A vagabond's diaryJul 282016
It took me eleven days to hitch from Normandy to the Pyrenees. But this time I didn't want to plan anything, no routes, no accommodation, just being on the road again. After all, I had to take advantage of the brilliant weather. And this is how it happened:
Becky, Bob and the kids drive back to Scotland from their holiday house in Normandy. They take me to the motorway. Five minutes later, a German couple stop, and give me a lift to a motorway intersection south of Saint-Malo.
The place they drop me off seems promising: A roundabout which connects the slip roads leading on or off the motorway. It should be perfect. But the weather is so nice outside, so no one seems to be heading inland at this time a day. Everyone wants to go to the beach. So I wait there for three hours in the midday heat and try to stay in the limited shadows of the bushes. It is rather frustrating but at least a few cars are stopping to ask where I'm going. Unfortunately no one is headed my way.
My only option therefore, is to hike to the next slip road five kilometers up a hill. With the sun standing at the zenith and a heavy backpack it's tough going. The good thing is that I pass a lot of houses where I can fill up my water bottle. Always keep hydrated!
Two hours later I arrive at the slip road. I could camp here in the sheltered meadows but water levels are getting low and I can't spot any rivers or houses nearby. So it's thumb in the air time again! A French guy stops and apologises for the whisky bottle in his car. That's when the smell of booze reaches my nostrils. Well, he can only take me a short distance anyway, so I don't really care. We try really hard to communicate, but both his English and my French only allow very cryptic small talk. We say goodbye with a smile. That's a kind of universal communication. Everyone knows what it means.
A woman gives me a lift to Rennes. She even drops me off right in the city centre. I don't know what I'll be doing there. But she recommends to spend at least one night there, because it is a beautiful city with many young people. Alright, off we go! I carry my backpack around the town centre. Damn, it's really pretty here. There are loads of ancient medieval lanes, huge churches and an insane amount of bars. In the bright sunshine people appear to move only in slow motion. I eat my lunch/dinner in front of the Parlement de Bretagne. After a quick nap I move on again to find a place to spend the night.
All the water I drank has to go. I need a loo. The next bar seems to be inviting and is, coincidentally, an Irish Pub. So I can actually have a little chat with the bar keepers. They treat me to some water and beer and I spend a few hours with the staff: Peter, Connor and Evy.
Then sun is about to set. Peter tells me about a nice central park which won't get closed down during the night. Maybe I could sleep there. I take a look at the Square de la Motte. It is way more open than expected and it's still quite light outside. But nearby there's another green area which is far bigger; the Parc du Tabour. Locked. Too bad. So, back to the Square de la Motte.
A few young and harmless looking people sit on the grass. I ask them if they know an alternative place to stay. There is actually a park in the east (40 min walk) where I could definitely camp. But it's a bit dodgy and doesn't have a good reputation. They suggest I could stay at their house, if I'm happy to spend the evening in the park and then walk around an hour to their place. Of course I am! Hugo, Lucas, Gurvan, Sarah, Flavien and Lucie are all in their early twenties and either go to university or do casual jobs. They all speak English pretty well, so time flies. At four o'clock in the morning we reach the district Villejean. I even get my own bed and they offer to let me stay one more night, so I can explore Rennes without carrying my heavy backpack. Wow!
Gurvan and Sarah live together with a flatmate, but he is not here at the moment. And then there are a dog, a cat, fish and newts. The couple has to go to a family get together this morning, but I can just stay here or walk into the city centre again. It's nearly thirty degrees outside and so I walk without the rucksack through the idyllic town.
In the late afternoon I sit in front of a church and relax a little bit. Suddenly, I hear a deep male voice singing from the other end of the square. It sounds definitely like an opera singer. I just have to smile, because it is such a nice atmosphere. The man approaches me, smiles back and sings a little more to the music coming from his headphones. Then he asks me: Hey, are you Jesus? That's when I realise that I sometimes really look like a damn hippie. Long hair, beard, no shoes, sleeveless shirt. And on top of it I sit in front of a church.
