Tag Archives: France

Spain/France – Jonquera, Trouillas & the road to Limousin             

We sneaked away from the watery paradise of Empuriabrava back inland, with the idea of heading back to France. Our road leading out of Spain, the N11 north from Figueres, was lined with what appeared to be prostitutes, glamour girls in high heels and very little else, waving and bending over provocatively for the passing traffic.  There was one woman every 100 metres or so, each taking ownership of a junction or a scruffy parking lay-by.  Initially, we couldn’t decide if they were actually working this stretch of road, or if it was some sort of protest statement / art project*.   (* They were most definitely prostitutes, as I read later that this border town is the sleazy centre of the Spanish sex industry. )   Most had an eastern European look, some looking grumpy and bored, others over-enthusiastic.  It was certainly a strange and unexpected sight in the pre-lunch sunshine on Good Friday morning.  We couldn’t quite imagine the clientele they were expecting to draw in at this time of day, in such public surroundings, but there must be demand.

Trouillas - Olive farm shop

A few hours later we were in a very different setting, parked up in a friendly Olive Farm on the outskirts of Trouillas, near to Perpignan.  There were no gesticulating ladies of the day nearby, but instead a plethora of olive oil products to taste, products to browse and sunshine to enjoy.  The producer, Les Oliviers de la Canterrane, had a wonderful free aire and, after making a few tasty purchases, we settled in for an afternoon of lazy sun-worshipping.  The weather we had hoped for had finally arrived, just after we left Spain behind.  We were blissfully alone most of the day, but around 4pm a string of vans suddenly appeared, slowly bringing the Olive Farm visitors today up to eight strong.

Lautrec (walking route)

After a slow morning we said our goodbyes, heading north-west.  We followed the main road north to Narbonne and then took back roads, cutting through the gorgeous Haut-Languedoc Regional Nature Park.  The road was wide and clear, empty of other traffic and perfectly undulating for a combination of easy driving and beautiful views.  It didn’t hurt that the sun was back shining brightly and we settled in to fully enjoy the drive.  Looking around for pretty places to visit on our route, we settled on the village of Lautrec, north of Castres.  After a few tries we found a simple parking area suitable for motorhomes just outside the village walls (43.704847, 2.139952 ) and wandered up the cobbled streets to explore.  As is usual, we gravitated first to the stone church and the neat surrounding squares.

Lautrec (town view)

We were eventually drawn to the highest point, reaching the mound where the Moulin à vent de la Sallette sat.  We circled through their gardens, watching as the views over the countryside unfurled in front of us.  There was a table d’orientation on the top of the hill, pointing out landmarks as far back as the Pyrenees.  We stood a while and picked out the route we had taken to arrive here, both on road from Spain and on foot through the village.  The windmill was available for visits but we declined in favour of roaming their brightly flowering gardens.  We dropped back into the neat stone village and passed through the narrow streets, slowly making our way back to where Benny was parked.

Lautrec (nicky and windmill)

Lautrec (Nicky and town)

Labastide-Marnhac (aire)

In late afternoon we stopped at a small aire in Labastide-Marnhac, just short of Cahors.  This was to be our final stop before arriving back home.  The village was hosting a wedding at the local château and we could hear their announcements and music. On one occasion a long procession of tooting cars slowly passed, marking the happy couple either arriving or leaving.  Otherwise, it was entirely serene, the surrounding trees filled with bright blossom.  The only other notable occurrence was when a Belgium couple, fully settled in with the best corner site in the aire since before we arrived, packed up their awning and left around 8pm; to go where?  It seemed a strange call so late on.  But we enjoyed one last night of simplicity and quiet before returning to our long list of jobs to do at home.

A&N x

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France/Spain – Andorra, Camprodon & Olot (part 1)

We finished strimming the garden, reclaiming our pool from winter algae and tiling our cottage bathroom.  With cut hands and tired bodies we threw together some clothes and provisions, locked our shutters and drove south.  We needed a break, and the blue seas of the Costa Brava were calling to us.  Stopping only for a quick lunch at a farm aire whose shop was closed during our short stay, we inched our way along the map on straight roads.  We collided with rush hour traffic around Toulouse, snarled and static, causing us to reach our chosen destination after 6pm.

Auterive - free aire

We parked in the free aire at Auterive, ( 43.351670n, 1.476547e ) on the banks of the Ariège. The aire was pleasant enough, but the town itself, despite its grand historic undertones, looked scruffy and unloved.  A Netto was the sole remaining shop open, and buying milk and potatoes we watched as a disappointed chap had his card declined.  With no other means of payment, he sadly handed back his large basket full of vodka, wine and beers.  That moment of stolen promise, the disappointment, no easy out tonight, summed up the town for us.

After a night where we began re-watching Game of Thrones from Season 6 in preparation of the final instalments, we left early with the intention of lunching in the principality of Andorra.  We were crossing the Pyrenees into Spain and visiting there, especially when it was only 6km out of our way, was the least we could do.  The day began grey and monotone, not the warming blues we had hoped for when heading south.  We followed slow hairpins and narrow roads up into the mountains, climbing steadily through stone villages towards bluer skies and snowy peaks. The occasional car coming down the mountain was layered deep with snow, fresh from a recent dumping.

