Heading to the Pyrenees

Sept. 9th, 2022, Switzerland

My best friend hugs me goodbye at the Sion train station en route to Geneva. I’ve just had a little more coffee and carry a jambon et fromage sandwich along with a small bag of truffle salted potato chips that I discovered this week. A definite new favorite. We’ve had a wonderful week together and now she sends me off like a little child going to school. I’m headed into an unknown world where I don’t speak the language but I have a small notebook with helpful French phrases to get me by. It will take two travel days to actually get to the Pyrenees where I will start my two week trekking adventure.

Train station in Sion

On the train I shove my stuffed rucksack in  storage then snag a window seat for the two hour ride to Geneva airport. Things are stable here on the train and I enjoy the feeling of settling in. I eat half my sandwich and chips whilst gazing out the window at a scene of towering granitic mountains to my right, then suddenly I am at the water’s edge of Lac Leman with wind-swept white caps in turquoise water the same color as my shirt. In places the view of the lake is like an ocean, with water that leads all the way to the ends of your visual field meeting with the sky.

Mountains & Vineyards line the area of Sion
Lac Leman, aka Lake Geneva

Le procahine arrete c’est Montreux reads the sign over the door. Home of the famous Montreaux Jazz festival. This really reminds me of where I am. Last night over a dinner of traditional Swiss Raclette we learned that the Queen of England died and my best friend shed a tear for this. It’s a moment in time we will never forget. The world will shift, it’s the end of an era. Rest in peace beloved Queen Elizabeth II.

Sunset for the long lived Queen

At the airport I have a two hour wait so I take advantage of the wifi and then walk around eating the second half of my sandwich. There is a vending machine that has a touch screen order feature with so many different options for coffee and tea it is impressive. You can even get hot boullion. When I am finally on the plane I find my random seat selection placed me at the very back of the plane. I sort of don’t mind though because I am a little away from the crowds, but then the plane turns out to be completely full. It’s been interesting to observe during my travels this week, hardly anyone is wearing a mask. It’s like Covid never existed. How lovely.

I don’t need a drink but if I did…

It’s only one hour by air and soon we are landing in Toulouse. By my good fortune, they open the door at the back of the plane and I am of the first 10 passengers to disembark. Redemtion! I accidentally walk past the baggage claims because they are all dark and quiet. I thought maybe there was another one further away, but soon I am at the exit for the airport at a Starbucks of all places. I backtrack to the first bag claim and wait just a few minutes. My bag is one of the first ones to come out, it looks just fine, and that makes me feel a huge sense of relief and freedom. I am free to roam! Whoo hoo!

There are no customs to go through so soon I am outside breathing in the French air on a balmy late Summer day. People are still dressed in skirts, t-shirts and tank tops and there is a thin dot of clouds hovering along with the afternoon sun against a pale blue sky. I wonder what it will be like here when I return in two weeks time?

I act like I know exactly what I am doing and head straight to a train with a ticket machine in front of it. I purchase a 1,80 Euro ticket and proceed to the train but I get the feeling it is not the correct one or better yet, just can’t assume. I get on my google maps and it points me to a bus. As I am waiting at the bus stop there is a Japanese family that is trying to figure things out and they ask me for help. Haha, guess my pretending worked!

I’m in France!

I walk with the woman over to the ticket machine and help her purchase three tickets then we walk back to the bus together. I am suddenly so brain twisted as I try to switch now from my horrible French to my miniscule Japanese but I do remember a few phrases, enough to make her smile. I step on the bus and my ticket gets rejected. The driver tells me my ticket is for the train, not the bus. My heart sinks when I have to now turn to the Japanese family and try to communicate that we all have purchased the wrong tickets. I ask the bus driver where the train is and he points behind us. It was the first train I had gone to afterall. Phew!

Nowhere near as complex as the subways in Tokyo

Me and the Japanese family are all headed to the Matabiau train station and so now we are all travelling there together. We will take two trains to get there, one above ground and the other in the subway. We loosely communicate during the train ride across the city and finally succumb to google translate. What a fantastic tool! By the time we get to switch stations we are like a little family, helping eathother, waiting for eachother. It’s sweet. On the subway train it is very hot and very crowded but I am distractedly entertained by getting to people watch. When we arrive at Matabiau it is nearly 7:30pm and we part ways with feverish hand shakes and many, many bows. Ah yes, the bowing, how I miss Japan! Arigatougozaimashita!

Matabiau Centre Gare

Now I have a ten minute walk to my hotel and it is super easy to navigate, just follow the main boulevard. There are people everywhere, cars, bikes, scooters, kids, adults, elders. It is a living, breathing, pulsing city. There is an energy that I can appreciate, especially knowing I am only passing through. I can’t say why but I got a craving for pizza earlier this afternoon and as I am walking to my hotel I pass a street side pizza stand. I double check my location and voila, it is a one minute walk from my hotel. I think this will be dinner tonight, how convenient.

