Saturday, 30 November 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Morella

Morella castle
 Morella was an important stop for me: I had had my second and last resupply package from Germany sent here which also meant that by now I am almost 2/3 done with this hike. "Only" about 1,500 km left to Tarifa! As always when expecting a package I was nervous about whether it would be there. But I arrived in the afternoon and had to wait till next morning for the post office to open. I had made a reservation in the Hostal La Muralla. During this off season time it is no problem finding a room, but you have to confirm that your desired place is actually open! Many hotels close in winter. The hostel was inside the mediaeval city walls and really very nice. 27 € got me a single en suite room including breakfast and wifi. The receptionist is originally from Romania and full of advice about town. The place had only one big drawback: the central heating got only lukewarm and I - after several freezing nights - was longing for heat. No matter how much I turned up the heating I was still cold. I ended up moving the bed right next to the heating and wearing several layers but I was still slightly cold. To make things worse the heating was completely turned off at night and around midday for cleaning. Apparently I was expected to be out sightseeing and not lying around in bed... My polite complaints to the manager did not help either...

Morella Castle
At least I received my long awaited parcel from Germany next morning. It had taken surprisingly long: Berlin to Morella in 9 work days. When I told the post mistress I was looking for parcel from Germany she already smiled and knew. Morella is a small place and there are not too many Poste Restante deliveries from other countries. The parcel contained a new pair of shoes, trekking pole tips and a new Platypus water bottle. I had lost my spare one and had prayed that the surviving one would make it to Morella. I had had to glue and tape potential holes but it had made it without leaking.

View from Morella Castle
I then went shopping in the Chinese supermarket where I bought a really warm second buff. I also tried to find long johns but could only get some sort of leggings. They were only 3 € and if they don't keep me warm I have not lost a lot of money. I even managed to do some sightseeing which was mainly cold: neither the beautiful Basilica nor the impressive castle had any heating. In the church though I was reminded a lot of Olot: Almost all the tacky figures of saints had been made there - and I remembered the fabulous Saint's museum plus manufacture there.

Ares del Mestre
I was now facing a bit of a dilemma: the weather forecast predicted very strong winds with gusts up to 80 km/h for the next day plus a bit of snow. I was definitely fed up with the wind, especially since even weather warning for the region had been issued. I would have stayed a second day in Morella but the underperforming central heating was deterring me. I don't want to spend my precious rest day with several layers of clothes on shivering in bed. Luckily there was another cheap hotel 25 km up the trail in Ares del Maestre - and it was open! I did not fancy hiking in strong wind, but 25 km would be a rather short day and I would not have to camp in the wind. Still I spent the night almost without sleeping because I was so scared of the wind. So far I had encountered gusts up to 70 km/h according to the weather forecast and that had been hell. Several times I had had serious problems to stay upright and not be blown over. And now the prediction was gusts up to 83 km/h when I would be again on an exposed plateau.

Perfect crack
I left Morella before sunrise to get it over with as soon as possible. But I was facing an additional problem: I had to change my trekking pole tips and as always the buggers would not come off. Without tools the best way to change them is to find a right-sized crack in a rock, squeeze the pole in and pull as hard as you can. But the crack has to have the perfect size: big enough for the pole, but so small that the tip gets stuck. You would think that this shouldn't be a problem with so many rocks around but nothing would work and I became more and more frustrated. I found the perfect crack only at the end of the day and it still took forever to get the to off. But I was so happy with my perfect-size crack that I changed both tips although only one had completely worn off and the other had only started to get there.

Ares del Mestre
I was even happier with the wind: Compared to what I have been through on previous days this was nothing. It was windy, but nothing frightening. I could have even camped in it. But luckily I decided to stick with the hotel. Ares is a tiny place and the hotel quickly found. It turned out to be a rather posh place, but with great prices: I paid 30 € for a lovely room plus dinner! The room even had a bathtub and I indulged in a long hot bath. Even the central heating is working perfectly and now I feel like in hiker heaven - especially after looking out of the window and seeing it snowing... But I'll deal with that tomorrow.