We both laugh and get into conversation. Alain is (of course) an opera singer, to be exact bass-baritone. He is 41 years old and has lived in Paris for the last twenty years. But he comes from Rennes and is currently visiting his parents. Furthermore, he speaks German incredibly well. He says that it has been ages since he has practised it and has developed a strong French accent, but he thinks the accent is "charmant" anyway.
In the end he invites me for dinner and tells me a lot about his wild times as a student. He has experienced a lot but is also longing to feel the freedom of travelling for a while because working as a singer also means a lot of stress. We philosophise for a while and I say goodbye with a big thank you for the meal and the lovely company. And then I walk back "home" again.
After a long lie I go to the supermarket to buy some groceries. Gurvan and Sarah have just got up when I come back. We take a goodbye photo and then I take the subway to the other end of the town. It's only €1,50 and when I want to get some change, a woman offers to pay the ticket for me. Very kind, but hey, I have still got just enough money to pay it on my own. I pass every stop of the whole subway line and get off at the perfect place for hitchhiking: a big roundabout just before the motorway.
After five minutes of waiting, two women stop who are on their way to Saint-Jean-de-Monts, a place on the coast south of Nantes. That sounds good. So I get in and am dropped off near the campsites in the evening. It's way more touristy than I expected. There are only hotels, restaurants and campsites, nowhere to pitch my tent, and it's over thirty degrees outside, even at 7 pm. Seriously, every inch in this place seems to be either filled with buildings or fenced off. So I move on.
Finally I discover a small forest with picnic areas. A good place to have my dinner and wait for dusk. The pines and bushes provide a great hideout for my small tent. I scrounge some water from the people at the other picnic tables and look for a decent spot. The forest is quite light and open, but soon I find a small, well camouflaged little corner. You can't see the tent from the street. Parfait! And it's pretty warm so I won't even need a sleeping bag tonight.
At 6 am my alarm rings - just in time for seeing the sun rising. The night was really calm and there's not a single person lurking around this time of day. After a relaxing breakfast at the picnic table I go swimming in the sea. The water is nice and cool and wakes me up. I walk 3 km to a big supermarket, buy something to eat for the day and lift my thumb at the passing cars.
After a while a woman gives me a lift to Challans. I wait there for at least an hour and a half until a father and daughter stop in an American military jeep from 1962. Unfortunately, they can only take me a little bit further. But sitting in a car without doors at 36 degrees is still fun, even if it's not for long.
I get dropped off in the middle of a country road with no shade. Luckily, I don't have to wait long and a woman with her daughter gives me a lift to a big roundabout in La Roche, where a lot of cars are heading South. I can wait in the shadow, and there's a loo and water nearby!
After half an hour another woman stops. She can take me to a place just before Niort, on the way to Bordeaux. Excellent, I get in the car and fall asleep after a little conversation in incredibly bad French. This has never ever happened before. There's no chance of keeping my eyes open. Maybe I got a little more sunshine than expected. But that doesn't bother Charlotte. She wakes me up when we pass the junction where she has to exit the main road. I get out of the air-conditioned car. Bam! The sun is at it's highest point, and the tarmac reflects every single ray of sunlight.
I give myself one hour waiting time. After that I have to look for a place in the shade. I sit there for half an hour and think about how to ration one pint of water until tomorrow, as there is no house or river nearby. I pick myself up once more and raise my thumb for half an hour. Finally someone stops, two cars in fact! In the first car are a woman and her two sons on their way home. They live in Saint-Savinien and want to go to the Pyrenees as well. But not until the day after tomorrow. If I want I can camp in the garden, spend a day in the village and then come with them down South to the mountains.
I am really happy that I said yes. The village is beautiful and I realise now that I have arrived in the south of France. The houses are made of a light coloured lime stone ("pierre de Crazannes") and they all have blue or green shutters. All around there are rivers, canals and fields. Olivia, Côme and Roman live in a big house with an even bigger piece of land.
