Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Grande Randonée

Holidays have come at last and I need a break to take a deep breath before the self-employment adventure.

The GR10 is an epic footpath through the valleys, villages and mountain passes of the French Pyrenees from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast to Banyuls on the Mediterranean. Sixty very dedicated and determined days walking. We have six days. We're told some have completed the Spanish version, the GR11 in 8. Well done to those people. We content ourselves with a walk across our adopted kingdom, the Béarn.

There are a number of ways to tackle a trek of this kind. In a (perhaps misguided) attempt to be HARD CORE we have opted for wild camping. In contrast to similar expeditions in Britain, there is a noticeable lack of nice pubs along our route. These are replaced with mountaineers refuges which offer food and lodgings to walkers with the foresight to book ahead. We have eschewed these centres of warmth and conviviality in favour of carrying tents around on our backs. Some refuges allow camping, another option are the soothingly/worryingly remote shepherd’s cabanes, which tend to have a fresh water source and room for a tent or two nearby. Of course this decision also means humping food along the trail; my rather predictable solution is pasta n rice.

On an organised trek in an underdeveloped adventurer’s country the food can be startlingly good. On the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu in Peru, me and the other white dudes would sweat all day, trailing up and down amongst breathtaking scenery with our heavy packs to arrive with our guides at an agreed camping place. Dinner would be almost ready, Indian porters having legged it past us, often more than once, with a super non-lightweight kitchen or dining tent or giant gas-canister-and-stove combos, tied to their shoulders with a bit of string. There would be soup to start, a tasty stew and some fruit. Plus coca leaf brews to ward off altitude sickness. I seem to remember there being booze too, but maybe this is just rose-tinted memory... In Scotland we had Pasta’n’Sauce, Rice’n’Sauce and Pot Noodle – and a trip to the ale house most nights. Anticipating a total lack of alcoholic sweetener, I hope for some success with Peruvian-inspired ambition.

We start along the Chemin de la Mature, an ancient path riven into sheer rock face. We hump our way in the heat of the day, along and up, through the Vallée d’Aspe. (Rather excitingly*, the next day we discover that while we were there – perhaps eating our fat homemade paté butties – a bear had munched on a couple of brebis** amongst the dainty mountain flowers of the open valley.) We struggle, but manage to peep above the fog as evening approaches. The tough-loving pass into the next valley rewards us with our first view of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, Béarn’s most iconic alp. Before it is the largest of the very beautiful Lacs d’Ayous. Golly... Better now, it’s a skip down to the lake and our camping ground, near the mountaineer’s refuge which astounds us by having not just water – but beer!

I make a big pot of sticky, spicy, garlicky rice. An austere meal ordinarily, but calm and comforting† and tasty. And lightweight. Some merguez and left-over liver paté provide some protein. A startling sunset. Knackered. Bed.
*Terrifyingly, dot might interject. There's no pleasing some folk!

**A dairy sheep.

† ©™ Nigel Slater.

A refuge in the next village supplies a hearty meal of carbs and a buggered-but-tasty confit sausage. And another beer! Detox? Bollocks to it...
Third day initially splooshes us with a storm, but it passes and leaves just fog. There is a hairy corniche, again riven into the sheer rock, that might be a little more worrisome were we able to see the bottom, lost in the murk. We arrive at a shepherdess’ cabane on the plain of Cézy. We can’t see ten yards in front of us. Sometimes you can’t see your own feet, she says. She’s been living here making sheep’s cheese in the middle of the arse end of nowhere for ten years. Quite right. We are wimps. She says it’s fine for us to pitch our tent – watch out for the pigs though, they’re big buggers.

We have a very jolly and very French apéro*, minus the booze, with the three others who are camping here tonight. It’s all very convivial this wilderness lark. Dried cèpe risotto and saucisson fill us up.
*Nibbles and booze –sometimes preceding, sometimes replacing dinner.

Dot dreams of the various disasters waiting for us in the night: who will devour us first? The bear or the pigs? And will we be eaten raw or cooked to a frazzle by a great bolt of lightning?..

The morning lifts the fog, and then it resettles. We have just enough time to realise the majesty of our backdrop. Is it dangerous to attempt the 2400m Hourquette d'Arre? Stuff and nonsense! says the shepherdess. Righto. Pruney porridge fires us as we pick our way up and back down to the ski resort of Gourette.

Our last night is a belter of a spot in a tight green valley near the Col de Soulor. We spend a relaxed evening joined only by big bonging cows and their bells. Supplies from Gourette include tomatoes, chorizo and pasta. Tomato and chorizo pasta, then. Onion sweated in olive oil with a few fennel and cumin seeds picked out from my spice mix. Chorizo fried and rough-chopped tomatoes added. Plenty of pepper and some mountain savoury* in flower. We washed it down with my stashed hip flask of scotch AND Marcus’ stashed bottle of wine! This is the life...
* Like thyme. In fact, so much like thyme, that it might actually be thyme...

We had lunch with a couple who were waymarking the route. Two little pots of paint
 and a network of sixty volunteers keeps the entire 866km route startlingly well signposted.
 Dot's souvenir is an official GR10 tatoo on her troosers.
These people are our heros!