Roger's Pyrenean Traverse- Basque Country

Camping at 999 metres, (Plateau 999)
On 10th July I took the train to south west France to begin my walk along the Pyrenean chain to the Mediterranean coast.

My plan was to follow fairly closely the route of the HRP as described in Tod Joosten’s ‘The Pyrenean Haute Route’.  This is the high level route that incorporates elements of the French GR10 and the Spanish GR11.  I had no rules other than to walk coast to coast and wasn’t strictly adhering to any route.  I was starting from St Juan because I believed it would give me easier access to the GR10.  I had read reports of the awkwardness of getting out of Hendaye.  My solution, don’t go to Hendaye.

I was staying on the GR10 throughout the Basque country. This is not the usual way of doing the HRP but again writers had suggested it was a more interesting route.

I had a language issue.  Both my French and Spanish were abysmal. So why not stay in France and take the opportunity to improve my French? Because the Pyrenees are international. I grated at the idea of a French walk or a Spanish walk in these hills that were both a boundary and a life saving link  between France and  Spain. The HRP was attractive because it was the one route that ignored the very modern international boundary. It would take me to places I would have preferred not to go and frightened me into avoiding others as a lone walker. Some of the HRP just goes the long way round in order to take you higher, just as some of the GR10 takes you the long way round so as not to cross into Spain. As a walker on a journey with a beginning and an end, sometimes finding the easiest way through was an attractive option.

All three main routes (GR10, Gr11 and HRP) have their idiosyncrasies. Some parts are better signed than others.  Some parts are routes across barely passable wilderness. For instance the GR11 has been rerouted to take you to  the new Refugi de la Restanca.  The route it takes is a bee line up an overgrown boulder slope, horrible. Someone setting the route drew a straight line on a map and sent someone else  out to scramble up here with two tins of paint. There are places like this on all three routes. This is not the worst by any means, it is just the most illogical.

I got the impression that local mayors set the routes through their patch. Routes changed frequently and generally to take you to a refuge. I camped every night of my walk sometimes using refuges to eat or buy bread.  In one section of the GR10 a refuge itself has put up a fake marker to lead you to the front door and another sign at the refuge to get you back onto the GR10.

The refuges were variable in quality and internet bloggers get very different impressions usually based on one night’s experience.  I’ve seen Wallon criticised for not having a drying room. I wouldn’t have noticed as it was blazing sunshine when I was there. What I did notice was that it had no showers though more than 100 people were staying the night I passed through. Visitors were directed to the river outside if they  wanted  to wash.

I enjoyed Wallon. The atmosphere was friendly. The food was excellent. I arrived there knackered and hungry, having had a pretty meagre breakfast. Within minutes, no  seconds,  I was addressing a beefy stew as big as some of the hills I had just crawled over.

 It was the first refuge I saw that clearly had a system for recording financial transactions. Many used post it notes, didn’t have signing in books or anything that looked as though it might be useful to the taxman. As some are private businesses that annoyed me.

A cow showing some interest in my laundry at Pla de Boet.
People I talk to are often surprised that I camped every night. Why didn’t I use the refuges at least occasionally. There was indeed a great social buzz at some refuges. Some near roads are busy all day with day walkers or even those who just enjoy a view with their beer. I walked into some and felt I, the hiker, was the odd one out. Other more remote ones like Larribet and Bayssellance were more responsive to a walker’s needs. I arrived late and tired at Larribet, when meal serving was finished, yet got well fed.

I had researched my route for about two years. I had read gear reviews by the mile and spent some money. When I left home that morning to catch the train I had a horrible feeling that my pack was too heavy. I hadn’t followed all the good advice. My tent was a 1k Vaude Power Lizard (great buy) but my sleeping bag was a heavy North Face Cat’s Meow. My cooker was an Evernew titanium meths stove which served me very well but my camera was a Nikon D7000 with a 35mm f2 lens. I had looked at lightweight rucksacks but as back comfort was critical to me I bought an Osprey Kestrel 68. I was very pleased with it. I noticed that some of the more regular walkers and group leaders were using this model. With all kit you eventually adapt the way you use it before you appreciate how good it is. I’m sure there are very good lighter sack around but I couldn’t take the risk of reactivating old back issues.

