It was late summer when Paul’s friend Mark (aka Ted, aka Welshy) mentioned that the draw for the Rugby Union European Cup had taken place. Chiefs would be facing Castres, a team who had won the French League this year, most importantly Castres is in the south of France, close to Toulouse. ‘Definitely’ we said ‘we’ll be in the area, get us some tickets’.
So now we were on our way to Castres and ready for a rugby and beer filled weekend. When I say ready, we haven’t exactly been hitting the beer (or cider in Paul’s case) in any sort of volume since we’ve been away, so actually we were completely unprepared lightweights. And it showed.
We turned up in Castres hoping to find the local campsite open, but it had closed (as is the case for so many French campsites) at the end of September. Parking was allowed in the adjacent Gourjade park for 24 hours, so we flagged that as a possibility for match day and looked at our options for aires in the surrounding towns and villages.
We ended up in Labruguière, a pleasant town about 10k south of Castres that was on the train and bus routes into the city. The aire here is really quite nice, it’s a paid aire with a barrier on entry, but for your 7 euros you get a nice sized pitch that is big enough to roll out the awning and sit outside, plus electricity and all the normal services.
We popped into town to find the timetables for the buses and trains. Bus travel is free here in the Castres-Mazamet area which was a real bonus. It’s one of those initiatives that seems to have paid dividends in non quantifiable benefits. For example they have seen a reduction in youth crime since the free transport was introduced – why? who knows but there must be a link. Sadly the bus service only runs till 7pm but the trains run later and after the first attempt at buying a ticket from the machine in Castres I downloaded the SNCF app. It was easier to understand, which mean we got cheaper train tickets through the app, and I could buy the tickets in advance while unaffected by alcohol. I would definitely recommend the app if you are going to use French trains at all during a visit.
Despite plans to drive into Castres on match day, we decided we were better off staying put, especially after a particularly beery Friday. The added advantage was that we had to leave at 9:30 to catch our train. Much as I hate missing out on fun and excitement I think that staying any later would have been too much for either of us.
When we arrived in Labruguière the weather was a bit dismal, but it soon brightened up. For some reason this seemed to wake up hordes of shield bugs and we were infested with the blighters. So much so that we are still finding them hibernating in our window seals two weeks later. Luckily they are very dopey and easy to pick up and throw out into the cold (poor things).
We spent the next few days socialising with Mark, Jen and the rest of the Chiefs fans. Predictably this was mostly done in the Irish Bar (there is always one) in Castres who must have doubled their annual profits from this match. This was our first Chiefs away game so it was all quite new to us, we had a great time; mingling with the coaching staff on the evening before the match, following The Tribe to the stadium on match day, eating French match day grub (no pasties here), and generally having a great time.
The less said about the result, the better. Suffice it to say that Ted still hasn’t seen Chiefs win away. But that didn’t dampen our enjoyment of the weekend (much). It wasn’t a cheap weekend, it wasn’t a sober weekend, but it was a great fun and I would definitely do it again!
We had a fixed date in the diary for the coming weekend, a rugby match in the town of Castres. Although we’d already been to Bagneres de Luchon we decided that we would make it our midway stop on the way east, we liked the town, it’s easy to get to from the main trunk roads and we knew there was plenty more good walking in the area.
We chose to drive to Luchon by heading North and avoiding the cols we had crossed on the way. Although the drive was mostly on main roads we were avoiding tolls and so still encountered plenty of smaller hilly sections that made it a more ‘interesting’ drive. It was a humid day and although rain was forecast it didn’t arrive until overnight. We were a bit hot and sticky by the time we arrived.
That afternoon we had a wander around Luchon town with the rest of the Sunday afternoon strollers, nosing at the streets of large villas, some of which looked in significant disrepair and other plots where the original house had obviously been demolished to make way for apartment blocks. The demand for smaller holiday flats obviously greater than any demand for a holiday mansion.
We spent the night in the Luchon aire before making our way up to the Hospice de France. We had been somewhat concerned about driving up here as the reviews on Park4Night made it seem narrow and steep, but actually the road was good and wide enough for us to pass farm vehicles coming the other way. There is a traffic management system in place too, a board displays the times at which you are allowed to either ascend or descend although at this time of year the farm and forestry vehicles didn’t seem to be paying it any mind.
Once at the top there is a large, slightly sloping, tarmac parking area with a couple of more level gravelled terraces beyond. The parking is enfolded by the mountains forming a beautiful vista of deep cut valleys and snow capped peaks and the refuge is open serving drinks and (I think) food as well as providing overnight accommodation to hikers. A pair of donkeys made their presence known to us by nuzzling up to the van. Soft hearted Paul (yes really) got the carrots out to give them a treat.
Several walking paths branch out from the parking area and we decided to do a shortish walk that afternoon, we wanted to see what altitude the snow started at to prepare us for a longer walk the following day so we headed up to the Pas de Roumigau on the border with Spain. The hills we were walking into, on the east side of the valley, were surprisingly rounded, reminding us of the Yorkshire dales. But the route up to them out of the valley was steep work.
Eventually we exited the valley, passing a right hand turn that would be our return route the following day and then going straight over a crossroads with a farm track, walking into the snowy valley and over the border with Spain.
The snow started at about 1800m and we enjoyed our walk through the white stuff, spotting an highly visible fox darting across the snow, before finally returning to the crossroads where we turned north along the farm track – The Chemin de Louise – to the Plateau de Campsaure. This track took us between large herds of sheep and a few cattle before coming to a shepherds cottage and then circling down into the pine forest. The track bought us into the lowest levels of the car park, walking past mountain biking route signs which only served to frustrate us.
The following day was a biggie, we were heading on a circuit that would take us up through the Port de Venasque and follow the border on the Spanish side before returning through the Pas d’Escalette. We chose to walk it this way around because of the snow. If we were going to encounter any difficulties with snow or ice it would be on the way up through the steep approach to the Port de Venasque.