We turned off towards El Pas de la Casa and soon reached a customs border checkpoint that wasn’t manned and drove straight through.  We parked simply in a huge car-park to the side of a long row of buses and walked up into town.  I had been here once before, on a skiing trip more than twenty years ago.  My memory was hazy yet little seemed to have changed, but I certainly had.  I remembered being impressed then, but soon reached different conclusions this day.  It was full of shops selling tobacco, booze and perfumes, like an open-air departure lounge.  Some shops even had giant Toblerone that I thought only existed in airports.  We walked the grey sludgy streets, avoiding the copious drips from melting snow and smiling wryly at the fact we had planned a trip to sunny climes and sandy beaches and now found ourselves in a seedy ski resort.  But despite our reaction to the resort we availed ourselves of the tax-free shopping, snapping up 4 litres of choice spirits and a litre of port all for less than €25.

Camprodon - roman bridge

We arrived in Camprodon around 4pm, after a winding and tiring drive.  The aire ( 42.312331n, 2.362839e ) was empty of other motorhomes, with only a few other cars as company for Benny.  We headed out immediately for an evening hike/run up to Sant Antoni, a chapel on top of a local hill.  It was only meant to be a six kilometre loop, but we had failed to notice the 425m of height gain it contained, so the way up was more a slow walk through steep forest trails over gnarled roots.  At least we were rewarded with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside from the abandoned chapel grounds before a really enjoyable 4km downhill run back to town, a great leg-loosener.

Camprodon - hilltop view

That night we were awakened around 1am by a huge crashing sound.  Just behind us a boy-racer recklessly driving loops of the circular aire had ripped the entire front grille and right-hand wing off another parked motorhome.  We felt so sorry for them, the fright of the collision must have been incredible.  The assailant made a speedy getaway in the darkness and they were left to deal with the wreckage, the police and the ensuing insurance issues.  Nightmare.

Olot - defensive towers

After a lie-in in Camprodon, we arrived in nearby Olot under an empty blue sky, bright and clear.  We were here to visit the Garroxta Volcanic region and enjoy some day hiking.  We found easy parking just south of the centre, adjacent to the river ( 42.180199n, 2.493597e ) and walked in town from there.  We were hot and sticky in shorts and shirts, yet many locals were still wrapped in duvet jackets or thick woollen jumpers. A quick stop in the tourist office gained us a map of a 2-hour walk of all the sights, including the extinct volcanoes we had come to see.  We set off through the town, finding the base of the nearest caldera, it set in a sea of black volcanic ash, like Tenerife.

Olot - Nicky and Scarlet

The path spiralled around the hillside as it rose, opening up different vistas over Olot and its surrounding countryside. We passed several defensive towers, built in 1845 to protect the town against a repeat of a year-long occupation it suffered after the Third Carlist War.  The 120m diameter Montsacopa crater is unique in the area for having retained its circular form rather than having being eroded by later eruptions or disruptive lava flows.  The rim was once home to three separate chapels, of which only one, Capilla de Sant Francesc, now remains.  It is mostly a ruin, its walled courtyard home to a very modern, sharply detailed cafe that contrasts deeply with the wasting chapel stonework.

Olot - view from volcano rim
Olot - Parroquia Sant Pere Martir

We dropped back into the town and crossed to the next volcanic lump, rising up many steps to pass the monolithic 1950s church Parroquia Sant Pere Mártir.  The path then led around the edge of Volcá Montolivet through shady forest before opening out to a wide vista over the south-west portion of Olot. Here we passed a group of local artists searching for the ideal spot to set up their easels. As we returned along the river, we noticed rows of tents ahead and discovered it was an open air, one day only craft beer festival.  Yes, it would have been rude not to.  There were a dozen or so producers displaying, each with four to eight beers each on offer.  We blagged a few tasters in our new glasses before committing to spend each of our four pre-paid beer tokens.

The sun was blasting, everyone was relaxing and chatting.  The noise of rapid-fire Spanish was almost overwhelming, but a welcome contrast to the tranquil reflection of our walk.  With plans turned upside down, we sat sipping beer and munching chips in the glorious sun, enjoying the cheer. These impromptu moments, unplanned and spontaneous, are what make life on the road special.  Thirsts quenched and keenly aware we had a 10km race in the morning, we tore ourselves away and slowly returned to Benny.  We later moved to a campsite close to the start of our race, Font de les Tries ( 42.189736n, 2.509779e ), a rather scruffy and noisy spot not really set up for short touring stopovers, but we soon made our small corner of it into a cosy nest and enjoyed some afternoon downtime.

A&N x

2019 Catch-up – What we’ve been up to lately…

Wow, it’s been over three months since our last blog post.  Time certainly moves on quickly when you fill your days.  We decided that this blog would be better suited for the recording of our exploratory travels in Benny, and that intermittent updates of our daily grind working on house projects were deemed not interesting enough to post about.  Instead, we have gathered together a few of our highlights of 2019 so far, to help capture a smattering of the interesting, noteworthy places we have passed through and a few events we have recently attended.

