Day 31: Etsaut to Oloron-Sainte-Marie

Friday, 27 June 2003
Distance 39 km
Duration 8 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 357 m, descent 693 m
Map 69 of the Top-100 series
Topo-guide Le Chemin d’Arles (blue cover)

Walking in France: Leaving the Pyrénnées on the Way of Arles

Leaving the Pyrénnées on the Way of Arles

We set off from the gîte after a comfortable night as sole occupants of the dormitory. Thick cloud hung low on the slopes, erasing from view the heights that we had come down yesterday.

Our way continued down, but more gently, following the river Aspe and, unfortunately, the highway. We were on the GR653, the Way of Arles, doing something that was part of every pilgrim’s journey in medieval times but is never done these days, namely walking back from Compostela.

The track stayed close to the road and river, confined by steep mountain flanks, for the first couple of hours. It was good walking weather, cool and overcast. We passed the pretty hamlet of Cette-Eygun and the place where the road turns off to Lescun, only five kilometres away (after our Herculean efforts of the day before, this was hard to believe.

Then the GR diverged into a tunnel of foliage and we were soon out in open fields, dotted with fruit trees and grazing animals, approaching the grey-roofed of village of Accous.

Walking in France: Following the river Aspe downstream

Following the river Aspe downstream

Accous had a substantial church and a large school, but as it was no longer on the main road there were no cafes. We were feeling the need for second breakfast.

At the Mairie, we found out that there was a bar and an Office of Tourism at Bedous, a few kilometres away, on the highway. Compared to most of our experience in the Pyrenees, this sounded good, and we covered the extra distance with ease.

It helped that we ignored the GR, which was wandering off on some mission of its own, and took the little tar road directly to Bedous.

Walking in France: Main square of Bedous

Main square of Bedous


Here we were showered with pamphlets and advice at the Office of Tourism, the principal message being that we should stay in their town, which had a camping ground, shops, a bar and a restaurant.

We retired to the bar, a warm, wood-panelled cave where the barman was quietly reading the paper. With large fragrant coffees in front of us, we considered our options. It was only 10 o’clock, we were not tired, despite having walked 14kms, and Oloron was about 20kms further. We decided to press on.

Walking in France: Looking across the Aspe to Sarrance

Looking across the Aspe to Sarrance


Looking back, this was not a good plan. We would have done better to start later from Etsaut, perhaps first doing the circuit of the Chemin de la Mâture, then descend to Bedous for the evening, leaving Oloron for the following day.

Off we went, across the bridge, striding down the left bank of the river. The track was beautiful but surprisingly irregular, alternating between stiff climbs in forest and sudden descents to water level.

We passed a couple of ruins, crossed to the right bank and continued downstream to Sarrance, which had an Oriental air because of its onion-domed church. Perhaps some returning crusader had brought back the style.

Walking in France: The entrance to the gigantic cathedral in Oloron

The entrance to the gigantic cathedral in Oloron

From there we took to the highway for a while, and reconnected with the GR as it turned into Escot. This village was strong on flowering window-boxes but weak on bars, being off the highway.

We ate our lunch at the base of the sad war memorial and set off for Lurges in hopes of a coffee. These hopes were momentarily raised by the sight of a big restaurant, then dashed as we saw the Closed sign.

The less said about the remaining distance to Oloron the better. It became more of a penance with every kilometre.

We reminded ourselves that returning medieval pilgrims would not have been so peevish; they would have been grateful to have escaped the wolves and bears of the mountains.

Our first view of the outskirts did not improve our mood – we had to traverse a depressingly ugly new area to get to the camping ground and then got lost in a gypsy encampment with kids bailing us up for money.

Walking in France: Composing an email over coffee in the cathedral square, Oloron

Composing an email over coffee in the cathedral square, Oloron

However, things improved after showers and a rest. We strolled in towards the centre of town, a much more appealing architectural experience than our arrival had been, and came to a gigantic cathedral. It stood in a square of low shops like an elephant in a playpen.

With unseemly haste we installed ourselves at the nearest bar and indulged in large reviving coffees. Then, for the first time in three weeks, we were able to send an email.

For dinner we found a lovely little place with a glassed-in terrace, le Trinquet. A beautifully elaborate plate of hors d’oeuvres heralded equally delicious main dishes of pepper steak and juicy pork chops.

Keith finished with a crème brulée and I had a grand crème (which is coffee, not dessert), to make up for the long coffee-starved miles we had covered that day.