Friday, 29 November 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Tivissa to Morella

 I was all alone in the huge campground cum hostel in Tivissa. Even the receptionist had disappeared after checking me in. And all that for 14 € plus tax! I could have stayed another night here to wait out the wind but there was absolutely nothing to do in little Tivissa. Even doing my resupply in the little local supermarket was an adventure under these circumstances. In the morning I slept in, played around with the free wifi and finally left at noon.

The first day of hiking brought me down into the valley of the river Ebro almost at sea level. The closer I came to the river the more terraces and olive trees. The farmers were harvesting the olives and I saw several oil mills. And I found myself a cosy campsite on an abandoned terrace out of the wind. As usual the morning was cold but I soon beheld a beautiful sight: a mandarin tree. I was so enthusiastic that I stuffed all my pockets with the fruit only to realise five minutes later that there were mandarin and orange trees everywhere! The Ebro valley is agricultural country and the main produce seems to be olives and citrus fruit. The farmers and I were all dressed in hardcore winter clothes but for me the juicy fruits felt like summer. This was what I had hoped for: free fruit even in winter. This gave me the idea for another winter hike: there is a new trail, GR 99 or Camino del Ebro, that follows the river for 1,200 km. The stretch I had seen was brand new and incredibly well marked and signposted.

Ebro valley
But my joy over juicy fruits was soon to end: I was to climb up another plateau into the National Park of Els Ports and an altitude of 1,300 metres. Because of the heavy winds I had decided to shortly detour from the GR 7 onto the GR 171 that has the same length, but stays lower a bit longer. The wind was brutal coming out of the village of Paülls. I was worried about camping in gusts up to 75 km/h. I soon left the last olive terraces behind and climbed higher and higher. I had hoped for an old shed to sleep in but everything was under lock and key or in total ruins. I had to camp in an abandoned terrace under trees and feared the whole night that I tree would fall onto me.

Frozen spring
I survived but the next morning the wind got when worse. I was at an altitude of 700 metres and was nearly blown over but should climb up to 1,300 metres. My only faint hope was that the wind was a katabatic wind and would be less on top of the plateau. The climb took forever and wound through every nook and cranny of the otherwise beautiful plateau. And for sure: the higher I came the less wind - and the colder. At an altitude of 1,000 metres I came across a.spring flowing into a water trough and realised with great horror that everything was frozen solid. No more running water. Soon the snow started. It was only patchy but frozen hard. It dawned in me that this would be a very cold night. At 3.30 pm I reached Refugi Caro on top of the plateau. The main house was closed but there was an open emergency room. It was cold already and the idea of wasting 2 hours of precious sunlight shivering in this ice cold room was not very appealing.

But the climb had taken too long to reach the next shelter before sunset. By coincidence I found a solution: National Park signs indicated that the next village could also be reached via dirt road - and that made night hiking possible! I would not be able to reach a shelter or village that night but the dirt road went lower than the trail and I could camp at 800 metres. I happily embarked onto that longer but easier route and found a good campsite for the night. In the morning everything was frozen. Luckily my shoes and socks had been dry. I passed another refuge in the morning and although the main building was closed there was an open and comfortable emergency room but I could not have made it the night before.

I seriously started to worry about the rest of this hike. If the cold temperatures and strong winds continue especially in combination with snow this hike will turn into torture. But the next day at least one of these problems was removed. Once out of the park I entered cattle grazing country again. Although at the same altitude I was in more open country now and there was no trace of snow here. Even the wind relented and I spent another very cold night at 1,100 metres. The cold had one good thing: there were no more cows in the pastures.