Angôuleme International Comic Festival (January)

Each year Angôuleme hosts one of the largest international Comic Festivals in the world.  Despite Nicky not being a particular fan of the genre, after some gentle persuading she was keen to visit and see what the festival could offer.  We thought of staying over, but decided to make it a day trip as the city is only an hour from our base.  The town itself was quite beautiful, set on a steep-sided hill dominated by a cathedral, and absolutely thronged with people.   There were many main exhibition venues spread out around the city, with free buses carting the crowds between each. The breadth and scale of each exhibition hall was incredible.  No longer the sole domain of superheroes, the comic genre reflects every conceivable topic; suicide to pornography, biting political commentary to historic tales, incestuous abuse to supernatural thrillers.  Every topic is described in detail, in a multitude of styles, the lined black inks of noir whodunnits through photo-realistic renderings of fantasy creatures to the large-eyed cartoon dramas of angst-ridden Manga teenagers.  We watched skilled artists personalise purchases of their novels by adding requested character artwork and personalised messages to any blank pages, and long lines queuing patiently for such a prize.  It was a great day out, fascinating to learn more about the process and the artwork and see a few of the big names behind the comics.  The only downside was the that almost all displayed comics were in French; I had held hopes that at a large international festival there would have been more availability of popular comics in English.

Chartres, cathedral city (February)

Heading home for our annual visit, check-ups and servicing dates, we stopped off just short of Chartres in Marboué, leaving our city visit until the next morning.  Here I had a hilly 10km training run around the nearby villages.  The next morning we found easy parking on the south of Chartres at a long gravel car-park that doubled as an aire, then walked along the gently meandering river an easy thirty minutes to reach the celebrated Cathedral quarter.  The city was quiet and still in the early morning, the sky a solid undisturbed blue, and only a few other walkers and joggers were around.  We walked slowly through the historic streets and enjoyed a visit inside the cathedral, marvelling at the intricacy of the carvings.

Trip back to the UK (February-March)
After Chartres, we competed the road north to park at Saint-Nicolas d’Aliermont, our usual pre-ferry stopover.  Here we went for another 10km run that proved much hillier than we’d expected, before crossing early the following morning.  Once back in Blighty our days were packed with appointments with dentists, opticians, MOTs, Benny servicing, and more.  We fitted in bouts of visiting friends, hopping from High Wycombe to central London to Northampton to Thaxted, before catching a flight from Stansted to Belfast.  There were more family visits around Lisburn, Ballinderry & Portadown, interspersed with lough shore runs, an American football game (more below) and a trip to my nephew’s student digs in Whiteabbey.

Craigavon Cowboys – our First American football game (March)

It was a freezing day with a bitter north wind on a playing field in the People’s Park, Portadown.  My nephew David was playing his recently discovered new sport with his local team, the Craigavon Cowboys.  We were there to support.   It was a little confusing at the start, not having realised that they only had one goal set up, effectively playing on a shortened pitch, so each change of possession required a direction and position change, with the team in possession always playing towards the one end-zone.  It was never fully clear what would happen in event of an interception, but I’m sure the black and white striped professional-looking officials had it all worked out.  With player shortages, my nephew played in both offense and defence sets, enjoying lots of game time.  The cold wind and less players to swap ensured less standing around time between plays, allowing the game to flow quicker than normal, to be constantly moving and action-packed.  We enjoyed the spectacle of it all.

After our return flight to England, we stayed with Nicky’s dad in Downham Market before reaching Nicky’s mum near Louth.  Here we had a few days of relative quiet, several long runs, a spot of tree surgery, and several days of opening and checking through the remainder of our packed possessions to see what could return with us to our French house.  We had a great night of comedy at Louth theatre, even if we had front row seats, an instant involvement in the show, and became the soft targets of several witty one-liners.   Then too soon again we were off, spending nights with friends in Market Harborough, Northampton and St Albans before finally reaching the south coast at Peacehaven to await our ferry.  We saw a monument marking the southern-most point of the Greenwich Meridian on UK soil and enjoyed our last fish and chips before returning (on an earlier 1am-5am ferry as our morning sailing was cancelled due to high winds) to France.

Nantes & its mechanical menagerie (March)

Nantes - visit (courtyard)

After our late ferry switch and a wild, rough crossing, we were missing a night’s sleep but a day ahead of schedule.  We paused at Fougères to catch up on sleep, then checked into a campsite in the centre of Nantes as a birthday treat.  Here we watched the exciting finale of the Six Nations, then the next morning caught a tram to the centre to explore the sights.  The Île des Machines, our main target, did not open until 2pm, so we had plenty of time to see the historic centre. There was a race on, a pink charity event, with many thousands dressed up, and we wished we’d known and could have participated.  Instead we became spectators, seeing the crowds of happy runners from all angles as we wandered the city.

Nantes - visit (elephant)

After lunch we made our way to the Île des Machines and queued to enter the venue, seeing the mechanical spider, sloth, crane and giant ant, amongst many others.  We climbed in one prototype  branch of a giant tree, the next extension to the park, due to be completed in 2020.  But the main event for us was the wandering Elephant, strutting and spraying at tourists on its slow trundle around the grounds.  A grand spectacle.

