Visiting the Pilgrimage Town of Rocamadour

11/12/18 – 12/12/18

Rocamadour is one of those ‘must see’ tourist destinations in France. Most lists of ‘best places to go’, ‘most dramatic destination’ etc include this vertical town that is built on and into the side of a cliff. We decided to make it our first stop in France on the way home so that we could see it for ourselves. First though we took a final opportunity to do some shopping at Spain’s prices and fill up with Spanish fuel before leaving Les and crossing the border.

Almost immediately we could see the influence of the infamous Gilets Jaunes. All the cars driving towards us had yellow reflective jackets folded up on their dashboards, a signal intended to indicate solidarity with the protestors against the most recent of the French government’s increases in fuel duty. This triggered an interesting debate about whether we really felt solidarity with the protestors. As we only have a limited understanding of French fuel taxation, and given that we both believe that something needs to be done to cut down on pollution from transport (yes – while driving a heavy gas guzzling machine – we know we are hypocrites) it was a tricky one. My concern with increasing fuel costs is that it hits everyone, rich or poor, leads to inflation and doesn’t actually do anything to reduce car use without other measures (ie better public transport) in place. Anyway in the end we agreed to put one of our reflective jackets on the dashboard for the pragmatic reason that we might find it easier to get through any blockades.

The Gilets Jaunes occupying a roundabout

We did see a few protestors, mostly on the roundabouts near exits for major roads, but we didn’t get held up for more than a few minutes. Most of them looked at our number plates and waved us through, once we were offered some sort of fudge like sweet (yum) and a few times we got a cheerful wave. It was quite cold so I was surprised how upbeat the protesters were, but then they had constructed some fabulous shelters from pallets and tarpaulin, including braziers burning brightly for warmth.

We knew that Rocamadour didn’t have any services, just motorhome parking so we stopped on the way at Grisolles (somewhere we have been before) to empty our waste and fill up with water for 2 euros. As we approached Rocamadour the sun was so low in the sky that we could see very little as we drove towards the town. It made us both quite tense and tetchy as we tried to ensure that we were following the satnav directions, so when we reached the car park to find it mostly closed off for resurfacing we were not in the best of moods. We ended up tucking into a spot in the corner where we didn’t seem to be in the way of any heavy machinery that might be entering or exiting the car park.


The following morning we were awakened at 8am by the reverberations of a pneumatic pile driver; a sound that would accompany us throughout the day as we walked the gorge, top and bottom. We were parked at the top of Rocamadour’s cliff, next to the Chateau and for our walk we took the track that leads south from the car park. This followed the top of the gorge for a while, with fantastic views into the gorge bottom, a wide ribbon of green where the river once ran.

Walking along the top of the gorge

After a while the track veered away from the gorge towards the village of La Fage and once we were through the village we turned south west into a smaller subsidiary canyon which we followed to the main road, crossing the road and L’Alzou river. We passed ruined farm buildings, old farm machinery and one very poorly car.

I dont think this will go???

The path continued to the Ouysse river where we stopped at the ruins of an old mill to have some lunch. The subterranean river emerges here, and we sat on it’s edge watching the water gently steaming in the cold temperatures (we weren’t sure if it was a ‘hot spring’ but the water was very tepid). A kingfisher flitted by, the first I have seen for ages, a brief flash of blue following the course of the river.

Our lunch spot
Smoke on the water – where the river rises

From here we followed another track through another small gorge which finally emerged on a road, we were following our noses by this point and weren’t sure how far we had to go but could still hear that pile driver in the distance. We took the road north in the hope of gaining some height and soon we gained sight of Rocamadour’s canyon. We didn’t have to stay on the road for long as a trail led away to the left and steeply down the side of the main gorge towards the town itself.

Streets of Rocamadour

The town was very quiet as we explored the chapels and caves. The town has long been a pilgrimage destination, although history has blurred the stories associated with it’s holy significance. Paths and stairs climb up the side of the cliff weaving through the buildings and past chapels and shrines, including the all important Church of Our Lady. There were a few worshippers and we felt like interlopers intruding on their devotions. We spoke in hushed voices and felt a need to tiptoe around as we poked our head around the doors of the chapels. In summer the streets would be bustling, filled with tourists, the shops and restaurants would all be open and spilling out onto the pavements, but today the whole town felt peaceful and serene. After exploring we climbed up the Chemin de Croix, a weaving zig zag path that took us past the stations of the cross and various caves and shrines, up to the Chateau where we were parked.