The way up was clearly signposted and easy to follow, a series of multiple zig zags up through several false summits in the Venasque valley. When we hit the snowline we were nearly at the end of the zig zags and into the hanging valley where the refuge was sited next to a number of small lakes. We stopped here to take stock of the situation, could we see our path ahead? and did we think the next 200m of ascent would be a problem for us. The path skirted the left side of the lakes and climbed up rocky steps. The path had been trodden by a few people ahead of us and looked easy enough to navigate, the rocky steps were covered with a layer of crunchy snow and a little slippery underfoot but not too exposed.
We finally made it up to the Port; this doorway to Spain has been used for many years as a crossing between the two countries and a defensive position at times of conflict, views from here back into France and down into Spain are pretty awesome.
A short descent from the Port de Venasque into Spain allowed us to pick up the path that follows the border. The sun on this south side of the mountains made the snow slushy and our feet were skidding around. Walking poles helped us keep our footing but both of us ended on our bottoms at some point as we took over-confident strides, luckily the path here is not exposed or steep. Paul was down to his t-shirt in the strong sun that bounced off the snow and reflected onto us from all angles.
A short ascent back up to the border took us to the Pas de l’Esacalle, a less dramatic entry into France than the Port but still with amazing views. From here we could have taken a route straight down through the valley, but we preferred the look of the ridge walk along the Crete de Crabides which didn’t have so much steep descent in the snow.
Finally we were back on the path we had followed the day before and heading into the valley. We decided to drive back down to Bagneres de Luchon that evening to warm up a little. We’d had a couple of tiring but incredibly satisfying walking days and were looking forward to our weekend.
Walking the Pas de Roumingau and Chemin de Louise
Distance: 10.95 km
Total Elevation: 626 m
Time taken: 3hrs
Type of Route: Easy walk, well signposted, a little steep to start
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 5
Walking the Port de Venasque circuit
Distance: 17.59 km
Total Elevation: 1293 m
Time taken: 6hrs 25mins
Type of Route: Moderate/Difficult walk due to length and snow cover
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 5
We drove back to Gavarnie to tick one more item off on our list. We wanted to cycle up the Vallée d’Ossoue as far as the waterfall and see the views of Vignemale. Vignemale is the highest Pyrenean mountain on the French side of the border, we weren’t expecting anything particularly exciting from this bike ride, but we’d attempted it earlier in the week and the weather had driven us back. It felt like unfinished business.
The cycle route up the Vallee d’Ossoue is not that difficult, initially a single track road and then a track that ascends to the barrage. The road seemed quiet as we ascended, but there were multiple cars and even some small campervans parked in small parking spots near the barrage; hikers who had braved the uneven rocky surface of the track to get as close to their destination as possible.
From the barrage onwards there is a relatively flat and open valley that leads towards the waterfall. It looked passable on the map, but in practice it was either too rocky or too boggy for us to cross and after getting about a quarter of the way and constantly having to dismount we decided to turn around. Our binoculars revealed that the waterfall was not worth the pain of crossing this terrain.
The best bit about the ride, of course, was the view. The sun had finally come out above Gavarnie. Vignemale and it’s glaciers were sparkling in the sunlight. Behind us we could see glimpses of the rock walls of the cirque, trust it to finally be visible on the day we were planning to leave.
After taking in the view we dragged our bikes back to the barrage and settled in for the ride back downhill. As usual I was some way behind Paul so I was surprised to turn a corner and find him in front of me, staring in bemusement at his bike. As I got closer I could see why he was so bemused. It had fallen apart! The derailleur was on the floor and twisted into an odd shape, the chain was wrapped around bits of the frame it shouldn’t be touching and part of the frame seemed to have snapped off. How Paul was in one piece I don’t know, the only damage was to his temper.
We were approximately 10k away from Bertie on a road that we wouldn’t drive up, so we had to get back down to the van. I was alright, I could cycle down, but Paul would possibly face a two hour walk. At this point Paul’s practical ingenuity needed to be exercised, a few cable ties later the chain and gear cable had been fastened out of the way, the brakes had been checked and Paul was freewheeling down the hill, still managing most of the journey faster than me! A few uphill sections allowed me to catch up and eventually overtake him though (not that it was a race of course).
Paul’s immediate and grumpy thought was that he had broken his bike. Eventually (later that afternoon) he admitted that it was his fault for riding in the wrong gear with his chain far too slack. By this point he could admit culpability because we had realised that what we though was a broken frame was actually the derailleur hanger; a small piece of metal that joins the derailleur to the frame and is a deliberate point of weakness. It had done it’s job well and means that we should have a reasonably cheap repair bill rather than an expensive bike replacement.
That afternoon Paul needed some cakes to cheer him up, so we drive north to Argeles-Gazost and hit the supermarket. As this is a bit of a mountain biking centre we hoped that we would find a bike shop with some parts, but it wasn’t to be. Most of the shops were bike hire places and although they had spares they were only for the brands of bike that they hired out.
We finally stopped for the night at the free aire in Pierrefitte-Nestalas. Oddly scruffy compared to most French aires it reminded us more of an Italian sosta, but it had everything we needed. Ironically it was right next to the Voie Verte cycle route to Cauterets. Oh well.
The Cirque de Gavarnie may be the most famous of the Pyrenean cirques, but it is not the only one. When the day dawned with yet more cloud hanging over the local mountains we thought we’d try going a little further afield. Not very far, just a short hop to the next valley and the Cirque de Troumouse. On the way we passed the road that takes you to the Cirque de Estaube, but that cirque is going to have to wait for another day.
The road into the Vallée de Héas is narrower and less well travelled than the road to Gavarnie, but still it must carry a fair bit of traffic in high season. If you want to experience the cirque without a long walk you can take the toll road, which rises from the end of the valley up into the cirque itself. There was no-one collecting tolls in this low season period, but still we didn’t want to drive up. It’s narrow with multiple tight switchbacks, and anyway we like to walk. There is ample parking just before the toll road on gravelly hard standing and we stopped here to start our ascent.
We had a feeling that we’d made the right choice, there were large patches of blue sky above and we could see the tops of the surrounding mountains. Happy Days!