There are several storage rooms for materials and tools, because most of the rooms are not finished yet. I find a shady spot beneath two fig tress to pitch my tent.
Olivia is a painter and has got her huge workshop in the building next to the house where they live.
She offers to let me use the bathroom in there and spend some time on my own, if it should be too much "family" for me. But one thing I should go and see today: an old quarry where sculptors can now go crazy on the rock. The place is called "Les Lapidiales" and I soon realise why it is one of Olivia's favourite spots in the surrounding area. It's hard to describe, really. Just have a look at the pictures (click in the middle for a larger view):
In the evening they invite me to have dinner with them and after that I sleep like a baby, despite the full moon.
Today Olivia needs to do some errands in the village, but she offers me the workshop to make some music. Apparently, the room acoustics are great! A warm reverb carries guitar and voice through the huge room. I can finally sing as loud as I want, because no one can hear me here. When she comes back, she shows me some of her work. She is kind of specialised in painting portraits and always looks for opportunities to draw/paint people; either at her stall on the market, at concerts, in the music school, at friends or at the sculptors in Les Lapidiales. So she also asks me if she can draw me while I play the guitar. My first portrait:
In the evening three friends come around. Rochelle is a social worker in a school, Alex a gardener and Vero a proper chanteuse with a rough voice. She presents us with a few songs she has just learnt, complete with actions. If that's not France, then what is?
Today we are going to the Pyrenees! In the morning I pack my tent and make sandwiches for the whole gang. It's going to be a long drive. It's not easy for me to leave this place so soon. But I am welcome to come back whenever I want, be it for a relaxing vacation or for working on the house.
Olivia hasn't slept well so she asks me if I could maybe drive for a bit so she could have a little nap. Now, that's what I call trust, haha! What a nice feeling to be behind the steering wheel myself after such a long time of hitchhiking.
I drive quite a while and then I see the mountains appearing. Finally, the first mountains I have seen since Scotland, and a glimpse to the left gives a view of the Mediterranean Sea. Yes!!! During the 600 km's on the motorway we listen to the perfect mixtape for a road trip: reggea, Paolo Conte, Janis Joplin, Deep Purple (Highway Star)... I must say, the two boys have a brilliant musical taste for 12 and 13 years old.
We have a small break to buy some food for the next day and drive straight to the gîte that Olivia has booked for the family in Saint-Jean-pla-de-Cort. Unfortunately I can't camp on the property, but I have already seen a nice river that we passed on the way. Olivia drops me off there and I find a place in the (frankly way too high) grass for the night. With a view of the mountains. I have dinner by the river and then off to bed.
Heavy rain wakes me up at 6 am. Fortunately, it doesn't last long so I can pack my tent half an hour later, before the first dog walkers arrive. The tent cannot be seen from the path but I still don't want to cause a sensation. After everything is back in the rucksack I go and have a wee swim in the river. A little bit of hygiene won't hurt when you spend most of the day in a car, next to strangers.
I take my time in the morning as there is no one around. I take in my new surroundings. After the rain, the air is so much more humid than in the north. I can hear a few unknown birds and insects and bamboo grows everywhere. It is still only 24 degrees and the sky is cloudy. Actually, it's the perfect weather for hiking. But with the big backpack and 180 km in front of me, I would rather use my thumb again.
In a supermarket I meet a cashier who has also traveled the world and is a musician too. He becomes a bit envious when he sees me. So I let him play a little on the guitalele.
I get lifts from; a father who once crossed the Alps using a paraglider; a silent couple; a cool guy, who recommends me some nice hot springs in the mountains; a martial artist; and a boy who was smoking too much weed. After all that I had only covered 40 km's. Oh well, I have time, haha!
