21 June 2007
WE’VE SPENT THE past few days in the Pyranees mountain range; first on the Spanish side, then, as we crossed over to France, on the French side (go figure). We left for our two-day hike near the town of Boi (Spain) and were whisked into the mountains by a rugged 4×4 jeep taxi, taking us where public vehicles are not allowed to venture. The driver dropped us off and we began our ascent toward our goal for the day, the refuge where we would spend the night.
The hike started in a pretty, lush green valley full of cows and meandering streams. We turned off the main trail and started climbing up a really steep slope. It was kind of like doing the Grouse Grind, but with someone’s hand on your head pushing you down! The climb wouldn’t have been nearly as tough if it weren’t for the big packs we were lugging around. But we eventually made it, after several stops for breath and water. We were rewarded with a handful of lakes at the top, where we had a bite to eat. We continued on and, after about six hours from starting out, made it to the refuge. It was a pretty interesting sleeping arrangement – bunk beds in one long line, with no space between you and your neighbour. Luckily for us, we were sandwiched between a snoring Frenchman and a girl who farted in her sleep.
We set off the next morning before breakfast, deciding instead to find a nice peaceful stop on the hike back to the van. We found a clearing where Bambi was chewing on some grass (and who bounded off into the nearby woods at the sounds of our distant footsteps), sat near a gurgling stream, and ate. We reflected on our first multi-day hike and learned a couple of important lessons: one, always ask your accommodation what, exactly, they provide – we packed our sleeping bags only to find out that they have blankets and pillows (this was our Rough Guides fault though, since they wrote you had to bring your own) – and two, bring only enough food that you will actually eat, not enough for leftovers! These will be valuable tidbits of information on the other treks we will do.
On the French side of the Pyranees we visited the Cirque de Gavarnie, a massive natural amphitheatre carved out by glacial movement. The cirque also contains the highest waterfall in Europe, the Grande Cascade. This time the Rough Guide was very helpful in pointing out an alternate path into the area, away from the main track. It was a gorgeous hike that took us through woods and across meadows.
You can see the cirque from miles away — steep walls of rock with snow covered peaks. Even the waterfall is visible from far away. But once inside, where you are surrounded by three massive walls rising up to the sky, water rushing down them from melted snow high above, where it is such a vast area that the closest people to you look like little ants, it is pretty awe-inspiring. It’s one of those places that makes you realize how tiny we are, and how powerful nature is. It is, by far, the most beautiful place we’ve seen so far on this trip.
After the cirque, we drove to Tarbes, an inconspicuous little town where we just planned on parking on the street and having a free night’s sleep. We stumbled on a music festival celebrating the summer solstice. Many cities in France do the same thing but we had no idea a small town like Tarbes would have one too – it was a great surprise! After dark, the streets filled with what was probably the entire town, plus the two surrounding ones – and I mean everyone was there, from toddlers to geriatrics. Food and beer vendors lined the streets and stages were set up all over the place, in all the big squares. There were even bands playing on the sidewalk and on outdoor restaurant patios, everywhere. It seemed like any joe shmoe garage band with the meekest of talents could join in.
The range was very eclectic – you had your choice of alt. rock, country, reggae, folk, teenage punk, and electronica (where we caught a 70-something year old bobbing his head to the trance-like beat). There was a choir, an accordion band, and flamenco dancing as well. Our favourite of the night was a samba percussion band – about fifteen guys and gals with different drums tied around their waists, hammering on them with big sticks in perfect unison and making a contagious Brazilian beat. They wore colourful, baggy pants and had painted arms and faces and danced around while they played. It was, in every sense of the word,festive! The crowd was fully into it too, hooting and hollering and bouncing around to the rhythm.
On our way out back to our van, we heard the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” being covered, so we went to get a closer look. On a restaurant patio was a haggard, cagey bunch of old dudes, the lead singer in tight black jeans and a big cowboy hat on, belting out classic rock tunes. They followed the Stones with a cover of CCR’s “Proud Mary”, only with a heavy French accent: “Left a goot job in za ceety, workin’ for zee man every naht and day…”. Across the street at another patio, a really bad Weezer cover band played. It was painful listening to the lead singer, but at the same time was nice to hear one of my favourite bands being paid tribute to (plus, it also gave me some hope for myself!).
We will continue heading north up the gut of France, and should be in Paris well in time for Yvonne’s 30th birthday!