While the Cirque de Troumouse is definitely a cirque, with a wide semi circle of steep rock cliffs, it is not the perfect cirque you find in Gavarnie. Gavarnie’s cirque is open-fronted so that you can see the scale of the amphitheatre as you approach it whereas Troumouse has a massive hill in the middle of the cirque that obscures the views of the cliffs until you get right up amongst it. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have it’s own special attraction. The landscape is different, the cirque is wider and the grassy meadows in the centre of it are full of strangely eroded boulders and small lakes. On the central hill is a statue of the Virgin Mary, benevolently surveying the cirque, and you can stand next to her for a great panoramic view. Because it was a sunny day, and less crowded than Gavarnie, we enjoyed it more. Who knows how we would feel if the weather was different.
Our path took us up the eastern side of the cirque, along the east side of the valley between the cirque walls and the central lump of a hill. Initially the ascent was gentle but eventually the path had to climb up to get into the base of the cirque. You soon realise that most of what you’re walking on is gravel and rock; glacial moraine pushed down the mountain sides who knows how many years ago by rivers of ice that are now long gone. Where the grass and shrubs hold the loose rock together the walking is good, but where water and footsteps have eroded the topsoil and exposed the scree it is harder work.
It didn’t take long to get up amongst the lakes and rocks, avoiding the path that would have taken us up and over the cirque wall. We came across a few more people, most of whom had driven up the toll road and were taking a stroll around these lush meadows where you can explore to your hearts content.
Eventually we meandered our way around to the car park at the top of the toll road and were doubly glad we had decided to walk because it was closed and people were having to park on the edge of the road. I don’t think Bertie would have been happy perched up here.
The route down was via a set of steep and eroded paths that crossed the toll road, cutting out the switchbacks but making for hard work, especially when the path had been eroded to create a two meter drop down to the road (this was near the bottom of the valley and I managed to backtrack and find an easier route). The unpleasant parts of the path were countered by the beautiful scenery. This is the path of the river that runs down into the valley, and there are many beautiful waterfalls and cascades. A nice flat plateau part of the way down gave our legs a break (make sure that you follow the path that leads down here – we nearly went too far to the right) before we picked up the path for the final descent from behind the restaurant.
A fantastic day, this is definitely in our top 5 walks so far in the Pyrenees so far.
While here in Gavarnie I wanted to tackle one of the easier 3000m peaks of the Pyrenees. The Pic du Taillon stands as the highest mountain of the Cirque de Gavarnie at 3144m and doesn’t have anything more technical than a summit scramble to throw at us. When we woke up to changeable skies and blustery winds we considered whether we would attempt the route or not. In the end we decided that we would see how far we got, but we knew it was unlikely we would get very far. Maybe the wind would blow the clouds away, but the cirque was obstinately gathering more cloud so we didn’t get our hopes up.
We drove up to the Col des Tentes, a short drive from our parking spot up past the ski resort. Here a path leads away from the end of the road, surprisingly with a wheelchair accessible initial section, including disabled parking spaces. Once there were plans to build a road link with Spain from here but it seems that it will never be completed. The parking area had several work vans and piles of building materials in one corner and as we arrived a helicopter was landing. I had my heart in my mouth as we watched it being buffeted backwards and forwards by the strong wind before it eventually managed to land and drop off someone wearing hi-vis overalls. It was only when we were part way through our walk that we realised the reason for all the vans. A group of men descended past us carrying their drills and wearing working gear rather than walking kit, they had been working on the Refuge des Sarradets which is being significantly extended. That’s one hell of a commute and if they had a choice I could understand why they might have chosen to descend on foot rather than in the helicopter.
The path from the Col des Tentes is long and quite flat initially. We walked along the edge of the steep sided valley to the border with Spain before turning back and walking along the other side of the valley over increasingly barren and rocky terrain.
As we looked ahead of us we wondered where the path went to take us out of the valley. As usual the valley walls looked quite steep and impenetrable from a distance, only when you get close up do you see the zig zag route that takes you up through the boulders and eventually to a short almost-scramble up a waterfall.
Once past the waterfall you are in the upper section of the Cirque de Gavarnie, an area we hadn’t been able to see through the clouds on our walk a couple of days previously. From here we had views of the Grande Cascade as it dived over the edge of the cirque, plus the scaffolded refuge, but we still couldn’t see the top of the mountains.
Just barely we could make out La Breche de Roland. Like a missing tooth in the Cirque de Gavarnie’s smile this missing section of rock seems out of place and artificial. Supposedly the breach was created with one blow of the mighty sword Durendal, wielded by Charlemagne’s knight Roland who was the subject of much medieval romance and hyperbole.
The Breche de Roland was as far as we got, an easy but tiring slog up a snow covered slope. The cloud had descended lower and lower, wreathing around us, obscuring any views and occasionally threatening sleety showers. We knew we wouldn’t enjoy going any further, so we retraced our steps back down to Bertie. We’ll be attempting some more 3000m peaks if the weather allows us, but with winter approaching it’s likely that snow will stop us.
Walking from the Col des Tentes to the Breche de Roland
Distance: 11.39 km
Total Elevation: 670 m
Time taken: 4hrs 02mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with some steep rocky sections
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 4
We left the campsite with a vague promise of better weather from at least one weather app. Our destination was Gavarnie, a tourist honey-pot and probably the most famous part of the Mont Perdu UNESCO world heritage site. The reason for it’s fame is the Cirque de Gavarnie; a spectacular rock amphitheatre that is a draw for hundreds of thousands of people each year.
The popularity of the village is evident as you approach, signs at the side of the road warn you of the parking charges to come – €5 for cars and €8 for motorhomes – the main street of the village is pedestrianised but the surrounding roads are just a mass of parking. It’s all very well organised with well marked spaces, some parking areas with height barriers and some without. There are ticket machines everywhere. No excuse for not paying although we don’t see anyone checking during this quiet off peak time.
Motorhomes are directed up the hill to a nice level aire with the usual facilities. Arriving on a gloomy week day there were very few cars or motorhomes around, but by the time we left the parking was filling up and many motorhomes were parking further down the hill to get better access to the village. I can see why when it’s a good 20 minutes downhill walk to the village from the aire (and half an hour back up again) and pitch black at night.