Rock hewn sanctuary on the Chemin de Croix
The Chateau and view of the canyon

When we finally got back to Bertie’s cliff top parking we decided to move on. We wanted to find somewhere with electricity as the forecast was pretty chilly so we found a free parking spot in the central market square of Bessines-sur-Gartempe. There were several electricity points, which looked like they were supplied for the local market, plus motorhome services. We were soon joined by a few other vans who were also making use of the very welcome electricity to power their heating. To say thank-you for the freebie we made use of the two local patisseries, holding a private competition to determine the best chocolate éclair, we couldn’t decide on a winner and afterwards felt rather icky from our overindulgence.



Taking Shelter

27/10/18 – 28/10/18

When the forecast says heavy rain and snow then we start looking for electricity. Neither of us are particularly keen on hot hot weather, so we find we cope well enough in cool temperatures (down to about -4 overnight) so long as the days are sunny and we can replenish our electricity with solar power. In those sorts of temperatures we usually just use our gas central heating for a short while before bed and first thing in the morning. The van is insulated well enough that we don’t drop below freezing inside, and most importantly our water pipes are internal to the van and don’t freeze.

But if it’s going to rain or snow all day and the skies are overcast then we find our solar doesn’t replenish our leisure batteries fast enough to allow us to have the heating on (and we cant increase our leisure battery capacity without a bit of an overhaul of our old electrical system). And of course if it’s grim during the day then we’re not out and about raising our body temperatures with exercise, nor is Bertie getting warmed up through the greenhouse effect of the large windows, so we want the heating on for longer.

All in all it adds up to a need for electricity or to escape the drab and dreary weather.

So we ended up doing a bit of both. We were already well progressed towards the eastern end of the French Pyrenees with the coast in sniffing distance, and we knew that down on the coast there would be campsites or aires with electricity.

We settled on Argelès-sur-Mer as our destination. It’s probably the biggest resort on the coast between Perpignan and the border, it’s not that pretty or cultural, but it does have a large municipal campsite with good cheap prices (13 euros a night plus tourist tax of 0.66 cents per person per night – what an odd figure!) and it wouldn’t take us too far out of our way.

So we drove to Camping Les Roussillonaise, checked in with the friendly staff, drove around the HUGE campsite to find a pitch we fancied and settled ourselves in to weather the storm.

Obviously now we were out of the Pyrenees the weather wasn’t as wet or cold as we might have experienced, but it was still a bit dismal and high on the hills we could see the snow starting to settle. We whiled away our time doing the usual stuff, cleaning and tidying, planning the next stages of our travels, cooking, chilling and getting out of the van whenever the weather brightened up.

Argeles Plage is a long expanse of beach, but the coast to the south looks much more interesting – one to flag up for another time.

We decided that actually the town was quite nice out of season. All of the other campsites were closed and many of the tourist attractions were boarded up, but there was still some life about the place, probably helped by it being French school holidays. The seafront had a steady stream of pedestrians, the cafes and shops that were open had enough customers to make them seem friendly and welcoming. 

On the esplanade there was an interesting exhibition of undersea photography.
The town got steadily more salubrious as we moved away from the campsite and south towards the harbour.


Tourist Attractions at Villefranche de Confluent


With aching legs from our previous days drive we decided that this should be a day of sightseeing. We settled on Villefranche de Confluent as our destination as it had a selection of interesting looking tourist attractions, it was also the bottom station for the Train Jaune although we decided that we would save that for a future visit in the summer when we could try to get a seat in one of the open topped carriages.

With that destination in mind we actually drove a little way past the town to visit the Grottes des Grandes Canalettes, a tourist cave complex that appealed as we hadn’t visited any caves since Portugal last year. There was motorhome parking here, as part of the extensive parking for the caves, somewhere we thought about staying but decided against in the end.

We payed our €10 each to get into the caves, rather an expense for us, and proceeded through the tourist tat section of shopping and café into the caves themselves. The entrance way was not very dramatic and we looked at each other as if to say ‘what have we just spent our money on’. The tunnel showed the evidence of drilling by whoever had opened it up for tourists and was just rather drab brown rock. Soon, though, we were into spectacular large chambers with all sorts of formations. Unlike many caves we didn’t have a guided tour but were left to our own devices to explore the caves and read information boards, this was a blessing as it was the French school holidays and children were running around having a great time with the UV torches they had been given. We could let them get ahead of us and then take in the surroundings in peace and quiet. It must have been great for the kids too, not having to be quiet and listen to a tour guide, it definitely reduced the whinge factor.

