With some extended time off work and a desire to walk in the mountains I chose the Pyrenees – the GR10 on the french side of the mountain range. Accessible from the UK by train in a day, the Pyrenees straddles the France/Spain border, running between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I liked the idea of traversing another country. And the start point at Hendaye is where I finished my ride across France a couple of years ago, which felt quite serendipitous.
Day 1: Hendaye to Olhette
I have a confession. I couldn’t be bothered to walk to the beach to the proper start of the GR10. In fairness, I spent quite a bit of time there at the end of riding the Velodyssée, so I think it counts. It seems quite paradoxical when I’m making the effort to walk across a country but I get very lazy about walking anywhere that isn’t making forward progress.
So, after making some forward progress around the Intermarche to stock up on a few days’ food, I set off up the hill and away from the Atlantic. Within less than a minute I got my first horsefly bite. This would set a trend for the rest of the walk.
After some steeply undulating lanes, I started up the first hill. It was concave so whenever I thought I was getting near the top the next “top” would appear above. I heard bells nearby but couldn’t see anything, and then a horse strolled out of the bracken. The horseflies should have been a clue. The small, sure-footed horses that roam freely in the Pyrenees in the summer are an ancient breed and couldn’t care less about people. All of the adults have bells around their necks, and most had foals with them.
I made lunch at Col d’Ibardin, and after climbing a near vertical field, descended gently to a rocky-river path. Border stone 18 marked the crossing from France into Spain. I was back in France in 5 minutes.
I climbed to another small col which was in cloud, and then it was back down to Ohlette where I camped in the garden of a gite. The owner was very welcoming, and apparently a big fan of Manu Chao, who was played from the kitchen speakers all evening. A few others arrived later and we nearly filled the garden with tents.
Day 2: Olhette to Ainhoa
A cockerel attempted a cockel-doodle-doo but seemed to develop a cough half way through. The gite door opened, swiftly followed by a “BONJOUR!” It was 6.45am and time to feed the chickens, which apparently meant it was time for us to get up as well.
The morning climb was in the cloud which was a small blessing to hide from the sun for as long as possible. It was Sunday morning and the col was a gentle bustle of activity of walkers criss-crossing paths and runners speeding down one slope then straight up the other.
Gerard and Laurence, who had camped next to me last night, summited the col soon after and we walked down the other side to Sare together. They were very patient with all the mistakes I made in French, gently correcting me which was very useful. We passed a tap coming out of the hillside and I dutifully filled my hat with water and dunked it over my head. After my heatstroke escapade in New Zealand I’m big on heat-health admin, which includes cooling my body down as often and as much as possible. The water was very cold. I had to dry off slightly before entering the shop in Sare.
I ate my lunch looking over the church where the congregation were just leaving, and the little town was buzzing. I acquired a second petit basque cake on leaving – got to support the local economy and all that.
There was a fair bit of road walking after Sare, albeit on very quiet and pretty lanes. I had a little lie down in a short forest section in the shade. I arrived in Ainhoa at the same time as Gerard and Laurence and they waved me over to the restaurant, where we agreed that ice creams were an excellent idea. And basque beer, of course.
The gite owner in Ohlette had warned us that the campsite in Ainhoa was closed, and suggested we camp next to a chapel just out of town. It was a steep gravel climb out, with a large white cross at every switchback corner. It seemed that others had the same idea, and in the end there must have been at least ten tents around the chapel. A key attraction was the provision of a tap, as well as the lovely views. Sabrina & Thomas, also from last night’s gite, joined us, as well as Delphine, and we had a little yoga session watching the bright red sunset over the sea.
Day 3: Ainhoa to Bidarray
No cockerel alarm this morning, but the horses’ bells and crickets filled my ears as soon as I woke. I cooked my porridge on the steps of the chapel and watched a small cloud of fog rise out of an old quarry below.
The path contoured around Errebi and I found a group of horses gathered around a waterpoint. It was humid and sticky and I was glad that there was no sun yet. I paused for a break on the col. The softer tinkling of sheeps’ smaller bells grew rapidly louder but in the cloud I still couldn’t see anything. Suddenly a flock of sheep, clearly in a hurry to be somewhere, emerged out of the cloud and rapidly disappeared along the trail.
Moments later it seemed the sheep had reached their destination, as I tried to get past them on the trail. The path contoured up and down round the hillside, with the cloud gradually clearing. I could see the final climb of the day across the valley – we just had to go briefly into Spain first to get to it. The last part of the climb was on a steep road and a cyclist came past only just moving faster than walking pace.
A very sleepy horse acted as the col marker. The descent started as a ridge walk with the soon-to-be familiar vultures circling high above. My guidebook said that this next descent was the most difficult on the GR10, so I decided I needed lunch before tackling it.
It turned out to be an average Te Aroroa descent – steep, rocky, exposed, with some sidling. There were some hand lines fitted along the most eroded bits. I was finding it difficult to not keep comparing the walk with Te Aroroa, or maybe I was just coming to terms with how difficult that trail really was – the GR10 has more elevation but the trail was actually walkable (so far).