Approaching Morella
Only one more day of hiking till Morella and a hostel with central heating! I was in Valencia now and the GR 7 threw another little National Park into my way. All of a sudden I felt like back on the Heysen Trail in Australia: Follow creek bed for miles... This was an impressive stretch, but alas the sun could not reach.the narrow gorge and I was cold, cold, cold... Up onto a plateau again and finally into the sun. And then, coming around a "corner" high on the plateau I saw Morella for the first time and hardly ever has the sight of a town made such a deep impression on me. Right in the barren Sierras white Morella looms up like a dream. The town is entirely surrounded by the old city walls and on top of all that towers the castle on a rock. A truly breathtaking sight - and of course it would take me several hours more to eventually get there. But here I was ready for my next restday in beautiful (and cold) Morella.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Igualada to Tivissa

Tannery museum
When the two smoking "pilgrims" and their dog finally left the hostel I started to relax and my rest day eventually began for real. I paid another night at the nearby office and set out to visit the town's big museum. It was about leather tanning and I must admit that at first I wasn't exactly very excited about it. But again the place turned out to be a little provincial gem. As it was a rainy morning in off season I was the only visitor and the staff gave me a private tour. Igualada was Spain's biggest producer of tanned leather and even nowadays there are dozens of small tanneries in town. The museum is dedicated to the history of tanning in town and the explanation of the tanning progress. I was glad I had come and spent two hours in the vast complex that is located in an old tannery. And after a walk around town and a nice lunch I spent the rest of the day doing nothing....

The next day I committed a big mistake. It had already been raining two days straight and the forecast predicted rain for another day. But I had seen everything that there is in Igualada and was itching to leave. Therefore I set off in the rain and hoped the rain would cease during the day. Wrong decision! It was relentlessly raining the whole day drenching me completely. My cheap umbrella broke in the wind and I kicked myself for leaving the nice hostel. But who expects three days of continuous rain in Southern Spain?

Apparently this long rainy period was rather unusual. In Igualada the shops had all put cardboards into their entrances. The posh new tannery museum was "leaking" and the staff to put buckets under several leaky spots in the roof. And when hiking the next days I came across several road blocks because of landslides due to the heavy rain. My rainy hiking day ended with a minor disaster although I had found a great soft campsite and the rain had finally stopped. When cooking my stove toppled over and spilled my dinner all over the ground. This was something I had as always expected but that had never happened. But the French Campingaz canisters have a smaller base than the normal screw top ones and my canister cozy made the whole thing even more unstable. Still I wouldn't be a thruhiker if I hadn't scooped everything up and ate a rather small dinner containing pine needles.

Next day the rain stopped completely and I finally joined the GR 7 close to the little village of Bellprat. I will now follow the GR 7 for the rest of this trip and about 1,700 km. The rain had two bad side effect: the trails and forest roads had been completely flooded and were now covered with huge puddles. This sounds innocent enough but you have to picture the dense vegetation here to see the problem. I was on a stretch with a decent forest road but the huge puddles presented a dilemma. I could either walk through the puddles and get wet feet or try to squeeze past them which meant getting stuck in  blackberry bushes or other prickly stuff. Carrying a rather delicate  Silnylon backpack made things worse although I only ripped a big hole into my wind jacket. And then I realised with great horror that my maps were gone! I always carry the day's maps in a plastic bag in the pockets of my cargo pants and it dawned on me that they had probably gotten stuck in one of the bushes when I had tried to squeeze past. I deliberated what to do. Hike on without the maps or go back and try to find them. I could have done without the maps for this day but unfortunately I had printed on both sides of the paper and in this case this meant that I would be without maps for two days. I turned around and hoped to find the maps soon but no such luck. Eventually I set myself a stop point and just when I was about to reach it there they were: my little plastic bag with the maps was still dangling from the branches of a blackberry bush. The whole thing had cost me over an hour which did not make me happy with only 10 hours of daylight.

The other rain related problem was the soggy ground. Unfortunately the trail was routed along field edges which means there is no trail - you just walk on the edge of a field. Normally this would be easy because the sun baked ground is rock hard. But now it had turned into a sticky quagmire. I seemed to carry around several pounds of clay with my shoes which looked like they would never ever be clean again. But worse than that sometimes I sank in and had a hard time extracting myself again. Needless to say I looked like a pig out of a mud bath.

