Monday, 28 October 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: The Causses

The predicted torrential thunderstorm took a very long time to arrive... The night that I had spent in an obscenely expensive (for my usual standards) B&B had been completely dry. I was about to get severely pissed with the weather forecast when it finally started thundering - as I was sitting at the breakfast table. Luckily I was allowed to stay a bit longer in my room and when I finally left at 11 am the sun was shining again. The thunderstorm had been a very little one and I could have easily camped and hiked through it. But the two half rest days had done me good although having been expensive. I had even seamsealed my tent for the fourth time - only to find out later that it hadn't helped again...

I was now traversing several causses, high limestone plateaus crisscrossed by rivers that have cut more or less spectacular gorges into it. The whole area had looked quite uninteresting on the map but turned out to be very nice. As there are no water sources on the plateau agriculture is not possible and the vast area is mostly used for grazing. There are hardly any settlements and consequently no traffic on the narrow country roads. A big advantage for me! I had had a hard time piecing together a route through this area and because there weren't many hiking trails I had to refer to a lot of road walking. And this turned out to be very pleasant roadwalking: No traffic and great scenery. Unfortunately the weather was mixed. Although I had some sunny days of hiking I also encountered lots of fog and drizzle. In Le Puy I had bought a blaze orange cap, mostly to warn hunters of my presence but it came in handy for roadwalking in the fog, too.

I finally reached the GR 71 where a new problem was waiting for me. In the village of Ceilhes a small sign announced that the GR 71 had been rerouted. It just said a couple of villages the trail ran through now and otherwise recommended to follow the trail marking. Great! This is the sort of surprise that doesn't make me happy. A quick look at the map revealed that this was am extensive reroute. I would beer on unknown trail for at least a day. My biggest problem in this situation is that I don't know the reason for the reroute. If it had been rerouted just for better scenery I could still follow the old trail and be on the safe side concerning mileage and duration. But if the old trail had become impassable for whatever reason than I had to follow the new trail and hope it would not be much longer than the old one. What annoyed me most was the fact that this was the only trail section I had the most recent maps for and still they were pretty useless now.

Grudgingly I decided to follow the new trail and hope for the best, but of course this was the wrong decision. The new trail meandered around and seemed to always follow the longest and most exhausting trail option possible. And as I did not know where it went I could not shortcut it. The new route took me through the touristy little village of Avene where I hoped to get some enlightenment at the tourist information but instead I was confronted with a bad example of French arrogance. When I asked the lady working there if she spoke English she reacted as if I had made her an indecent proposal and just said NO with utter disgust in her voice. NO, she did not know of any hiking trail or reroute, NO, she did not have any maps, NO, she did not care if I understood her French or not. I wonder why someone refusing to speak English or be helpful works in tourism....

Mountain refuge
To cut a long story short: the reroute cost me half a day which was crucial regarding my food situation. My next resupply was Labastide and I had to be there Thursday evening or I would be hungry. To be on the safe side I started stretching my food as I was expecting more surprises. And I decided to night hike when some local day hikers told me about an open refuge. Instead of following the trail I made up my own reroute on forest roads which was easy at night. Of course just then the batteries of my GPS died and when switching it on again the device had one of its nasty hiccups and did not even display maps. After a short bout of panic and a couple of reboot attempts it finally decided to work again otherwise I would have had a really bad time on the labyrinth of forest roads at night. But I made it safely to the refuge which was indeed open but not the most recommendable one. The roof was leaking and it wasn't the cleanest one either.

Trail closed - no detour
Despite leaving before sunrise it became quickly apparent that I would not make it to Labastide in time, especially since more reroutes and trail closures without any reroutes where holding me up further. Well, I want to loose weight anyways and therefore a very small lunch and dinner with no chocolate desert did not kill me. And when I finally got into Labastide in the morning with not a morsel of food left I treated myself with pain aux chocolate for breakfast. The most amazing thing on this last stretch had been the mushroom hunters. For weeks I had not seen anyone in the forest and now the place was teeming with people. One sunny morning I saw 100 cars parked along forest roads within two hours of hiking! Everyone was out for mushrooms and I as a hiker stuck out like a sore thumb.

