Sunday, November 29, 2015

Corsica (and Sardinia) the easy way (Retrospective: September-October 2015)

When Terri and I were ruled out of the GR20, Terri for her sore leg and me for my sciatica and sore hip, the question arose of what to do next.  We decided to rent a car for four days to explore the countryside and the beaches of Corsica.
Pasquale Paoli, Corsica's national hero
 The day after my birthday, September 14th, we hobbled down to Corte station to pick up our vehicle from the local Europcar dealer.  We should have known to walk away after the first thirty seconds of dealing with the manager, a comic-book stereotype of an excitable over-the-top Italian (although he was a Corsican).  “C’est pas possible!  J’ai pas recu une reservation!”  We insisted and showed him our internet reservation, and he grudgingly allowed that he might be able to find a car for us.  It turned out to be a new black Audi A1 with turbo diesel injection, and we fell in love with it over the next 96 hours.

We loaded it up with our backpacks, bought food supplies and hit the road by 1:00, headed southeast towards the coast.  Traffic was light and we flow along until we reached Aleria, the old Roman capital of the island.  The ruins aren’t much to look at, but the small museum showed lots of Etruscan, Greek and Roman pottery and other finds that fleshed out centuries of occupation. 

After an agreeable hour and a half, we continued south towards Porto Vecchio.  The east coast road is straight but runs through a long series of towns, resulting in more traffic and slow progress.  We turned off eventually to meander around a pretty coastal headland north of Porto Vecchio, through sprawling developments of upmarket holiday homes similar to those found all over the Mediterranean coastline.  We bought a bit more food in a huge Casino supermarket, glad to escape the hugely inflated prices in the GR20 refuges, then turned down a campground that wanted 30 euros for one night’s tenting.  We ended up in a neighbouring place that charged 17 euros, still relatively expensive but less outrageous.  We had a big fry up of lamb chops, potatoes, onions and mushrooms, plagued by persistent hornets, before sleeping soundly.
On the beach at Palombaggia
The next day dawned bright and sunny and we decided that we needed a dip in the ocean.  After a leisurely lie-in and breakfast, we drove out along the peninsula to Palombaggia beach and settled in for a bit of swimming and lazing, which was exactly what the doctor in Corte had ordered.  The shoreline was pretty, backed by red rocks and with water of the postcard perfect shade of aquamarine.  Swimming felt better on my tortured left hip than walking or sitting in a car.  We didn’t manage to drag ourselves away from the beach until 2:00, whereupon, after another grocery run we headed inland a few kilometres to an obscure prehistoric site called Talla.

Corsica abounds in prehistoric ruins, and I wanted to take advantage of our wheels to see a few of them.  Talla proved to be very atmospheric, atop a granite outcrop reached through an ancient overgrown stand of trees, and we contentedly munched our way through a roast chicken, looked out at the high peaks inland and poked around the ruins of a megalithic fortress-dwelling. I loved having it to ourselves, a rare pleasure in overcrowded Europe.

Talla's megalithic gateway
Our next stop was the southernmost town on Corsica, beautiful Bonifacio.  We drove in, around the inner harbour with its bobbing megayachts, and uphill into the old town.  We parked the car and walked into the narrow streets of the Genoan town, revelling in the views over the white limestone cliffs extending east of town, set afire by the setting sun.  Bonifacio was pretty and felt a bit like Santorini, perched high above the azure Mediterranean.  Also, like Santorini, it is a victim of its own fame, with overcrowded streets and overpriced restaurants lining the old streets.  We had a fun wander around, checking out the old church, and then fled to a campground outside town, having failed to find a good spot to watch the sunset over the sea.  We had a dinner of roast chicken, salad and pate washed down by a fine Cotes du Rhone red wine.  I had to admit that two days of driving seemed to have been worse for my hip and back than two weeks of trekking had been, and my hip seemed to be tied into a tight knot of muscles that were only getting tighter.

I summarized the next day in my diary as “three swims and Filitosa”.  We started with a relaxed morning of reading, muesli and a highly successful experiment in using my Outback Oven equipment to bake brownies on my MSR stove.  We gobbled down some of the results, then drove off for a swim in a small cove (Cala Lunga) east of our campground that was pleasant, although not spectacular, with the distraction of trying to keep a hyperactive stray dog from eating or urinating on our stuff.
Lovely aquamarine Roccapina
 By 12:30 we were in the car, headed west along the south coast.  As we turned inland at Roccapina, we stopped to admire the view and spotted an idyllic little beach below.  It was a long, bumpy detour along a narrow track, but the swim was worth it.  Roccapina beach was easily the nicest beach we found in Corsica, a shallow white sand bay much beloved by yachties.  The water was calm, a perfect temperature and a truly exquisite shade of turquoise.  It was almost impossible to get Terri out of the water and back in the car to look at a bunch of prehistoric rocks! 

We reached Filitosa, Corsica’s most well-known prehistoric site, around 4:30 after a winding and scenic drive past the town of Sartene.
Filitosa statue-menhir
 I was reading Dorothy Carrington’s brilliant travel account of Corsica, Granite Island, and she tells the story of the discovery of the ancient ruins on the property of the friends with whom she spent a long vacation.  The countryside has changed immensely since those days in the late 1940s when local travel was by donkey cart, but the site itself has an atmosphere of absolute timelessness.  I loved Filitosa’s setting, its famous statue menhirs and the huge megalithic structures.  For such a famous spot, there weren’t so many tourists around, and the late afternoon light on the enigmatic stone faces caught their subtle features perfectly.  We backtracked slightly towards the Gulf of Valinco to find a campsite near the ocean.  We had a sunset swim on a somewhat rough dissipative beach that made getting in and out a bit tricky, then cooked up pasta and ate more brownies before falling asleep happily in a Filitosa-like granite outcrop in an almost-deserted campground.
Filitosa artwork

The next day, September 17th, was our last full day with the car, and we were determined to make the most of our mobility by exploring the hill country and mountains of the south, crossing the GR20 so that we could see a bit of what we had missed.  It was cloudy when we awoke, so we decided to skip a morning swim in favour of a bit of a sleep-in.  Terri used a trekking pole to massage my hip and periformis muscles, which were still not really feeling much better after a few days off from trekking.  We gobbled down some muesli and hit the road by 9:50, backtracked further to the slightly forbidding town of Sartene and then up into the mountains to the village of Caldane, where a local hot spring provided a relaxing, therapeutic start to the day.  It was marketed as a “Roman bath”, but it was only developed in the late 1800s, so the marketing wasn’t too accurate historically. 

We were pretty relaxed as we climbed into the car to drive further uphill to the wonderful prehistoric sites of Cuccuruzza and Cupale.  These are more megalithic settlements, rather like Filitosa, but the real appeal is that to reach them involves hiking a couple of kilometres through a beautiful hardwood forest littered with granite outcrops, some of them used as prehistoric rock shelters.  The structure of the Cuccuruzza citadel is even more impressive in its construction than Filitosa, although sadly it has none of the carved statuary that makes Filitosa so memorable.  The windows and internal rooms are still clearly visible in the massively thick walls, and the tower rises up above it in typical Sardinian nuraghi style (the Torrean culture in Corsica has obvious roots across the water in Sardinian Nuraghic culture).  Cupale lay further along our idyllic forest trail and was a medieval citadel built by the Italian lord Bonifacio who reconquered Corsica for the Pope back in the 9th century. 
Carbini's memorial cross
We made our way back to the car and drove a bit further to the heretic’s village of Carbini, where a barren hill behind the town features a small interpretive trail that tells the sad history of the 14th century sect of the Giovanalli that arose in the village and died in a bloodbath atop the hill after the Papacy called down the wrath of crusading knights on the heterodox villagers; the entire village was butchered on the hill, a gruesome event that was commemorated by a stark cross on the summit.  The story reminded me a bit of the fate of the Cathars in the Languedoc a century before, although this was apparently more about a wider crackdown by the Church after the Black Death on Franciscan friars who were too keen on poverty and renouncing worldly wealth.  The view from the cross over the surrounding mountains and villages was beautiful and showed how little of this area of Corsica is under cultivation today.