I was grateful when the descent finally ended at a river as there had been no shade from the sun for a long time so I sat under the trees and filtered some water for a while. The rolling road to Bidarray radiated heat.
We all ended up at the one place in the village that offered camping, and having got there first I managed to take the flattest spot in the small front garden. A basque beer from the restaurant later, and I cooked my dinner looking at the mountain views. Laurence pulled a branch of the tree I was under closer to her and inhaled deeply, pointing out the anenome-like pink flower. A few minutes later, Gerard did almost the exact same thing.
Day 4: Bidarray to Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry
The church bells, as in all these villages, resumed ringing at 7am. From my breakfast view I could just make out the outline of the mountains above us through the mist. The steep climb out of the village quickly (i.e. sweatily) brought me above the clouds for a beautiful inversion. For the rest of the climb it felt like I was racing the heat up the hill.
Once up onto the grassy ridge I heard a new bird call which sounded like a laser gun. I don’t think I was under attack. I caught up with the others at the first big peak where we had a break watching the vultures circle above us, and the beautiful views around us.
“Oh it looks quite small,” I commented on our destination town in the distance, concerned over the potential lack of boulangeries.
“Or maybe it’s just far away,” Delphine countered with a smile.
It was a long ridge walk with lots of small-to-large descents and ascents along the way. Baring a short wooded section there was no shade from the glaring sun, and no water. In the woods there was a sign for water 300m off the track, and Laurence and I dropped our bags and went searching. The source was dry. We were sad.
Back up onto the ridge and I carried on, not wanting to stay in the sun longer than necessary. Frequently I would go to bat away an insect only to find that it was actually a fat droplet of sweat running down my body. I was taking some photos from a peak when a young Bob Marley-playing frenchman, who was walking the GR10 and then the Camino to Portugal, stopped to say hello before dancing on.
Further down on the descent there was not a hint of a breeze and it felt like walking in an oven. I learnt lots of ways to say “It’s hot” in French. I rubbed shoulders with a sheep to take a brief repose under a tree. One thing that my guidebook was very useful for was marking where there were waterpoints on the trail. Unfortunately, the GR10 had been rerouted around one, and the streams it crossed were dry. Eventually one was still trickling, and I filtered some water and dunked my hat. We were learning not to rely too much on a single water source.
Emerging onto the roads the heat turned from an oven to a furnace and we hot-footed it to the municipal campsite. As discovered on the Velodyssée, these are great for travellers. This one also had a river at the back, and we gleefully went for a very cold bathe. The group went to the supermarket for a free-for-all feast and restock of supplies – Laurence was horrified when I looked first at the standard cheese in the fridges and insisted we must get it from the proper cheese counter.
Day 5: Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
Our starts were getting earlier to try and avoid climbing in the peak of the heat. Regardless, the climb out of town was horribly steep, and I remembered fondly of times when I wasn’t dripping with sweat, such as 5 seconds ago. After not too long it eased off and contoured around the hill climbing gently to a col where I met the others who had left earlier. I ate my pain au chocolat I’d bought on leaving town. I also grumbled at carrying 3 litres of water on that climb when there was a waterpoint here already.
An undulating route took me around to the col opposite, with a fairly easy grassy climb to the peak. The red and white blaze waymarking, which was generally very good, was a bit sparse but I figured up was the way to go. I had lunch at the top under hazy skies. Half an hour later the flies had found me, meaning that Thomas, Sabrina and Delphine arrived at the summit to find me hopping around trying to put my socks and shoes back on whilst batting the flies away.
The sun came out on the descent and it quickly became uncomfortable. I would have missed a waterpoint on the far side of a cattle trough if I hadn’t turned around to look for the others. Long, white gravel switchbacks meant that I needed to wear my sunglasses as well as my hat. There was not a breath of wind and all I could hear was the crickets and some livestock bells in the distance.
As I came down through a small village I went straight to the church. They often have outdoor taps for watering the flowers, and the stone sheltered porch was (relatively) cool so I stayed there a while rehydrating and cooling down. I did some double checking of the weather forecast and realised that today, and the last few days, were actually 35°C, not the 27°C I had read initially. This made me feel better about how hard I’d been finding it, but I also wondered whether I would have found it harder if I knew it was 35°C.
The church bells, directly above me, rang for the hour, and once my ears had stopped ringing I thought I should make a move. I ended up arriving into town with the others, with Delphine marching ahead to make the post office before it shut to post things home to lighten her backpack.
I checked into my gite and met up with them for a farewell dinner – I was staying in town for a rest day and they were carrying on. I was going to miss their company but I needed to look after my body if I was going to walk the whole trail, and they were walking sections of it.
Day 6: Rest day
The usual washing of self, clothes, resupplying food for the next stretch, and getting very acquainted with the boulangerie next door.