The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Sunday 31 July 2016

Day 20 - Amelie-les-Bains-Palalda to Argelès-sur-Mer

Sunday 31 July
23 miles
Overcast start, then sunny, then rain last 2 hours (comedy rain at times)

Last night's hotel was so nice that consideration was given to extending our stay and having a slackpacking day today (i.e. going baglessly) , returning via bus later. The Sunday issue was what ruled that plan out. There are only two busses on a Sunday afternoon, thus we assessed the potential for error as being too great (bags in one place, us in another = not good). So, we duly packed up and made tracks in the relative cool of the morning.

There was nothing remotely exciting about today, but we were impressed to have covered the distance we did with only about a quarter of a mile being on a busy road (and that was on arrival in Argelès).

From Amelie to Le Boulou a 'Voie Verte' cycle way lay largely along the line of an old railway. Yes, it was concrete underfoot, which is one of my lowest choices for walking surface, but being traffic-free was a bonus I hadn't expected when we rerouted away from the GR10. Even when the way took on roads they were quiet back streets, on which barely a car was seen.

We'd been hoping for a coffee break in Ceret, but we weren't routed via a bar or restaurant, so after second breakfast on a shaded bench on we went to the next village: St Jean Pla de Corts. There we found a bakery-come-tea-shop doing a roaring trade. We added our custom and had such a long break that we had not just elevenses but second elevenses too.

At Le Boulou we saw no reason to go into the town, so left the Voie Verte just before it ended, to cross the river and (we thought) to pick up some minor roads to take us towards Argelès-sur-Mer. With our water bottles depleted and no handy source of water presenting itself (a communal tap/fountain or a shop) I nipped into a Pizza place (masquerading as a plant shop), got our bottles filled and bought a couple of cans of pop. The latter turned out to be the lifesaver as the water we'd been given tasted really unpleasant, even with a hydration pill popped into it.

My aim today had been to reach a town about 10km from the coast, through which we would have walked per my plotted route. However, having crossed the river what did we find but another cycle route sign, this one pointing to our ultimate destination.

With the wonders of technology, a minute later I had a gpx file for that route downloaded from Wikiloc. It seems that the D618 (as shown on my maps) has been upgraded to the A9, and a cycle route created parallel to it. It was 18km along that route to the edge of Argelès, which seemed achievable before the day was out.

By lunchtime we were sufficiently confident of making it all the way that as we lunched in the shade of a large tree (it was 33 degrees in the sun at the time) I booked a hotel in Argelès.

The afternoon saw us take one detour. The water from the pizza place was so minging that we nipped the half-kilometre off route into St Genis des Fontaines, where a mini-supermarket provided us with water and more pop.

A while before that detour, rumbling had been heard and a glance over our shoulders had shown a big dark storm behind us. Our optimism that it was going to miss us soon proved false, whereupon the disposable ponchos came into play again. What fantastic things they are, considering they cost nothing, weigh 50g and have kept us (and our packs) dry during two half days of rain.

The rain lasted the whole of the rest of the day, bar about 5 minutes (the only other break we had all day; it was cut short when the next storm hustled in). Some of that rain was comedy bouncing rain.

Eventually we reached Argelès, where people did laugh at our ridiculous appearances (the ponchos may be very functional, but they're not really an 'in town' look) but we cared not as we strode on towards our accommodation.

Our walk isn't quite over. We still have just under a mile to go to reach the sea. That's what we'll do first thing in the morning, before jumping on a train to Toulouse. Thanks to today's long day, we now have a bonus day to be tourists in Toulouse.

The second of two adjacent lakes we passed today was fitted with an aerial waterskiing pull wire, and jumps. The set up was a bit inconvenient for anyone falling over (we saw a couple) who had to swim their way out of the lake to get back to the start.

Saturday 30 July 2016

Day 19 - Arles-sur-Tech to Amelie-les-Bains

Saturday 30 July
3.5, maybe 4 miles
Overcast whilst walking

Whilst sitting in the outdoor dining area of our hotel last night, under a hugely impressive climbing-vine-of-some-description living canopy, it started to thunder and to rain with quite a vengeance. The canopy was so impressive that even in the downpour we only got a few drips through. As far as we could see, all of the other diners' tables remained dry.

The rain didn't do much to clear the air, so it was hot for sleeping. On the plus side, all of the laundered clothes dried in double-quick time.

As indicated by my last post, this morning didn't start well. My head was very poorly and I was rather attached to the lavatory (poor Mick got thrown out of the bathroom mid-shower, banished dripping to the bedroom), but in the world of silver linings, at least we'd had an unscheduled en-suite hotel last night. There are much worse places to get the raging squits*!

Breakfast at our hotel (Les Glycines) this morning was by far the most comprehensive spread we've seen this trip or last. It was just a shame that I didn't feel inclined to partake in more than a couple of bits of bread and jam and a croissant. Mick made more of it with hard boiled eggs, ham and cheese. Yoghurt and various fruits were on offer too, along with freshly squeezed orange juice. I may not have eaten much but I think I nearly finished the flask of hot water singlehandedly, with multiple cups of tea from the wide selection available.

It was tempting to stay put another night, so I could (hopefully) take better advantage of the breakfast tomorrow, but at the same time I felt like risking the short walk down the valley to Amelie-les-Bains-Palalda. The wonders of t'internet soon had us a reservation at a hotel a little way beyond the town.

Trying to strike a balance between leaving Arles as late as possible (so as to allow the tummy as much time as possible to right itself before we went) and leaving before it got too hot, we found ourselves on Amelie by 11am so paused in the town for coffee/fizzy water (Mick/me), and to buy a road map. The displays in the town told us it was 27 degrees, but with cloud cover and a good breeze it felt a pleasant temperature, unlike yesterday (which was 34 degrees, sunny and still).

It was as we sat at the pavement cafe that I did a bit of Googling and came up with information on a cycle path which runs from Arles to within 18km of the coast. A visit to wikiloc got me a gpx file and a visit to the Tourist Office got me an information leaflet and a (just in case) bus timetable. Armed with a more firm plan, onwards to our hotel we went, arriving just after noon to be told that we couldn’t access our room until 4 (harrumph - no mention of that policy when I booked).

"Not a problem" we said (whilst thinking that 4pm is a late check-in time for a proper hotel) "we'll just sit in your lounge area for a few hours." We did consider going back out to walk further east, catching a bus back later, and we'd just come up with a sensibly-sized section to tackle so as to tie up with the bus times, when I realised that it's Sunday tomorrow, meaning that the options for the return bus in the morning would be 5.30am or 9.45am (aka too early or too late). With the prospect of more walking scuppered, we sat around some more until at 1pm they must have decided that we were making the place untidy, as suddenly our room was available.

It's a contrast to yesterday’s dated accommodation (although it's apparent that Les Glycines is making an effort and going through a programme of modernisation; the public areas are all smart), the room here is very fresh, modern and well-presented (with plenty of plug sockets - and a fan, even if not aircon) with premium toiletries. Yep, we'll be happy here tonight before (hopefully) moving significantly eastwards tomorrow.

(*not the 'raging squids' as my phone's autocorrect wanted that to be - that'd be a whole different predicament!)

No photos today, but have a handful taken last Sunday, but not posted at the time due to lack of a good phone signal:

Help! Plea for Re-routing Assistance

UPDATE: I think I have the outline of a plan, which looks mainly sensible when viewed on the screen of my phone. We'll be moving just down the road to Amelie les Bains this afternoon, where I'll hopefully be able to buy a suitable map.

I think I jinxed us by booking flights home and saying that all we need to do now was to finish on schedule. It didn't seem that outlandish a thing to do with only around 45 miles remaining and 3 days in which to do it.

Then I woke up at 4.30 this morning with a massive headache and a tummy ache. It is now apparent that I won't be doing any significant walking today. As I have no interest in the challenge of doing 45 miles with lots of ascent in 2 days that means we won't be completing our Pyrenean route this year.

However, it does seem achievable (provided I'm back to full fitness tomorrow) to still achieve the completion of 'coast-to-coast across France'*. So, the question for anyone who would care to answer (and who has access to mapping on a screen bigger than 5") is what is the best looking direct route to the coast from Arles-sur-Tech? I acknowledge it'll likely be road walking all/almost all the way.

