Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Massif Central

When planning this hike one of my main intentions had been to see whether I could comfortably hike in Europe during fall and winter. Therefore it had been important for me to avoid high altitude as much as possible. But going from Germany to Southern Spain on long distance hiking trails you will still encounter three major "obstacles": the Massif Central, the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada. And now I had arrived at obstacle number one: the Massif Central in the form of National Park Forez. I freely admit that I had never heard of the Forez before although I now know that it is quite a big area.

I assume it is also quite a beautiful area but alas I did not see much of it due to fog. The big rain had turned into the big fog and drizzle. The forecast did not look too bad when I left the cosy gite d'etape in Arfeuilles after waiting out the morning rain with resupplying in the little village store and talking to the other guests. These were a father who met his two kids once a month for a long weekend in the gite - because he lived far away and all other accommodation was too expensive. He therefore knew every single gite in the  area and even better showed me a website that lists all French gites. Another problem solved.

Monastery Notre Dame
When I left Arfeuilles to climb up into the Bois Noir or Black Forest even the sun came out - and then disappeared until now. The forecast had not taken into consideration that I was hiking at quite high altitude now. Over 1.000 m there seems to be eternal fog in fall. I therefore was quite happy to see a monastery sign on the map. I expected to find some ruins and a picnic shelter for my lunch break. But the hermitage of Notre Dame turned out to be an active monastery and a pilgrimage site - although on a cold and foggy weekday in October I was the only pilgrim. I politely asked the nun at the gate whether I could sit inside and eat my lunch and was of course allowed to - although the attendants of the midday prayer were kind of surprised to see a dirty hiker and a camp stove in front of their oratory. The nun was so enthusiastic about me that she even took my picture when I left.

The trail climbed higher and higher, but the many valleys in between led to a lot of elevation gain. The good news was that I was almost entirely off pavement here in the mountains. The bad news was that the forest tracks were so badly eroded that I was walking on loose rocks on each slope. Although not particularly difficult you have to concentrate a lot in this terrain and of course I ended up on my butt a couple of times just being happy that I had harmlessly fallen on my butt and not injured my knee again.

Soon I was approaching Pierre sur Haute at an altitude of 1.634 m. This was going to be the highest point of my entire hike in  France. It was a rather dismal day, especially at this altitude. Fog and drizzle made me miserable. I guess you have nice views from up there but I could only see about 50 m ahead. To make things worse fall was slowly moving in and the temperatures dropping. The worst from a hiker's perspective though was the total lack of trees. This was a grassy high plateau with no shelter whatsoever. And as the French do not believe in picnic shelters or huts I set a distance record that day. I could nowhere get out of the drizzle and therefore just hiked on and on. I felt more like in Britain than Southern France. Of course there was no other hiker out there and only the occasional cow coming out of the fog kept me company. When I reached the first pine plantation in the afternoon I could have kissed the trees.

I kept my speed the next day because another problem has surfaced: The forecast predicts a sharp temperature drop. I am now lying in my tent at an altitude of 700 m and at 9 pm it is still about 8 degrees. In two nights it will be -1 and the cold spell will last several days. My biggest concern now is my cooking system. My stove is already stuttering because it gets too cold for gas canisters. I had the same problem a year ago in my winter hike on the AT so I know the solution: a canister cosy. But I need to get into town to find suitable insulation material. Hopefully one cold night and two more days of hiking will get me into Le Puy where a lot of town chores are waiting for me.



Hi Christine.
Thanks for this new installment about the Forez. Being a seasoned hiker myself, I feel pretty guilty sitting here on my sofa with a mug of hot coffee while reading your account of walking in cold drizzle, fog and rain. Keep the good works up. I wish you well! Christian

German Tourist said...

Don't feel guilty any more, I am in 24 C weather now while a tornado is crossing Northern Europe.