Calais

Rouen

Bordeaux

Luz Saint Sauveur

Vallon Pont d'Arc

The French Connection

After last year’s grand tour of Northern Italy – see The Italian Job – we thought it would be good to spend this year’s “big” holiday somewhere out in the countryside, getting a close-up view of mountains, river gorges, and other notable features that I learned about in school geography lessons.

Bored? Oh!

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So, technically speaking, this post covers two days rather than one, but seeing as the majority of both days was spent sitting in the car on various motorways, it seems a bit pointless doing two separate posts. So this was what we did on Thursday and Friday. In that order.

Thursday began with Kas going out for a run (that’s kind of like saying the day began with it getting light, or with the clock passing midnight, but whatever – it began with Kas going for a run). She was back in time for us to pack up the car and get moving not long after 10am. We were heading for the Channel Tunnel, as we have done on many previous holidays, and in ritual fashion, here’s the photo of the QE2 Bridge that is traditional in my first-day-of-the-holiday posts. Also part of the ritual now is stopping at the garage at the south east corner of Milton Keynes on the way down to the motorway to buy coffee.

We had a 2pm appointment at the tunnel (2pm for checking in) but being as the drive involves bits of the M25 I don’t like to push it with the time, just in case there’s an issue with traffic.

There wasn’t.

So we arrived at the tunnel terminal at the early end of the 2 hour to 45 minutes period that they ask, hoping that we’d manage to get bumped forward onto an earlier train. We were. Our 2:50 train became a 1:50 train, which gave us enough time to grab a quick lunch in the terminal and turn our bikes around before heading through passport control and onto our train. It was the first time taking the new motor onto the continent, and one of the things I was a bit apprehensive about was getting up a ramp and round a tight corner onto a train. As it happens, we got a bottom-deck berth and the corner was fine. I did manage to park right next to the toilets though, which meant it wasn’t possible to get the door open properly on the passenger side. The girls had to scrabble across the middle to get out.

France was as French as it normally is, and what with the time change and the duration of the tunnel trip our 1:50 train from Folkstone landed us in Calais around 3:30pm local time. After a brief stop at the garage on the way out of the tunnel for a bit more bicycle rotation we were off down the auroroute in the general direction of Rouen. We hadn’t planned to stop at all during this part of the trip, and we managed a nice straight run with no breaks, and found ourselves at our chosen accomodation, the Novotel Rouen Sud, before you could say Jack Robinson. OK, maybe not that quickly, but not far off. It was about 6pm when we arrived, which included a fairly circuitous route that Elizabeth the Sat Nav took us around the outskirts of Rouen.

The hotel room was fairly spacious aprt from the girls having to share a sofabed. We’d had a long enough day that we couldn’t be bothered with going out anywhere, so we just ate in the restaurant at the hotel. It was remarkably nice, which is something I’ve found normal in even fairly moderate hotels in France. We ended up with the 2-course meal deal, which meant the price added up to somewhat less than I was expecting.

Friday morning started at about 7:30 with the promise of a hotel breakfast. This was the only hotel on the trip where I’d picked a rate that included breakfast, and we all, in true style, decided to get our money’s worth while we could.

We were in the car by 9am, having rather a lot of French motorways to work our way through over the course of the day. This was the day where I also started the “how many new French departments can we find a geocache in” part of the holiday. We were scheduled to pass through seven new ones on the trip, and I’d layed out a printed sheet listing places to stop for a cache in each one. They were all in service stations or rest areas, and I’d laid it out according to the location on the motorway (which road and which junction) and also according to the sequence we’d pass them. I’d put about 4-6 different stops in each department but had no intention of stopping at all of them unless we were travelling much faster than expected. We were travelling faster than expected, so I was happy just to stop once in each. A few of them were also timed to be at places where we needed a natural food, drink or toilet break.

There’s not much you can say about a shed load of French motorways other than that you have to pay for most of them, but that results in them mainly having a nice road surface and relatively little traffic. Certainly up until the mid-afternoon we weren’t in traffic at all. To compensate for the general lack of interest, above are snapshots of the French departments we’d geocached in before and after this day. You can pretty much see the route the motorways take. The new departments in which we stopped for a geocache were, in order of appearance, Orne, Sarthe, Indre-et-Loire, Vienne, Deux-Sèvres, Charente-Maritime and Gironde. The last wasn’t strictly necessary, as we could have done it the following day instead, but we kind of drove right past one and it would have been a waste not to stop. We’d made good time anyway and I felt we had enough time free to do one more before proceeding to the night’s accomodation, and the inevitable requests to have a bit of time in the swimming pool.

The hotel in question was the really rather wonderful Château de la Grave, which nestles in the middle of a load of vineyards not far from the Gironde Estuary. They only have four or five suites, but the one we had contained a massive four-poster bed and a couple of camp beds for the girls, but it wasn’t cramped, and it had a bathroom that occupied one floor of an attached turret. Wicked with a capital wick.