The walk to my hotel
Guardian of the streets?

I am staying at the Ibis Budget Hotel, which is like a little business hotel, simple, clean, good location, although there really aren’t too many restaurants or cafes very close by, but close enough if you have some time. Since I am on foot and it’s past 8:00pm, I decide on the pizza. I walk over, order in French, the lady asks me if I want hot sauce, I say yes, poquito, and grab my pizza to-go and take it back to my room. I tend to default to Spanish when I’m caught off guard. It’s probably more acceptable than English however, so I just have to laugh.

Pizza!!

I would really love une verre du vin but that’s not going to happen so I grab a non-alcoholic Heinekin from the vending machine. Don’t ask me why, I expected a real beer but was disappointed it was alcohol-free and tasted terrible. I am not a lager person. An IPA would have been much more to my liking. I take a few sips and pour the rest out. Blah! C’est la vie right?

After dinner I unpack and re-organize all my hiking equipment and take a shower. It’s probably going to be my last shower for a while, so I try to be very present with the wonderful feeling of hot water on my body. It is a luxury I soon will really be missing. Now it’s getting late, 10:15pm and I need to get somes rest, I am yawning and my head feels heavy. This will also be the last night sleeping in a bed and a room with walls and controlled temperature for the next couple of weeks. I am excited at the thought that tomorrow night I will be writing from my tent!

Tomorrow I will have a hotel petit dejuner avec beaucoups du cafe, then start walking around town. I plan to hit the local organic food Co-op to purchase some more snacks and then head back to Matabiau Train Station to catch the 11:37 train to Pau (pronounced “poh” and not “pow” like I had thought). From Pau there is a different train that takes me to a town called Bedous and then a bus that takes me to Pont de Lescun. From there it is a 5Km walk to the village of Lescun where I am able to purchase any final supplies and camping gas for my stove. I sure hope they have it!

Sept. 10th, 2022, France

I sleep until 7:00am and draw the shade to peer out the window. The sun is just behind the building next door and starting to illuminate the broad leaves on the trees in the courtyard. I am really glad I signed up for petit dejuner here at my hotel because I don’t beed to leave the building to get some coffee.

In the breakfast room there is a buffet of offerings including croissants, various breads, cheeses, thinly sliced salamis, yogurt, fruit, cereal, coffee and juices. I snag two pieces of grainy bread, butter, four slices of cheese and two slices of salami, a yoghurt, chopped apples and make a double espresso with lait chaude from the machine. I sip the coffee for a while until my appetite kicks in, then take my time by checking the weather in the Pyrenees.

Notice the Nutella?
Mon petit dejuner

I recently posted a question on the Pyrenees FB group about the best way to check the weather. One person replied “predicting the weather in the Pyrenees is virtually nil for any more than 2-3 days at a time, I suggest you ask at the refuges as you pass by”. A fine suggestion indeed, though I still spend most of my time over breakfast studying the weather trends in Lescun, Candanchu and Gavarnie. The temps don’t look too low, though there will be precipitation here and there. Three days from now it looks like a rainy day is in the cards.

I check out from my hotel with a full belly and my phone 95% charged. I need to navigate around Toulouse by foot to get a few errands complete before I jump on the train to Pau. Namely I need to find a currency exchange because the one at the airport was closed, the Bio Co-Op and I need lighter for my stove. I need to do all of this before 11:15am when I should be at the train station. It is a Saturday so there are a lot of people out and I fall into rhythm with the morning crowds at the Farmer’s Market. I could easily get lost in all the sights, sounds and sensations of this city, yet I have to stay on track and move myself to the mountains.

Farmers Market in Toulouse

By some miracle I get all the chores done with only a few wrong turns. I find special satisfaction in popping into a Tabac store to purchase one small black Bic lighter. I use my simple French and it works! Walking around town with my backpack full of all my gear, provisions and truly everything I need but nothing more is super freeing. Such a feeling. I love it every time.

When I arrive at the Matabiau SNCF train station I have to pee so bad and there are a gazillion people in the main lobby, it feels dizzying and overwhelming. There are no restrooms nearby, all I can hope is to use the one on the train. Two ticket machines are out of service and I am suddenly feeling a little panicky about missing the train. My eyes scan the room, eventually landing on a working machine. I purchase my ticket toward Bayonne, which stops in Pau. It’s 28 Euros and fortunately I entered my email address even though at the time I couldn’t see why this was necessary. Turns out it’s because the ticket printer is down so they emailed my ticket to me. It’s so crazy, what did we do before cell phones and internet?

