Hiking the Pyrenean Way (GR10) - September 2013

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Saturday 3 May 2014

Hiking the Pyrenean Way (GR10) - September 2013

Our 10 days on the Pyrenean Way was definitely our most adventurous hike to date and a final test of how we would be able to manage on a long trail hike, especially with my health issues. There are in fact 2 Pyrenean trails running from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean sea, the GR10 on the French side of the border and the GR11 on the Spanish side. We decided to stay on the French side as Esther speaks some French and we were already flying into Perpignan.

In reality we weren't even certain if we were going to do the Pyrenean Way when we landed in Perpignan. It just felt like a bit too much of a step up from our previous trips. We'd hiked along the coast earlier in the year and had lots of experience in the Lakes over long weekends, but this felt different. This time we'd be in the high mountains for 9-10 days, away from built up civilisation and very much on our own. So although we'd packed for the trail and stripped our bags down even more than for our Easter trip to Costa Del Sol, there was still a part of us that was ready to spend a week camping by the sea if the mountains looked too hard.

Col de la Perche - the start of our hike
In the end we found ourselves in the mountains much faster than we ever expected.  Having met the most helpful tourist information guide we'd ever come across in the central Perpignan Tourist Office, who had walked the trail herself the summer before. We soon had the number of the "1 Euro" bus we needed to catch, had picked up extra supplies of muesli, nuts and seeds and were up in the mountains before dark. (The 1 Euro bus company offered on all their routes, however many stops you were on the bus for, a fare of just 1 euro! Good value for our almost 2 hour ride up and into the Pyranean mountains!) We'd expected to spend at least one night in Perpignan, but now we were at 1700m altitude at Col de la Peche with a 5km walk to our first camping. On we went.  We spent our first night on a very quite farm camping.

Armed with our Cicerone guide, "The GR10 Trail", describing the route and accommodation options we
First wash of the day!
didn't have to worry too much about what was ahead and could just take things one day at a time. We woke early, filled our water and set off for the first of many long days ahead. We had 20km to walk with several ups and downs including a 1000m ascent of Col Mitja at 2370m altitude. We were very lucky with weather throughout our trip, with the days starting chilly and then warming to a hot sun in the middle of the day and cooling at night. The going was hard and some of the climbing was slow going as we were still finding our fitness to climb at a steady pace carrying our packs. Plus, with all of our dehydrated food on board our packs were the heaviest they would be all trip. But we pushed on and as the sun dipped below the mountains we arrived at the Refuge du Ras La Caranca at 1813m where we would camp the night. I also got my first taste of washing in a mountain stream, which was brilliant, if a bit cold!

The only way is up
Woken by cowbells and with ice on our tent we packed as quickly as we could to keep warm the next day day and set off up a shady climb of about 600m to Coll del Pal. Today's stage in the guide (Day 43) was a short 11km and by the time we'd arrived in Mantet having stopped to dry our gear from the night frost it was still only mid-afternoon. Scouting ahead for the next stage we decided to push on to Py where there was a refuge, but when we arrived after another 6km it wasn't very inviting and had a very strange frenchman already making his bed for the night. So we pushed on again and climbed up to Coll de Jou. We had a choice now, to descend off the GR10 to a campsite at Castill, or push on in the dark to the Refuge du Marialles. We descended and, arrving at in the pitch darkness, enjoyed a nice hot shower and a long sleep at a lovely campsite.
Food never tasted better.
Cooking above 2000m!

Day 3 began with a slow start as we worked out how to rejoin the GR10. A local trail should allow us tomeet the main GR10 at the Col de Segales about 1700m above our heads. A stiff climb. And it was. The trail just went up and up and up and as the sun got hotter we had no choice but to push on. Eventually, after several hours of hard slog we reached the Col and cooked our lunch. Home-made dehydrated food has never tasted so good (even though whatever is in it, it always seems to tastes the same!). From here it was a relatively flat traverse around the base of the Pic du Canigou until we found a nice flat spot to pitch our tent for the night. It was at this point Esther chose to tell me that there were bears in the Pyrenees. So instead of falling straight to sleep like my body wanted, I lay awake for 3 hours listening for bears! Imagine how I felt when I got up for a pee, flicked on my head torch and saw eyes in the distance. Bloody Marmosets.