After all the driving, neither of us was in the mood to try to find a restaurant, so when we enquired (in somewhat broken French) our host offered to provide us with some tapas, and we agreed a time of 8:30pm. This gave the kids more than enough time to go and get wet in the swimming pool, before getting wet again in the shower.

Our tapas turned out to be an excellent selection of charcuterie with cheeses and pickles, and they were served out on the terrace in the comfy chairs with a generous accompaniment of wine made at the vineyard whose buildings occupied all parts of the site that the hotel didn’t. Our tapas were also accompanied by Damian and Ben from Leipzig, who were in the middle of a hippy-style, drive-round-Europe-until-the-money-runs-out trip in their campervan, which they were allowed to park down in some trees near the vineyards. They’d come up to the “big house” for some snacks and wine. Initially, Damian was looking for some travel tips for Bordeaux, but we weren’t really able to offer any because we hadn’t been there (and still haven’t). So the conversation meandered in all sorts of strange directions, and I think that process was facilitated by the second bottle of wine. It wasn’t strictly necessary, and if Ben and Damian are listening, I can only apologise if we got a bit forthright in our views or if we kept interrupting.

Anyway, it was an absolutely perfect spot to watch the sun go down. It is probably the most French place I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a few.

The four-poster bed was good too.


Head for the Hills

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A fairly normal way for us to spend a Saturday morning is by doing a parkrun. In general terms, France is a bit desolate on that front, however Bordeaux is one of the few places that has one nearby. The one in question is Les Dougnes – it’s a sparsely attended event of three laps around some open grassland beneath a bunch of powerlines. On this day they had 49 finishers, which I think they said was a new record for them. With the exception of Kas, we all found it quite hard going. Izzy hasn’t done parkrun in ages and me and Ami really aren’t fit enough to run quickly in heat like that.

The parkrun site didn’t have a cafe so we headed straight off in the direction of the nearest motorway, with the promise of some motorway cafe style pastries and coffee. We found a place just north of Bordeaux which I hadn’t planned to stop at (because there was no geocache), however we needed a stop, and it proved to be the best decision of the day. We got coffee, pastries and cold drinks and sat inside in the services in our smelly running kit. Well, Ami got changed, the rest of us didn’t.

So back in the car, we immediately discovered why the sat nav had estimated an hour for the 60 km from parkrun to my first planned caching stop. The motorways around the outskirts of Bordeaux were absolutely solid with traffic in both directions. It took flippin’ ages. So much so, that we decided to skip the planned caching stop in Gironde and head straight off for the next one.

The next stop was in the department of Landes. We reached it by driving down the most empty motorway ever. The A65 runs 150km from Langon in Gironde down to Pau. Our chosen stopping point was the services at Aire-sur-l’Adour. This was nice enough and an easy place to find a cache, however we must make a point of realising that the French always stop for lunch between 12:30 and 2pm, so if you go to a service station that has a restaurant during those times on a summer Saturday you are going to find a lot of people. On the third lap of the car park we got lucky and found a space. We didn’t want a lot of lunch, as we’d had breakfast a couple of hours previously, but it was nice to get cold drinks and some crisps and sit out on the grass.

Aire-sur-l’Adour is on the eastern edge of Landes, close to the border with Gers, so it seemed a waste not to drive 5km over the border and grab a single cache there. I chose one in Barcelonne-du-Gers that is sited at an old prison. It was a lovely spot, and we got to look a little more closely at it than we might have liked, given that I couldn’t find the cache. Kas found it eventually, in a place I’d apparently discounted 10 minutes earlier.

Moving swiftly onwards, we finished off the A65 and switched to the A64, heading east in the direction of Tarbes. We made a quick stop for a cache at a no-aservice rest area in Pyrénées-Atlantiques and then when we got off the motorway at Tarbes we were in Hautes-Pyrénées I’d planned another stop. That was a quick dash from a rather dodgy pull-off at the roadside.

That was enough caching for the day, having coloured in another 4 departments.

The route from Tarbes took us down through the town of Lourdes and from there we headed up into the mountains towards our final destination for the day, Luz-Saint-Sauveur. We stopped in Lourdes to fill the car up with holy water, which proved slow and painful but it was, at least, fairly cheap. That tank full should hopefully last until we come down out of the mountains again.

We’d booked an oversized appartment containing three bedrooms, which during skiing season is supposed to sleep eight people. Technically there is sleeping for eight, and there’s both a bath and a shower, however two of the sleeping berths are in the lounge, and there’s only one toilet between eight. Four feels like a better occupancy rate, even though it costs a lot more.

We wandered up into the town and grabbed a load of drinks and stuff for breakfast (and an ice cream) and then we all got cleaned up and went out for dinner. We wanted pasta, but could only find space at a pizza place. Fair enough.

That had been another fairly long day.


Let Luz

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To be honest, it feels a bit early in the holiday to be writing the traditional “not a lot happened” post, but it was that kind of a day. Most of us didn’t do much, and what we did do wasn’t done with a great deal of enthusiasm.