We drove further uphill towards the Col de Bavella, where a series of pointy granite fingers, the Aiguilles de Bavella, raked the sky.  We parked the car and walked a few hundred metres along the GR20, passing a few trekkers on the penultimate leg of the GR20 and wishing wistfully that we were doing the same.  We drove downhill, through a wonderful rocky valley full of swimming holes, until we stopped for the night at a riverside campsite right next to a perfect swimming hole.  We had a clear starlit evening to enjoy a dinner of lamb chops.  As we cleaned up from dinner, a fox appeared and stole some of the bones.

The next morning we knew that we had to bring back our car by 11 am, so we got up, made eggs, had a quick dip in the river (surprisingly un-chilly water) and then loaded our gear into the car and headed back to Corte, arriving by 10:30.  We tanked up the car and headed back to Europcar, where the day’s drama commenced.  The manager wasn’t happy with the fact that the car was dusty, and as he complained about it, he decided that the dust streaks down the side of the car constituted scratches in the paint (leaves had brushed against the car’s door while driving down to Roccapina beach) and that as such that would cost us the 850-euro deductible.  Given that even if the car were repainted, it wouldn’t cost that much, we weren’t willing to agree to any such thing, and then we listened to lots of chest-puffing and shouting.  Terri proved to be a dab hand at dealing with blowhard bullies, and we agreed that if we could arrange the removal of the subtle paint scratches ourselves by the end of the day, we would call it quits. 

Corte's citadel
We first ran the car through the car wash down the street.  If we had done this first, the manager wouldn’t have noticed anything to begin with, but now that he saw the prospect of making some easy cash, he found three vestigial scratches that still showed up in the right light.  He raced off to lunch grumbling and threatening loudly, and I went off to find a garage that could repolish the car professionally.  They were closed for lunch (Corsicans take their siestas seriously), but I was confident that they could do the job.  Terri and I went to the Casino supermarket to buy some lunch and while we were there, we found scratch remover for sale there.  We spent half an hour polishing away, and removed most traces ourselves, but it wasn’t going to pass inspection by Mr. Anger Management.  Once lunch was over, we drove the car up to the garage and the mechanic had a look at it.  He almost laughed at the idea that the car needed any work, but he knew Mr. Europcar by reputation, so he agreed to see what he could do with a high-speed polisher and some wax.  He gave us a lift back into town, where we sat in a café using wi-fi until it was time to collect the car and face the music again.  When we got to the garage, the car looked better than it must have done when it was new.  There was no trace of any scratches or irregularity in the gleaming black surface.  At 90 euros, this was a much cheaper deal than signing over our deposit.

We drove back to Europcar and the manager was forced to admit that the door had never looked better.  A cunning gleam came into his eye, however, as he now declared that we were late in bringing the car back and owed him another day of rental.  He clearly saw the prospect of making some easy cash slipping away from him, and was desperate to get some profit out of the deal.  Given that he had suggested that we go get it fixed ourselves, this was a bit rich, and Terri banished me from the discussion as she marched grim-faced back into the office with Mr. Europcar.  Fifteen minutes later she was back and we were free of any financial responsibilities, as her flinty negotiating style wore down the manager’s bluster and noise. 

Finally liberated, we were off on the 6:30 train to Ajaccio which left only half an hour late, crammed full of university students headed home for the weekend.  We arrived in the island’s capital just as the train station closed for the night, and spent a long while wandering the streets with our full packs searching for a cheap hotel.  The cheapest we found was 140 euros a night, so we decided to hike out to the nearest campground, Les Mimosas, about 5 kilometres from the port.  It was a long, tired trudge for my aching back and hip, and for Terri’s sore leg, but paying 15 euros made it worthwhile.  It was a well-run, if crowded, campground set in one of the eucalyptus plantations established in the 1930s and 1940s to drain the soil in an attempt to eradicate malaria, once a serious health threat on the island.
Porto's main beach
Terri swimming under the Genoan bridge, Ota
The next day, September 19th, we wandered back into town, slightly less painfully after a long night’s sleep, and caught a bus to Porto, about two hours north of Ajaccio along the coast.  We had picked a location to spend a few days relaxing partly based on the three stars given to the nearby coastline, Les Calanches, on our Michelin map.  The bus ride was pretty at first, but as we approached Porto, it became spectacular.  The road narrowed into a single-land snake coiled through the improbably red spires of rock that make up Les Calanches.  Our bus driver, a loquacious Tunisian-born man named Uthman, was an expert at steering his big bus through the rocks, but the tourists coming the other way had more difficulty with the sharp turns and the rules of engagement when two vehicles meet on a single-lane stretch, and it took forty minutes to drive what should have taken no more than a quarter of an hour. 
Sunset apsara, Porto
We hopped off the bus and trudged to the Porto municipal campground, a sprawling eucalyptus plantation perfect for sheltering from the sun where we would spend the next four nights.
Porto is improbably pretty, a small port tucked into a gulf bordered on one side by the Calanches which we had just driven through, and on the other by a big marine sanctuary, Scandola.  Inbetween, underneath a Genoese watchtower, a small, tidy tourist town sits, gazing west towards the setting sun, its harbour sheltered by a manmade beach.  Over the next three days, we explored the beautiful inland river and swimming holes near Ota, bathing below a steep-sided old Genoese footbridge; took a boat tour out to gaze at the wonderful rockscapes, caves and tiny coves of Scandola and the Calanches; and watched some of the most perfect sunsets imaginable while sitting on the beach.  The beach itself, exposed to the open Mediterranean, was too rough for swimming two of the three days we were there, but it still made the perfect backdrop for sunset viewing.  It was a great place for the two of us to rest our tired and aching bodies after the damage we had done to them.
Marine reserve, Scandola

Finally, on September 23rd, Terri and I hopped on a bus back to Ajaccio, driven by the affable Uthman, and said goodbye as Terri caught the bus to the airport and her date with the Swiss citizenship ceremony. 
Scandola scenery
I stayed on in Ajaccio, trying to get my sciatica repaired (more pills prescribed, this time stronger painkillers and anti-inflammatories), my cell phone repaired (it wouldn’t charge anymore; the solution was to buy an external battery charger) and my fix of culture at the Fesch Museum (a completely underwhelming gallery of European art which tries to make up in quantity what it lacks in quality).  I stayed another night at Les Mimosas campground, then caught a bus to Bonifacio, having decided to explore Sardinia in the days that I had remaining before my flight to Switzerland.

