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.


Gayle said...

Is this turning out to be your hike with the highest number of nighttime disturbances? I don't know how your nerves can take it; I'd be a gibbering wreck! (It does make for good reading, though!)

German Tourist said...

I agree with you. This has turned into an adventure camping trip. I have never had so many incidents before...

Steve Cracknell said...

Hi Christine
I discovered your blog some time ago but haven’t been following it regularly, which is a pity because I see that you passed over the Alaric mountain near where I live in October. We could have put you up overnight. Anyway, for information, hunters are not supposed to point their guns at you in any circumstances, but there are always some idiots. Hunting is not allowed after dark either but the most likely explanation for the dogs at midnight is that some had escaped from the pack and were doing their own thing. As for the orange and red fruits they are arbousiers. I don’t think they are very tasty either. Good luck for the rest of the trip.
Steve Cracknell

German Tourist said...

Steve, thanks a lot for the explanation. I am not a hunter and had no clue what Hunters are supposed to do. And I am glad I now know the name of those fruits...