My ‘discovery’ of the western Pyrenees is almost by accident. I’ve been surfing along the coast of South West France and Northern Spain since the 1980s, and however much better the waves here may be than those back home, there are still the inevitable flat spells as weather fronts come and go.
During one such flat spell, I decide to head for the hills, having brought hiking boots and mountain bike in my camper van for just such an eventuality.
What I find is a world as far removed from the over-crowded beaches of the Atlantic surfing strip as can be imagined. From the verdant, rolling peaks of the foothills to the dramatic high-mountain scenery of the Cirque de Lescun, these have to be some of France’s loveliest, yet least-crowded mountains.
Sometimes known as the ‘French Dolomites’, small villages sit tucked beneath towering, monolithic limestone mountains, with little to offer the traveller other than basic but comfortable pensions and hotels and the occasional bar and restaurant. Which is perfect for me, as I’ve decided to free-camp with the van, for maximum self-sufficiency.
You’ll see few people around once you hit the trails, which can be a mighty relief after the hullaballoo of the coast – especially in August, which is traditionally the ‘mad’ holiday season in France. While back in Biarritz it’s impossible to find a rectangle of beach on which to lay your towel, over several days in the hills above Lescun you’d be unlucky to see more than a dozen people a day.
I park my camper in a clearing beside a small stream, and settle down for a quiet night in the company of a cheap but very good bottle of local red wine. The next morning, brilliant mountain sunlight forces its way into the van and wakes me up to another sun-kissed day in south-western France. I down a hasty breakfast, pack my rucksack and set off on foot for the Spanish border…
Immediately, I’m swallowed up by pine-scented forests, in which the sunlight dapples the trail around me, warning of the heat to come later in the day whenever its rays catch my shoulders.
The forest eventually opens out to bright green, springy alpine meadows where cowbells clank in the sun, soon followed by another welcome submergence into more shadowed forest. The day is quickly heating up. Soon after, I come to a small and basic collection of shepherds’ huts at the Cabanes d’Ansabère.
Hot on the trail
From here, the mighty pinnacles which make up the Aiguille d’Ansabère soar above me, almost powder blue in the late morning sunlight. It is a formidable, daunting sight – a hot, dusty trail seeming to rise almost vertically to the summits.
This trail above the cabins is the ‘crux’ of this ascent. It’s not especially difficult – I’m reminded of The Band on the Lake District’s Bow Fell, for instance – but the gradient is unremittingly steep and the trail has been cut through a gigantic limestone scree slope, so it’s not especially stable underfoot.
This being August, and now being mid-day, it is also very, very hot and dusty. By the time I reach the Col de Pétragème at 2,082m, where the gradient and difficult conditions ease off somewhat, I’ve been climbing continually for an hour and a half. And to be honest, I’m starting to wish I had a beach to run down to plunge into cooling surf.
Here, on the sun and ice blasted col where rocks lie cracked and broken after millennia of elemental abuse, there is at least a cooling breeze from the south to give some welcome relief.
Only for a while though, as the route continues up for some distance yet, with a scramble across limestone terraces to the barren summit where, at last, all my efforts are more than amply rewarded.
A summit to savour
Inspirational views are laid before me, featuring much of the western Pyrenees and, to the south, Spain’s sunburnt Selva de Oza. With the sun blazing from a cobalt blue sky, line after line of high peaks are now visible in every direction, the crags plummeting almost vertically hundreds of metres down towards my now distant campervan. I’m left feeling I’m on a via ferrata in the Dolomites rather than at the top of a trail through the Pyrenees.
I can find no excuse whatsoever not to linger here for an hour or so – there are several more hours before dark, so no rush to tackle the thigh-burning descent back to my camper. What’s more, with views like this to savour – not to mention the draw of a siesta in the sun – who would want to rush anyway?
Occasionally I can hear the conversation of a couple of walkers passing by, or the clank of gear from two climbers tackling the crags beneath which I’ve just walked, but mostly it is just the soughing of the warm breeze from across the border in Spain and the sound of mountain silence flooding my senses.
It’s easy to forget this is August in France – the busiest month of the tourist season. I guess if you came here at any other time of year you would have these spectacular mountains pretty much to yourself. Who says it’s an overcrowded world?