(*with a little bit of a detour to Spain every now and then)

Friday 29 July 2016

Day 18 Col de Cirère to Arles-sur-Tech

Friday 29 July
8 or so miles, almost no ascent
Wall-to-wall sunshine and hot with it.

Our pitch last night was a good one:

And when I nipped out to use the en-suite at ten to ten, this was how the view looked over to the west:

Unfortunately we weren't quite positioned so that the sun got to us before 7.30 this morning, thus the first we felt of its rays was as we descended the eroded, plates-of-ball-bearings path down to Batère. There we found that there is now an Aire de Bivouac about a minute before the gite, so rather than Mick backtracking for water yesterday evening we could have gone down there, had a meal at the gite and camped. We would have missed out on an excellent high camp, though, so there was no kicking ourselves.

Down was the theme of the morning (1500m of it), with just a couple of gentle ups thrown in for good measure. First there were eroded paths where many a slip (but no falls) were had, then came the overgrown paths, then the eroded and overgrown, then we were largely on forest tracks. Suddenly the surroundings had changed too - the lush greenery had been replaced by much more arid looking terrain.

By the time we reached Arles-sur-Tech it was HOT. Up there with the temperatures we experienced for the first week out of Hendaye last year, but of which we have only so far had one brief glimpse this year. We're not accustomed to hot, and the rest of the day was to be uphill.

Sitting on a bench in the shade just across the road from the town’s Spar supermarket, where we were to restock, I did a bit of Internet research on flights home next week and whilst I was at it I looked at what accommodation was available nearby. The one hotel in Arles had one room remaining. It doesn't have great reviews, but it was conveniently located, so in we fell, declaring ourselves as having a half day.

Plugging my phone in to charge was the first priority (search the plug socket - one was finally located up by the wall-mounted TV), showering was next and clothes washing came third. Seven changes of water for the socks and still it was mud coloured.

An hotel room last updated in around 1932, with a single plug socket retrofitted (via surface trunking) for the recent addition of a TV)

Food has been bought for our last leg of this trip. A paper map has not been bought (we're almost off the edge of No 10 and that's the only one I can find in town). Flights home have been booked, as has an hotel in Toulouse. All we need to do now is to finish the walk on schedule...

(Incidentally, today I finally found the bag of soap flakes that I've been carrying for the last 18 days. I knew I'd packed them and it seemed ridiculous that they could hide so long in a 46 litre pack, but it took until today to locate them, masquerading as a bag of toilet paper.)

Day 17 - Cabane Arago to Col de la Cirère

Thursday 28 July
? Miles, 950m?
Wall-to-wall sunshine to start, clouding early afternoon, clearing towards evening

Whilst last night's pitch has to be up in our top five worst ever, with the judicious use of clothing to level out my Thermarest, I had a good night's sleep and thus was raring to go with our ascent of Canigou this morning.

We had the path to ourselves as we set out just after 7am and we remained on our lonesomes as we made our way up the easy path then, latterly, up the nasty eroded shaley bit, just before the scramble. By then a group was making its way down and one of them remarked that it was easier for us going up than it was for them coming down. I don't doubt that assessment for a minute; going up it was an easy scramble, but I wouldn't have fancied reversing it - particularly the very top part.

Arriving a couple of minutes before 9am, we then spent over half an hour on the summit, where it was warm enough to stand around with just a fleece on (although I did don my gloves for the descent*). There had been a flurry of activity just after we arrived, but by the time we left we had the place to ourselves.

When Mick saw the sideways on version of this photo he said "Oh my god, I'm skin and bone". He wouldn't let me post that version.

Things didn't stay quiet all the way down. We knew this was a popular hill and our final hour down to Chalet-Refuge des Cortalets was against a continuous train of people. Much bonjouring was done.

Having been on the lookout for a scabby dog to eat (despite having already had breakfast, second breakfast and elevenses by 9.30) we were hoping we might be able to get some real food at Cortalets.

We were excited, upon entering to see croissants on the bar, and were even more excited when the chef said he would make us omelette, even though they didn't officially start serving food until 12.30 (it wasn't even 11 yet). The peak of excitement was when the omelettes came with large salads.

croissant starters

delighted with our omelette and salad brunch

Feeling much better, on we went for the GR10 variant recommended by both the GR10 and the HRP guidebooks. It was a nice path too, taking us past some plane wreckage (about which no information was given)...

...and then onto the Balcon de Canigou. The latter path is one of those which hugs the side of the valley, often being a feat of engineering, following the valley all the way to its head and then around the other side.

If you click on this photo to see it full size, you should be able to make out the line of the path as it gently ascends the whole way across the side of the valley

Finally descending to the Maison Forestière de l'Estagnole (a house in the forest, half of which has been converted to a bothy), our water bottles were replenished at the source there and we gave a little consideration to spending the night before deciding it was a nice day to spend the night on the col. Rather than carrying water the whole way, I identified two streams higher up the hill that we would pass. The first was a good one, the second seasonal at the level of the path, but a good one about 20 metres lower down. As almost every seasonal stream has been running, excepting only a few when we have been in need of water (hmmm, that should have been our clue...), we banked on the one nearest to the pass. I'm now sitting at that stream typing this, unable to hear any evidence of water even further down the hill, whilst Mick is making the half hour detour back to the previous good stream. Once again proof that water is always running, except when you need it. We found the exact same thing last year too.

I just hope now that: a) there's not a spring around the corner; and b) there's somewhere good to pitch on the col... hour later and we have a pitch on the col which is as good as last night's was bad. And we didn't pass any water on the way up here, so we're happy campers - with exceptional views both to the north and the south.

(*Incidentally, Conrad in a comment mentioned us getting into the Med climate by now. On the contrary, the last few mornings have seen us setting out in fleeces, wind shirts, hats and gloves, although it has been getting quite warm in the afternoons.)

Thursday 28 July 2016

Day 16 - Refuge Ulldeter to Cabane Arago

Wednesday 27 July
15.5 miles?, 1000m ascent
Wall-to-wall sunshine to start, variable low cloud in the middle, mainly sunny finish

There I was, lying in bed this morning, when Mick got up, packed his bag and left me!

His disgruntled tummy is a lot better than it was the first week, but he's still struggling with eating sugary cereal for breakfast (granola is our standard start to the day) so whilst I reduced the weight of my food bag, Mick left me to decamp and nipped off to the refuge for his breakfast.

A while later I joined him for a cup of tea (alas, their breakfast teabags weren't the same premium ones as they served me yesterday) and a while after that we made tracks, down to a car park, up the road to another car park then behind a big ski-centre building to find the path running behind it, which would lead us up to a pass.

The view back to where we were yesterday

Thankfully my legs and head were back on the right agenda today, the climb was shaded and the views back whence we had come magnificent (last night's pitch really was in a spectacular location), so it was a happy and easy ascent. From the top, the route spent the next few miles undulating very gently, and pleasingly, across plateaus and around some nice rugged protrusions.

About 2 hours into our day I'm not sure whether cloud developed or whether we just walked into it, but it was clinging to the south side of the ridge and occasionally spilling over to the north side, where we were walking. Within the blink of an eye we were going from appalling visibility to clear sunshine and back again as it drifted around:

The best conditions were when the sun was hidden but we still had views to the north and could see where we were going (it was warm anyway; with the sun out the whole time it would have been uncomfortably hot).

Visibility had been severely reduced for about half an hour, without a glimpse of brightness, when we reached the point where we needed to turn to start our descent. We saw the "turn" waymarker, but had to take a bearing to find out in which direction to head - I'm not sure whether that's the first time we've had to take a bearing this trip, but it's certainly been a rarity. Our navigation skills weren't tested for long - within seconds we were in bright sunshine again. The cloud remained up on the ridge, but we were now walking away from it.

We'd intended descending to a less fly-plagued, and more shady area, for second lunch, but seeing a berger nearby with his phone out I followed suit and declared the break so that I could send yesterday's blog (I actually had a good signal in two other places today, but couldn't get any data signal in either).

