Escape the crowds and discover a secluded mountain lake
The triple waterfalls of Cascade d’Ars are deservedly well known, but it’s possible to make a longer round walk that takes in the étang de Guzet. Or, if you’ve already walked to the falls, a hike up to this beautiful hidden lake itself is well worth it, and it avoids the crowds that tend to stick to the falls.
I started from the car park in Aulus les Bains and walked a short way up the D8F towards the Col de Latrape. Ignore the left turn to the Cascade and soon afterwards you take a path up to the left, heading steeply up through the forest and crossing the forest track at one point. Eventually you come out into the open Plateau de Souliou with a view of the cirque of Pic de Mont Rouge ahead (image 1). Look over to your right and you’ll see the lifts of the Guzet ski resort.
Plateau de Souliou and Pic de Mont Rouge
Etang de Guzet & Pic de Crabe
Cabin de Guzet
Then continue to follow signs for the étang de Guzet, climbing up through the woods until you see a marked path down on the right to the lake shore. It’s a tranquil spot. Look out for the twin ‘claw’ summit of Pic de Crabe (image 2) reflected in the water.
For years I’ve gazed at this summit (image 1), wondering how to get there as there’s no direct path marked on the maps. It’s a relatively easy summit on a long ridge that lies between the valley of the Garbet (the section running from Ercé to Aulus) and the Courtignou valley (the D18) from Massat up to the étang de Lers.
At 1745m it’s not especially high but you get a 360 degree panorama of both the summit chain and the surrounding valleys. The final bit is steep and the tiny summit feels somewhat exposed, especially when peering down the scarp of the eastern flank. The route I’ve given starts at the étang de Lers (between Le Port and Aulus).
At 2088m, Mont Ceint (also known as Pic de Girantès) gives a superb 360° panorama over the surrounding ridges and valleys. It’s also a fairly accessible and straightforward hike, although steep on the upper section.
The most straightforward route is from the parking at Coumebière. The first stage follows the GR10 zig zags (les lacets) that bring you up to the Port de Saleix in around an hour and a half.
Have you ever spent time visiting the must-sees of a city and then slowly realised that it’s the hidden corners and your observations of the people that stay with you over time, rather than what Tripadvisor tells you are The Ten Best Things to do in…?
Chatting to a casual acquaintance in Avignon, I happened to mention that I often use the city as a stopover as part of my slow travel to and from France, utilising the Eurostar direct service to London, but I’d never made a ‘proper’ visit to the town’s two crown jewels: the famous pont d’Avignon, and the Palais des Papes. His jaw dropped in horror and he hastily moved on, perhaps worried that such lack of culture was contagious.
Yet it’s true. Each time I contemplate the generous half-day to fill before the mid-afternoon departure back to King’s Cross, I simply continue the previous evening’s wandering around the city. I’ve resisted joining the flow of headset-clad tourists as they slouch around the historic half bridge. The Pont St-Bénézet dates from 1177 and is a symbol of the city, but the lofty gardens of the Rocher des Doms offer a wonderful aerial view of the bridge as it ends abruptly mid-stream in the Rhône, and a horizon stretching away to the Luberon. Following the steps down the steep rockface of the Rocher brings you to a free ferry across the Rhone for a different perspective of the bridge. Yet, to be frank, I was more taken with the long stretch of wildflowers growing parallel to the city walls, and the way that a set of shutters held out mirrors to the sky.
I’ve also resisted entering the Palais des Papes, which, with its buttresses and crenellations, is as much a fortress as a papal palace. Walking around its immense walls, I’m struck by how the facade changes as the day’s light moves on. One balmy April evening in 2016, I watched as it became illuminated against the deep blue of the night sky, while in the shadows a small crowd gathered as part of the France-wide Nuit debout protests against labour reforms and calls for a society built on more than profit. The peaceful sit-in gradually evolved into an impromptu dance, with friends and strangers united towards a common cause.
My stopovers have unintentionally coincided with the July festival d’Avignon, a world-famous arts festival with performances. The streets of the old town become carnivalesque for a couple of weeks, swarming with visitors and studded with posters advertising performances; these often take place in improvised ‘theatres’ that pop up in all kinds of buildings. Tiny restaurants open up and chairs spill over onto the cobbles. Local reaction is understandably mixed about the way that the old town – home to around 12,000 inhabitants – is taken over in this way. Wandering the backstreets, I came across a long line of placards affixed to buildings, detailing the history of the festival. The display didn’t gloss over the current depth of feeling expressed by some of the inhabitants. As I understood it, it could be summed up that Avignon is no longer a town with a festival, but has become part of a festival that possesses a town.
