Reflections – Part IV

wooden walkway

poor pathAfter a night in a comfortable bed in a warm chalet, the prospect of a damp morning is much less depressing and we set off in good spirits towards Vielha. However, it was not the weather but the state of the paths that dampened the spirits. Although we only climbed some 165 metres, it took over an hour to cover the 5 kilometres to the outskirts of Vielha where we met up again with our friends Sylvie and Philippe who showed us the best places in the town to restock and to stop for lunch.
We continued up the Val d'Aran stopping that evening with a view over Vielha with the clouds clearing and the promise of better weather on the morrow.Vielha

And indeed, the following morning dawned full of promise - so much so that it inspired a 'home-made muesli' breakfast made of rye bread that had not survived the journey, apple, some of the walnuts we had gathered on the fifth day, and honey.

An absence of any decent path obliged us to keep to the road (happily not as busy as the main road through Vielha from France to the tunnel) from fairly early on in the morning. We passed through a couple of villages with incredibly pleasant architecture; although they were often no more than about thirty years old - or frequently less - the houses were all built in traditional style and in keeping with the original buildings. What a difference when we got to Baqueira (Vaquèira) - a ski-resort of brutal, unbridled 1970s architecture and a complete lack of any charm, warmth or welcome. However, on the road to Baqueira, we passed -going in the opposite direction- one Mercedes-Benz 220SL, one Triumph TR4 (not a TR4a), one Jaguar XK150 and no less than nine E-type Jaguars!

Fleur sleepingAs we just brushed the outskirts of this ugly town and started the climb towards Baqueira-Beret, we were passed by the first of what would turn out to be an enormous multitude of pick-ups, 4x4s and lorries toing and froing from a new construction site on one of the ski-pistes above Baqueira. On the ascent, a well grassed hairpin bend provided us with a good refuge for lunch, and what would appear to have been a very necessary rest for Fleur who fell asleep for a good twenty minutes.

'Eye' of GaronneAfter lunch, we continued the climb -with steadily less traffic now- towards the Beret plain which forms the dividing point of the water table: one side is the arriu Garona (Garonne) descending into the Val d'Aran, the other is the arriu Noguera Pallaresa, each springing from an 'Eye' no more than 200 metres apart.
Although not exactly spectacular, at least these 'eyes' were clearly springs with a genuine stream of water.

Studying the map showing the course of Garonne, we were surprised to note that about half the course actually lies in Spanish territory.

From here, we continued across the plain, following the course of the Noguera, now much pleasanter for the horses being a more lush grassy surface. We passed a group of around 30 draught horses, one of which was a curious stallion: they came closer and followed us for a short way, but they quickly left us to continue without making any fuss. We passed cows and sheep and we were reassured to see that our mounts remained calm. That evening we camped at an altitude of 1732m (with no GSM network!) two kilometres from Montgarri, surrounded by the sounds of clanking cowbells and, in the distance , rutting stags.

At the end of the day, the horses were in good condition, having not been ridden during the last few hundred metres of the days total climb of over 700m, and finishing on an more agreeable surface. Surprisingly, Vermeil and Fleur's white hoofs (one each!) had changed colour becoming partially light. Walking on the tarmac appears to have dried and hardened the feet which now appear to be much less sensitive to gravel and stones this evening than they were this morning.

The following morning, for the first time since setting out, everything was dry - not even a spot of dew! Just a thin layer of ice on the pools and small traces of hoar frost. And the sun, rising from behind the mountains, started to shine on us as we made to depart.
Our route continued on the path to Montgarri, a chaming little church deep in the valley and a place of pilgrimage, regularly visited by herds of cows! The path then passed though an ancient village of some fifteen houses, now all in ruin, and to Borda Perosa where, during lunch, the decision was made whether to cross back into France by way of the Port d'Aula or the Port de Salau. The latter would have given us a point of tourist interest with its 'cathedral' - the ruins of a transfer station with cable-car for transporting wood from Spain to France. The other apparent advantage of Salau was a climb of 'just' 600m compared with that of 800m for Aula. However, the descent on the other side would have been very steep and not at all comfortable for the horses whereas that from Aula was a true track. We chose for the comfort and security of our horses.

Despite difficulties - once again - with the signing of the path and with the saddles sliding backwards due to the severity of the the climb, we made the ascent in just two hours. The views were magnificent with the autumnal colours starting to appear here and there. A herd of horses, just below the col, awaiting our passing, moved to a safe distance as we approached. We reached the col, with a few traces of snow in the shadows, at around 16:30 and we were back in France exactly two weeks after our departure from Fenouillet.