The day began for Kas with a long run while the girls and me had a lie in. When Kas got back, she took the girls out for a swim in the hotel pool while I sat in the apartment playing with blog posts and feeling, to be honest, a bit miserable. I’m not quite sure why, but possibly because the weather had turned cloudy, I was covered in insect bites, and we all seemed too tired to be bothered spending time with each other.

By late afternoon we raised the energy to go out for a walk around the village and up to the nearby castle, the Château Sainte-Marie. From the valley the castle is deceiving. It’s covered in large, colourful banners which appear, from below, to be very inappropriate graffiti. You have to get a certain distance up the hill before realising what is actually going on.

It was quite an easy walk up along the road and then a footpath, and from the top the view back down onto the town was pretty good. The weather was kind of in-and-out of cloud and quite warm. There was supposed to be a geocache up there, but after multiple people’s failure to find it, the consensus seems to be that the site is compromised and the geocache should be archived.

Back at the plot, we walked back down again and visited the same ice-cream shop / bar that we’d visited the previous evening, and we treated ourselves to some more ice cream again.

Being a Sunday, the “big” supermarket in the village was shut, so we once again went into the smaller one and collected enough things to get some dinner – sausage and salad night. Kas and Ami walked straight back down to the apartment with the shopping while Izzy and me walked back up the hill a little to go and find the only geocache in the village,

And to be honest, that’s about all that we managed for the day. The rest of the evening was spent playing around with electronics and generally avoiding each other.


Zippy

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So after a day of not very much we were in the mood for a bit of doing “something” – doing more than sitting around and feeling tired.

The weather still wasn’t great, but it was tolerable in that it wasn’t rainy and it wasn’t frighteningly hot. Both of those are good.

When we checked into the apartment in Luz they told us about a number of activities that could be done by residents at “special” rates. There was a brochure and everything.

The thing we most fancied the look of was the combination of zip wires, via ferrata and Nepalese bridges on offer at LuzAventure. We know the kids like this kind of thing. I’d never done one before but thought I should give it a go, for two main reasons. Firstly, this one was a 2km one-way trip with bus return that takes two hours, so no possibility of walking underneath and taking photos. And secondly, wimp!

Back at the plot, Kas tried to book some places through the apartment reception, which turned out to be that they phoned a reservation for us and gave us a hand-written chitty to take to the place as evidence it was us. We couldn’t get a morning slot, but were fairly happy with an afternoon one.

That left us with a few hours to kill, and I suggested we fill an hour of it by looking for a cache a little way down the valley at the so called “New Bridge”, which is a rather neat little wooden suspension bridge used for foot traffic only. We found the cache.

After going back to the aprtment for a sort of lunch, we then set off really early for the zip-line adventure, on the basis we weren’t really sure where we were going or what we needed to do. When we did find the place we were much too early, and they asked us to come back later. Time, then, to try to find another cache. There were supposedly two at the foot of the Pont Napoleon, so we drove back there, which happened to be the end-point of the zip-line adventure, to see if we could see anything. It was quite a walk down to the stream, which is where we thought the cache was, but when we got there it proved a bit too difficult to find. We eventually had to give up and go get one with our climbing, zipping and bridging experience.

The adventure proved to be excellent fun. It was quite hard work in places, but not ridiculously so. Some of the zip lines were really long (up to 250m) and some of the parts of via ferrata were definitely a bit upside-down. I was particularly fond of the Nepalese bridges, as they moved really quite a long way while I was walking on them. I’m not sure they were designed for someone of my weight.

At first we were quite slow, and it turned out that was because a couple of families had got themselves either side of us when they really wanted to be together. The front ones were waiting for the back ones (so they could take videos) and the guy with the camera was at the very front. This meant that we kept getting people-jams at the less-than-large standing platforms. If they’d said they were all together we’d have let them go together. Ho hum. Just before halfway we got to one of the rest areas, where it’s possible to change the order of people on the safety rope, so we let them bunch up together. They were a lot faster after that.

The only problem we had really was that Izzy wasn’t heavy enough to get up the speed to reach the ends of the zip-lines, where they go back upwards a little. As a result, she kept needing Ami to help her off. On one of the longer ones, the guide took Izzy down with him, and as a result she got all the necessary speed and made it to the end. Cool.

All in all, with the training section and the “catching the bus back” section, it took about three and a half hours to do, which I thoyght was a reasonable use of both time and money. The apartment “deal” only got us about €5 off, but it was still not bad value for France.

As we were waiting under the Napoleon Bridge for everyone to finish, I decided to have another pop at the cache we’d failed to find earlier. This time it came to hand fairly quickly, as I spotted a loose rock I hadn’t noticed before. Result.

By the time we’d caught the bus back, dropped our equipment, retrieved the car keys and driven back to the bridge again it was just after 6pm, but the guys at the ice cream stall there decided they had time for a few more customers, and were happy to serve us.

In the evening we had decided to stay in, so we had pasta for dinner and settled back for a couple of beers. The weather for the following day looked, err, challenging.