But even when the rain had stopped and the wet ground had dried the weather played tricks on me. Now it was the wind. The temperature was not that warm with 10 Celsius to start with but the strong and ice cold wind made me feel like in Sibiria. Luckily I had bought gloves in Igualada and now I was hiking with almost all my clothes on. Camping became a problem because I had to find a wind sheltered spot. Not always easy and I spent one extremely turbulent night on a ridge. The next day became almost unbearably windy. I had climbed up to the ridge of the Sierra de l'Argentera which has a huge wind farm on top. When I topped out I got nearly blown over. I am not kidding you: I had problems to keep standing and was afraid to be blown off the ridge. Hiking there in these conditions was physically almost impossible.

And of course, as usual when things get difficult the trail marks disappeared.... No way I could get out my maps. Even getting out my GPS from underneath my jacket was almost impossible. I took the first path leading down the ridge and ended up in a labyrinth of overgrown trail and new forest roads - but at least I was out of the ferocious wind.

This is a good time to say something about the trail marking in Spain which can be anything from excellent to non existent - and you'll never know what to expect. Two aspects are especially bad so far: Spanish trail marking focuses on signposts - and neglects blazes. It is infuriating to see a detailed new signpost in the middle of nowhere and 5 minutes later you are lost already because there is no sign or blaze whatsoever at the next junction. The other negative aspect is constructions like roads, train lines and wind farms. They destroy the old trail marking and often pose insurmountable obstacles. I spent several hours around La Riba because all of a sudden there was a new train line that didn't appear on either my paper or GPS maps. No trail marks remained and I was blindly wandering around. Not only are my maps outdated and my GPS track rather vague and inaccurate but the GR's have been vastly rerouted. Every day I encounter several small and big reroutes and I never know where the trail will take me. This fact and the unexpected difficult terrain make safe night hiking difficult or impossible.

But on the plus side the landscape has been unexpectedly beautiful and downright spectacular. The mesa-like mountains continue and I am traversing one almost unpopulated Sierra after the other on century old rocky tracks. Ruins of long abandoned houses and terraces are the only signs of former human use. Then there is a dramatic river gorge thrown in or some sheer rock cliffs. I had not pictured it so beautiful. The cold and wind have driven me to have two half days off. The town of Tivissa has a campground cum hostel and I could not resist the temptation of central heating and a hot shower for only 15 € per night. The next stretch takes me up to 1,200 metres and the forecast is for 4 Celsius daytime maximum. It's warmer in Germany now...

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Aiguafreda to Igualada

In Aiguafreda I changed from the GR 2 onto the GR 5. Of course this involved a long descent into town and then an even longer one up into the mesa again. Up on the plateau I was again rewarded with incredibly spectacular views that got even better when the sun started to set. The cliffs turned orange and red and I was absolutely amazed by their beauty. Unfortunately, I did not have much time to loiter as I urgently needed a campsite. The trail was too exposed and too close to the cliffs to comfortably hike at night. I had encountered some flat spots but they were so heavily overgrown that camping was impossibly. The map showed a hermitage and a stream which looked like flat enough for camping.

But when I approached in the last dwindling daylight I was shocked about what I saw: the supposedly lonely hermitage was a major tourist spot with a huge bus parking lot! The parking lot was flat enough but you don't want to camp there. Even tucking myself away into a corner wasn't an option as the occasional car still came in and I was afraid that this would turn into a love lane at night. It was dark by now and I still wandered around looking for a campsite. I found a dirt road but it led to the local garbage dump - where I eventually found the worst campsite of this trip. At least it was away from the garbage containers, but it was rock hard, bumpy, sloping and covered with prickly stuff that clearing it took forever. I hardly slept that night....

As full moon was approaching I decided to night hike the next day. My GPS track and the maps showed the trail to be on forest roads which makes for easy night hiking. But I had not taken into consideration that the trail might have been relocated and soon I was torn between following forest roads or official trail. At 7.30 pm I threw in the towel. The trail had become too difficult to safely night hike and I found myself a comfortable campsite - I needed to catch up on sleep.

