Slower than grandma

Tuesday 14 June

Leaving the campsite swiftly – I hadn’t slept well – I reached Monsegur by mid morning and climbed to the top of the Cathar stronghold. At this early hour I had the place to myself as the ticket booth was closed. It was an eerie and impregnable place but I felt vindicated to see snow still on the mountains in the distance. I went down to the village and it was all closed except the butchers. I scoffed a dried sausage and a chocolate bar and then set off again.

Several muddy sections later, I met an elderly group of French ramblers and we exchanged pleasantries around the weather and mud. The route went up into the Les Gorges de la Frau (gorge of fear) which was steep but spectacular. The river and waterfalls were also muddy. I felt disheartened when a family and grandmother on sticks strode past me –  Dad even had a back brace on. Obviously, I blame my rucksack.

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At the top I caught them up and after a snack started the descent to the next village. Just at the entrance I came to the Silence du Midi which was a great glamping site with tents, yurts, safari tents, gîte, hotel rooms, bar and restaurant. Gunther and Ellen came over from Belgium and have worked hard to create a great place with thoughtful interiors and nice touches. Very friendly and a good breakfast, naturally with pancakes and good coffee.

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The start of the Cathar trail – et le boue

Monday 13 June

Fully refreshed from a couple of days rest, I set off on my new route but was soon fatigued by driving rain and a steep climb out of Foix. Still, the chateaux looked impressive above the busy town.

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My mood improved with the sight of some bee orchids (also known as ophrys apifera), a species I had never seen before.

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Thankfully, the weather lifted as I reached the top with some fantastic views of the valley below. I followed a long ridge walk through woods but with glimpses of the valley below.

Today I learnt a new French word from an elderly couple coming the other way -“boue”- meaning mud. Lots of it. In the woods it seriously began to hamper progress after the rain. I was slipping a lot and my boots were heavy.

My GaiaGPS map often seems overly optimistic on straight line distances but with the mud, gradient and a late start in Foix, the ETA proved wildly out. I calculated I should get to the campsite by 6pm but in the end I rolled in nearer to 10pm, questioning whether I should have camped at the impressive Chateau de Roquefixade. I decided probably not, as it certainly is not legal and the weather was worse at altitude. The chateau was perched impossibly on top of cliffs.

Sadly the gîte was closed at the base so I pushed onto the next village of Monferrier, which turned out to be a pretty place at night. A site of old iron mines, and talc mining – which it had never occurred to me might be mined. The campsite was bereft of campers and staff but was at least open.

Tick-ety boo

Friday 10 June
I slept badly again because of foot pain and as I packed away the tent it started to rain. I went to the post office and sent home 2.5 kg of mountain clothing and equipment, then went to the pharmacy. I stood in the middle of the shop whilst a kindly middle aged woman inspected me and removed two more ticks. She reassured me that I didn’t have scabies and sold me a tick remover and tick repellent from the veterinary section at the back of the pharmacy.
I walked to the station with every intention of going to Foix. Unfortunately the industrial action meant I had to catch a bus.
The journey gave me the opportunity to research the GR10 some more and decided to return to the mountains to finish as the weather reports are all favourable and the snow line should be high enough now according to meteo. The prospect of finishing within the next two weeks despite walking shorter distances filled me with hope, but will there be snow?

Hobble

Thursday 9 June
Broke camp in record time and set off along the ridge. It was a bright, crisp morning and the views from the ridge to the mountain were picture book.  I saw a red squirrel in the woods, noticeably smaller than the English (American) ones back home. During the descent I noticed my third tick bite and resolved to take doxycycline just in case.
Today was the last chance for the GR78 and it was redeeming itself noticeably so far. The path soon came to an Edwardian park in Bagnères complete with joggers, elderly ladies promenading and a women’s group learning how to use walking poles. A cleaner lent on her mop watching them bemused.
I grabbed a second breakfast in Bagnères and strode on along through some woods where I surprised a deer in the long grass. The woods opened out at an ideal picnic spot by a restaurant which was the perfect spot for some lunch.
I descended through some woods crossing two small streams on single log bridges. I passed more farms and again saw kites following the tractors bailing hay. It was starting to get late but I pressed on aware that the next town had two campsites. The foot pain was again starting to become extreme.
At this point I timidly stuck my thumb out and started to hitch. I grew in confidence and soon was staring down the drivers with thumb firmly in the air. A mother and her teenage daughter took me to the top of the hill and shortly after that a young french man and his sister took me to Cape Vern. I resolved to pick up hitch hikers from now on. I hobbled into the campsite – not without noticing signs to the train station.
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Holy water