Grotty

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The weather forecast for today had been looking, errm, challenging, pretty much since we arrived, so we thought it might be a good idea to plan to do something that wouldn’t really be affected by the state of the weather. At some point Kas had read a blog post entitled “10 things to do in the Pyrenees if you’re not cycling up the Col du Tourmalet (or something similar) – a post designed for consumption by the widowed men and women whose spouses had forced them to go all the way to southern France just so they could go on a bike ride.

One of the items on that list was the Grottes de Medous – a series of limestone caves just over the other side of the Col from where we were staying.

We hauled our butts out of bed at a reasonably early time and got ourselves some breakfast whilst watching some pretty awful weather out of the windows. When we got to the car it still wasn’t great, so we decided to take the long route around by going down the valley to Lourdes and then around the bottom to the Grottes, which are in Bagnères-de-Bigorre. The alternative is to drive over the Col du Tourmalet, which might be nice in good weather but wasn’t something I fancied doing in driving rain and poor visibility. More of that later, anyway.

The drive around the bottom was fairly uneventful, if rather slow, and we arrived in a very damp car park at the Grottes in the middle of the morning. We walked pretty quickly into the ticket office to pay a fairly reasonable entry fee and were then ushered into the caves. There might have been some discussion about what we were supposed to do, but if there was, it wasn’t articulated very clearly before we got inside. So we sauntered in and started making our way around the caves at a leisurely pace, unaccompanied. A little way into our walk we were disturbed by some returning members of staff, who gave us the evil eye, and eventually we figured that we were supposed to be following the official tour. There were two problems with that, from our perspective. Firstly, we were at the back of quite a large group, so had no idea which particular feature the guide was describing, and secondly, the tour was conducted only in French. Now that’s not unreasonable, given that the place is actually in France, however it put us at a disadvantage because none of us can understand spoken French when it’s going at normal speed and with a wide vocabulary. Net result was that we really had to deliberately haver around at the back, ensuring that guide was moving forwards and all our fellow visitors had started following, so that we could follow at a slower pace, which gave us the time then to actually look at the stalactites and stalagmites we were passing en route.

I think we might have been told we couldn’t take photos either, but that part got very lost in translation, and given that we saw several other people recording the entire tour on their phone or iPad we’re not feeling very guilty about having taken a few photos. The scenery in the caves is good, but the need to follow a specific tour, and then the demand at the end to tip the tour guide, was a bit much.

When we came out of the Grottes the weather had improved somewhat. Well, quite a lot. You could see the sky, and not all of it was grey. Invigorated by this massive improvement we thought it might now be appropriate to go “over the top” rather than returning the way we’d come, so off we pootled in a southerly direction. The weather continued to clear a bit as we were driving.

At the top of the Tourmalet we’d managed to get ourselves up into the weather, and it was still quite grim. It was windy, grey and cold, and there were clouds drifting around below us and around us. Quite dramatic to watch, but not great if you didn’t have a coat.

We’d parked as close as you can get to the summit of the Col, and a little way up a gravel track from there is a little restaurant that must do pretty brisk business in the skiing season. At this particular part of the summer season it was also doing pretty brisk business – the inside was more or less full. We found out why when we were delivered our chosen meals. Kas and me both ordered a thick, pork based soup, which was absolutely top-notch. By “pork-based” I mean that there was most of a pig in each serving. They initially bought out one quite large bowl, and Kas and me decided that was a fairly generous portion between two of us. Then they bought the other one. ‘Twas rather nice though. There was dipy-bread and everything. That made up for us feeling a bit cold and miserable.

As we’d started quite early we decided to head straight back down from the top after lunch (it was after 2pm anyway, so not really a wimp-out) and I then sat in the reception area typing up some blog posts while the kids splashed around in the pool and Kas walked up the shops to buy some stuff for tea. We plumped for a snacky job of hot dogs, salad and fried slivers of potato with assorted flavourings.

Kas had sadly forgotten a couple of things, so Ami and me walked up into town to get them, and while we were there we bought some playing cards, which were then subsequently used during the course of the evening. A decent day overall, given the pretty poor weather at the start of it.


Panollama

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Well – panorama, but with llamas, and other llama related puns. “What the actual ? What is he on about now ?” I hear you ask. Allow me to explain, in my usual not-entirely-direct style.

We all got up reasonably early. Kas had her grand plan of running up to the top of the Col du Tourmalet, and today was the day of the doing. The girls and me planned to do something that Kas wasn’t, rather than just hanging around until she was nearly there, and then driving to meet her. I’d noticed it was possible to walk from the top of the Col in the general direction of the cirque underneath the Pic du Midi de Bigorre along a path that appeared to be fairly flat. I figured we could walk out as far as we could be bothered and then turn around and come back, fairly certain that we’d see some “not available at home” scenery on the way. Kas had her phone, so she could keep us updated on progress and we could make a call on what point to turn around and walk back to meet her. She had enough cash to get herself a coffee, plus a few spare clothes to change into.