A note on my day numbering. I have only numbered the days that I walked. Rest days are referred to but not numbered.

The Basque Country
Day 1, 11th July 2012.

I reached  St Juan at about 11-00pm the night before and  slept  near the beach. I’d been advised not to sleep on the beach as it is cleaned by machines at 6-00am each morning. I was up by 6 and the weather was starting to feel British. I walked back through the town admiring the posh shops selling, among other things, a carved elephants tusk. I reflected on whether or not that should be legal. I was planning to get to Ainhoa on day 1 and to pick up a bit of the GR8 before connecting to the GR10 at Sare.  As it was getting more wet an miserable by the hour I decided to stay on the road until Sare.

Sare was a pleasant little place with a lovely boulangerie and an excellent public toilet. Generally the Basque country to be well equipped with regard to toilets and water fonts. I found my first red and white slashes with little difficulty and followed the route out of town. I soon got my first lesson in not following these signs blindly. I must have backtracked on a variant route but after a couple of hours was practically back in Sare before recognising my error. Pay attention. I arrived at Ainhoa about 3-00pm and headed for  the campsite and Tourist information office.

The campsite is excellent offering Randanneur rates for solo walkers and a small shop. The reception was very friendly and  my struggling French was laughed at. There was noise from nearby building works but you couldn’t blame that on the campsite. I had my first experience of a special welcome for the Irish in Basque country. I had to present my passport at campsite receptions as proof of identity and it was always commented on. If I then went on to ask how Bradley Wiggins was doing in the Tour I would elicit surprise. ‘Why do you care?, you are Irish.’ I even received a comment once about my umbrella which was assumed to be an English idiosyncrasy.  Both in Basque Country and Catalonia I witnessed intense nationalism expressed in response to my Irish Passport.

The Tourist Information Office at Ainhoa had an internet connected computer for public use for one euro for 15 mins.  It is a tourist town and I couldn’t find a grocery shop. There were many tourist shops and a large and well used pallotte court. Play was continuous through the evening.
This would be my first night sleeping on my thermorest neoair. This is so light I was scared to take it out of the tent in case it blew away. It took time to work out that it work best about half inflated so that you could sink into it and distribute your weight.
Day 2
I walked from Ainhoa to Bidarry.

This was a bright sunny day. The walk starts with a climb on a clear track to the Col des Trois Croix where three rather gruesome crucifixes (Christ and the two thieves) look back over the town. The path is good and generally easy to follow for most of the day though I did get confused at a point where the GR10 goes right up to the Spanish  Border and of course veers back from it. It does this a couple of times on this day’s  route. I didn’t appreciate how much the route climbed before the long steep decent to road into Bidarry. This day ends with a long road walk.

Ravine on route to Bidarry
Lucia’s ‘The GR10 Trail’ describes this decent into the ravine as long loose and exposed which ‘would be dangerous for all in wet conditions’. It was not to be incident free. As I approached the start of the decent I passed a fellow lone walker who appeared to be  in difficulty. He assured me he was OK but after getting a little ahead of him and seeing that the path was difficult I decided to wait and watch. The only other life around were the circling vultures and a couple of eagles. It became obvious that he was going to need my help. I went ahead a bit, put down my rucksack and went back up to him. I insisted on taking his rucksack so that at least he could tackle the path unburdened. His progress was still slow. We repeated this many times on the long decent. Even so at one point he fell forward on the track and grazed his face.

