Day 52: Mont-Louis to Refuge du Ras de la Carança
I walked down to the railway line and strolled through farmland paths to cross the valley to Planès. A rocky path led up through pine trees as I wiped my face to brush off spider webs that had been spun overnight. I wasn’t going to miss those. It was another beautiful blue sky day and I sat for a while on a bench outside a hut enjoying the sun on my face.
There were signs in the area informing people that this land belonged to the animals and that we were guests, so give them space. I’d just finished reading it when two people walked straight through the middle of the herd amid low protest mooing.
It was a steep climb up to the Col Mitja, where I looked back west across the valley to Mont-Louis and the wall of mountains behind it. I sat on the col for a while to enjoy the new views to the east then followed the winding gravel track down the mountainside into the new valley. My left ankle started hurting again pretty badly with every step on the descent. I looked at it and sighed. Hold it together for another week? It’s not like I’m asking you to climb mountains every day or something.
I made it down to the valley in one pretty grumpy piece, and to Refuge du Ras de la Carança. It was much smaller than the other refuges and its summer guarded season had ended a few days ago. The guardians were still there doing odd jobs around the refuge but it was in its winter season i.e. unserviced and free.
A rabble of elderly French arrived later in the afternoon, armed with a large bag of mushrooms that they had picked on the walk in. The guardians were burning some old crates in the fire pit and the mushrooms got added to the grill. There was a guitar in the refuge and the mushroom gang had come equipped with a couple of harmonicas and a flute. Thankfully, they were pretty good, and I was serenaded with “Stairway to heaven” whilst I ate dinner.
Day 53: Refuge du Ras de la Carança to Refuge de Mariailles
The only trail mix I’d managed to find in Mont-Louis contained dried pineapple, and I discovered that is not what I wanted with my early morning porridge. I bid farewell to my mushroom-loving bards and set off into the still slightly dark woods. One of the things I like about long distance walking is being outside through the changing of the seasons. Sunrise was now 45 minutes later than when I started, and sunset 1.5 hours earlier. It was actually quite cold on the first climb of the day in the shade.
A steep ascent through rocky pasture and trees soon warmed me up, and I walked out of the shade as I crested the ridge. I sat on a pile of rocks at the col for a while, filling up with sun. I could see the Canigou massif ahead that looked very far away on the horizon. Blue mountain lines stretched out in all directions. A large flock of sheep and a bark brought me back to attention and I was glad to see a shepherd with the dog.
I contoured around to Serre de Caret through open pine forest where two men stopped to chat.
“You must be walking the GR10!” he chuckled, eyeing my backpack. It was then the usual questions: are you walking the whole route when did you start how much does your bag weigh when do you think you’ll finish do you have a tent where are you going today are you all alone? The literal translation of “are you by yourself” in French is “are you all alone”, which had starting cutting a bit after hearing it for the 100th time along with the undeniable fact that yes, I was all alone.
My ankle was feeling better than yesterday afternoon and on the descent it held up as well, despite it being through pretty rough terrain. The Réserve Naturelle de Mantet seemed to be filled mostly with cows. I had to walk through three large herds down the valley, all of whom regarded me with deep suspicion.
I sat at a table in the shade at a closed restaurant in the hamlet of Mantet for lunch whilst petting a golden Labrador that decided to sit next to me. It was noon and I tried to psych myself up for the afternoon as I still had a lot of walking to do. Thankfully the Col de Mantet wasn’t too big and I was soon walking down into the next valley.
The path criss-crossed the road but managed to be quite a pretty trail on a rather steep descent. I walked across la Meridienne Verte, a line of trees planted in 2000 along the meridian through Paris. It was getting hot and I was low on water so I was glad that the small épicerie in Py was open when I arrived. It wasn’t a great supply point for walkers and I bought a random mix of food and munched on an apple as I walked out of the village.
My ankle started loudly protesting on the big final climb of the day. I tried to not think about it too much, and pretended that if I could just make it to Canigou I’d be happy and wouldn’t mind if I had to stop. The trouble is, as much as these things are about the journey not the destination, the closer you get to the destination the more about reaching the finish line it becomes.