Before I reached sunny Carcassonne I still had to traverse the Nore mountains and go up over 1,000 m - and of course the weather was bad. I probably missed a lot of spectacular views but due to fog visibility was down to under 50 m. It was a pity... but I just wanted to get to Carcassonne now. Surprisingly enough I met another hiker here in this bad weather, a Dutch guy exploring the region with day trips. This was one of the rare occasions to get a full picture of myself! Notice the fashionable orange cap.... The lower I got the less fog until eventually even the sun came out. No wonder, I had started the day in almost impenetrable fog at 1,000 m and ended it with a stroll along the Canal du Midi in Carcassonne at 100 m.

Canal du Midi in Carcassonne
I had been in Carcassonne last year on my hike across Western Europe but this time I was actually hiking right through it. Like last time I stayed at the youth hostel in the mediaeval city and it was a pleasure to come into a city and know exactly where everything is. Last year I had been so exhausted that I had not seen much of the city and this time I wanted to change that. I decided to stay two full days, but again one entire day was filled with town chores like updating this blog, a trip to Decathlon and resupplying. Carcassonne rewarded me with sun and a day time temperature of 24 Celsius.

In a week I will cross the Pyrenees into Spain. The crossing should not pose any problem and is described in all guidebooks as doable year round. After that I hope to be out of any time pressure. I hope to be so far South now that the approaching winter should not have much of an impact any more. Only towards the end of my hike in the Sierra Nevada in Andalusia I will climb up so high that snow could become a problem - but this is still way ahead. Right now I am looking forward to sunny Spain....

Saturday, 19 October 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Aubrac

My timing for Le Puy had been perfect. I waited out the cold days in my lovely room in the gite St Francois with central heating, got all my stuff done as good as possible under French circumstances (i.e. no decent outdoor shop) and spent a leisurely Sunday almost entirely in bed not doing anything. I left Le Puy Monday morning well rested and eager to be hiking again.

For three days I was now in the GR 65, the most famous French pilgrimage trail from Le Puy to Santiago. And despite the late season there were plenty of pilgrims on the way - quite a bit of a culture shock for me. For weeks now I had not seen any other hikers and now all of a sudden five and more hikers per day. In summer this must be a very busy trail. There are several gites in every village and the advertising for trail services is almost as bad as in Spain. Ads for hostels, taxis and food are stuck on signposts and trees. The tourist information in Le Puy hands out a 16 page service guide for the GR 65 for free in several languages. Now in off season all these services were quite handy. The weather still wasn't too good and it was nice to know that there is a gite every 5 km or so - although I didn't use any and camped. And had plenty of adventures this way....

A long day one brought me to the gorges of the river Allier - and a gorge is an obviously bad place for camping. Still I found a surprisingly nice flat piece of ground on a shelf above the river. Due to the acoustics in the gorge sound travelled far and I was kind of hassled by a techno outdoor party. Apparently some local kids had met in a parking lot nearby and were entertaining themselves with loud techno music from their car stereo. I could not see but only hear them and hopefully they hadn't noticed me at all.

Illuminated Romanesque church
At 7.30 pm the party was over. I heard car doors closing and cars driving away. Peace and quiet - but just that moment lights came on a shelf directly above my campsite. I felt uneasy because I could not locate were the lights came from. Had the cars moved and the party continued there? Were there people living there? An illuminated look out from were tourists could see directly into my tent? After an uncomfortable paranoid hour I luckily checked my map and found the obvious solution that I confirmed next morning: I had set up camp more or less directly 80 m under a Romanesque church that was illuminated at night but at this time of the year luckily nobody went sightseeing there after sunset.

Next night I ran into a new and totally unexpected problem. The map showed plenty of forest so I had assumed that camping would be easy. But here in this area the forest was almost completely fenced in. This wouldn't be a problem: I could easily climb the fence. But behind some of the fences there was cattle grazing.... I was totally surprised as you don't see very much cattle grazing in forest. To make things worse these "forest" meadows were so big that I could not always tell whether there was actually cattle in it or whether it was safe to camp there. Even checking for cow paddies wasn't a sure indicator. Of course it started to rain and and getting dark then - and still no unfenced forest in sight. I was starting to get a bit nervous when I saw a pine plantation. Surely they would not let cattle graze there - despite the fence.