It took us just over an hour to get our fill of the caves, as you exit there is a bit about the water cycle and the history of the caves, including the sad tale of a cave diver who died during exploration (one of THE most risky hobbies) but unfortunately it’s all in French, unlike the information boards in the caves themselves.

After our visit to the caves we lazily drove down to the walled town, using the paid parking area at the western end of the town. The parking costs weren’t extravagant so we were happy to pay up and wander into the town to take a look around.

Looking into the towns medieval streets

Paul declined a visit to Fort Liberia which perches on the cliffs above the town, he said his legs were aching far too much to tackle the ‘thousand steps’, and I wasn’t willing to pay for the 4×4 to ferry us up there. So we contented ourselves with a walk around the fortifications (4 euros each). These fortifications are one of the reasons that Villefranche de Confluent is a UNESCO world heritage site. Originally built in between the 11th and 13th century they were improved by the famous military engineer Vauban in the 17th century. Although Vauban designed defensive improvements for hundreds of French citadels, it is the 12 in this contested area of Catalonia that make up the UNESCO world heritage listing.

Inside the covered walls

We wandered around the fortifications, taking in the remaining medieval tower, the covered fortifications and occasional views of the rooftops. Because the fortifications are covered, not that high and set in the valley you don’t get far reaching views, I expect those are to be found at the top of those thousand steps. Nevertheless it was an interesting perambulation, helped by the English language information sheet we were provided at the ticket office. 

More views of the citadel
View into the citadel
One of the many fortified towers along the city walls

After getting our fill of the pleasant and very tourist oriented town we returned to Bertie and decided to move on. The weather was due to turn and we decided to wait out the rain and snow down by the coast. That afternoon we did a bit of grocery shopping and then settled into motorhome parking near Ille-sur-Tet. The parking was for another tourist attraction – the gorges of Les Orgues – but by the time we turned up the rain was falling and we didn’t have any desire to get out for a look.

Wobbly Bridges and Historic Paths in the Carança Gorge

24/10/18 – 25/10/18

We left Les Angles behind and continued south and east along the N116. This road is wide and well constructed and makes sickening large swooping turns. The tables were turned from our gorge drive a couple of days ago. Paul was thoroughly enjoying himself on the wide bends whereas I was holding on tight on the turns and unable to do anything but look ahead. The road follows the valley of the river ‘La Têt’ as does the rail line for the well known Train Jaune, a canary yellow tourist train that runs up the valley and has open topped carriages in the warmer months. In the earlier stages the road is high above the river and the rail line can be seen below, further downhill the train crosses on viaducts above the road. 

We had considered a number of places along here to stop. The area is peppered with forts, built during the period when the area was hotly contested borderland. We drove past the citadel at Mont-Louis in two minds whether to stop, but the weather was forecast to be cold and we decided to go a little lower for the opportunity to have a warmer night’s sleep.

We decided that the motorhome parking at Thues-entre-Valls would be our destination, on the map we could see a few options for walking routes and the parking had good reviews. We indicated to turn right and immediately saw a sign for a 3.5 tonne limit on the bridge, so Paul pulled back out before committing to turning and we continued a couple of hundred meters to the parking area on the main road. A discussion ensued, should we stay parked on the side of the road, ignore the weight limit or proceed onwards to another parking spot. In the end we decided to ignore the weight limit, whether we were sensible to do so I don’t know but we had observed a couple of weighty trucks driving across the bridge while we were deliberating.

The drive to the parking was a test of our nerve, across the bridge with the weight limit and then steeply up through the village, following the signs for parking through narrowish streets. We didn’t meet anyone coming in the opposite direction and our short drive finally rewarded us with the entrance to the car park and clear signage for the motorhome parking. The parking here has services and is €9 for the first 24 hours and €5 for each subsequent 24 hours, you take a ticket on entry and then have to pay at the machine (cash only) before leaving. We parked up in the level motorhome area under chestnut trees and breathed a sigh of relief, we’d made it!

