Walking the GR10 from Hendaye to Banyuls
Country - France
Region - GR10 - Hendaye to Banyuls
Author - Steve Cracknell
Length - 850.0 km / 531.3 miles
850km from west to east, 60 days including a few days off, 6-8 hours walking a day: the GR 10 is a long walk. Epic. From the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, it takes the Pyrenees in its stride. But then, if you look at the statistics more carefully something seems awry. Only 14km at day! Only 2km an hour! At first glance it doesn't seem credible. But it is: what is missing is the third dimension, height. The average amount of climbing on walking days is getting on for 1000m. Climbing Scafell Pike every day. Of course, at the two ends there is less climbing, but that means that in the middle you are climbing Ben Nevis.
From the starting point on the beach in Hendaye, on the French Atlantic coast, the prospect is daunting. Worse still, all around you bronzed bodies and discarded clothing suggest an altogether easier way to spend two months. For the first few days the path meanders through green pasture: the Cotswolds with palm trees. The beams of the half-timbered houses are painted bottle green or blood red. Wild ponies approach nervously. It is humid, but not cold: it rains and you walk in the mist much of the time. The way marks, a white stripe with a red one below it, become symbolic - a head in the clouds, blood on the feet.
There are two options for keeping warm at night. Either you stay in hostels (refuges gardés, about 42 euros for bed, breakfast, evening meal and picnic), or you can carry your home on your back. The first option weighs in at 9kg, the second at 18kg or more. Campers, like snails, move slowly, but at least they have the freedom to stop when they drop. They also have the option of not eating garbure at least twice times a week. Don't get me wrong, garbure - a tasty soup based on meat stock, haricot beans and vegetables, particularly cabbage - is just what you need to re-hydrate after a long day in the sun. But you don't necessarily want to become a connoisseur.
On the 5th day most walkers will reach the small fortified town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a crossroads for long-distance trekkers. It is here that the GR 10 meets the Chemin de St-Jacques de Compostelle. The difference between the two walks is in the number of adepts. Of the 300 walkers who pass through St-Jean-Pied-de-Port every day in summer, 290 will be heading for Compostelle, only 10 for the Med. This doesn't mean to say that the GR 10 is a lonely walk (unless perhaps you choose to start in Banyuls, and walk against the flow). Dining with people met earlier on the route is a recurrent pleasure, especially after a day spent contemplating nature - there is not a huge choice of hostels or campsites so inevitably you will meet fellow walkers again.
After St-Jean-Pied-de-Port the mountains begin to get higher and the valleys deeper. There isn't another town until Cauterets, 12 days away. Thirst is a problem now: it is difficult to carry enough liquid, and water purifying tablets are useful. Walkers are frequently above the clouds and, despite the altitude, the heat is oppressive. There are also some tricky bits, a couple of sections where the path has been cut into the cliff edge - the Chemin de la Mâture and the Corniche d'Alhas. People who are afraid of heights don't need to worry. It is logical and indeed sensible to be afraid of heights, and the paths are provided with handrails. But those with true vertigo won't like them at all. On the other hand, potentially more dangerous is the Hourquette d'Arre. This is the highest pass at the western end of the walk (2465m) and is blocked by snow until at least 14 June, sometimes until the end of the month. The northern slope, after the pass, is steep and early-season walkers should consider crampons and an ice axe.
It is this pass at the western end, and the Portella de la Grava towards the eastern end, which determine the GR 10 walking season: from 14 June when the snow melts, to the beginning of October, when it starts to fall again.
A couple of days after the Hourquette d'Arre, the walk starts to venture into even wilder zones. Griffon vultures circling overhead indicate a moribund sheep. Marmottes whistle - piew, piew - to alert their neighbours. Isards - Pyrenean chamois - demonstrate their acrobatic skills as they bound from rock to rock. And every day the walkers look tougher. But still, in the evenings, there is beer and a bed to be found.
At Cauterets, the GR 10 returns to civilisation. Wedding-cake architecture and hotel facilities indicate a 19th-century spa town, which is still a magnet for tourists. Some of the classic sights of the Pyrenees are near here. However, the principal GR 10 route avoids them! It heads directly for the next spa town of Luz-St-Sauveur and get there in a single, very ordinary day's walking. A much better option is to take the variant which heads south into the heartland of the range, and up the shoulder of the highest mountain on the French side of the watershed, the Grande Vignemale.