As we had forecast, the descent was reasonably easy and we camped opposite the forestry hut at the lake the Étang d'Arreou, 1900m above sea level - and still without GSM network. Our camp gave us a splendid view over the Ariégeois mountains and, in the distance to the North, Saint Girons was well illuminated in the night.
In addition to the herd of horses, we has also encountered two marmots, one squirrel, several alpine choughs and a fox. And some bilberries that we rinsed off because of the fox...

That evening, we were suffering a water shortage (no springs nor clean water supplies during the previous 24 hours) and we were obliged to boil up water fetched from the lake. However, the camping stove had already been giving us grief for a few days -the screw thread on the ring that attaches the burner to the bottle had stripped (after being used just 25 times!!!). Having miraculously got it to hold, one slight touch of the saucepan lid triggered a minor explosion of gas and a huge -readily fed- flame... Luckily, this was easily extinguished but a solution was needed. Otherwise, no water and no hot meal! With a small strip cut off the electric fencing and screwed between the screw and the ring on the burner, Tim managed to save the day...

We were starting to get into the habit of sunny morning and dry starts! A major advantage being the time won breaking camp: rolling up mattresses and sleeping bags, coffee (for him) and tea (for her), preparing and eating two hazelnut and chocolate paste sarnies (Casino brand - like Nutella but without palm oil, a lot less expensive and just as tasty...), dismantling the electric fence, fetching the horses back after they had wandered off to find some more interesting grass to eat, filling the saddlebags and checking the balance of the pack-saddle (using an old wooden coathanger), fetching the horses back after they had wandered off to find some more interesting grass to eat yet again, saddling up the pack-horse, saddling up the mounted horses, mounting the packs on the pack-saddle, covering the pack with the tarpaulin, re-cinching (otherwise Fleur would have had the saddle under rather than on top of her...). And so we were ready for the off!

We continued our descent -on foot- to the Col de Pause. On the way we passed a Forestry Commission officer, a good number of fell-walkers, a lot of beautiful cows and their bulls, a small group of horses ans seven magnificent donkeys.

At Faup, still on foot, we stopped to replenish our water supplies at a spring and Nathalie even managed to telephone Amélie to wish her a happy 16th birthday.

Mont Valier
The summit of the Mont Valier

After the stop, the descent continued yet further just until we reached Couflens - once renown for the world's first tungsten mines. From then on, the going started to get tough again. The GR10, having passed through the garden of a kindly lady who opened the gated for us, climbs back up a valley, following a stream, initially as a very slippery path and then as an old paved track, parts of which were completely broken up. We tried to stop at a gîte halfway up the track but, even when Tim spoke to the owner in perfect Dutch, there was no room at the inn -not for the horses, at least. So the ascent continued, steadily steeper and steadily rockier -difficult even for the mountain walkers, let alone our horses (and us)- and we were obliged to dismount, the horses panting for breath and sweating cobs. We were but a third of the six hundred metres up the ascent...the rest was done with great effort, with stops every 50 metres. Until we finally reached the famous Col de la Serre du Cot (1546m).

Two pleasant surprises awaited us: firstly a water trough for the horses and secondly a shepherd's hut for us.

Reflections – Part III

Saint-Betrand-de-Comminges not only marked the end of our first week but also the end of the Via Garona, the newly inaugurated footpath from the Cathedral Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. We would now be picking our way for a while on a variety of paths, not always connected.

The morning had dawned grey and there was clearly a promise of rain. So, togged up, we set off and sure enough, within ten minutes, it started to rain turning rapidly to stair-rods! For the whole of the morning.
We followed the cycle path and there was little of interest to see during the morning -particularly the section to Chaum- being stuck close-up to the main road with its charge of lorries heading to and from Spain.

At Chaum, following the advice of our friend Sylvie, a highly experienced outdoor rider (and friend of Sandrine who we met at Estancarbon!), we used the (temporarily) disused railway-line to cross Garonne.

Traverse de Garonne par le pont de l'ancienne voie ferrée Montréjeau-LuchonLe pont sur Garonne de l'ancienne voie ferrée Montréjeau-Luchon

Not impossible to do, but our horses are not used to walking on ballast and were not entirely happy with the experience.

