The temperature had been in excess of 30ºC every day and we spent most of our time at Camp de Florence sitting in the shade, interspersed with short blasts of hot sun. At night all the windows and roof lights were left wide open to cool down us and the van.
It was almost with some relief that, as we left La Romieu on Thursday morning, it was cloudy and much cooler.
For some time we had wanted to return to the beautiful lake in the High Pyrenees where we had ‘wildcamped’ for a couple of nights on a previous holiday. We had intended going there earlier in the year but fuel strikes and the thought of being stranded in a wild part of the country led us to play safe and stay by the coast where we knew we could get fuel. This time there was no reason why we didn’t return to the mountains.
Through patches of sunlight we drove south from Gascony and into the Hautes Pyrénées via Auch, Tarbes and around Lourdes, stopping at Argelès-Gazost for food and fuel. The mountains ahead of us were wreathed in patches of cloud which, after three weeks of almost cloudless skies, was quite a disappointment. If there is one place you want clear skies so that you are able to admire the views it’s in the mountains. Sadly, for our first day or two it was not to be.
The winding and narrow road took us through the woods, past the tiny village of Estaing and on to the Lac d”Estaing, nestling in its valley at well over 3,000ft. We parked on a fairly flat grassy area with a great view of the lake and up the valley with its grazing cows, sheep and horses.
With no light pollution it was as black as pitch when we turned in for the night, serenaded by the calls of owls and the occasional tinkle of bells on sheep.
When we woke on Friday the valley was clear but the cloud still hung around the tops. As the morning wore on the sun poked through and the gaps in the cloud became bigger. Slowly, as the clouds parted, high peaks appeared but then disappeared again as the clouds swirled around.
We walked around the lake looking out for the herons we had seen earlier and being amazed to see lots of tiny froglets hopping across the path in front of us. We counted 27 in just a few yards but how many survive the herons and other birds is an entirely different matter.
After lunch the clouds started to thicken once again and with a few rumbles of thunder the rain came, making the many walkers rush back to their cars. One or two hardy types still set off but most dashed for their nice dry cars and left for home or hotel. This was the first ‘proper’ rain we had seen for a month.
Saturday dawned clear as the sun lit up the peaks and the shadows in the steep sided valley gradually reduced until it was also flooded in sunlight. After breakfast we walked further up the valley until the stony track ran out but declined the temptations of the steep path up to a higher level. After inspecting a small waterfall we retired to the MoHo for a lazy lunch followed by a lazier afternoon.
Sitting in the sun we watched a couple celebrate their wedding with a small group of family and friends. A small arch had been erected with flowers and roses intertwined and chairs placed in front. The backdrop was the stunning view of valley and mountains and surely must have been one of the most romantic places to begin a new life together. Drinks and food were laid out on nearby tables and after photos plus many hugs and kisses all round, refreshment was taken. No raz-ma-taz, no fuss, no huge guest list and little expense I guess but a lovely way to ‘tie the knot’.
Sunday was almost a repeat, unclouded blue skies, cool in the shade but warm in the sun. We watched two chaps flying remote controlled aircraft over the lake and controlling them beautifully until one went into a steep and very high climb, followed by a steep dive and a ‘splosh’ as it hit the water. We were surprised to see it floating in the middle of the lake and expected it to be lost but a short while later the second aircraft floated out and pushed and shoved the crashed one to the shore. How amazing!!
In the other direction there were a group of people flying kites, one like a giant bird that soared to a great height and as it turned its ‘flight feathers’ fluttered making it look quite real.
Large birds wheeled on the thermals above the peaks, buzzards mewed, calling across the valley to each other and what we think were Griffon Vultures soared, looking for their next gruesome meal. Above the tree line were grassy areas and on a fairly flat plateau stood a lonely horse. How he got up there and more importantly, how he would get down were a bit of a mystery to us. We watched him through the binoculars and he just stood, looking down at the valley floor and the rest of the herd of horses that wandered up and down the valley. On Saturday he hardly moved but on Sunday he had moved a short distance to another viewpoint. The unwelcome thought crossed our minds that when the winter comes will he survive or will he be feeding the vultures?
Monday morning and we were ready to move on to another spot. With no facilities for water or waste at the Lac the van needed servicing so we were going to an aire in a nearby village to empty the loo cassettes, dump the waste water and fill the tank with fresh. Before we left the sun was lighting up the tops and I scanned the hillside for our lonesome horse. It was a pleasant surprise to see not just ‘our’ horse but seven or eight others with him. There was obviously a way up and back down, so he shouldn’t end up as vulture fodder.