Next morning I awoke refreshed to a beautiful but cold morning. I better get used to the cold as the forecast predicts freezing a lot now.... In the distance I could already see the mountains of Montserrat, my goal for the day. I must say that dusk and dawn have been the best times for hiking as the light makes the already spectacular landscape almost surreal. But between me and Montserrat was the usual descent and exhausting ascent plus some infuriating trail deviations.

Montserrat Mountains at dawn
Montserrat is such a popular place that the steep path up it was incredibly well engineered with steps all the way. Still, things had as usually taken much longer than expected and sunset was approaching when I finally reached Montserrat. I was first appalled by how touristy it is. It swarmed with tourists that had come up by train. There were restaurants, souvenir shops - and a tourist information. My plan was to hike on into the night to a refuge along the road but first I needed a pilgrim "credencial" for the simple reason that it would give me a price discount in the albergue in the next town. I soon found the place that was luckily still open and there I had a lucky streak. The credencial was only 1,50 €, but the man told me that there was a pilgrim's hostel right here in Montserrat. To make things even better I would be the only guest and it was free! I quickly changed plans and decided to stay - this was an offer I could not resist.

Votive offerings in Montserrat
After a quick shower I wanted to attend the evening service in the cathedral. When I walked into the church it felt like entering a wonderland. It was completely dark outside but the church was wonderfully lit and glimmered golden. I have seen a lot of churches during my travels but this one was very special. The monks' singing added to the special atmosphere. After the service almost all the tourists had left and I had the cathedral almost to myself for exploration. Pilgrims had left a lot of very touching devotional items.  Montserrat is a touristy place but still quite magic.

The weather forecast was bad: Rain for three days! I planned on having a rest day in the albergue of Igualada but this was still a day's walk in the rain. And it rained a lot.... The trails had converted themselves into streams. My umbrella was useless because of the wind and soon I was soaking wet. In order not to get cold I had to continue walking - and it was not pleasant. I had chosen to stay on the GR instead of hiking the pilgrimage trail that led directly into Igualada but involved lots of road walks and industrial areas. The GR (now 172) stays in the forest and leads to La Pobla de Claramunt from where are frequent trains to Igualada. Unfortunately I arrived on a Saturday afternoon which meant I had to do all my shopping immediately because shops would be closed on Sunday. In pouring rain I shlepped provisions for 5 days from Lidl all across town. I nearly started crying when the local outdoor shop did not have has canisters although I had contacted them in advance. They sent me onto an odyssey around town for canisters which was definitely no fun in pouring rain with a backpack and two plastic bags full of food. I was about to give up hope when I finally found an outdoor shop with gas canisters. I could have kissed the sales woman.

Now I was ready to go to the pilgrim's hostel where another bad surprise awaited me. I picked up the keys nearby and expected to be alone in the hostel. But there were two other "pilgrims" of the sort you want to avoid: when I  entered they were smoking in the kitchen and the whole place reeked of smoke because of it. They had turned on all the  heaters so it felt like a sauna and on top of all that they had a big dog. Needless to say that smoking and dogs are strictly prohibited in these hostels. But I did not have a choice and had to stay. At least there were two rooms and I did not have to share with them. Luckily they are leaving today.

I will have a rest day here in Igualada and then face the rain that is unfortunately continuing.... And I had hoped to be in the warm and dry Mediterranean climate now.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: GR 2 in Spain

 From the border it was a short 10 km road walk to Aguallana and the GR 2. The little town welcomed me to Spain with long awaited free wifi. Free wifi is very difficult to find in France and is usually the odd person's open network whereas in Spain almost all communities provide free wifi for the citizens. During my last days in France my prepaid credit had ended and I had been without internet for almost a week. Now I was more than happy to connect again. And I had to do a lot of research: After hiking for over a week without any rest day I was now dirty and tired. But I could not just have a rest day anywhere. I needed a bigger city for extended town chores. When preparing this trip I had chosen Olot for that which was close to the GR 2, but unfortunately still a 5 km road walk off trail. Now I found out that there were almost hourly buses from Besalu, the next little town on trail to Olot. That meant I could have my rest day earlier than expected and did not have to detour 10 km on foot.