Half way through yesterday morning my new shoes lost their stiff newness and have been perfectly okay, except that when it's warm the membrane makes me feel like I've got my feet in a sauna. I made it half way down this warm descent before declaring that I could take it no more; the greater weight of the new shoes went into my bag and my lovely holey old shoes came out. What relief!

Reaching Refuge de Mariailles at 3pm we weren't enamoured with the thought of camping nearby (clang clang clang went the cow bells), but we stopped by for a bottle of pop apiece before deciding to head a couple of miles further on in the hope of finding a pitch there.

It was another delightfully easy ascending path, but our earmarked place only yielded one potential pitch and that was strewn with toilet paper and human waste (hey, at least these people had stepped off the path to take a dump! So many don't). The obvious alternative location for a pitch was about a kilometre up the path to Pic de Canigou. The problem with that was Mick's preference was not to include Canigou in our route (the GR10 goes around, albeit with only 100m less ascent). Without any obvious alternatives leaping out at us (and bearing in mind it was now 5pm), Mick decided Canigou was a goer after all.

There were plenty of other tents already pitched when we got here, so we didn't get the pick of the spots. Even so, I don't think we chose well. This is one of the worst pitches we've ever had (slopey and lumpy).

On the bright side, with plentiful water from the nearby spring and with the evening being warm, we've taken it in turns to pour water over each other's heads and thus we are now delighting in having clean hair for the first time since Merens-les-Vals.

(Other incidents of the day:
1: we fell off the paper map. Can't believe, when in an outdoor shop the other day, buying shoes, I forgot to buy the next map. We can manage with electronic maps but I prefer paper to see the big picture.
2: I set fire to my hanky today!)

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Day 15 - Orri de Baix to Refuge d'Ull de Ter (or Ulldeter)

Tuesday 26 July
10 Miles; 1400m ascent
Wall-to-wall sunshine to start, clouding in by lunchtime

Neither the cows nor the horses came down the valley to clang their bells outside of our tent last night. As such, the only disturbance was at 1am when I leapt out of bed, squealing like a girl, rather alarming Mick in the process. After a search of the tent, the cause of my alarm was found - a huge moth had decided to get into bed with me!

Unfortunately, even though I slept very well for the rest of the night, today has been dominated, and to an extent spoilt, by an excess of tiredness on my part.

An easy hour after setting off we reached Pla de la Berguda, where Martin ( had camped on his GR10 walk, and to where we had contemplated continuing last night.

To where we should have headed last night

Our opinion on getting there this morning was that it would have been worth the effort of the extra distance and ascent yesterday. We paused for a prolonged aquafaff there. It was the first of no fewer than 8 pack-off breaks today.

From there we completed our nearly- 700m ascent onto the ridge, with quite a pull up. That gave the first real indication that my legs and head did not want to play ball today. That was a shame as even through my fog of weariness I could appreciate that the ridge walk from there, which topped out at 2861m and stayed within a couple of hundred of metres of that altitude for its duration, was spectacular.

Moreover, under this morning's clear blue skies:

selfie at the day's highpoint (Mick was off somewhere inspecting (or watering) some grass

Looking back to our high point, from where the 200m descent down which we'd just come looked bigger than it had felt

Looking north from the ridge, just before Pic de la Vaca

Dropping down off the ridge into Spain, I really was ready for the day to be over, so it was a blow to find we still had another ascent. The profile in the Cicerone guide had made it look like it was all downhill from the Coll de Tirapits, although if I'd bothered looking at the paper map it would have been obvious that there was another climb - and that it really was a lot smaller than it looked.

Lunch was had just before that climb and it took great willpower not to insist on pitching the tent right there. We didn't have far to go though, so on I plodded.

We nearly stopped for the day about five or ten minutes short of the refuge, where there was a flat spot and running water, but peeking over the edge of the step in the hillside it looked like there was campable land down by the refuge, so on we went.

Refreshments were had in the refuge but they confirmed that they have no Aire de Bivouac. "You can camp" they said "as long as we can't see you." A spot had been spied by the stream just slightly back up the hill, so that's where we now are (in fact I'd nearly stopped here on our first pass, before deciding that the refuge was so close that I could manage the short out-and-back - a good decision as the cup of tea I was served there was excellent).

Here’s hoping that the energy levels have returned by tomorrow.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Day 14 - 2 miles before Lac de Bouillouses to Orri de Baix (Eyne valley)

Monday 25 July
16 miles (ish), 500m ascent
Wall-to-wall sunshine much of day, clouding as evening came around.

It's been an eventful day - although not in terms of the walking.

It started just before 6 this morning when I very nearly brought our trip to a premature and somewhat catastrophic end. Breaking two of the cardinal rules of using a backpacking stove, I not only set it up within falling-reach of tent fabric, but I also turned my back on it.

It was as I was furtling in my food bag that a shout from Mick alerted me to the flames next to me and with much repetition of a naughty word, the stove was removed and extinguished. I think it was sheer luck that the pan of water doused the same bit of tent fabric as where the stove head came to rest, and I must have avoided melting a hole in my Thermarest by millimetres. Happily, a miss is as good as a mile and a minute later, having established that the only damage was a 3cm slit burnt into the bathtub part of the tent floor, I had a fresh pan of water on to boil. There was also a bit of mopping, but as I so nearly demonstrated, there are far worse things than that can happen than having a pan of water dumped in the tent first thing in the morning.

With our mission to get to the post office in Bolquère before it closed for lunch, we kept up a very good speed as we went past Lac de Bouillouses...

...knowing when we were getting close to the hotels and car parks by the number of day walkers coming towards us. An even faster pace was kept from there to Pyrenees 2000 (odd name for a place), as, save for a few short eroded stony sections, we were mainly on good fast tracks.

It was as we approached Pyrenees 2000 that I realised that I'd sent our parcel to the 'wrong' post office. That is to say, I realised that the PO mentioned in the Cicerone guide wasn't the one I'd used, and that the Cicerone-mentioned one was closer to the route. Ours was only about a 10 minute detour, and had other benefits, so it wasn't really a problem ... except that when we got there our parcel wasn't there. I'd identified it as being for a GR10 walker, and they'd thought "she's sent this to the wrong place" so they forwarded it on down the road to where they thought I wanted it. That was all very well, but we weren't going to make it down there before they closed for lunch.

There were some things to distract us in the meantime though. The advantage of going to Bolquère via Pyrenees 2000 was that it also took us past a sports shop and a big supermarket.

I managed to get new shoes in the sports shop, opting for the best fitting of their selection (of unknown brands) they had in my size. They're cheap and pink and (horror) have a waterproof membrane (urgh!), but they have a good sole and no holes in the uppers, so hopefully they'll prove serviceable for the final 100 miles.

It was with some distress that just around the next corner was another sports shop which didn't just have my first choice of footwear make and model, but my second choice too. It was too late by then, though, so down to the supermarket I sulked.

Supplies bought, a picnic lunch was had on the concrete outside the entrance where, just as we were finishing up, a man came over and said that he had a table and chairs in his garden and we could eat there if we liked. How nice (even if we did decline)!

Moving on, we arrived at the next post office only ten minutes before they reopened, so I took the opportunity to tape one of my toes. This didn’t bode well for the new shoes. By the end of the day both big and both little toes were taped. Admittedly, spending a few miles on tarmac probably didn't give the best 'wearing in' conditions.

There was no way I was going to ditch my old shoes with the unknown entity of my new shoes (if only I'd found the Salomon and La Sportiva vendor first; I would have had confidence in either of those), so I now had three pairs of shoes, including my mock-crocs so something had to give. As we packed away the new batch of evening meals*, the mock-crocs had to give way for food. It was a sad moment, binning them - they've been on almost every backpacking trip with me since Land's End to John o'Groats in 2008.

With our bags now heavy with 4 days' food (very heavy, I thought but maybe it was just because it had been so light this morning (see Footnote 2), we had a decision to make: to continue on the GR10 or to pop onto the HRP for a couple of days. The HRP won and off down the road to Eyne we went (as instructed by the Cicerone guide; I realised too late that there’s an off-road alternative shown on the map).

