Last October, I was in Montpellier doing a student exchange. Since I wasn’t working, I had a lot of time on my hands to do (cheap) weekend trips.
So, one idea two of my friends and I came up with while drinking beer in the autumn sun on the steps of the new opera building – is that a little too many descriptors? – was to go for a hiking/wild camping trip in the Pyrenees. We didn’t really know anything about the area and none of us had been wild camping before. We didn’t let that put us off though; and after having fun imagining all the ways we would die, we made a plan.
I am ashamed to admit that my friends did all the planning. The only thing I was tasked with doing (buying a camping cooker), I left to the last day and then the shop was out of stock. So, yeah, I am the best person to be writing about this trip. We borrowed all the camping gear from some nice Erasmus Student Network members.
–> a cleverly packed backpack for maximum space usage and weight optimisation is essential on any hiking trip
Anyway, after some research we found a hiking trail in the Pyrenees called the GR10. It leads right from North to South and back. We only chose a very small portion to hike, from Luz Saint-Sauveur to the Cirque de Garvanie. If you look online, you can see that the two towns are only 4,5hrs of walking apart on the road. The GR10 climbs up the mountains though, so it took us two days to reach Garvanie. It is also because I am shockingly unfit and needed to take a lot of breaks.
These stripes are a good way to know that you are on the right path, but don’t trust that they will lead you every step of the way.
The fascinating town of Lourdes
To get to Luz-St-Sauveur, we first boarded a train to Lourdes. Now, you might have heard of Lourdes before, as one of the main pilgrimage towns in the world. A young girl Bernadette is said to have seen a series of twelve Marian apparitions in a grove there in 1858. Above that grove now stands a cathedral. The whole town is geared towards religious tourism, especially because the water coming from the grove is supposed to have healing capabilities. So many people pilgrimage there, that there is an express train from Paris to Lourdes. Isn’t that mad? I might write a separate post about Lourdes, because I thought it was such a fascinating town.
The cathedral from the front. It’s a lot larger than it seems here, because it kind of goes underground. You can see that in the photo below.
In this grove, the apparitions happened.
We had no, and I mean NO idea that Lourdes itself was a town worth visiting. We had booked a night in a BnB next to the train station and were just going to pass through on our way to Luz-Saint-Sauveur. I am glad we had the time to walk around Lourdes for half a day, because even though I had been to Santiago de Compostela in August that year, which is a huge pilgrimage town as well, I hadn’t ever experienced a place like Lourdes. Every shop sold little bottles to fill with water from the grove. There was a huge underground space for large services, there was a small cinema that played only Bernadette inspired films and everywhere I looked I saw a pack of nuns.
Hiking through forests and bivouac-ing for the first time
The next day, we took a bus (more like a shuttle) to Luz-Saint Sauveur. As I mentioned before, we didn’t have a camping cooker, so we just loaded up on bread, dried fruit and other durable food. I am so glad we did, because there was no need to cook for just a weekend. It made mealtimes and cleaning up much easier.
The way to Luz-Saint-Sauveur in itself is something to experience. A lot of the mountainside has been converted into ski slopes. In the summer, everything looks deserted and naked without the snow.
The entry to the GR10 trail from Luz isn’t easy to find. You have to walk halfway out of town and into what looks like someones garden before you find it. Then it runs steeply along the side of the mountain with the road on your left. The trail took us mostly through the woods, with occasional views across the mountains.
After a couple of hours walking, we reached a strange roadside attraction. Some men were making the regional gâteau à la broche in a hut. This layered cake is first poured around a spit and then rotated for two hours over an open fire. For 15€ you could buy one of them, but that was a bit too expensive for us so we just left… rudely. I now wish we hadn’t, because we never got around to eating it somewhere else.
We honestly didn’t check if it is legal to wild camp or bivouac in the Pyrenees before going. I recommend checking before any camping trip, because one night we were chased away from our spot by a very angry French woman. We had to find somewhere else to put our tent in the freezing cold.
By the way, Bivouac is staying for just one night in a place before moving on, usually without a tent just under the open sky. Fortunately for us, in the Haute-Pyrenees it is allowed to Bivouac in certain zones not too close to the road. Along the GR10 there are also shelters for Bivouac-ing. On the first night, we put our tent up right next to the trail on a patch of grass.
Beautiful mountain views on the second day
The next morning we continued, bright and not too early. The day was sunny and splendid. It started with a steep climb, but we were rewarded.
In the evening, we put our tent up in the most adventure-magazine-cover place ever:
You can already see Garvanie, but it still took us half a day to climb down.
Hiking down the mountain
The last day was great, too. We were just so lucky with the weather, I mean it was the end of October! The pictures really say it all, it was a nice trail to walk when it didn’t get too steep. A couple on the way gave us some water purification tablets, so we were able to refill our water bottles in streams.
We reached Garvanie arround 11 o’clock. It’s a small town with lots of restaurants and shops to accommodate day trippers visiting the Cirque de Garvanie. They even offer pony rides for kids around the Cirque.
Wikipedia tells me Victor Hugo described the Cirque de Garvanie as “the colloseum of nature”, but I would argue that it is more massive than that. It also has the second highest waterfall in Europe in the summer. Behind us having our lunch there, you can see the Cirque, with the waterfall vaguely running through. The white parts on top are not a reflection, they’re snow. That’s how high in the mountains we were. I’m sorry for not having a good photo of the place itself, it’s hard to get the whole thing into one picture.
That night we tried to put our tent up in the park, but as mentioned above an old woman chased us away. Our tent was originally in the spot seen in the picture, but when we were asked to leave it forced us to ask the Mountain Rescue where we’d be able to camp. They told us all official camping sites were already closed for the winter, so they kindly let us sleep in a field next to the Helipad. They laughingly told us to be sure the tent was secure, or it would blow away if a Helicopter came to land. Fortunately, nothing happened and we had an uninterrupted BUT COLD night. The next day they also drove us all the way back to Lourdes, saving us from having to hitchhike back!
If you’ve made it to the end of this (or even if not), thank you for reading!