having a day out: children negotiating the track in their own way, toddlers carried in rucksack carriers. A few elderly folk more characteristically active for their age, I think, than you find in Britain. As I said a few times to French folk; je n’aimes pas l’Angleterre, je prefere le Francais: le paysages, le montagne, le meteo.
Back down at La Fruitiere I didn’t expect a lift very easily with tourists and day trippers, but a car stopped after just ten minutes and took me down to Cauterets: an elderly couple from Toulouse. Oui, c’est vrai, je prefere le Francais.
Tarpent Rainbow, Neo Air sleeping mattress, Caldera Cone, Fire Steel, Leki carbon poles, Keen Boulder sandals, Superfeet insoles, Smartwool base layers, North Face Prophecy paclite jacket, Berghaus goretex rain trousers, silk balaclava, Berghaus goretex cap, buff, ULA Conduit rucksack and the mesh wallet that comes with it, small Swiss Army knife, North Face zip off trousers, Anti Gravity Gear cooking pot and cosy, Alpkit titanium mug, Platypus zip-lock water pouch, Aqua Mira chlorine dioxide, Rab micro fleece, MSR micro towel, Petzl e-Lite head torch, PHD summer weight sleeping bag, Coolmax sock liners, light cotton gloves, Silkbody top and cotton pyjama trousers, Canon 5D and 17-40 L Series lens carried in a Lowepro Top Loader case.