Our objective was to make it up to 2000m, as the guidebook tells us that an overnight camp is permitted beyond that point. The signs don't indicate that is so, so we're currently sitting waiting for the day walkers to clear off so that we can pitch (in fact the only signage near here tells us to be very careful of the cows. We can't see or hear them, although evidence is all around, so we hope they stay wherever they are for the night).

There’s been another marmot sighting whilst we've been sitting here. A loud whistle/squeak drew our attention, and there it was, standing on its hind legs on prominent rock just across the river.

Well, I think the time has come to pitch the tent...

*we posted ahead homemade evening meals this year, having established last year that I can't bear consecutive days of soup/pasta/rice/fish (as the lightweight choice available in supermarkets/local shops). I'd forgotten that I'd also thrown a big bag of mixed nuts into this parcel. Had I remembered I wouldn't have bought so many nuts in the supermarket. Of course, if the post office had believed the address I'd written on the label was the one I meant, then I'd have known what was in the parcel before we got to the shop.
2 the quarter kilo of jelly sweets won't have helped. These are fruit flavoured. The last lot were a bit surprising, with the green ones being menthol and eucalyptus - a flavour which, in my opinion, has no place in a bag of sweets that look like fruit pastilles.

Monday 25 July 2016

Day 13 - Merens-les-Vals to 2 miles before Lac de Bouillouses

Sunday 24 July
13 miles, 1950m ascent
Sunny intervals clearing to mainly sunshine by mid afternoon, with a breeze making it a nice walking temperature.

What a fantastic day that was! The only thing about it I can fault was the not-even-lukewarm cup of tea I was served at Refuge des Bésines. Surprisingly it was an easy day too - not something I expected of a day with just shy of 2000m (or 6600' in old money) of ascent.

Our initial climb this morning was 1200m over the course of around 5 miles, so aside from one relatively short steepish section, it was a pleasant gradient. Past hot sulphur springs we went (we resisted stripping off for a dip as it was so early in our day) before leaving the trees behind and making our way up a lovely green valley, a little way above the gushing stream.

The surroundings at the top of that climb were first class, and the views back were excellent too. We were happy walkers.

Yellow Trouser Man (who we now know to be called Quentin) arrived at the Gite yesterday afternoon and overtook us shortly after one of our many faffs this morning. We caught him again just as we got to the refuge (which is the end of the day per the itinerary in the Cicerone guide) and we all agreed we were surprised at quite how quickly we had got up there, given the timings in the books and on the signposts.

A good long break was had, then Yellow Trouser Man went off in a different direction for an alternative route and we proceeded via yet more stops (aquafaff, lunch). Lunch, incidentally, was the only time today that I encountered a horsefly. I think the cool morning had kept them at bay. It was also the first time this trip that we saw marmots. Two frollicked on rocks in front of us for most of our break.

I think photos are needed to show quite how spectacular our surroundings were in all directions, as we climbed up to another pass. It was a high photo count today. Very high, by my usual standards. You'll have to wait for those photos though, as I'm going to see if I can get this to transmit on the weak phone signal I have here; it certainly won't send with photos attached.

Instead of getting the map out we played "guess the location of the next pass" as we made our way down to a reservoir that is very low on water at the moment. There we overtook Front Pouch Woman (who we only sighted for the first time at the refuge this morning; it turns out it's her first day of a short trip) but she caught us as we paused for a break at Cabane Rouze. With incredible timing, considering our different routes, Yellow Trouser Man had just arrived there too, but our paths were immediately to diverge again as he had opted to go over the striking Pic Carlit whereas we were staying on the GR10.

One final pass featured in our day and even though it looked to be high above us as we stood by the reservoir, it was only the 150m climb that the map told us it would be. A large pack of scouts were coming down, in fine voice, as we ascended.

Our objective for the day was to stop anywhere on this side of the pass, but the lake at the top was rejected for its pack of grazing horses. We then proceeded to take so much time in detours in trying to choose a pitch that it probably would have been almost as quick to walk down to the refuge and hotels at the far end of Lac Bouillouses. But we've just had two consecutive nights indoors, so we did finally settle on a pitch on the riverbank, with a fine view.

Tomorrow we'll be aiming for an early start so as to catch the post office and shops in Bolquère before they close for lunch. Then a decision is to be made: to proceed on the GR10 or to take to the HRP for a couple of days.

Saturday 23 July 2016

Rest Day - Ax-les-Thermes and Merens-les-Vals

Saturday 23 July
GR10 distance: 0.5 miles

We're on the train back to Merens and I'm wondering if I can get something typed and posted before I lose the 3G signal. Or maybe the brief 3G signal I had at Merens station yesterday will exist in a more permanent form up at the gite. Or maybe the gite will have wifi. Or maybe this won't get posted for another couple of days.

As we head back to Merens we're thinking that we should have stayed two nights in Ax. It looked a good place for a full day off, particularly as it was market day today, but the gite at Merens has come so highly recommended we've opted to head back there today (I do hope we have a reservation. Phone conversations conducted entirely in French have so much room for error!).

Whilst most of our time in Ax was spent in our room (by virtue of arriving late and leaving just after noon), we did get some useful stuff done this morning. A bit of food resupply was done (not much because we ate out so much on the last leg, and did it a day faster than intended, so we still had quite a bit of food). The pole tip which Mick broke on Day 2 was not just replaced but the chap in the shop fitted it and then tried to wave off any payment for the tip, a new mud basket and the fitting. Mick has also come away with a new set of gel insoles which he'll cut up later (he has 1/2 length orthotics, so just needs the front bit of some ordinary insoles. The one's he's currently using are rather worn). I didn't come away with a new pair of shoes; the only ones I liked the look of were two narrow, even when sizing up significantly. The man in that shop was horrified that I was walking across the Pyrenees in slippers (although, apparently they would have been fine if I'd been doing the route in 16 days as part of the Trans-Pyrenees event (insert puzzled emoticon)).

(And that is as far as I got on the train. It's really not far from Ax to Merens. The gite does, however, have wifi.)

It is now mid-afternoon. We arrived at the gite just after half past one, whereupon we did as we have done more than once over the last week: despite having food in our bags for lunch today, we succumbed to the menu at the gite. We didn't need more than a main course, but then someone behind us got served one of these...

...and who can resist flan? Particularly when it's an enormous serving and comes with two mini chocolate fondants?

There will now be much sitting around this afternoon, in this fabulous building in a gorgeous setting. Tomorrow walking will resume.

Day 11 - after Col de Finestres to Merens les Vals

Friday 22 July
11 miles-ish, 900m up-ish and about 2000m down
Awful miserable start, then a few hours of sunny intervals before clouding in and raining again

Part one of Day 11 (already posted separately) saw us walk in the rain and awful visibility to Refuge Ruhle, where we holed up for second breakfast with a pack of ultra-runners taking part in the Trans-Pyrenees event.

After the best part of 2 hours of eating, drinking and chatting the cloud had lifted and there were signs of brightness so a move was made. Another heavy shower and more thunder as we put our wet things back on (always unpleasant) made us question whether we should have stayed for another coffee, but the runner to whom we had been chatting had a more optimistic outlook: "rain and hail is not bad" he said "it cools the muscles down". He was shivering as he said it too.

Happily after just one final shower, the day did finally brighten and the views were incredible. Here's the view looking back across the boulder fields we had just crossed, pausing often to step aside to let Trans-Pyrenees people pass:

Lunch was had in the sunshine just 100m below the high point of the day, and of the trip so far, which stood at 2439m.

The views down the other side, where we were to descend seemingly forever, were good too:

After a big a gap in competitors, many more pauses were had on our descent to allow more racers by (not that any of them was moving quickly - that was a steep ascent for them). It was down here that I finally twigged that at the top of their race numbers (worn, by most, on the back of their backpacks) was stated their name and nationality. We also observed that the majority wore Hoka OneOne shoes.