I walk out of Millans for 3 km and wait on a roundabout for ages. As soon as the roads become smaller there are hardly any cars. And when the sun comes out the heat is unbearable. Fortunately it stays mainly cloudy. Finally, a car stops! Two Danes take me to the small village of Maury. They offer me a shower in their holiday house and to have some wine with them on the terrace. To be honest, they remind me a bit of hobbits. Really cute. They also invite me to their home in Sealand, if I should be back in Denmark again one day. After a nice evening I go and buy a croissant and a baguette, because the only shop in the village is a boulangerie. And then I leave Maury, going up into the mountains behind. The whole area is full of hiking paths though, so I risk being seen tonight. But no one stops to complain.
In the night I can hear the wind rushing through the tree tops. Luckily, my camping spot seems to be well sheltered. It is a little bit cooler tonight, so I sleep better.
I get up at 7:30 am. Then I try to chew that disgusting baguette from the boulangerie. I thought all Frenchies make nice and tasty bread? Well, there must be exceptions, huh? On my way to the main road I pass the Danes' house. Inger sees me, waves and shouts "Have a good trip!".
At the end of the village I find the perfect place for hitching: a layby after a "speed bump". I only have to wait for twenty minutes until a woman and her two daughters pick me up. She has climbed a lot in the Pyrenees a few years ago and tells me about some of the best spots. The road to Quillan is stunning! The mountains are way greener and at the summit much more rocky than in the south. I look out of the window, in awe: it's one climber's paradise after another. It's also raining a lot more over here and the temperatures are more pleasant than on the coast.
In Quillan I wander around the market. There are so many tasty fruits, vegetables and nuts. If I could only carry all that. But I have to have proper bread. It's from a tiny stall which, given the queue, is probably sold out before the market closes down. It was worth the wait, yummy! At the tourist info I charge my phone and sit outside in the shade to eat and read. There's definitely no rush, because I have three days left to cover 100 km.
After the long break I walk uphill to the end of the town and wait for a lift. I would like to go to Lavelanet, because there is an outdoor shop, which may sell me a new metal eye for the tent to replace the one I lost this morning. But then Léo stops. He is on his way to Belcaire and convinces me to come with him, because the way there is "très joli". OK, why not?
We pass the Plateau de Sault (altitude: 1000 m) and on the sides we can see summits of up to 2500 m. Still, everything is so vivid and green. Léo is in his last year of apprenticeship. He learns every kind of outdoor sport you can do around here in order to teach them to children. He specialises in climbing, how cool is that? So we drive to his summer job. It's a campsite and I meet his colleagues Jim and Béatrice. 20-30 kids come here every week during summer and winter to do outdoor activities.
Léo offers me lunch. He mainly eats raw, so we have loads of fresh fruits, veggies and mustard. Jim shows me a lake around the corner where I can go swimming, mainly to clean myself! It's cloudy and 22 degrees.
Afterwards, they even drive me to the base of a mountain with climbing spots part way up where they say I will find a spot for my tent. Alright then, let's go up. The ascent takes nearly one hour and I can't find the climbing spot. I arrive at the summit drenched in sweat without passing a single flat piece of ground and I don't find anywhere on the summit. The only vaguely level place is the beginning of a ski slope. But as soon as I lay down in the tent, I realise why it is called ski "slope". Despite the sloping ground I fall asleep at 7 pm because I'm so knackered.
The night might have been long, but also extremely uncomfortable. I cant stay in one position for longer than half an hour, and my bones and muscles hurt. At least it is pleasantly cool at 1200 m altitude and the view in the morning makes up for it.
Because I'm still alone on the summit, I take the chance and sing loudly towards the village beneath me. There's nothing more liberating than singing at the top of your voice from a mountain!
The descent takes me only half as long and now I discover the little path to the climbing area, too late! I can't go there today because I only have one sip of water in my flask. I also realise I've left my shorts and towel on the line at the campsite so I'll have to return.
Jim asks me where I want to go today. Anywhere between here and Bédeilhac-et-Aynat. He recommends the town Ax-les-Thermes which lies in a deep valley surrounded by massive mountains. That sounds amazing and on the way I will also pass a fantastic viewpoint.