Corridor tomb near Anzachena
I stayed in a small and crowded campground close to the harbour, and the next morning I awoke early and made it onto the first ferry of the day across to Santa Teresa de Gallura.  The views of the early morning light on the white cliffs of Bonifacio were magical.  I got to the other side in an hour, walked to the bus station and caught a bus to Anzachena, where I wanted to explore some prehistoric ruins.  I found a local bike shop who charged me an extortionate 25 euros to rent a bike for the day and headed off in search of the Sardinian version of the megalithic culture I had explored in Corsica.  It was a good day, with a couple of corridor-style communal tombs, Codda Ecchju and Li Lolghi; a big megalithic village (a nuraghi, in Sardinian Italian) called La Prisgiona; Li Muri, a “cemetery” of four circular tombs near a fifth rectangular tomb; a classic nuraghi, Albucciu, much like Cuccuruzza on Corsica; and finally my favourite, Malchittu, a temple high on a hill after a 45-minute walk across a beautiful countryside littered with granite outcrops.  It was like a very primitive Doric temple, with a small sanctuary enclosed by a wall that once supported a gently sloping roof, and the views over the gentle Sardinian countryside, such a contrast to the harsh vertical world of so much of Corsica, were beautiful.
"Giant's tomb", Codda Ecchju

When I had returned my bicycle in town, I realized that I had been lucky to catch a bus earlier.  The bus company’s drivers were on strike, and there were only a handful of buses running, none of which were headed to Olbia, where I had planned to spend the night.  I jumped on the only bus I could find and headed 6 kilometres out of town to the tourist town of Caniggione, gateway to the beach resorts of the rich and (in)famous on the Costa Smerelda.  I pitched Terri’s tent in the local campground and ended up spending three nights there, as much through inertia as anything.  I didn’t do much for the two full days I was there, wandering into town to the local beaches (pretty, but not spectacular), eating, having sundowner beers in a bar near the marina and working on my Italian by reading the newspapers.

Finally, on September 28th I roused myself and headed to the southwest of Sardinia in search of more history.  I hiked rapidly towards Anzachena to catch a bus to Olbia, only to see the bus drive right past the stop despite my frantic waving.  I decided to stick out my thumb and soon caught a lift with a young automotive engineer on his way to an English lesson, part of his plan to emigrate to the UK in search of work.  In Olbia I caught a train to Oristano and spent the trip talking to a marine geologist from Sardinia on his way to consult with colleagues.  In Oristano I went to the local tourist office and to the archaeological museum (one of the few things open over the sacred lunch break), where I saw a number of interesting finds from Thallos, a nearby Phoenician and Carthaginian ruin that I wanted to visit.  A local bus carried me out to Torregrande and a huge campground, where I rented a truly miserable bicycle (this time for only 5 euros) and headed to the nearby village of Cabras to see another archaeological museum.  After a number of small rooms of Nuragic and Carthaginian finds, the main event was a room full of the “Giants of Cabras”, a series of life-sized statues of warriors and boxers from three thousand years ago.  Only one of the six was reasonably intact, but it was impressive to come eye to eye with these stylized statues of so long ago.  There are more of these giant statues in other museums, particularly Cagliari, but it would be great to see them all together in one place like a Neolithic Terracotta Army.
"Giant's head", Cabras Museum

The next day I rented the same sad excuse for a bicycle and rode further afield to the ruins of Thallos.  It was a pleasant ride, past a roadside nuraghi and past the rich fishing ground of the inland lagoon that makes Cabras one of the few towns in Sardinia renowned for its fish and seafood.  Thallos is situated near the end of a peninsula, with the ancient city on one shore and some of the nicest beaches in Sardinia on the other.  I went up the Aragonian watchtower (as in Corsica, watchtowers dot the coastline from the days in which pirate raids from North Africa were a constant danger), then walked through the ruins.  They are extensive but not very excavated, with big areas awaiting future generations of archaeologists.  The acropolis was a nuraghic village before the Phoenicians arrived, and they put their Tophet (a place to venerate children who were stillborn or who died young) atop the megalithic ruins.  There were a number of Phoenician temples, a number dating to after the Roman conquest (in the First Punic War), and another very Egyptian-looking temple.  Two Corinthian columns, re-erected by archaeologists, were very photogenic with the backdrop of the bay and the mountains of southern Sardinia behind.  One of my favourite spots was a 9th-century church rebuilt on a fifth-century Byzantine plan that is still in use. 
Byzantine church, Thallos

After all this culture, it was time for the beach, and it was one of the nicest swims of the entire trip, almost as good as Roccapina.  It was hard for me to drag myself out of the water to ride back to Torregrande; along the way I fell into conversation with an American doctor on an Experience Plus bike tour, reminding me of my long-ago bicycle-guiding days with Butterfield and Robinson. 
Thallos Beach
With my campground closing for the season the next day and my flight back from Corsica only a few days away, it was time to say arrivederci to Sardinia and head back north.  I caught trains and buses north as far as Santa Teresa Gallura, but just missed the last ferry of the day to Bonifacio.  I met Marius, a young German who knew a cheap B&B in town, and we headed there together.  20 euros a night got us wonderful rooms, a decent breakfast and a kindly landlady.  It was just as well that it was a nice place, since overnight a massive storm kicked up and we were stranded in Santa Teresa for an extra day as all ferries were cancelled.  The winds were impressive, and the Strait of Bonifacio was a boiling mass of white water all day. 

Finally on October 2nd the waves and wind calmed down and Marius and I headed over on the earliest ferry to Bonifacio.  Corsica being Corsica, there were no connecting buses to Porto Vecchio for several hours, so we sat and chatted and sipped overpriced hot drinks until a bus arrived.  On the road north we saw evidence of the previous day’s storm in flooded roads.  Later I would find out that a number of people had lost their homes in flash floods, and when the storm reached the mainland of France another 19 people would lose their lives.  Marius and I said goodbye in Porto Vecchio as he headed off for a week of hiking and I settled into a hotel room.  I went to another doctor (I was running out of painkillers before I ran out of pain in my hip) and got another prescription.  For the first time, this doctor actually did some simple tests to make sure that it was sciatica; the previous two doctors had just written a prescription and been done with me.
Doric columns, Thallos

And then, finally, I was on my way back to Geneva and to Leysin after a whirlwind six weeks in the Pyrenees, Corsica and Sardinia.  It didn’t turn out the way I had planned it, and I was leaving with my body in pain, but I had enjoyed all three destinations.  I think that I would go back to Corsica again only with my own transport (bicycle or motorized vehicle), and I would concentrate on cycling the mountain roads in the northeast and south.  I would love to have seen more of Sardinia, but again having my own wheels would have made a huge difference.  The Pyrenees are what would appeal to me most, both for hiking and for cycling, and I could see myself spending more time there in the future.

Back in Leysin, after a week of packing up, it was time to head to Canada for two weeks and then to South America for the next chapter of my adventures:  Antarctica!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Beauty and the Beast: Hiking the GR20 in Corsica (Retrospective from September, 2015)

Cerro Castillo, Chile, November 28, 2015

When I was planning my farewell tour of Europe for the summer of 2015, one of the things that I knew had to be on the itinerary was hiking the famed GR20 trekking route in Corsica.  I’d heard it being talked about for years by hikers, often in hushed tones, and I thought it would make a fitting finale after several weeks of warming up for it by hiking in the Pyrenees. 

As detailed in the previous post, the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley (as Robbie Burns said).  After Terri received the news of her unexpected (and very un-Swiss) last-minute rescheduling of her Swiss citizenship ceremony, originally scheduled for September 16th but now postponed until September 30th, we frantically rescheduled and rebooked and by the evening of September 3rd we were in another 2-euro 2-hour bus from Gavarnie (where we had received the e-mail that put us into motion) to the nearest railhead at Tarbes and a cheap motel opposite the station. 

The next morning, September 4th, we jumped on a morning train to Toulouse.  After leaving my big hiking backpack in a left-luggage office of Byzantine complexity and incompetence at the station, we headed into town on foot.  One major objective was to buy myself a new camera lens to replace my much-loved, much-used and now completely broken Nikon 18-200 lens that had seized up as we left Cauterets a few days before.  We tried a slick professional shop that didn’t have the 18-200, but had an even more impressive 18-300 mm lens.  I was sorely tempted, but the prospect of having to buy all new filters (the 18-300 had a different diameter) made me hesistate.

