My favourite summit: Pic Rouge de Bassiès 2676m

I don’t know why the golden half-dome of this summit has taunted me ever since I spotted it on the horizon of Pyrenean peaks in the Ariège. Its distinctive profile seemed to pop up everywhere I went.  Rising up smoothly on one side, the dome breaks off abruptly where its eastern side has been chiselled away, no doubt by long-ago ice action.

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Walking through the woods in winter, I’d spotted it rearing up in white like a petrified breaking wave, the only hint that there was a mountain chain there at all.  At 2676m it was higher than anything else I’d reached apart from Mont Valier, but it isn’t a technical climb, just a rollercoaster of a long, long ridge that rises and falls as it switches through changing terrain.

 

 

I’ve wanted to stand on that summit for years, although I’d turned back twice; once because the jagged teeth of the approach ridge looked too scary, and the second time when a large bank of cloud suddenly engulfed the summit dome, just as I was at its foot.

This October, seeing a window of clear, cool days, I was going to do it.

Parking at Coumebière (1400m), the round walk is about 15-16 miles with a height gain of 1276m, so it’s a very long day, with some tiring scrambling across a boulder field of pink-tinged rocks that give the peak its name.

 

 

From Coumebière follow signs to the étang de Labant, then climb up through the beech woods behind it to gain a small col on the ridge. Take a moment to enjoy the stupendous view over the Garbet Valley and the glacial cirques to the south, before turning left onto the uppermost path. Follow this path above the Garbet and eventually it turns left to rise steeply up to the main ridge that overlooks the Bassiès lakes. The destination summit is now visible in the far distance.

Follow the ridge path as it takes you over Pic des Planes and Cot de Morech, and then as the ridge becomes spiky with towering rocks, the path turns to the left of that crest, keeping below it. After an hour of scrambling over boulders – keep an eye open for the cairns and yellow markers – you’re at the foot of the summit dome. The path zig zags up steeply until suddenly, there’s the tall summit cairn ahead, and you’re looking across the other side to the Montcalm massif. If you’ve ever walked to the etang du Garbet, you’ll recognise the craggy ridge of the surrounding cirque (with the distinctive notch of the couillade de Puntussan) down to the west, along with Puntussan itself and a glimpse of  étang Bleu.

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Looking down at the ridge behind etang du Garbet and Puntussan

It was 5 hours up and 4 down for me, but I’m slow. If you have the energy, some make it a round walk by diverting south beneath the ridge of Cabanatous with a stop at étang d’Alate.

For more details of the route and a map, try the Lone Peak Bagger‘s site.

And for further inspiration, I highly recommend this Youtube video of the route, set to Xavier Rudd’s fabulous Spirit Bird. It certainly inspired me to persevere (although I passed on doing a summit handstand…)

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Make the most of a stopover in Orange, Provence

Following on from my post on reaching the Pyrenees by train, here’s the first in a series on stopover points in the South of France, featuring Orange, Provence

Possibly overlooked by its more famous neighbour Avignon, the town of Orange in Provence offers considerable charm for a short stopover.

After the six hour journey on Eurostar from St Pancras, arriving into Avignon during the festival didn’t do much to alleviate the 39°C of baking heat.  Another 20  minutes on a local train was worth it to simply step out onto empty pavements of Orange.

I’ve previously asked myself if it’s really necessary to traipse around all of the ‘must-sees’ when visiting a place, but the fact that everyone else was swarming in Avignon meant that the monuments of Orange were mercifully clear.  And the town is sufficiently compact to visit most of them on a short stopover.

The Roman city of Arausio was a staging post on the Roman road between Lyon and Arles, and the legacy is clear in the modern town of Orange.  The remarkable Arc de Triomphe stands at the ancient entrance to the city, commemorating the Roman Army’s victories over the barbarian tribes at the edges of the Empire.  The detail in the friezes is impressive – look at the Celtic-style artwork depicted on the confiscated tribal armour.

 

The Théâtre Antique is the best preserved Roman theatre in existence, and it’s still used for performances, as shown by the crew’s Airstream parked on the stage.  Keep climbing up the tiers of seats for a view over the theatre with the tiled roofs of Orange as backdrop.

 

But don’t stop there, as a walk up the Colline St-Eutrope extends the view even further, with a sweeping view across to Mont Ventoux on the horizon.  A network of paths over the hill passes by ruins of the former castle of the Princes of Orange to a small play park with a couple of zip wires.  All of this was almost deserted on a Saturday in July, which was unexpected but allowed some unobserved fun on the zip wires.  The large open-air café was similarly deserted, with chairs and menus ready but no staff to be seen.

You could spend all day mooching around the sites of Orange, but for me it was enough to people watch in the tiny Place aux Herbes, with its laid back bar and a usefully muddled shop where the stock ranged from art supplies, Marseille soap, toothpaste and tins of WD40 – the kind of shop that simply could not survive back in England.

We stayed in the small and charming L’Herbier d’Orange in the Place aux Herbes.  Orange has plenty of restaurants, but why sit in a place that looks like everywhere else when you can eat in a Roman cave with a fine wine cellar integrated at the far end?  As the proprietors of La Cantina (Montée Julia Barthet) state, it’s not every day you can dine in a hole dug into the rock.

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La Cantina restaurant, Orange

Étang de Guzet (and Cascade d’Ars)

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.

Etang de Guzet
Etang de Guzet

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.

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.

Continue reading “Étang de Guzet (and Cascade d’Ars)”

Ascent of Tuc de la Coume

A long ridge with a stunning panorama

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).

Continue reading “Ascent of Tuc de la Coume”

Étang d’Areau from Col de Pause

The Col de Pause is a starting point for some wonderful walks, as well as an up-close view of Mont Valier.

This describes a walk up to the pastures known by various spellings: Areau, Arreau, Arréou and Areou, and its emerald green lake.

Some brave souls drive up to the parking area at the Col, but the road gets rougher and narrower beyond Laserre, so I park at Laserre and then walk along the GR10.  That takes me around 40 mins to get to the Col de Pause.  I never fail to be amazed by the view of Mont Valier up close:

Continue reading “Étang d’Areau from Col de Pause”

A 360˚ Panorama from Pic de Girantès / Mont Ceint, and an absent reminder of the French Résistance

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.

Spring gentian above Port de Saleix
Spring gentian above Port de Saleix

Continue reading “A 360˚ Panorama from Pic de Girantès / Mont Ceint, and an absent reminder of the French Résistance”

Missing out the ‘must-sees’: a little flânerie in Avignon

Absorbing the city

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.

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Shutters in Avignon

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.

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Nuit Debout gathering in Avignon

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, Avignon is no longer a town with a festival, but has become part of a festival that possesses a town.

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Wildflowers along the city walls

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 resonates 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.

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Night falls on the Palais des Papes, Avignon

Slow travel to the Pyrenees

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.

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Whiling away an hour in Avignon before the train back to London – it beats any airport!

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.

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An evening stopover in Bordeaux

 

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.

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Where the house was

Why do English people move to Ariege, France?

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.

Continue reading “Where the house was”

The media and the Brits in France

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 British 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 is sometimes generated by 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 in the first decade of the 21st century.  Continue reading “The media and the Brits in France”