The French immersion continued – at my insistence – with my newfound friends as we indulged in a camping sauvage road trip, dancing across the Pyrenean border between France and Spain. It helped that they both spoke very respectable English for the many moments when I floundered or uttered brain burps.
Kicked off just up the road from Perthus on the border with Spain, from where you can see the lights of both the Perpignan coast and Barcelona. Howling gale that night, as it happened, but capably soothed by a couple of bottles of whiskey. Over the next few days, we ducked over onto the Spanish side for a looksee (the stretch between Perthus and Barcelona is a world apart from Les Alberes on the French side – arid and full of a curious mix of factories and cheap package holiday hotels, miles from the sea), and popped into Barcelona for dinner. Although beautiful, the mountains, they did beckon again. Took a tapas feast in the city and then headed for the hills with simple instructions for Andorra: ‘follow the autoroute for Perpignan and hang a left when you see the giant sign, just before the border’. Right you are. Only this is as precise as Peter Pan’s directions to Never Never Land: ‘second star to the right and straight on til morning’.
While I helpfully slumbered on the bags in the back, my new pelos drove through the night and rescued a couple of dumb Frenchies from a ditch where they’d dumped their car. Finally reached a camping spot on a hill at sunrise, still short of Andorra.
The people of Andorra are a strange mix of French and Spanish looks and it doesn’t quite work. ‘Tete de merde’, is how Samsun described one of them, and he wasn’t wrong. Not a beautiful race. It was also here that I had perhaps the worst sleep of the trip. Andorra has a terrific system of free refuges peppering the beautiful mountains where outdoorsy types can stay under a roof on a rock-hard prison-style bunk. Would be well good to spend a week here hiking around, though we chose to do a mini-one at midnight in search of the digs. There is also running water, a fireplace in the corner, a composting toilet and cowboys wandering past in the morning. But just look what it did to my eyes. That is not a happy lymphatic system.
When Samsun and the car were obliged to return to Nantes, I continued wending my way West towards the Basque country with Tom. It’s a lot more difficult without a car. Found ourselves in Foix for dinner and had to head all the way to Toulouse as there are no connections in the yokel spots, bus, train or otherwise. From Toulouse we hopped a train down to Lourdes where we arrived under cover of darkness and a rainstorm. Camped in a city site that was little more than a patch of hard mud and charged €1.30 for a hot shower. Which didn’t last more than 5 minutes and saw me begging at the door for another token (chargeable, naturally), fully soaped up in a skimpy towel. This was my first shower in six days. I needed adequate disinfecting. Shortly afterwards, the landlady told us that it was past check-out and we had to sling our ‘ook. Fucking Christians.
Lourdes, well, it’s ‘la salle d’attente de Dieu’, full of the sick, dying and presque-morts from all over the world waiting on a miracle. Let’s just say that I hope the big man likes candles cos he is getting a lot of them. Funny old place, spinning lots of money out of people’s desperation – not, as we’ve seen from the campsite lady, always in the most gracious fashion – in the sale of nasty Virgin Mary statues, plastic vats of holy water and chintzy hotel rooms, but at the same time, I suppose providing a spiritual crutch that so many seem to find consoling. I don’t need to reassert my views on God here. Whatever works for you. I was amused recently by Ricky Gervais’ take on Genesis. Have a look on YouTube.
My French isn’t up to much, but it’s already much better than before. As always, I can understand much more than I can say (why like this?) and having learnt at school, my vocabulary was suitable for a 14-year old. A couple of weeks of learning and I can now say ‘Freddie got fingered’, ‘let’s get baked’ and ‘you’re getting on my tits’ in la langue d’amour. Really enjoyed challenging the grey matter. May it continue.
Yeah, so a night and a few hours in Lourdes was more than sufficient. I’d seen a picture of the Pic du Midi on a postcard back in Andorra and that became the focus of our mission. To Pau! No, not a Marvel comic fight but an actual place name. Then from Pau to Oloron-St-Marie, where we once again arrived under cover of darkness and were obliged to set up camp. Had two addresses of camp sites in the city but after wandering amid abattoirs and tanneries (can you imagine the smell? I want you to) for an hour, we gave up and headed for town in search of a feed. Stumbled upon a local restaurant run by an eccentric lady with Edna Everage-esque glasses who sheltered us, fed us steak, gave us beer and pointed us in the direction of a real camp site. Result. Oh, and she informed us (by the power of a leaflet) that there are bears in the Pyrenees. Brown bears. Forty(ish) of them. Did you know that? I did not! Happy days (unless they take a shine to your peanut butter sandwich).
