Trekking Compostella – The Arles Way pt 1 France

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Our foray in to the Pyrenees was long anticipated. I had held dreams of walking the GR10 (long-distance trail traversing the Pyrenees from coast to coast) or completing the pilgrimage along the Santiago de Compostella for some time. Alas dreams sometimes have to marry reality and therefore we settled on a plan to cross the Pyrenees from the French side and down into Spain.

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It was a fortuitous meeting with mum’s friends Robbie & Patrick in Sydney which assisted us in settling on trekking along the Way of Arles (Chemin des Arles), starting in Lescar, a small town near Pau in the Bearne region of France. I could go in to technicalities about the routes across the Pyrenees but for now lets start the story on the train from Toulouse to Pisteolay, the name of the quaint chateau owned by Robbie and Patrick in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The journey from Toulouse passed in a blur of spectacular scenery and animated discussion with a 98 year old sweetheart sharing the carriage with us. Although we spoke not a word of each other’s language, a warm hearted exchange took place were we learned she was to turn 98 in two weeks and she grew up hiking the hills of the Pyrenees. Her approval of our impending trek was palpable and we disembarked with the blessed kisses of a kind soul sending us on our way. This was the first of many touching acts of hospitality and affability which characterised our visit to the region.

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Robbie and Patrick were waiting at the station in Pau, enthusiasm brimming. It was wonderful to be greeted by familiar faces as we have grown used to arriving in foreign places alone and grappling with technicalities of transport arrangements. So it was a treat indeed to be whisked away to Pistolay along with Patrick’s running commentary and knowledge of the area. Patrick grew up in the Basque countryside before eventually settling in Australia, and they were kind enough to take us on a tour of some of the quaint villages such as Navarrenx

They now run a tour company called Pyrenees Tours which sounds a riot and we would have happily traded our trek to spend a week with Robbie & Patrick.. When Patrick produced a barbequed duck with Robbie’s accompaniments we truly thought we could be in some version of French heaven!

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The next morning was down to business as Joel and I kitted up to start day 1 of our walk from Lescar to Oloron Sainte-Marie. WE felt qualified given that Patrick had gone over how to pronounce Oloron Sainte-Marie several times. We envisioned a confident arrival. How wrong we were! Before long we realised that when the French state the walk is 7 hours, they really mean 9. I don’t know if even Bear Grylls could move as fast as their trail markers project! Thankfully the countryside was so exquisite which made the 9 hour epic saga worth the slog through the last 90 minutes of rain. When the going gets tough, thankfully we both dig in, and it was with gritted teeth and matted hair that we presented ourselves bedraggled on the doorstep of our hosts in Oloron Sainte-Marie!

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Goode’s home

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The door was answered by an angel going by the name of Goode. Upon catching sight of us she was flanked by the rest of her army of angels aka her family. They were having an impromptu family gathering as their daughter had just given birth to their first grandchild and was there to stay the night. We were treated like honoured guests, although we were the ones who felt honoured to be sharing such a special moment with them. Such grace of hospitality I have not encountered. They embraced us like one of their own and together we raised glasses to the birth of the new baby. (later we found out they had been saving the bottle for 10 years for this occasion). Aunts and Uncles were also present, and it was a packed dinner table, full of laugher and turns to soothe the new baby. Maybe my highlight of the entire trip was the character of one of the uncles “Patrick the Mushroom Hunter”. The story accompanied the most delicious mushroom omelette you have ever tasted made by the one and only Patrick. He had more than a fond regard for the dear fungus and it was explained to us (everything interpreted through Goode) that he would trek high into the Pyrenees in search of these specific mushrooms. The locations he keeps a well guarded secret and he acted out ducking and weaving with his sacks full of mushrooms so that he was not spotted and the locations were not given away. I was in hysterics picturing Patrick with his mushroom sack and thankfully everyone else appreciated the humour! What a lovely meal that was, every family member delighting in teaching us French phrases and gleefully clapping their hands when we put them in to practice. Joel got some tongue twisters going and as the wine flowed it was safe to say this was a crowd pleaser! Exhausted we fell in to bed with the chorus of many voices singing Basque lullabies drifting up through the floorboards.

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Awakening the next day we had no idea what lay ahead of us. Being the optimists we are, we were sure that the French trail markers would be more accurate for the stage from Oloron to Bedous. We were mistaken! We walked from 10am to 7:30pm with only the most minor of stops, like puppies faithfully following the Compostelle way-markers. We would up the valley through exquisitely picturesque French towns, sighing with each sight of the roughly cut stone houses, chimneys roaring with smoke, and dogs barking on doorsteps. The beauty of the region was the only saviour to the fact that our feet were not used to hiking on a mixture of terrain and dreaded asphalt and were aching unlike we had ever felt before. For this reason, when we tumbled in to Maison Luard to our vivacious and big-hearted hosts Jane & Eric it was like we might as well have checked in to the Shangri La. Jane whipped us up a 3 course meal which was so delicious we imagined we were in some sort of fine establishment and not in a cosy country house in a tiny Pyrenees village. Wine in hand we laughed with Jane and Eric in their comfortable living room until late into the night. Coupled with the walking and scenery, it was this type of warm hospitality which makes the region so special.

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Jane & Eric

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We were slightly nervous we would be facing another slog up to Urdos the next day but Eric assured us the route was not as demanding on the feet. In fact they couldn’t believe we had walked from Oloron the previous day – over 37km in distance with packs to boot! There is so little information online about the Arles way that we could not find accommodation in alternative stops on the internet – but it does exist – so if you are considering this route please contact me for advice! In any case, the sun was shining upon us as we donned our packs and farewelled Masion Luard with an “Awwww Bless Them” audible from Jane as we turned the corner. Before long we walked through the pretty town of Accous and picked up a companion, a boarder collie so desperate for a playmate that it followed us along the trail! It takes me a long time to walk through each village as I stop to admire the colourful shutters and the spring flowers snaking their way along pathways and winding their way up around windows. Thankfully Joel is ever patient, biding his time until he gets to stretch his legs en route to the next village. The mountainous terrain became more spectacular as we found ourselves ascending higher into the Pyrenees, with steep flanks rising either side of us. Finally – our sweet spot. We even forgot about our aching feet as we approached the typically gorgeous town of Lescun which also intersects the GR10 long distance trail (for those who care!). We positioned ourself with a panoramic view and congratulated our progress with a custard slice, which always puts a smile on Joel’s face! From there it was quick going along the road past the formidable Fort de Portalet and up to Urdos. There is an abandoned railroad that once ran up the Aspe Valley which essentially accompanies you along the whole trail. It’s an impressive feat of engineering and we couldn’t help but wonder why the French don’t make use of it as a walking trail to bypass parts of the Arles way where walkers are forced to trek on the main road (which is our biggest criticism of this walk by far). If anyone ever knows the answer to this question please let us know!

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Arrival in Urdos was non-eventful, being forced by lack of any other option in to the overpriced Hotel les Voyagers which lacked any atmosphere or charm. The following morning it was up, up and away as we prepared to cross the Somport Pass and over in to Spain! This was the type of higher altitude walking we were craving! Although it was basically uphill, the whole way, our packs felt lighter as we took in the soaring summits of the Pyrenees, still capped with snow and offset against the verdant green valleys and trickling streams. The route was peaceful without the sound of motor traffic due to the new state of the art tunnel which alleviates the need for motorists to take in the stunning landscape at the pass. The old road had no traffic with the exception of grazing sheep. At the top of the pass there is an old boarder crossing and with much delight we stood with one foot in France, the other foot in Spain! So with that, I shall leave you until the next installation – the crazy Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Au Revior!

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