Parked in dappled shade under the chestnut trees

By this time it was only early afternoon, but the sunny weather and sheltered position tempted us to relax outside the van rather than do anything energetic. We watched the yellow train go past a couple of times, full of holiday makers enjoying the scenery and waving from the windows. The train stops here (on request) and is another good reason for choosing this parking spot if you aren’t inclined to long walks. When we got bored we collected fat ripe chestnuts and took a wander down to the notice boards and café/kiosk to see what walks we fancied doing. We even got the BBQ out for a change although by tea time it was cooling down rapidly and so we ate inside.

The following morning we set out to walk the Carança gorge. We knew this walk was going to be exciting and exposed because of the many warning signs at the entrance to the gorge. Little did we realise just how exciting it would be and that we were at the start of one of our favourite walks in the French Pyrenees.

Entering the Gorge de Caranca

The entrance to the gorge is through an archway carved through the rock under the railway line and next to the river. The path starts quite gently, a part concrete and part rock path alongside the gorge leading to a concrete bridge where you can cross and walk up the other side of the gorge, up into the hills, or back via a hilly route to the car park. We were not crossing the bridge but continuing onwards, staying on the same side of the river and following the path as it tracked uphill becoming more rocky and exposed and then back downhill again to rejoin the river. Along the way we could see the path along the other side of the gorge, a corniche dug into the rock and realised that we were going to miss out on this spectacular section of the walk. If you are going to do the long loop like we did, I would recommend crossing the river at the first concrete bridge and proceeding along the corniche for maximum excitement, rather than the Roc de Madrieu route.

Rocky pathways along the Roc de la Madrieu side of the gorge
Pathway cut through the rocks
The corniche on the opposite side of the gorge

We reached the next bridge across the gorge about an hour from the start, this was a metal walkway with a single rope hand rail. It wasn’t that exposed but it was a taste of things to come. This is also the point at which we could have done the shorter 8km loop, by crossing this bridge and turning right we would have found the route back along the corniche to the concrete bridge and our start point.

But we weren’t heading back, we were pressing on across the bridge and further into the gorge. The path now followed the river closely, moving from one side to the other and using a selection of suspension bridges, walkways and ladders to navigate the sheer sides of the gorge. At every point there was at least a single rope handrail – the suspension bridges were very wobbly but at least had handrails on each side to help keep your balance. I let my darling husband go first across most of these obstacles as he had a habit of shaking the bridges if I went first! On the map this path was marked as ‘Sentier sur passerelles’ which interpreted as trail on gateways – I suppose the walkways were a bit like gates, laid on their sides and attached to sheer rock faces. At least I will know what this really means if I encounter it again.

Wobbly bridges
Walkways above the river
Climbing ladders

We really enjoyed this unexpected but adrenaline fuelled section of the walk. If you’ve ever done Via Ferrata this was like the very easiest of Via Ferrata without any safety equipment. It’s no surprise that dogs are not allowed on this walk, and I would caution against bringing small children this far unless you are very confident in their ability.

After the passerelles the path resumed it’s rocky course along and above the river gorge. Beautiful in it’s own right but feeling rather tame following the more adventurous section. At one point a small stone bridge and pathway seems incongruously placed in the middle of nowhere, but historically the river was used to transport logs down from the forests to the village sawmills and the stone path would have joined up with wooden walkways where the passerelles are now.

After about 10k and three and a half hours we reached a signpost. Twenty minutes further on would have taken us to the refuge but we were turning right and heading back along the Cami Ramader, a Catalan name meaning Farmer’s Way. This cattle tracked path led back towards our parking spot but much higher up the side of the valley. Along the way we found traces of the original farming communities who bought their livestock up to the high and steep pastures above the river. A small hamlet of ruined dry stone huts remain where once whole families would have migrated in the summer. The steep ground has been terraced by many generations of herders to create flat grassy areas held back by stone walls. It is amazing what humans will do to try to eke out a living in areas that seem inhospitable.

Pathways around the rock pinnacles
Dry stone huts of the high pastures

The path stays high for some time here, winding up and down between stone pinnacles – the ‘Campanilles’ mentioned on the map – and providing fantastic views across to the hills on the other side of the gorge. We started to get apprehensive about the downhill section as we were still so high up, and when we left the deciduous woodlands and entered the pine forests the path started it’s downhill trajectory and we started to feel the strain on our calves. Beside the path were what looked like metal bathtubs – evidence of the charcoal burning that once took place here. 