We strolled further into the lovely historic centre of Toulouse, past the impressive Romanesque Church of St. Sernin and past hordes of university students undergoing a frosh week treasure hunt/ritual humiliation.  The main pedestrian drag, rue du Taur (named after a gruesome martyrdom involving a bull), was a buzzing, lively spot and we had an unexpected Asian lunch that went down well.  I made a fruitless sortie to another camera shop, then walked with Terri down to the Garonne River.  I was struck by the bilingual street signs, written in both French and Languedoc (Occitan), the language of a civilization in southern France destroyed by northern knights in the Albigensian crusade.  Toulouse was an important Roman city (Tolosa) before becoming a major centre of troubadour culture and the capital of the Languedoc region.  It’s nice to see that heritage being promoted today in the city.

On our way back to the first camera shop, we blundered into an electronics megastore, FNAC.  They had a sale going on, and had the 18-200 mm lens in stock.  I bought it, got the VAT back and ended up saving a fair bit of money.  Satisfied with my new purchase, we collected my bag from the station and took the subway, tram and city bus out to our hotel near the airport.

Modern Toulouse revolves around Airbus, which has its main factory beside the airport.  Outside our hotel, hundreds of Airbus employees in high-visibility vests were cycling home from work.  We dined on pate, wine, cheese and baguettes in our hotel room and threw ourselves into bed early.

The next morning we caught the bus and tram out to the airport and got on our Volotea flight to Bastia.  I had never heard of the airline, a Spanish-based budget carrier, and it marked the first time that I had ever flown on (or even heard of) a Boeing 717; another money-saving feature was that most of the flight crew were mainland Chinese.  At Bastia airport, we tried futilely to hitchhike to Calvi before finally giving up and taking a long, slow bus-train combination.  During our three-hour wait in Bastia town, we bought a map and guidebook (to replace the ones left behind in Leysin for Terri to bring back from her citizenship ceremony trip), had lunch and then took a leisurely, spectacular train ride to Calvi, only slightly delayed by a large forest fire whipped up by the gale-force mistral wind.  We got to Calvi after dark, found a campground and went to bed.

Early the next morning, September 6th, we crawled out of the tent, packed up rapidly and shared a truly exorbitant taxi with a Canadian couple, Maike and Brendan, to the trailhead at Calenzana.  For a 14 km ride that took about 12 minutes, the fare came to 50 euros.  In Corsica, as in much of the world, there are no poor cabdrivers.

The start of the trek was relatively straightforward, a 900-metre climb up a broad trail through typical lowland maquis vegetation to the Bocca u Saltu, a broad pass.  We had sweeping views down to the northwest coast, with Calvi a far-off citadel and the Mediterranean a still azure blue, yesterday’s gales completely gone. 
Terri on the first day, high above Calvi

After a lunch of sardines and bread, we set off on a long traverse and climb up through pine forests and over granite boulders to another pass, the Bocca a u Bazzuchellu.  There were sections of tricky scrambling and even a fixed chain at one part, making for some challenging manoeuvring while carrying a heavy pack. We took another break there before a final traverse, partly through a long stretch of burnt-out forsts, to the day’s refuge, l’Ortu di up Piobbu.  We were unpleasantly surprised to find almost every available tent site taken; September is supposed to be the off-season for the GR20, but apparently not this year.  As well, we learned that the previous day’s fires and winds had seen the first section of the trail officially closed, so there were two days’ worth of hikers setting out that day.  We eventually found a site quite far downhill from the hut, put up the tent, wandered uphill to the hut to sample some great cake, and then headed back to the tent for a great meal of roesti and sausage.  I was carrying more weight than almost any other hiker on the GR20, but at least it meant that we were eating better than most people.  We had a post-prandial taste of whiskey watching fog roll in, enveloping the granite peaks as the sun set.

First-night sunset
The second leg of the GR20 is where it starts to get serious.  The GR20 is often described as the most challenging long-distance hike in Europe, and it’s not because of horizontal distances covered, or vertical metres climbed.  Instead, it’s because of the relentless technical scrambling on several of the days, and this started right out of camp that day.  We rock-hopped and angled our way up big slabs of exposed rock all morning through a lovely birch forest.  Terri found it hard going, and I didn’t much enjoy having a heavy pack on my back for some of the trickier moves.  We topped out for the day at 2020m, lunched on sausage and peanuts and then headed into the mist for a long, tiring series of short, steep climbs.  We were almost alone, as we were more or less the last people out of camp in the morning after a leisurely breakfast of pancakes.  A party of Belgian students and a lone Israeli medical student caught up to us over the course of the afternoon, trekkers whom we would see over and over again during the coming days.  Finally, with Terri despairing of ever arriving, we slogged our unsteady way down an endless scree slope, rocks rolling underfoot constantly.
Seriously steep terrain on day two

We arrived to a scene reminiscent of this summer’s footage of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe.  The refuge, Carozzu, is located at a spot lacking in flat land, and every likely tent-sized spot was already taken. Just before dark, a young man dragged himself into camp, his knee cut to the kneecap and his wrist broken by a six-metre fall; he was evacuated the next morning after being stitched up by a doctor among the hikers.  We ended up staking out a narrow spot, too small to put up our tent, and sleeping out under the stars on our air mattresses.  Our sleeping bags were soon soaked with dew, although the moisture evaporated by the time we woke up the next morning.  The views of the stars, watching the Milky Way rotate slowly over our heads, were compensation for the lack of space. 
Light coming to the Spasimata gorge
We made a much more timely getaway the next morning, setting off before 8 o’clock thanks to Terri having mixed up some muesli the night before.  We knew that day three was supposed to be quite challenging, and we wanted to give ourselves enough daylight hours to complete it.  The fun and games began immediately, with a swaying suspension bridge, the Passerelle de Spasimata, to cross before we climbed steeply up a long box canyon, a route that involved lots of precarious scrambling on huge steeply inclined slabs of pink granite.  We were in a landscape of pure rock, almost unadulterated by the green of vegetation, tempered only by the crustal clear waters of the pools of water far below us in the bottom of the valley.  It was challenging going, with lots of hands-and-feet scrambling up very steep pitches.  Eventually we reached a tiny lake, near which I watched two moufflon (wild sheep) grazing on the opposite bank, looking for all the world like a pair of Thomson gazelle transplanted from Tanzania.  By the time I reached for my camera, the moufflon had slipped quietly into an adjoining patch of bush from which they did not reappear.
Really?  This is a trekking route?  Day three
We eventually, after almost four hours, made our way to the Bocca Muvrella, a pass with breathtaking views down both sides.  From there on, although we had little net vertical gain left, the day only got harder, with a tough downclimb followed by a rugged traverse to the last pass of the day, another Bocca whose name escapes me now.  At times we had to take off our backpacks and pass them down before climbing down gingerly.  Any misstep, while not necessarily fatal, would have meant a helicopter ride and lots of pain.  It was physically and mentally draining, and even the final downhill to the ski resort of Haut Asco was a long series of careful short steps on sliding scree.  It was a profound relief to walk into the pine forests of Asco and finally swing our legs freely and stride forward at a normal walking pace.  We camped in a beautiful spot that evening under pine trees, and slept the sleep of the dead.
On the way between passes, day three