At Gaud, we left the Garonne valley to make our way to Bagnères-de-Luchon (usually known simply as Luchon). On the advice of Sylvie, we had decided to avoid the ‘easy’ route along the main road crossing the frontier at the Pont du Roi; this route is single carriageway, does not afford any protection whatsoever from the traffic and having seen how many lorries pass in both directions, we considered this very wise advice to take!

The rest of the day passed without any particular interest -apart from the usual poor route-markings which actually helped us for once by avoiding a rather unnecessary climb and descent. We finally stopped for the night at Baren where we were joined by Sylvie and her husband Philippe who brought beer, wine, home-raised lamb -and wood and grill to cook it on- and Sylvie’s fabulous home made rice pudding.

Panneau «Chemin des Cavaliers»

On Friday morning we joined the ‘Cavaliers Route’ towards Luchon. We needed to get to Saint Mamet, just the other side of Luchon, before 15:30. We had an appointment with the vet, Dr Yves Quéméner, for the health certificates required for our horses for crossing into Spain. The certificate cannot be issued by the horse’s owner, thus excluding Nathalie, and must be issued not more that 48 hours before crossing the border, precluding having the horses certified at home before starting our adventure. As with most things official and procedural in France, things did not go as expected. La clinique de docteur vétérinaire Yves Quéméner à Saint-MametDr Quéméner was a great help -we were able to leave the horses in his front garden and he very quickly completed his part of the requirements- but, upon contacting the Animal Health section of the Département de La Haute Garonne, they knew nothing of our enquiries some weeks earlier!!! Happily it all turned out to be something of a misunderstanding and not so much a lack of communication but rather an ‘over-communication’, the person in question having just returned from leave and being snowed under with vast quantities of email…

Unfortunately Luchon, and particularly Saint-Mamet, doesn’t offer much in the way of accommodation for three horses and, after restocking the victuals at the local Spar, we hit the road again at 18:00 hoping to find a convenient place to stop. The rain which had held off for most of the day, now returned with reinforcements. After a good hour, we found a reasonable spot and decided to call it a day. Well, not quite; we still had a tent and enclosure to erect and a meal to prepare, all in darkness and the heaving rain.

Saturday morning dawned dry with snow on the peaks and a promise of sunshine to accompany our ascent towards the Col du Portilhon (±1300m). We had decided yesterday not to follow our proposed route over either the Port de Vénasque (±2400m) or the Port de Montjoie (±2200m) given the unfavourable -and quite probably dangerous- weather conditions and the uncertainty about the suitability of the route for the horses -the Port de Vénasque was originally constructed as a route for horses but has not been maintained for that purpose probably for more than two centuries.

Col du Portillon (Coll dell'eth Portilhon)

Having been obliged to follow the metalled road from Saint-Mamet, our arrival in Spain (no fanfare, no guards at the gate -we could have entered with a veritable herd of horses and nobody would have batted an eyelid!) also afforded us the use of footpaths again. Not that the markings were any better than in France and the representations on the map were very dubious (the GPS was useless thanks to the woeful inadequacies of the expensive -certainly for what it provided- TOPO V6 map of Spain).

Passing around the Val d’Aran nature park, we came across a wooden bridge which crossed a small, fairly shallow, stream. Being in the shade of trees and after the appalling weather of the previous days, the surface was rather slippery. We should have forded the stream next to the bridge -it might have meant wet feet but it would have been possible- however, we decided to lead the horses over the bridge instead. Vermeil and Hévéa just managed without any consequences but Fleur slipped on the greasy planks and grazed her leg on the edge. Just when her left leg was almost healed up, she opened up her right leg…happily it was another surface wound, albeit quite extensive, and after cleaning it up and a liberal application of Cothivet, she was able to carry on without any outward signs of discomfort.