Looking back down at our original path
Autumn was here – beautiful colours on the hills

This path took us eventually to a junction where we could have turned right onto the corniche, but instead continued downhill along a section of 14 switchbacks to the original concrete bridge. This section of path had been shored up using stone walls again, improved at the same time as the creation of the corniche by the SNCF engineers who built the railway.

It had been a long walk, but an incredibly beautiful and exciting one. We will be coming back at some point to walk the corniche and explore other aspects of this historically interesting area. For now we took our aching legs back to Bertie and decided to stay another night in these beautiful surroundings. 

Walking the Gorge de Carança and Cami Ramader
  • Distance: 21.8 km
  • Total Elevation: 1604 m
  • Time taken: 7hrs 05mins
  • Type of Route: Difficult – long and with significant exposure
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8

Following the Aude

22/10/18 – 24/10/18

Following our morning of sightseeing in Carcassonne we decided to crack on back into the Pyrenees. Our target was Les Angles, a large ski resort in the Pyrenees Orientales. Originally we had identified it as a destination due to it’s extensive mountain biking area but as Paul was still waiting for his mountain biking part we had a look for some walking routes instead.

The D118 road down to Les Angles followed the upper reaches of the Aude. After Carcassonne there was very little sign of flooding and as we got further south the river was constrained by the rocky walls of the Gorge d’Aude and Gorges de Saint Georges. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the drive, the fabulously scenic road twists and turns through the gorge with the river rushing below. At times it’s single track, although there are plenty of passing places, the main difficulty was navigating around working vehicles who were making repairs, clearing hedges and removing overhanging branches from trees. At times this balcony road is cut into the side of the cliff which made me reflexively lean towards Paul, but the overhangs were never too low for us.

Overhangs, never too low for us at 3.5m
Narrow section of the balcony road

Paul, it has to be said, found the drive highly frustrating as he crawled around corners and past other vehicles. The amount of concentration and patience required took any joy out of the drive and he was relieved when suddenly the valley widened in front of us and we were in a completely different landscape.

Our first parking spot here was near the ski lifts at Pla del Mir. This designated motorhome parking is priced depending on the season, for us it was €6 including 16A electricity. It rises to €11 during the ski season but still seems good value for money. We settled in for the evening and while we had electricity I trimmed Paul’s hair and reduced his stubble to something a little neater.

The following morning we took a walk up from the parking area into the mountains. The character of the hills here was significantly different than the jagged peaks we had become used to. The hills slope gently away from the valley floor with large boulders peppering the grassy sward. We walked in the sunshine, enjoying a recovery walk that was a little less strenuous than usual.

Boulders in the meadows

The route was on a track at first, running to the north of the Animal Park, and was well signposted as we wandered up through meadows and open woodland. We followed the signs to the Lac d’Aude, the source of the river that had caused so much trouble recently, keeping left where we had the option, which took us under the cliff face of the Roc del Filipe before we made our way to the southern shore of the lake.

Rowan berries and Lac d’Aude
The cliffs of the Roc del Felipe

From here we walked around the lake eventually finding our return path leading vaguely southwest from the north west corner of the lake. This path was on the map but was poorly signposted and there were very few tracks on the ground. We eventually realised that we should be following the wooden posts with dark green paint that were sparsely distributed along the route. Thankfully the day was clear and we could navigate using the posts, our map and the infant river Aude to guide us in the right direction. We met our outward route again roughly where we expected on the initial section of track. It hadn’t been a long walk, and navigation issues aside it had been a pleasure to walk in such different scenery.

Views across pathless, featureless grasses

That afternoon we drove down to the Lac de Matemale where we parked up in a specific motorhome parking area (no services) with lovely views of the lake. An easy mountain biking route circles the lake, but with Paul’s bike out of action we were a bit stuck. The following morning we saw lots of people jogging past the van and so I decided that I would jog the 9k around the lake, Paul would give me a head start and see if he could catch me using my bike. He did! It’s been some time since I went for a run and although my legs were fine, I was mentally unfit, obviously far too used to walking and stopping for a break whenever I feel like it!

Our view across the lake, just beautiful
Walking Pla del Mia to Lac d’Aude
  • Distance: 13.24 km
  • Total Elevation: 411 m
  • Time taken: 3hrs 35mins
  • Type of Route: Easy/Moderate – some route finding difficulties on the return leg
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8

Carcassonne, Following the Floods

21/10/18 – 22/10/18

We nursed a mild hangover on Sunday morning, relaxing in the Lagbruguiere aire until Paul felt fit to drive. We needed to make our way back to the Pyrenees, this time to the  Pyrenees-Orientales, the easiest route would be following the Aude river south, but only a week previously there had been severe flooding along the Aude and we weren’t sure whether the roads were back open again. A bit of online research didn’t help us so we stuck with our original plan, hoping that any diversions would be clearly marked.