The fabled fourth stage of the GR20, through the Cirque de Solitude, used to be the toughest stretch of the whole route.  However, in June this year a big landslide killed 6 hikers in the Cirque, leading the authorities to close this route.  The alternatives are a bus ride down and around the Cirque (and the next day’s stage too), or a long climb almost over the highest peak in Corsica, the Monte Cinto.  Shellshocked by the previous two days, we opted for the soft option, and at 9:00 the next morning we boarded a bus for a slightly hair-raising ride down the valley into the lowland town of Ponte Leccio, through which we had passed four days previously in the train.  A brief stop there allowed us to buy steak and eggs for a slap-up dinner, before a remarkable road led us up through the Scala de Santa Regina (“the staircase of Santa Regina), one narrow lane pushed thorugh a precipitous gorge.  It was slightly white-knuckle stuff, with our driver aggressively forcing her way past befuddled German tourists, but we suddenly emerged into an inland highland basin, the Niolo, and hopped off the bus in Albertacce at 11:30 ready to walk.  The other hikers—Celine (one of the Belgian students), Alban (a middle-aged Frenchman from Grenoble) with his 71-year-old father and 68-year-old uncle, and a Swiss student—soon left us behind, but Terri and I didn’t mind.  We were revelling in the walk, through pine forests and open, rocky chaparral reminiscent of Montana.  It was a joy to be able to stride along without constantly looking at our feet.  We barely noticed the 600 metres of climbing, and got to Castellu di Vergio, another ski resort, in enough time to take steaming hot showers and do laundry.  It felt like trekking the way we were both used to.
Terri enjoying the easier walking on day four near Albertacce

The one thing that continued not to feel like trekking was my left hip.  Every night my hip locked up completely, and I could barely get to my feet.  Getting out of the tent was an inelegant affair, as I crawled like a commando through the door, rolled onto my side and slowly got my right foot under me.  Finally, with agonizing slowly, I would straighten my left leg, wincing in pain and hobble around.  After half an hour, I would be able to walk, and during the day my mobility wasn’t too badly impaired, but rock climbing the toughest parts of the route was slow and painful.  I was at a loss what to do; I took ibuprofen and aspirin, but this did little to make whatever was wrong get better, and the next morning I would be doing my imitation of a 90-year-old once again.
A distant view of Ajaccio and its coastline

Col de San Pietru, above Castellu Vergio
The feeling continued the next day as we covered more distance on the map than ever before on wide, easy trails leading to a lovely alpine tarn, the Lac de Ninu.  It was surrounded by pozzini, the flat grasslands so prized by Corsican herdsmen (perhaps because they’re so rare!).
Terri and tiny equine friend, Lac de Ninu
The horses grazing beside the lake reminded me forcefully of a wonderful trip through Mongolia back in 2007.  A sun-soaked picnic beside the lake and we were off for an afternoon of quick walking through a landscape of amazing dead trees looking very Ansel Adams-esque, finally climbing to a cheerful (but still overcrowded) campsite at Mangannu, where we met a number of groups who had walked over the Cirque de Solitude and then done a double stage to catch up to us. 

Day five scenery
Strangely, although it was by far the easiest walking of the route so far, Terri complained that evening of a sore left ankle and shin.  We knew that the next day was going to be our last stage of tough scrambling, so we studied the map for alternative routes, but they involved enormously long marches around the mountains, so Terri decided to tough it out for another day.

It was, as advertised, a long hard slog form Mangannu to Pietra Piana.  We climbed steeply out of camp, up, up, up to a narrow gap in a steep arête.  So far the footing had been fine, but the subsequent series of traverses and short up-and-down pitches was really hard, with lots of scrambling on all fours, hopping across boulderfields and occasionally lowering our packs down in front of us.  With her sore leg, this was a painful day for Terri, reducing her to tears at one point.

The scenery was stunning, looking down on a series of tiny jewel-like lakes surrounded by a chaos of rock faces and rockfalls.  Eventually we made one final traverse, climbed past a tiny hidden meadow, over a final ridge and saw the refuge directly below us.  The clouds, mist and threat of rain that had dogged us all day dissipated and we arrived in bright sunshine at the best campsite of the hike.  Our tent site was below and away from the main cluster, perched on the edge of a cliff giving epic views down the valley and over the next day’s route.  It was a wonderful place to watch the setting sun light distant peaks aflame while sipping some of the local wine sold by the hutkeeper.
Last evening of camping, Pietra Piana

The view from Pietra Piana
Terri’s foot was now much worse, with either tendinitis or a sprain the likeliest culprits.  We decided to avoid the long two-stages-in-one-day march that most of our fellow hikers were planning, and instead follow the river valley all the way down to a roadhead.  It was a good choice, both for the relative ease of walking and for the stunning river.  We hiked past a series of perfect swimming holes, each more perfect than the previous one, and finally took the plunge in a secluded pool.  It was chilly water, but it felt wonderful on our unwashed skin, and the granite boulders lining the pool made it easy to bask in the sun afterwards and warm up. 
Lovely swimming pools on the last day

Eventually we passed a small bergerie where we shared a beer and tasted the local sheep’s cheese before an endless plod past more bathing spots brought us finally to the road at the tiny hamlet of Caniglia.  By now Terri could hardly walk because of the pain in her leg, and a French couple in a camper van took pity on us and gave us a lift to the main highway at Vivariu.  It was a long hobble to the train station, but by 6:30 we were in the old inland capital Corte.  We planned to take a day off to recover and to celebrate my 47th birthday on September 13th, but after a visit to the hospital the next day, punctuated by a dramatic encounter with a histrionic shouting nurse, we were both ordered to cease and desist from hiking for at least a week.  My sciatica, which had been with me all trip, suddenly took a big turn for the worse on that last day, and I was hobbling as badly as Terri.  Our GR20 was over at the halfway mark.  At least we had completed the harder half of the route before quitting.

My overall take on the GR20 is that it lives up to its mystique, but not in the way I expected.  The toughness of the walk is not in its vertical metres climbed, or its horizontal kilometres covered.  It’s in the technical challenges of scrambling and semi-rock climbing with a full backpack, and in the very real physical risk of a slip or a tumble, as well as the mental stress of doing this on every step for hours on end.  The three non-technical days we did (Albertacce-Castellu Vergio on day 4, Castellu Vergio-Mangannu on day 5 and our walk out on day 7) were joys:  easy walking with great views.  I suspect that the southern half of the walk would have been like this too.  The legendary technical stages, origin of the GR20’s hair-raising reputation, are a do-able challenge, with stunning views, but the mental grind of having to choose every foothold and handhold with care detracts a bit from the fun of walking in the mountains.  I greatly preferred the walking we did in the Pyrenees.

The other part of the GR20 that is sub-par is accommodation, with overcrowded refuges that charge very high prices for everything and have dubious sanitation and not enough space (in most cases) for tents.  The GR20 is a victim of its own popularity in this respect. 

Would I come back to finish the GR20 in the future?  Maybe, although it’s not at the top of my to-do list.

An All-Too-Brief Taste of Trekking in the Pyrenees (Retrospective: August-September 2015)

Cerro Castillo, Chile, November 28, 2015

After a couple of weeks of recharging, both mentally and physically, at my father’s house in Thunder Bay, I returned to Leysin in late August.  One thing that didn’t recharge at all was the condition of my left leg, where sciatic pain had only gotten worse, rather than improving.  I had hoped that rest and relaxation would let the problem heal itself, but this proved not to be the case.  I woke up in the morning, or even in the middle of the night, with my left hip so sore and tight that I could hardly get out of bed.  Hardly the best preparation for six weeks of hiking in the Pyrenees and Corsica!

