Stealing the solitude

I awoke as the first grey light of dawn pushed through the thick clouds that still filled the valley.  Rain pattered discouragingly against the fly so I dozed, dreaming of sun filled days and hazy, distant mountains.  Confronting reality, most pressingly the reality that a swollen bladder cannot be contained indefinitely, I hauled myself out into the drizzle.

As I emerged, a bemused looking day walker surveyed our tent from the path across the stream.  He seemed slightly vexed and appeared to be wondering where we’d come from.  To have reached our camp already, he must have set off from Venasque at first light.  Generally, such an early start would have guaranteed that he had the hills to himself.

He appeared uncomfortable with the idea that we might have swindled him by spending the night there, beating him to this remote spot and stealing the solitude.  By carrying all our kit from the other side of the range, we had unashamedly cheated him of his early-riser’s right to be the first on the hill.

“Deal with it,” I chuckled silently, filling a pan and putting the stove on, making sure that the tea bags were in plain sight.  “I’m not just up the hill before you, I’m going to have a hot cup of tea too, right here in the Scotch mist.”

I tipped out last night’s dregs and dropped the tea bags into our mugs, whilst continuing my silent musings.  “We earned all this,” I reflected serenely, “yesterday evening battling the elements, while you sank comfortably into your sofa.”  I turned slowly, surveying the majestically remote setting in which I would savour my morning tea.  Yes, I had earned this.

“Ça va?” I smiled at him, raising a hand, but receiving no response.  “Buenos días! Good morning!” I tried, rapidly running out of languages.  He looked towards the sky, and then turned back to the trail, disappearing into the mist.  Had I completely ruined his day?

The drizzle eased off and we broke camp.  Initially, the path continued to pick its way across tiny streams, through a now familiar ‘pitch and putt’ landscape interspersed with broad crags.  But within an hour, the trail fed into a broad, flat valley with a single, wide, meandering river.  By now, the sun was making a laudable effort to break through the clouds, and the day was noticeably brighter, even though the sky remained grey.

We were now within easy reach of the road.  Beyond the river, a swarm of day walkers, in small groups scattered across the valley floor, were tucking into their lunch.  Others dithered on the edge of the river, watching us as we approached.  They seemed to be wondering how to cross the swollen torrent to explore the hidden lands from which we’d appeared.  We picked a crossing point and jumped confidently from rock to rock making it look easy, daring others to try.

But as we strutted cockily away, our bravado was abruptly deflated.  The path wound past a never ending succession of open picnic bags.  Large, freshly baked baguettes crammed to bursting point with delicious fillings (tomatoes, bacon, cheese, tuna, dressings, ham, lettuce…), fresh fruit, biscuits, cakes, chocolate bars, pasties, juice, soda…

We salivated our way past the provocatively displayed lunches to the head of a thundering waterfall, where we could not hear the sound of well fed day walkers chirping contentedly.  There we settled down with a handful of broken crackers and a tin of sardines.

But, as we picked spilt crumbs from the grass around us, the sun finally broke through the clouds and patches of blue sky opened up ahead.  The waterfall gleamed and the meadows took on that bright, fleshly washed appearance.  Our packs seemed lighter as we moved on, striding through a cacophony of cow bells towards the road-head at Port de Venasque.

An hour later, the trail terminated abruptly in a packed and dirty car park.  Seen through eyes accustomed to wilderness trails, its ugliness was stark.  But the popularity of this spot was to our advantage: the car park boasted a café.

It was just a timber shack on the edge of the car park but to us it had all the grandeur of the Coliseum or Taj Mahal.  We gazed entranced at the menu board.  Fresh food!  As much as we could eat, or at least as much as we could afford.  And such choice!  We ordered a monumental bacon baguette each.  “Pan con tomato?” we were asked.  “Si,” I replied, “Con queso?”, “Si, si!” I sucked my drooling lips.  “With anything and everything,” is what I would have said if I had known how.

Sitting beneath the sun shelters that had been provided for better days, we savoured this moment. Although the scene was far from perfect, we really couldn’t care less. Having crossed the Tuc de Muleres ridge in ghastly weather, we were on a dopamine high that a little drizzle and an unsightly car park could not quench.

As the body’s natural reward drug coursed through our veins, we administered a manufactured reward too. Chocolate! We indulged with abandon, and had to return to the café for more, having eaten the bars intended for the evening, as well as the bars bought to go with our second lunch.

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Links to other chapters:

Chapter 1: Pyrenean foothills, please; one way

Chapter 2: Lovers and fishermen

Chapter 3: Visions and vistas

Chapter 4: Shattered dreams

Chapter 5: The mountain gods

Chapter 6: Catching the drips

Chapter 7: Ghosts on the col

Chapter 8: Teeth of the storm

Chapter 9: Stealing the solitude

Chapter 10: Voulez vous!

Chapter 11: The yellow goblin

Pyrenees photo album

Aneto ridge from Port de Venasque / Puerto de Benasque

Aneto ridge from Port de Venasque

 Hey, that's my photo! See message on the Pyrenees home page

Recommended reading

Long distance walks in the Pyrenees

The guide book used by the Backpacker Diaries author.  It is one of a series of trekking guides from Chris Townsend, which cover mountain ranges on several continents.  It is currently out of print but copies are available via the link below.

Walks & climbs in the Pyrenees

Since the first edition in 1978, this book has become the authoritative guide to the range.  The new edition incorporates many revisions and includes more than 170 day walks, multi-day walks, climbing routes and mountaineering ascents.

The Pyrenees

A resource book covering the finest walks, treks and climbs in the High Pyrenees from the Cirque de Lescun, on the edge of the Basque country in the west, to the Carlit massif and the Cerdagne to the east of Andorra.

Through the Spanish Pyrenees: GR11

The GR11 is a high-level mountain trail following tracks and footpaths.  Affectionately known as "La Senda" (The Track), it crosses the Pyrenees from coast to coast on the Spanish side of the border.

Chapter 9 image 2

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