Thursday, 26 June 2003
Distance 13 km
Duration 5 hours 10 minutes
Ascent 809 m, descent 1059 m
Map 69 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Topo-guide (ref. 1086) Pyrénées Occidentales
Once again there was heavy rain in the night, but by morning it had given way to dense white fog. Everything outside was wet, so we ate our muesli sitting up in the tent, then carried our possessions to the dry porch of the office to pack. It was 7:30 by the time we left and very soon the GR parted company with the road, taking an old cobbled way that must have been the original main thoroughfare.
It rose steeply under a canopy of dripping leaves and before long our boots were full of water from the long grass, squelching with every step. This is the classic way to get blisters, but in this case we did not.
Crossing a stream, we took a pleasant level path through a beech forest, then past farms, to reach the scatter of houses known as Lhers. One of the houses was having its slate roof replaced, but apart from that there was no sign of life.
The hillside beyond was overgrown with bracken and we had trouble finding the GR signs, but eventually found them going up the steepest part of the slope. Keith was groaning under his big, sodden pack. When we came to a forestry road, we sat on some logs to have a preliminary lunch of, then struggled on, the track becoming a slippery chute of rocks and tree-roots, submerged in mud.
It took an age to get to the top of the Col de Barrancq and we set off down the other side with alacrity. There was no view to detain us. Soon we came out from the forest into grassland, beautiful alpine meadows full of flowers, including wild bilberries and the yellow gentians we had last seen in the Lot.
The ethereal music of sheep-bells came through the mist, followed by the flock and their Christ-like shepherd, moving steadily upwards. We continued down, through another forest and found ourselves at last below the cloud, on a hillside of wet bracken.
Here we paused under a tree to eat another round of bread and cheese. Soon afterwards we had our first view of the twin villages of Borce and Etsaut. It was like looking out of a plane.
The descent was long, slimy and knee-buckling, but at length we arrived at a tar road, right next to the church of Borce, and plunged joyfully into the town.
We sat down at a bar in the crooked main street, under an umbrella, as it was now sunny, and ordered the first coffee hit of the day. While we waited we took off our boots and wrung a stream of water from our socks, to the amusement of a Belgian couple beside us.
We found out from the waitress that the camping ground at Borce was closed.
To get to Etsaut it was necessary to go down and cross the river and the new highway, which goes through a tunnel under the Col de Somport into Spain. The older main road through Etsaut has become a quiet access way.
We asked at the post office and were told there was no camping, but there was a gîte nearby, an old farmhouse recently renovated.
The woman in charge asked whether we wanted the dormitory for €20.40, or a private room for €27.40. Taking a gamble, we chose the dormitory, which ended up a good move as all the other guests chose private rooms, leaving the dormitory to us.
Because of our over-large packs, we had come to the conclusion that our walk along the GR10 should be brought to a dignified end before it ended us.
There was one more sight to see, however – the Chemin de la Mâture, a man-made eighteenth century path carved out of a sheer cliff to allow access to the high forest of Pacq. The aim was to bring out the tall, straight tree trunks for use as masts in the Royal Navy.
Revived by showers, we set off in sandals up the old highway, which became a gravelly wheel-track and then a path. A gorge opened beneath our feet as the path entered a roughly-hewn slot in the cliff. It was 500 metres to the bottom. I felt the pit of my stomach sink as I looked down.
The men who carved this track prided themselves on their toughness. They were lowered on ropes or climbed down long ladders to work on the cliff face and it is certain that many of them fell, either during construction or whilst bringing the timber out. It was said that only Basque or Béarn men could withstand the rigours of the life.
A short excursion along this track was enough for us. We returned to the gîte a different way, through Borce, stopping to buy a map, have more coffee and admire the ancient houses, some of which had bread ovens projecting from the wall. Before dinner we had apéritifs in the bar of Etsaut’s only hotel and then joined the well-dressed company in the dining room.
We chose the fixed menu, starting with the inevitable garbure, which the waitress ladled out carefully at the table. She was a plain girl in a suggestive red dress, much appreciated by Keith. There followed a selection of hors d’oeuvres and charcuterie, then steak with parsley butter and finally a dish of black-currant and coffee icecream. A typical French meal and one that we never tire of.
So ended our strenuous but fascinating walk in the Pyrenees.
From Etsaut, catch a SNCF railway bus (autocar) to Oloron-Sainte-Marie which has a railway station. From there you can go to almost anywhere in France.