Beach Tour ’99 (Our Adventure on the Pyrenees High Route)
June 23rd, 1999 Arriving in Paris after air hitching from JFK in New York City on a shoestring budget, my friend Pieps (Brian Piepergerdes) and I spent two days hitchhiking from Paris to Amsterdam to meet the third member of our hiking group, Puff (Jason Rhodes). After a few long waits between rides, we talked about buying a car, as we wanted to do as much as possible while in Europe. After rendezvousing with Puff, he agreed, so we set out to see if this was feasible and found out that Holland< (the Netherlands) is about as good a place as any for a foreigner to buy a car. So, we met two Moroccans, and they set us up with our BELLA! (1986 Ford Fiesta).
After five or six days (maybe it was seven, I don’t remember) in Amsterdam, one of my favorite cities, we set out to see the sites! We spent a week driving the coast of France and crossed the Pyrenees, for the first time. The Pyrenees are the mountains that separate France from Spain and also the homeland of the Basque people who are one of the oldest civilizations in Europe. The Basque language is an inflected language whose origin is still somewhat puzzling. The fact that it is not an Indo-European language, and shows no resemblance to languages in neighboring countries, has led to the formulation of a variety of hypotheses to explain its existence.
But we had a few things to do before we started our hike. We drove our “Bella” into Pamplona Spain during the San Fermin festival, also known as “The Running of the Bulls”, which starts on the 7th day of the 7th month at 7am and lasts 7 days. We saw the bulls run, and also saw about 1,000,000 people intoxicate themselves! After two days we headed back to France to a friend’s house near Biarritz and the western end of the Pyrenees (where they meet the Atlantic ocean).
In the touristy town of Hendaye, France we started our 39 day hike along the backbone of this beautiful mountain range. There are many trails in the Pyrenees, but the three we were most concerned with were: 1) the GR10, which is a trail paralleling the border but keeps to the French side, 2) the GR11, the GR10’s countertrail on the Spanish side, and 3) the High Pyrenees Route (HRP), which tries to follow the border, or frontier whenever possible.
We soon found out that there are many people in France who hike from hut to hut (as we call it in the White Mountains) or, Gite to Gite in French, with nothing more than a daypack.
Since we were attempting to hike as much as possible on the HRP, (which actually follows the GR10 for the first few days), this was a little too touristy for us, as the trail went into and through a town almost every day.
But the Basque people were great. Each town had a court similar to handball, that they call pelota. The advanced game is what we call Jai Alai and it was cool to see everyone playing this game, even little kids (one day we got in a game with some 10-12 year olds and they beat us pretty badly).
The Basque area of the Pyrenees are not as high as the central Pyrenees (2,000 meters vs. 3,000 meters) but are still very steep. The climbs along this whole hike were very steep.
I had hiked the Long Trail in Vermont to get prepared for this hike (one of the steeper trails in the US) but was still very surprised that the Pyrenees climbs and descents were even tougher.
Two times on the Pyrenees hike we went through our packs to lighten our load and send things home! We ended up sharing cameras, stoves, cook kits, and tent, mainly because the steepness of the trails.
The guide book told us that the Pyrenees block the rain coming down from the north, and sure enough, the first 15 days, while we were in France, it rained almost every day.
So after we were lost in the fog too many times, we headed to Spain for some dryer weather. There is less civilization on the Spanish side and also fewer resupply towns, so we continually had to go back to France for food.
Talking about food, one day on our hike, we came around a beautiful cirque and there was a rock shack in the calour (sp?). We hiked to the shack to find that 2 shepherds live there with their goats, sheep. pigs, chickens and, well, it was a regular farm up there in a very beautiful location.
In the central Pyrenees we headed to a one of the most beautiful parts of Spain called Ordessa Canyon!
The canyon starts near a small town called Torla, which ended up being our favorite trail town. Narrow streets carved out a small, quaint town, with a lovely pension (hostel) called “Albergue”.
Owned by two Frenchmen, who became our good friends, we stayed here two and a half days and I ended up playing guitar in the bar at night for drinks for all of us! Ordessa canyon and Torla were definite highlights for us even though they are not on the HRP but a side trip (recommended).
Continuing east we met one of the few thru hikers on this trail a few days later (we met about five people, besides ourselves, doing the whole Pyrenees). This French woman had skipped the Ordessa canyon and told us about the tough times she had trying to get through the fog along the border. She needed her ice ax (which we didn’t carry) and highly recommended we stay on the Spanish side for a few days.
Two days later, we had the steepest descent I’ve ever done; it was a 1600 meter (5,000 ft) descent in one and a half kilometers (one mile) of trail!!
About three quarters of the way through the hike we finally hit some level ridgeline walking above tree line (more like what we had originally expected), and we started seeing some of our first wildlife (deer, wild sheep and goats, and even one day a wild cat like creature)!
The Pyrenees are reported to have only three bears left, brought in from western Europe even though they originally were indigenous to the Pyrenees.
Finally we got our first view of the Mediterranean and the beautiful French town of Banyuls, where our hike was to end! We still had a day and a half descent through some awesome vineyards where the grapes were just perfect for eating. As soon as we got to the town we went right to the beach and dove in! Aaaaaahhhhhh!
We used two guidebooks for the hike. One was a guidebook called “Trekking in the Pyrenees” by Douglas Streetfield-James ISBN 1 873756 21 6, published by Trailblazer. This book is mainly about the GR10 in France and is very informative. It also suggests and describes many side routes which we ended up taking including the Ordessa canyon section in Spain. The other book is the HRP high route guide and has been translated from French and is a little tougher to follow, but absolutely necessary.
For maps, we used French IGN series maps that were readily available in most of the towns we went through. These are excellent maps, but not very GPS compatible as the French (who always seem to have to do everything a little different) use the Paris meridian instead of the Greenwich meridian! And they don’t always overlap into Spain very far. We used the IGN 50,000 scale maps and there are 12 of them for the entire Pyrenees.
When we needed the Spanish maps, which were 40,000-1 scale (not quite as accurate but at least they use the Greenwich meridian), we found them in stores in Spain. We did have a little trouble finding some of them later on in the hike. Unless you are using mail drops (we did not) they would be too heavy to carry all of them.
All three trails are marked on all of these maps.