I turned off the road onto a dirt track leading to the pine plantation and saw in the last daylight that there even was a piece of unfenced forest next to it. Exhausted I set up my tent there and even hid myself a bit although I never expected any one to come up there. When I packed up next morning I was in for two surprises: I first wondered about the movement in the pine plantation - which turned out to be at least 20 cows. Thank God I had not climbed that fence and camped there. When I had packed up and was doing my "morning business" I heard an engine. And for sure, that early in the morning someone - probably a farmer - came driving up the track. I stayed were I was and did not move. I did not want to explain to the land owner what I was doing here at 8 in the morning.... Luckily the farmer stopped a little but further up the track and I could sneak away undetected.

After 3 days of mostly rain eventually the sun came back and I enjoyed two days of glorious sunshine. I had now turned off the GR 65 and was on a patched together route South through the Aubrac. The trail called Tour des Monts Aubrac was a nice surprise and brought me through a piece of France were time seemed to have stood still. Lots of tiny little villages or clutters of stone houses, cobbled alleys and dry stone walls. And of course plenty of fences with cows behind them. I still found a campsite in an unfenced piece of forest - only to be woken up before sunrise by an early hunter who parked his car only 100 m away from my campsite. Luckily he shot something almost straight away (luckily not me) and disappeared quickly before noticing me.

Gorge du Tarn

Last night though was my biggest camping adventure. As the weather was very nice and a full moon I decided to do my first serious night hiking in this trip. At 20.30 I had finally arrived at the patch of forest where I wanted to camp - but again, everything was fenced off. I was in sheep country now but still I didn't want to camp with live stock. I walked along the fence hoping it would end but instead of ending it was just put down in one place. Someone had taken out two stakes and the fence wire was held down by two rocks so that a car could drive over. With the fence being open there could not be any cattle in the forest and I decided to camp there. I had just taken out my tent when I heard a car come up the track. This could not be true! I had been road walking for an hour with no car at all and now in the middle of the night someone came up a god forsaken dirt track - and stopped right at the fence opening.

Gorges du Tarn
A person got out and started working there only 50 metres away from me. I broke out cold sweat. What should I do? The farmer was so close I could be detected any minute especially since it was a full moon. Or should I switch on my headlamp and make myself known? But how would the farmer react to a non French speaking stranger who was doing God knows what on his meadow in the middle of the night? I could not expect a friendly reaction under these circumstances and just stayed in the dark until the farmer eventually left. I then walked over immediately to see what he had been doing and found out that he had reerected the fence. But why had he done it at night? I did not know but decided that this was not a good place to camp and left at once. Now I needed a new campsite which turned out to be a problem. All forest was either fenced in or impenetrable macchia. I was getting desperate as it was getting later and later. Eventually I walked back and found another side track leading to unfenced ground where I eventually pitched my tent. It was already 11 pm when all my camp chores were done and I lay down to sleep.

Gorge du Tarn
But not for long... At midnight I heard a car on the nearby road honking and honking. First I thought it to be some drunk kids in their way home but the car was going very slowly honking continually. Then I heard several people yelling and whistling and to make things worse the noise came towards me. I broke out in cold sweat again. Luckily I had hid myself very well between bushes and low trees 100 metres away from any track so it would be very difficult to discover me. But what frightened me most was that I did not know what was going on. Then it dawned in me: those people were moving sheep! They were whistling and yelling at the sheep dogs and the car pushing the sheep. This had probably also been the reason for the farmer shutting the fence. Only why they had to do this at midnight is a mystery to me. Eventually the noise grew fainter and fainter and finally even I felt asleep.

Ruins in the gorge
But this was to be a short night. I wanted to be hiking at sunrise to get into the next little village as quickly as possible. The weather forecast was very bad for  the night and I wanted to stay in a cheap place in the village to avoid the downpour. But before me lay the most spectacular stretch of this whole hike so far, the gorges du Tarn. The river Tarn had formed a French Grand Canyon here and the views from the plateau down into the river were breathtakingly beautiful. But the trail, Tour de Sauveterre, soon left the plateau and descended to avoid the rock formations. Halfway between the river and plateau level it contoured around offering one breathtaking view after another. The trail was in amazing good shape but it had probably been used for centuries as the were ruins of houses glued to the rock like birds' nests. And this wouldn't be Southern Europe if there wasn't a church, too. I took more pictures in two hours than I normally take in two weeks..