Marathon de Cheverny (April)

We drove to Cheverny on a slow Friday afternoon, leaving us time to find the designated free aire by the cemetery and settle in before the racing began.  Nicky was running the 10km on Saturday afternoon, and I was running my first marathon on the Sunday.  Each race was to begin in the grounds of the Château de Cheverny, an impressive house famous now for being the inspiration for Tintin’s ancestral home in Hergé’s comics.  Nicky ran well, beating her expectations to finish in 48 minutes, a new post-back operation PB. The pressure was on for me to meet my target.

The day began with a blanket of chilling cloud, dropping the temperature to 4 degs, before warming up slowly through the morning.  All my long training runs were through cold winter months, and a hot sunny day would have rendered them for naught as I wilt badly in heat.  Unfortunately, my mind failed early -I knew exactly what not to do, yet did it anyhow.  I began much too fast, still feeling I was going slow and backwards as many were wildly rushing past me.  It was only at the 10k point that I realised I was under 50 mins, far ahead of my projected pace schedule.  I reined it in, but it was too late. I was closer to my schedule on halfway, at 1hr 48 mins, but by 25k I was done.  My legs were lead, refusing to turn over properly.  I had never felt this level of fatigue on long training runs, so put it down to the over-fast start.  I paid dearly for it, struggling through the next 12k, then with 5k to go I ran hard again, forgetting the pain and pushing through to make it end.  I just made it in under my 4hr target, at 3hr 56mins.

We were running to support a charity – WalktheWalk – as Nicky’s friend Emma was recently diagnosed and currently undergoing treatment.  Our Justgiving page is still open should any kind readers wish to donate.  Many thanks.

So, that’s a few of our recent highlights.  In between, we have been catching up with friends ( Hi to Dave & Kate, and Chris & Peter ) reading, writing, painting, sketching, playing music, watching movies and completing DIY projects.  And running, lots and lots of running.  Our swim training will start again soon, with the warmer weather and water. Our wetsuits are certainly well rested, having gone unused since last September, and our bikes have been left unpedalled throughout autumn and winter.  With my marathon completed our running will likely taper back to only a couple of times a week, leaving time for more cycling and swimming.   This week we have a garden to cut back, dig over and plant out and then bathroom to tile, then we’re off to explore the Costa Brava for a few weeks.  Phew!

A&N x

Spain / France – Crossing the Pyrénees to Pau

The building traffic noise in awakening Pamolona arrived swiftly, shaking us early from our slumber.  The rain had died down to a soft drizzle and a murky grey smudge of sky filled our view.  We serviced quickly and, after a brief hiccup attempting to exit the aire, we became just another slowly rolling box in the wet morning rush through the city.

Pyrenees - (viewing the road ahead)

It didn’t take long to escape and reach roads of quiet isolation, rising higher into the mountains.  Suddenly we were in an area of deep forest on high hills, exposed rock faces set in an otherwise carpet of green, looking like the Lost World.  We were the only vehicle for miles on an empty sliver of grey twisting itself upwards through the rocky autumnal landscape.  Rich explosions of yellow, like fireworks, created a fleeting, speckled beauty as we drove past. It was a sublime drive.  We had chosen to follow the shortest route back into France, first east from Pamplona then north east via the Puerto de Larrau pass, dropping directly into France and on to Pau.  Or so we thought, at least.

Pyrenees - (beautiful autumn colours)

Patches of snow between the trees and ferns became more numerous as we rose higher.   Later, light snow, almost horizontal in the wind, fell across our path as we cautiously approached the col.  Right at the top, the country border, we discovered that the French had not cleared their side and that thick drifts had already obscured the road ahead. The steep drop-off sides of the narrow road were indistinguishable from the surface, the layer of snow uniforming everything.  No way we were chancing driving down that, even if only for a few kilometres, so we had to delicately turn and retrace our way back down the Spanish side and follow a lower road east, to Isaba.  This was the crossroads point for another mountain col we could attempt, so we stopped for lunch to consider our options.

Pyrenees - (snow lining the road)

Pyrenees - (nearing the col)

Rather than return over the mountain on another narrow pass that may also be shut or uncleared, we decided to turn south, deeper into Spain.  We tracked back to the main road, a trip a few hours longer but much easier and safer driving.  As a reward for our prudence, the road back was lined with even more impressive, colourful trees, a glimmering fire-burst of yellows, reds and oranges.  Over four hours after leaving Pamplona we rejoined the main road only 40km east of the city, a lengthy but beautiful detour behind us.  From here it was all decent motorway back up into the mountains, through a long tunnel rather than a col into France, then a drop down to the city of Pau.

Pau - (tour de france installation)

We headed first to a large car-park with free parking for up to seven days.  From here we crossed to a leafy park, heading for a signed funicular to carry us to the raised city streets, but found it closed.  On the way we discovered a bright Tour de France spiral installation, with illuminated information tableaux celebrating each year’s winner.  We learned that Pau has hosted the Tour seventy times in the last eighty-one editions of the race – acting as a key entry point to the challenging Pyrénees stages.  We stood in the rain and read a few select years, noting the black tableaux for uncontested (war) years and that all of Lance Armstrong ‘wins’ were still included in the display; all very interesting.

