Whenever I think about a Trailhead town I think go the USA for some reason. The towns I think about are those described by PCT hikers and other intrepid explorers like Chris Townsend. In my mind I see the towns that I’ve seen on TV; few people, un-remarkable and faceless motels, restaurants selling rather unhealthy (but hiker friendly) food. I think of heat, dusts, cactus, tumbleweed and exhausted dogs sitting out the midday sun. OK, I know but this is day dreaming!
I suppose we have few equivalents here in the UK. We have hiking centres but trailhead towns? I’m not really sure. Our long distance trails have been designed to go through villages and towns that have been established for centuries. Walk most UK trails and you are walking through a presentation of our history and culture. The only place that seems to have many of the qualities I imagine is, arguably, Aviemore but the least said about that the better!
The Pyrenees though does have Trailhead towns although they have their very own identity. The Trailheads are important to all Pyrenean backpacks and thru-hikers.
Walk the high trails and, indeed much of the GR10, and you will find yourself regularly visiting — or being within a hop of — a whole series of high mountain villages. The villages are often delightful in summer. If you are lucky you may find a small shop that maybe attached to a campsite. You may find a hostel — Gites d’Etapes — or a mountain restaurant, all of which sen to have the same limited menu. And there are the high refuges that will sell you a cold beer and often a warm meal. One of two might also have some supplies. But if you need access to proper food suppliers, fuel or an ATM machine it is to the Trailhead towns that you will turn. The Trailheads towns are also the places where you can catch up on the ever-important weather forecast. The information bureau understand hikers and their needs.
Before you set off it is worth orientating your hike with the towns. The Trailhead towns are places in which to schedule a rest day. If you mare walking on the HRP you will sometimes have to take a day or two to drop down and make the most of them. The culture of these town is very different to the vulture of my imagined places and as most of you will be hiking in the summer there will be a big holiday and tourist flavour to it. When planing a trip the main attraction of these places are their services but when you are in situ there is often a lot to see and soak in.
Beddous (last ATM in the Vallée d’Asp) would appear to be a one street, sleepy town but at night it is transformed. The main square is the location for lovely night time markets the sell both food supplies and antiques; there is a festival atmosphere about the place as you stroll around in the cool but still warm night.
In Cauterets you will find everything you want and more besides. Sit in a cafe and you can watch the coach tours trundle by. You can visit the kiss-me-quick shops and in the evening you the excitement of the casino should you be temped. But there is culture here as well and the museum in the old Hotel d’Anglettere not only gives you a feel for life at the height of the Belle Epoque but in the basement will give you a reconstruction of Henry russell’s Vignemale caves, Russell being the eccentric and probably barking mad Pyrenean explorer whose memory you will find being celebrated all over the place.
In Luz St Saveur the tourism culture hits you in a massive way. To the South of the town the campsites seem to go on forever. In the Hotel’ des Londres I had the fastest three course meal have ever had, everything being designed to help facilitate the maximum turnover of tables imaginable. But Luz has its assts beyond simply the bus up to Gavarnie and out to Lourdes. The main gear shop and camping supply shop — an Intersports franchise — is handily located right on the main square rift opposite the bus stops. Even more handy is the campsite that is located next door with access also from the main square. And for those who want to escape the mad tourism there is a small and ancient street quarter which is pedestrianised. I once spent a fascinating afternoon in a bar here which was dedicated to ETA and the struggle for Basque independence. This was not quite what I was excepting to find but it was a pretty friendly and tolerant place!
A little East and the town of Bareges just about qualifies as a trailhead. There are good services here. A Pyrenean trailhead must have a Post Office, a bank or two, ATMs and a decent range of food shops and restaurants. You might not be guaranteed to find fuel here but you will find just about everything else. This is cycling country and many young men — and their fathers — make their base here for daily Pyrenean excursions to places such as the Col du Tourmalet which you will more than likely have seen on the TV coverage on the Tour de France. The Tour will more than likely have raced though these parts a few weeks earlier and you might conceivably catch is if you are early in the season, here or at the port D’Espagne above Cauterets. Roads and hill climbs will still be adorned with the spray painted names of the cycling heroes of most nations.
Further East still Luchon has all of the services you need and is also quite a centre for the memory and celebration of mountain exploration history and culture; this is not simply a town to rush through. Luchon offers access to some of the most rugged and remote parts of both the High Route and the GR10 although you always have the modern day hell tat is Andorra to look forward to!
You can expect to find most of the important things in these towns: easy bus transfer; good food stores; post offices; banks, ATM machines; well-equipped campsites and cheap and clean hotels; cheap and good restaurants as well as pretty good ones for the occasional celebration or slap-up meal. Decent outdoors stores can be used to top-up on fuel and gear if need be. Food markets offer all kinds of treats, many of them which will last days if buried in the middle of your pack. And all of these towns have the most useful of French institutions the Quincaillerie, old-style hardware stores which are particularly useful for those of you relying on alcohol stoves. If your French is not too good you will find English speakers in the tourism offices and, increasingly, in the bars, restaurants and hotels.
These places have a culture all of their own. Of course, the high mountains are what you are here for. But, for me, these trailhead towns — and others along the way _ have become important features of my asking holidays.