Le Rozier
I still made it into Le Rozier before the little tourist information closed and I needed help indeed. There were two gites in the little village but one was closed and the other one full with a group. Most of the hotels were closed for the season as was the Spar supermarket that is open only in July and August (unfortunately their website forgets to mention this little detail...). As the forecast predicted major downpours overnight and did not want to camp I had to settle for a very nice (but very expensive) B&B - only to see then to see that the forecast had changed from thunderstorm overnight to thunderstorm in the morning and I could have camped. Anyways, I did my shopping in a tiny village store and enjoyed a lazy afternoon in bed with free wifi. Now I only have to hike in the rain tomorrow....

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Le Puy

 I got up very early in the morning and was even hiking before sunrise. The reason for that? The French custom of closing shops for lunchtime! I needed food and it was 19 km to Retournac and its Intermarche supermarket that unfortunately closed for lunch at 12.15 and reopened only almost three hours later. With little daylight I could not afford to wait out three hours and therefore had to make it before 12.15. At 8 am I arrived at the first village desperate for water. When I hunted around a garden for a water tap I was surprised by a lady in a nightgown - who was surprised by a hiker in her yard at sunrise. But of course I was given water and pressed on. The trail seemed to creep in and out of every little valley and at 10 am I almost gave up hope to make it in time. At 11 am it started to pour down but my GPS showed that I was less than 2 km away. I arrived at 11.30 wet, cold and hungry and even bought an umbrella....

Now I only had to find a dry and warm place for my lunch break and ended up in a church. It was not very encouraging that the unheated Romanic church was warmer than the outside. But the timing was perfect: it rained for over an hour during my break but had stopped by the time I left. I had spent my time in the church preparing the next stretch of trail. The GR 3 makes a big detour here to climb up high above the gorges of the Loire. No way I was going to make that detour in rain and cold. Instead I decided to stay low and follow the river mostly on the road which fortunately was not too busy.

Loire valley
An internet research had also revealed that there is a gite in the next town of Vorey which was managed by a nearby hotel. I have the hotel a ring and found out that I could stay at the gite for just 9 €. That settled it for me. There was no use suffering through a cold and wet night if I could be in a warm and dry gite for that price. The hike along the Loire was nice and quite scenic but dragged on. Fittingly I listened to Huck Finn's adventures on the Mississippi following the Loire until I finally arrived in Vorey.

The gite communal was another gem and I was alone in it which felt like being in a holiday apartment. A living room with a kitchen, a bathroom with shower and two bedrooms. There even was a washing machine. This was paradise and I spent the evening reading next to the heater. When I left the gite next morning there was ice everywhere - this was the first freezing night on this trip but luckily I had spent it inside. I won't always be that lucky... Now I just wanted to get to Le Puy which was an important stop for me. Hopefully my first resupply package was waiting there for me at the post office. I had to do a lot of shopping and I needed a longer rest.
View from the cathedral
I arrived in Le Puy earlier than expected at 4 pm and went straight to the post office being very nervous. Would the package be there? Yes, it was and made me very happy. It contained a new pair of shoes and the maps for Spain. Now I could tackle the next problem: where to stay. I was thinking of staying three nights because Saturday would be used for shopping and I would not get a rest then. I had sent out three CS requests but like usual for touristy cities in Europe I did not even get an answer. But there were two gites in town and I had already made reservations at the Gite des Capucines. When I went there and peered through the window I could see an empty dormitory. Good, so it was low season here as well.

I went in, paid 15 € for the night and was told that there were five other German pilgrims. I did not think much of it, because after having seen the empty dormitory I would surely find a quiet place to sleep. Wrong! The dormitory doors were all locked and in order to save cleaning the owner had put me as a 6th person with a group of give in a 6 bed dorm. There was no way I could get out of this. All other dorms were locked and there wasn't even a lounge to crash. I don't mind female dorms in youth hostels as girls don't snore so often but five old pilgrims is another story. Luckily I had paid only for one night and I was determined to find a better accommodation for the next two nights. As it was still early I left my backpack on the only available upper berth and went into town to start doing my town chores and passed the tourist office. I might as well enquire about accommodation for tomorrow and went in.

Le Puy Cathedral
The staff was very helpful but did not speak English very well. They must have misunderstood me because before I knew it they had made a reservation for me at the other gite for tonight. When I realised that the other gite cost about the same but I would have a single room I didn't know what to do. I would not get my money back at the first gite, but was 15 € worth a horrible night for a snore-o-phobic like me? No, I went to the gite des Francoises and was immediately enchanted. The gite is in an active monastery and right next to the cathedral. The single room was cheerful and comfortable and I felt immediately at home. Screw the 15 €, I would stay here. I got my stuff from the first gite and have not regretted it. This was one of my few extended town stays and I needed rest.

