We are on an aire (GPS 42°44’18.64″N 0°01’10.53″W), well a rough area of stone and gravel, just off a ‘no through road’ above the mountain town of Gavarnie. Surrounded by mountains we are at the dizzying height of 5000ft and parked beside a rushing mountain stream. The air is fresh and surprisingly warm but there is a lot of cloud around and the snow is still thick on the mountain tops, which don’t seem too much higher than we are. Two of the well known mountain passes, Col du Tourmalet and Col d’ Aspin are closed so there must be a lot of snow around.
We are keeping a lookout for little furry creatures called marmots who, we are reliably informed, inhabit this place. So far there has been neither sight nor sound of the little beasties.
Soon after I started to write this the rain came, together with a single flash of lightning and a very loud clap of thunder. The rain continued for some time and our mountain stream rushed even more.
Saturday 7th June.
The rain has gone and there are just wisps of cloud coming off the mountain tops.
After breakfast we drive down into the village and park in what we thought from one of our books was an aire de camping car but turns out to be an ordinary car park. There are lots of camping cars there though so we lock up and go to explore. The tourist office is the first call and as Kate browses the leaflets and booklets I spy a free wi-fi sign. After downloading a pile of emails, mostly junk, we chat to the very friendly and helpful chap behind the desk. He explains how we can walk to see the Cirque de Gavarnie, an amazing circle of peaks with the highest waterfall in Europe. It is a good hours walk each way but there is a very good view point after a shorter distance.
Kate decides that the shorter distance is quite far enough so we set off along the main street and onto a well surfaced path. We cross the river, which is a raging torrent of icy melt water, and follow it past meadows full of wild flowers and a herd of goats grazing on the hillside.
Ahead of us the snow covered peaks look glorious in the sunshine. We reach a steep and stoney incline and into the cool shade of beech woods, we are now well above the river. We come out of the woods onto an open ‘balcony’ with fabulous views of the Cirque and waterfall, in fact there are numerous waterfalls as the snow melts. After thoroughly taking in the view and taking a few photos we turn back towards the village.
Next stop is a bar with tables beside the river where we have a most welcome beer in the sun before continuing back to base.
We drive back up the D923, around a couple of hairpin bends, to our aire, although this time we go well away from the rushing water in the stream. It is a lovely afternoon so it’s chairs out and sit in the sun and read before I get the BBQ fixed up ready for supper.
Sunday 8th June.
Another lovely morning and today we intend to move on to the Lac d’Estaing (GPS 42°54’28.63″N 0°12’15.66″W). We know it is a popular spot but apart from a quick look on Google Earth we have no idea if we can camp there for a night or two…….time will tell.
Stunning, stunning, stunning……….the first words that come to mind when we arrive at the Lac d’Estaing. The lake was carved out by a glacier and if fed by the melt waters from the mountains that encircle it. It is a beautiful sunny Sunday so it is a popular and busy spot and the car park at the far end of the lake is crowded. There is a cafe bar and gift shop and picnic tables under the trees but we drive round and back along the approach road to find a quiet spot on the wide grass verge beside the lake. Outside our door there is a grassy bank covered in wild flowers which drops down the the water and across the blue/green water is a quite magnificent backdrop of mountain peaks, still with snow on the tops. To Kate’s huge delight there is even a herd of mountain cattle, complete with clanging cow bells, wandering free across the meadows. One cow stands patiently in the middle of the road, completely oblivious to the passing cars, while her calf suckles from her.
Chairs and books out and we spend the afternoon enjoying the sun and views.
The peace and quiet are broken when two car loads of youngsters turn up and park beside us but they soon take themselves off for a walk and peace returns……until they return an hour or so later. We think they will get into their cars and go like many others are at the end of the afternoon but no they are going to stay and party. The behaviour is boorish with much shouting and yelling and the boys trying to impress the girls. By now we have retreated inside to watch the Canadian Grand Prix so I turn up the volume to drown out the racket from outside. Some time later, to our relief, they leave and peace and quiet once again returns.
We spend a quiet night, the only sound is rushing water from the small falls at the end of the lake and at first light the distant sound of cow bells.
Monday is yet another public holiday in France so we expect the lake will be busy with lots of families again. After breakfast we take our rubbish and empties and walk along to the main car park area where there are bins. Although there is a little cloud swirling around the mountain tops it is a sunny day again and we walk right round the lake. It is a glorious walk, looking at all the different flowers, watching small lizards scuttling away across the rocks and I scramble up the bank to inspect a tunnel, large enough to walk through, cut through the hardened snow by a small stream.
Back to base and it is time to get the loungers out and have coffee.
The air has a more humid feel and the cloud and thin overcast come and go but when there is full sun ‘it ain’t arf hot mum’. At frequent intervals we both retreat into the cool of the motorhome for a while.
Supper, or at least part of it, is going to be cooked on the BBQ so I extricate it from it’s storage place and start putting it together. There are ominous dark clouds over the peaks and we hope it won’t rain. I could put the awning out to shelter under but there is a stiff breeze coming up from the valley that occasionally turns into a damaging gust. Earlier in the afternoon a couple having a picnic next to us watched as their sun umbrella took off and sailed over their car and across the road, luckily no one was passing at the time as it could have caused a fair bit of damage. I am all set to start cooking the steak and salmon, beer in hand, BBQ tools at the ready, when there are spots of rain and a loud rumble of thunder. The few spots become bigger and more frequent so I turn off the gas and prepare to cook inside. Immediately the rain stops so it’s back to Plan A. There is just enough time to cook everything before the rain returns, at least the meat and fish are not quite raw. In fact they were rather good.
We get up on Tuesday morning to the sound of bells but this time they are sheep. A small flock trot past and then back again, they seem to be lost or looking for the rest of the flock. It’s no wonder they can’t find the others because we are in the middle of cloud and visibility is only a few yards. Fog often clears as the sun gets up and burns it off, perhaps that will happen today and it will turn out to be glorious. By eleven there is a little improvement but not much. We either sit it out and hope for an improvement or go elsewhere……we choose the latter.
Last year we spent several lovely days at Le Camp de Florence at La Romieu (GPS 43°58’57.81″N 0°30’06.59″E), a gem of a village in Gascony. We said we would like to go back and as it is a reasonable distance from the mountains perhaps the weather might be better. They also have a restaurant and bar so we could eat out for a change. The sky gets brighter as we leave the mountains behind and we arrive at La Romieu in hot sunshine.
This is the first camp site we have used in almost three weeks away and the first time we have used electric hook up. Last time we were in France our two leisure batteries were getting low after just 3 or 4 days despite being in full sun. The new Banner batteries that Simpsons fitted under warranty have made an enormous difference to our motorhoming. Despite charging iPads, laptop and running an inverter for the Sky box to watch hours of grand prix racing the batteries have stayed charged.