One of the things I find difficult to get my head around is the fact that the Aude river flows south to north. For someone who has mostly lived in the south of the UK this feels unnatural. As it drops out of the Pyrenees it carves gorges and gathers tributary mountain streams to contribute to it’s power. Just north of Carcassonne it bends east towards Narbonne, it’s Mediterranean destination.  

So we drove southwards with Carcassonne our destination. We stopped for lunch at Lac des Montagnes, a very attractive spot high in the hills. There was motorhome parking here and we were severely tempted to stop for the rest of the day, but after a walk around the lake we decided to move onwards.

Calm waters at the Lac des Montagnes

It was at Cuxac-Cabardes that we encountered diversion signs, sending us westwards off of the main road and via the very attractive village of Montolieu. Unfortunately I was too busy worrying about the signage to take pictures and enjoy more of this ‘Village of Books’, there were 3.5 tonne limits, one-way systems, narrow roads and bridges that made us slightly stressed as we tried to navigate our way through without ending up in some cobbled back street. We breathed a sigh of relief as we escaped out of the village, having ignored a 3.5 tonne limit in order to stay on the main thoroughfare.

We later realised that the reason for the diversion was the badly flooded village of Villegailhenc where sadly people had been killed by the highest floods since 1891. 

We approached Carcassonne intending to use the aire outside the municipal campsite, but I had read a recent review that it had been closed due to the flooding, and as we approached it we could see it was barriered and taped off. It looked unaffected by the flooding but I could understand the caution as it is on level ground near the river. We drove around the southern part of Carcassonne a couple of times looking for an alternative parking spot, but on-street parking doesn’t appeal to us so we ended up driving slightly out of the city to the Lac de Cavayère where there is parking (no services) near the lake and park. We had another little leg stretching walk and then settled down for a blessedly alcohol free evening.

If we both had working bikes we could have cycled a long the cycle track from here back to Carcassonne, but Paul’s bike was still out of action. So the following morning we decided to drive to the bus and motorhome parking on the outskirts of the medieval city of Carcassonne. You can park overnight for free (between 10pm and 8am) but at other times you have to pay, the first half hour is free, but then the price goes up in 30 minute increments. You take a ticket on entry and then pay before you leave at a machine that takes credit cards as well as cash. I can see why they charge for parking as entry to the city is necessarily free, so this is their way to recoup the cost of maintenance of the ancient and heavily visited city.

Walking into Europe’s larges walled city

We walked around the city, first of all taking the route between the two sets of city walls, an area known as ‘le lices’ where medieval knights would have trained. Parts of this area were blocked off, so we moved into the centre of the ‘cité’ where tourism abounds; restaurants, hotels and gift shops make up the majority of the buildings here. I wonder if anyone actually lives in the cité. We popped into the basilica to listen to the beautiful choral music that was being performed (‘you can buy a CD as you leave’) and generally wondered at the many towers and turrets of the citadel. It’s amazing to think that this city was once so derelict that it was recommended to be  demolished. It’s now so perfectly restored that it feels almost sterile and Disney-esque.

Towers and turrets
Art installation on the walls of the city – they were peeling off the yellow while we were there
City streets

However as we wandered around we found evidence that all was not well, the recent massive amount of rainfall had caused the collapse of a couple of small walls inside the cite, and had badly eroded some of the gravel paths through le lices and out to the town below. As we walked around the outside of the city, taking in views of the walls from below, we could see that parts of the mound that supports the city had been washed away. Workmen were busy shoring things up and making good. This is where our parking fees go.

Collapsed wall inside the city


Chiefs! Chiefs! Chiefs!

17/10/18 -20/10/18

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 Tribe, preparing for the march to the stadium.
Match day with Ted and Jen who babysat us through the experience
Castres fans at the stadium

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! 

Castres isn’t the most tourist centric town, but we did also do a bit of sightseeing. 





Snowy Border Crossings at the Hospice de France

14/10/18 – 16/10/18

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.

The notice explains when you can ascend and descend the road to the Hospice de France

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.