Unfortunately, next day Saturday was anything but restful but a big shopping day. Although I had started this trip with what I thought was true and trusted gear I have already had a lot of gear problems that I would try to fix now. In order to help others to avoid the same problems I want to get into more details here:

GPS: The Garmin Etrex still has hiccups displaying tracks. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. As I don't know whether a firmware update from my 3.0 version will fix the problem I won't go through the trouble of finding a data cable and a PC to flash the GPS. As the problem occurs only after switching on the device I leave it running the whole day. And if the problem occurs in the morning when I switch it on or want to display a new track I know that resetting the system and rebooting it will eventually lead to a correct display - although it sometimes takes several nerve wrecking attempts.

View from my hostel
Tarptent Rainbow: This trip will probably be the end of my hiker life long love story with Tarptents. The Rainbow has let me down big time. The problem is an old one but it has struck me hard on this trip with lots of rain. The Rainbow has sewn in Velcro strips to hold up the mesh door and rain fly. When seamsealing the tent I have of course sealed this area specifically as I know that it is prone to leaking. But apparently I have not been very successful. During every little rain shower water comes seeping through the seams and drips down the mesh eventually pooling inside the tent. Four weeks ago in Metz I have already tried to fix the problem by resealing the area with my little spare tube - but to no avail. The problem persisted and had become a real nuisance for me. The Velcro straps funnel the water right in and I think it is a design fault to have them at an area where the leakage runs right into the tent. I decided to give it a third try and reseal it again. Decathlon was a big disappointment for not having Silnet glue. In fact, they did not even have tents. I ended up in a decoration store buying household silicone, paint thinner and a brush. I have now sealed everything again with diluted silicone, but I am not very optimistic that household silicone will do the job.

Backpack: I know that the GG G4 is not the most robust backpack and the sewing has to be redone in stress areas. But on this trip the pack started ripping on day 2 and I am afraid whether it will make it to the end. I therefore wanted to buy more repair tape. I stick it onto the pack and then sew it on. But again big disappointment: it could not get repair tape at Decathlon or any other shop.

Trekking pole tips: Another new problem. Although the tips have not sunk into the plastic casing yet, one of the tips has become quite rounded and has therefore lost its grip on pavement or slick rocks. Not a real big problem, just a minor nuisance which could easily be fixed by replacing the tip - if I could find one. Decathlon only sells their generic brand trekking poles and no spare tips whatsoever. There is no outdoor shop in town. Bad luck...

Platypus bottle: Again bad luck here. I have lost my second Platypus and wanted to replace it but no Platypus or any other collapsible bottle was available. I hope the one bottle I have will hold up for another 1,5 months. Then I will have another Platypus and all the other missing stuff have shipped from Germany with my next shoe resupply.

Petzl headlamp: The plastic cover has partially broke and although the lamp is still working it is not waterproof any more. Also the batteries die much faster than normal which has already resulted in a pitchblack night once. Petzl lamps have an indicator showing you how much battery power is left. When on red normally there is still several hours of weak light left but now it just dies within minutes. With less and less daylight every day the headlamp is an essential piece of gear for me and I can't risk a failure. I therefore shelled out 45 € and bought a new Petzl Tikka XP 2.

Canister cosy: With sinking temperatures my gas canister stove becomes weaker and weaker. The solution is a canister cosy but I had to find some insulation material. After looking out for packaging trash at several stores I finally found some bubble wrap at a camera store. But Decathlon had something better. For 2,95 € I found a cheap foam pad that I can cut into fitting pieces.

Bottom line: I have had an unexpected high amount of gear problems and unfortunately France is not a good country to fix them. I have not found any decent outdoor shop on this or my last trip through France. There is only Decathlon which is admittedly cheap but has mostly crap. I have to rely on makeshift repairs and have to have replacements shipped from Germany.

Le Puy also marks the one third line for me. I have hiked 1,250 km now and completed the first third of my trip. In about 10 days I will leave the last outskirts of the Massif Central and return to much lower altitude and higher  temperatures. Surprisingly I am still within my planned schedule. I will reach Carcassonne end of October and cross the Pyrenees early November. When I left the hostel yesterday morning it was snowing.... but I don't think that winter has come yet to stay.