A couple give me a lift to Col de Chioula. There is a big parking area at 1431 m from which a lot of hikers depart to the mountains. I hide my backpack in the bushes and walk to the viewpoint which is 1.6 km further uphill. Sadly, the clouds hide most of the summits. But it is still impressive because here in Ariège I also enter the region of the three-thousanders. Some eagles are circling majestically around the peaks.
The only place to hitchhike further lies in the blazing sun which, here in the mountains, far away from the coastal breeze, can be quite merciless. After waiting for one hour I ask a couple in their fifties if they are going to Ax-les-Thermes. Yes, and I can join them. Stephane and Brigitte go there every year for a holiday and always arrive just in time for the festival "Spectacles de Grands Chemins". Stephane lives and works in Albi! He is the technical director of the theatre. Brigitte trains nurses in Nîmes. I tell them, that I'd like to bathe in the hot springs of the town. Just to relax or to clean? - they ask me. Well, to be honest, the latter. They say I should come to their holiday house and take a long comfortable shower instead.
So we drive down the switchbacks into the big valley and a bit further out of the town. The surrounding mountains are covered with green leafy trees and I can see where the ski slopes are in winter. They even offer me lunch and to wash some clothes. Brigitte gives me a little crash course in French, so I can make more small talk during the hitching. Stephane's daughters arrive by train in the evening. I could either camp in the garden or they could give me a lift out of town to sleep in the woods. I go for the former, because I would really like to spend a night on leveled ground again.
We pick up Marie (18) and Jeanne (12) from the train station. They find it really funny that their dad picked up a hitchhiker with the same name as their hometown.
We have dinner together on the terrace and chat in a funny mixture of French, English and Spanish. Then we play a game that doesn't involve too many language skills apart from counting and saying "stop". I could spend a week with this lovely family. It's just so relaxing, interesting and entertaining.
There's nothing better than a night on flat ground! I feel really revived. At 9 am there's breakfast on the terrace and after that we pack our daypacks. Today we will all hike through the Vallée d'Orlu. The parking space is situated at the bottom of the Dent d'Orlu, a massive mountain, which attracts thousands of climbers each year.
We walk along the river on broad footpaths. The weather is perfect, we have loads of great food in our backpacks and the girls teach me the French traditional song "Vent frais, vent du matin". The landscape is just spectacular. On our way we see marmots and pass a lot of donkeys who patiently carry the baggage of the lazy hikers. I immediately think about Capucine and Papa Noël from Normandy.
In the end there is a steep ascent over bog and tree roots up to a small and pretty waterfall. After five hours walking we get to the car, knackered. We have dinner in the house and play a fun card game. Then everyone falls into a deep sleep. Apart from me, because the last night in the tent is going to be rough again. Somehow, two dozen flies made it into my tent, and there are twice as many buzzing outside, waiting to get in. So I get my insect repellent and spray the whole tent. Just to sleep in a big chemical cloud on top of a pile of dead flies. Yummy. And the best is yet to come: the air mattress seems to have a hole. Anyway, I blow the damn thing up every half an hour after waking up with serious back pain!
It's a really relaxing morning again. We have breakfast together in the sunshine and I have time to air my sleeping bag and dry my tent on the line, before I pack my things together. Stephane and Brigitte offer me a lift out of town. They are going to go shopping in a big supermarket, which is on the road to my final destination Bédeilhac-et-Aynat. After just 10 minutes a blue-white Volkswagen T2 stops. Finally, a real hippie van! I always wanted to get a lift in one of these. The young French couple bought the bus four months ago and they are travelling from Lyon over the Pyrenees up to the Atlantic coast and on to Paris.
They even go a bit further and drop me off in the wee village where I finally meet the English couple Jon and Deborah and their two sons Dylan and Nathan. They have a small house right next to the climbing area of Calames with a gite they rent out and a lot of plans for their big piece of land. But this is going to be part of the next report. They extend a warm welcome to me and in the evening we go up one of the many peaks to enjoy dinner with great views.