Hiking Dude Blog
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France was tres magnifique!
Here's the trip in a nutshell...
To prep for my hike on the Pacific Northwest Trail with my son in July and August, I really needed to get some hiking practice in. My normal 4-6 mile morning walks are good, but very little up and down on them. My wife has a sister (and family) living in France for a year. Combine the two and we get to visit relatives, explore France, and hike in the Pyrenees. Fun times! And, son left his job early to join us - he would be stopping work to hike the PNT anyway.
Our planning for this trip included buying plane tickets to Geneva (cheapest by far when we looked), reserving a rental car (much less $$$ than I expected), and that was it. That was a little too free roaming for Mrs. Dude, so she also made reservations for our first two nights stays. Then, we packed and hopped on the plane.
For the terrible press that United (and other carriers) received recently, our flights were great. On time, friendly staff, clean seats, no problems. Can't do much about the flight lengths or size of inflight toilets.
We landed on time at 7:30am, got our bags (we just packed backpacks), found our car, and hit the road. We put in around 2000 miles in total and it was some of the most interesting driving I've done.
On the highways, I just floored the gas to keep our little Peugeot moving with the others, especially on any uphill. Speed limits took a while to figure out and too slow sometimes and ridiculously fast other times. In the mountains, the roads were extremely tight, windy, and steep. A lot of fun, but no time to relax at all.
Driving in France is very expensive. The car rental was cheap, but gas is over $5/gallon and the highways have steep tolls. We probably paid $300 for car, $300 for gas, and $200 for tolls but I haven't figured it out exactly. It was fun driving a little manual car, though. I only stalled it a couple times. :-)
Our first day was to get out of Geneva and get used to the new timezone. We stayed up in the mountains in a skiing community, so it was slow this time of year. We did a short hike up a creek to the rock foundations of an ancient, disintegrated mill. Very nice hike, but overly used with toilet paper strewn along the lower part of the trail.
Our lodging was fun and included dinner and breakfast. A nice start to the trip.
The next day included winding mountain roads to the village of Die. Die was a nice surprise. I enjoyed walking along its very tight streets and checking out the medieval buildings.
We continued on to Vallon Pont d'Arc and our hotel for the night. A very touristy place where up to 5000 people a day kayak down the Ardeche River under the Arch during high season. Luckily, high season starts in July - there were plenty of people already. Our hotel, the Belvedere, was pretty nice and situated on a hillside overlooking the river. Dinner there was nice. For lunches, we like to stop at a grocery store to get lunch ingredients, or a boulangerie and get premade sandwiches.
The next morning, we got carted up river, hopped in kayaks, and floated back down to our hotel. The river is very calm and the gorge it passes through is beautiful. The natural rock arch over the rive is very cool. The river water itself isn't so great, so we took advantage of the free shower when we finished.
Clean and fresh, we drove to our hosts' home in Lannemezan on the north edge of the Pyrenees. Along the way, we took a short detour to St. Pierre la Mer for a short walk on a beach of the Mediterranean Sea. The sea was stunningly blue and very clear.
Our hosts are living in a gite which is a furnished vacation house in France. They are everywhere. This one is on a working farm in the small, tiny, miniscule village called LaGrange - that means the Barn. The center of town is an intersection where you can find the mayor, the church, an empty field, and a field with cows. From there, it gets more rural. A very nice French town to walk around.
The next few days were consumed in hikes up into the Pyrenees mountains. An out-n-back to Gavarnie with a high horseshoe shaped valley full of waterfalls from melting snowfields. This was a good intro hike to what hiking in European mountains is like - it's either UP or DOWN, but never flat.
A longer loop trail to Lac Bleu was challenging. Up, up, up for a couple hours to the lake, then more unexpected up after a lunch break. Finally reaching the saddle pass, it was down, down, down for a couple hours. The varying views were interesting the entire way, from deep forest, to alpine meadows, to rocky peaks. Throw in some sheep, goats, cows, and even horses with bells on, and the mountains are pretty fun. Having beautiful weather the whole time really helps too.
We accidentally discovered that the world beach ultimate championship tournament was being held this week in Royan, France. So, we drove north to the Atlantic shore and watch some games. We got to say HI to a friend from Minnesota that is playing on the United Arab Emirates womens team. It seemed a large number of players on most of the various country teams were actually American. There was even a team from the unknown nation of Currier Island.