It was half past four by time we reached Merens, whose village fete (involving some very loud and bad music) is this weekend. We had just missed the bus and arrived at the station to find that we had an hour and a half to wait for a train to take us to Ax les Thermes. Assuming that there would be no double room available at the gite on the Friday of the village fete, and in the absence of any other accommodation, we had opted to nip along the valley to Ax (which, moreover, would also give me the opportunity to look for a new pair of shoes* as Ax has sports shops whereas Merens does not). We didn't really want to arrive in Ax at approaching 6.30pm and have to start looking for somewhere to stay, but with assistance from Scotland and eventually finding that we could buy some internet access on a local wifi network (the phone signal not being good enough to be useful for Internet browsing), a room was booked. The rest of the wait for the train passed quickly chatting to Mary, one of the British duo from the Gite in Goulier, whose week in the Pyrenees has come to an end.

Things did not go smoothly on arrival in Ax. Eventually locating our accommodation it turned out we had booked a room (officially a studio apartment, but the reality is that it's just a room) in a converted house. When we finally found out how to enter and where to find our key, it was missing - and no-one was answering the phone on any of the numbers given. So much for minimising stress by pre-booking!

All was eventually sorted and the room is good and well positioned. We won't be heading back to Merens first thing in the morning, as we're doing something very unusual tomorrow - we're having a day off!

(*my shoes have plenty of tread to finish the walk and are structurally sound, but quite a few holes have appeared in the uppers. It somehow feels wrong to be walking amongst all these French people wearing great heavy boots in a pair of holey slippers (although amongst today’s Trans-Pyrenees company they felt right at home). I had thought to make a day trip to Toulouse if I can't find suitable shoes here, but I've concluded that it would be quicker, more convenient and probably equal in price to have a pair of shoes I already have at home sent over by an overnight service, if I get to the point that I really need them. Perhaps I should have set out in a new pair of shoes...)

Friday 22 July 2016

Occasional Pyrenean Tractors

I don't think I already posted this one, did I?

Day 11 - The first 2 hours - After Col de Finestres to Refuge Ruhle

Friday 22 July
Absolutely miserable weather

It's 9.50am and we are very happy indeed to be sitting inside Refuge Ruhle whilst hail the size of peas hammers on the roof and thunders rumbles around.

We woke in the cloud this morning with the accompanying light mizzle, but as the forecast thunder wasn't yet in evidence, we had the quickest of breakfasts, skipped our usual cup of tea, and made haste.

We had no sooner donned our freebie flimsy disposable ponchos (given to us by Macmillan Cancer Support in 2008, at which time we dismissed them as not being a useful piece of backpacking gear) than it started to rain in earnest. We saw nothing as we walked the ridge which is apparently one of the highlights of this route. In fact, even without visibility we could appreciate that the path itself is a delight and put the ridge on our list of places to which we must return in good weather.

Much to my approval, the first rumble of thunder held off until we had shucked all of our wet stuff outside the refuge at half past nine. At least we don't feel too daft being out in this weather - the refuge is full of men in tights, taking part in a trans-Pyrenees event. Flimsy disposable ponchos are also much in evidence.

Within ten minutes of our arrival, an immense sound was heard on the roof. I'm sure we heard the Spanish and the French for "I'm not going out in that!" from the multi-national collection of runners, as torrential rain turned to torrential hail.

We do have a couple of climbs ahead of us as we leave here, but even as a thunder-phobic (not really true -I have no problem with storms as long as I'm not in an exposed spot at the time) I'm quite relaxed - we will only be on a summit for a matter of minutes.

(Just talked to a Spanish participant in the race. They have a total of 400 hours to cross the Pyrenees from Banyuls to Hendaye. By my reckoning that's a maximum of 16.5 days.)

The story of Day 2 will be continued...

The only photo taken this morning

Day 10 - Cabane Balledreyt to after Col des Finestres

Thursday 21 July
12.5 miles, 1400m ascent
Sunny morning, overcast afternoon

A very good night's sleep was had last night, except for the brief period, starting at 10.45 when we were disturbed by thunder.

Rain accompanied the thunder (which was actually quite distant) which left much wet grass and bracken - and our morning involved a lot of tall grass and bracken overgrowing the path.

Route finding just before and just after last night's night-stop was the most difficult we've encountered so far on the entire route. Or, at least, finding the path has proved difficult; if we'd just opted to head in the right general direction, it would have been easy. Once we did find the path off the plateau ("is that a tiny cairn on that rock right over there?" I said to Mick after a few minutes of head scratching, and thus the path was found) it was easy to follow for the rest of the day. (We'd been enveloped in cloud when we awoke, which dispersed before we got walking - finding the path in either direction from our night-stop would have been awful in poor visibility.)

Down to a stream we went, across a meadow and quite steeply up, coming out on a lovely flat col which seemed an eminently suitable place for second breakfast.

More down ensued, all the way to a road, before we started our second ascent of the day, which, if followed to its conclusion, would continue until 1400m of altitude had been gained, with a few undulations thrown in just to boost the ascent stats. With the ascent being spread over so many miles it surprised me for how long we went steeply up. It was a bit of a bother in the bits where the horse flies were active, as it's difficult going fast enough to shake them off when you're gasping up a hill. The worst place for the beasts today was by Cabane de Claran's (aka 'horsefly central') , where we had intended to have elevenses. Fortunately horse flies don't seem to like dark, cool forests so that's where we finally paused.

Eventually, just before another Cabane, the gradient lessened and having passed the building we found ourselves on a track! That deserves an exclamation mark as generally the GR10 is on paths, not tracks, and those paths generally have one or more of these features: steeply up, steeply down, eroded, rocky, bouldery, heavily root laden or slippery. As such, "stride out" paths are few and far between. This track, being sometimes grassy and sometimes grit, continued for the next hour and a half.

That hour and a half wasn't all done in one go, as at Plateau de Bielle there is a ski centre, the restaurant of which was open, so we stopped for lunch. Three huge courses and coffee, and two and a half hours later, we finally waddled off to continue up the hill.

It was, by now after 3pm - a time when most sensible walkers in the Pyrenees are thinking about calling it a day if they haven't already. We, however, felt that there were more miles in us yet, hence on we went.

What finally stopped us was the rumbling of thunder, which made it seem imprudent to head up onto a ridge, so we started looking for a water source and a pitch.

Dumping my pack and heading down the side of the hill with two bladders I did find water, but it was only a trickle and not the crystal clear substance to which we have become accustomed. I collected some anyway, which was a slow process which involved crouching in the grass, allowing the mozzies and midges to have a field day on my back. (Post blog note 24 hours later: boy did they feast on my back! Itchity itch itch).

Whilst I'd been gone, Mick had scouted three pitch options and we very nearly settled for one of them, before the whim hit us to continue on just a bit further. A good call, as it turned out. Not far later a hut appeared before us, with a berger in residence, but also with a spring adjacent. The water for which I'd descended, re-ascended and got bitten to pieces was ditched and condensation-making, crystal clear water replaced it.

Not knowing what the etiquette is for pitching relatively close to a cabane with a berger in residence, I asked if he minded us planting our tent a ways over there (with a bit of pointing to an area out of sight, over a rise). He seemed bemused and said we could, so we did. He popped over a while later to check on his sheep further down the hill and we had a little chatette about the weather, his flock and a few other things, as our language skills permitted. Then, within the blink of an eye the clear valley became filled with cloud, which rushed up the hillside to envelop us. We duly dived into the tent, just as it really started to thunder and to rain. Time to count our blessings that we had stopped when we did.

It's an easy evening chore-wise tonight as neither of us needs a real tea after our huge lunch. Nuts and chocolate have sufficed. And now we'll settle down for the night, hoping that a) tomorrow's forecast thunder limits itself to the afternoon; and b) the sheep with clanging bells, which have just come down off the hill to surround us, wander off soon.

A track!

just the starters of a huge 3 course lunch


Day 9 - Goulier to Cabane Balledreyt

Wednesday 20 July
15 miles; 1750m ascent
Hazy start then hot with some sun then a bit of rain then a sudden change with a strong wind whipping up in an instant.

We were very nearly the last to leave the gite at Goulier at 7.30 this morning. Everyone else seemed to anticipate that breakfast would be available earlier than the stated 7am (as did we, but not by quite the same margin as the French visitors).