I had wanted to hike the Pyrenees for many years, ever since my late uncle Piet told me stories of hiking the length of the entire range back in the early 1990s.  The Pyrenees sounded much less full of hikers and climbers and cars than the Alps, and somewhat wilder.  I realized that Terri and I didn’t have time to walk the entire length, but the central part, from the Col de Pourtalet to Andorra, looked like a doable three-week project.  We bought Ton Joosten’s guidebook, The Pyrenean Haute Route, and picked a segment of the route that looked like being the right length and difficulty.  I liked the fact that Joosten’s route went back and forth across the Spanish-French frontier, staying away from the lowlands and more-trafficked routes like the GR10 and GR 11.  Terri finally found out about the date of her naturalization ceremony to become a Swiss citizen in August, and we planned our trip around that.  We would hike for nineteen days from August 26th to September 13th, then Terri would fly back to Switzerland from Toulouse, I would stay to do a few days of hiking, and then we would reunite in Nice on September 16th to catch a ferry to Corsica to hike the GR20 for two weeks. 

It sounded like a good plan, and we were excited as we took a day-long train trip from Leysin, via Lausanne, Lyon and Montpellier, to the town of Pau.  We sat in the sun outside Lyon Port-Dieu train station while waiting for a connection, eating sandwiches and soaking up rays, enjoying the sensation of both of us being free (Terri had just finished her final term of teaching) and talking about our upcoming hike.  

Henri IV's palace in Pau
We got to Pau around 8:30 pm, put our heavy packs into our “apart-hotel” and scoured the town for restaurants that were still open.  We found a great little Mexican restaurant run by two Sri Lankans (as you do in a small city in France), then blundered into the sound and light show at the old palace of Henry IV.  We learned a lot about the life and times of one of France’s more exceptional kings, a Protestant king of a largely Catholic country racked by horrific inter-religious strife oddly reminiscent of present-day Iraq or Syria.  Pau looked like the sort of city that might repay a bit more exploration one day.

The next morning, Wednesday August 26th, we were up early and off to catch a bus.  By 8:00 we were on a local bus to the Col de Pourtalet, an absolute steal at two euros for a two-stage trip up the beautiful Val d’Ossau that took almost two hours.  We missed our jumping-off point, and had to wait for the bus to turn around at the top of the pass and start its return trip to get to our trailhead.  We hopped off, shouldered packs and were off, heading steadily uphill up a green, beautiful valley.  Looking back, we could see the steep grey mass of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau rising behind us.  The Pyrenean Haute Route stage we were following started up near the summit in a mountain refuge, and by starting at the road, we were saving over an hour, resulting in a day that was supposed to be 6:45 in length, according to the Joostens guide.  It was supposed to be challenging but doable trekking, with spectacular scenery.  We were quite keen to get going and we stormed off uphill, through a pleasant stretch of forest before the trail levelled off a bit to ascend a valley.  We passed a shepherd’s hut surrounded by sheep.  As we continued climbing, we looked back to see twenty or so griffon vultures circling in the sky, then dropping down near the hut to feast on something dead, presumably a sheep.  The Pyrenees are home to 90% of Europe’s population of griffon vultures, the largest birds in Europe.
Terri heading off on our first morning

Our route continued uphill to our first pass, the Col d'Arrious at 2259 metres, some 900 metres above our starting point.  We sat and ate sandwiches looking back towards the Val d’Ossau before advancing a bit to a pretty lake where we had another snack and turned our attention to the first of the “challenging sections” mentioned in the guidebook, the Passage d’Orteig.  
Reservoir near the Passage d'Orteig
It looked frankly terrifying, a traverse of a vertiginous cliff, equipped with chains.  We set off, missing the path the first time, and while it was uncomfortable at times because of our big packs, almost borderline rock-climbing, it was far less impossible than it had looked from afar.  We breathed a sigh of relief once we had struggled up the last steep section and looked down on the Refuge de Arremoulit.  It was easy walking down to the refuge, built next to a pretty lake (the area was dotted with tiny lakes, filling small depressions in the granite), and we treated ourselves to beer and omelettes there.  It was relatively late, almost 4:00 pm, by the time we got going.  We weren’t too worried, as it was supposed to be about two and a half hours to the next refuge and we had almost five hours of daylight left.

As it turned out, we should have been worried.  Our path led us around the lake and then steeply up a tortured landscape of gigantic shattered boulders.  There was no path markers, and finding the best way up was no easy task, as many of the boulders were loose and threatened to tip sideways under our weight and send us sprawling.  As we made our way up slowly, a pair of women accompanied by a twelve-year-old boy appeared, coming downhill.  They looked concerned that we were heading uphill so late, although they told us that once we were over the pass, the path markers would resume, making navigation simpler.
Path?  We don't need no stinking path!

This turned out to be a bit of an untruth.  We came over the top of the pass, the Col de Palas (2517 m) and looked down into Spain, where a reservoir sparkled blue against the shattered red and black rocky landscape.  We found a few reassuring splashes of red and white paint marking the way, and followed them diagonally downward to the left, towards an immense rockslide.  We could see where the next pass, the Porte du Loveda (2600 m) must be, but it wasn’t clear where the path would lead from the rockslide to the pass.  As we picked our way painstakingly onto the rockslide, we completely lost the paint markers.  It took a lot of time to find a decent way across, constantly searching in vain for the next marker.  A lightly-laden trekker came up behind us, moving quickly, and crossed the rockfall above us.  We tried to follow his route, but it was never clear that we were following a real path.  Across the rockslide, we walked approximately along the path of the other hiker, now rapidly approaching the pass, and tried to keep him in sight to get a feeling for the path. 

It was slow going, and it took forever to find the paint marks again.  We followed them upwards towards the Porte du Loveda, all the while watching the other hiker bound uphill like a mountain goat and disappear out of sight.  He seemed to be following a different route than that indicated by the paint markers, and so when we once again lost the path, after searching in all directions for more markers, we decided to follow the other man as he seemed to know where he was going.  The climbing got more and more precipitous, and eventually Terri decided that we must have made a wrong turn.  I left my pack with her and went ahead to scout.  I found a way up to where the other man had vanished from sight, but the descent on the other side was more or less impossible without a rope, harness and bolts.  On the bright side, though, I could see a well-trodden path descending from further right along the ridge. I came back down and we considered our options.  I thought we should retreat downhill to the lake to camp and try again in the morning, but Terri was all for pushing on and getting to the hut. 

We cast around again, rather like Hash House Harriers, and finally came up with the paint flashes.  They led uphill further to our right and we followed, grateful to have found the right route.  The route grew more and more vertical, to the point where we were more or less rock-climbing with no rope and carrying huge packs.  While working my way up a vertical chimney, the fuel bottle that I had attached to the outside of my pack came loose and fell against a rock, breaking the fuel pump which was projecting from the top of the bottle.  This was a major loss, as it meant that we could not cook.  We had other, more pressing concerns, though, as Terri was barely able to get up the steep slope, even after passing her backpack up to me.  Finally, though, with about an hour of daylight left, we were across the pass and had only the downhill (an hour, according to the book) between us and the refuge.