I parked in almost exactly the same place that we had done the previous afternoon. When I parked, it was empty. When we returned, we noticed the sunshine had made it somewhat busier, mainly with everyone’s “support crew”, which I guess was a bracket that we fell into too.

Our walk out to the cirque was uphill – in fact much more uphill than I’d thought it would be. I’m not sure whether the 2000m plus starting altitude had any say in the matter, but we weren’t exactly covering the ground very quickly. It also seemed to be rather further than the map had promised. We kept plodding onwards though, around a few “just one more corner” corners. Eventually were rewarded with a herd of llamas and a pretty spectacular view of the cirque, with the observatory above us.

As we were arriving at this point, I happened to look at my phone and saw a 10 minute old text from Kas saying she’d be at the top in 40 minutes or so. That was our cue to turn around, elbow our way through the llamas again, and hot foot it back. We really did hot-foot it too. The journey back (being slightly downhill, and avoiding any photography breaks) took about a third of the time we’d taken to get out.

We met Kas at the top of the Tourmalet at about 11:40, although it was amazing we managed to find each other. On a sunny day in summer the top of the Tourmalet is, to be honest, absolutely heaving with cyclists. Dangerously so, if you’re trying to get over in a car. We retired briefly from the throng to grab a drink and/or ice cream in the cafe at the top. Magically a table became available outside just as we needed one, so we were able to sit and watch the utter bedlam of cyclists arriving at the top, congratulating each other and then parking their bikes up and taking some photos. Kas said she’d been congratulated quite a lot after running up, and also that she’d overtaken a few cyclists who subsequently didn’t managed to catch her up. That’s probably quite an achievement.

Having had our ice creams, the next item on the plan for the day was to drive down into La Mongie (or maybe Llamungee) and trip up in the cable car to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. On the drive down we obviously listened to some music from our favourite 1980’s girl band, Bananallama. Whilst the top of the Tourmalet was fairly cool, despite the sunshine, the car park down in La Mongie was definitely on the hot side – pretty balmyllamy – and also quite full. As is often the case though, a space came free just as we began looking for one. The famous Gardner parking karmallama stikes again.

We bought our tickets for the cable car – one of the rare events where the “family ticket” represented a significant saving – and then made our way around to grab some cold drinks. We’d brought packed lunches with us, but didn’t have much in the way of liquid refreshment. The cable car up was a 2-stage job (which you can’t tell from down in the valley) and it was all fairly quiet and under-populated – no cause for a llama, despite a bit of a swing as we passed the one and only pylon on each stage.

The observatory at the top was a little more busy, but still fairly calmallama. We walked around in the sun for a while before decided to sit indoors to eat. It was quite windy up top and there was a high chance of losing your sandwich in the breeze. After lunch we took a stroll around the deck of the observatory, generally taking photos from all angles. It was one of only a couple of days on the holiday that Kas and Izzy carried their posh cameras out. Even then, Izzy had given up wanting to carry her own camera by the time we got to La Mongie, so I left mine in the car and took hers.

The best bit of the observatory deck is definitely the overhanging metal gantry on the north side, from which you can see the Pyrenees drop away from you towards the towns of Tarbes and Toulouse – the Pic du Midi de Bigorre is higher than any of the peaks to the north, so you get a clear view out in that direction, and at the time we were there the air was clear aside from a couple of little wispy clouds drifting by a few hundred metres below our feet. You don’t get that very often.

By this time we were starting to get a bit tired and the girls were getting itchy and twitchy about their desire to go swimming, so we jacked it in and took a somewhat busier cable car down to the bottom. On the way out you’re forced to walk through the gift shop. Izzy got a stuffed goat, Ami bought a fridge magnet (I think) despite us no longer having the ability to stick magnets to the fridge. We also bought ourselves a new bottle-opener-corkscrew-jobbamajig, partly because the one in the apartment in Luz was a positive health hazard, and partly because we seem to get one every year now, if you can count two years in a row as a collecting habit.

More drinks and a bicycle rotation stop were required, and while this was in progress I had time to pop over to the back of a church in the village to grab an easy geocache. Might as well.

From here we took a leisurely drive back over the Tourmalet and down into Luz Saint Sauveur, taking care to stop for a few photos on the way down. It’s really quite a spectacular view from the top.

Once we got back home, Kas took the girls to the pool while I attempted to do a bit of organisation for the evening. “Attempted” is the operative word.

First of all I tried to acquire some more Euros, but seemingly tried to acquire more than I was allowed at the only one of Luz’s three cash machines that would take a UK card. The result was that the machine wouldn’t give me anything at all, and also that I was unable to use it in a cash machine at any subsequent part of the holiday. In fact, I also ended up with a problem relating to cashless payments, and I now have a new card.

Secondly, I tried to go book a table at a restaurant we’d looked at on the first night but couldn’t get into. We couldn’t get into it again, so flushed with my failure at three ATMs and one restaurant, I had a bit of a meltdown and just walked out rather than trying to book for an evening later in the week.

Finally I had to go shopping for a few things, which went reasonably smoothly apart from having to buy them with my credit card.