The main reason for staying at the gite last night was because being in Goulier (a place I hadn't even planned to pass through until reviewing our options yesterday afternoon) positioned us better for what may otherwise have been a hard day today, but there didn't seem, from the map, to be any campable terrain nearby (much steepness). Of course, within minutes of leaving Goulier behind we found a pitch in the woods. Always the way. (Incidentally, leaving the gite took 2 attempts, as after about 100m progress, I put my hand in my pocket and found a big lump of brass with a room key attached; Mick kindly ran back with it whilst I had the 'did I pack all the electronics' panic unpack).

The only people later away soon overtook us on the way up the hill, as we paused to apply DEET. It's not a substance I like to use, but the horseflies were out in force and after taking a rather nasty reaction to a bite I picked up yesterday, it seemed the lesser evil today.

The going was shaded and easy as we headed gently up over a couple of passes and down to Siguer where we were pleased to have opted to deviate from the route in passing through the town as doing so took us past a water tap (or, more precisely, a turn-the-handle water pump).

We needn't have bothered with the extra weight, as the next bit of ascent was nicely shaded too and we still had plenty of water spare when we got to the next village up the valley side. There we paused at great length, for a snack, for more water, to apply suncream as the day was now sunny and hot, and to seek assistance from the UK on the subject of what the implications are of overdosing on hydrocortisone cream* (the bite on my leg now being slightly alarming in its size (tennis ball diameter) and its swelling).

It was 1230 by the time we set out for our next climb and we feared the heat, but once again the climb proved surprisingly easy and very shaded.

We did, of course, arrive at the top with all of the water we'd carried from the previous village but even so, I wished we had carried more. Next we had another 500m of up, most of which was shadeless and we were about to reach the hottest part of the day, so I stuck to plan and took a packless detour to the nearest spring, just under a 1km round trip away. It was deliciously cold water I got from there, the bottle immediately covering itself with condensation.

Back with Mick on the pass, we thought we may as well have lunch and by the time we finished rain was in the air. It didn't amount to much and certainly didn't require waterproofs.

I found the climb up to the summit of the hill Plat du Montcamp (1904m) hard going but it's always true that if you plod on you'll get there in the end, and plod I did.

Our intention had been to stay near Cabane Courtal Marti, which we could see from the summit, but the surrounding area was being heavily grazed by cows, horses and mules, so having discounted the option of a night in the cabane, we sat outside for a few minutes considering the maps.

What a change in the weather in those few minutes! The nice breeze which had kept us cool since lunch suddenly became a strong wind, whipping dust up all around us. By the time we left the spring 300m away (yep, yet more water needed, to get us through the night this time, adding itself to that I'd diverted for at lunchtime, which hadn't been touched - it was just a day for carrying too much water!) it was raining and cold enough for me to don a jacket.

Making a meal of re-finding the path, down to Cabane Balledreyt we went, expecting it to be a ruin as that's what one of my guidebooks said. It turns out that it was rebuilt in 2014 and is now a very smart bothy complete with a camping stove, food and drink supplies and an honesty box.

A solo lady (who got subjected to my fumblings with her language as she spoke no English, but she seemed to understand me) was already in residence, but there are two separate rooms so we could have had the other. We opted, however, to camp. If I hadn't gone on such a big tour of the local area looking for the best pitch, and had taken the first option Mick had pointed out (which is also the one we finally used), then we would have had the tent up before the rain came. I'm sure the solo woman thought us mad to be pitching in the rain and stiff wind when there was a perfectly good building next to us.

None of the other eastbounders from the gite last night have been seen. Either they have had really long and fast days or the reason they were so keen on an early start and to scoot off was by way of a race for the 6 free beds available, on a first-come basis, in Siguer. The gite there closed down last year and for those without a tent it's a long way from Goulier to the next accommodation which isn't a cabane.

Well, tea has now been had inside the cabane and my chocolate mountain has been reduced a little (it was cheaper yesterday to buy five cheap slabs of chocolate than one branded slab, but I couldn't bring myself to throw the excess bars away, so we set out this morning carrying over 700g of chocolate), so our food bags are finally reducing slightly. A retreat to the tent has now been made. It's a midgefest out there. Wherever did that wind go that so battered us just a couple of hours ago?

No photos today - very hazy so no good views. (Actually, here's one of our pitch, taken the following morning:

(*thank you Louise - again :-))

Day 8 - Aulus les Bains to Goulier

Tuesday 19 July
Wall-to-wall sunshine

Another fabulous meal was had last night at the Gite in Aulus. Absolutely enormous, with three courses (and what is it with getting two puddings apiece in these places?), with produce fresh out of the owners' garden. The cost for this feast? €12 per head. It was a ridiculously cheap night - far more so than it should be for the quality of accommodation and food provided. Definitely one to recommend (although if you get a room on the side of the building we were in and have to sleep with the windows open, as we did, then expect to be disturbed by the church bells chiming every hour in duplicate).

As for today, with the temperature forecast to hit 34 degrees we opted for an early start, which didn't require us to get up any earlier than usual - we just skipped breakfast and omitted our usual faffing, and were away at 6.30, stopping on the trail after an hour for cereal and coissant.

A thousand metres of ascent was on the agenda this morning but thanks to the early start and lots of trees we were comfortable for the first 700m.

Then, almost immediately after collecting some 'just in case' water* from an not-entirely-satisfactory stream (it being just below a busy car park), we popped out onto a road, lost the shade, and found a water tap.

We had feared that the next 300m of ascent would be uncomfortably hot, but we had beaten the heat and were blessed with very oversized switchbacks, making the going easy.

The views on the way up and from the pass (Port de Saleix) were outstanding and we sat there a while enjoying them whilst contemplating the group heaving themselves up the next bit of the GR10.

It is from the top of this pass that the GR10 route becomes very indirect. My description to Mick, when I was studying the maps at home and he was away working, was to imagine a pair of pendulous breasts. The GR10 traces their outline. Alternative paths exist, the most direct of which goes from "armpit to armpit" (if I continue the breasts analogy). It had been our intention to continue on the proper route for a while longer from the pass, but with the day heating up, and with the reality of the climb ahead of us, the armpits route (another Tour du Pays) looked the preferable option.

A few flood damaged bits of path made the going marginally tricky in places, and shade was rather lacking. In fact, it was at the first bit of shade we found that we stopped for a very early lunch - right in the middle of the path. No-one came along; we didn't think they would. It was an indulgent lunch today featuring a jar of duck pâté.

Missing a turn down to Auzat (we may not strictly have missed it but rather misidentified it), extra distance was added to our day as we took the less direct path down to Vicdessos instead. As it goes, Vicdessos was where we needed to be, to top up our supplies at the shop there for the next four shopless days.

We struggled to locate the shop once we got there, until I remembered that Martin ( had also done a circuit of the town before finding it right by his entry point. As he had also described his route into town, we thus found it, although not before we had spent half an hour sitting uncomfortably on tarmac under the shade of a tree trying to work out where to stay tonight. Thanks to some text message assistance from the UK, for which we were very grateful, we obtained the phone numbers of the gite at Goulier (see Footnote 2) and the B&B at Auzat. The phone call to Goulier was not a roaring success. Eventually, we located the Tourist Office and had them call for us. There had been some confusion but the main message was the same: if we wanted to stay it had to be half board.

Repairing to a bar for a cold drink we dithered at great length over our options (with me driving Mick mad by going around in circles). Eventually we decided that even though we really didn't need to eat out again (we'd like to reduce the food bags - somehow our bags are currently heavier than when we left Luchon, even though, theoretically, have the same amount of food) we would stay at the gite.
Sitting on a bench under a different tree, where my thermometer confirmed that it was 34 degrees in the shade, we questioned our wisdom at setting out for another 400m ascent, but we knew it made sense, so as to make tomorrow less taxing.

It was 5.30 by the time we arrived and we're less than impressed. We were, of course, spoiled by last night's experience, but this place is so much more expensive yet nowhere near as nice. We weren't even allowed to bring our bags to our room, even though we have our own room and our bags are small.

I wonder if they'll be amenable to giving us a breakfast tray so we can escape early in the morning? We'll find out soon as we're just off down for dinner.