When we arrived the weather was dry, even if it was too overcast to see the tops of the mountains. We decided to walk to the Cirque de Gavarnie straight away. A quick look at the map showed that we should be able to follow a path directly from the motorhome parking along the side of the valley, rather than dropping all the way down to the village and then back up again. There was no specific signposting from the motorhome car park, but at the back of the car park there was a small square red mountain biking sign (a stylised picture of a bike made up of two circles and a triangle). It appeared to be pointing in the right direction so we followed the track up and over a small rise and then to the right. Luckily we soon found some national park signs (yellow with black writing) that indicated we were going in the right direction for both the village and the cirque. A little further along the village was signposted going downhill to the left and we carried straight on. Because we weren’t on the main tourist footpath the route was not very well signposted. At junctions the signs often didn’t mention the cirque at all and so we had to use the map and work out which paths we didn’t want to be on. However we made it into the cirque without taking any wrong turns, joining the main path just as it started to ascend to the hotel.
We returned along the wide main track to check out the village. Both routes have their merits; the route from the village gives you views of the cirque all the way whereas the route along the side of the valley is wilder, more rocky and occasionally amongst the trees. Not always such great views but more variety. I think if we did it again we would do it in the opposite direction.
From the hotel onwards you are in the cirque itself. We wandered in as far as the base of the waterfall, although we realised that our tiresome slog up the mountain of scree below the waterfall was pretty pointless. There were no better views of either the cirque or the waterfall.
There is no doubt that the Cirque de Gavarnie is a spectacular natural feature. the green grass of the lower slopes leads you in gently, but there is no other way out – the steep limestone walls tower above you in three tiers of neck-aching splendour. I wish we had better weather, but it’s a wonderful sight even covered in a grey blanket.
Down in the village we dodged horses as we walked down the single main street. We had a peek in the shops that were selling the usual tourist stuff, from fridge magnets to sheepskins. As it was my birthday I treated myself to a new pair of slippers. The soles on my existing pair were slowly falling to bits. We also tried to have lunch somewhere but it was mid afternoon so we had to make do with just a drink.
The weather brightened in the late afternoon but this spell of good weather only lasted till mid morning the following day. In the morning we cycled down the hill to the tourist office and tried to find a map of the mountain biking routes, but they were being reprinted due to some recent changes. Our plans for a cycle were put on hold as the rain started to fall heavily and we made our way back to Bertie via the bakers.
The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing and doing odd jobs in Bertie’s dry interior as we crossed our fingers for a better day tomorrow. We fixed the hood of Paul’s waterproof (it seemed appropriate given the weather), having to deconstruct the lining and the channels for the drawstrings before putting it all back together. We were quite pleased with our joint effort, particularly the flexible needle we made with a cable tie to pull the drawcords through into the right positions. Cable ties are one of the things in our toolbox that we wouldn’t be without, but we never envisaged using one in this way.
The temperature was steadily dropping with no sun to warm the air, so at least my new slippers got a good work out.
A circular walk to the Cirque de Gavarnie
Distance: 15.55 km
Total Elevation: 653 m
Time taken: 4hrs 15mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with some route finding and a steep (and unnecessary) final section to the base of the waterfall
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 4
When looking at the weather forecast we tend to err on the side of optimism. We check a couple of different sites and apps; the BBC, the mountain forecast and a French website. They all say the same thing. It is going to rain, quite a lot, and it’s going to get cold. There is no optimistic forecast that we can grab hold of and use to give us cheer.
We debate what to do, if it’s going to rain then our usual outdoorsy stuff is no fun at all. We’re not really near any cultural centres to give us an alternative indoors option. We do, however, have a list of jobs that is stacking up. We decide to look at the ACSI book and see if there are any campsites that appeal.
We end up choosing a campsite on the outskirts of Luz-Saint-Saveur. Camping Pyrenevasion is €15 per night (plus tourist taxes) and as with all ACSI sites we get electricity as part of the price. Unlike many campsites in the area it’s still open, for the next week at least, and as a bonus it has a small indoor swimming pool and spa. Luz town itself is small but quite lively, we park up near the tennis courts for a couple of hours while we take a look around and pop into the shops for some essential supplies.
When we arrive the weather is beautiful, warm and sunny. We make the most of this by washing our sportswear (by hand as the machine is quite expensive) and hanging it out to dry. Paul makes a good mangle, wringing every item until it gives up it’s last drop of water. I sit outside in the sun enjoying the views and the warmth and we even contemplate a barbeque for tea. But as evening approaches the cloud builds up and the hills start to disappear. We see flashes of light and hear thunder. The washing is taken in, awning is rolled and we settle in for an inside dinner with nature’s sound and light show in the background.
The following morning the rain finally stopped, for a short while at least, and the clouds lift a way to show the top of the hills have been dusted with a layer of snow. It’s the first new snow we’ve seen this year and is quite exciting. There is more heavy rain that afternoon and overnight, and the following day too. So we hunker down and rarely leave the van except for our trips to the pool/spa where we press every button we can find to see what exciting features we can activate (sadly the waterfalls aren’t working).
I do some baking. I’m experimenting with focaccia, our oven isn’t really hot enough for bread and I don’t manage to get a crisp oily crust, but regardless it seems to be quite successful and will give us an option if we can’t get to a bakery. Fresh French baguettes will still take precedence, although they rarely make it back to Bertie in one piece as Paul has a habit of nibbling on the way back from the bakery.
I also started to do my tax return. Finally, after some headaches, I have everything I need. Having been employed by the same company for the last 20 years I have never had to complete a tax return. Now that we’re making an income from letting our house this has all changed. Rather naively I assumed that my employer would ensure that my details were kept up to date with HMRC, but back in June when we got to the UK and I started the process of registering for self assessment I found that HMRC had the same details (name and address) for me that they had recorded at the age of 15 when I first got an NI number. So they refused to recognise me, It has taken this long to get my details updated and get registered for online self-assessment.
By the time we leave the campsite Bertie is spick and span (inside at least) and has a couple of new 12v and 240v sockets, Paul has lost his ‘wild man of the mountain’ beard and my grey hairs have been covered up. Cake has been baked, clothes are clean. Tax returns have been completed ready for a final review and we finally have a weather forecast that doesn’t just show rain.