We continued our descent to Bossòst where we rejoined what was now the eth Garona. At Bossòst, we lunched in sunshine at the side of the river but, as now seemed to be becoming habitual, the first spots of rain began to fall as we set off on the afternoon leg. As the bad weather re-established itself, it rendered part of the route very difficult: a rocky section with no way around, smooth and with a puddle in the middle. This time it was Vermeil that came a cropper, his feet sliding from underneath him as he tried to balance both his weight and that of Nathalie. Again, there were no big injuries: Nathalie bruised a finger and Vermeil nicked the inside of a back leg with the hoof on the opposite side; however, had he been shod, the consequences would undoubtedly have been far worse, the nick in the leg quite possibly exposing bone. For Hévéa, there was no other option but to continue and try to balance the dead weight of the pack as best she could. She managed admirably. Fleur, already shocked by this mornings happenings, was less enthusiastic and took quite some encouraging until she plucked up enough courage to find her own alternative route, climbing up the rock and then jumping, putting Tim off balance, and landing with him between her legs… Once again, fate was looking upon us favourably and no one succumbed to notable injury.
This marked the end of the difficult section (for today) and the path continued gently downwards, crossing the main road and finally turning to a badly tarmacked stony track -much to the renewed discomfort of the horses.

The search for a suitable night-stop was once again precipitated by the rain and for the second time, a cemetery, this time at Es Bòrdes, provided for our needs. One of our biggest problems was trying to dry clothes when all around is damp; the tent, while keeping the rain out, also keeps the humidity in and anything already damp has no chance of drying out during the night -anything dry is also likely to be damp by morning! Nathalie then had the brilliant idea of stringing the wet things up in a wheelie bin (empty) next to the cemetery thus sheltering them from both the rain outside and the condensation in the tent. And when morning dawned…they were wetter than the night before ?

Nevertheless, morning dawned sunny -well, at least on the mountain-sides; whether it ever shone on the cemetery, we could not be certain… We were on the road to the Uelhs deth Joèu (Jupiter’s Eye) know as one of the sources of Garonne. In actual fact, it is not -the Jew’s Eye is a mass of rock from which the river appears to spring but fact, the source is some miles away to the Southwest. Nearly four kilometres from Jupiter’s Eye, in Aragon, the river disappears into a hole in the ground (the Forau de Aigualluts, known both locally and in France as the Trou du Toro). In the 18th century, the first ‘pyrenist’ (cf. alpinist) Ramond de Carbonnières hypothesised that the glacial torrent des Barancs feeding the Forau de Aigualluts was in fact the source of Garonne. It was not until the speleologist Norbert Casteret illegally poured six barrels of fluorescein into the Trou in 1931 and several hours later, the proof was seen in the characteristically coloured water springing from Jupiter’s Eye.

Seeing the severity of the Toro valley and the presence of snow, it was decided not to pursue the idea of seeking out the Forau de Aigualluts but to leave it for another time… Instead, we relaxed in the sun, eating our lunch and watching the exploits of a weasel just a few metres away.

The afternoon was nothing to write home about -just the reverse of the morning since there is only one way up to Jupiter’s Eye- although Hévéa seem particularly motivated since ‘going-back-the-way-we-came’ is akin to ‘going-home’! Passing the cemetery that was still in shade (had it seen the Sun during the day?), we made our way through Es Bòrdes again, this time heading further into the Val d’Aran. Our aim for this evening being the Camping de Verneda where we were able to park the horses and rent a chalet for the night.

Whoopee! Dry clothes…

Further Reflections…

As forecast, the rain arrived in the early hours of the morning and we awoke to the prospect of dismantling the tent and fencing and saddling up the horses in the rain. As luck would have it, when we actually came to carrying out these tasks, the rain had eased and, despite the tent and the horses being damp, we were able to break camp and set off without getting wet ourselves.

The day was marked by five river crossings -three times Garonne and twice the Arize- and our first real problems with the route.

At Carbonne, where Garonne is notably narrower than we are accustomed, the route diverges southwards to take in the ancient town of Rieux-Volvestre.

Rieux-Volvestre

This was to be the first of many detours along the Via Garona -on reflection, not surprising since the route is part of the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela. It was also our first major encounter with an impasse:

Passage impossible - escalier

a steep flight of steps ending at the edge of the road and protected by Armco – the horses may have climbed the steps, but the Armco would have defeated them. There was only one choice, to return to the road and go the long way around!

Shortly after lunch, a passing motorist stopped and offered advice where we could stay for the night -a kind gesture but one which came far too early in the day. Furthermore, his suggestion was a riding centre and knowing the variety of illnesses that can do the rounds at such establishments, we felt it wise to avoid them wherever possible. After our detour to Rieux-Volvestre, the route predictably descended back to Garonne and at Saint-Julien-sur-Garonne we found another bridge to shelter us for the night.

Sous le pont de Saint-Julien-sur-Garonne

The following morning started with an exploration of the bridge structure built from three parallel box sections.