Back at home, I was still stuck in the “grumpy, sweary, muttering-under-the-breath” setting, and it didn’t really settle until some beer had been included in the mix. We walked back up into town to get some dinner. Kas got some money out of the only ATM in the village that would take our cards and we sauntered up the street and around the houses a bit before deciding to sit at a streetside cafe that offered a reasonable selection of things the girls might try. It was good, even if the menu was limited. Kas had a bottle of locally brewed “Col du Tourmalet” beer, but it had a bit of a top-fermented tang to it and she wasn’t over keen. It was good for a photo though, given that she’d run up the Col earlier.

And so another busy day ended with a stroll downhill back to the apartment and a fairly early night, planned so we could get a good run at the following day’s planned activity.

PS, I think the animals in question might be alpacas not llamas, but I can’t think of any appropriate puns, so alpaca tin.


Vertical

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Today was planned to be one of my “key” days for the holiday – one where I’d planned to do a fairly significant walk with a good course of geocaches. Not sure it worked out that way – it was closer to being another famous near-death experience of a day, but never mind. Here’s the story.

There was a tempting looking caching series walking around the Lac de Migouélou – an artificial lake in a cirque about two valley over to the west from Luz Saint Sauveur. It’s branded as quite a challenging series of about 80 caches over a distance of 20km. I didn’t think we’d get all the way around, but with sufficient supplies I’dd thought we might climb up to the lake and find the first 25 or so of the caches.

We got up fairly early and were out of the house well before 9am – it was about an hour’s drive around from Luz, and involved driving all the way fown the valley nearly to Lourdes and then hopping across the base of a couple of valleys through Argelès Gazost before climbing up into the Val d’Aste.

At the top end of the valley is a tourist information centre-cum-refuge that gives information about the valley and the various activities that can be done there. We stopped about a kilometre short of that at a large gravel-topped car park at the foot of a very big hill. It’s also the start point of the caching series. The first one of the caches involved crossing a small stream on a bridge and finding a cache at the base of a tree. After walking over and wasting 15 minutes searching, I was finally clever enough to examine in detail on the GPS, and discovered it’s not there. Nobody had found it for the last 10 attempts. Bum ! Not a good start.

Anyway though, back at the main walk, we grabbed as much stuff as we’d bought with us – 2-3 bottles of liquids each, biscuits, sandwiches and crisps – and began our climb. The walk up the lake was supposedly a climb of 850-900m on a well travelled pathway. We’d sort of done nearly that amount when we climbed Helvellyn earlier in the year, or so we thought, and as a result I was optimist we’d at least be able to get up to the lake and back again in a day. The walking up proved to be pretty hard though, especially for the kids, both of whom were generally progressing at low speed. I wasn’t exactly racing, but the kids were definitely struggling to the point where they were grumpy about it. No a lot of fun being had. There were caches on the way, but series #2 also wasn’t there, and even though they were spaced at near maximum density of 161m apart as the crow flies, I concluded it was somewhere that crows don’t actually fly.

On this initial stage, each 161m over the ground involved about 8-900m of actual walking on a narrow zig-zigged path up the side of a very steep slope. Each 161m as the crow flies involved about 90-100m of climbing too. That made for pretty tough going. After an hour or so I was starting to think we weren’t going to get anywhere near, and suggested in a less than friendly tone that we just give up and go back down. Anyway, I got told off and we kept going. After a shade under 3 hours we’d managed to climb about 600m and had got to somewhere between cache #6 and #7. We’d come out of “the worst” of the steep slope and were definitely above the tree line, but it still looked a long way up to the lake. We couldn’t even see the dam that holds the lake in place. Around this point Izzy started to have a problem with her feet – blisters, basically – and we’d been going ages. While I was walking on with Ami I suggested to her that we just take a lunch break and go back down again, given that Izzy was struggling, and I could tell from Ami’s regular stops to help Izzy that she’d had enough too. So we agreed to stop for lunch and then walk back down again. The view from our lunch stop was pretty good though.

The walk back down took us only half the time of going up – it was still slow because of the steepness and the zig-zags but at least we weren’t having to push our body weight uphill anymore. We were encouraged by the sight of the car getting gradually closer as we descended.

Once we got to the car we drove up to the head of the valley and were unable to park, so Kas took control of the car while I did some speedy caching. We did another 4 caches as drive-bys on the way back down before driving all the way down to a cafe we’d seen in the morning a few km down the valley at the Lac du Tec, a small artificial lake used as part of a complex hydroelectric scheme and having facilities both at the upstream and downstream ends of the lake. The cafe was attached to a campsite and was fairly basic, but did a few cakes, coffes and ice creams. And it had some toilets.

After ice creams it was still warm and it wasn’t late, so we took a short walk along the lakeshore here and found a beach (well, a bit where a load of rocks had been dumped on the shore to make a platform) and wasted a quarter of an hour trying to skim stones on the lake. The stones were a random mix, and it was quite easy to find broad, flat ones. Ideal then.