We set off downhill into French territory again, following paint markings, and began traversing to our right.  Everything went well until we got to another rockslide with no markers to be found.  We cast around again and found nothing, but the only practicable path seemed to lead downhill.  It was a slow, hard descent requiring big vertical drops on each step and treacherous footing on the loose rocks.  All the time it was getting darker, and once we realized that the ground in front of us was heading towards a cliff, we were in trouble.  At this point I was finally able to convince Terri that we wouldn’t make it to the refuge, and that we had to find someplace to bivouac.  I scouted ahead and found a small area that was less steep (I won’t say flat) where we could spend the night.  Terri was just about done, and I had to do a few trips up and down a pretty steep fifty metres of trail to shuttle our bags down.
Our tilted bivouac spot on the first night

It was an uncomfortable night, with both of us exhausted and yet worried about sliding downhill and over a cliff in our sleep.  We forced down a few nuts and raisins, laid down our ground sheets and mattresses and fell asleep.  It was a majestic setting, with a sky full of stars and the moon lighting up the massive rock ramparts on the other side of our little valley.  I awoke a few times in the night from big gusts of wind, looked around to admire the views, and fell asleep again.   If we weren’t lost and tired and worried about sliding downhill (which didn’t happen), it would have been a perfect, memorable night.

In the morning, we ate a few nuts and raisins, drank some water and began the tortuous ascent back up towards the path.  After 40 tough minutes, we were back where we had lost the path previously.  We knew, from observations made as we climbed, that the real path had to stay high and traverse to avoid the cliffs.  It took a lot of wandering in circles to find a distant cairn that led to paint markers.  It was still challenging walking, but at least we knew we were on the right path again.  We circled a long way to the right before starting to descend through another valley that looked like the aftermath of a giants’ rockfight.  Inexplicably, we chose to wander off the path again as two ascending hikers seemed to be following a more direct route down to a large lake.  Needless to say we got lost again when the cairns ran out, but by now we were determined not to backtrack, and managed to find a route to the lake, where we picked up paint markers again.  It was still a good hour and a half of walking to get to the hut, with several ups and downs to avoid cliffs, but now we were back in well-trodden territory, and there were no major difficulties in reaching the Refuge de Larribet, although it took us a total of three and a half hours from our bivouac spot.  The timings in the Joosten book seemed to be highly optimistic, and (at least for us) not a reliable guide to real time taken.

At the hut we demolished more omelettes and beer, chatting to a local hiker, before starting the long trudge down to the roadhead at Plan d’Aste.  We needed to find a place to replace the broken fuel pump, and we had also decided that it was time to reassess our route plans.  It was a beautiful hike along a wide, easy path, past green forests and burbling brooks, and by 4:15 we were at the end of the road, wondering how easy it would be to hitch a lift down to Lourdes.  As it turned out, it was simple; the second car that went by picked us up, bought us a beer in a local café, took us by a hiking shop in Arzeles-Gazost (no luck with finding an MSR pump) and then went out of their way to drop us in downtown Lourdes.  We ended up doing well with hitchhiking in the Pyrenees, which is just as well as there is minimal public transport in a lot of the smaller valleys.

Lourdes was a surprisingly rewarding spot to spend the night.  I knew very little about Lourdes except that the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared there.  I didn’t realize what a huge tourism centre it is, rather like (in my friend Mark’s phrase) “Ibiza for Catholics”.  We found a cheapish hotel (having hundreds of hotels brings competition), staggered there with our packs, and then went out to explore.  We passed by the grotto where St. Bernadette had her visions in the mid-1800s.  Thousands of votive candles were blazing in dozens of stands outside, while wheelchairs carried those unable to walk and hoping for a miracle. Food was plentiful and relatively cheap (11 euros for a big steak with chips), catering to the pilgrims from every corner of the world.  We identified tourists from Poland, Italy, Spain, Sri Lanka, India, Nigeria and Samoa, among many other countries.  After dark, we headed to the huge church to watch the candlelit procession.  It was a really moving experience, even for a non-religious person like me.  The sheer number of pilgrims, the heartfelt Ave Maria being sung en masse, the hundreds of wheelchairs in the front rows, the thousands of candles lighting up the square, made for a spectacle to equal Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the Barkhor in Lhasa, Mt. Kailash in Tibet or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Candlelit procession in Lourdes
The next morning, after sleeping for 10 solid hours and waking up to aching muscles, backs and (in my case) my left hip, we made use of the urban facilities available.  We bought new maps and hiking guides, having decided that the GR10 was more our speed.  I looked around, realized that MSR fuel pumps were thin on the ground, and took to the internet to find a solution.  A French online shop,, had pumps in stock and would deliver Poste Restante to any French post office.  I bought the pump and had it shipped to Les Cauterets, where we should arrive in three days’ time.  I was glad to solve that problem, and we headed out to have a picnic in the huge park across the river from the grotto.  We wanted to restart our hiking from Arrens, and there was no public transport leading there.  We caught a bus in the late afternoon from Lourdes to Arzeles-Gazost and then trudged a long way through town, trying to find a spot to hitchhike.  It wasn’t easy to find a spot along a busy, narrow road leading to the Col d’Aubisque, but eventually a thirty-something sawyer driving a cargo van stopped and drove us a long way out of his way to deliver us to Arrens, another very positive hitching experience.  We found a beautiful riverside campground and went out for delicious burgers in the village.  That night was a full moon, and we watched it rise over the mountains, with trees silhouetted against its face.
Full moon in Arrens seen through the trees

We woke to a tent absolutely soaking with dew.  It was our first night in the new ultralight three-man tent that Terri had recently bought, the Big Agnes Copper Spur 3.  Summer was definitely thinking of leaving town, and there was an autumnal nip in the air as we packed up the campsite.  Leaving Arrens, we felt as though we were re-launching our Pyrenees trip.  The GR10, the long-distance path leading from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, was broad and well-marked, leading through hardwood forests.  Sadly a big landslide had wiped out a section of the path, meaning that we had to backtrack, take a detour and walk along a road for longer than I would have liked.  Within an hour, we had crossed the Col des Borderes (a lovely short cycling route that looked appealing) and were headed back down into the adjacent valley and the village of Estaing.  We dropped down to its pretty church and headed upstream along a small river which made for a perfect picnic spot, complete with ripe blackberries growing on the bank.  We weren’t very far from the road that runs up the valley, but traffic was light and the noise of the rushing water drowned out most traffic sounds.  We eventually pulled away from the road and climbed up and down over a couple of small ridges, startling a small snake, a toad and several lizards which were sunning themselves on the path.  
At Lac d'Estaing

We sweated our way up the final slope leading to Lac d’Estaing, where we had a well-earned beer in a small restaurant and chatted with a couple of retired Cognac producers; when we went to pay our bill, we discovered that the other couple had paid for our beers.  We walked for another half an hour around Lac d’Estaing, a shallow body of water surrounded by steep mountains on two sides and a gently sloping basin on the other two.  Since it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, lots of daytrippers had driven up to the lake, but it didn’t feel too crowded.  We put up our tent in a small campground and then wandered down to have a delicious (but expensive) meal at the lakeside restaurant beside the campground.  After dinner we sat out beside the lake, watching the sunset, drinking wine and feeling at peace with the world.
Lac d'Estaing makes Terri pensive

We got up at 7:00 the next morning, but only started walking at 9:40, a typically lazy start to our day.  My hip, which had been getting sorer by the day, was almost completely seized up with sciatic pain the next morning and I almost fell over as I tried to get out of the tent and stand up.  Luckily walking seemed to loosen things up, so by the end of the day I was much more mobile (although I still couldn’t swing my left leg with the knee straight, meaning that I had to limp slightly throughout the day).  We took our time over a couple of coffees to give Terri her morning caffeine fix before heading uphill along the GR10, climbing steeply uphill away from the lake.  As we walked along, a few groups of mountain bikers came racing past downhill.  Just as we left the forest and passed a shepherd’s hut, my beloved 18-200 mm camera lens, which had been showing signs of not working optimally for a few weeks, suddenly locked up completely, no longer zooming or focussing.  I tried to coax it back into zooming, but my efforts were rewarded by an audible crunch and the cessation of all movement.  After more than eight years of work and many thousands of photos, the lens was no more.  That left me with only my telephoto lens working, which was great for wildlife and birds and details, but not for landscape.  My smartphone has a camera, but it’s hardly the same thing as a digital SLR.  Until I could replace it, my photography was going to be severely curtailed, which didn’t make me very happy.