At platform #2 I board the first car I see and beeline it to the WC. I grab the first empty seat next to a window and get settled in. When I pull up my ticket on my phone I see I have an assigned seat in car #13. Oops. I am really far away from that car. I think I will wait and see if they kick me out, as there is one empty seat next to me I don’t think I am taking anyone’s spot. I eat a piece of carrot – zucchini quiche and a marbled chocolate bread, both purchased at the Co-op and let my blood sugar stabilize. I’ve got two hours now until I change trains in Pau. I wish I had another coffee. 

My train to Pau, I need to pee!!

My train arrives right on time in Pau. It’s a small rail station set much more in the countryside as compared to Toulouse. I meander around the station and the small shop where provisions are sold, purchase a new ticket to Bedous for 12,20 Euros then head to the platform. My train has grafitti on the windows and that makes it look less official but then I see several other folks with rucksacks sporting baguettes getting on the grafitti’d train so figure that must be the one. The afternoon sun feels so nice on my skin so I stand in it for ten minutes before boarding. From here it’s an hour ride to the small town of Bedous, then one last bus ride to Lescun. I’m starting to get the butterflies!

I choose the sunny side of the train because there’s no grafitti on the window but soon I’m roasting and feel a tad claustrophobic. At least it’s not as bad as that subway ride yesterday. The ride is lulling with the repetative squeaking of the train suspension and people speaking in hushed voices. I hear German and French voices but of course don’t understand any of it.

We are moving more and more into the countryside and since there is less to look at it starts to feel like it’s taking a long time. I have to catch a bus in Bedous only minutes after this train arrives, or I have an hour to wait for the next one. I hope I catch it, yet have no idea what kind of connection it will be. Will I have to walk far? Finally though, we arrive in the teeny tiny village of Bedous and I can see the busses parked literally 50 meters from where my train stops. Easy peasy, I have one minute to make the connection. There are several others making the same one. It costs 2,30 Euros to ride to Lescun, just a 10 minute jaunt.

Ahhh…Countryside

When I get to the stop for Pont du Lescun there is another woman who also gets off. I watch to see what she is doing, does she look like a hiker? Despite her rucksack she is wearing skinny jeans and leather fashion boots. I think she may be getting a ride to Lescun. It is a 1,500 ft climb over 3 miles from here and I have been prepared to walk since the get go. But then I see her sticking her thumb out at the first car that drives by. I quickly follow suit and it’s a miss. We exchange smiles and begin to talk. This is my first oportunity to really say to someone “je ne parle pas bien francais” and then she starts speaking broken English, but it’s better than my French. Turns out she lives in Paris but she is from Lescun and works at the Gite. The third car passing by stops for us. It’s a group of three men from Catalonia, Spain and they speak mostly Catalan and a little Spanish.

It is a twisty, narrow, steep road to get up to Lescun and I am super grateful the Universe provided me not only with a hitch but with a hitching buddy. Ten minutes and we are clambering out of their car, the man hands us our rucksacks from the trunk and we all say adios and muchas gracias. Wow, I’ve made it to Lescun! Whoo hoo!

I am now standing directly in front of the Epicerie (grocery shop) so just get right to it and walk inside. The shop keeper orders me to leave my backpack outside, which I should have thought of ahead of time. I nervously stash it under one of the little tables on the deck and stroll back into the store.

L’epicerie in Lescun

I purchase a canister of camping gaz, a baguette, saussison, cheese, a tube of mayo-mustard combo (nice find), a few post cards and a French made Opinel knife for cutting the food. These knives are typical here and are made in Savoie and are quite well known so I am actually excited to have one as a souvenir. I buy all that, and another bag of chips. I clearly have a thing for chips. My food bag is seriously heavy now. I better get hiker hunger fast!

All my purchases from today

Ouside I spread out all my food and other items on a picnic table, true hiker trash style. I decide to test my camp stove on the gas canister I just bought because it looks different than what I’m used to. Behold, it does not fit. Shit. I had seen a camping gaz brand stove for sale in the store and quickly realize I have to buy it. Bummer indeed, now I have to carry two stoves and the new one I buy is super bulky and heavy. The lady at the counter has no sympathy for me.

A simple establishment
Heading to the Cirque

As adorable as the town of Lescun is, I am eager to just get walking already. It’s now nearly 5:00pm. I start down the hill to the Camping du Lauzart and take a spin around the campground. There are mostly car camping folks, it has a mellow vibe, but it is too early to set up for me, I feel like walking, so I take off.

Thus begins my walk in the Pyrenees

The first few miles of the HRP here overlap with the GR10 and are on a paved road. I’d envisioned walking a mile or so then looking for a place to camp, then remembered you are expected to only camp at least one mile away from any paved roads here. I press on.