I sweated up cracked earth paths, through scrubland, beech trees, pine trees. Over roots, rocks, pine cones. A raised level path ran through the woods next to a leat. As I climbed higher in the late afternoon and the sun softened, I started cooling down. I emerged into a small meadow and flopped down on a bench outside Refuge de Mariailles, stopping first only to get a beer. It had been a big day, bigger than was perhaps sensible with a temperamental ankle. But it was hard to argue with a beer and a view of magnificent mountains.
Day 54: Refuge de Mariailles to Abri du Pinatell
I climbed up a nebulous path in the meadow basin, trying to work out which peak I was aiming for. The path led to a wall of rock at the end of the cirque. Steep switchbacks climbed up the side of the mountain, and I stayed cool in the shadow of Puig Sec. As I neared the top a red and yellow air ambulance flew around the valley. It lowered a man onto an incredibly narrow ridge across from me, then dropped down to the meadow that I’d walked through, then up onto another ridge. After some more laps it flew off, and I hoped everyone was okay.
My guidebook had been a pretty reliable companion so far. “It is not much more than a steep staircase with a bit of easy scrambling” is how Brian describes the next climb up la Cheminée. I would say this somewhat underselling the ascent. I was slightly past the maximum of what I was comfortable climbing with my 14kg backpack, and there were many times I was thankful for long legs for some big steps between small footholds. It was a full body scramble on pretty unforgiving terrain, and I was having fun.
Still, I was glad to reach the top. I sat for almost two hours on the summit of Pic du Canigou staring at the mountains all around me. I savoured the sharp ridges, the rocky outcrops, the sweeping flanks of the peaks, and the sun-bleached grass in the valleys, trying to etch it into my memory. I could see all of the cols I’d walked over in the last few days. I could see the valley of Mont-Louis and the mountain wall behind it. I could see the sea! The flat lands around Perpignan stretched to the north and a zig-zag line of mountain ridge ran between Canigou and the sea. That would be the GR10.
I was at 2,784m on the 21st September and I was slightly warm in a jumper and shorts. Four days later it would have 15cm of snow.
Thankfully the descent down the north ridge on the “tourist path” was much easier than the climb, and I could carry on enjoying the views as I walked. I rejoined the GR10, which goes around Canigou, and filled my stomach at Refuge des Cortalets, which was in a beautiful setting on the edge of a steep drop.
I had run out of cash and was low on food so carried on past the refuge so I could get to Arles-sur-Tech and its supermarket tomorrow. It was a nice temperature for walking in the late afternoon and despite being in a touristy location, I didn’t see anyone for the rest of the day. I took the high route on the Tour du Canigou past the twisted remains of a crashed aircraft before some steep switchbacks down to the original path.
The next two hours was lovely easy walking on a gently descending balcony path cut into the rock, contouring along the eastern flanks of the Canigou massif. I heard a rustle in the shrubs next to me that was bigger than a bird would make, and looked down to see a young wild boar with a sleek dark brown and gold striped coat. We both paused for a moment then it squealed and barrelled off into the bushes.
I reached Abri du Pinatell and found a sign on the door saying not to enter as it was infested with bed bugs. I squeezed my tent into the space next to the picnic table. The water source was dry but I had carried enough from the refuge. I ate dinner as the sky faded to pink and the lights of the city below me to the north grew brighter, and I could make out airport runways in the distance.
Day 55: Abri du Pinatell to Arles-sur-Tech
I slept fitfully as usual when wild camping, and my legs were clammy from yesterday’s layers of sweat, suncream and mud that I hadn’t washed off. A particularly energetic robin serenaded me as I started packing up. Thick clouds had gathered below me and the sun was just starting to tint the tops pink like candyfloss.
The flat balcony trail of yesterday soon petered out and grew rockier as it switchbacked up in the forest. The trees were aglow with the sunrise and the low light helped me spot the spider webs at head height across the trail. At the Col de la Cirère I could look north above the clouds and see some of the peaks poking through in the sun, but to the south cloud was pouring up and over the col.
I descended through the cloud on red rock and gravel past old quarry caves to Refuge de Batère. I had mild hopes of a coffee but the refuge was on reduced opening hours now and was shut until the afternoon. I sat on one of their picnic benches and ate the only food I had left: significant quantities of cheese. A rustle above me revealed a slender tortoise-shell cat settling herself on the bamboo roof, with a poster on the door asking to not let her follow you on your walk as she gets lost on the way back.