I left rejuvenated because now a longer rest was in sight. Unfortunately things did not go that smooth. I arrived in touristy Besalu the next day but much later than expected. Because it was soon getting dark I made the wrong decision to stay in Besalu for one night and take the bus the next morning. As it was off season I did not expect any problem finding accommodation in such a touristy place. But unfortunately it was so much off season that all the cheap places where closed and therefore the only open affordable hotel was fully booked. That left the campsite that had looked like a cheap and convenient option. But although it was really close to town there was a river between it and town which meant I had to walk 2,5 km to get to it via the only bridge.

I arrived already grumpy at dusk. The campground manager was totally surprised to see me and said there was only one other camper staying. He even had to turn on the hot water especially for me, but at least he made me a special price and even threw in a packet of biscuits for free. The shower was great but everything else made me even more grumpy. The wifi did not work and the condensation in my tent was a nightmare because the campground was right next to a river. I was so frustrated that I hardly slept and left at sunrise to catch the first bus to Olot. To make things worse the bus was full of teenage school kids who had probably never seen a smelly hiker before. They assumed that I don't speak Spanish and talked quite rudely about me - hiker harassment! I was glad to finally arrive  in Olot where things turned out great now.

Nativity scene
I walked into the cheapest hostal in town, Pension La Vila, and was immediately given a very nice room despite the fact it was only 9 am. 29 € got me a single room with bathroom, TV and free wifi. The hotel owner was very friendly and although he could not offer laundry service he let me use the sunny roof top for drying my clothes. With the washing done I ventured out to do my town chores the most important of which was to get a Spanish SIM card. I walked into the next Movistar store knowing exactly what I wanted from internet research. Unfortunately I had chosen a brand new offer and was the first costumer to buy it - and the sales.woman did not have a clue. But half an hour and several calls to her supervisor later I walked out with my new SIM card. Spain is telecommunication heaven compared to France. I had purchased 1 GB of data valid for one month for 6 € and the SIM card is free. In France the same had cost me 20 € plus 5 € for the card. In Spain I pay 3 c/min for national calls, in France 19 c/min!

As a Lidl and Aldi junkie it was time for a shopping trip to one of my beloved discounters. Whenever I visit a Lidl in a new country I feel like Alice in Wonderland and this time they even had Christmas stuff. I ended up eating Spanish almond cake and German Christmas Stollen until I was almost sick! I even managed to find a second hand bookstore and buy an easy Spanish book. I'll be reading Rosamund Pilcher for the next days.... Not my usual choice of literature but it had to be easy Spanish and 1,150 pages for 2 € was a good deal. I then indulged into hourlong skype sessions with friends back home thanks to the good wifi in my hostal. I even found time to visit Olot's museums and discovered a provincial gem: the museum of saints. Olot is the centre of saint production in Spain (I am talking of statues and busts...) You can see all sorts of tacky saints and other religious paraphernalia plus there is a real workshop attached to the museum. I watched how glass eyes were inserted into baby Jesuses and Virgin Marys got their halos attached. Unfortunately no photos were allowed so the photo here shows an Olot statue in a church. The little town museum boasted a nativity scene that took up a whole room. I love these provincial towns with queer museums -especially if everything is within walking distance like in Olot.

Extinct volcano in Garrotxa
But after two days of rest and another bus ride I was back on the trail in glorious sunshine. After seeing hardly any hikers for months I was shocked when on Sunday the trail got so crowded that I felt like on the Camino 100 km from Santiago. I was in the National Park of Garrotxa whose main feature are the extinct volcanoes. This is close to Barcelona where all the weekenders had probably come from. The GR 2 varied tremendously: one hour the trail is being eroded by masses of people and two hours later I wade through a sea of stinging nettles on completely overgrown trail that no one must have set a foot onto for months... Luckily the trail was quite well marked in most parts as this was the only stretch of the while trip that I did not have a complete GPS track for.