Tuesday 7 June
Janice had forewarned me about the snoring and I was grateful for the earplugs that she supplied, but it wasn’t a bad nights sleep and it was warm and dry. It was another early start and Janice and John headed off in the direction of Santiago. Setting off, I soon came to Bétharram which was the Lourdes of its day. I spent some time looking around the impressive church there and admiring the fountain, which despite its alleged healing properties featured a warning sign stating that the water was not drinkable. I ignored it.
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The path followed the river as it meandered down the valley and the water was in full flow with the snow melt from the mountains on the horizon. They were still snow capped so I had probably made the right decision to move into the foothills. Despite John drawing a map, his sunglasses weren’t where he said. The path continued through some woods and I was grateful for the shade. I came across an impressive male stag beetle by the path. Then about two kilometres outside Lourdes I spotted John’s sunglasses case at the top of the hill on a log, a spot where they must have rested yesterday. Maybe miracles do happen in Lourdes.
Lourdes is a fascinating place where a religion based on love and altruism is commercialised on an industrial scale. The neon signs flash and point out where you can buy every conceivable religious mass produced trinket from the plastic to the wooden and metal. If you are in the market for a glittery, light-up, glow in the dark Virgin Mary, then Lourdes is the destination for you. I wondered what Bernadette the humble shepherdess would make of it today.
I spent some time wondering along the alley of lighted candles and taking the waters before using the free WiFi at the tourist office to find a campsite.
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Notre Dame du Rosaire de Lourdes
Wednesday 8 June
It was a good campsite but I pitched too near the main road so rather than the usual bird song it was the noise of traffic this morning that awoke me. I set off for the post office to send John his glasses. It would appear that post offices are the same the world over. Quiet places of queuing people nervously asking how to send parcels or withdraw pensions. The lady behind the counter could have easily been the same as those in England.
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Looking down over Lourdes from Pic du Je.
I continued through Lourdes which improved as it stretched east past the town hall and gardens to the base of the funicular railway. I could not resist one more mountain and so ascended Pic du Jeur. I shared the front cabin with a brightly leather clad man of about my age and his BMX. At the top is a world class racing track to the bottom.
Although not a huge mountain at 900 meters the 360 degree view was impressive despite a little heat haze. I watched as a paraglider took off from the side to share the thermals with the buzzards soaring above.
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It was a good descent down and a pleasure to have a muddy rocky path with mountain views once more. I descended slowly, meeting up with the GR78 in the woods at the foot of the mountain. True to form it soon became a path of tarmac and this continued over two long hills with a major diversion around some water works. It was a long hot day, hard on the feet. Eventually I pitched the tent on the hill overlooking Bagnères de Bigorre by the hunters cabin. I watched the sunset on the mountain side and the horses eating in the meadow yards from the tent. I was already missing the mountains and the pain in my feet kept me awake that night but the clear sky meant I had an uninterrupted view of the stars, planets and a satellite passing over head.
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A change of tack

