By way of introduction, the Pyrenean town of Lescun is where I stayed for my first visit to these mountains. It wasn’t a good trip because the autumn weather was chilly, foggy and rainy; I had one day of sunshine after the first snows had fallen when I attempted a climb of Pic d’Anie. It’s a beautiful walk but I couldn’t get any further after Cabane de la Baitch because the snow was deep and I couldn’t see the path or the upward direction.
I returned the following year in summer for the first of my Haute Route travels. Lescun is a lovely little village high on a hillside. On my first visit, I arrived at the Oloron train station distraught because the bus connections weren’t favourable. I was stuck there. A French local approached me and said “may I be of assistance” and then very generously drove me to Lescun. He had nothing else to do, he said, and told me his wife was buried in a graveyard across the valley. I invited him for a drink when we arrived, and he insisted he pay for this. We discussed American attitudes towards the environment, how French and British people used to be on unfriendly terms, and how our lifestyles differ. I said, and still think this, life is more pleasant in France.
I’ve spent more time in the French Pyrenees than the Spanish but this year, most of my walking was in Spain. When you walk the Spanish mountains you find – when you descend to the villages – information signs telling you about the Civil War. I must admit I don’t know much about it. I said so, in conversation with a party of Brits while staying in Salardu. The father gave me a quick account of what happened and why, and I reflected on why I’d not been taught this at school. The daughter said it was questionable how Europe and the US allowed it to happen, on the basis that anything was better than the Communist threat at the other end of political feuding. As a family, they’d been visiting Spain for decades and she now lived in Barcelona.
It’s fascinating how the Spanish mountains featured in the war. In particular, how people fled to them and tried to escape the horrors in their own country by making passage into France: taking routes I was walking for pleasure. There were, the father said, brown coloured information signs scattered around Pyrenees villages. I’d noticed one or two of these but not read them. I started to read them, and a few days later walked up to the tiny hamlet of Noarre which is situated some way above Tavascan. This is the approach path, looking back:
Noarre consists of just a few stone houses and small surrounding fields. More like a farm dwelling than a hamlet and I wondered who if anyone lived there. There was a holiday building with a washing line laden with bright coloured clothes. No cattle, but vegetable patches and a central cobbled area with a water trough and pump. Next to the pump, a sign asking people not to wash in the water and muddy it.
Just before I arrived there I fell into step behind an elderly couple. It’s about a forty minute walk from the valley, up an attractive hillside. From the valley the distance to Tavascan is not great, but it’s a long and steep walk. I hitched both ways while staying at the Bordes Graus camp site, to get supplies.
There are no roads into Noarre, only paths. And there’s a brown information sign explaining how people retreated to the dwellings and hid there, trying to escape to France.
So many memories. So many places I’d like to be, rather than where I am, stuck in a nasty city. I too retreat to the mountains but for different reasons. Although perhaps they are broadly similar reasons: I’m not trying to stay alive but I do like to escape contemporary rat race living.