Hiking and exploring the Pyrenees mountain range at the border of France and Spain
Part 1: Loose lips at Goat Alley
“If this thing falls, it´ll f***ing kill you!”
Paul was clinging to a reportedly loose boulder, wedged between two perpendicular rock walls a couple of hours into our hike towards Pic de la Dona Morta (Catalan for ‘Mountain of the Dead Lady’). I looked up at him nervously, wondering whether he was overreacting or I was about to live up to the mountain’s name. To our right the mountainside gave way to immense scenery overlooking the Pyrenees that form the border between France and Spain.
Earlier that morning, we’d awoken in the morning dark in our host’s mountain hut, a charming old water mill, for our first day of the first half of our trip to the continent that would mark the end of our year-and-a-bit in England. The skies were grey and thunder rumbled in the distance – we’d asked our host, guide, translator and good friend Chris Ward for adventure and that´s what we were getting!
On this day on the mountain, our eclectic group consisted of Chris; his good friend Philippe (aka ‘Vallespir Migou’); Philippe’s friend and retired member of the Slovakian special services Valentin; my husband Paul; Django (who loves mountains but hates the snapping sound of individual yoghurt pots being separated and is also a Border Collie); and moi.
When we’d pulled up at the start of the hike, the heavens opened, so the six of us (including Django) sheltered in the back of the van counting the seconds between lightning and thunder and waiting for the skies to clear. When they did (for the time being at least) Django leaped ahead barking enthusiastically and we hoofed behind him, the peaks in the distance revealing themselves intermittently as the cloud cover shifted.
The weather was mostly fine, until at one point the heavens again unleashed a downpour of rain and hail and the track at our feet became a running stream. Our broken French-English conversations were halted when Philippe, in the drama of the moment, ran ahead belting out the Catalan anthem in the rain, as you do.
If the weather hadn´t cleared so completely after that, we probably wouldn´t have tackled ´The Chimney´ – also known as Goat Alley – which forms a small part of a local mountain race that Philippe organises. I mentioned hesitantly that I was a little scared of heights when I heard the word ´Chimney’, but apparently people aged up to their 60s have completed the mountain race, so we continued on under refreshed blue skies.
It was the first part of this small section of rock scrambling that Paul encountered his loose boulder. Those of us still on the track below him moved aside as he climbed over it, then Valentin followed him up and confirmed that yes it was loose and directed me up a different route which I gratefully took. Finally, Chris made his way to the precarious boulder and with scary ease pulled it free from the rock wall and sent it hurtling down the empty mountain side as we listened in silence to it thumping against the earth and cracking tree trunks on its descent.
Next up was the aforementioned Chimney/Goat Alley, another short climb/scramble before we reached the top. Philippe climbed ahead with dog-slash-mountain goat Django. As I followed them up – making nervous noises that can´t have required translation – Chris mentioned something along the lines of ‘I hope you don´t mind all the goat poo’ (hence the name Goat Alley) and I remember thinking I´d happily eat goat poo as long as I could get to the top of this bit and not look down. Of course, fairly easily (in hindsight!) we greeted the top with smiles and whoops and took a few snaps before the easy, steady descent through sheltered forest (formerly terraced farmland) down the other side.
Life’s all about contrasts and it was almost surreal when, that same afternoon, I found myself lowering my tired legs into the famed thermal baths (which date back to Roman times) back in the village of Amelie les Bains, which attracts thousands of French people every year who arrive on doctor´s orders for (government-subsidised) treatment of their arthritis and respiratory illnesses.
Washed of all goat poo, we drifted our way around a hot pool with various kinds of jets to massage different joints, then it was on into the steam room and finally the mud bath – all followed by a muscat tasting session in the local wine shop and an introduction to the Catalan specialty cake, ´rusquilles´.
Yep, our trip was off to a good start.
Part 2: Castles in the sky
The next morning the weather was much clearer and this time we were joined in the (fully-loaded-and-then-some) 4WD by our French hostess Marion and Django´s brother Pep – two dogs with a serious case of sibling rivalry.
This was a pleasant (and steep!) hike that started at a disused iron ore mine and continued onto wide, low grasslands populated with sheep and horses, then a steeper climb up the rocky mountain side in a steady hike that gave us time to practice our burgeoning pigeon-French with our friends.
This time the weather was clear and we enjoyed uninterrupted views over the Pyrenees and ahead to Canigou (2786m), a mountain of spiritual and national significance to the Catalan people. We stopped at an area called Pic De Gallinas and, in true French style, lunched on bread, cheese, salami and chocolate.