Monday 6 June
“I am a fool who with his longing for love and tenderness runs up cold mountains.”
– Reinhold Messner
I met two English bikers at the campsite, to whom I had lent a corkscrew last night. They had no set itinerary but thought they might just bike through the mountains and down to Girona. The serendipity appealed. This lifted me a little from my own thoughts of simply racing to the coast and made me think about my options at this point.
Sophie back at base had thoughtfully put together a new route for me which used an old pilgrims path, the GR78, following it northeast where it would meet the Cathar trail and then onto the coast at Narbonne.
I picked up my now fully charged phone which the campsite owner, a white bearded grandfather, had kindly charged for me overnight and set off for the town square and a bus from Laruns. There was plenty of time to kill until the bus so I grabbed some groceries, a phone adaptor, bread, breakfast, camping gaz from the hardware store, dried sausage from the butcher and some tins of cassoulet. The rucksack, Beast, was now ridiculously heavy .
With time still to spare I explored the Museum of the Pyrenees where I ticked off all the animals that I had managed to see and even get a souvenir T-shirt.
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The bus north cost all of two euros and I got off at Aurudy. Two stops too early it transpired, but the walk up through the village (why is it always up?) was picturesque.
I started to walk following the GR78, the Camino de Santiago but heading east, down through the woods. Shortly after this I came across an enormous cart horse who was blocking the track. We managed to negotiate my safe passage with some friendly pats on the nose.
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The path soon became tarmac and wound through a succession of pretty, medieval but similar villages. St Columba for example dates back to the 1100’s. The Camino seems to be easy walking, usually tarmac straight and flat. The trails are preserved as UNESCO sites of historic importance. This reminded me of the M2 motorway in Kent which runs along the old Pilgrims Way from Rochester to Canterbury – but it doesn’t make it a footpath.
Every village and many strategic points are now marked with crosses and crucifixes and I was grateful for those villages that had not turned their fountains into fire hydrants and the heat today reached 30 degrees. I was very much in rural France with farming much in evidence. Some of the lanes were clearly ancient and laid with cobbles, and I passed several ruins of monasteries and churches.
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As the afternoon wore on the thunder rolled all around, often behind or to the front of me. I stopped to shelter under a tree by the church in Asson when a small portly man in his underpants, who clearly had a dental phobia, thew open a window shutter and asked me if I was looking for the communal gîte. I wasn’t.
Two hundred yards later the skies opened and the surprisingly warm rain water came flooding down in torrents. I retraced my steps and sheepishly asked the small man, Lawrence, about the offer of the gîte . After a bit of grumbling about not telephoning ahead, he dressed himself and in the pouring rain took me round to the lady who had the key. I thanked him profusely and paid the lady ten euros as I didn’t have a pilgrims card to stamp.
That night I shared a small room in the gite with Janice and John,  two Catholic pilgrims from Melbourne, Australia who had just come west from from Lourdes. He was a retired accountant. We chatted about a good many things and exchanged tips on accommodation, blisters and food – all the important things for long distance walkers. John had left his sunglasses at their last lunch stop and I promised to look out for them the next day.

The Fall

Saturday 4th June

I broke camp and it wasn’t long before I was pursued up the path by a herd of cows off to their summer pastures. It was to be a day of hurrying and feeling that I couldn’t stop. There were more stunning views when I eventually got to the top, passing a cabana (mountain hut) on the way by a divergence of the GR10, which in hindsight I should have returned to. I continued along the contour again passing many gorgeous flowers of every colour and shape and another field of marmots.

The snow started to thicken here shortly and I foolishly climbed around it. Not easy with a full 15kg rucksack on. I then had to take my boots off to ford a fast flowing stream but still I pressed on. I headed up through the snow field conscious of the large nimbus clouds coming over the mountain range behind me. I kept going and with sun fully out I started to see pink as didn’t have sun glasses on. Too late I realised that with my shadow in front of me at midday, I was headed up a south face and the north face was likely to be worse. It was. Much, much worse.

As I crested the top at 2700 m I realised my mistake as thick snow lay everywhere. Then the clouds and fog descended and for the second time I was in a white out. This was to prove far worse than the last time. I followed the GPS and headed from dark shape in the mist to the next dark shape that would loom out as I slowly and painfully descended. I was zig-zagging and changing my single walking pole from hand to hand trying to remember to keep it on the upper most side of the slope.

Suddenly my feet gave way and down I went tobogganing on my backside and rucksack. thundering downwards, I managed to roll onto my front and dig my hands into the snow but that did nothing to reduce my speed. I didn’t have an ice axe. I rolled over onto to my back and lay there, plummeting down, thinking my last words in this world are going to be SHIIIIIT. Finally I did manage to dig my feet in and came to stop shortly before the Lac d’Angles – otherwise they may have changed the name to Lac d’Anglais.

Luckily nothing was broken or lost and by some amazing coincidence I was still on the right path albeit I had descended 700 metres in a matter of minutes.  In my shorts I was freezing, wet through and my hands were burning with the cold. My mouth was cracked and sore.

I decided to press on and look for somewhere warm to get changed. Bizarrely out of the fog I heard dogs barking and met three young French army cadets and their young Alsatian puppies camped on an island of grass in the snow. We exchanged snow news (which wasn’t good news in this case) and I pressed on down, anxious to get out of the cloud and my cold, damp clothes. Following a welcome, brief sunny period, to add insult to injury it began to rain. I passed a shepherd’s hut but decided to not go in as it looked damp.  An hour later I arrived at dreary, deserted Gabas. I pressed on for Eaux-Bonnes but camped half way at the base of the funicular.

Tomorrow I will have to make some tough decisions about the next steps to the coast.