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.

Friday, 4 October 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: The big rain

I left Toulon with a mixed forecast: Several days of warm weather followed by the big rain, two days of incessant precipitation. I wasn't looking forward to it. Right now I am trying to move fast South to get into the dry Mediterranean climate. Although the first short German part has been really nice the subsequent 750 km in France have not been that great. Don't get me  wrong: the route isn't a catastrophe and still quite pleasant, but so far it has definitely not been the greatest hike I have ever done.

First of all the landscape is rather mediocre. Except for the occasional highlight like the cities of Metz and Dijon or the precipices in Burgundy the landscape is rather boring. Rolling hills and plenty of cows and lots of little half deserted villages. Although some villages were quite nice they mostly look rather desolate, especially in fog and rain. As more and more people move to the cities these little villages die. Most of the shops have long closed and the old houses are boarded up. What is left is huge farms with industrial looking barns and stables.But my biggest problem is the route surface. A surprisingly high percentage is on pavement. I would guess that about half the trail is on roads. There is no or hardly any traffic, but my feet are suffering from the hard surface leading to more aches and pains. 1,000 km is usually not quite the end of my shoes' life, but here I can't wait to get a new pair soon.

On the plus side there is free wayside fruit and much warmer weather than expected. Actually due to the high humidity but still pleasant temperatures I have come close to dehydration several times. I sweat a lot but don't realise it due to the pleasant temperatures. I even sweat at night because my winter quilt is way too warm. If it then starts raining like today I am in for a sauna trip. So far my equipment has been total overkill. I am carrying way too many clothes and I could have done with a lighter quilt and sleeping pad. But I guess that'll change soon.

Today the big rain started and with it the dilemma how to protect myself against it. Without a rain jacket I get soaked from outside, with a rain jacket I get soaked from inside. I was soon fed up and pondering my options. (Hiking in European civilisation you have options, hiking one of the American wilderness trails you have only one option: continue hiking.....) Soon I realised I just wanted to get out of the rain and rest my hurting feet. But where?

Right now I am just hiking with my GPS and 1: 100.000 maps and unfortunately neither shows campgrounds, hostels or shelters. By pure coincidence I stumbled across a private campground in the morning. It was cheap, nice and completely empty, but the prospect of staying a whole rainy day in my leaking tent or the bathrooms made me carry on. A quick internet research indicated that the next village had a gite which alas was nowhere to be seen when I got there one hour later. It was still early in the day and I decided to hike on and hope for a shelter. But unfortunately these shelters are by far not as frequent in France than in Germany and they never materialise when you need one. Another hour in the rain brought me to the next village's sports ground - with a nice roof. If anything else failed I would camp under that roof and hope there is no football practice Friday evening. More internet research revealed affordable chambres d'hotes in the village. I called and enquired in my best bad French about a room. I was told the guest house is closed. After more awkward enquires and explanations from my side I was just told to come and "something would come up".

I had no idea what could come up and what to do exactly but I walked another half hour in the rain into the village and called the same number again. "J'arrive" - "I am coming" I was told and for sure 5 minutes later a lady in a car materialised and solved the riddle. The village did not only have chambres d'hotes, but also a gite d'etape and the lady worked in the town hall and was responsible for both. Why the gite was not shown on my map or showed up on the internet will always be a mystery to me. The municipal gite turned out to be paradise. It was huge with three dorms, hot showers and a kitchen. But best of all it only cost 9,22 €! I was all alone the whole afternoon and only in the evening a father with two kids showed up but with three dorms we each have our own room.

My culinary expedition into Arfeuilles was less successful. There is only one bar/restaurant. The advertised pizza was not available because it has to be  pre-ordered 24 hours in advance. No other food. After long discussions I was told no good now but dinner only after 7 pm. I was desperate for something non-pasta and non-couscous and returned after 7 pm. There was only one menu that could not be negotiated and only one guest. I got a sandwich, scrambled eggs, cheese, bread and at least a nice desert. Still better than Couscous with nothing.

The forecast for tomorrow varies depending on the website. Either even worse rain than today or sunny with showers. I hope for the latter..

