The French Pyrenees
09.08.2011 - 16.08.2011
Our first night back in France saw us camping, France Passion style, at a chevre (goat cheese) farm in the middle of nowhere important. We quickly discovered the location was a strategic decision based on the particular odour associated with goat farming.
Despite enjoying their cheese the experience was not one we will repeat in a hurry – It took a week just to get the smell out of our chilly-bin! (That's an 'eskie' for our Australian subscribers...) We spent our night battling swarms of flies and trying to sleep through rather a terrifying thunderstorm – the thunder did not clap, it did not peal, rather it boomed and seemed to roll from one side of the sky to the other taking the van with it...
In the morning we gladly headed for the hills (those little ones they call the Pyrenees) and found ourselves staying in one of France's excellent camping aire's in Pierrefitte-Nestalas. On the way we stopped to share a coffee with the locals and discussed rugby as best we could in a mish-mash of broken French, pigeon English, and charades... I think we managed to get our point across with 'Nouvelle Zelande Premiere!'
Once again we were considering ourselves out of favour with the weather gods after arriving in the Pyranees and seeing nothing but clouds. To be honest, we were beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about... Fortunately, our arrival in Cauterets (High Pyrenees) coincided with the cloud finally lifting. We seized at the opportunity to take an eye popping chair lift ride to 2300m (OK, we confess we cheated on the walking option...)
The range around Cauterets
The cheat's option
From the top of the ridge we enjoyed a stunning walk down down to a beautiful mountain tarn and back. We also managed to spot a bearded vulture and Pyrenees marmot (we initially thought it was a brown bear...)
You can see the tarn in the distance
One of the many huge birds of prey in the Pyrenees. It could be a bearded vulture, we don't know... I mean, do we look like ornithologists?
Zoom lens at maximum - I think we can be forgiven for thinking this was a small bear?
That evening we felt like we had won France Passion lotto as we found ourselves at a farm with its own restaurant on a ridge overlooking Cauterets. We shared a lovely local meal looking down onto Cauterets and watching the sun set on the mountains.
The next morning we went back into Cauterets for lunch and to catch up on emails etc, and ended up having one of the most memorable meals of the trip... It was simply potato slices, fried with onion and cured ham, with a fried egg on top.
An apology to the foodies: we have no idea what it is called, it was just a “we'll have what they're having” job...
We headed deeper into the Haute Pyrenees on the road to Gavernie, almost on the Spanish border. Unfortunately the weather had returned to its unpleasant best, and the reason for our visit, the 'million dollar view' of the legendary Gavernie amphitheatre, was all but covered in thick black storm clouds. Based on the weather and lack of anything even resembling a view, we abandoned our attempt to walk the four hour round trip and headed back to a cheap local campsite to wait out the storm.
The next day the weather had cleared slightly, but not enough to inspire us to attempt the walk, so we packed up and headed to Luz Saint Sauveur to catch the Tour de France the following day.
Miraculously, we found a campground in the middle of the town and arrived just in time to jag the very last campsite. A quick walk around the town centre revealed nothing of interest in the way of a restaurant so we headed back to the van with a bucket of cooked mussels, half a rotisserie chicken, chips and a bottle of wine.
The fromagerie near our campground was worth a look...
On the day of the Tour, the town came alive. Thousands of people started flooding into town from about 10am onwards and filled the streets to catch a glimpse of the cyclists. It seems to us that every July, half the population of France and neighboring countries dust off the old ten-speeds and wobble around, wearing skintight racing strips, getting in the way of motorists. Unfortunately, most of these people shouldn't even own lycra, much less wear it in public!
We holed up in a little bar along the route and watched the stage on the big screen. We kept our gears lubricated with beer and rose until the leaders got to the outskirts of town at which point we went outside, found a spot on the curb and waited for the riders...
After the riders literally rocketed past us, we headed back inside and resumed our seats to watch the end of the stage.
The next day we packed up early and headed for Lourdes, the end of the following day's stage. We found a great little spot on a corner about four kms outside the town and settled in...
The TV cameras got a lot closer than this...
Rob manning the turret/sunroof
The famous ad caravan drives the stage about two hours before the riders, throwing advertising merchandise and product samples to (at?) the fans lining the roadside...
Yes, that man is wearing budgie-smugglers... Why? I do not know.
That's only half of it... Does anyone want a hat?
After two days following Le Tour around the Pyrenees, and getting ourselves on TV (the Smurf Mobile would have helped us there), we were thoroughly hooked... We spent every remaining afternoon in July catching at least the last hour of all the stages (except for rest days, and one evening on Ile Madam, when the manager of the only pub in the area refused to change the channel for us – Bastard!)
Thor Hushovd (front) eventually went on to win the stage
After careful review of hundreds of Tour photos, it seems that the one rider we did not manage to photograph (very clearly) was the eventual winner who was, incidentally, the bloke we went there to cheer on! Sorry Jeff and AJ – maybe next year?
Next update from Bordeaux and then the Atlantic Coast as we frantically try to catch up on July...