Tim monte l'arche sous le pont de Saint-Julien-sur-Garonne Nathalie dans un trou d'inspection du pont de Saint-Julien-sur-Garonne Dans un caisson du pont de Saint-Julien-sur-Garonne

 
Le pré à côté du pont de Saint-Julien-sur-Garonne

The departure was notable for an absence of clear markings. We had found our camp the evening before by ‘following’ the markers but now they had disappeared! A quick check of the GPS revealed we should actually cross the bridge and, with some imagination, the markers do show that, but only by scrabbling up a steep bank and jumping over yet another crash barrier! Once the other side, we were treated to a 500 metre tour of a housing estate to avoid a mere 80 metres of main road…something we would encounter more often in the coming days.

Finally, we joined one of the many canals which run parallel to Garonne, tapping her water to supply micro-hydroelectric power stations. These canals are actually quite dangerous since the banks are constructed of concrete at an angle of around 30º from vertical with the surface of the water some 5 to 10 metres below the top of the bank. The only way back out of the water is by one of the very occasional flight of rungs set into the concrete.

Canal ÉDF entre Palaminy et Boussens

Finally, we arrived at Boussens only to find there that -once again- the route took us on a complete tour of the town only to emerge 20 metres from where we started! A search for a good spot to stop brought us too close to the motorway, so we retraced our steps and pitched camp at the side of the Lac de Boussens which, in fact, is not a lake but merely a very wide part of the Garonne

.Lac de Boussens

Cormorans sur le lac de Boussens
Cormorants on the ‘lake’

The next day took us on some winding paths with uncertain accessibility

Petit chemin argileux

to Saint-Martory with its splendid old 17th century bridge and gatehouses.

Le pont à Saint-Martory

Following the main road, there are about 22 kilometres between Boussens and Saint-Gaudens. At the end of the day, having travelled some 29km, we descended upon Beauchalot, less than half way to Saint-Gaudens!!!

Even better than being beside the river (ideal water supply for the horses) is being beside a cemetery -there is (almost) always running water, there is often a piece of ground where the horses can graze and to pitch the tent, and the neighbours are very quiet… Except at Beauchalot, the main Toulouse-Pau railway line runs directly behind the cemetery. So we were very surprised when the late evening and night remained completely undisturbed by rail traffic. Morning dawned, and still no trains…apparently, a national strike from Monday evening until Wednesday morning! 

A small evaluation of the horses’ feet at this stage of just over 100km: little change from when we left Fenouillet – if anything, they could be considered to be too long…

Antérieur gauche d'Hévéa Antérieur gauche d'Hévéa

Having replaced the girth on the pack at Portet, we found we still had a problem with the blanket. It was clearly not giving enough protection to either Hévéa or Vermeil. Next stop, Equi-Sport at Estancarbon, 10km away but still more or less on our route. A new endurance pad was procured, along with a second-hand ‘shock-asbsorber’. Additionally, a new leather saddle bag was bought to (eventually) replace the synthetic Barefoot saddle bag which had already succumbed to much wear and tear among the trees on the way.

In the car park at the shopping centre, we were ‘accosted’ by a lady who, it turned out, knew Aurélie who had helped us at Equestra several days earlier.

Austin Cooper 1275S à Estancarbon
Also in the car park at Estancarbon was this magnificent Austin Cooper 1275S complete with 10′ wheels, disc brakes and twin fuel tanks.

Newly padded and sacked, we continued to Saint-Gaudens where we wrestled with the map (bought new but so old the ring road was not even marked as projected…) and finally found our way out towards Valentine and yet another stretch of canal feeding a number of micro-hydroelectric generating stations. There, in sight of, but sufficiently far from the papier-maché factory, we pitched camp.

Fabrique papier-maché à Saint-Gaudens

Wednesday morning dawned magnificent.

Les chevaux dans le soleil du matin

Our route took us back to Garonne and towards Montréjeau. At Gourdan-Polignan we crossed the branch line from Montréjeau to Bagnère-de-Luchon and noted that at least one of the supports for the catenary was severely damaged and the line was clearly out of action. It used to be one of the lines served by the Night Train service from Paris Austerlitz – the only service now remaining being to Toulouse, the separating one part to Rodez and the other the Latour-de-Carol (more on that later).

Soon we were in site of the famous cathedral at Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, the destination for the Via Garona and our destination for the night – exactly seven days after our departure from Fenouillet.

Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges