Llamas and Lakes

Our Third Trip To The Pyrenees

After enjoying our last two trips to the Pyrenees, we mentioned to the owners how much we loved the mountains, the fresh air and the lovely mountain towns and they were kind enough to offer us their condo in Bareges for a couple of nights. So, once we had a clear week, no visitors and no lunches to cook, we booked our two nights and headed directly South, through Tarbes and on to Bareges. Once again, as we approached the mountains we were awed by their size and beauty and enjoyed driving the winding roads and narrow gorges up to the small town.

On arrival, we parked the car and found the condo. It was at the top of a 4-story building and had a beautiful view of the town square and towering green hills. We decided to find lunch and walked through the one-street town and came upon a creperie. We hadn’t had crepes or galettes since we had been in France, so this was a good opportunity to taste this lovely dish. Gooey cheese, ham and runny eggs on a buckwheat pancake was just perfect. After sipping a glass of wine and spending a while people watching in this small ski town, we were ready to move on. Bareges is at the bottom of the Col de Tourmalet, the highest peak on the Tour de France, so as it was only 2pm, and the weather was perfectly clear and warm, we decided to drive to the top and take in the scenery. Marcel, being and avid cyclist, was thrilled to ride the same road as the Tour de France, albeit in a car, and since he wasn’t on a bicycle, he decided that he might as well drive it like he was in a Formula 1 race! We whizzed up the mountain, screeched around the corners and kicked up dust when he got too near the edge. He was, however, very respectful of the cyclists, feeling their pain as they climbed the steep inclines, teeth bared with their efforts and muscles burning no doubt. He also slowed down for the many cows, sheep and Llamas… yes Llamas… that nonchalantly chewed grass on the roadside, only looking up occasionally to gawp at all the crazy people rushing by on bikes and in cars. The road was in good condition but there were no safety barriers on the bends or anywhere on the road, so Marcel’s full attention was on the driving. I noticed the chalk marks on the road, where spectators of the Tour de France had left messages of encouragement for their favorite riders and I had the window open breathing in the fresh air and occasionally the farmyard smells!

We reached the ‘Col de Tourmalet’, parked the car and made our way to the famous cyclist sculpture, navigating around a herd of llamas, with one of them appearing very adamant that Marcel should take her picture, her best side of course! (See photos). As we reached the peak, the view across the valley was breathtaking. We stood in awe at the view, looking down on the road we had just driven, watching others drive and ride up, gulped in the clean cool air and listened to the constant tinkling of the bells which were placed around the animal’s necks so they could be herded. We spent some time just enjoying the view and decided that after our trip to the Pic du Midi the next day, we would return with a picnic and do some walking to really absorb the sights and sounds. We returned to the car, via the sculpture where groups of grinning cyclists in their spandex gear, with heaving chests and sore, throbbing muscles jostled across the road, looking for the best photo opportunity with the silver cyclist proving their achievement of reaching Col de Tourmalet. And what an achievement! They had earned their photo op for sure.

After stopping off at the souvenir shop and buying a cow bell to remind us of our trip, we continued down to La Mongie to scout out where to catch the cable car to the Pic the next day. Back up to the Tourmelet and down the other side was just thrilling, and Marcel was in his element, speeding around the corners and making the motorists in front of us so nervous, they pulled off the road! We rested at the condo and after choosing a restaurant for dinner, headed out, only to be turned away as we had no reservation. We found another place in the street and enjoyed a meal of Tartiflette – a warm comforting pot of cheesy potatoes with lardons and onions – yummy.. I could feel every morsel finding a comfy spot on my already expanding, squidgy hips!

We took a walk around the town, peering over the wall that kept the raging river from overflowing into the town. The water was fresh and frothy, coming straight off the mountains and we imagined the great white water rafting that might be enjoyed during the spring melt.

After a good night’s sleep, we woke to blue skies, green mountains and fresh air. We had yogurt for breakfast and packed our picnic of ham, bread, cheese and wine and headed out to La Mongie to take the cable car up to Pic du Midi. The weather was forecast to deteriorate later that day so wanted to get to the top before it became too busy or too cloudy. Marcel was happy, up the Tourmalet again! Not quite so many cyclists or cars this time as it was earlier in the day, so he was able to go a little faster! The town of La Mongie is a ski resort, so at this time of year (August) it was quiet, but there were many cafes and restaurants and we imagined the hurly burly life during ski season, with all the après ski activities taking place. We bought our tickets and waited for the cable car. It was a fast car, which stopped halfway up the mountain where we had to disembark and take another car for the rest of the climb. The first half was so scenic, and we could see the sheep and cows, oh and llamas grazing on the lower pastures. Once in the second car the scenery changed to ragged rocks, steep climbs and less picturesque but very dramatic. It was a steep climb and we couldn’t see the top and the observatory from the initial part of this journey, but in no time at all, and after the wind decided to give us a few gentle rocks just to keep us alert, we arrived at the observation decks and observatory. The view was amazing, rocky peaks surrounded us on the southern side and the wide-open valley of Gasgony in all it’s green glory shone in the morning sun on our northern side. There were large birds taking advantage of the thermals and Marcel was very brave and walked out on the glass walkway which hung over the mountain. I refrained from that part of the excursion so that I could take his photograph… As we looked towards the mountains, we saw below us a lovely turquoise lake and deduced that it was not far from the Col de Tourmalet and thought it would be a good spot for a picnic. After the photoshoot and a hot cup of coffee, we headed back down the mountain with another delightfully scenic cable car ride.

We drove back up to the Col de Tourmalet, Marcel now very efficient with gear changes and able to expertly dodge the cyclists, who were back with a vengeance, along with the cows, sheep and llamas. We parked and took the walking path along the back of the mountain towards the Pic du Midi, which we could see in the distance, in the hope of finding the lake, or tarn – not sure if they call it that in France. We could see a tunnel through the mountain further along the path, but as we neared it, it appeared to be fenced off due to required maintenance and weren’t sure we could go any further. As we approached, a car came up beside us, which was a surprise as no cars were allowed and the pathway was gated at the entrance. An elderly gentleman exited the car, with his black cloth beret, heavy walking boots and a very large shepherds crook, along with a dog which seemed to be on its last legs. He was a ‘berger’ or shepherd and was out to collect his sheep. We asked for a photograph and he duly complied, glad to be part of someone’s photo album. We weren’t sure where he went, and didn’t see him again, although on our way back the car was still there.

As the tunnel was closed, we had to go around the outer edge and over the top on a very small path which wasn’t very long, just a few meters, but was on the precipice of the mountain. I was not sure I could do it, as vertigo seems to have become more common for me as I’ve become older. The draw of the lake enticed me on and holding on to Marcel and holding my breath we made it to the top of the path. Some French people passed us and could see my discomfort but were not tactful enough to stay quiet about how ‘le plus dificile’ it was on the other side. Determined to show that I was not put off we set off again, downwards this time, for just a few meters, and with a huge sigh of relief made it to the wider path. It was a good 2-3 kilometers when we turned a corner and there below us, we could see the lake! It was even more blue than we had seen the previous day, and we scouted out a flat grassy spot above it. It was quite a steep walk down but after seeing a young mother with a baby strapped to her and her other 3-year-old child manage it, with dad carrying a huge cooler with their picnic, I was sure I could do it. We worried for a moment that they had also scouted that spot but were relieved when they stopped a little way off, not wanting to have their kiddies be so close to the steep edge.

We didn’t have a blanket but laid out our coats and enjoyed our picnic and a bottle of wine in the beautiful surroundings. The sun was hot, the sky was dotted with snowy white clouds, a gentle breeze blew through the valley and the only noise we heard was the clanging of the cow bells echoing along the hillsides. It was heaven on earth, and I thought we were very lucky to be able to experience such beauty and peaceful surroundings. There was a large flat rock sticking straight out from the mountain with the lake as a backdrop so I encouraged Marcel to go down there and lay on it so I could get a photo. It looks like he is standing against a rock with the sky behind him, but he is in fact laying down, about 500 ft up from the lake below! We saw people swimming in the lake – brrrrr- and we were sure the guy hiking was taking the time to soap up and wash – Marcel’s camera has a great zoom lens! We watched as the llamas trekked around the lake, and the sheep ran in unison to whatever call they had heard, maybe the ‘berger’ we had photographed earlier, and watched as walkers stopped by the lake to rest and test the water – not many took the opportunity to swim. Time passed, and as forecast, the weather started to cool. We looked across the valley and saw the clouds slithering through the valley like some giant viper searching out its prey. We decided to pack up and head back. We climbed the steep incline to the path and looked down on the clouds as they came closer and closer, until finally they rose up around us and we were enveloped in fog. It lasted for a few minutes and cleared to reveal the permanent blue sky above and as we made our way back, the clouds came and went, giving us a dramatic send off to our visit to the Pyrenees. As we descended the Tourmalet for the last time, the clouds hung heavy in the valley and sat just above us for the rest of the evening.