Donkeys scratching each other’s backs
Our parking spot for the night

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.

Rounded hills above the steep sided valley (as seen from our walk the following day)

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.

Snowy valley into 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.

Smile sin the snow

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.

So many zig zags on the steep ascent

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.

The lakes and refuge on the way to the Port de Venasque

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.

The narrow opening of the Port de Venasque from the French side

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.

The view down into the Spanish side of the pass

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.

The near and distant views on our return were awesome

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.

Good signposting on the walk
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


A Bicycle No More


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. 

Looking back down the valley
Looking up the valley, Vignemale in the distance

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 valley above the barrage, with views of glaciers and the multiple peaks of Vignemale
Starting to see some parked cars as we approach the barrage

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.

Distant views of the mountains surrounding the Cirque de Gavarnie

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).     

The road and track follow the Ossoue river which has carved interesting shapes into the limestone rocks

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.

A Trip to Another Cirque


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.

Some of the many switchbacks on the toll road

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.

Rocks scattered in the cirque, presumably deposited by the same glacial action that caused the cirque’s formation

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.

Looking back down the valley we ascended from Heas

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.

Meadows and lakes
The walls of the cirque are ice and snow clad after the recent wet weather
Another view of the walls of the cirque
And another

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.

The river running out of the cirque creates multiple waterfalls visible on the route down

A fantastic day, this is definitely in our top 5 walks so far in the Pyrenees so far.




Thwarted at 3000m


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.

Looking across the border with Spain
The deep valley at the start oft he walk.

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.

Our path took us up through this waterfall. Not as difficult as it might look though.

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.

Entering into the top of the Cirque de Garvarnie.

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.

My best picture of the Breche de Roland

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.

We shared our lunch with this cheeky Alpine Chough, Paul was able to hand feed it.
We finally caught sight of a marmot in the Pyrenees. They are a lot harder to see when there is no snow around!
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

A Birthday in Gavarnie

09/10/18 – 10/10/18

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.

A rare moment of brightness shows off Bertie’s parking spot

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.

Crossing one of the streams on the route up to the cirque

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.

The main track to the cirque has amazing views throughout
Crossing the river on the path back to the village

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.

The Grande Cascade drops over 400m to the floor of the cirque
Approaching the cirque from our outbound footpath

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.

Horses and Donkeys abound, with a trip to the cirque on horseback a quite reasonable 25 euros

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 rainbow over Gavarnie
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


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.


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


A Couple of Days in the Orlu Valley

20/09/18 – 21/09/18

We headed back downhill from the 3-Ax ski area to Ax-les-Thermes and parked in the same daytime parking spot as we did a couple of days ago. Here we wander around the town and manage to take in more than we did the first time round. It’s a pretty little town once you head away from the main road. We explore a few shops and pick up bread products for the next couple of days, steering clear of anything that’s too artisanal for Paul to chew (he does like a white fluffy bread). In the town square there is a small food market but the thing that attracts me the most is the thermal pool where people are soaking their feet in the thermal waters that give the town it’s name. 

Free thermal foot spa

From town we head out on a smallish road that takes us to the Orlu valley. Our research has given us two possible parking spots. The lower one near the Forges d’Orlu where there are a few tourist attractions and the higher one up at le Fanguil. The road to the higher area looks narrow and so we decide to park in the large lower area and cycle up to le Fanguil to see what it’s like.

We cycle up the road to the higher parking area which is more open aspected. I would prefer to park here, but Paul is not happy to drive it; the herders are moving their sheep and cattle down the mountain and he doesn’t want to get in their way. As we’re not going to drive up we decide that we will cycle as far as we can up the valley. The ongoing path leads to a mountain refuge at the Etangs d’en Beys and starts as a wide track. We cycle steadily up the track which is a bit rocky under our wheels but not too difficult. At one point we are over taken by a man on an electric bike and in turn we over take several walkers including a large group of teenagers on some sort of school outing.

We don’t make it as far as the refuge but we do make it to the end of the track where the footpath branches off over the river. Here we rest and have a drink before we turn around and make our bone shaking descent. I realise that my uphill cycling muscles need some work as I am completely shattered by the time we get back.

Cycling back down the track
Views of the Dent d’Orlu from the valley
Cows being driven down the road

We stay the night in the lower carpark which has the benefit of a toilet block but no other motorhome services. We have a look around the small national park centre and admire the adventure playground where another, younger, school group are having a fab time. There is a wolf sanctuary here but it is not open, we don’t know if there are wolves in situ, but the next morning we hear howling and assume they must be, what a shame it was closed.