The drive back home was uneventful and we decided to go out for dinner again. We walked up into Luz and took a table outside at the Hotel de Londres. I can’t really remember what anyone had to eat, but it was the “usual” selection of French, Italian and American dishes. It was much welcomed and pretty good.

That more or less ended our day, as we’d been up for quite a while. As we were walking up the mountainside it became increasingly apparent we weren’t going to get as far as I’d thought, but on reflection (reflection that began during lunch on the mountain) I realised that what I’d thought was several steps too far. We’d had a tiring day and had seen some beautiful scenery, so I was happy with that. We just hadn’t reached a lake or done a shed load of caches.


Circular

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After yesterday’s less than complete walk I suggested today that we have a go at somewhere which, on the face of it, seemed relatively relaxed and not strenuous. I thought we might have a go at the Cirque de Gavarnie, on the basis that it’s the one of the most perfect and spectacular examples of this particular geomorphological feature in [Europe. The fact that it was 20 minutes away had some effect too, obviously.

We got up and had a leisurely breakfast while Kas was out running. Eventually we left the house still fairly early, around 10am.

The cirque is up at the top end of one of the valleys that runs into Luz Saint Sauveur, and the road up there proved to be pretty well surfaced and fairly wide. It was also covered in cyclists, but that was true of everywhere we went in the Pyrenees so we were kind of used to it.

The village of Gavarnie is a small settlement that is big on the whole “outdoor activity” theme and is also fairly well catered for as far as car parking is concerned. In fact the car parks are massive, and I can only surmise that this is because the walk to the cirque is one of the famous “must do” things in the area, much like walking up Helvellyn would be in the English Lake District. They may be massive, but mid-morning on a sunny day in summer, they are still full. Getting full, anyway. On the way up the valley I’d got myself into the middle of what turned out to be a group of four cars that were with each other (I didn’t realise it at the time). Anyway, everyone was going to the same place and I ended up parking second spot in a run of five cars. The occupants in the four-car big group seemed oblivious to the fact that we weren’t in their group, to the extent that one of their teenage members started peering into the back of my car and seemed just about to pick out one of the sets of walking boots. Seriously dude ? I think we made the point eventually without too much argy-bargy.

When I started up my GPS (of course, because there were geocaches on the way) it said that the head of the walk, or the foot of the cirque, was about 3.6km away. The first of those km was though the village, so we strolled through in the rather warm conditions and Ami and I filled the bags up with cold drinks and biscuits while the other two found a toilet.

The walk to the cirque appeared to be fairly flat on the map, especially compared to the previous day, and for the first two thirds it certainly was. All the way while you’re walking out you can see the very impressive and substantial back wall of the cirque getting gradually larger. It looks big from the village. It gets amazing as you approach.

As you can see from the photo, the walk up was along a fairly wide and well travelled path, leading eventually into a bunch of trees which completely hid the start of some relatively steep uphill. Eventually you break out onto a flatish area at the foot of the cirque where there’s a big open paved area and a cafe, which we weren’t expecting. We stopped here and the girls waited for me for a bit while ran up the side of a cliff to find a geocache, like you do.

When I came back we had a brief discussion about what we wanted to do, and the girls opted to go plodge in the stream in the bottom of the valley while I opted for one more earthcache, that involved walking right up to the foot of the waterfall on the edge of the cirque.

The walk up was supposedly a mile or so, but what I’d neglected to account for was the underfoot conditions. It started off as reasonable mountain path, but closer to the backwall of the cirque it was basically loose and rather unstable rock. It was like walking up a sand dune only with bigger lumps. Every step involved pushing some rocks down behind me. It took me a while to reach the point required for the earthcache, a part of which involved waiting for the GPS to figure out where it was. Close proximity to a 600m high sheer rockface isn’t conducive to getting a good GPS signal. If the way up there was rough, the way back down was positively tricky. Having your feet slip away behind you whilst climbing isn’t so bad. Having your feet slide away in front of you is quite disturbing.

Once back on terra firma I met up with the ladies back at the cafe and we retired for some ice cream, water and coffee. It was reasonably priced given the location, and we sat for a while resting our achy legs.

The walk back was done with reasonable speed but also a fair amount of moaning due to aching feet.

The car was where I’d left it (which is good), and we were soon back down to the apartment and preparing for our evening. One of the pieces of preparation was washing a few clothes, which worked all fine apart from some oik deciding to take our stuff out of the machine and just dump it on the floor.

While we were getting ready there were large amounts of cyclists turning up in the apartment block. There was an event in the village on the Friday evening and it seemed most of them were stopping overnight at our place. The event meant that many of the roads were closed off to cars from about 6pm so that the cyclists could get to it.

We didn’t actually spend any time watching them, as a result of the fact that we had a reservation at the “Chez Christine” restaurant – the place we’d failed to get into on Saturday night and where I’d suffered the grumps on Wednesday too. Kas has made a reservation for Friday night and we duly arrived for our date.