If the GR 10 is a classic walk, then the Grand Vignemale is its apotheosis. For a start it has a glacier. In addition, from the top (3295m) there are long, long views down famous valleys. And then there is the history of its conquest, disputed by Miss Anne Lister from Halifax and the French Prince de Moscova. Not to mention the story of Count Henry Russell, who "married" it. "The Vignemale is my wife and my seven grottoes are our children," he wrote.
But first walkers have to get there. Instead of one day, it will take five days to arrive at Luz-St-Sauveur, but it is worth it. The walk passes in front of sulphur-smelling spas, and climbs out of the valley though pine forest, accompanied by a 3km-long gushing cascade, up to the Pont d'Espagne, where the valley suddenly opens up into vivid green pasture. From there the variant zig-zags up to the Lac de Gaube, one of the favourite destinations of French Romantic authors. Get there before 8:30 am to have a picnic breakfast all to yourself; the number of deck chairs stacked against the restaurant wall predict much noisier lunchtimes.
Further up the valley, the grass is replaced by scree, and the first patches of snow - easily crossed or circumnavigated - appear. The pass at the Hourquette d'Ossoue (2734m), reached soon after, is not only the highest point on any of the variants of the GR 10, but also provides direct access to an easy "3000m", the Petit Vignemale (3032m). From the pass, without a rucksack, the summit is only 40 minutes away. From the top of it, you can look down onto the Grand Vignemale's glacier bib, and watch matchstick people slithering back from their conquest of the summit.
There is a hostel nearby, Baysellance. Cramped but comfortably warm and remarkably international in its clientele, the hostel is often full; book in advance. There is also the possibility of using the hostel as a base camp for an assault on the Grand Vignemale. Unless you are of a reckless nature, a guide, crampons and a rope are necessary. These can all be found at the Bureau des Guides in Cauterets.
Once you have climbed the Vignemale (Petit or Grand), the next objective on this itinerary is Gavarnie. On the way down the famous Br%ecirc;che de Roland can be seen on the right, a gap - like a missing tooth - in the vertical cliffs which separate France and Spain. Walkers passing through to the other side of the jaw step into a different world, a spectacularly arid desert scorched by the sun. But that is another story.
Back on the GR 10 and leaving this enticing diversion to one side, down the valley in Gavarnie the place to see is the Cirque. Victor Hugo called it variously a cathedral, boas rolled one above the other, the mouth of a volcano and, beginning to let his imagination run away just a little, a Tower of Babel turned over and imprinted in the earth like a seal. The village of Gavarnie, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired, except perhaps for lovers of crowds and collectors of fluffy toys.
Next, a roller-coaster day on a quiet path down a green, wooded valley takes you to Luz-Saint-Sauveur, with its fortified church. Then you head off for Barèges, known for its winter sports (and avalanches).
This is sheep country - like much of the Pyrenees - and sheep's cheese can be bought at many isolated farmsteads, as well as in towns. Obviously sheep won't cause you any problems but beware of the sheepdogs which accompany them. Called patous, they think they are sheep. Really! They have been brought up with the flock from birth, and will defend it from strangers, other dogs, and even - it is claimed - bears.
While on the subject, there are bears in the Pyrenees, but as there are only 20, walkers are unlikely to see any. They are much more likely to see pro-bear and above all anti-bear graffiti. Hill farmers have been trying to get rid of the bears for centuries because they kill hundreds of sheep annually. But what galls the farmers most is that Brussels and Paris are now conniving to import more of them. "Yet one more attempt by townsfolk to dictate to farmers," they complain. On the other hand there are half a million sheep in the Pyrenees, so the few hundred killed each year is a small proportion - unless it is your flock which panics and jumps wholesale off a cliff.
The next leg of the GR 10 takes in the Pyrenean equivalent of the Lake District: the Néouvielle Nature Reserve. Even though there are a similar number of tourists in both the Lakes and the Néouvielle, the hilltops here are much less frequented. In any case, if you are like me, you will now be getting up at dawn and be arriving at your destination by the time the masses invade. This has the other advantage of avoiding a cold shower in what seems to be the inevitable 4 o'clock thunderstorm.
