Travel writer Tom Leaman writes about some of Exeter's lesser-known treasures.Written by Tom Leaman on 6th April 2018
Walking the Pyrenees | Day 1
Travel writer Hal Keelin walks us through his first exciting day in the Pyrenees Mountains
“You’ve got a tent that weighs under a kilo!”, I scoffed down the phone line with baffled amusement to my friend of 12 years, Dan.
“Yes, it’s my dad’s, … he’s just got back from the Picos de Europa, it weighs nothing!” he replied.
“...wow... “I thought, then said aloud, “those must be some light poles, mines nearly 3 kg, and I thought that was good!
“Yeah mate, it may be slightly smaller than yours though so when you come over on Tuesday we can compare them, it’s worth considering”
This was one of many slightly rushed exchanges me and a great long-term friend Dan had shared as we planned our first walking trip together. Our plan? To walk part of the south-western section of the Gr 10 trail which runs along the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Dan had just returned from a week’s trip to Krakow in Poland with his musical ensemble, not to mention completed a diploma on the violin only a few months back. So, it’s fair to say he’d had other things on his mind when it came to planning our big trip. On the other hand, I had just completed my first year at university, and, finishing my last exam a couple of months before, was relishing the opportunity to get stuck in with the planning.
It worked out well, to be honest. My mum and dad had done a similar trip some years before I was born. With the dusted 1992 edition of the southwestern French Pyrenees outstretched, coffee mug holding it in place, I pondered over the best possible route. We had only a rough indication of where we wanted to go and just about the only thing we were sure of was that we’d end in the Spanish bullfighting town of Pamplona, for a well-deserved rest. This, we soon gathered, was surprisingly a tricky part of the planning process. I read snippets of the rough guide to the Pyrenees, listened to my dad’s advice, and made extensive use of the blogs on the mountain range regularly updated by locals to try and figure the best starting point: the best places to go, certain areas where fascinating wildlife was etc. There was still one troublesome problem: Pamplona. Pamplona was a ridiculous distance away from our desired walking route which accommodated for our other factors, not to mention on the opposite side of the border. I ummed and arred this tricky section of the planning phase for a few days and with hindsight maybe should have scrapped the Pamplona idea there and then. Nevertheless, at the time, we were fixated on combining a long trek with a city break and tapas.
Finally, we settled on what we hoped was a near faultless plan. Previously we had hoped to save money by getting the Eurostar to Paris and from their taking an eight-hour coach to the southern French town of Pau, where we would then catch a local bus down the valley to the Midi Pyrenees. To my amazement and delight, I found that it was far cheaper to just fly straight from Gatwick to Toulouse than bother with any sort of arduous and frugal coach journey. From Toulouse, we would get a regional train to Lannemezan, followed by a local bus down the Valle D’aure to the French Pyrenean foothills. Here our walk would start. Picking up the Gr10 in the pretty valley village of Vielle-Aure and following those red and white trail markers we would come to love so much, until we reached a smaller but similar valley village by the name of Etsaut almost 150 miles due west. While at Etsaut we could pick up a regional bus link to Oloron Sainte Marie, pick up a train there to Bayonne and then a bus finally to Pamplona. If only it proved to be that easy.
After enduring an hour’s flight delay, and the subsequent missing of our booked train connection from Toulouse to Lannemezan, that first day wasn’t exactly smooth. ‘It’s a test of what’s to come!’ I thought silently and repeated to Dan aloud later. We lunched in a busy roadside restaurant opposite the river that cuts through Toulouse, and, with our newly assembled bundles of euros in hand, we made the most of our short but extended stay in the French working town. We ordered wine and two plat de jours, chatting enthusiastically about what was to come. Both buzzing with childlike eagerness.
Some hours later we were finally snaking through foothills and riverside French villages. The characteristically petite charming windows of small tidy cottages scattered amongst valleys. Much like I had experienced before, these towns, that landscape, was different to the one I had pictured as I scowered over village names and valleys in the maps. It was greener for one and reminded me of the Lake District in places with its scattered settlements at the base of lush hills. I half expected some enormous lake to emerge around each bend the rattily local bus took. Then again there were elements that reminded me I was in a different place: the hills were green and high like the Lake District, but where the tree line was evident halfway up those hills of England, these foothills of the Pyrenees had no treeline. The entire surface area of each mound was covered in a dark green, while a lighter shade encompassed the land below it. The effect of this, to my wonder, was that it gave the landscape a remarkable south American / Incan nature, and this, I had not envisaged. After snaking down the valley some more, we arrived at our starting point, Vielle Aure. It was a still, mild evening with the sun setting due west behind us as we stepped off the bus. Its fading light, receding behind a huge rising valley, the very one we would be walking up the next day.
Despite feeling slightly groggy from a long day’s travel, I was excited for what lay in store. We found a campsite with relative ease, and, after a slightly embarrassing exchange with the site manager in our limited French, we pitched up in good time to find a place to eat for the evening. There was one small supermarket in town, but that had closed some hours before. Walking back the way we had come and down a lane that ran beside grassy farmland, we were pleased to find a modest-looking establishment. Perhaps it would provide light relief for our growling stomachs. The waitress, slightly taken aback by the presence of two fresh-faced English backpackers, was nevertheless charmed by us. She laughed and slapped me on the shoulder with a “dako!” as I fumbled over the- deux margarita si vous plait avec deux beer – order. Maybe I should have brushed up on my French vocab before we left, I thought silently. After a few beers and the accompanied enthusiastic chatter had died down, we were ready for bed. After an excruciatingly long wait for Dan while he excused himself for the toilet, we paid for the bill or at least some of it. A boyish smirk was beginning to overcome my face. The bill was remarkably cheap, especially for two meals and 4 beers. I kept quiet until we had both walked out of the restaurant. Then I nudged Dan in the back and whispered…
“They left out two beers mate!”
“What... what do you mean…” Came Dan’s flustered but amused reply. I was trying hard to contain myself.
“From the bill... they left out two beers...” My voice quivering, not knowing how he would take this major indecency.
He grinned with embarrassment.
“HAHA, oh shit I’m surprised they’re not out searching for us tomorrow mate”
“It was only two beers ...” I replied sternly.
“I take it you didn’t see the state of that toilet when we left then, did you?”
Our cackles and grins illuminated the dusky lane between pastures back to camp. My dreams only slightly disturbed by the vision of a very angry looking French waiter furiously shouting beside a scowling policeman standing over the tent in the morning.