This is the story of doctor and amateur adventurer Chris Markwick’s epic hike across the Pyreneés mountains; a coast to coast journey of stamina, survival, scenery and seriously dodgy cous cous.
As Chris makes his way eastward over the course of (hopefully fewer than!) 45 days, he will share his observations, top tips and photos from mountain tops and ramshackle shepherd huts.
The idea of this adventure was born when Chris, spurred on by the desire for some peace and quiet and to finally make use of a large shed full of camping equipment, decided he should take advantage of a six week gap between jobs.
The last stretch of any day and indeed any journey is often the hardest.
Today was 30 degrees with unrelenting sun and little water nor shade. I started on the flat and headed down the valley for the sea. I walked through many more vineyards and a well tanned elderly farmer give me directions to a shortcut up to the final castle, the Château d’Aguilar. The castle wasn’t open yet and parts had scaffolding but still the views were good.
I took the decision to make a beeline for the coast and campsite rather than head into Port Nouveau. This proved to be a hard 40km plus of walking through dry, dusty landscape but still was beautiful. I passed an 8th century chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Olives. I appreciated the shade, continued and eventually reached the village of Feuille with its independent winery. I passed up over a ridge and a small defensive tower and eventually through Caves and then onto La Franqui – and the Mediterranean at last.
I slept fantastically well and couldn’t fault the price of the room – it was certainly worth the 50 euros.
Today started with a downhill gradient for a change and I travelled along the valley floor through villages such Cucugnan, which all seemed to share a love of both art and wine. I made a a steep 728m ascent to the impressive Château de Queribus; one of the Five Sons of Carcassonne which are five castles strategically placed to defend the French border against the Spanish. Queribus dates back to at least 1020 and was the last to fall in the Albigensian crusade. Its position on the rocky outcrop meant it could be held by as few as 20 men.
The castle afforded more views across the valleys to the sea and mountains. The walk continued through another gorge and an emerald green river passing more vineyards and the sea, now frequently visible from the hills. An uplifting sight.
The sun grew ever more fierce in the afternoon and the air was heavily perfumed with the scent of broom – the yellow flower of the Plantagenets who once held this region. Along with the thyme, olives, laurel and box trees make this a magical region. The campsite at Tuchan was also a good one with a pool and bar but somewhat rocky ground and lots of English watching the football.
If yesterday was wine then today was wind. I walked back up along the river and up through the gorges. Perched impossibly on the gorge side was an ancient hermitage that could easily have come from a Tibetan movie. I couldn’t resist spending some time exploring it.
I pushed on after a while, quite literally at 45 degrees against the wind forcing its way through the narrow gorge along a vertigo-inducing twisty and narrow road, popular with motorbikes. Glad to be out of the wind tunnel I flopped down at a roadside café – Le Vieux Moulin – for much needed elevenses.
From here it seemed a long way up to the pic, the Bac De Sarraouto which had great 360 degree views all round, if a little blustery at the top and only 900m. I met a trio of Canadians on the way down and then walked on to the spectacular castle of Peyreypertuse which was worth the climb. There was no campsite in the village below and I couldn’t find the gité etape, so I stayed at the rather wonderful Chambres d’hote Les Lavandes where Marie-Antoinette served cake as part of an enormous breakfast. What could be better?
It poured with rain all last night and this morning but eventually stopped soon after I packed away my very soggy tent. With the clouds lifting I walked up past a lake where a group of teenagers were huddled in a wet teepee. The lake was picturesque but not as spectacular as the waterfall in the woods.
It rained last night but the morning sun soon dried my tent. I had planned to take a bus to see Rennes-le-Château but missed it and decided to walk. The path went (naturally) up through the nicer parts of Quillan by the river and passed the old castle. I continued through sandy dry woodland of fragrant pines, herbs and flowers and crested a ridge to follow a contour with views both sides, including the scarily named Las Murailles D’al Diable (devil walls), high sided cliffs and another gorge.
From Saint-Just-et-le-Bézu I headed north to Rennes-le-Château which seemed to take forever. It was humid but never quite rained, but I had endured a little too much road walking to be enjoyable. GaiaGPS doesn’t show features such as cliffs very well and I didn’t think to use the French IGN maps meaning I made a a long climb, only to be thwarted by jagged basalt cliffs and a long walk back through the woods to my start point. Still, there were good views from the cliffs.
The atmosphere at Rennes-le-Château was a bit like Glastonbury and it was certainly an interesting place if very touristy. I enjoyed a refreshing strawberry sorbet and pressed ever onwards. I stuck my thumb out and luckily a minibus of Canadian women gave me a lift back to Bugarach. Bugarach is famous for being the only place on earth predicted to survive the 2012 Mayan apocalypse.
The Buddist campsite here was close to perfection with a cooking shed, bar, restaurant, gité and chalets. They served a good breakfast. I spent the evening talking to a French chef who had worked in Cambridge and spoke very good English. He was travelling whilst he decided the direction of his next chapter.
Editors note: Today is our anniversary. I returned home from work to find a large parcel waiting for me, expecting thoughtful notes and a carefully chosen gift. Naturally, the parcel contained a bundle of stinky clothes and a trowel previously used to dig poop holes. *Facepalm*.
I left the campsite feeling a little fuzzy headed after a tad too much of the local wine last night. What I thought was a duck on the lake turned out to be a large coypu swimming around. The lake looked beautiful with mist rising off it and Puivert castle was framed by the rising sun.
I got to the castle early, but the young ticket keeper with heavily nicotine stained fingers let me in anyway and I had the place to myself. He had advised me to use the torch on my phone on some of the darker towers staircases.
The sky was slate grey and with crows flying overhead created an Edgar Alan Poe atmosphere. It was all remarkably preserved, including the keep, the dungeon, the guard room and the music room with statues of medieval musicians playing various instruments built into the vaulted ceiling. It was also a relief to get the rucksack off, if only for an hour.
The walk continued along the contour to the pretty village of Coudon where the path splits allowing a southern route to Lapradelle-Puilaurens, but I chose the northerly route towards Rennés-le-Château. Onwards, the path descended across a U-shaped valley and then up into some woods. Over the ridge the climate seemed to change dramatically to a dry pine forest and had a much more Mediterranean feel to it. The air was warm and the path was good. I disturbed some sort of mouse which hopped lazily into the undergrowth as I walked down into the large town of Quillan.