I was rewarded with one of the best campsites of this trip: I camped at 900 m next to an old hermitage on top of a mountain with an almost 360 degree view. I arrived at sunset and even cooked and ate dinner outside watching the lights in the valley below. It drizzled a bit overnight and when I woke up to a brilliant sunrise I saw that the Pyrenees in the distance were now snow covered for the first time. But it was a hot day and the sun melted the snow soon as I could watch from a distance as the day went on.

View from the above campsite
I was long out of the Pyrenees but the mountains now were equally fascinating. I can only describe them as table mountains that rise abruptly with sheer cliffs. The GR follows the edge and offers spectacular views. Unfortunately you have to descend into valleys and then climb up the next mesa. Looking at the mountains from a distance I always wondered how I would get up and down there but there always was a trail, usually quite an easy one as well. I have had fantastic hiking weather so far in Spain, often up to 20 Celsius during the day and only one freezing night. I would not want to hike here in summer in the relentless sun. But alas the forecast is not good: a cold spell is approaching and I can only hope that it is only temporary.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Carcassonne to Spanish border

When I had stayed in the youth hostel in Carcassonne in summer last year I had been all alone in the dormitory. But now in low season I had to share with several other girls - luckily all non-snoring. One was particularly interesting because she was writing her PhD about hikers on the Sentier Cathar. I had hiked short sections of this trail last and this year and found it and its castles great but now I became more interested in the faith of the Cathar people. The Cathar people had lived and built their castles in Southern France in the 12th century and their religion was a mixture of Christian and Hindu elements. They posed a threat to the Catholic church and were finally eradicated by the Inquisition. The ruins of their castles remain and are now an incredibly scenic background for the trail that visits them. I can highly recommend that trail for the great nature, the breathtaking locations of the castles and the fascinating history of the Cathar.

I left Carcassonne in high spirits and good weather after two full rest days and was immediately dampened by the Alaric hills. I was on the GR 36 goes straight through Carcassonne, leaves it via a military training area and then climbs up the rocky and steep Alaric hills on bone wrecking trails. I hadn't expected such difficult terrain because these hills had looked quite innocent on the map. I hadn't made it as far as expected and as it was difficult to find a decent campsite in all those rocks I was relieved to come to a trail crossing on a flat and grassy shoulder. I was tempted to camp in the open but in the last minute opted for a hidden spot in the trees off a side trail.

When I was about to go to sleep around 9 pm I suddenly heard voices. I was surprised but expected hunters. Soon there were more and more voices - all male - and unfortunately the group seemed to gather at the trail crossing next to my stealth campsite. I became more and more nervous as I could not find any logical explanation why a group of at least 10 men would gather on a rocky plateau in the pitch dark night. Torches were flashed but so far I had not been detected. I hardly dared to breathe when I realised in great horror that the men started down the side trail where my campsite was. I lay only 5 metres off trail! But it was pitch dark and the men were obviously concentrating on the difficult trail - and swearing wildly in French. For me it felt like they were walking right through my tent....but after 10 minutes they were all gone without having detected me. When I started to relax it finally dawned on me what all this had probably been about: There were a lot of military installations in the area like the training field I had passed earlier today and the men had probably been soldiers on a night exploration march...

I had several other interesting encounters in this stretch: Half a day out of Carcassonne I suddenly ran into a big group of young nuns - all dressed in their white habits and veils, but with backpacks. First I thought they had only dressed up but they seemed to be real nuns going for a picnic.