We were hungry after all our walking and tried again at the restaurant we initially chose the evening before, only to be turned away again! As we were walking down the street, the owner ran after us, calling us back… she did have a table for two! I think her husband, who had turned us away the previous evening, must have seen us and took pity. Or he didn’t want a bad review on TripAdvisor?? We were lucky… the meal was exquisite… puree’d crudites with delicate beetroot hummus, seafood with 12 hour cooked pork belly, local lamb for Marcel, and for dessert, an explosion of lemon – lemon sorbet, lemon mousse, lemon coulis, meringues and nuts. We slept well that night, full belly, aching muscles, and lovely memories of a beautiful day.

And so to our last day! Our hosts had recommended a restaurant that was close to the town and we decided to go there for lunch before heading home. The day was grey and cloudy, as had been forecast and the restaurant wasn’t serving lunch until 12 noon, so we decided to take a nature walk across the river to a monument at the top of the hill. We headed out, it was drizzly and cloudy, and we walked along a path which climbed steadily up towards the Cross of St Justin. As we progressed, we looked down towards the river in the valley and eventually could not see it due to the low cloud. We encountered a few hikers on our way and when we arrived at the top, found a delightful gite and a creperie. It wasn’t open yet, so no refreshments but we found the cross, read all the inscriptions and realized this was an open-air church, with a type of altar with rocks for pews. We couldn’t see anything below as the clouds were comfortably nestled in the valley, deciding on a quiet lazy day.  After a few minutes rest, we descended and returned to the condo for refreshment and decided we should go for lunch. From the condo it was another steady walk up the other side of the valley, through canopied pathways, soft with pine needles and many twists and turns. There used to be a funicular railway in the town to the top of the hill, but which was now closed, and we passed under the railway several times on our walk up to the restaurant. After about forty-five minutes and passing under the railway for the fifth time, we really wished it had not closed down. We were cold and hungry and although the walk was very pleasant, it seemed longer than described, was a constant climb with no relief of flat terrain and we were very happy when we came upon an open meadow with the restaurant planted in the middle. We saw quite a few cars parked. Yes, we could have come by car, but that would have been too easy and boring.. and we started to worry that we would be turned away.. again. We decided that if that was the case, we would take part in our first ‘sit-in!’ We entered the restaurant, two other couples in front of us, who were reluctantly seated. Oh no! surely, they wouldn’t turn us away? I started to breathe heavily while Marcel asked for a table for two, emphasizing that we had walked up from the town. The young man looked at us and gave us a table that would have easily seated eight people!! We offered to share if anyone else came in. Relieved, we ordered beers and water – we were thirsty – and ordered the ‘plat du jour’. I turned out to be lamb stew, which was nourishing, warming and we thoroughly enjoyed our comfort food! We drank a glass of wine with our meal, coffee for dessert and could have easily found a sofa to curl up on. But we had to get going, back to the condo, pack up and head out for home.

The cloud had lifted a little and going down was slightly better than our uphill walk – the knees taking the brunt of the effort. We were glad to see the condo and had 40 winks before we loaded the car and made our way out of the town. Just as we were turning the last hairpin bend, I happened to look up and see the cross we had walked to that morning. It was perched very high up, and on the very edge of the mountain. As it had been foggy, I was unaware of how close the cross actually was to the edge and how high up we had climbed! Thank you fog – I would not have been quite so brave without you!  We passed beautiful villages and towns, narrow gorges and spectacular mountain views as we exited the Pyrenees, very aware that we had been blessed to be able to experience this beautiful part of the world….and see llamas!

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