All this talk of urban wandering in France brings to mind the concept of the flâneur, a strolling observer of city life who wanders, loiters and explores, observing people and places. The focus is on what’s happening in the crowd. The writer Walter Benjamin popularised the concept of the flâneur from the earlier work of the poet Baudelaire. Awareness of the flâneur has grown alongside interest in psychogeography, which studies the art of becoming lost in the city as a way into its soul. The act of flânerie, an aimless drift through urban landscapes, is at the heart of psychogeography. Yet, as Lauren Elkin points out, the flâneur is a quintessentially male concept. Although women haven’t always had the same freedom to walk the city streets by night and day, the art of urban wandering is not confined to men, with Virginia Woolf being one notable flâneuse. Nevertheless, as Lauren argues, we perhaps shouldn’t see the flâneuse as a mere female equivalent of the flâneur, but as something distinct; often more defiant than the aimless and undoubtedly privileged flâneur of the literature.
I’m wary of drawing too deeply on the complex notion of the flâneur to describe the behaviour of the contemporary traveller, although it’s clear that it’s resonated with some travel bloggers. Yet, like many concepts, it can help us to make sense of what we do. It’s certainly a privilege to be able to traipse the city streets, to wander and observe anonymously. But avoiding the tourist traps of The Ten Best Things in… can also save a small fortune, enough to indulge yourself among the used books in the delightful Camili Books and Tea. I’d never have found that little gem if I’d limited my footfall to the main sites.
How to travel overland to the Pyrenees: some ideas
Ok, so it’s not on a par with travelling overland to Asia, but today many of us are conscious of our environmental footprint and looking for ways to travel without flying (there’s some academic discussion on the Flying Less Movement here)
I recently chatted with a guy who owns a holiday home in Carcassonne, and he was full of enthusiasm about the low cost of the flights he was able to take from Scotland. Sometimes he paid as little as £10 – £20 each way, which meant he could afford to go on holiday every few weeks. When I explained that I much preferred to go by train to the Pyrenees, he looked aghast – ‘What about the cost?’
Of course it’s more expensive to travel around Europe by train compared with the low-cost airlines, and it’s hard to imagine that many people will make the switch while the price difference is so huge. Yet for me, travelling overland helps me to really feel that I’ve arrived somewhere, following the route from the ground rather than dropping down from the clouds. Being a digital nomad I can work from anywhere, and it’s much easier when sitting on a train compared with when I’m wedged into a budget airline cattle-truck.
Best of all is that travelling overland gives the option to break the journey with a stopover somewhere new each time. And unlike the Ryanair frequent flyers, I don’t go every few weeks, but instead I have fewer trips with longer stays, so the cost evens up a bit. Booking well in advance and outside the weekends can also make a huge difference to the price of the ticket.
In this first article I’ll talk about some of the travel options I’ve used.
It’s now possible to step from a damp and grey St Pancras onto the Eurostar and emerge less than six hours later into the heat and sun of Provence. Eurostar runs a service that takes you straight from London to Lyon, Avignon and Marseille. I’ve paid as little as £49 each way, which compares really favourably with the budget airlines. From Avignon TGV station it’s just a few minutes on a local train into Avignon Centre, from where you have the option of connections or an evening’s stopover.
From Avignon I usually take a local train going west via Nimes, Beziers, Sète, Montpellier and Narbonne to Carcassonne, the latter being my gateway to the Pyrenees, from where I hire a car to get me into the mountains. All of these places offer scope for appealing stopovers, and I’ll be writing about some of them in the next articles.
It’s also easy to get to lots of destinations via Eurostar by changing in Paris. Last year I did just that, taking a high speed TGV that shot me from the capital to Bordeaux in a few hours. That allowed me a long evening to look around the city and a not-too-early start for the train that took me via Toulouse to Carcassonne.
Planning and booking train travel in Europe is easy these days. I find the Loco2 system very user-friendly and I’ve used it for train travel all over Europe. The site connects to many national rail services and they don’t charge booking fees. Some tickets can be printed at home, whereas others need to be picked up at the station machines.
If you’re not yet aware of the wonderfully comprehensive website The Man in Seat 61 then take a look at it and bookmark it for future reference. It covers everything from an overview of a country’s trains and services, to individual route suggestions between major cities.
Today we hear from guest blogger Michelle, a fellow blogger, traveller and self-proclaimed digital nomad.
Finding myself with a free weekend in London, I set myself a challenge of doing a bit of self-development (or perhaps just a form of mindfulness that doesn’t involve meditating) with some activities I wouldn’t normally do. The only criteria was for each activity to be below £40 and far away from the usual tourist stuff. I’d been a tour guide in a previous life, so I’ve spent more than enough painful hours herded around the city’s main visitor attractions.