The next encounter was less peaceful as I ran into a huge hunting party. I  first noticed their dogs in the mountains. Luckily these hunting dogs following a scent will totally ignore you but their bells can be confusing. Cows, sheep or dogs? Lately bells ringing somewhere usually meant hunting dogs. When I descended into the valley I soon spotted a neon orange jacket but to my great horror the hunter pointed his rifle straight at me. I was so scared I jumped behind the next bush but as soon as I emerged again he pointed his rifle at me again. He couldn't be so stupid as to mistake me with my orange cap for a wild pig! I was about to yell at him when I noticed that he did not want to shoot me but watched me through the lenses of his gun. I don't know whether good hunters are supposed to do that as I found it quite frightening. I passed several other members of this hunting party on the trail and they were far more friendly. One even explained to me that they would never shoot at anything ON the trail - I hope he was right.

Several days later I had a different hunting experience. It was close to midnight when I woke up to dogs barking in the distance. I had not heard then earlier and wondered what had roused them. The barking would not stop and even seemed to come closer. I was still wondering what all this was about when I suddenly heard am animal crushing through the trees - probably a wild pig. Unfortunately I seemed to come straight towards my tent and in slight prefix I started clapping in order to warn it. Seconds later it had passed but by now it had dawned on me that the barking had come from hunting dogs. And for sure - a minute later I heard a pack of dogs coming through the trees - again straight towards my tent. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. It was scary as the dogs seemed to come straight at me and in the morning I found that even a tent stake had come out probably from one of the dogs tripping over the guy line. But they left me alone and were soon gone - and I felt pity for the poor wild pig. Still I don't understand why the dogs were out at midnight as I had thought that it was too dark for shooting.

A Kathar castle
Beside all these adventures I was hiking through some really beautiful scenery: Green mountain ranges everywhere that got higher and higher the closer I got to the Pyrenees. Some of them crowned.with castle ruins like Termes or Peyssarance. The castles were almost impossibly glued to the crest like birds' nests. Between the mountains flat sun bathed plains full with vineyards, orchards or olive trees. The grapes had already been harvested but I could usually still find some leftovers. This and the occasional fig tree were a nice addition to my diet. I even discovered a new fruit! I had seen plenty of trees with orange and red fruits that were cherry size but soft and without any stone but had not thought much of them. One day I passed a French couple on the trail who were full of praise for something delicious - I didn't understand more. But after I had told them about me poor knowledge of the French language they patiently explained to me that they had been collecting these red fruit which are edible. I have been snacking on them ever since although I don't find them that tasty.

French Pyrenees
The weather was generally good and sometimes so warm that I hiked in shorts again. Quite nice for early October. I had finally hit the warm and dry Mediterranean climate I had been longing for for so long. Best of all was the lack of condensation in my tent. It was great to pack a dry tent almost every morning - and get into a dry tent at night! I still had one big psychological obstacle in front of me: the Pyrenean crossing. I had to go up to 1,400 metres. I had intentionally chosen a very low crossing in a Southern climate but still didn't really know what to expect. It turned out to be easy and in hindsight I guess this crossing is doable year round. On two days I had to go up to almost 1,400 metres.

Reservoir of Vinca
On day one it started to drizzle high up on Col de  Formantere and with minutes there was almost zero visibility due to fog. No problem though as I was hiking on easy forest roads. Day two on the HRP from Amelie-Les-Bains to Roc de France was much more of a problem although the weather wasn't too bad. The HRP is not marked. This was a stretch were I had to rely on my very old map and a GPS track from some unknown internet source. So far almost all the GPS tracks had been good but just on this stretch where I totally relied on it the GPS track was completely wrong. Whoever had posted this track on the internet deserves to wander around lost like me. I just could not find the trail out of Amelie-Les-Bains. I wasted more than an hour crawling through thick undergrowth on unused trails trying to locate the trail. In desperation I asked a local who told me I was totally wrong.

I finally ditched the GPS track and found the hidden start of the trail with the help of my antique maps. Luckily the trail was marked in yellow as a PR and several signposts. I climbed 1,200 metres and had almost reached the crest when it started to rain. Probably the French way of saying good bye.... But finally on November 4th at 4 pm I  reached the French-Spanish border at Col de la Neige, in rain but luckily not in snow. This was the halfway point for me. I have approximately hiked 1,900 km to get here and have now left another 1,900 km in Spain.