From here it was up the Aspe valley for a couple of days of hiking proper. I haven’t very often hiked with a proper big pack, but I found myself scrambling over rocks at twilight with 15kilos of ballast containing all the hiking essentials. Such as three pairs of shoes, a laptop and a book of Spanish verb tables. What doesn’t kill you. Strangely, really enjoyed it. I am at home in the mountains. This bit of the Pyrenees – Somport, with a sturdy hostel at the border in Aysa – forms the beginning of the Spanish section of the Camino de Santiago, a fabled hike that covers 1,500km across France and Spain to wind up in Santiago de Compostela. I’d heard lots about it and was super keen to get involved with a few sections of it. I later learned that you can inscribe yourself for it and get hostels along the way (so long as you don’t move suspiciously fast and have the stamps to prove where you’ve been) for €6 a night. It’s that popular. Spain just hosted 2 million (you heard) horny Catholic teenagers for World Youth Day and a number of them have stuck around to do a bit of the camino too.
But much of the route actually runs on or alongside fairly busy roads. Where is the fun in that? Hikes are supposed to be up by the birds, sheep and foxes, out of eyesight and earshot of roads. If you’re considering it, bin off the Camino de Santiago and instead head to a six-day loop around the Pyrenees Atlantiques, La Senda de Camille. Infinitely superior, in my humble opinion. Santiago didn’t know what he was doing.
You’ll notice a running theme with the running out of daylight as I journeyed with the my French pelos. That is because they are semi-noctural and don’t get going until about 3pm, when they have taken coffee, eaten a biscuit, soaked up some sun and had a little dance in the dust. Runs counter to my normal travelling instincts of getting up and out while there are still transport links but, hell, in for a penny. They also eat less than me, which saw me in the unusual position of having to say ‘I’m hungry’ every six hours or so in order to seek sustenance.
Few days of walking around this area and then down on into Spain again, via Canfranc. Was thoroughly pissed off with the insubstantial transport links (ok, they’re in the mountains but one bus a day didn’t suit me) by this stage so went for the hitchhike. Too much fun. First, a fruit and veg man with a van dropped us in Jaca, pressing chocolate cakes in our hands as he departed. Bummed a lift as far as Puente la Reina with an old Spanish dude who was on his regular holidays in the mountains with his kids and grandkids. Then a lift with a hippy-gardener type girl as far as Berdun before flagging a couple of Colombians on their way to Pamplona. A full day’s work but a superb way to meet diverse, friendly people and would-be rapists.
Checked Pamplona out for a few beers and an anger-management-issue bus driver then jumped over to San Sebastian on the slow train.
As you emerge from the train station you walk up the river towards the old city where all the hostels, bars and action are. This being the coast, Atlantic ocean waves rush up the river to greet you, bringing fresh sea air with you. Delicious.
San Sebastian itself is a beautiful old cobbled Old City, crowned with a fortress and standard-issue Jesus statue that separates two sandy bays. It’s popular with the surf crowd throughout the year and was on this weekend hosting its annual film festival. This I did not realise. Made finding digs a bit tricky at 10pm. As we were calling one listed option, another dude on a bike came past offering us a spot at his nearby hostel. Went to see it but by this time the bloke on the phone had arrived to show us his place too. Left the big bags with bike man and went for a courtesy view of the other. Returned to find bike man dumping our bags on the pavement and rushing off under pretence of an emergency. Weird. Word to the wise – don’t stay in Lera Sufer’s hostel. There’s mafia or summat going off there.
Anyway, nothing that an overpriced pensione with a drunk landlady and a few whiskeys in the bar couldn’t fix. San Sebastian is also curious in that it doesn’t follow the Spanish drinking timetable. So rammed with British and Aussie surfers is the old town that it seems to have adopted UK habits too. The teens are staggering around the streets vomiting by 11pm, bars start to close up by 2am, clubs shut-up shop at 3am. But that is in the Old Town. Step away from here, back up the river, and you’ll find Spanish San Sebastian with broad plazas, kids playing out in the streets every evening and locals crowding in the cafes for endless gossip.
Parted company with my French friend here with nostalgia for the mountains, but more than ready to fly solo again. Misanthrope that I am.