At the turn off into a humid forest a patou guard dog saw me but trotted happily back into the middle of his flock as I navigated my way through the jumble of sheep and cows. The descent to Arles-sur-Tech took quite a while as a lot of it was on a loose dirt ridge with quite steep chutes feeling like a waterslide. Having run out of food I walked straight to the SPAR and tried to avoid the judgement in the eyes of the cashier as I grabbed a very large and eclectic early dinner.
At the campsite I had a second dinner with Ely, a Dutch hiker on the Haute Route Pyrenees, which joins the GR10 for the rest of the way to the sea. His stories made me happy with my decision to walk the GR10 not the HRP which sounded much more like Te Araroa but at higher elevations. He was as excited as I was for crêpes.
Day 56: Arles-sur-Tech to Gite La Fargassa
I heard Ely leave then went back to sleep; I had a short day of walking so was having a lie in. Well, I tried to, but my stomach began grumbling fairly early. I sat in a courtyard in town drinking coffee and eating pastries for most of the morning, enjoying watching the gentle flow of life in a small town.
The temperature had climbed to the high 20s by the time I started the ascent out of Arles-sur-Tech and a hot wind blew dust in my face. The path was similar to yesterday and I clambered up sandstone chutes and gulleys.
It had become almost too easy. I don’t say this to be arrogant, just my awe at the adaptability of the human body when exposed to repeated stimuli. I asked my body to climb mountains every day so it got better and more efficient at that. I asked my body to carry a 13-16kg back every day so it got stronger at that. I asked my body to be less attractive to midges and flies every day and it did not.
For the previous section I’d decided that I didn’t really need peanut M&Ms in efforts to reduce the weight of my food, and that had been a terrible decision. Of course I swung too far the other way and had far too much food for the next few days. At Col de Paracolls I attempted to eat my way to a lighter bag.
On the gentle descent I could see across the valleys and the increasing number of orange leaves on the trees. The seasons were changing. At the start of the walk near the Atlantic at the end of July the blackberries were just starting to bud. Here, mid-September and close to the Mediterranean, they were already past it.
My lodgings for the night were in a detached dormitory at an “ecological vegetarian organic horse farm”. It was possibly the comfiest bed I slept in for the whole GR10.
Day 57: Gite La Fargassa to Las Illas
There had been a lot of rain and thunder with high winds in the night, hence my plan to have not been camping. My tent pole repair had held well but I didn’t want to test it in such strong wind. I started the day climbing in a gently dripping forest. A thin mist across the valley made it seem like I was looking through a slightly steamed up car window. The only sounds were the drips of water from the trees and the occasional screech of a jay.
As I approached Coll de Sant Martí I met Sophie walking down towards me. I’d seen her in Arles-sur-Tech yesterday so was confused about her change in direction. She’d lost the friend she was walking with and had turned around to see if he was behind, but Sophie was the first person I had crossed paths with today. I carried on and shortly afterwards, Philipp came walking in the same direction.
“Are you walking with Sophie?” I asked, and let him know where she was. Reunited, they overtook me whilst I stopped for lunch at Roc de France. They were walking the HRP and so were on the same path as me to the sea, and had been walking with Ely for a while. I could see back to Pic du Canigou until thick cloud came over the ridge behind me and obscured all views.
Back in the forest it was murky and silent, and the winds of last night had disappeared. I followed the waymarks carefully on a rough, rocky and rooty traverse. It was quite slow going on the wet leaves and chutes on the descent before I reached the road.
I heard the patter of rain on leaves approach and put on my waterproof coat. I suddenly remembered the forecast of heavy afternoon rain. Five minutes later the patter turned into a deluge and I hurried to put on my waterproof trousers. Within seconds the road became a river as water poured off the mountainside. I marched as fast as I could, knowing I wasn’t too far from Las Illas. A rumble of thunder and a flash of lightning and the water was up to my ankles in the corners.
I turned off the main road up to the village, and was grateful that the gite was on this side of the houses, as the road to the other side had just been washed away. An angry brown torrent of water ran through the middle.
