Back in October of 2008, my husband and I embarked on a self-guided five-day walk in the Pyrenees. He had meetings in Paris and we took the opportunity to get into the countryside before they started. My intention at the time was to write a short article about the trip. Supported walking trips are becoming more popular, but are still not the most common holiday.
There may be a reason for that! Our trip (which was, in retrospect, a great experience) was fraught with challenges. I needed a bit of time to get some perspective on it, so I never did write that story.
The idea itself is sound: an agency who knows the walking region organises accommodation, breakfast and dinner, and daily transportation of the baggage. They send you topographical maps and walking notes. Of course, the notes come with a disclaimer, and this disclaimer must not be taken lightly!
We opted for the eastern-most section of the Cathare Trail because it was the shortest walk, and therefore fit into our time frame, and for an English agency because they spoke English (duh!). We got out our walking pants, bought new bandanas and walking sticks, and set off with a song in our hearts…
Getting there is half the fun ~ Well, sort of. You might be forgiven for thinking I am a good traveller, but I have never mastered the art of packing. Our first stop in Paris was to the Monparnasse hotel where we would later stay, to drop off our ‘city bags’ before heading to Bordeaux, and thence Narbonne, at the west end of the Pyrenees. The hotel concierge kindly directed us to the Gare de Lyons, Paris for ticketing. Unfortunately, as we and our remaining bags discovered some time later, Bordeaux trains leave from Monparnasse station, not Gare de Lyons. So back we schlepped.
European trains are, as a rule, fantastic, and our trip to Narbonne, once we had managed to sort out the difficulties of ticketing, was enjoyable and uneventful. Although our trip notes were a bit vague about connection details, we had assumed we would be able to manage the next step: getting to our hotel in Tuchan. The cab driver smoking in his van in the Narbonne railway station parking-lot just raised one eyebrow and laughed when I asked where I could find a bus to Tuchan. After half an hour of wandering around in search of anything resembling a bus stop, we broke down and agreed to the cab driver’s highway robbery: 120 Euro fare for a 35 km trip.
Driving from Narbonne into the foothills of the Pyrenees was a delight – the highway winding through the mountains was wide and smooth (albeit bus-free). Every so often we could smell the herbs of the garrigue over the stale smoke in the hot car. Stone castles were visible up rocky cliffs and atop hills dotted with grape vines. Truly magic!
French lessons 101- “Lundi se fermé”: Tuchan, once we arrived there, seemed deserted. Fortunately, some of my French was coming back as I watched the signposts and I managed to direct our cab driver to our auberge – an old two-story stone building. As we and our bags tumbled out of the smoke-filled car, I looked at the chalk sandwich board at the entry to the courtyard, then at my husband: “We’re in trouble! ‘Lundi se fermé’ – Closed Mondays.” Sure enough, no one was around, no doors were open and there was no note. We had paid reservations, so presumably were expected, but we hadn’t had lunch and there was no telling when someone would show up. Our phones refused to work and I set off to find a pay-phone or a person…
Long story short, after finding only one establishment (an insurance office) open – as it was after two, any place that might have sold food was taking in the chairs and closed for the afternoon – and ascertaining that there was one pay phone several blocks away, we decided to experiment with our own mobiles some more, and finally got one to work. I rang the local agents, and in my best French told them “Nous sommes arrivé – il n’y a personne. (We have arrived – no one is here).” Very helpfully, the agent rang the auberge – we could hear the phone inside – and told me no one was answering! She promised to try and track the owner down. We sat down in the courtyard to lunch on nuts from Thailand and chocolate from the airport duty-free. At least it was sunny!
The auberge, once we got inside an hour later, reminded me of the one where I had worked in Parignargue back in 1979: comfortable enough but dark and with bathrooms squashed into spaces clearly not meant for them. But, we were inside, we had keys, and directions on how to find dinner (three delectable courses with a ‘demi-pichet’ of red wine). Not bad for our first day on the road.
The next morning, we presented ourselves downstairs for breakfast in a room rich with atmosphere, locals and medieval tapestries. Our Host, somewhat gruffly, asked what we wanted. Hmm. No sign of a menu. Coffee? Croissants? I asked, somewhat timidly. So, that’s what we got. I was too intimidated to ask if we might have juice, and of course, asking if there was something vegetarian we might take with us for lunch was beyond my nerve or my French. But surely we’d make it to the next town in time for lunch…
You guessed correctly: we didn’t. By the time we had climbed and descended countless hills through the ‘garrigue’, the sweet-smelling French scrub, and sufficiently explored our first two medieval castles, almost everything in the pretty town of Cucugnan was closed for the day. We eventually found a tavern that agreed to make us cheese and tomato ‘sandwiches’. Never has crusty French bread tasted so good!
French lessons 102- “Il n’y a personne”~ “There is no one here!”: We still had a few hours to walk that first day, over more hills and through more vineyards. As we got close to Duilac towards evening, we came across a field of late grapes where the workers were singing Guantanamera as they worked. More magic!
We finally arrived at our hotel, only to find it locked. At least this time there was a local telephone number to call. They told me the key to our room was on the desk inside. “Yes, but we are outside!” After much linguistic struggling, I managed to understand that there was a key pad and a code to enter. It was rather romantic having an inn all to ourselves! And, once we found our allocated restaurant, we ate and drank well.
The rest of our trek followed the same sort of rhythm. We walked and walked, and stopped to explore. We got a little lost three out of five days, and very lost the other two.
You might wonder why I’ve uncovered these memories and photos now… Well, in spite of often being lost, tired, cold and rained-on, we enjoyed the scenery, the walking, and the food and drink in the evenings. We had a really good time – so much so, that when this goes to ‘air’, we’ll be part of the way through the full twelve day walk from Padern to Foiz.
I know we’ll have a good time, and I’m pretty sure we won’t get lost as often…