As one day follows another they begin to fall into a pattern, but each is different. One day, I discovered a little chapel at the Granges d'Astau, restored in 1959, with beautiful frescos, typical of the area. Another day, I saw some sheep with a cloth sewn into the wool over their rear quarters: "It's a chastity belt", explained the shepherd.
The next town, Luchon, is about 30 days from Hendaye and a good place to recharge the batteries for the arduous Ariège ahead. The town has spa facilities for hedonists, a museum for intellectuals, and loads of bars, cafés and restaurants for gourmands. I particularly like the museum, for its eccentric old-fashioned displays, including the guide Pierre Barrau's right arm. Barrau fell into a crevasse in a glacier on the Madadetta in 1824. His body couldn't be rescued but it was discovered 107 years later, 1400m away, the glacier having transported him downhill.
But the main interest in Luchon is preparing psychologically and physically for the Ariège département. It isn't that this part of the GR 10 is more mountainous than the rest. It is just that there are few facilities for walkers. Hostels are a rare sight and shops rarer still, though the Ariège FFRP rambler's association maintains a useful list of possibilities. This is the one section where a tent is an interesting accessory, though there are a fair number of huts (little more than a wooden slats for a bed and a roof above). I just slept in the huts where there no hostels available.
But there are compensations for the difficulties. The Auberge du Crabère, a miniature château-hotel in Melles, for example, where all the furniture is too big, as if it were designed for a much grander establishment. The food is also big, designed for hungry walkers.
Another compensation is the countryside: wilderness tamed by sheep on the mountain tops, forests and pretty streams in the valleys. Few people, fewer roads. As well as isards and marmottes there are wild sheep (mouflons) and, more prosaically, horseflies. The faster you walk to escape them, the more you sweat, the more the horseflies chase.
The occasional relics of an industrial past speak of a very different Ariège, of the 19th century, when over-population, not under-population, was a problem. At Bentaillou, the derelict mine buildings cling to a rocky knoll, in a windy Machu Picchu setting. Now the rhododendrons and gorse are taking over. Nature also provides bilberries, raspberries, and mushrooms, as well as a garnishing of wild flowers.
One-third of the way through the Ariège, after much hopping from one valley to the next, the GR10 finally descends the length of a valley, down to Esbints, to a hostel not to be missed: for the setting, for the cooking, and for the welcome.
Two-thirds of the way through the Ariège, everybody stays of the Refuge du Rulhe. After three days' walking from the last hostel, it is a heart-warming sight. The next day, though, the path crosses a harsh lunar landscape. Although there are cairns, it is easy to get lost and end up in Spain.
Finally, after walking for 48 days from Hendaye, three-quarters of the way to Banyuls, the path reaches the edge of the Ariège marked by the Portella de la Grava watershed between rivers which flow into the Atlantic and those which flow into the Mediterranean. Soon the electric blue Lac des Bouillouses comes into view - like many of the lakes, it has been harnessed for hydroelectricity - in this case it powers le Petit Train Jaune - the Little Yellow Train, which is to be seen climbing the valley below.
This is Catalan territory. And the Canigou is the Catalan mountain. It rises so steeply out of the plains that it was long considered the highest mountain in the Pyrenees. The GR 10 skirts it, but there is a variant going up to the summit (2784m), which is well worth the climbing. For a start, passing by the summit is quicker than going round it. And also from the top you get a first glimpse of the Mediterranean. Boules de picolat (meat balls in a tomato sauce), Cap d'Ona beer from a micro brewery, cork oaks with their barks waiting to be collected, olive trees, wild rosemary, thyme and cacti mark the last few days walking down to the sea.
At Banyuls there is a plaque at the end of the GR 10 and, incidentally, hotels, bars and restaurants. There are also bronzed bodies and discarded clothing suggesting an altogether easier way to have spent two months. But it is the walker, not the sunbathers, who has the widest smile, and who most appreciates lying on the beach and floating in the sea.
Steve Cracknell is the author of If you only walk long enough: exploring the Pyrenees, an account of his experiences when walking the GR 10. "A very humorous tale of adventure," The French Paper, book of the month, Feb 2010. More information about this book.
Useful web pages:
French IGN mapping is available in digital format by area and 'cut your own' maps. For more information and availabilty go to the Anquet website.
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