A Rest is Good for a Change

06/10/18 – 08/10/18

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.

Camping in the sun
View from the campsite – before the snow

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).

…and after the snow

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.

Dimpled bready goodness

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.      

A Couple of Cols and a Pic

03/10/18 – 05/10/18

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.

The winding roads to the Col d’Aspin

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.

Parked on the Col d’Aspin with the Pic du Midi de Bigorre in the distance

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.

Views over the lake and valley of Payolle

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.

A bit of single track across the hills

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 Col de Tourmalet

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!

Looking up at the summit from the Lac d’Oncet

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.

Part of the amazing skyline that can be seen from the slopes of the Pc du Midi

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.  

Paraglider taking off from the side of the mountain

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.      

In the parking at Tournaboup we watech the paragliders coming in to land

 

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
Payolle to Horquette d’Ancizan Bike Loop
  • Distance: 18.2 km
  • Total Elevation: 686 m
  • Time taken: 2hrs 35mins
  • Type of Route: Moderate (red) mountain bike route
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 4. Payolle VTT map.

 

 

Playing in the Clouds at Superbagnères

30/09/18 – 02/10/18

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.

View towards the aire from the cycle path

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.

Walking around the Lac de Badech
A glider comes in to land at the 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.

Danger of falling on the original GR10 route

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.

 

Walking into the clouds

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.

View from the top of the Pic de Cecire

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.

View of the mountain chain from our parking spot
Bertie admiring the view

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.

From our bike ride we could finally see the Pic de Cecire we had climbed the daybefore

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
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 5. Superbagneres VTT map 

 

       

Aulus-les-Bains and the Cascade d’Ars

27/09/18 – 29/09/18

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. 

Paragliders over the hills

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.

Bertie in the parking at Aulus-les-Bains
The town of Aulus-les-Bains from a vantage point

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.

The middle section of the waterfall
Walking towards the top section of the waterfall

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.

Above the waterfall

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.

Views to the north as we start our descent

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.

Sheep being driven across the motorhome parking

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. 

View down across the ski area, our parking spot just about visible

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.

We’re stopping here!

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.

Not your usual sheep – instead of running away it came over to investigate our bikes
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
  • Further Information: Parcours website. IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7
Exploring by mountain bike at Guzet ski area
  • Distance: 12.91 km
  • Total Elevation: 578 m
  • Time taken: 1hrs 45mins
  • Type of Route: Easy mountain bike route along track and red/green downhill runs
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7. Guzet VTT map. 

Not Quite in Andorra

24/09/18 – 26/09/18

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.

Busy aire in the gloomy evening.

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.

Contemplating the views from our very short bike ride

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.

Views from the Col de Puymorens

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.

Signposting

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!

We couldnt resist a peek inside one of the shepherds huts. They can also be used by walkers.
The steep sided valley above the Etang du Siscar

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.

The Etang de Pedourres
Looking down the Arques valley
Text book meanders

    

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

Lammergeiers from the Pic de Tarbesou

22/09/18 – 23/09/18

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. 

The twisty turny road to Mijanes

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.

Apple and sultana tarts

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.

On the way to the Pic de Tarbesou

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. 

Looking back towards the Pic de Tarbesou from the ridge
Blasted trees on the ridge, with the Orlu valley in the background

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 joined a lot of people picking sweet purple bilberries from the low bushes on the mountains

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.

The Etang Noir

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. 

Bertie parked up just below the Col de Pailheres
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