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....

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