Pau - (place royale)

Pau - (hotel de ville)

We climbed up the hill to reach a paved boulevard that looked more like an elegant sea-front.  It offered incredible views out to the valley below and the mountains behind.  We wandered to the Place Royale, with its avenue of squared trees, that led to the Hôtel de Ville.  The town was quiet, everything closed, and it was only now that we remembered it was a bank holiday.  The quiet emptiness added a grandeur as the architecture of the buildings, rather than the commerce they normally housed, became our main focus.  Pau had grand Parisian-like streets, wide and elegant, with lively touches of Art Deco curves.

Pau - (city streets)

Pau - (chateau de Pau entrance)

We walked through and around the Castle gardens, taking in the view over the western portion of the city.  There were very few other visitors braving the rain and we enjoyed the calming peace of our directionless stroll.  We doubled back through more grand streets to see the tall spires of Relais Saint Jacques and the adjacent courthouse set in a large square hosting several statues.  From here we reached a large shopping plaza, glitzy and new, contrasting with the surrounding architecture, but definitely working as a modern public meeting space.  Even in the dull rains Pau continued to impress us.

Pau - (church and courts)

Pau - (palais beaumont)

We returned to the raised boulevard walkway that spanned the length of the centre and again took in the wonderful views south, then we walked east to the far edge of the centre.  A welcome blue sky made a brief appearance as we approached the Palais Beaumont, before the familiar grey descended once more.  We walked around Parc Beaumont, passing empty play areas and lakes, before the returning rain decided for us that our walking tour should come to an end.  We carefully headed down several flights of steep, slippy, leaf-strewn steps to return to Benny for our last miles north.

A&N x

France – Bayonne & the ’13km de la Nive’ race

We left La Jourdanie late, the packing for a three week trip taking longer than anticipated.  We had thought we were nearly ready, but the final essential items to add still ate up our morning – so much for an early start in Benny.  We were finally away by 11am, heading south, pausing only to empty our recycling tubs as we passed through Châlus.  Now-familiar roads carried us to Thiviers and around the west of Périgueux, where we called into a Benimar dealer to see about a few niggling items, forgetting that all but one were actually Fiat issues.  Large plops of rain dulled the day as we passed Bergerac vines with the first hints of autumn colours, set in fields lined with golden red ferns fluffed up like bright plumage.  We passed more familiar villages, places with aires we’d once stayed at, others we’d cycled to or visited on walks.  Many looked different, lessened in the muggy rain, not matching the perfect memory of the clear blue skies filled with warming sunshine our memories dredged up, or had perhaps created.

Caumont - canal banks

We crossed the calm flow of the rivers Isle, Dordogne and the Garonne.  We reached our first overnight stop, Caumont, a small free aire on the banks of a canal flowing parallel to the Garonne, the same stretch of canal where we spent much of our time running and cycling during our La Reole house-sit.  We parked up under tall plane trees laden with yellow leaves and reflected on the simple serenity, the instant hit of peace that can be found in some well-positioned aires.  Inevitably the church bells began and we started to reconsider, but even their incessant ringing was tuneful enough to soothe us rather than annoy.  We enjoyed a short walk along the canal banks, watching the drifting yellow leaves drown in the milky green water, before pizza, darkness and bed.

Bayonne - (beach by aire)

The next morning brought a longish drive, on ruler-straight roads through scrub and wild woodland.  We were back in the true south-west, empty and sparse, with only the brief oasis of small villages breaking up the monotony. We had vague notions to visit the only large town on our route, Mont-de-Marsan, but on arrival it was solid with parked cars for miles in all directions and we saw nowhere easy to stop.  Rather than loop around and spend time hunting out a place to park, we kept on, back on the long straight road to the bottom corner of France.  We stopped a little to the north west of Bayonne at a paid aire (€6 / night) in Anglet, on the coast.  It was two minutes from Biarritz’s north beach, where we spent most of the afternoon watching the wild, powerful waves break hard on the sand.

Bayonne - (playing on beach)

We returned for dinner then headed back to the coast to be bombarded by an incredible sunset on a busy beachfront boulevard.  Walkers, runners, skateboarders, surfers floating in the pinkish water framed by a backdrop of wild red sky, families walking dogs, drinkers, eaters and selfie-takers.  Active and vibrant, thoughtful and serene, the only negative were the occasional swarms of roaming sandflies. Many water-babies, tanned and tattooed, were standing wrapped in fleece towels, shivering gently after a full day of attempting to surf that perfect wave.  There was a wonderful vibe, chilled and easy, a proper community feel for the entire length of the shore.  Very different groups were mingling peacefully to enjoy the warm autumn evening and the exploding sunset. We felt privileged to be here at this moment, the fall of the dice aligning perfectly for us.  We have to remember to keep appreciating it all, this glorious freedom we have.

Bayonne - (beach view)

Bayonne - (sun setting over surkers)

The crashing thuds of the waves kept us awake, seemingly creeping closer and closer in the dark, unknown stillness of the night.  We finally slept and awoke late, a welcome benefit of our fluid lifestyle.  We readied our bikes and cycled off, towards Bayonne; we had a race to complete our registration for and a city to discover.  We zagged across empty roads, passing hugely impressive houses, both ancient and brand new, hidden behind high walls and tall trees.  We reached an off-road area with a network of criss-crossing parkland trails, pine needles and ferns draped over a deep sandy base.  We climbed up small, steep hills, dunes really, with our back wheels spinning out in deep sand, making the rises that much harder to summit than we’d expected, or hoped for.

Bayonne - (pink sunset glow)

We headed first to the Stade La Floride, where we would catch a bus early Sunday to take us to the start of the race, only to find this was not the actual location of the registration.  We doubled back into town and after a few more false stops we located the correct place on Rue de Basque just moments before it shut for a two-hour lunch.  We happily collected our T-shirts and race numbers, safely tucked them away and were then ready to explore the city.  First impressions – Bayonne was a delight.  The day had reached 28 degrees before lunchtime, unexpected by us in mid-October. A produce market filled a long, thin plaza set along a stretch of the river Nive, and narrow streets brimming with boutique shops and busy cafés led off in every direction.

Bayonne - (city streets)

Bayonne - (in the streets)

Five or six storey townhouses lined these streets, their colourful shutters closed against the sun, some timber-framed, many with stone-arched passageways at ground level utilised as commercial premises. The domineering twin peaks of Bayonne cathedral, the Gothic Cathédrale de Sante-Marie, were always visible above the rooftops. A wonderfully colourful and fragrant permanent covered market selling a wealth of tempting delicacies teased our senses. They were serving tapas and wine at makeshift bars, and in several places we heard more Spanish than French being spoken.  We had no prior knowledge or any real expectations of Bayonne, so were utterly contented to have time in this gem of a city.

We had dismissed it two years ago as we passed, eager to reach Spain and the Picos de Europa, and we’re now sorry to have done so.  We sat on the cathedral steps and watched a wedding photoshoot where the bride, not to be outdone by her groom’s orange waistcoat, donned dark sunglasses and a blue denim jacket over her flowing silk dress. We wandered through the nearby Botanic gardens to reach the Monument aux Morts, the grand memorial to the war dead from Bayonne.  We continued our stroll to the Hôtel de Ville and adjoining Opéra house, buying our mothers local postcards in a small tabac off the Place de la Liberté.

Bayonne - (cathedral view)

We wandered a while longer, lingering on busy streets to soak up the sights, smells and sounds, before returning to our bikes, abandoned on rails beside the cathedral.  We cycled back on the easier but slight longer coast-hugging cycle path, through the more practical, robust, industrial northern harbours. The rest of our day was spent back on the beach, our skins gently bronzing, watching an unending conveyor belt of waves crash into 3m diameter tubes of white foam and froth.  It was a delight to lazily watch nature’s wild sea, but it conflicted with our desire to swim.

Race Day 1 – 13km from Ustaritz to Bayonne

The next morning was race day.  After a self-imposed alarm and a quick pack up, we no doubt annoyed our neighbours with our Sunday 7.15am exit, the day still wrapped in moody darkness.  We parked up at the Stade La Floride, ate breakfast and dressed for action. The first buses left from here for the town of Ustaritz at 8am, where we would run the 13km back to Bayonne, along the banks of the river Nive.  We caught a bus and it smoothly deposited us by the village church to await the 10am race start.  There were no facilities here, and no water available (they had coffee though) and we wished we’d waited for a later bus.  We mused about, pretending at a thorough warm-up, but fooling no one.  More stripy buses periodically arrived, carrying the 350 or so race entrants to the over-crowded start area. The trees and bushes of the church grounds were soon overrun with lycra-clad hooligans peeing everywhere, trying and failing to be discrete.

Ustaritz - (race banner)

Ustaritz - (warmkng up)

Eventually we were called to the start and the race began, first through the town streets on temporarily closed roads before cutting onto a wider than expected path following the banks of the river.  Small pockets of spectators clapped us on, with a few small kids delighting in high-fiving passing runners.  Avoiding the scramble, we’d started near the back of the field so had the guilty pleasure of slowly picking off the slower runners, one or two at a time, as we made our way towards the finish, a bright string of colourful vests stretching out into a long line in front of us.  The river was hidden from view for long stretches and the snatched views of it proved not as picturesque as we’d hoped, although we did see single skullers gracefully skimming past on the still waters.

Ustaritz - (startline selfie)

Ustaritz - (on the trail)

The route was paved and flat the entire way, all easy running, or at least it would be for those runners who’d trained sufficiently.  After 10km the lack of recent distance in our legs began to tell as our pace slowed rather than increased as we’d hoped.  The last 3km were a slog, but we were buoyed by larger crowds and our arrival at the stadium.  Sadistically, they then made us complete a lap of the running track before allowing us to cross the finish line in relief.  We gorged on cake, chocolate, apricots, bananas and oranges at the finish, then luxuriated in long, steaming hot showers in the changing facilities of the sports centre.  Glowing from our run, we paused to watch a high quality rugby match, before driving Benny back to the same aire to relax for the afternoon.

No sooner had we slotted back into the same spot (such creatures of habit) the heavens opened in violent torrents, but contented and weary we rested up snugly in Benny – let the weather do its worst.

A&N x

Tour de Mont Blanc – hiking the TMB (a personal reflection)

Tour de Mont Blanc – hiking the TMB (a personal reflection)

Through scratched perspex, we looked down like giants on the rows of tiny buildings and straight roads that littered the flat valley base, carpeting the flat plain in dense, interlocking patterns.  It all became toy-like, insignificant in the deep shadow of the high mountain massif.  Opposite, we watched as the white domed cap of Mont Blanc came slowly into view as we rose higher in our gently-rocking cocoon.  The famed peak would be the focal-point of our next ten days as we hiked a 170km oblong circuit around it, through three countries.  We were both buzzing with anticipation.

We arrived at the top of Plan Praz from Chamonix, France, to begin our trail.  There were others here, colourful, noisy day-trippers, but we saw no one likely to be starting the hike alongside us.  This was unsurprising, as we had chosen both an unconventional place to begin, and were walking the opposite direction to most.  With a little trepidation, partnered with nervous excitement, we followed a dusty path of loose gravel up behind the lift station, gaining height with each forward step.  We felt alive, readied for the challenge, eager to get moving and to begin discovering the path ahead. We were soon engulfed by the tall sides of nearby mountains.  Their dry faces towered above us in grey knuckles of coagulated rock.  Smudges of pristine snow remained set in deep gullies and rubbed high on deeply shadowed slopes.

Around them the earth smoothed to a shrub-speckled plain, and on all sides the horizon was closed-in by snowy peaks, pale in the distance.  We traversed this stony face on a well-used trail, leading through pockets of vivid-green fir trees on narrow, dusty trails. Combined with the remaining blotches of greying snow this created a Christmas postcard feel, jarring in our imaginations with the muggy heat of the late morning air.  In the next valley, deepened with heavy shadows, we could see dots of colour approaching, lined like caterpillars along the obvious snaking path.  These were the groups of tradition-respecting anti-clockwise walkers we expected to meet each day.  We nodded and smiled our way past them, glad for each spark of company but occasionally craving the clear and quiet solitude of an empty trail.

With us walking clockwise, against convention and crowds, we experienced wonderfully alone mornings, full of welcome solitude.  We could stumble and sweat up our morning climbs in peace, without witness.  Around halfway through each day’s walking we began to meet others, usually on a downhill stretch, for us.  We enjoyed these sociable afternoons, brimming with cheery greetings and occasional chats, as we silently, selfishly, revelled in the thought that we had completed the most difficult stretch of our day.  All those we passed had still to face the climb we were now descending from.  On occasion we jogged small stretches of downhill trails, slow in hiking boots, but it was much easier on our knees to fall with rather than fight against gravity.  We were occasionally passed by committed cyclists on fat-tired bikes, belligerently forcing their way up the steep, rutted trails, or joyously falling fast down them.

The circuit contained a continuous accessible beauty, and we never tired of the new vistas each section brought.  Flowering meadows crowded with bell-ringing golden cows, villages of perfect timber chalets decorated with climbing roses, and high mountain peaks topped with snowy domes, scarred with deeply-clawed gullies.  Set above the treeline, in shaded crevices, we stared at the ragged tongues of rough-surfaced glaciers as they prodded menacingly towards the valley floor.  At smaller scales, tiny alpine flowers brightened each path, their tiny star-blues and butter-yellows a reflection not of insignificance but robust hardiness.  We longed for each upcoming change, to see what was next, just as we wished a favoured view could stay with us longer.  Nothing was permanent, yet every change was valuable and worthy.  We soaked up all that we could, breathing in the views alongside the fresh, clean air of the high mountains.

We saw this trip as a break from our normal van life, each night after walking a treat of long showers, clean sheets and prepared food, away from the usual daily chore of shopping, cooking and washing up.  Both the daily freedom of the mountain hiking and the welcoming comfort of the hotels were our reward.  In such clear weather there was no mistaking the path, so we walked free of concern.  Each day, rather than bringing weariness, made us stronger.  We got hike-fit by doing, each completed climb a strong, building session for legs and lungs. We grew to crave every tough rise, the constant sweat and burn of sustained effort and the joyous reward of a newly earned and compelling mountain vista.  Each passing Col brought us the next visual wonder and a new valley to explore on the opposite side.

At Les Mottets, we were sat on long wooden benches, by long tables, in groups of fourteen or more.  Each course was brought out in huge serving bowls or platters to be distributed by each table of guests. We hesitantly plated up what we thought our share, trying to judge a fair portion and not offend our neighbours.  But we need not have been cautious as unending refills were available to any who requested them.  We ate hungrily whilst discussing the trail so far and sharing a sketch of our outside lives with the nearest others.  Our hosts entertained us with traditional organ music from a colourful box, the tunes magically read from punched cardboard sheets fed into one side.  Once sated, the majority retired to a night in the dreaded bed-lines of the cramped dormitory, but we had a coveted double suite.

