Voulez vous!

The distant sound of thunder echoing round the upper valley spurred us into action.  We stashed our remaining chocolate and walked for a short distance along the road before striking north up a grassy hillside towards the French border.

All across the mountainside, youngsters from a summer camp had arranged thousands of stones to commemorate their visit.  Dozens of names were carefully spelt out, overlapping where distances and sizes had been misjudged.  The inscriptions had survived well; beside them was the caption ‘Benasque 1995’.

Our path was rough and poorly marked and, with the ridge cloaked in mist, it was difficult to be sure which route led to the col.  The final part of the ascent crunched across loose, slippery scree; if we were on a path at all, it was indiscernible.  But at the border, everything changed.

From the breach, a solidly built path descended into France in a series of neat, evenly engineered zig-zags.  The terrain was identical on both sides of the divide, but the French clearly didn’t indulge in such profligate siestas as the Spanish.The bare, granite walls of a high-sided cirque curled away to left and right embracing a sizeable lake.  Three much smaller pools shimmered in its wake; tiny lakelets following their mother to a safe haven within the formidable rock amphitheatre formed by an ancient glacier.

We paused briefly on the ridge.  Behind us lay a land where I had only a limited, self-taught understanding of the language.  Ahead, I envisioned articulate banter using the rigorously schooled French that I had lovingly preserved, that is to say, put on a shelf in a dusty recess of my mind and left undisturbed for some ten years.

A challenge was issued: before we crossed back into Spain, a French phrase, plucked from a song that had at some point been in the British music charts, must be integrated into conversation with a native.

I started work immediately, scripting imaginary dialogues, trying to find a way to slip the well know Vanessa Paradis line into informal small talk.  A short while later, with a pile of discarded scripts littering my mind, I declared that “Joe le taxi” was a non-starter.  I started work on “Non, je ne regrette rien” instead, although I was not sure that it had ever made the charts.

The regular footing of the meticulously constructed trail allowed us to make a quick descent.  We were soon within the cirque, where we followed the lake shore to simple mountain refuge.  We could hear voices from within – French I thought.  There was neither an entrance porch nor any sign of the warden, so we ducked through a low external door straight into the dormitory.

It was warm and steamy inside.  Waterproofs adorned every wall and trailed from a line across the middle.  Four middle aged French couples were engaged in boisterous pre-dinner banter.  Somehow, they filled every available space, some milling about on the floor, others sprawled across a pair of wide, communal bunks.

We surveyed the cramped and oversubscribed quarters and then turned to go.  Refuge Port de Vénasque had looked enticing on the map, perched as it was on a rocky outcrop by the lake shore, with the cirque wrapped protectively around it.  But it was full to overflowing.  We pulled our collars tight and headed outside; it would be another evening camping in the rain.

Cries of surprise recalled us.  The inhabitants, shuffling closer together, made sufficient space and insisted that we sit down.  In faltering French, we swapped notes – they had climbed from Luchon that day and were heading into Spain tomorrow.  The light was failing and they would not hear of us camping in the rain.  We were easily persuaded, being none too keen on setting camp in the gathering gloom.

The washing line sagged lower as we added our sodden clothing to drip and steam through the night.  Whilst we unpacked our stove and dinner rations, a burst of raucous laughter suddenly convulsed the group.  Everyone was looking at us.  We glanced self-consciously at each other and the dried food in our hands, and then turned questioningly to the smiling French hikers.  “She is excited because tonight she will share the bed with two young men,” a man explained, indicating someone else’s wife.  We smiled at the joke then a lyric popped into my head and I availed myself of the opportunity:

“Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” I enquired with a twinkle in my eye. This was a rather brazen interpretation of the challenge. There was a sharp intake of breath from Alan, who feigned complete absorption in the task of straightening a buckle on his rucksack. The woman’s husband was clearly gathering himself for a suitable response. I ducked out the door.

It was cold outside and the rain was now falling more purposefully. I had no reason to be there. At least, I would have had no reason to be there if I could have summoned up sufficient French vocabulary to explain that my brazen invitation was merely part of a game we were playing.

But I had won a beer, which is what matters the most.

     << Previous                             HOME                                         Next >>

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

Lac de Vénasque enclosed within its high cirque

Lac de Vénasque enclosed within its high cirque

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.

Refuge Port de Vénasque

Refuge Port de Vénasque

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

Make a Free Website with Yola.