The following morning we take the walk up to the Etang de Naguille. It’s a steep walk through woodland at first following the stream up along damp and ferny paths. We see a lot of fungi and frogs, plus one large toad that hops lethargically out of the path in front of us.

…and Toad

We slowly emerge from the woodland onto the open mountainside. There is a large dam across the lake which feeds the EDF power station in the valley below and we have to climb up a broken concrete ramp to one side of the dam as the original path, which zig-zagged across this ramp, is closed. It’s a stiff old climb but once we are at the top we are rewarded with the view of the lake stretching in front of us, it’s calm waters reflecting the surrounding mountains. Although we had planned to climb higher to the next set of lakes we decide this is a fitting climax to our first mountain walk in the Pyrenees and we decide to turn back. We are exhausted and we can already tell that our legs will be tight and sore the following day.

Cable car used for transporting equipment up to the dam.
View of the dam from below
The lake, and the end point of our walk

We drive back down to Ax-les-Thermes that afternoon. There are two aires in the town and one of them is next to the municipal swimming pool. We time our arrival before the swimming pool shuts which means that we can actually get in the aire and we can use the showers. It’s €5 euros for the night and the showers don’t look like much but they are hot and powerful. The women’s changing rooms are locked so I sneak into the men’s. Paul and I are in adjacent cubicles making sounds of pleasure as the hot water soothes our aching muscles. I just hope no one walks in as it probably sounds a bit dodgy.

Cycle the Orlu Valley
  • Distance: 18.1 km
  • Total Elevation: 602 m
  • Time taken: 2hrs 56mins
  • Type of Route: Easy off road cycle on wide but stony tracks
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7
Walk to the Etang de Naguille
  • Distance: 10.18 km
  • Total Elevation: 1109 m
  • Time taken: 5hrs 44mins
  • Type of Route: Moderate walk along well marked tracks with steep sections
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7


Stretching our Legs


We feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep and wake to find that the skies are blue and any signs of the previous night’s thunder and rain have been swept away. While we have our breakfast we watch several coaches roll up and pick people up from the hotel opposite us. Despite the ski resort being almost empty this hotel seems to do a roaring trade with coach parties, that evening another four coach-loads turn up. From our vantage point it’s an ugly concrete monstrosity, but from the other side you can see a generous restaurant terrace and balconies that look across the valley to the mountains on the other side. The only other thing that’s open is the Immobilier and when we wander around the streets we see the estate agent showing people around one of the chalets that is for sale.

Near the lift station is a map of walks in the area, none of them are particularly long but we decide to follow the blue trail to the top of the lift and then the orange trail back down again. The trails are marked with splodges of coloured paint and we follow them up a track through the woodlands. Part way along the track a maintenance vehicle pulls alongside us and lets us know (in good English, fortunately) that the route to the top is shut as they are building a new ski lift. He advises us to follow the purple route back down to the ski resort, so we skirt the muddy edge of the work site until we can turn left down another track.

As we head downhill the track is less churned up by the works vehicles. A small stream runs under a clapper bridge and the floor of the largely coniferous woodland is sprinkled with interesting fungi. Information boards are placed at regular intervals along here informing us of the types of trees that we can see. Where the trees part and views emerge there is information about the peaks and valleys. It makes a rather average walk a bit more interesting.

Clapper bridge over the stream
A row of Fly Agaric mushrooms

We devote the afternoon to cleaning. It’s not like us, but Paul had picked up some polish in Halfords and wanted to see what sort of difference it made to the exterior paintwork. He is so pleased with the result that he gets rather over excited and spends a few hours buffing Bertie. I feel too guilty to just laze in the sunshine so I do a bit of cleaning in between studying maps and deciding how we will spend the next few days.

Bertie getting a rub down

That evening we stay for a second night and watch the comings and goings of the coach loads of tourists as we discuss various options for parking spots over the coming days. Paul’s priority is clear – stay as high as possible – the sun and warm weather looks like it’s around for at least the next week.          

Randonnee des 3 Jasses et Campels

  • Distance: 8.3 km
  • Total Elevation: 297 m
  • Time taken: 2hrs 16mins
  • Type of Route: Easy walk along well marked tracks
  • Further Information: From tourist information in the 3-Ax Ski area