After visiting the ‘aire de service’ we went down the mountain to the valley floor at Argelès-Gazost and a stop for food at Carrefour.
Back north to Lourdes and round in a loop via Bagnères-de-Bigorre and started climbing again, this time part of the way up the Col d’Aspin, a famous and gruelling stage of La Tour de France. Just before the serious bends started we turned off onto the D113 and across a flat open grassy area, reminiscent of an area of ‘common’ in the UK. This was to be our stop for the night as we pulled off the road and across some rather bumpy ground to a nice flattish area beside a tumbling mountain stream. We were again at around 3500ft high but with a more open aspect. In the distance we could see the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, the famous mountain top with its weather and radio station crowning it.
After a quiet night at this peaceful stop we woke to blue skies and lovely sunshine. This was a rather pleasant spot we decided so, rather than rush off, we would stay for at least another day. After breakfast and the usual morning chores of washing up, bed making etc we set out to explore the lake that was just up the road. As we started walking a cloud appeared above the hill in front, but it was a slightly different colour to the others that were dotted around the sky. This one was blue/brown and as it drifted towards us it smelt of smoke. There was a big fire somewhere over the other side of the hill, fortunately we didn’t get to see any of it but we did get flakes of ash dropping from the breeze. By early afternoon the smoke had gone and presumably order had been restored.
Our walk around the lake was delightful, with lovely views of the mountains and occasionally cows and calves for company. Back at the MoHo it was time for coffee and a sit in the sun before lunch.
During Tuesday afternoon the clouds built up and the breeze became a strong wind; the weather was looking decidedly dodgy. The idea of an evening BBQ was abandoned amid rain showers and the occasional rumble of thunder. French TV weather reports showed a huge swirl of bad weather tracking right across France during that night and the next day. Sure enough the rain ‘hissed’ down for most of the night and we woke to drizzle and thick cloud around the valley.
I had been looking forward to driving over the famous, or perhaps infamous if you happen to be a cyclist, Col d’Aspin on our way to our next stop but I really didn’t fancy a huge series of hairpin bends in thick fog and rain. I hate driving in fog at the best of times but 4.5 tons of large and wide van on narrow mountain roads didn’t make much sense when there was an alternative, easier route. We retraced our route down the mountain and turned east, through St-Girons and Foix towards our next planned stop at the medieval town of Mirepoix. We appeared to be running into the weather front that had passed over us in the night as it turned from drizzle to heavy downpours and back to drizzle again. It was a real shame as the countryside and views of the mountains would have been superb on a good day. We bashed on through the grotty weather hoping to get to our destination before a late lunch. By the time we entered Mirepoix we were both starving.
Our aires guide told us that you could see the Aire de Camping-Car from the D119 as you drove into town. What we saw was a load of travellers caravans and trucks and as we arrived at the aire it was clear that the whole area had been taken over by a travelling fairground group and their many hangers on. We beat a hasty retreat!
Plan B was required but we hadn’t made a Plan B so a quick rethink and look at the map was carried out by the chief navigator who quickly found an aire at the next town, just a few miles on.
With our stomachs rumbling through lack of lunch we drove on another 17km to the hilltop village of Fanjeaux. It actually was a bit further than that as I missed the turning into the narrow village entrance and we had to find somewhere to turn round. The next proper junction was a roundabout in 4km so we headed down the steep and very winding road to go round and then back up the hill. Why is it that when you miss a turning there is never a quick and easy place to turn round???
Finally, we climbed the steep and narrow road into the village and turned into the small but rather pretty parking area (GPS 43.18624° 2.03247°). It was already well subscribed but we managed to slot into a corner between trees and two other moHo’s. Phew, lunch at last!!
By the end of the afternoon the rain and drizzle finally stopped enough to tempt us out for an exploration of the village. After walking around the bottom of the village which was attractive but not exciting we were drawn to a steep and narrow street which was newly paved and had steps cut into the centre of the road to aid the climb up to the higher levels. This interesting looking climb took us to the oldest part dominated by a large church, built on the site of an earlier Roman temple.
There were lovely old buildings, part of a monastery we think, and a covered market with a very ancient looking timber framed roof. One wall of the monastery contained an area that appeared to be constructed with Roman tiles.There was evidence of reused tiles in many of the buildings. On a hot sunny day the village would have the sort of atmosphere one expects of southern French hill villages but in the gloomy late afternoon with spits and spots of rain the magic just didn’t seem to be there.