The USA teams dominated the tournament, as expected. We got to see USA vs. Russia and USA vs. France. It felt strange to have everyone cheering for 'the other team', but the players put on a good show.
Lots of walking from our hotel to the ultimate games and back. A great pizza dinner at a small spot that we had to ourselves since we tend to eat earlier than most around here.
The next morning, we watched another USA game and then got back in the car.
A short (relatively) distance south, we stopped at a mountain of sand piled up out of the Atlantic. This natural phenomenon was amazing. Very popular spot with most tourist getting worn out by just climbing the (cheating) mobile stairs. We climbed the sand and hiked along the ridgeline to watch parasailers launching and floating on the strong onshore wind. There was even a gang of jetskis that zoomed past in the ocean below.
This dune is moving eastward into the forest a few feet each year. It has buried trees and there are buildings in its path so it will be interesting to check on in a few years.
Great exercise marching through soft sand!
We returned to homebase just in time to get to sleep so we could take off in the morning for an overnight stay high in the Pyrenees at the Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube - that is like a hostel but fancier.
Another hour+ drive up the goat trails converted to roadways, we got to the trailhead at Pont du Espagne (Bridge to Spain) which was beautiful on its own, but just our starting point. From there, we donned backpacks and hiked UP of course.
Along the way, we stopped at Lac de Gaube where most visitors stop. Actually, many of them take the gondola ride up, walk a bit, then ride or walk back down. There were tons of people enjoying yet another gorgeous day in the mountains.
We hiked around the lake and continued up over waterfalls, along cliff faces, and through rock fields, ever gaining elevation foot by foot.
Our destination was situated in the valley at the base of this glacier called Vignemale. You should read about the weird dude that had nine caves bored into the mountain top so he could entertain guests way up here. Very strange tale about what you can do when you have money to burn.
The Refuge had dorm rooms sleeping 12 or so, and our stay included dinner and breakfast. It was very fun!
In the morning, I hiked up one mountainside alone before breakfast so I wouldn't wake up the others. After breakfast, we climbed the other side of the valley to the very top which was a pass into Spain. Here we are, sitting right on the border as the horrendous wind pummelled us.
From here, it was all back downhill to the trailhead. Nearing the bottom, we encountered a girl that had collapsed. We asked if we could help, but her family had already sent for help and an ambulance appeared just as we reached the trailhead.
Also, only 100 yards from the trailhead, an older man fell and hit his arm and head. Even though he was bleeding, he refused any aid. We kept our eye on him for awhile and he seemed to be fine.
A couple other short hikes around the area, mostly through forest, fields, and villages, gave us a chance to explore a bit more. Then, it was off towards Geneva again. Being in no hurry, we made it a two day drive back.
The first day, we stopped to view a medieval walled city in Carcassonne. The walls around it, church, and buildings were very cool. But, it was really just a big mall full of food and trinket shops. A nice tourist place.
In Nimes, in southeast France, we spent the night at a budget motel. What a huge difference in weather, terrain, and human features from the Pyrenees. It was flat, hot, and mostly farmland or scrub coverage. The people were, in general, much darker and more Italianesque.
Roman influence here is widespread. We visited the Arena in Nimes which is like the Coliseum in Rome. I wasn't impressed since it is in use as a concert venue, covered in bleachers, railings, and graffitti. I don't think that you can maintain a structure as historic and use it daily. Some parts were interesting, but overall I would skip paying to explore it.
Our trip wound up with a hiking tour of the Pont du Gard (Bridge over the Gard River) which I'd highly recommend! The Romans built a 31-mile long aquaduct to carry water from a spring to the city of Nimes. The architectural marvels they created are hard to believe. The Pont is a 3-tiered rock structure spanning the river that matches up with a tunnel bored through the mountain on one end and a covered ditch on the other to allow water to flow casually to town.
The museum here can get a bit long, but you can skip a bunch of the first bits and go to the grand model and explanation of how the aquaduct was built and how it works. Or, take a couple hours and read it all.
And, then we were in Geneva, leaving early on a plane homeward bound.
Here's all the hikes and walks. You can zoom in to see the mountains, glaciers, bridges, and stuff from the air. The aquaduct and Pont d'Arc look cool.
You can see the whole map on google maps.
