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.
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.
Pic Rouge de Bassies summit, far left
View from the ridge
Etangs de Bassies
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.
The pink boulders below Pic Rouge
Watching vultures at the foot of the summit dome
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.
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.
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…)
It was all triggered by black and white photographs sent to my father long ago…
Growing up, I’d heard a lot about Poland, where my late father had been born at the end of WW1. Ending up in England during WW2, he’d been unable to go back ‘home’ when the war ended, as eastern Poland became part of the USSR. I’d had a child’s simplistic understanding of it, that the Russians took it from Poland. Polish rule/influence over Western Ukraine (then known as Galicia) certainly goes back centuries, although those borderlands became part of the Austrian Empire from the late 18th century until the end of WW1.
In fact my father had quite possibly been born in Austria. It was only when the Austrian Empire collapsed that the borderlands became part of Poland, in spite of the many Ukrainians living there, who felt it should form an independent Ukraine. All this helped to generate a strong Ukrainian nationalist movement that continued until independence in 1992.
At home all we ever heard about was Poland and ‘the Russians.’ Nothing about Ukrainian people.
I began to spend hours poring over the photographs. My father’s sister had lived and died in his village, and she was recognisable in the photographs as both a young girl and an elderly woman. We knew she had a daughter, my father’s niece, who was presumably the Justyna whose name was written on a piece of paper, along with the address of his village. That was all we really knew about in terms of family.
Yet the photographs showed many different people. There was a family of five, staring apprehensively at the camera against a backdrop of traditional embroideries. Another showed a large family gathering: parents in the centre surrounded by 18 other people. Who were they? Could they be Polish relatives? Or just long-ago acquaintances?
As time went on I became fixated on filling in the gaps. I contacted a Ukrainian tourist guide whose portfolio included family research. By a remarkable coincidence he knew my father’s village and agreed to go and talk to people. I was expecting maybe a few names and dates gleaned from the cemetery.
I hadn’t expected a set of videos of people talking about my father, retelling passed-down stories from the war. They remembered the only time he dared to visit, back in the 1970s when he was accompanied by the KGB at all times. One man even referred to my father as ‘uncle’, remembering the parcels of hard-to-get items such as razors that had arrived.
Yet these people weren’t Polish; they were Ukrainian. Nor were they blood relatives. They were in-laws: the family of my father’s first wife. He’d never talked about her, a shadowy figure who’d died very young. Suddenly she had a name – Varvara – and her sister-in-law and nephew were very much alive in the video. It was time to pay a visit.
Having travelled by train to the closest city of Ivano-Frankivsk, Terry and I set out to visit the village with Andriy, the local guide/interpreter/driver. Once again, I didn’t dare to expect much. Would people be happy to rake up the past? Would any of these people even be at home that day?
Andriy pulled the car up at a huge pile of ripe pumpkins, behind which stood the old single storey house where my father had lived with his wife and her family back in the 1930s. The nephew-in-law and his family use it for storage nowadays and live next door. Although Varvara’s brother had died some years ago, that brother’s elderly wife was brought over to meet us and answer my questions. Photo after photo was handed over, eliciting mostly vague comments about them being ‘other people’. Then the large family group was recognised, with the father noted as a ‘man with 16 children’. And finally a pivotal moment when the elderly lady pointed to herself – she was the mother in the photo of the family of five.
Although her husband had passed on, the three children in the photo were alive; in fact I was standing in the son’s garden (my father’s nephew-in-law). He was working away but his wife Galina invited us inside for ‘breakfast’. By amazing luck it was a feast day: Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when family sit and eat together. The homemade vodka came out and almost half of the bottle disappeared, which was a feat considering three of the five people weren’t drinking.
I was still no closer to finding out if any actual blood relatives were living nearby but I kept on prompting them. And in a very roundabout way it eventually came out that the ‘man with 16 children’ had been the husband of my father’s niece, Justyna. The writing on the back of the photo explained how the extended family had gathered back in 1973 to see off one of the sons, Stepan, who was joining the army. Surely some of these cousins might still be alive?
Galina held my hand as she led me through the peaceful cemetery that stretched over the hillside. I had a small amount of my father’s ashes to deposit; he’d always wanted to come back. Then Galina excitedly pointed out the graves of Justyna and her husband. I could see that the large photographs superimposed onto the headstones were clearly the same people as the parents in the family gathering. And nearby was the grave of one of the 16 children. I would never get to meet Stepan after all, as he had died in his forties. But I’d only missed Justyna, his mother, by six years.
And now we had another invitation, from the mother and daughter pictured in that family of five. As our car drew up, Hanna the daughter raced out of the house and hugged us; like her mother she was touched that a photograph of her and her family had been brought all the way from England. ‘And your father sent us photos of you!’ she said. This time the moonshine was strawberry-infused vodka.
How things get turned on their head. I still don’t know whether there are living Polish relatives, although Hanna thought so and promised to find out. Instead I have a Ukrainian not-quite-family, the in-laws with whom my father kept in contact for decades, sending them parcels and photos, and visiting them that one time. They must have meant something to him.
I’d enjoyed using the dozen or so words of Ukrainian I’d learned, and when Hanna wagged her finger at me, I recognised the word for “one”, but nothing else. Andriy stepped in to explain fully: “She wants to know if you’ll come back within one year?”
I knew the word for “yes”.
“And she says she’ll have you speaking Ukrainian in one week.” Now there’s a challenge.
As the car lurched over the stony track out of the village, laden down with gifts of moonshine, preserved mushrooms and a bucket of honey, I looked back. Scattered houses with enormous metal gates, a child drawing water from a well, and the dome of the church visible through the trees. I wanted to spend a day in that cemetery. I wanted to learn Ukrainian and how to make moonshine. Above all I wanted to walk through the fields that rise gently to the edge of the forest. One year.
With thanks to Andriy of Green Ukraine for the research, driving and interpreting.
And I’m very grateful to Natalia for translating the videos.
When I booked the eight trains spanning four days of travel from London to the formerly Polish ancestral village of my father (now lying within western Ukraine), I hadn’t realised that I’d be following the same route, more or less, that my father had driven us as a family in the late 1960s.
A wartime Polish exile, unable to visit his real homeland when it became part of the USSR, he would drive us to Poland as a second-best option. Back then it involved what my nervous mother referred to as ‘going behind the Iron Curtain’ that divided the West from the communist East. I remember hours standing next to the car at checkpoints as unsmiling DDR border guards pulled out the back seat and slid mirrors beneath the chassis. Long days were spent driving along the transit corridor through the forests of East Germany and Poland, where small crowds would gather whenever we stopped, and I had the job of handing out sweets and oranges to the wide-eyed children.
Some fifty years later I decided to travel east again, although this time it was possible to keep going into Ukraine, to the town closest to my dad’s village – the town of Ivano-Frankivsk, closed off by the Soviets until the early 1990s.
The lack of direct flights to western Ukraine gave a good excuse to do it by train. Ryanair’s forthcoming route to Lviv will win for speed and price, but a couple of hours strapped into a budget aircraft will hardly convey the same sense of travelling through central Europe to the east. And a train trip encourages some wonderfully atmospheric stopovers. Just don’t expect it to be restful.
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.
Arc de Triomphe at the ancient entrance to Orange, Roman Arausio
Close up of the frieze depicting confiscated ‘barbarian’ 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.
Roman theatre, Orange
The ancient Roman theatre viewed from the Colline st-Eutrope
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.
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).
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:
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, 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 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.
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.