Cheese for sale…that way

I meet a Dutch guy named Thomas along the way, he is sort of staggering up the trail and come to find out he drank two pints of beer in Lescun. He is friendly and chatty but eventually slows down and says he can’t keep up with my pace due to his legs being tired from the beer and says that because he is from the Netherlands he is not acclimated to the mountains nor the heat. Nice excuses. He also tells me he is going to hike 10 more Km and climb 1,000 meters before stopping to camp because you don’t need a head torch until 9pm. Alrighty then, I push on at a steady clip, I’m sure we will see each other again as he is walking the whole HRP and started in Hendaye and he is young. He will catch up.

Eventually I am leaving a paved road for a dirt one and enter into a shaded valley where the cooler temperature is quite welcome. Soon I am walking by signs that indicate the various trains and cols nearby, and then a track following a water course where a band of horses are grazing. They are beautiful creatures and could care less about me walking by while they eat. 

Such a beauty !!

After about five more minutes I come across my home for the night. Next to a dirt track intersection there is a little spot with a picnic table, flattish grass with minimal horse and cow poop and some old fire rings. I double check to make sure there are no signs that say you can’t camp here, I see nothing, so decide it’s good. It’s 6:50pm and that feels like a fine time to stop.

While I am making my dinner, Thomas walks up. He is talking to himself and when he arrives he is sarcastically remarking at how I stopped so early from my hiking, as if indicating that I was planning to hike farther, which I never said. He reminds me so much of a Dutch kid I hiked with on the PCT in 2016, remarkably so it’s laughable. There were times when he really got on my nerves but he eventually grew on me. Now I’m wondering if it may be more of a cultural thing rather than the unique personality of a stubborn 19 year old.

Curious creatures

As we are chatting the horses meander curiously over our way. They are literally sticking their noses in my tent and then come up to the picnic table and start nibbling on my stuff. One of them licks my InReach and knocks it off the table, it’s now covered in horse slobber. I have to shoo them all away and finally they leave me in peace. So too, does Thomas since he is hiking on. I am happy to sit and enjoy my dinner in peace and quiet after two long days of travel.

Dinnertime!

Within minutes a car drives by, parks, and a person gets out and starts sprinting up the the hill into the trees. Thirty minutes later, he comes back down. He is dressed like a runner. The horses have meandered over to his vehicle and he gets inside and drives away. Does that seem random to anyone else? I have to laugh.

Shortly there are voices, dogs shreiking and general commotion. This is actually a noisy place alright! By the time I make my tea and crawl into my tent there are two dogs that go cruising around my campsite. They leave me alone and I never see a human with them and just have to wonder. A lot of random stuff going on here.

Finally, all this the commotion settles down. Now, all I hear is the faint call of a bird, sort of like a dove, that echoes through the canyon. There are cicadas chirping along with the burbling brooke flowing next to my camp. It is peaceful here now with only the sounds of nature. There is already some condensation all over my tent, so I am preparing myself for a wet start tomorrow. The weather forecast is for a hot, sunny day, so I should be able to dry everything out. I am ahead of schedule here, so that feels great. Truly, what a couple days I’ve had! Tomorrow, I officially walk into the High Country. Let a new adventure begin.

6 thoughts on “Heading to the Pyrenees

  1. Hello Mary Poppins, I hope you are having a great Pyrenees adventure. Basque food and all. I just finished south lake, bishop pass, thunderbolt col, then to palisade lake basin. I love it there. Plans had changed from the Lamarck col alpine col trip. After seeing a picture of you hugging your special tree, I thought you might want to watch this video. ” how trees talk to each other” with prof. Suzanne Simard. Just Google it. Looking forward to hearing about the pyrenees, Ed

    1. Hello Ed! Glad you were able to get up to the Palisades area, I love it there, have done knapsack and cirque but not thunderbolt yet, hiw was it? Thanks fir the video link, Im actually reading Suzanne’s book now, Fi ding tbe Mother Tree!! I will definitely check out the video. In transit back to the States now. Will be back in the Sierra next week 🙂

  2. Greetings Poppins. You sure have been in a mixture of mountain types in your travels. You could write a book, ” wrinkles on the land”, or something! The palisades, I think Thunderbolt col is the most scenic way in. Great views across le conte canyon to black divide and down to Barrett lake. Milissa, your Intense love of the high Sierra means, their lakes, streams, peaks, passes, trees and meadows will always take care of you. Always good thoughts, Ed

    1. Hi Ed, thank you so much for your kind commentary and wishes. That means a lot to me! Just finished a 7 day trip finishing the last section I needed to complete the Sierra High Route, Bishop to Mammoth and we added in Ionian Basin which I loved! Also tackled The Keyhole to cross the Glacier divide. Will be posting in the coming weeks, lots of writing to do now 🙂

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