Day 4 started as all days seemed to, with a climb and a beautiful traverse further around the Pic du Canigou. Probably the hottest day so far, by the time we stopped for lunch it hurt to be in the sun. We trekked on, descending steadily to about 1500m from a high point at 2250m and aiming for a refuge at Auberge du Batere. But when we got there we decided to push on instead of stopping. Why, I don't know, but we did. We had about 3 hours until dark and 11km to the camping at Arles-sur-tech. But that was ok because the route profile showed it as steadily downhill. This turned out to be wrong, very very wrong. Instead of a steady 1200m descent we dropped about 800m, climbed about 500m back, zig-zagged around a valley and all over loose rocky terrain. We were tired and emotional when we eventually staggered into Arles-sur-tech at 8pm and pitched up in the dark and after a quick shower, just collapsed for the night.

Day 5 began with a much slower start as we seriously considered catching a bus to the coast, but we steeled ourselves, had a big feed from the local supermarket and set off on the trail again. The 500m or so climb out of Arles felt longer in the heat and once at altitude again we climbed up further to around 1150m at Coll Cerda. The route after Arles was much less exposed so we could enjoy the shade of the trees. As the day drew to a close we arrived at what we thought was a refuge only to find an abandoned looking farm full of barking dogs. We waited until we saw a man heading into the buildings if we could camp instead on a patch of grass outside his farm gate. He said "oui" so we started to pitch, but he appeared again beckoning us into the farm. He then unlocked what must have been the closed down refuge and said we could stay for free, helpfully reappearing with toilet roll as well.

The following day we had no way of thanking him but left a "merci" in stones on his doorstep before heading off. Another very long but peaceful day in the high mountains followed but the end of the day was surreal. Arriving into Perthus, described as a tourist trap in our guide we were confident we could find a B&B for the night before completing our trek to Banyuls-sur-mer tomorrow. However, instead of a tourist trap we had wandered into a French/Spanish border duty-free mecca of booze, cigarettes and perfumes. Most importantly there was no B&B. Well there was, but it was closed on a Wednesday and today was Wednesday.  We started to ask around and tried a security guard who stopped what seemed to be a random passer by who offered to drive us to a B&B on the Spanish side of the border 4km away on the motorway. Long story short, it turned out this gentleman owned the perfumery we had been outside when we asked for directions and he owned another one just over the border next to a very reasonably priced B&B where we stayed the night. The next day he even arranged for one of his staff to drive us back to Perthus where we had left the GR10.

Looking back towards the Canigou
We had one long day left to the sea and we set off on Day 7 with enthusiasm. A long drag of a climb out of Perthus took us from the lower slopes at 300m to the wooded slopes of 1300m over the course of the morning followed by a nice traverse of a ridge tracking the French/Spanish border passing old border posts and lots of cows, followed by a steady descent as the sun set into Banyuls. A total of 34km to finish off our GR10 trail, covering 180km in just a week.

Collioure in the sea mist!
We actually reached the end of the GR10 proper the following day (day 8) when we reached the beach at Banyuls-sur-mer and found the tiled sign marking the eastern end of the route. From here we turned north and followed the coast path about 10km. After a week in the baking sun of the mountains our last couple of days were covered by a thick sea mist which rolled in and meant all we could see of the coastline we were now following was our feet. But it was still warm and we sweated like never before along the never ending up and down of the coastline. We camped that night in Collioure and walked the following morning to Argeles from where we caught the 1 Euro bus back to Perpignan.

Early morning walk to the airport
Our final night in a cheap Pension followed by an early morning walk to the airport and a flight home (It was a Sunday and the first bus didn't run until after our plane had taken off so we packed up before breakfast and walked). It was a chance to reflect on what we had achieved. We had met our goal, we'd headed into the hills powered by our own home-made dehydrated food and I'd managed my health issues on the mountainside thanks to access to the refuges and campsites where I was lucky to arrive at convenient times for my body.  We'd not only survived but enjoyed it all. Sure, we were a bit smelly and had lost a couple of kilos, but we'd also covered 10 days of the GR10 guide in just 7 days. Mission accomplished.  The experience gave us a real taste of the long distance hiking trails and life in the hills.  It has left us wanting to come back to walk the whole of the Pyranean Way in the future......

Plaque marking the end / start of the GR10 in Banyuls sur Mer

1 comment

  1. The most impressive thing is walking from le Perthus to Banyuls in a day! I'm planning to do it again this summer, but allowing three days...


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