French Encounter Number 2

It was a very hot day. I’d started walking far too late. And I’d drank far too much red wine the night before.

I was on a circular walk from the idyllic, Pyrenean village, of Lescun, heading towards the Pic D’Ani by way of a section of the GR10 footpath. Lescun officially sits within the Vallée d’Aspe but it located high above the valley, at the head of it’s own gorgeous glen. From the floor of the Vallée d’Aspe you would be hard pressed to imagine anything some beautiful being up there.

The walk makes its way out of the lovely stone-built centre of the village and walks along the valley. On a day like this the views are stunning. Below there is the lush, green of the valley floor, speckled with the colours of with what must be the most scenic campsite in France. Above tower wonderful mountains, their peaks set against the most vivid of blue skies. Ahead lie dense, green woodlands.

Vallée d'Aspe
Looking over the glen at Lescun

On this day the woodlands were something of an endurance test. I seemed to be walking through them for hours. There are times when this kind of woodland/forest walking is amongst the most boring of all walking. But at least the path is good and there’s little chance of getting lost. (I only ever seem to really get lost in Forestry sites – there’s another walk from Lescun on which I make the same mistake every time that I walk it!)

The path through the woods was climbing at a consistent rate but so gently as to be almost imperceptible. And so it was quite a shock when, suddenly emerging from the woodland, I was faced with not the lush green of the valleys but the harsh, boulder strewn, foothills of the Pic itself. But from here it’s only a quick hop to the cabannes that were to be my resting point.

Fromagerie.jpg
The Fromagerie

The second of these two mountain huts is often an interesting place to visit. It is the home of mountain shepherds and, often, during the summer you can buy cheese here. But on this day the hut dwellers were off somewhere else. A quick inspection of the hut showed that the summer residents were well set up for their stay, with a TV and a good supply of wine. Outside a stone pen was home to a group of pigs, lying in-active in the sun; the pigs were often feeling like me. I suppose these pigs spend almost all of their lives up here, high in the shadow of the Pic d’Ani. I’ve always supposed that they are slaughtered on site where the shepherds can joint the carcasses and make their saucisson. A romantic notion perhaps, but I certainly wouldn’t like to lead these beast pack down the path that I’d just walked. Chickens scratched around the sides of the stone hut.

Pic d'Annie Pigs.jpg
A pig’s life, high in the mountains

I’d been banking on buying some cheese and the absence of life in the hut just made me more grumpy. But at least I was alone, save for the pigs and the chickens. I was sitting there, enjoying my solitude when I was aware of a figure walking towards me, a French hiker, a short and stocky man with a mass of wire-brush hair. He was stomping towards me, thick-thighed and bow legged from no doubt years of hill walking. Damn he was wanting conversation.

He greeted me in a hearty way. Wasn’t the view wonderful? These are my mountains. He told me that he lived in the nearest city Pau. I realised that it was a Saturday. He was out for his weekly stroll amongst his mountains. We talked for a while. He asked if I was Belgian. Ah, he pronounced when he realised I was from Angleterre, where there mountains in my country?

I told him about Snowdonia and about the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. At first I thought he was un-impressed but I began to realise that he simply couldn’t entertain any other mountains other than his own. Not only had he not walked in mountains outside of France but he had never visited any other mountain regions of his own country.

This is one of the fascinating things about the French. France is now the most visited country in the world for tourists and the tourist infrastructure here is second to none. But the French themselves are reluctant travellers and take less foreign holidays than anyone else in Western Europe. Things are slowly beginning to change and I’ve noticed a marked enthusiasm, in recent years, for those I know who’ve retired to go travelling around the world. But conversations like these remind you that it’s not that long ago when – in rural France – the word etranger was just as likely to be used for someone who lived in the next valley as for someone who came from another country.

We talked for a while and his sheer enthusiasm for my mountains cheered me up and shook me out of my grumpiness. Could I feel it, the camarardarie des montagnes? Where was I heading? Did I know Cauterets? Luz? Gavarnie? He seemed genuinely surprised that I knew such a big stretch of these mountains and also amazed that they were so popular from people from other countries.

After a while he went on his way, hearty and cheerful and obviously happy to have met an Englishman on the mountain. This encounter was like many that I’ve had over the years. I’m always fascinated by the way in which many mountain folks never really venture far from their own hills. Perhaps, the simply don’t need to?

The weather was turning now. There was a cold edge to the wind and the smell of rain in the air. I decided to leave the pic for another day and retraced my steps back through the woods and down to pretty Lescun.

At Lescun the sun was still shining. The temperature was dramatically hot but the beer at the Bergers bar ice-cold and the welcome warm. Perhaps if I lived in Lescun I wouldn’t really want to leave it that often. You could easily spend a lifetime exploring the nooks and crannies of these mountains.

Tom Joosten, the writer of Cicerone’s guide to the Pyrenean Haute Route, has been walking here for nearly twenty years. During that time he’s never ventured anywhere else. He says he often feels a bit guilty and starts planning a trip to another mountain range somewhere else. But then the Pyrenees draw him back. Perhaps, he’s not that eccentric. Maybe there are real joys in getting to know a mountain range as intimately as this.

Cloudy Lescun
Pretty Lescun, emerging from the morning mist

Trackbacks

  1. […] which is the home of shepherds, cheese makers and a band of high altitude pigs. (See previous post French Encounter 1). It is OK to turn back here, but if you’ve still got the energy why not climb to the top of […]

  2. […] Andy has an excellent writeup from a trek through the French high country. He describes meeting a French hiker along the way: He greeted me in a hearty way. Wasn’t the view wonderful? These are my mountains. He told me that he lived in the nearest city Pau. I realised that it was a Saturday. He was out for his weekly stroll amongst his mountains. We talked for a while. He asked if I was Belgian. Ah, he pronounced when he realised I was from Angleterre, where there mountains in my country? I told him about Snowdonia and about the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. At first I thought he was un-impressed but I began to realise that he simply couldn’t entertain any other mountains other than his own. Not only had he not walked in mountains outside of France but he had never visited any other mountain regions of his own country. […]

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