(Post blog note: dinner was the worst meal of the trip to date by a long way. Breakfast has been agreed for 7am so hopefully we'll be away by half past. Excitingly we met our first Brits at dinner. Easy conversation without a single misunderstanding. Oh, and Wonky Pack Man and Le Flasheur turned up too.)

(*I didn't want to lose the shade only to find that none of the steams from there on were running. By picking up water it guaranteed they would be, because our experience is that water sources are only dry when you're desperate for water.
2 - I did have a phone number for the gite but it has been changed and despite listening to the recorded message of the new number four times I couldn't get my brain to translate the numbers quickly enough to write it down

Monday 18 July 2016

Day 7 - Picou de la Mire to Aulus les Bains

Monday 18 July
Wall-to-wall sunshine

I'm glad we didn't stay in St Lizier last night. Even with as early a start as I was prepared to contemplate it would have been tight to get to Aulus before the Post Office shut (or, at least before the closing time I got off t'internet last week; turns out it's open half an hour later than I thought). A morning of fretting and rushing would have been to the great detriment of my enjoyment of the morning's surroundings.

As it was we had a leisurely start from our pitch, from which we enjoyed this sunset last night (and a similar sunrise this morning)...

...and we even had time to go slightly awry at the top of a ski lift, where the signage didn't seem to tally with the map. We toiled uphill for a short while before I decided that there was no sensible route in that direction (usually where the waymarks and the map differ, I can at least see that the waymarks are taking us a sensible way). A small backtrack put us back on the right path and with only one more minor ascent our overwhelming direction was downwards.

Even by my standards, I took some very poor photos today, particularly in trying to capture the rocky head of a hanging valley and a large waterfall further down. I'll give you two photos of the waterfall here, but the contrast is too great in both:

With a food shop now just an hour or so below us, most of the remnants of the food bags were eaten for second breakfast. Pain au lait with dry roasted peanuts and Hobnobs anyone? It certainly provided a calorie boost even if a bit unorthodox for second breakfast.

Arriving in Aulus at 10.30, first our parcel was retrieved then we thought we would go and enquire about a room at the hotel. Alas, the only person around was the gardener, who clearly thought us ridiculous to be asking about a room at such an early hour, and my French isn't up to explaining that we were happy to go away for a few hours, we just wanted to know if they had availability.

So we went to the Tourist Office where the gite was recommended, with confirmation that they do have rooms for 2; it's not exclusively dormitories. And that's where we now are. They were more than happy to welcome us in before noon, showing us to a double room, with this view:

The room, which is housed in a gorgeous building, would be perfect for our needs* if either it had one extra plug socket or if I'd brought a double USB plug with us (the main point of getting a room being to get stuff charged). We're spending some of the €30 saved, compared with staying in the hotel, on being catered for again tonight. Dinner is being served in half an hour and it's smelling good already.

(*okay, so aircon wouldn't go amiss in this temperature. And doors on the showers would be good too (I say after a man decided to ignore the two showers with their changing-room-style curtains open and to whip back the curtain of the one I was in, just as I'd stepped out of the shower. Never have I reclosed a curtain so fast!))

Sunday 17 July 2016

Day 6 - Aunac to Picou de la Mire

Sunday 17 July
1550m ascent. Unknown miles
Wall-to-wall sunshine

There is so much I could say about today and so many pictures I could share, but it's already approaching 8pm, which is very nearly bedtime, and I haven't even finished my tea yet.

Skipping first back to last night, we had a fantastic meal at the gite at Aunac. Four of us were eating (all of us camping, I don't think anyone was staying in the gite): me, Mick, Wonky Pack Man and Le Flasheur (see footnote 1) . The gite had seemingly catered for 8, with four very plentiul courses being served (and I'm counting the two different desserts per person as one course). The enormous paella and the tirimisu were the high points. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this massive and exceptionally tasty meal (of which, somehow, every morsel was eaten) cost less than our fancy lunch the day before.

This morning we were up bright and early, in a sopping-with-condensation tent, and after a slow start managed to get away at quarter to eight.

Except for a short overlap, our route today wasn't the GR10, but the GR Tour du Pays. Whereas the GR10 takes a very roundabout route to St Lizier, the Tour du Pays is relatively direct. If I was planning my own route across the Pyrenees (which I suppose I have, because we've not been slaves to the GR10 at all since Hendaye) then I wouldn't throw in a big loop except if a particular attraction dictated that I should, and that was the basis on which we took the alternative route.

We may have accidentally led Mr Indecision (Footnote 2) astray as we left our brief time on the GR10 this morning. We'd not long passed him, looking at his map, as we joined a D road which runs along a valley. Three hundred metres later we turned off the road onto the Tour du Pays, whereas the GR10 went straight on down the valley. When he followed we assumed he had also decided to take the alternative route, and didn't think much of it, particularly as we saw him check his map a couple of times as we climbed the hillside initially via a switchbacking road , and it was quite obvious we weren't on the GR10 by virtue of the waymarks being yellow and red, not white and red. However, after passing a signpost just before the village of Azas, he disappeared, not to be seen again. He must have either stopped for a really long break or realised he'd left his intended route and turned back. I suspect the latter.

Of course, we continued on, often steeply uphill, but when the path finally started levelling out (it stayed between the 900 and 1000m contours for quite a while) my apprehension that we would be in woods all day with no views were proved incorrect. It was a very lovely walk, mostly in woods (giving us blessed shade on this hot day) but with sufficient gaps in the trees and clear sections that we could fully enjoy the surrounding mountains, which were set off so nicely by the blue sky and crystal clear air. It's a steep hillside along which it goes too, and the path is narrow (even wired in a couple of places) so, as Mick understated: "You wouldn't want to slip here. It would really ruin your day."

As an added bonus to the pleasing route, a grunt and some scuffling drew our attention and we caught sight of a group of wild boar (6 adults, 8 little boarlets) as they ran away from us, on a path parallel but slightly up the hill from us.

A relatively early lunch was had just before our descent to Trein, mainly because we needed to filter some water and Mick needed to charge his Fitbit (which was fully charged last night but now was empty again; it keeps doing this on backpacking trips and we know not why), which meant that the road walk through Trein and Bielle and into St Lizier was done in the full heat of the day.

It was with excitement (due to the current food rationing) that we found that the epicerie in St L is open on a Sunday, even if it was closed for lunch (until 3.30) when we arrived. With an hour and a half to kill and with it being too hot to sit outside we repaired to the local hotel/restaurant for a coffee, which impulsively became second lunch, although we were quite restrained, having just three starters between us and a pudding each.

Then we realised that having eaten out for second lunch we didn't really need anything extra to see us through to Aulus les Bains tomorrow, although we did have a little browse of what was available in the shop and topped up our supplies with some nuts and some pain au lait (Mick's dodgy tummy is really struggling with breakfast. Hopefully he'll be able to cope with plain pain au lait.)

There had been discussion this morning as to whether to stay in St Lizier tonight or whether to push on. I wasn't keen on doing the next climb in the heat of the afternoon, but we need to be at the Post Office to collect a parcel by noon tomorrow (Footnote 3), which, from St L, would have required a ridiculously early start. Mick came up with the genius plan of hanging around St L until late afternoon, so the lunch and the shop opening times worked out well.

As it turned out, the climb out of the village is nicely shaded, just as Martin described it in his blog from 2 years ago (Footnote 4); a particularly good thing as the path is quite steep in places (very wet for some sections at the moment too) and our packs were heavy with 3 litres of water apiece to see us through to the first stream tomorrow morning (the maps showed no water sources on our route, so we carried water from town. We actually crossed half a dozen running streams, the last one being just before we hit 1100m. We topped off our bottles again there having already drunk over half a litre apiece on the way up).

Our stated destination for the day was the Col de Fitté, where it looked like we should be able to find a pitch. We must have taken some sun to our heads though, as when we got there and found perfectly good terrain for camping, we decided to go on. With a surprisingly (to us, at least) large ski resort over to our left we toiled up yet more ascent, and (perhaps predictably, having passed by good terrain where we were supposed to stop) then struggled to find somewhere that was both flat and shaded. Eventually, we took a break and I walked packlessly on to scout out the final bit of path where the topography looked like it might yield a pitch and right at the last moment one appeared. Here are a couple of piccies of the pitch and the view:

There are lots more photos I'd like to share today, but (a) has anyone even made it this far through my witterings? and (b) it really is bedtime so there's no time for editing photos.