After a quick look online, it soon became a two-way challenge. As someone who’d been the art class dunce at school, I challenged Popup Painting to send me home with a recognisable version of Monet’s Water Lilies. Booked through Obby, the class was positioned as a fun balance between a paintbrush and…
What’s a digital nomad? Type the phrase into Google and it’s clear that lots of people want to know the answer. Those who know are usually asking how they can become one. The phrase digital nomad isn’t even in the Oxford English Dictionary yet! So here’s a nice definition from Metro online:
Somebody who works online and therefore needn’t tie themselves to one particular office, city, or even country. They can work from anywhere in the world, provided they have a solid internet connection and can move around whenever the feeling takes them.
As the article goes on to point out, there are quite a few careers that allow nomadic work; we aren’t all web designers or hipster travel bloggers writing up the day’s wanderings over the second flat white at a cafe table. My own career is what’s nowadays called a portfolio, and an eclectic one at that. I work as an associate lecturer in distance learning, where the digitalisation that’s creeping into education is understandably seen as an unwelcome shift to ‘everything online’, but surely it’s also presented an opportunity to be flexible in terms of working location. I also work as an examiner/marker/assessor/scorer, all job titles that pretty much mean the same thing – reading or listening to something and giving it a mark. Most of that needs to be done well away from public eyes but there are lots of other things that can that can be done sitting on planes, boats and trains; preparation and my own writing, for example. I once wrote drafts of two textbooks whilst travelling on trains between New York and Montreal/Toronto. The trains were all delayed but, well, that just meant that I got a bit more written.
Accessing wifi has become much simpler since I began working like this, but I still prefer to use my own supply rather than public wifi. And it’s easy and cheap enough; mobile broadband dongles now work all over Europe and I find PAYG options are perfectly reasonable ; they even work with platforms like Skype. You do get the odd total blackout, although that can happen anywhere; all telephone lines and mobile masts were recently vandalised in my home village, which meant doing essential online work whilst parked in lay-by for four days.
One place where I found myself in serious difficulty was on the island of Lundy, which has a poor intermittent signal at the best of times, but my stay happened to coincide with a big storm, stranding me for an extra day and destroying the line of communication from the mainland. I had some urgent work to submit and just about managed it by holding my laptop, with dongle attached, out of the window while the storm raged. I then found that I could just about send and receive emails from the top of the lighthouse.
The Metro article talks about whole communities of digital nomads working in hip places such as Bali, Thailand and so on. I tend to stick to Europe these days, although I recall sitting on the floor of a rasta bar in Raylay, Thailand, peeping out at the late monsoon rains bouncing off the mangroves as I tried to translate an abstract concept into understandable language for a linguistics student. It was hard to concentrate with Bob Marley playing on a loop. But mostly I work from the French Pyrenees, travelling overland by train when I can, and making the most of the fine weather days to wander in the mountains, followed by a late-night catch-up with work. And I live simply and inexpensively, rarely eating out and learning to be creative with stale bread.
There are downsides of course, like the occasional urgent request that requires something that’s sitting hundreds of miles away at home. Moreover, all of my work is fixed contract, which means that there’s no paid holiday. It’s difficult to justify taking proper time off when it’s unpaid.
That’s why, when people comment about me being on holiday again?, I have to remind them that it’s not a holiday, it’s just working in a different place…
I follow a few French Instagrammers as I love to see what others are doing in the Ariège mountains. I’ve noticed how some of them post using English rather than French language. I guess it’s to reach a wider audience, which is interesting because in Ariège I don’t think that English is that widely spoken there (people often tell me that Spanish is often learned in schools, before English).
You don’t see written English very often in the Ariège public sphere (what researchers call the linguistic landscape) but I can share some observations that I noted when doing my research on English migration.
When I first began researching British incomers in Ariège, I was curious as to why they’d chosen that out-of-the-way corner of France. It turns out that choice wasn’t always the right word… For quite a few people it was simply where the house was, rather than an informed decision based on what that area offered as a way of life to them, beyond the house itself.
How are British incomers in France portrayed in the British media?
A flood, an invasion, bloodsuckers… we’ve all seen immigrants depicted using this kind of language in the British press. Yet it surprised me to find that journalists use the same language to refer to their compatriots who are living in France.
Migration often fosters resentment, but resentment of the British abroad often comes from other British people, in a kind of ‘us and them’ scenario. My research led me to investigate how the Brits in France have been portrayed in the media over the last decade. Continue reading “The media and the Brits in France”→