When we got to the road he insisted on being left to himself as I, wearily proceeded to walk into Bidarry where my first priority was to find a restaurant to eat and eat some more. I noticed there were several good riverside spots along the road where I could have camped.  As I sat under a canopy of vines indulging in a 22 euro menu randonneur I was joined by a woman who had come out for a smoke. She asked me if I was walking and I explained that I had just had a difficult decent, helping  a Frenchman, to which she replied ‘not Andre?’  She and another couple of GR10ers had been walking with Andre from Hendaye but had gone ahead of him that day. Then in walks Andre himself having clearly got himself to the gite and cleaned up (he must has got a lift into Biddarry).  Andre announces to the world that I saved his life and insists on paying for my meal. He was still on an adrenalin high and probably in shock. He ordered the same 22 euro spread and beer. We had been joined by the other GR10ers from the Gite and I was the toast of the evening. I had however still to fined the campsite and get to bed. Bidarry campsite is not well signposted but is worth the visit. I eventually reached it in the dark and didn’t meet anyone there until morning. I was about to head up to the Iparla ridge and was glad to speak to people who knew the route. I was cautioned to carry plenty of water.
This was the first trip on which I had used light thin titanium tentpegs.  I had brought some thicker aluminium ones with me as backup just in case. The titanium pegs were much superior. They were easier to get into hard stony ground without bending and they held much better than I had expected.
Day 3
The Iparla Ridge.
The campsite owner offered campers a lift back to the GR10 which I accepted. I had a slow start and it was nearly 11-00am before I was on the trail. For a hot day this was a mistake but I wasn’t at peak fitness yet and was tired from the exertions of the day before. (no not the beer,  I didn’t have any).

The Iparla Ridge was my main reason for staying on the GR10. To me it looked like a range of sea cliffs incongruously overlooking land. It reminded me of the north cliffs on Rathlin Island, though much higher. The edge forms the border between France and Spain. Here you could fall off France and land in Spain.

Iparla Ridge
I was glad of my umbrella in the rain on day 1. I was now using it to keep the sun off my head. The ridge itself is pleasant easy walking with magnificent views. At Col d’Harrieta , where the first water is found at a spring 150m from the track (signposted) the route enters beech woods. Navigation can be difficult here. Deep  beech leaves are my least favourite walking surface and on slopes can be wickedly dangerous. I lost the path for a while and found myself floundering in deep leaves before regaining the track and descending to Urdos. I continued into the campsite at St Ettienne-de- Baigorry.  This was the cheapest campsite I found, apart from my wild camps, at 3 euros for a Randanneur.

I quickly got my stove going. Although meths wasn’t always easy to find and was slower than gas to cook on I really enjoyed using my stove. Later on the walk I would have difficulty lighting meths on cold mornings, but I always found a way.

Day 4 St Jean Pied de Port

St Jean Pied de Port
I was much more tired by this time than I had expected to be and decided on a short day to St Jean Pied de Port. I realised by this time that I drunk water I shouldn’t have and decided a days rest in St Jean was needed.
I found the municipal campsite by the beautiful city walls, set up camp and chilled for the afternoon. I set up my solar charger grass to recharge my phone. This attracted interest from a German cyclist who had arrived having cycled through Germany,  Italy and the Alps. He was interested in the charger as he was looking for something reliable. He was an interesting chap, happy to talk about his travels but dedicated to travelling alone. I learnt a couple of things from him. Firstly beer is best for replenishing minerals (!). and not to use cleats on a touring bike (!) as you inevitable have to walk and push at times. He also told me that cycling is better than walking because you don’t have to shower as often. Once every 4 days is enough.
I went out in the evening to phone home and bumped into the GR10ers I had met at Bidarry. They told me Andre had phoned his son to come and collect him having decided not to walk further. We found a restaurant and had a meal together followed by a beer followed by me teaching them to sing ‘I tell me ma’. This was 14th July and a holiday weekend to celebrate Bastille Day. The main celebrations would be on Sunday night.
Sunday I continued chilling.  I met an interesting couple of teachers from Chicago and had a fascinating conversation about the efforts of the teachers unions there to resist attacks on their conditions of service.
On Sunday night the Bastille day celebrations got serious as brass bands played the same patriotic marching tune repeatedly for most of the night.  At one stage a group tried to vary the theme a bit by playing Auld Lang Syne but they got lost in the middle of it. The march kept recurring in my head throughout the walk but I’ve no idea what it is called.
Day 5 St Jean Pied de Port to Chalet Pedro.