I had only been out in the rain for about 20 minutes but walked into the community gite greatly resembling a drowned rat. I’d arrived at a similar time to others and the hall quickly started to smell pretty funky with a dozen wet hikers and wet gear.
Day 58: Las Illas to Chalet de l’Albère
Yesterday’s torrent had gone, leaving behind a wall of mud that it had washed down from the mountain. I walked down to the larger bridge and on the road until reaching a forestry track. I was expecting to be traipsing through mud after the rain but it was a decent path gently climbing to meet the ridge and the Spanish border.
I ticked off a few more border stones. The first one I had passed back near Hendaye was number 17, the last here was 580. The track swooped slowly down through a cork tree forest. The lowest 2 metres of bark had been stripped off many of the trees, revealing the fat layer of cork between the inner wood and the outer bark. Demonstrating a very short supply chain, I then passed a vineyard.
I walked around the elevated Fort de Bellegarde and down into Le Perthus, a town straddling the border. I turned onto the main street and stopped at the first place offering quick food, demolishing a burger, chips, crêpes, coffee, and ice tea. I walked 10 metres down the road into Spain to a supermarket which felt like the duty free area in airports with massive shelves for alcohol and supersize bags of sweets and chocolate.
After grabbing a few last snacks to take me to the sea, I walked under the raised motorway and started climbing again. In the middle of a cork forest I managed to lose the trail and it took me a while to find the waymarks and the path on the ground but the general direction was upwards.
The col came easily enough and I walked around to Chalet de l’Albère with its small restaurant terrace sitting in an excellent location with views west to the green blanketed mountains and Pic du Canigou, currently obscured by high cloud. The hikers’ gite was next to the restaurant and I had a small bunkbed room to myself. I exploded my bag in the room trying to dry everything that was still damp from yesterday.
Sophie and Philipp walked onto the terrace at the same time as I returned post-shower and we settled in enjoying a beer and the view. Eventually it got too cold in the wind and I went inside for dinner whilst they retreated to their tents, camping in the adjacent forest.
Day 59: Chalet de l’Albère to Banyuls-sur-Mer
Today I was going to walk to the sea! The mountains didn’t want to make it easy though and tried to push me off the border ridge with a 60km/hr northerly wind and a windchill of 8C. I was walking directly into the low sun and even with sunglasses I had to shield my eyes at times to check the trail.
At Pic Néulos by the communications tower I saw the first sign to Banyuls-sur-Mur and got more excited. Wind aside, today felt like the victory parade around the Champs-Élysées on the last stage of the Tour de France. My ankle was hurting badly again but I knew it would survive until the end. There were a few climbs but all less than 300m at a time. The order of the day was a leisurely descent.
I hid on the south side of some large jaggedy boulders on the ridge to get a break from the wind. Looking south over Spain I wondered whether I could see the GR11, the Pyrenees traverse on the Spanish side. Their victory lap looked much flatter.
After being battered sideways by the wind on a long exposed section I climbed up to the shallow saddle of Pic de Sailfort and looked down on Banyuls-sur-Mur for the first time. It still looked quite far away. As soon as I was below the saddle I was out of the wind and I shed my jumper and my waterproof trousers that I’d been wearing as windproofs.
A rough and rocky trail wiggled down the steep ridge amongst wiry shrubs and squat cork trees. The land was very dry and I didn’t get my hopes up at a sign pointing off track to a source, but it was still running and I could top-up my water.
Further down I got stuck behind a large elderly French group on a narrow path that was shortcutting the switchbacks on the road. Their guide was bringing up the rear and he asked about my walk. At the next road crossing he made his group stop and he told them how far I’d walked since the end of July and that today was my last day. There were some gasps and they parted, clapping me through to the next path like a guard of honour. I resisted waving back like the Queen.
I descended on sandy tracks through vineyards down to the edge of town. I followed the waymarks on a very circuitous route through the houses to eventually get to the sea front. I waved at Sophie, Philipp and Ely, then went to the Mairie and touched the moasic on the wall of the GR10. I sat on the sea wall for a while, dumping my bag on the ground and looking out to the water. The Mediterranean Sea. I walked to the water and put my feet in, completing the coast to coast through the Pyrenees.