We came expecting rain
27.06.2009 15 °F
The Pyrénées are often considered Western Europe’s last wilderness. This is, of course, not true. There is no remaining wilderness in Western Europe. Any environment that humans have explored, modified or exploited in any way ceases to be a wilderness. Just ask the Pyrénéen brown bear who nearly went extinct a decade ago because of over-grazing of domestic sheep. The Pyrénées have hosted humans for thousands of years, beginning with the Neolitic ancestors of the Basques, followed by the Greeks who gave the Pyrénées her name, to the Romans and Franks who each in their own turn set out to defeat the long-time fierce mountain dwellers, the Basques, finally concluding with the game-loving French mountain men and women who inhabit her peaks and valleys today.
Although the Pyrénées are no longer wilderness, per se, there certainly still exists a wild quality to them that keeps outdoors people coming back year after year. I for one had an image of lofty peaks, gnarled crags, forested hills and verdant valleys. In these mountains are nestled the dens of bears, lie the grave of Ronceval and host the ancient homes of Europe's oldest people, the Basques. The Pyrénées guard some of the highest and most trecherous mountain passes of any mountain range in Europe. Many are the adventure tales of armies, refugees and fugitives from Roman times to WWII who attempted to traverse these unforgiving peaks.
Though they may not be wild, they certainly are romantic.
Luke and I flew into Pau, a small city at the foot of the mountains that boasts, among other things, palm trees, a funicular and a people who trace some of their ancestors back to Wellington and his British soldiers who set up homes here at the end of the wars against Napoleon. We spent a pleasant morning here, enjoying our first views of the mountain before training deeper into them.
From Pau we trained to Lourdes, a pilgrim hotspot and, from what we could tell, an altogether bizarre mélange of religious tourism and French hillbilly culture.
St. Jacques pilgrims -- you can tell because of the St. Jacques scallop shells on their packs.
The only time I ever saw any mention of country music in France.
From Lourdes, we bused then bused 1.5 hours to Barèges, a spa and ski-resort village that was notably dead in June. That is, until our last day there when a big Pyrenean bicycle race tore through Barèges and a chain of equally small Northern Exposure-esque villages connected by the one winding road.
Whether owing to luck, prayer or climate change, Luke and I lucked out once again with remarkable weather. The day before we flew out to Pau, we checked the weather report to see what we could expect. It was a classic outdoors vacation moment of irony when, on the map of France, we spotted a single stormy cloud icon out of all the hundreds of other sunshine icons, and that storm cloud happened to be floating over the exact region where we were headed. Again… c’est la vie.
Maybe it’s best going to a place expecting the worst; you’re all the more grateful and relieved when everything works out. We were delighted when our first day in the Pyrénées greeted us with sunshine and spectacular light and shadow displays. We were exhausted after a long day of traveling (a day that began at 3:30am!), but eager to get a quick walk in before dinner. We took a nice and level path out to St. Julien’s cross. Along the way, we were graced by spectacular views and impressively plump slugs.
Our second day of hiking began about 5 minutes after we woke up and stumbled into the hostel refectory. The hostel owner Philipe announced that he was driving a couple of people out to the beginning of a hike and if we wanted to tag along we needed to be ready in 5 minutes. Philipe promised we’d walk past about five glacial lakes and climb to 2,500 meters if the weather didn’t turn on us. We were too groggy to put up much of a fight or to consider whether this was even a hike we wanted to go on. So, after downing a few bites of cereal and yoghurt and pocketing the bread, we grabbed our backpacks (and thankfully remembered to pack our lunch and water) and joined the others downstairs.
Our hiking partners for the day were a mother and son team from Quebec. Ruth had come to France many times, as it was the same distance, she explained, to fly to France for a hiking holiday as it was to fly out west to the Rockies. It was 18-year-old Xaviers’ first time. They were a lovely pair and, frankly, very tolerant for letting two bleary-eyed and improperly-equipped strangers tag along with them without getting a say in the matter. Together with Xavier and Ruth, Luke and I hiked over some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever beheld.
From the col de Madamet 2,500 meters!
From the pic de Madamet 2,600 meters!
At the beginning of the hike Ruth pointed out Luke’s and my running shoes and questioned whether we would manage up the mountain alright. She and Xavier were decked out in thick-ankle hiking boots and carried professional looking titanium walking sticks. Over the next 9 hours we forded glacial streams (barefoot), hiked over boulders, lose rock, muddy paths and snow, and I’m happy to say Luke and I did just fine despite being decked out in $40 Nike tennis shoes and not $150 Kathmandu boots.
Ever since Luke and I bused into Barèges on a road that follows the river of that region (whose name I do not know, nor can I find oddly enough), we were aching to take a dip. Ok, I was aching. Luke was... willing. Finally, at the end of our hiking up to the Pic de Magdanet with Xavier and Ruth, we had our chance.
The dam Detes Coubous was the last big site before a down hill descent to the parking lot where we began our hike. Taking this as our chance, Luke and I told the Quebecois that we were going to enjoy the sunshine beside the lake for a little while.
Xavier and Ruth, just before we said au revoir.
We went for a swim right there in an amphitheatre of mountains.
Yep, me high-tailin' it outta there!
We refilled our water bottle at about 2,000 meters up in one of the crystalline streams of melt water. Nothing sweeter.
We eventually did get rain. Our last full day in Barèges, the ceiling of cloud that had been threatening to unload on us the night before, descended into the valley and stayed there for the rest of the day. The mountains disappeared. We weren’t too bothered, though, to be honest. We’d both suffered a pretty nasty sunburn the day before, mine behind the knees, and weren’t feeling to keen to go on anymore hikes. Instead we bused into the village of Luz for lunch where we visited a 12th century Templars church and a hill-top chateau.
The mountains hiding in Luz.
Then we walked the 7 kilometers back to Barèges only to find ourselves caught in the bike race. When we made it back to Barèges, we were just in time for the cyclists.
After watching this oh-so-French spectacle for a little while, Luke and I decided there was nothing else to do, why not try out the spa right there in town. The sulfuric waters in Barèges are reported to have healing properties. I can’t say whether this was true, but we spent a delightful 2 hours floating in whirlpools and Jacuzzis, and sweating it out in the Hamam. This was my favorite. Luke said it was his idea of hell with a broken AC. He liked the bucket of ice plunge water anyways.
When on vacation why not go to a spa? After all, the French value their health so much, and their security social pays for so much of medical expenses, that a two hour spa treatment is very affordable. Voila! C’est comme ça, la vie en France.
More to come about the last part of our trip down to coastal south-west France.