Terri storming up the Col d'Illheou
We continued steaming ahead toward the 2242-metre-high Col d’Illheou, until just below the top, when our legs got a bit tired and we stopped for a picnic.  The top of the pass was a beautiful grassy meadow, full of well-tended horses, with steep rocky peaks looming above.  Under a cloudless sky, the scenery was perfect and I mourned the loss of my lens.  We meandered around on a long traverse to the Refuge d’Illheou, where we had our obligatory omelettes and beers, before starting a very long trudge down a steep-sided valley towards Les Cauterets.  A spectacular waterfall erupted into the valley partway down, and up above we could see the lifts of a small ski area, Lys.  We eventually passed the bottom of the lift system, where more mountain bikers were barrelling down towards town.  It was a surprisingly long descent into Cauterets, down at 850 metres, and it took us a while longer to find a campground.  We put up our tent under trees on lush grass and then went into town to find cheap eats; burgers and fries and beers did the trick, and we wandered back to our well-earned sleep.

We took the next day off, as the weather forecast called for severe storms.  Our first order of business was to pick up the fuel pump at the post office.  We wandered around the town, a Belle Epoque spa town that now has an appealing atmosphere of slightly faded gentility, then retreated to our campground with a roast chicken and salad feast for lunch.  Afterwards, I wrestled with the stove; the new pump worked perfectly, but the methylated spirits I had bought in the grocery store did not work as a fuel.  A bit of internet searching on the smartphone revealed that MSR stoves run on kerosene, gasoline or white fuel, but not methylated spirits, so we eventually headed back into town and bought some expensive white fuel.  At 7 euros a litre, it’s the cleanest and hottest-burning fuel, but at five times the price of gasoline, I find it hard to justify buying it too often.  I bought the fuel at a wonderful mountaineering and trekking shop called Sherpa, run by a Nepalese guy; it reminded me forcefully of the shops in Thamel where I have outfitted myself for a few treks over the years.  It began raining as we walked back to the campground, and we huddled under an awning and ate bread and pate and leftover chicken from lunch.  It continued raining all night, sometimes torrentially, not making for a restful night.

We began the next day lazily, not even popping our heads out of the tent until 9, when the rain finally showed signs of stopping.  We celebrated having a working stove by cooking up some bacon and eggs.  Around noon we walked into town, where we found we had a couple of hours to wait for the next bus up the road to Pont d’Espagne.  We stuck our thumbs out instead, and quite quickly got a lift with a couple of sixty-something women who crammed us and our backpacks into the back seat of a very small Renault for the twenty-minute drive up a steep escarpment to the trailhead at Pont d’Espagne.  
Lac d'Aube
We thanked them and then headed off uphill through a wonderful Canadian Shield landscape of tumbling streams, granite boulders and pine trees.  We reached a tiny lake, the Lac d’Aube, where we sampled the local speciality, gateau Basque, before heading further uphill, through an enchanting valley of amazing waterfalls, picturesque granite slabs and expansive views out towards higher peaks.  We stopped to picnic on bacon and egg sandwiches in the midst of this idyllic area, then continued climbing into the gathering mist until we reached the Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube at 2150 metres.  We put up our tent, then wandered over to the refuge to escape the cold and damp and have a beer.  When we got back, the mist had parted slightly and afforded us our first glimpse of the massive north face of the Vignemale, the highest peak in the French Pyrenees at 3298 metres, before the mist curtain closed again.  As we cooked dinner, we could hear the intimidating sound of a falling serac and its attendant rockfall; it was too far away to affect us, but it sounded very, very close indeed in the fog.

We had a great night’s sleep, and the next morning we didn’t start to stir until almost 8:00, as it was too cold to want to get up before then.  We cooked pancakes, cleaned up and then started walking around 10:00.  Our day’s stage was going to lead us over the highest pass on the entire GR10, and Terri wanted to get over it before the predicted bad weather appeared.  We climbed steeply up the valley wall, staring out at the Vignemale, now fully visible under clear skies.  We got to the top of the Hourquette d’Ossons (2734 m) by 12:30, and then dropped down into a greener but steeper world on the other side.  We descended to the Refuge de Baysellance for cake and a chat with two young British university students.  We could look across towards Gavarnie and the dramatic peaks behind it, including the well-known Breche de Rolland.  They dropped out of sight as we lost height quickly in a landscape of spectacular waterfalls on all sides, some descending from the glaciers that cloaked the south side of Vignemale.  It seemed as though every five minutes another high waterfall cascaded into view, splitting a forbidding grey rock face with a glittering spout of water.  
Waterfalls below Baysellance
The slopes were alive with marmots, whistling in alarm at our approach  We eventually got down to a dam, the Barrage d’Ossoue, and had another snack beside the water before ambling further down the valley.  We traversed high above the river, cutting through big meadows grazed by herds of cows, although the bucolic peace was shattered by a helicopter shuttling construction materials to a tiny dam.  We passed the Cabane de Lourdes, marked on our map as a possible spot to shelter, but it looked absolutely grim inside so we kept on going.  The next little cabane, the Cabane de Sausse Dessus, was much better, so we moved in, putting our air mattresses in one tiny room and cooking in the kitchen.  We knew that storms were likely that evening, so sleeping indoors sounded like a good idea.  We had the place to ourselves, and it was a lovely location, surrounded by cows and grassy meadows and steep rock faces.  We sat outside, sipping a sundowner dram of whisky before moving inside to cook up miso soup, hash browns, sausages and mushrooms, a veritable feast.  It felt good to sleep under a solid roof that night.

At about 3 am the heavens opened in a Biblical downpour, accompanied by deafening thunderclaps and dazzling lightning.  It made us even more glad to be indoors, although we didn’t sleep as well as we might have.  The next morning we woke to find that the rain had flooded down the chimney in the kitchen, soaking the floor; luckily we hadn’t put anything important on the floor in the kitchen!  We boiled up some oatmeal for breakfast before setting off towards Gavarnie.  It took us longer than expected, two and a half hours, to get to Gavarnie, through a landscape that would have been impressive if it hadn’t been wreathed in dense fog.  We arrived in town hoping to find a computer to use to fill out an application form that we needed for our upcoming Antarctic trip, and ended up in a café with wi-fi trying to type on our tiny smartphone screens.  As we nursed expensive fries and beers, we caught up on e-mail, which brought important and unwelcome news.  Terri’s citizenship ceremony had been changed from the 16th to the 30th of September, which meant that we had to re-schedule everything in our trip.  We had to leave the Pyrenees and head straight to Corsica to do the GR20 before Terri flew back to Leysin, and that meant we had just finished our Pyrenees walk after 7 days of walking, instead of the planned 20 days.  I was annoyed at the Swiss government for being so disorganized, but Terri was more annoyed since it cost her a small fortune in missed flights, new flights and missed hotel reservations. 

I loved the Pyrenees, even if our time was drastically curtailed.  I found it wilder than most of the Alps, and not very busy with hikers.  I would gladly come back to work my way east from Gavarnie to Andorra or beyond, as I felt that no sooner had we gotten into the rhythm of walking than we were torn away.  I also would love to base myself somewhere in the Pyrenees for a week or two of road cycling on the classic passes like the Col de Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque.  Two thumbs up to the area, and I hope to be back some day to see more dramatic landscapes!