Aside from the fact that they were very busy and the waitress was really overworked, it was probably the best restaurant we used in Luz. It’s Italian in style and we split a selection of pizzas and pastas between us. I think I had a risotto with chicken and mushrroms. It was well nice. For pudding the girls gorged on their usual things while I ordered a plate of cheeses. Mmmm ! Cheese. And port.

We’d done much of the packing before going out, so when we got back the girls had a bit more packing to do while Kas and I did some cleaning. The apartment was one of those places where you pay a deposit against damages and they check prior to departure whether you’re good to go. They did offer us the opportunity to pay €85 to have them clean the flat on our behalf, but that seemed a little excessive. All we really had to do was to sweep the floors and brush the khazi. It was obvious that they sent cleaners in anyway before anyone else arrived, so I guess they were really looking to make sure you hadn’t done a dirty protest or smashed all the furniture. We hadn’t.


Painful

When we set off, we’d been thinking we might toy with the idea of going to do a parkrun at Toulouse, but once we arrived in Luz Saint Sauveur it became apparent we could forget that idea. The apartment block wanted to do a formal check on the morning of our departure prior to returning our deposit, and the reception didn’t open until 8am.

We still had a long way to travel, though, so we aimed to get to the door on the stroke of 8am and get the first slot in the departure game. We got up at 6:30 and got on with loading up the car, finishing the cleaning, and dumping rubbish and laundry in the relevant place.

We’d apparently done enough to get our deposit back and the checkout was fairly efficient, so we were off at about 8:05. So far so good, then.

We took the road down the valley and through Lourdes and Tarbes and then headed east on the motorway towards Toulouse. Before we got there we stopped for some breakfast at the Aire de Comminges. We tried to do a geocache there too, to keep the “colouring in” streak going. We couldn’t find it at first, which was annoying. We retired for some breakfast, and whilst sitting there I delved more deeply into the geocache description and found some spoiler photos. D’oh ! How did we miss that ?

Kas took over the driving here, and managed to negotiate us successfully around Toulouse and on the way toward Narbonne before the day started to go a bit pear-shaped. We found roadworks. And then we found a crash, and a big queue, and then more roadworks. The drive from Toulouse to Narbonne took maybe 90 minutes more than it should. This kind of set us behind schedule for the rest of the day. We stopped for a geocache and changed drivers near Carcassonne, but didn’t stay long.

We’d promised the girls the possibility of having a quick plodge in the Mediterranean, so we fought our way through the minging traffic all the way to Montpellier before jumping off the motorway to head for the beach at Palavas-les-Flots. The plan was to park up, plodge on the beach for half and hour, grab an ice-cream and a geocache, and then more on. Unfortunately, plans rarely happen. We couldn’t find anywhere to park, and after half an hour we had to give up, because we’d got an appointment in the evening that was time dependent. So we didn’t stop. We stopped for a cache on the way out of town but I couldn’t find that either, so we just left. We swapped drivers again while we were musing, so Kas was in the hot seat again.

We needed to stop at the Aire d’Ambrussum to get more fuel and take a comfort break, and there was a geocache in the car park, so we stopped for a bit to sort ourselves our. It had been busy all day and we were starting to get a bit sick of it. While we were there, we grabbed some McDonalds to eat too.

From here to our end point the sat nav thought it was going to take half an hour more than the amount of time we’d actually got. That wasn’t good. So we took a second opinion by checking with Captain Google, who said we were OK, just, but only if we went the way he said. As we were short of time, we also decided not to stop for any more geocaches, and that left us with a bit of a gap in the “colouring-in” chart.

The way he said involved driving to Nîmes and then cross-country up to Alès. We followed google to the letter, all the while watching how the changes of route were making the car’s satnav come more into line. We eventually reached our destination town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc at just the right time (6:30pm). We found a car park and pushed our way through some crowded streets up to a small square with a covered seating area, which was the location for the geocaching event I’d noticed some weeks earlier and promised to try to get to. The event was only open for half an hour, so timing was important. We made it to the event but it was pretty obvious the girls didn’t want to be there, so I did a quick traditional cache around the corner and we said our goodbyes to head to our chosen accomodation.

We’d originally booked in an expensive hotel along the road out towards the Ardeche Gorge, but a few days before leaving home we’d thought that spending five days in a single room (and having to go out to eat all the time) wasn’t our favoured mode of operation. We therefore changed it, and moved to a small apartment complex over in Salavas, just south of the river. It proved to be a small family-run affair that had a totally different approach to the commercial skiing place in Luz. We didn’t need to pay until we left, and they were willing to trust. We didn’t have to clean up the flat before leaving and the swimming pool stayed open until “Meh! When we switch the lights off.” They also had a bar that was open more or less all day, so as we were too tired to do anything strenuous, the girls jumped in the pool while Kas and I sat in the bar with a beer and some crisps. When the girls had done in the pool (i.e. when we told them to come out) they had an ice cream from the fridge in the bar.

The apartment was quite small but the bathroom was nice and whilst there wasn’t much room, it was pretty comfortable. Comfort was good, because we hit the beds like four proverbial sacks of potatoes.