A 100 km Jaunt Into The Ariège, SW France
How far do you have to go to get away from it all? Honestly in most places, not far at all.
We never drove far when we RV’d in the US, preferring to meander slowly along little nooks and crannies of coastline & mountains, savoring the richness of each individual spot rather than driving long distances to see more. That was always our preferred travel style and we always felt totally fulfilled by it.
Here in Europe “slow-mo” is still very much our way, with the added benefit that small drives over here can take you across vast landscapes, crossing cultures & even countries. It’s one of the great boons of traveling on wheels.
And 100 km, as our new-found post-coronavirus freedom of movement allows encompasses quite a lot, especially in our area.
Our house in the SW of France is just ~1 hour or so from the Pyrénées, a gorgeous and lightly-visited chain of mountains that stretch 430 km (~267 miles) along the border between France and Spain. They’re not as popular as their cousins The Alps to the East, but they are fine mountains to rival the greats, with peaks that rise up to 3,400 meters (~11,000 ft), hundreds of high mountain lakes, and endless miles of hiking trails.
They are formidable too, so much so that most of the roads that go up into the Pyrénées simply curl up and wither into dead-end dirt trails. Getting across the mountains, if that’s what you desire, can only be done in a few, distinct places along the chain.
Which of course only makes them even more of an exciting place to explore.
The Pyrénées are where you go in France to get away from the things of man, to hike alone, to ponder life and to be with mountain nature and none other.
They are totally my kind of place!
We Go For A 100 km Jaunt
We’re sitting at an Aire de Camping in a small village in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. There’s a beautiful stream flowing by and almost zero traffic because this road dead-ends at an abandoned mine around 30 mins past our spot.
The church in the little village across the way chimes the hour with an exquisite and solemn melody that reverberates through the valley. Cow bells echo off in the distance, and the sun warms the lush, green forests on the face of the mountain. We are one of only four rigs here and everyone is quiet as a mouse, soaking in the awesome nature that surrounds us.
This is exactly what our souls had been craving.
Our particular slice of the Pyrénées is in Ariège, one of the lowest-population density départements of France, a rural and remote place known for it’s tumultuous Cathar History, prehistoric grottos and medieval towns. A big portion of the area is National Park (Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises) which spans over 2465 km2 or 40% of the département. And if you head south, high into the mountains, you’ll find picturesque little villages with stone houses and sharply angled wood roofs (for the snow), thick forests and streams that run like thunder through the valleys.
The people that live here are friendly , but they’re not necessarily looking for company. This is where you go to carve out your own little corner of the world, so you’ll encounter cow herders and mountain hermits, hippy communes (quite a few in this area actually), recluses and folks just looking for some peace.
It’s no surprise that the Ariège has had only had 2 coronavirus deaths (yes, that’s two in total…since this whole virus thing began!). This is a place where social distancing is the cultural norm rather than the exception, and the folks that live here don’t really bother going anywhere else. I mean, why would you?
There’s One Aire and Only One
We found our little slice of paradise on park4night, where we find all our good camping spots.
The Aire de Camping here is a newer one, with ~12 nicely separated individual spots and a full array of services (dump, water, electric hook-up, playground and toilets) located right next to the cute, little mountain town of Bonac. When I call the Mairie to ask if it’s open, the gal on the phone is enthusiastic.
“Eh oui, on est ouvert, et les gens en sont ravis” she exclaims “on etait complet le week-end dernier!”
(yes, we’re open and everyone is delighted….we were full last week-end)
Wow…didn’t expect that!
We decide to drive up on Wednesday morning hoping to catch a mid-week lull, and are relieved when we find only one other camping car in place, with all the prime water-front spots completely empty. We pull-in to a sweet site near the end, unroll the awning and set out our trusty Zip Dee chairs facing the river and town.
Over the next two nights two other rigs join us, but everyone is totally respectful and quiet, soaking in the nature just like us. It’s one of the things I really appreciate about European camping. People camp here to enjoy the outdoors, not to party or blast music and we rarely if ever feel bothered when we park up, even with other rigs close by.
Plus Polly is beside herself with joy.
She races down to the river and swims in the icy cool water, jumps out and proceeds to bounce around the tall grass like a young puppy. Calm down my girl, you’re not the spring chicken you once were! I try to slow her down, ever worried about those old joints of hers, but she’s having none of it and continues to race around until she’s exhausted and panting, crazy eyes ablaze. After her romp, she flops down in the shade of the rig with her nose buried deep in the grass. She immediately falls into a deep and squirrel-dream-filled sleep. Dog paradise on earth.