I then watched on from a safe distance as our mad French friends (that includes Chris) showed off their tricks on the mountain ledge, before we made the long descent back down into the valley, followed by a scenic drive home via the Tour de Batere, a military signal tower built in the 14th century,
It was time to rest the Aussies´ legs (I´m sure our hosts could´ve kept going!) so that night we refuelled in the local cafe on salmonella and toxoplasmosis. Wait, sorry I mean steak tartare served with a raw egg in its shell. (It was tasty and of course I was fine! Although according to the internet toxoplasmosis is asymptomatic in adults barring potential reduced IQ, so watch this space…)
We spent the next day visiting two ruined 12th century fortresses/castles built high up in the mountains – Queribus and Peyrepertuse. Both were fascinating and eerie, particularly as the fog closed in, so I´ll let the photos do the talking here…
Part 3: Homes away from home
In case you thought this trip was all mountain climbing and Russian roulette dining, let me transport you to Chez Toinette – the home of Chris´s other French ´family´, a charming cafe looking out over the town square where daily fresh produce markets are held, and where we were welcomed from the first day we arrived with open arms by the owners Michelle and Pierre, even given the language barrier.
On the evening we arrived we drank muscat and ate fresh local anchovies, stuffed peppers and cheese and watched on while Pierre slated Chris for England´s recent Rugby World Cup loss to Wales. (This was done in French, but no translation was required.) On another evening, we drank too much sangria while a musician entertained dancing locals with some songs I´d never heard but haven´t been able to get out of my head since (like this and this). He also belted out a few English songs, and rather endearingly managed to step all over Elvis´s Blue Suede Shoes (¨Well itsannah fowanunny, anu fowannu, athee agennanney no GO CAT GO!¨).
We also spent two mornings at this cafe crashing Chris´s normal routine of breakfasting with his vivacious ´extended French family´ on coffee and criossants (and second-hand smoke) – loving everything about the company and location so much that I had to stop myself from joining in the bouts of laughter when someone made a joke, realising sometimes too late that I didn´t actually understand what had been said…
Part 4: Holiday in a holiday
Thanks to Chris and his friends in Amelie les Bain, our well-planned Pyrenees adventure included a couple of nights at Philippe´s family´s holiday house in the heart of the Pyrenees. It was a couple of hours drive away, so we took the scenic route via some fascinating Catalonian villages and local sites, including crossing the border into Spain where we had lunch of potato tortilla and wild boar stew at a sleepy Spanish Catalonian town called Queralbs and stopped off to stock up for dinner at a locally famous charceturie.
Another dramatic storm hit as we made it to the collection of lakeside homes that included our accommodation for the next couple of nights (the exact location of which Chris was almost, definitely, sort of, absolutely certain – right Chris?!).
As we darted inside to escape the rain, I instantly knew I was in the kind of holiday house that the best childhood memories are made of – packed to the exposed rafters with memories, stacks of well-used board games and, in this case, stunning views over Lac de Matmale and the twinkly lights of a sleepy, off-season ski village across the water.
Cue cracking open a few beers, starting up a game of cards, snacking on cheese, pate and Fideuà (Catalonian paella made with pasta) ahead of our next adventure the following day.
Part 5: Puig Carlit (well, almost!)
We awoke to clear skies for another early start with coffee and croissants and a short drive to the start of the day´s hike – made longer stuck behind some very chilled out cows along the way.
The scale and drama of the scenery here was almost beyond words – perhaps a combination of what I imagine Yosemite and Switzerland might look like? (Having seen neither!). Distant, jagged peaks, huge stands of coniferous trees and brilliant blue mountain lakes that sparkled under the bright day, including Étang du Lanoux, the biggest lake in the Pyrenees.
On this truly stunning hike, things only started to move a tad outside my comfort zone as we neared the summit of Carlit and the path started to climb until it became rockier and rockier and, as it was the cusp of seasons, a bit icy, with some surface snow. And so, I´m not ashamed to admit (although Chris did give us permission to lie!) that I didn´t quite make it to the summit – we were literally only about 50 metres away, but I´m no mountain goat and it was more of a climb than a walk and the rocks were slippery AND it was a long enough fall down! Paul stayed behind with me through sheer chivalry, naturally, and we left Chris to reach the frozen cross at the summit, while we found somewhere to wait for him and to have lunch – baguette, ham and Camembert, naturally.
That night I miscalculated and cooked enough beef and veg stew to feed an army, while Paul disturbed all the village dogs with the noises he made whilst wading into the ice-cold lake to soothe his dodgy knee. Said dodgy knee would also mean that Puig Carlit would be our last big hike of the trip – there was only one other we had planned to take, but this was replaced with a day eating pizza and looking at local art in another village called Ceret, which is about as good as Plan Bs get.
After a couple more days of sight seeing (an abandoned military fort, a hill top monestry, the Devil´s bridge that maims not kills and so on…) we spent our last night back in the lovely old water mill house, where we (inadequately!) returned the incredible hospitality we´d received by cooking dinner. Chris also helped us translate a short thank you speech which I read out in French and which everyone in the room except Paul and me seemed to understand, which was a good sign.
Then it was time for one last coffee at Chez Toinette before our next stop: the city lights of Barcelona, where, if it weren´t for the red and yellow Catalonian flags dangling from every balcony, the sleepy charming villages of French Catalonia just on the other side of the Pyrenees would have seemed a million miles away.