The weather for the coming weekend was predicted to be wet and cold, and we wanted to tick off a couple of things before it changed for the worse.
The key thing we wanted to do was to climb to the summit of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. This 2877m high mountain is not the highest in the Pyrenees, but it’s position as an outlier from the main mountain chain means that it offers incredible views. It’s great height in comparison with the surrounding peaks also makes it ideal for astronomy and so it has a large observatory right on the top of the mountain. The observatory and associated cable car provide an alternative route to the summit from the ski resort of La Mongie.
In order to get to the Pic du Midi (there are two Pics du Midi in the Pyrenees – so the de Bigorre bit is quite important, but for this blog post I shall shorten it) we either had a couple of cols to cross or a long detour. Bertie is quite used to mountain roads, so we approached the Col d’Aspin with confidence. The road up was mostly that ‘one and a half cars wide’ size that meant we could generally ease past any oncoming traffic at the wider points. However when we met a coach coming the other way we had to reverse to find a spot big enough for both of us. My heart was pounding as we reversed downhill along the edge of a long drop. It was only about 20 meters but it really made me glad for Paul’s confident driving.
At the top of the Col we got our first sight of the Pic du Midi in the distance, the observatory glinting at the top of it’s rounded peak. We stopped here for a short while before descending into the valley to find our parking spot for the night.
Payolle lake is in an area of valley parkland. It’s a leisure area with multiple walking and cycling routes as well as the lake. It has holiday chalets, cafes, a designated aire and a motorhome service point. Confusingly we parked with the majority of motorhomes in a large parking area near the service point which wasn’t the aire.
That afternoon we had a short cycle around the area just to explore the area. It was so pleasant we decided that we should tackle one of the official mountain biking routes before we left the following day. So after a quick investigation we decided on route 18. It would take us up above the Col d’Aspin and looked roughly equivalent to the ride we had done in Superbagneres a couple of days previously, but this time we would go uphill first which made me much happier.
So the following morning we set off, heading back to the lake and up the D113 for a short while until we reached the signpost where the track branched off through the forest. This track took us eastwards up a gentle incline on a well made forest track with occasional views down to the lake below and the Pic du Midi in the distance.
After a couple of hairpin bends we were heading south just below the ridge, initially we were still on a track but – at a point we missed and had to backtrack to – the mountain bike route diverged off to the left. Here it became a pleasing single track route following the contour just below the ridge line and above the forest. Roots and rocks made it interesting enough that we had to keep our eyes on the path rather than the view that was opening out in front of us, but that was a good excuse to stop for a few minutes and take in the panorama along with a slurp of water.
After enjoying this route for a little longer we reached the road at the Horquette d’Ancizan. We followed the road downhill for a short while until the road turned sharply to the left and we followed a track straight ahead. This rocky track took us steeply back down to our starting point. In all a pleasant morning’s ride.
After the bike ride for a change we felt energised rather than knackered. We had a spot of lunch, used the services and the headed onwards. This drive would take us over the Col du Tourmalet to our parking spot for the night and the disembarkation point for our ascent of the Pic du Midi. The Col du Tourmalet is the highest road pass in the Pyrenees and is used regularly as part of the Tour de France route. On both sides of the col there are ski resorts whose slopes and lifts join up in winter when the road is shut. We found this col a lot less exciting than the Col d’Aspin. It’s road was wide for the majority of the climb – only the section between the two ski resorts was narrower and even that was not so narrow that passing places would be needed. It was busy busy with tourists – including us – taking their obligatory photos. Once we had done the tourist thing we descended a short way down to a small parking area beside the road.
The following morning we had difficulty waking up, the outside temperature was cold even though the sun was shining and we didn’t want to get out of our snuggly bed. We could hear the arrival of cars and chattering of people outside. By the time we had got out of bed the car park was pretty full and we could see the line of walkers snaking up the path. The a coach turned up and disgorged about 30 more walkers. By the time we had eaten breakfast and packed our rucksacks we were the last in a long line of walkers.
Walking in such a busy place is highly frustrating and we were kicking ourselves that we hadn’t taken advantage of our overnight parking spot to be up bright and early. Stuck behind people who were walking at a slower pace than us meant we were always on the lookout for opportunities to overtake, and so we ended up going at a faster pace than we would normally find comfortable. By the time we got to the Lac d’Oncet I was puffed out and needed a rest – and of course people started overtaking us again!
From the Lac d’Oncet onwards it was a bit easier though, the path was wider and the gradient steeper. The crowds thinned out and we could take the rest of the walk at our own pace. Above us the domes of the observatory looked like a temple on the top of the mountain, with us as penitents crawling up the steep slopes. Finally at the summit we stopped for our lunch on the free terrace (the paid area was €18 each). The views from here were far reaching but a little too hazy to make great photos. On the way down the distant visibility improved a little.
We retraced our steps on the way down, stopping to investigate a couple of the abandoned buildings and to enviously watch some paragliders taking off from the slopes above us (this is an activity that is definitely on our bucket list). Down in a valley near Bertie a dead cow had attracted a few vultures, it looked too recently dead to make them a good meal.
We were glad to have done the walk, it was an easy route but the highest summit we have reached without a guide. In a way it reminded us of the tourist route on Ben Nevis, an iconic mountain but not the most thrilling ascent.
That evening we descended further down from the col to Tournaboup where there is a large car park that serves the ski resort. We parked here, made dinner and had an occasional wander around the car park to stretch out our lakes.
Ascent of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre
Distance: 15.78 km
Total Elevation: 1024 m
Time taken: 5hrs 20mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with some steep ascent on good paths
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 4
As the weather is still beautifully sunny and warm I’m a little surprised to find that we’re now into October; a month that usually signals a definite move from summer to autumn. Here the evidence of the changing seasons is in the crops ripening in the fields; the sunflower’s bobbing heads are dark and without their petals, the maize is cut back to stubble and the hay is baled.
We drove from Aulus-les-Bains to Bagnères-de-Luchon (simply called Luchon on the road signs) – yet another reference to bathing and hot springs. It was a longish drive for us, but a pleasant one along a pleasant valley towards St Girons and then across farm land to Montrejeau, with red kites flying overhead, before heading back into the valleys again. The reason for such a long way round? Well it was the quickest route, but the main reason was a search for LPG. We found the most expensive LPG we have ever bought in St Girons – 81 cents a litre, but without it we are stuck, no fridge, no cooking and no heating.
In Luchon the aire was busy with weekend visitors, more motorhomes in one place than we had seen for some time including some Brits for a change. We spent a while trying to work out how to pay for the parking, in the end realising that one of the four buttons on the motorhome service point was for the 5 euro parking charge. The service point seemed to confuse a few people with one motorhome owner accidentally paying for water which then gushed out uncontrollably as he shrugged and other people dashed out of their motorhomes with receptacles to catch the precious liquid.
We took a turn around the lake to stretch out our legs after our drive, but it was a hot afternoon and we soon retreated into the shade of our van where we watched the gliders and their tow planes taking off and landing at the nearby aerodrome.
The following morning we managed to successfully use the service point to fill up with water. We chuckled at the group of older gentlemen who spent the morning hovering by the service point with their water containers. They were ready to take anyone’s surplus water and were very friendly about it, chattering away in French to us as we replied in a mix of French and (mostly) English. You cant blame them, the surplus would only end up down the drain otherwise.
From Luchon we took a short drive up the road to the ski station of Superbagneres (or super bangers as Paul kept calling it – I don’t know what he had on his mind). The cloud had dropped and started to envelop us as we ascended the switchbacks to the resort. By the time we got there it was looking a bit gloomy and we had no idea of the view that was hidden behind the clouds. We could see the large and impressive 1920s hotel that is the main building up here, sadly surrounded by ugly modern buildings that seem to be half derelict. One building with broken windows and empty holes where the doors should be has a planning permission sign from 2008. Not much seems to have happened to it but the ground floor is still occupied by ski hire shops and the like.
We had planned a walk but were in two minds about setting out in such gloomy conditions. In the end we decided we might as well go for it, if the weather turned worse we could always walk back down. Our walk was to the Pic de Céciré, a mountain top that we should have been able to see from the car park, but the view was sadly obscured. It was an easy route – following the well signposted GR10 which has been rerouted since our map was published.
Instead of a gradual uphill traverse around the side of the peak, the walk drops towards the river valley, before making zig zags up a newly scoured path where it eventually re-joins the original route of the GR10. When the GR10 reaches the col, it carries on over the top, but our path to the top of the peak split off to the right.
We saw plenty of Griffon Vultures on the way up, forced into low flight by the cloud. As we approached the col at the top of the gully the cloud started to break and we got brief glimpses of the amazing glaciated mountains to our south, the higher we got the more the cloud lifted. We spent half an hour at the top eating our lunch and watching the strange movement of the cloud as it swirled over the col and was lifted like smoke signals by the thermal currents.
The way down was a simple retracing of our steps and as we dropped lower the cloud cover increased again until we were completely under it’s blanket of grey again by the time we were back at Bertie. We settled in for a cold night, putting our heating on for the first time that evening and again the following morning just to take the chill out of the air.
The following morning the sky had completely cleared and we could see the skyline of glaciers and mountains from Bertie. In the distance, across the border in Spain, was Aneto – at 3404m it’s the highest peak in the Pyrenees. Closer to us and still in France was the chain of 3000m peaks whose glaciers we had glimpsed the previous day.
Today we had planned to follow a mountain biking route (route 10) round the resort. It was a marked red circular route and had kept me awake at night with apprehension. I don’t feel that my cycling muscles are working very well at the moment and this bike ride went downhill first before climbing back up to our parking spot. Normally a route will start with uphill and I know that if it’s too much for me then I can just turn around and freewheel back downhill. Here I was going to have no such escape route. We cycled up, gaining about 80m as we went towards the top of the ski lift. From the track that circled around to the right we could see the lowest point of the ride, a small reservoir that seemed a long way below us. The downhill from here was steep and stony, once we’d committed to it there was no going back up this route except by getting off and pushing.
We managed to skid downhill pretty quickly to where the track followed a more reasonable downhill gradient around to the reservoir. I looked up and could see the steep green banks of the ski slopes, but Bertie was out of sight. It looked like a long way. The next section climbed slowly through the forest. I was glad for the trees masking the extent of the climb with just occasional views further down into the valley. We pedalled on until we came to a fork in the track where we took a right hand turn up difficult switchbacks that would have been very nice on the downhill. Tackling the berms uphill was punishing but bought us out onto a parking area on the road below Bertie with only a couple of hundred meters climb to go. We could have continued off road here, but decided to make it easier and cycle up the road instead. After my earlier trepidation I felt relieved and even managed to look back on the route as being quite enjoyable. I would still prefer to do the uphill section first though!
Walking to the Pic de Céciré
Distance: 14.55 km
Total Elevation: 970 m
Time taken: 4hrs 50mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with a small amount of steep ascent on mostly good paths
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 5
Superbagneres Tour du Plateau
Distance: 15.27 km
Total Elevation: 583 m
Time taken: 2hrs 20mins
Type of Route: Moderate (red) mountain bike route with a steep downhill section
After two weeks of sweaty walking and cycling we needed to do some washing. A bit of google maps investigation revealed that our closest launderette was at the Intermarche in Tarascon-sur-Ariege. It was only a small supermarket, but we managed to wedge ourselves into a corner parking space without being too much in the way and availed ourselves of the washing and drying facilities. Usually with these laundry facilities we don’t have any clashes, but today we had someone else waiting to use the dryer and could sense their exasperation as we went to check whether our clothes were ready and then put the dryer on for yet another session.
With clean clothes and fluffy towels we moved onto our next destination. Aulus-les-Bains is a small town that is off the main roads of the Ariege. Like many places in the Pyrenees it is named for it’s hot springs. One of these days we’ll have to try them out, but like a cheapskate I’m waiting to find a freebie like the fabulous Saturnia hot springs in Italy. The drive to Aulus-les-Bains was pleasant to Vicdessos, where it became a little narrow. At Port de l’Ers the road improved again and above the lake there were paragliders soaring and a significant entourage supporting or just watching.
Aulus-les-Bains has a designated motorhome parking area for €2 per night plus free services outside the campsite. We parked ourselves up and popped into the Tourist Office to pay our parking fee and to get some local information. Lots of tourist shops and attractions were already closed up for the season but the town was still busy enough with (I assume) locals. The lady at the tourist office sent us onto the Thermal spa complex as she had run out of the booklet of walks of the area. A small office there handed over the booklet of ‘parcours’ and a walking tour of the town which we followed to stretch our legs. There are some smart looking 19th century hotels here (it’s not clear how many are still in operation) although the Thermes complex is a bit of an ugly modern block.
The following morning we decided to follow one of the routes in the parcours booklet. Route E is a circular walk that takes you to the Cascade d’Ars. We started from a trailhead on the hairpin just up the road from the motorhome parking where we followed a track into the forest. Eventually the track met up with the GR10 and we followed the usual red and white slashes up along the bank of the river Ars. Sometimes we were right by the river as it flowed over boulders and at other times we were above the river gorge with just the sound of the river accompanying us.
It wasn’t long before we reached the cascade, we didn’t know whether to expect much as it has been so dry, but it was still attractive and impressively high. A single stream at the top separated into multiple strands in the middle and then converged into one single drop again for the lower drop. The official path walked safely to the side of the waterfall, but there were numerous small paths that allowed us to get a closer view and feel it’s cooling spray.
Getting to this point would be a nice walk in it’s own right, but we went onwards, following the GR10 up to the valley above the waterfall where the stream seemed far too innocuous to be feeding such a dramatic plunge and the fishes swimming lazily in the water seemed to have no fear of being swept over the edge. In the valley a signpost pointed out way onwards, still taking the GR10 on a gradual uphill traverse of the steep slopes where signs warned of avalanche dangers, skirting the head of a valley and crossing the squelchy plateau Guzettou.
After several frustrating moments where we thought we had reached the top only to realise we had more uphill to go we thankfully found ourselves going consistently downhill. The path descended steeply through forest next to the Etang de Guzet whose black waters were glimpsed through trees (we didn’t descend to the lake because we couldn’t face going back uphill yet again).We were keeping an eye out for the point where we had to branch off the GR10 to make our return. When we found the point there was a signpost, but no letter E to point our way. We had to take a bit of a guess, luckily it was the right one, following the sign to the Piste de Fouillet (if we had translated the route description from the booklet we would have realised this was the right way – we’ll remember that next time). This took us through bracken and across pasture before heading back into the forest and steep zig zags back down to the road, just above our starting point.
That night we decided not to stay in the town parking, but to drive up to the Guzet ski area which might be a little cooler and less smelly; the car park in Aulus was covered in sheep poo where a local herd had been walked down to the low pastures the evening before.
The following morning we decided to use our mountain bikes to explore the area around the Guzet ski resort. There is mountain biking here in the summer (known as VTT – Velo Touts Terrain – in France), but sadly the lifts stopped running the previous weekend so we had to get uphill under our own steam.
We followed the road up through chalets and then took the track that bought us out above the ski area. Instead of heading straight back down we branched left on this track, heading roughly south around the contours of the hills for about 7km until we reached a point where the uphill looked too much of a struggle. Then we turned around, back to the ski area and down mountain bike routes (red 5 onto green 2) back to our parking spot.
All along this route we had close up views of Griffon Vultures with their white heads and ragged looking long-fingered wings. I don’t have any good photos of them, so instead here is a curious sheep.
Cascade d’Ars hiking circuit
Distance: 14.75 km
Total Elevation: 945 m
Time taken: 5hrs 30mins
Type of Route: Easy track to waterfall, Moderate from waterfall onwards
We woke up on the top of the Col de Pailheres in thick fog, we could barely see anything; a bit of a concern as we wanted to drive back down towards Ax-les-Thermes. After a couple of hours the fog had lifted enough to be considered low cloud and gave us enough road level visibility although there were no views to be had. What a difference on night can make.
We were heading in the direction of Andorra, this should have been an easy route directly down the N20 but our sat nav is not happy. We could see there were plenty of large lorries on this road so we ignored the sat nav, and eventually we found the cause of the problem – an arched bridge that has a 3.1m warning. It’s not 3.1m at the apex, but the arch is low sided and large vehicles need to be in the middle of the road.
Our destination was not Andorra itself but the last village before Andorra – L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre. The population of approx. 90 people are celebrated in a large poster as you enter the village. There is not a lot here, a train station, a couple of cafes and a hotel. But most importantly there is an aire of nicely separated diagonal pitches. We enjoy watching people manoeuvre into them. It’s pretty easy if you drive round the back, but everyone seems to want to reverse in from the front at an awkward angle. The trains pass close by but they run infrequently and slowly and don’t disturb us.
That afternoon it’s a bit drizzly so we settle down to a couple of sewing projects. We are adjusting our bath mats so that they fit in the space in front of the shower without having to be awkwardly folded. No prizes will be won for the finish but we’re happier.
The following morning is bright and clear, we are woken by the whirring of helicopter blades. There is a lot of avalanche protection work going on and we can see the helicopters flying supplies and equipment up to the top of a long avalanche corridor on the mountain above the road. Binoculars show workers in precarious looking positions positioning fencing across the steep drop.
Paul fancies a bike ride so we head on up to the Col de Puymorens where we can cycle up the Coma d’en Garcia. We don’t end up getting very far, but we stop for a nice long picnic in the valley where we bask in the sunshine and take in the views. We see a large bird of prey that might be an eagle, but we’re not sure. Magpies mob the kestrels that are hovering in the valley. It’s pretty idyllic.
We stay at the car park on the col overnight with a couple of other vans but most motorhomes are just passing through; stopping for photos at the top and then heading on into Spain. It seems to be typical of many people to treat the Pyrenees as something that needs to be got through in order to get to Spain.
The following morning we decide to head back down to L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre in order to do a circular walk. This starts across the main road from the aire. We don’t realise that there is an underpass so scuttle across when there is a gap in traffic. On the way back we find the underpass and feel safer although it adds a few hundred meters to the route. We follow the GRT steeply up through the woods, ignoring the branch off to the Cascades. As we get higher we move into birch woods, the silver trunks shining against the backdrop of autumnal shrubs. The main junction, where the circular part of the route starts and finishes, is well signposted. We branch off the GRT and head towards the Etang du Siscar, continuing to follow the stream that meanders up through a beautiful series of terraced valleys. It’s incredibly scenic and feels quite remote.
Siscar lake is in the final valley surrounded by jagged peaks. We know there is an onward path from here up over the Porteilla de Sisca, but cant see it. Eventually we realise that we need to head slightly back on ourselves to take a couple of long switchbacks up the side of the corrie. Finally we are at our highest point – 2440m – we stop for a rest and some lunch and admire the views. We have been on our own so far so selfishly spread our stuff over the path which is the only flat surface. That just happens to be the point at which another walker appears and we hastily remove ourselves from their path – slapped wrists for us!
The route down takes us steeply down to the Etang de Pedourres where we have another rest stop – it’s good for the soul to take a moment to enjoy the beauty around us, or that’s my excuse anyway. From the lake we follow another river down a long valley. The stream of rippling water glistens in the sunshine as it makes textbook snakelike curves. This is another walk that is incredibly satisfying and we’re glad that we found it on Esther and Dan’s website. Soon enough we are on the last stretch, under the pipeline for the EDF powerstation and back to the junction.
Vallee du Siscar and Val d’Arques Circuit
Distance: 16.18 km
Total Elevation: 1058 m
Time taken: 6hrs 50mins
Type of Route: Moderately demanding due to length, well marked tracks
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7
True to our expectations we ached when we woke up. Our calf muscles were tight, thighs were sore and getting out of our raised bed was a struggle. When we finally managed to get up and moving we knew that we couldn’t take anything particularly energetic, so we decided to do a bit of shopping. We needed a small top up of groceries, but more importantly we needed a few bits and pieces for the bike, including new spare inner tubes as our many-times patched inner tubes were no longer holding air.
We tapped a few of the local outdoors shops and managed to pick up what we needed including a top up with fuel in the competitively priced local Intermarche. After lunch we looked at the map and decided to move onwards and very much upwards, to 2001m above sea level Our destination was the Col de Pailhères, a spectacularly high point on the road between Ax-les-Thermes and Mijanès. The road from Ax-les-Thermes is the less spectacular ascent, longer, more gradual and two lanes most of the way. When you look down the descent to Mijanès it looks far more ‘exciting’, a single track succession of snaking turns. You can see why this is a cyclist’s favourite, whether pedal powered or motor driven.
We stopped at the large car park just below the col and stretched our still-aching legs with a short walk to the top. Here we were above the tree line and had lovely views. Horses were cropping the grass on the nearby moorland, bells jangling gently as they wandered around. After our short walk we returned to Bertie and sat and took in the views, we didn’t have the energy for anything else. As with most lazy days I indulged my love of cooking and made some apple tarts for dessert.
The following day dawned sunny and a little chill. The reason for choosing this parking spot wasn’t just it’s altitude but also it’s access to a circular walk that takes in the Pic de Tarbésou at 2364m. It was a Sunday and if the previous day was anything to go by this was going to be a busy spot. We started as early as we could to try to beat the crowds, but even so there were plenty of people turning up, whether for a Sunday stroll or for a longer randonnée.
This was a justifiably popular walk, some people just tackling the Pic, some heading in the opposite direction to end up having a picnic by one of the mountain lakes, and some – like us – walking the whole circuit. It was interesting all the way round without too much constant ascent or steep descent. A perfect way to stretch out our tired legs.
We decided to go anti-clockwise so that we got the steepest ascent out of the way sooner rather than later. After the initial stretch of path following red and white trail markers (GR 7B) across the moorland close to the road we reached a junction where we took the middle of three paths, this ascended the most direct route to the Pic (the right hand route took a slightly less direct route but came in to the Pic along the ridge, which actually looked better in hindsight). The high starting point meant that the Pic de Tarbésou could be topped with relatively little effort and as we slowly warmed up on the ascent we met a few people who were on their way down, having achieved their day’s ambition. I expect they were off for a nice Sunday lunch somewhere.
After the Pic we were seduced by the clear path that led straight ahead, but actually the onward path led sharply downwards and to the right (following yellow markers) where it picked up the top of a nice undulating ridge with lovely views south west to the Orlu valley and the softer side of the Dent d’Orlu. From the ridge we stopped to watch a large bird soaring overhead. A quick look through the binoculars and we confirmed that we had spotted our first Lammergeier; with it’s rust orange body and odd diamond shaped tail it was unmistakeable. These birds (also called Bearded Vultures although they are not strictly members of the vulture family) are fairly rare but there is a good sized population in the Pyrenees – they live on a diet that is mainly bone, getting their nutrition from bone marrow by dissolving the bones in pH 1 stomach acids.
A couple of kilometres later we had to leave this ridge, there were lots of short cuts here, but we chose to continue to follow the yellow markers that led down from a small col. A quick descent took us to the first of the lakes, the Etang Bleu, where groups were picnicking by the shores of the lake, once group passing round a bottle of wine they swigged from enthusiastically. The weather had warmed up nicely and people were sunbathing, but we didn’t see anyone braving the cold waters.
We were now back on the GR 7B and following red and white markers northwards back to the parking spot, the next feature was another lake – the Etang Noir – equally popular and spectacularly set against the backdrop of the ridge we had just been walking.
After the Etang Noir we had a short steep climb back up to the Col de la Coumeille de l’Ors (I think that means something along the lines of a bear’s neck), just below the Pic de Tarbésou. There were a few families on this path, obviously returning to their cars after a lakeside picnic, more than one child was grizzling at having to climb the hill in front of them. We gave the parents sympathetic looks as we passed – I think they were sympathetic, although they might just have been looks of ‘thank god that’s not me’ relief.
Views of the lakes(including Etang de Rabasoles) from the Col de la Coumeille de l’Ors
After that it wasn’t long before we had descended back to the first junction where we could pick up the path back to Bertie.
Pic de Tarbesou circuit
Distance: 11.44 km
Total Elevation: 769 m
Time taken: 4hrs 50mins
Type of Route: Easy walk along well marked tracks
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7