Stopped at Pont du Gard for a couple of hours of walking before thefinal leg to Geneva. Pont du Gard is an amazing three tier aquaduct structure over the Gard river build around 50AD by those silly Romans with too much manpower and big ideas. This is just one part of a 31 mile long aquaduct that brought water from a spring to the city of Nimes. It is just amazing what was accomplished if you can look past the horrid abuse that certainly must have happened to the people that had to labor in building it. I hiked up a hill to take this picture but we also walked across the structure to reach the interesting museum on the left bank. The museum explains how the aquaduct was made and has a lot of other historic info. Tons of people and many school groups covered the area on this hot, sunny, but dry day. It was interesting to see graffiti carved into the rock, some with dates in the early 1800s. Check out my current location on the map.. And, if you click the map name and choose Adjustments and then select 2weeks, you can update the map to show all the spots we visited in France.
Leaving the Pyrenees behind, we're on our way to Geneva to return home. We made two stops for short touristy hikes today. In Carcassonne, we explored the old fortified city positioned on a hill overlooking the region. The ancient rock walls, roads, turrets, towers, and buildings were very interesting. The town itself was really just a mall - tons of little places to eat, buy souvenir junk, or clothes. We did stop in the old church as a quartet of men was singing and the space resonated with their voices. The rain (our first on the trip) didn't help the experience of walking around. I almost lost an eye a few times from short people carrying big umbrellas. :-) It was easy to imagine how this place protected its people aftergreat efforts to build. In Nimes, we paid to explore the Arena which was built by the Romans for their grizzly sport. The brickwork from 1900 years ago was impressive and the audio tour narrative was verbous and informative. Unfortunately, in my view anyway, this structure has been kept in use over the centuries so it has been patched, repaired, and improved so much that the original is difficult to enjoy. The metal and cement seating, barricades, and stages hide the beauty of the old structure. Also, nearly every surface has graffiti scratched, carved, or written on it. And, the litter in corners and under seating from recent event attendees is distracting. This was my least favorite site of this trip, actually the ONLY place I didn't completely enjoy. Our last short walk of the day was on the narrow shoulder of a busy road from our budget hotel to the Ristorante Elefante 2 - which turned out to be a very nice, inexpensive, and quiet place with great pizza and pasta. Our waitress was friendly and a reminder of how diverse the regions of France really are. The general population here looks and sounds quite different than the folks in the Pyrenees region. So, one more day and we'll be winging back over the Atlantic.
Up early with a hour to kill before breakfast, I walked up a trail for a half hour then back down to the refuge building. Fueled up on some oatmeal, dried fruit, and bread with marmalade (Lots of bread here) before our hike of the day. Of course we hiked uphill but this time it was a very steep trail that took us to the Spanish border. This picture is the pass border at 2600 meters (8500 feet) with a wild view down into Spain. Up here there was just barren rock and a constant buffeting wind. Still, it was a shirt and shorts hike with yet another day of excellent weather. We only got a couple drops when a cloud rolled by. From the border pass, we descended the 3600 feet to the trailhead over the same path we had climbed the day before. Much easier going down, but near the bottom where it is very popular and crowded, we came upon two separate injuries. One was a young girl that had collapsed and the other was an older man who feel and hit his arm and head. We stopped and offered help both times but it was declined. The man walked out ok but an ambulance arrived to take the girl out. It has been great saying Bon Jour dozens of times as we negotiate past other hikers. People on the trail were friendly, as usual. Tomorrow starts our journey towards home.
Back to the Mountains
An 8.6km hike up into the Pyrenees along magnificent waterfalls, cliffs, and alpine meadows brought us to our home for the night. We started at the Pont d'Espange and gained about 700 meters to 2200 meters elevation where there is a wonderful refuge. It is like a hostel with right crowded dorm rooms and shared toilets, but very clean and nice. The place is packed! Our stay included dinner of lentil soup, lasagna, bread, cheese, and a brownie. In the morning, we'll also have breakfast. The hike up started in clouds but we soon broke through to beautiful blue skies between towering mountains. I even saw my first real wildlife of the trip - 3 huge marmots! The trail is actually a small stretch of the famous GR10 - look it up. We met a couple at dinner that did the same hike as us today but are continuing on a loop into Spain, going hut to hut and hiking about 12 miles a day. They are from Belgium. That sounds like a lot of fun, not needing to carry all your food. Maybe some day.
Done Hiking Today
I finished hiking for today. You can check out my current location on the map and I'll post about my day when I am in coverage.
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