There’s Miles Of Hiking Around Here
Later in the evening a local guy comes around for payment. We dish out the measly 8 euros it costs to stay the night and have a chat. He tells us about the little épicerie in the next town, the fishing (apparently it’s great for trout in the river) and the extensive network of hiking trails, which go on for days and days.
Some of the trails are rather famous, such as the TransPyrenea (GR 10), also called “la grande traversée” which literally follows the entire ridgeline of the Pyrénées covering a whopping 922 km (~573 miles) and 55,000 m (~180,446 ft) of ascent/decent. It’s an epic hike that takes around 2 months to complete, and it’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s also a life-changing adventure. Maybe one day…
Other trails are shorter, and much more obscure. Finding them is half of the adventure, especially since not all are marked. And since they’re not all maintained either, the likelihood of getting lost is high. But that’s also their biggest allure. When you go out for a walk here, you’re unlikely to see anyone at all.
Polly and I take the trail right behind Aire which follows the river for miles. It’s a lovely, forested path and it’s fully shaded which is a welcome respite from the warm afternoon. We meet no-one, but we do come to an impasse when we cross a herd of cows lounging in the mud. Polly is not-at-all-sure of these strange beasts and barks to warm them off, which much to her surprise actually works. Apparently cows around here are as people-averse as the population, so they simply get up and walk away. She looks at me with deep satisfaction, snorts to make the point and then trots proudly past. Yes my girl, you did well. You’re a very good dog!
And A Good Deal Of Biking
The next morning I hop on my bike to check out the neighboring town of Sentein.
It’s a lovely little ride, along the river on a 1-lane road that weaves into the mountains and it’s a perfect, cool day. I pass stone houses and wildflower-covered fields, and catch glimpses of snow-capped mountains in the distance. The little town turns out to be lovely, with a dramatic 15th century stone church and cute little narrow alleys, but there’s not much going on and the épicerie is literally the only thing open. So I just walk around for some pics and head on back.
On the way home, I meet a cow herder driving his cows down the road on a bicycle with his sheepdog. He seems as surprised to see me as I am to see him, but he nods in acknowledgement as I pass. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a cow-herder on a bicycle and I desperately want to take his pic, but I’m way too timid to ask. Ah well, you can’t catch ’em all…
We’re In The Groove
As the sun sets that evening we enjoy Happy Hour outside the motorhome, drinks in hand watching the sun sink and the greens of the grass and blues of the sky merge into the flowing river. It’s peaceful and gorgeous.
Being back in LMB reminds us how much we love this little rig of ours. She’s so incredibly solid & well-made, superbly comfortable to lounge in and she drives and parks like a dream.
It got warm today, hitting almost 27°C and yet we felt fine without activating the AC. All we had to do was open the windows, and create a little air-flow with our trusty 12V Fan-Tastic Endless Breeze Fan (Amazon link, #commisionlink), while the insulation of LMB took care of the rest. She’s a fine little beast…
The only thing missing from the perfect picture is our cats, and I can’t deny that my heart hurts whenever I think about that. They’re with us of course, their urns in the cupboard along for the ride, but it’s just not the same.
We had our girls for 18 years and we’ve never RV’d a single day without them, so this is literally our first time out with just the three of us. I keep expecting to see them snuggling together on the bed, or to hear Taggart at the door asking to go out. My little kitties, I miss you so…
More Freedoms On The Horizon
We only spend two nights at the Aire, choosing to come home before the week-end rush. A short, but soul-enriching trip.
On the way home we learn about Phase 2 of COVID re-opening, just announced by the French government and the news is positive. Almost all of France is in the “green zone” now, so as of June 2nd pretty much everything is opening up including restaurants, bars, parks and campgrounds. Plus, the 100 km travel limit will be lifted. Wheeeee! There will still be certain restrictions in “orange” areas (mostly in and around Paris), plus you can’t have large gatherings (no more than 10 people). Also all country borders will remain closed until 15th June (so no cross-border travel yet). The rest however, is essentially a “go”.
It’s really good news, both that coronavirus case numbers seem to be staying in control (hospitalizations are steady, deaths are still trending down), and that things are opening up. We’re crossing all finger and toes that the trend continues.
So there you go…our week in France, and this time we actually got away! At this point we still don’t know what we’re doing for the rest of summer (it’s so hard to plan ahead, even now), but we’ve got the Pyrénées in our backyard and that’s a beautiful start. Maybe next time we’ll take another dead-end road into the mountains and just see where it leads. I know Polly for one, will definitely approve.
So, my dear blog readers are y’all getting out now that things are loosening up? I know it’s been a difficult week in the USA, and I’ve been thinking a lot about all my friends back there. And for my Europe readers, are you planning some travel now? Do feel free to comment and share.