Despite delays I was still on time for a pre-arranged rendezvous with a friend at Lescun. I started fairly early but needed to buy bread before leaving town so didn’t get away as quickly as I had hoped. I stopped for a coffee at Esterencuby. The route at this stage wasn’t very interesting though it was gradually rising and views were improving. The route was generally simple to follow but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get confused. I missed the turn off after Col d’Ithurramburu and found myself on a path going in the wrong direction which would take me onto the ridge some distance from the connection with the road. I sat down and took a few bearings and studied the map and decided to carry on up. This gave me a longer but more interesting route and the satisfaction of having navigated (and scrambled) my way out of the situation. In general I resolved that when I went off the track I would backtrack to a point of certainty and proceed again from there. I didn’t always listen to my own advice. From the road the route Carries over Col d’Irau.  I met and walked a while with another GR10er. At this stage of the walk I had the impression that most long distance walkers were, like myself over 60. The further I progressed the younger hikers got until I felt like a bit of an oddity.
There were some interesting stone circles on route which I enjoyed photographing before heading down to Chalet Pedro.  I remembered a theory I’d read that stones in stone circles were aligned with hilltops with a similar profile. A couple of my pictures here try to illustrate this. I didn’t visit the Chalet but camped  by the river. This was obviously a popular spot as the detritus of previous users of the site was evident.

Day 6 Chalet Pedro to Plateau 999.
I awoke to a heavy dew and a wet tent. I had little difficulty finding the route and getting to Chalet d’Irati. I replenished my water bottle but didn’t dally. I took the road down to Larrau which was pretty unpleasant as it had been recently tarred and smelt terribly in the heat of the day. Larrau delivered one of the more memorable meals  of the journey. A plat de jour at the hotel. The management nearly had a heart attack when I walked in but said they would bring me a ‘plate’ outside. I had no idea what was coming until it arrived. Truth be told I’m still not altogether sure what it was. But I ate heartily in the shade and ‘people watched’ other diners. On the way out I spotted the bar which would have been a more natural stop for hikers.

There was a decision to be made at this stage, whether to continue on the GR10 or divert now onto the HRP going over Pic d’Orhy. Pic d’Orhy certainly looked like the more attractive option when I was walking on sticky tarmacadam. Afternoon temperatures were now in the 30s and I was aware that water sources on the HRP at this stage were infrequent. However the GR10 had some very pleasant surprises in store. At Logibar the route tracks through limestone gorges. According to the guide books this is a variant route but it is clearly marked on the ground as the primary route and so it should be it is magnificent. The gorges are a popular local walk. Most people walk up, have a look and walk down again. The day I was there the trail was littered with wilting day walkers greedily clinging to any shade they could find.  I however had had a lovely lunch and a very fine umbrella which was much commented on that afternoon. I’m confident that I’ve started a trend because as amused as people were by it they were unanimously jealous.

I didn’t  go into Logibar. The route through the gorges curved around the valley head and onto plateau 999 (because it is 999m high). It was about 8-00pm when I arrived there and it was still quite hot. My food supplies were meagre so I saved some pasta for breakfast.
I sat outside my tent watching a glorious sunset and sheep gathering on the ridge trying to look like the Apache nation.
I was pleased with my progress and feeling that my recovery rate was good.  I would feel very tired at the end of the day but wake up  ready to do it all again.  I’d had a couple of reminders to be more careful about carrying enough food and water. I would have a long hike the next day on a small breakfast and little water.

Day 7 Plateau 999 to St Pierre Martin.
The highlights of this day were helping a hill farmer move his cattle away from a dangerous slope, a cracking lunch at a cafe and finally reaching the limestone wilderness at 2000m. The heat was oppressive and water getting scarcer. I remembered that limestone country rarely has surface water. The walk down to St Engrace was quite tedious though the views were getting better all the time.