Thursday, 3 October 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Burgundy

Vineyards in Burgundy
One of the beauties of hiking in Europe in fall is the ample availability of free wayside fruit - and this hike is no exception. Early and mid September in Lorraine was Mirabelle time. Mirabelles are small yellow plums and apparently a speciality of Lorraine. Mirabelle trees were everywhere and I was stuffing myself. Equally delicious and also widely available were plums. But soon Mirabelle and plum season was over. The overripe fruit "snapped" and started rotting on the trees. And outside Lorraine there weren't any more Mirabelle trees anyways.

But now I was in Burgundy and this is where the wine comes from - and that means grapes. Vineyards everywhere but I did not even have to "steal" them as there were plenty of wild grapes along the wayside. Surprisingly enough there are even peaches left but I guess they are "wild" peaches as they are rather small and still not quite ripe. Now, early October apple and pear season has just started and will hopefully keep me happy for the next weeks. And last but not least there are still some blackberries. There are also plenty of mushrooms, but I am not good at knowing which ones are edible and which ones aren't....

In Burgundy landscape and villages have changed a lot. Especially in the wine growing areas I came through some beautiful sleepy little villages - quite a change from rather industrial Lorraine. Although the landscape still isn't breathtaking the GR's skirt some rather impressive cliffs. In order to make them even more impressive the trail planners let you go them up and down on incredibly steep trail.

Beside the GR tracks on my GPS I carry paper maps for the the whole route. Unfortunately the GR's get re-routed a lot and several times I could choose between three versions as GPS and paper maps both differed from the trail on the ground. Unfortunately it is not always obvious why the trail has been rerouted. I encountered the first big reroute with a huge group of hikers: I was sitting in a picnic area having lunch in the middle of nowhere when I heard voices in the forest. I have not encountered another hiker for weeks and was quite surprised when 16 hikers showed up and one lady even spoke German. They were a group of retirees from Dijon who go on day hikes every Thursday and I was quite an attraction for them. This being France they dished up several bottles of wine and even stronger liquids but I refused anything but biscuits and a look at their map which just resulted in a third trail version. When I eventually followed my paper map and therefore the shortest version I soon realised the reason for the diversion: Shooting signs everywhere, but when I saw MTB tracks all over the ground I decided to continue. I did not see or hear anything and obviously did not get shot.

Several days later I was not quite that lucky with my own trail version. Despite other trail markers I decided to follow an older trail version on my GPS which was significantly shorter - and I wanted to get quickly in and out of the next town before it got dark. After 1,5 km on the old track the path ended, although GPS and map showed it continuing. But in reality it ended at an electrical fence at a meadow. But I was not to be defeated that quickly:  As I could not see any cattle in the pasture I jumped the fence and continued - until I could see around the next corner: there were plenty of cows in the same huge meadow and as I had seen plenty of bulls in this area I almost started panicking. Luckily my four legged friends had not spotted me but I retreated close to the electrical fence. In the case of a bull attack I could jump over the fence right into the thorn bushes but at least save my life. But the cows left me in peace until I reached safety again. I had no choice but to retreat to the new trail version and lost an entire hour in the process.

I was not happy about this outcome but immediately changed to plan B. With this delay I would not be able to hike out of the next town that evening but I remembered seeing a municipal camp ground there on Google maps. After my positive experiences with camp ground in France this sounded like I good options. I arrived at Toulon-sur-Arroux just as the camp ground receptionist left for the day. I was still let in and for 7,50 € this even turned out to be the best camp ground so far. Hair dryer and toilet paper! And then I found the internet hut, a covered pavilion with chairs, free and fast wifi and electrical outlets for recharging my cell phone. I was in heaven. I washed myself, my hair and my clothes and got everything dry until next morning...

In the morning I made a long shopping trip into town and indulged in more free wifi but my tent was still wet when I packed it. Although the weather is still pretty good and warm there is heavy fog every morning. Usually it takes till noon to clear and warm up but then it is almost hot. I certainly did not expect day time temperatures above 20 Celsius. But I still hike in  shorts and T-short every day. Only the foggy mornings and the occasional rain shower make me put on more clothes.

Loire Canal
In Southern Burgundy the landscape changed again. No more wineyards - this is cattle country. It looks more like Britain than France although there are hedges instead of dry walls between the pastures and every cow is white. I have now crossed the river Loire and am out of Burgundy. I have also completed the first 1,000 km, about a quarter of the trip. I have 270 km left till Le Puy and will soon encounter the first higher altitude. I now go up to over 1,500 m and alas, the forecast is heavy rain on two days, although the general outlook is still quite good.