Despite our private room, we still suffered a disturbed night.  Stiff from sleeplessness, we stepped slowly back into the glaring sun. Our day began with another cloudless sky over a dusty gravelled path that carried us upwards.  We passed supine cows wearing thick leather necklaces hung with heavy brass bells before rising sharply along a series of stony hairpins to reach a grassy bluff, surrounded by a curtain of sheer grassy slopes.  The dusty grey valley turned to green-yellow slopes lined with deeply-worn brown tracks. Minute alpine flowers speckled the grasses with dots of vibrant colour.  We passed idle, furry marmots nuzzling in tall grasses.  We crossed rivers flowing over wavy rocks, worn smooth with time.  We marvelled at the swirling-lined strata under a shallow waterfall, veined with vivid colours, a freak creation of geology and water.  Our rich salty sweat, mixed with sun-cream, all but blinded us as we rose sharply.

Hours passed and the stubborn mountain greens gave way to patches of loose shale, steep and crumbling, and a return to a hard, all-grey landscape.  The only softness found here were the ribbed blobs of last winter’s remaining snow, pristine white, untouched.   A bright sea of hikers was dropping down the opposite slope, giving scale to our path, our only true reference in the monotone greyness.  We stumbled onto a hard-to-see path, denoted only by knee-high cairns stood grey on grey against the discarded shale, and followed this up a long line of tight turns.  Eventually we were led to the snow-capped summit of the Col des Fours, at 2685m. We paused here, satisfied from our efforts.  We took time to savour the moment, breathing in the thin cool air and examining the expansive view.

As beautiful as each vista was, we always felt a constant impatience to keep moving.  We knew we still faced a long downward path to reach Les Contamines.  We dropped off the Col on long stretches of crisp-topped snow, with well-worn deep channels of muddy-brown slush denoting the path.  The kilometres fell away easily as we lost height, passing multitudes slowly slogging their way up to the Col des Fours.  We fell alongside the green-glass river, passed pristine churches and scalloped rock pools of deep, frothing blue, to reach the outskirts of Les Contamines and our boutique Hotel Gai Soleil.  We were treated to a tidy, characterful room with a balcony overlooking the gardens.  The in-house chef prepared us a stylish reinvention of the traditional French raclette, serving salad, potatoes and hot, melted Camembert, followed by a wonderfully tart berry sundae.  The hard kilometres fell away in sudden luxury.

Our days passed in a familiar pattern, each flowing inexorably into the next. We crossed from France to Switzerland to Italy with little change but the daily greetings we shared on the mountain pathways.  Each day we climbed high and each night slept low, secure in small valley settlements or in lonely mountain refuges.  We rose early to breakfast and began walking before the sun broke in glorious rays over the peak-lined horizons.  Days began with a steep return to re-join the main circuit, and the cooler dawn air was a welcome relief as we forcefully regained the altitude lost the day before.  We found the trail became a series of moments, of views, sounds and smells, each vividly distinct yet impossible to separate from the whole.  Everything seen was but a glimpse, an ephemeral whisper of the landscape.

Rising out of Les Houches, the deep shade of the woodland trees brought some relief from the sun’s direct oppression, but offered little respite from the intense heat of the still, close air.  When the wind blew through the branches we instantly felt renewed, revitalised, our repressive tormentor temporarily removed from our burning skin.  The path was formed from gnarled, swollen roots jutting out of dust-brown soil like giant arthritic knuckles attempting to escape a grave.  Grey boulders sat immobile between the roots, forming helpful steps or high barricades to assist or slow our progress.  The dry soil was scalloped in places from the passing of a million boots.  We climbed in silence, and with no view out through the dense trees, we both looked inwards instead, pushing ourselves with a quiet intensity.

The burning satisfaction from our steady efforts kept us striding out strongly.  We rose high, yet were more affected by the intoxicating closeness of the stifling afternoon heat than any achieved altitude. In many ways the higher passes, over 2000m, were a relief to us as they came packaged with a welcome breeze and much cooler air.  We passed by Refuge Bellachat and entered a different landscape, a grassy plateau of bumps and lakes.  This suddenly changed again to a sculpted path of flat boulders, built as steps, weaving through a loose, grey moraine.  Beyond here we reached the crowded lookout at the top of Brévent lift at 2525m, our final climb complete.  With quiet celebration, we began our short descent through snowfields and grey dust to return, days later, to the top of Plan Praz, set above Chamonix.

We completed the walk, our distances measuring a total of 183km including offshoot tails to reach accommodations.  The route may have looked wild, challenging, even escapist on occasion, but it never truly felt it.  We were always close to safety, to other hikers, to the easy comforts of a hotel.  We never thought of ourselves as being alone, isolated, even if experiencing that hint of danger or spark of adventure was something we both deeply desired.  It was a tame, civilised hike, a calm and comfortable multi-day wilderness walk.  It may not have proved to be the difficult, testing physical or mental challenge we had expected, even craved for, but it remains a wonderful route replete with quiet, thoughtful beauty and deeply impressive mountain scenery.  And we can’t rightly fault it for that.

A&N x

Previous posts (of a more chronological nature) from the same trip:
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 2)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 3)