Lunch was a four egg omelette followed by a salad. Wrong order.

Arrival in Karst country is almost a shock, being so different from everything I had seen up to then. In the heat it feels dangerously dry.
I camped at the Refuge Jeandel. This is in the heart of an ugly ski station which just looks like an act of vandalism in that landscape with views across to Pic d’Anie.
Farming carries on though and a group of farmer’s pigs were wandering free in the carpark of the ski station. (You will see them more clearly on my Flickr page) Further up sheep were being milked and cheese was being made in farm cabins.
I’ll say little of the refuge except that I wouldn’t recommend it.
A long tiring day.

 Day 8 St Pierre Martin to Lescun
 I started walking with a guy doing the HRP. It wasn’t his first time and he was full of helpful advice and encouragement. He also gave me a few water purification pills. We parted company as he was heading to refuge D’Arlet and I has a rendezvous in Lescun. Much of the walk was stunningly beautiful. The Cirque de Lescun is one of the wonders of the Pyrenees.
I bought cheese at Cabane du Cap de la Baitch. The farmer there was very friendly and his cheese is magnificent. Made with basic technology. Unfortunately as you drop towards Lescun you enter a beech forest which is very dull compared to the glorious landscape you are leaving. It would be a couple of days before I would get back to such landscape.
I expected to catch up with a travelling companion Dave at Lescun but in fact he had move on. We wouldn’t meet now until we reached Gavarnie. But Lescun is a beautiful town and I was able to stock up  with pasta, sardines, bread, sausage and Meths (Alcool a bruler).  I bought a litre of meths but gave half of it to another camper to save weight. I wouldn’t do that again.
The campsite at Lescun is OK minus . I found flies a bit of an issue.

Day 9. Lescun to Urdos
This is a day blueberries. The walk was largely through woodland and heather moors and felt a lot like Donegal. I had a very pleasant brew by a stream.
I met a Pyrenean sheepdog at Col de Barranc. I had read about them and how they stay with the sheep to guard them. This one seemed to be on a different mission altogether. The track takes you to Borce but the nearest campsite is at Urdos further down the valley and the only route seems to be along the road. I had visited Alle D’Aspe a few years earlier and was now struck by the amount of development that had taken place.  I like the campsite there and was able to walk into Urdos  to buy some more pasta and sardines..and chocolate. I would have to wait until morning to get bread.


Stu Johnson said...

Hi Roger! So glad you are recording this for others to enjoy too. I've just read the intro and will come back and start at day 1 later - I like to read in small chunks. Looking forward to it :)

Unknown said...

Spellcheck doesn't like 'Stu'

Unknown said...

Hi Roger. What a wonderful journey you had. Looking forward to reading more!

selfpowered said...

great to hear how different your stage one was to mine - we only crossed paths once on day 6, and then only for a while. The gorges sound fun. Pic d Orhy is pretty special too though, of course. The lescun area is really fantastic, I've been twice now, and would go again to explore the high ground in the sierra de anelara. A lovely read, thanks

Unknown said...

Thanks David,
Our paths will cross again. Instalment three should have been online last night but I'm struggling placing pictures in the right places. I wonder if I'm cramming to much into each post.
I loved your story about Lavadan. I had been pre warned and concentrated very hard on my navigation. Other times I was just plain sloppy.

Unknown said...

Stu, I deleted a response to your comment that had an embarrasing typo in it. Keep reading and please let me know what you thinks.
Love to all


Unknown said...

Hi Sandra,
Glad you are enjoying it. Please let all those worried desk jockies know, 'There is life after retirement/redundancy'

Lots of Love


Unknown said...

Hi Roger-its the first time I've read a blog, but it is very interesting and the photos superb as ever. I've read basque country-which is episode 2?

Unknown said...

Thanks Kirstie
The order gets messed up when I go back in to correct my typos
Still learning