( 1^^ we passed this duo repeatedly yesterday. Le Flasheur got his name because for once it wasn't me who got caught with my trousers down yesterday. For some reason I was ahead of Mick when we approached Col de Lazies and as I popped up onto the top of the pass I saw far more than I needed to see of the chap standing at the top...
^^2^^ a young GR10er who dithered at such length as to whether to stay at the cabane a couple of nights ago. Incidentally, he did catch me with my trousers down this morning. That's twice in a week (to two different people). I must be more careful.
^^3^^ the fallback plan had been to pick it up as the PO opens at 9 on Tuesday, but Tuesday is forecast to be 35 degrees which will demand an early start by way of heat avoidance.
Martin: I'm so pleased Humphrey created that book and gave me a pdf copy, which I have on my phone. Whereas my blog is generally witterings, you include really useful information. It's a good resource.)

Occasional Pyrenean Tractors/Relics

This one is another which qualifies in both categories, I think.

Saturday 16 July 2016

Day 5 - Cabane Aouen to Aunac

Sat 16 July
12 or 13 miles-ish? 500m?
Wall-to-wall sunshine. Hot by mid-morning

We've been lucky with the weather for the last three days as it has been pleasantly cool, keeping us comfortable and the flies at bay. It was cool again this morning, as the frosty grass confirmed, but with not a cloud in the sky it was clearly going to warm up.

Our first climb of the day which, due to its aspect and the early hour, was in shade, proved to be much easier than expected. Yesterday afternoon we had watched quite a few people labouring slowly up the switchbacks so I'd built it up in my mind as being a monster. In the cool of the morning and on fresh legs*, it was neither.

We therefore thought we had done the right thing by stopping at the Cabane last night - until we got to the Col de Lazies and then to l'Etang d'Ayes (a mountain lake). The latter in particular would have been worth the extra couple of hours of hot/tired walking yesterday and I think we would have found a spot there, even though it was busy with other people camping.

I ran (or, at least, walked very fast) down the hill to that lake as it was a detour to get water from the inlet stream, so I thought I may as well make that detour at speed whilst Mick made his way down. Obviously, having gone out of my way we then passed right by five springs (all running, but perhaps usually dry) within the next quarter of an hour.

The GR10 splits at the next pass with a variant going one way and the main path another. The signpost there was at odds with my maps and books as to which way was the main route, but it mattered not. We knew which path we were taking - the more direct one which avoided a descent-to-reascend (and now signed as the primary route). The books warned that option would be dangerous in bad weather, which was not an issue today.

The next col was at a road, where lots of cars were parked. From there the plan had been to go off-route into Seix to resupply but we had a niggling suspicion that, with the town's lack of accommodation, it might be booked up on this holiday weekend. Taking advantage of the first good phone signal in days I did some internet research and even resorted to a phone call (I do believe the first phone conversation I've ever carried out entirely in French; I was quite proud of myself!) which confirmed that there was no room at the inn. Then we had a rethink as we didn't really want to go to Seix without somewhere to stay and we equally didn't want to walk a mile out of town in the wrong direction to a campsite.

Aunac became our new destination, having established that we could camp at the Gite there.

Onwards we went with my mind doing constant calculations (i.e. fretting) as to how our food was going to last (see Footnote 2), particularly if we couldn't resupply on a Sunday in St Lizier, when what should we encounter around the next corner but...

...a man and a donkey coming towards us, offering for sale beer, cold drinks, bread and cheese. The trail provides!

Soon afterwards we stopped to enjoy our fresh seeded loaf with some sausage, our food worries now allayed both by the bread and with the confirmation from the man (who works at the gite when not selling his wares off the back of a donkey on the trail) that we could eat at the gite this evening.

The camping set up here is good and the facilities are quite comprehensive too (I'm typing this whilst plugged into the mains (in a polytunnel) to recharge, which is always a bonus when camping).

(*whilst the legs were feeling good today, Mick is still struggling with the digestive distress that was affecting him in Day 1, whereas I had a poorly head
Footnote 2: if Mick’s malady hadn’t killed his appetite we wouldn't have had an option but to go to Seix for more food. As it is there are quite a few odds and ends left in our food bags.)

Day 4 - Cabane de l'Arech to Cabane Aouen

Friday 15 July
10 miles (per the guidebook. I wonder if they measure on the map or via GPS, as those trillion switchbacks felt longer than 10 miles)
1500m ascent (down 700m, up 800m, down 900m, up 700m)
Sunny start, bit of cloud middle of day, clearing again later.

As you can see from the ascent stats above, today, like those that went before it, had its ups and downs. It wasn't big on level walking, as it seemed that no sooner had we hit our high/low point than we would start to descend/climb again.
Switchbacks featured heavily, as did the sunshine, lovely woods and steep meadows thick with wildflowers.

The one benefit of staying in the cabane last night (incidentally, for cabane you can read 'bothy' as the only real difference between the two is the lack of toilet spades over here) was that as I opened my eyes this morning, lying on a mattress up in the loft, the first thing I saw was the view out of the window. Towering mountains set off nicely by a startling blue sky.

As Isabelle's alarm clock went off, I sprang out of bed to seize the day and thus caught the glorious glow of the rising sun. The reflected glow off the mountains to the west was made even more special by the presence of an enormous stag, grazing.

Mick, mountains, startlingly blue sky^^

We met no-one on our first descent, which was little trodden. The difference between a path with a refuge or a lake at the top and one without.

After pausing to wash socks in the river running down the valley, our first ascent of the day couldn't be avoided, so on with it we got. The first bit featured ankle deep mud. There has been much mud thus far. I think it's been a bit damp lately.

A series of cabanes dotted our route up, over and down, including one right at the pass, Col du Clot. We only looked into a couple and also took advantage of the water supply at one.

We weren't far into our second descent before we could see our next low-point, which looked a disturbingly long way down considering that we were immediately to regain the height on the other side of the valley. There was, however, a particular attraction for us at the bottom of this descent in the form of a Refuge which I had earmarked for lunch.

To get there we had to pass through a large car park, stuffed to the gunwales (it was Bastille Day yesterday, so it's a holiday weekend). The number of vehicles made it curious that we'd only seen four walkers all day, and they were all walking along the previous valley.

Lunch at the Refuge was a fancy affair, with a price tag to match, but it was exceedingly tasty:

^^Main courses

And what does one want to do after a big meal? Well, to walk another 700m up a hill, of course!

A very short-lived bit of flat walking as we left the Refuge

Our aim was to reach Cabane Aouen, but I was unconvinced that we would be able to camp here, so the fallback plan was to continue another couple of hours to a popular lake, which is probably heaving with campers this weekend. That would have been another very lony day, but happily, when the cabane came into sight, it was clearly unoccupied, with doors and windows shut (these cabanes are generally dark, dingy places. You wouldn't want to be inside without at least the door open). The small trod leading to it suggested it isn't much used either.

Finally reaching the building (which seemed to take a very long time from first sight, with big switchbacks repeatedly taking us away from it), we did find somewhere that we could just about squeeze the tent, if we kept the doors rolled back and did without porches. Or, we could stay in the tiny room, rather like a cell really, which is just big enough for two people (or three if you're really friendly). We opted for the room.

We've spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the doorway watching lots and lots of people going up and down the path. After we'd been here about three quarters of an hour another backpacker came along. He'd left the Refuge at the same time as us, and probably cursed that we'd got here first and taken the better of the two rooms. He considered the other room (which unlike our cell does have windows, a fireplace and a bed with mattress, but give me a sleep platform over a manky mattress in a dirty room any day) and he considered the pitch we had stamped down. After about an hour of considering, he opted to continue on. We continued to look around at the magnificent alpine meadow in which we are situated, which is abundant in its variety of flowers, and at the truly incredible view across the valley. What this room lacks in character it makes up for in views.