What a trip it turned out to be! I got more than I expected from the Pyrénées. The past two days have been just a little crazier than anticipated. If I were to summarize it: I (re)learned to drive even though I’ve been driving for 5 years, I had to improvise a place to sleep, and I had to play catch-up with my backpack. here’s the long form if that doesn’t make any sense:
On my train over to Toulouse, I was fortunate to have the company of a Costa Rican couple and an Australian girl; all three of them on a eurotrip. Meeting random people on my way to random places makes the rides much more interesting. Prior to starting this trip, I had planned to use this downtime to read more. I guess that will have to wait a little longer. Once I arrive in Toulouse, my first priority was to figure out what the hell I was going to do here (in the Pyrénées regions to be precise). I head to the tourism office, take 2 maps, 3 guidebooks, and connect to the internet. I then spend the next hour looking at all possible itineraries trying to find exciting things to do. This is what I come up with: on day 1, rent a car from Toulouse, then drive to the Pyrénées Ariegoise passing through several small French villages highlighted as “plus beaux villages de France” (most beautiful villages of France), then find a cheap place to sleep in one of them. On day 2, head to the other side of the mountains, towards Orlu, and hike in the nature reserve where protected species are located. This way I’ll get to drive across beautiful winding roads (as I had previously dreamed of doing), enjoy the outdoors and the big mountains, see some rare creatures, and experience the life of villagers.
Now that you have the “plan”, let’s talk reality! First off, I need to get a car. At the train station I find 5 car renting companies, and luckily all except one are completely sold out, the last one having only one car left. Thinking that I am starting my trip on the right foot, I head over to the car, and surprise! It’s a stick-shift car (manual transmission)! I have only really driven automatic cars, except for learning the basics of stick-shift driving 5 years ago for a couple of hours in total. Since there are no other available cars and I am certainly not canceling my trip, I’m left with the only option of relearning how to drive a stick-shift. After a few lousy attempts on my own (I wasn’t even able to start the car), I call up my “expert” friend, who, after laughing for a good 5 minutes, is kind enough to give me some free telephone lessons. I then proceed to spend the next hour in the parking lot practicing! Once, I summon enough courage to hit the busy streets of Toulouse, I venture out of my parking lot and thus my 400km adventure begins!
After only a few hiccups such as stalling in the middle of the street, shifting down to the wrong gear which causes the motor to rev up to 6-7k RPM, and other such minor mistakes, I finally find myself driving along those highly anticipated winding roads of the Pyrénées. I open all the windows, enjoy the fresh air, marvel at the magnificent scenery, and keep on driving alone on the small streets for the next hour or two. Time flies by. My first stop is Saint-Lizer, a small village perched on a hill, with only a handful of tiny one-way streets. This village is also the proud location of a single restaurant! I stop for a while, order my regular espresso, and mingle with locals. Next stop is Saint-Giron; this is the “big” one, where all neighboring villagers come to hang out. They have a (regionally) impressive number of hotels: 3! I’m talking two or three-story buildings with a maximum rating of 2 stars. I’m lucky enough to arrive on the night of a celebration. It’s Saint-Joan’s day, and all locals aggregate in Saint-Giron to celebrate over a big burning wooden statue.
I spend the night enjoying the festivities with the locals, and stop to eat at a restaurant. I notice something surprising. Anytime someone is about to leave the restaurant they say goodbye to everyone, friends and strangers alike. This will happen again for lunch the next day, and, even better, it also happens every time I cross someone on the streets. I think this is amazing! When the time comes to go to bed, I do the round of the 3 hotels, and encounter another slight problem. What I thought was perfect timing at first (coming on the night of a celebration) turned out to be the worst timing for other reasons. All rooms were booked – all the affordable ones at least; I didn’t need a 3-bed room at 3 times the price. So here’s where I had to improvise: I park my car along the river that passes through the village and convert it into my home, with the bed in the back, “cupboards” in the front seat, nature as my bathroom, my only towel as a sheet, and my daypack as a pillow. Done! Who needs a hostel anyway?! I specifically choose the riverside to have a nice spot to wake up in!
The next day, I wake up to the sound of my neighbors – the neighboring cars parking, that is. I quickly clean up my home, then set off on day 2 of my trip. Today, Saint-Giron has a big street market with all sorts of vendors setting up shop on the streets of the village. This is always tempting! I pass by the fruit vendor that has cut up many fruits for tasting. I eat one of each, and consider this my (free) appetizer. Then, I get a meat stuffed pastry, a plate of couscous (cooked in a huge ~100L casserole) and finish up with some traditional home-made sheep yogurt. I then set off driving towards Orlu and its nature reserve.
Two hours later, and after passing by a few other villages, I arrive at my destination. I meet a Dutch who lived in Nigeria and now works in France, and strike up an interesting conversation on the experience of traveling. Then, I walk through a wolves reserve and witness the feeding of the wolves. These creatures are impressive, very smart, and have a rigid hierarchical structure (with an alpha couple, beta male, and lambda subordinates). Next, is the main “attraction”. I hike for an hour along a trail leading to an open area in the mountains where a lot protected animals can be seen. After a while, I skip the path and venture inside the forest instead. I climb trees and boulders (big rocks), cross a river, and drink from some “tap water”. I also manage to walk right into a pile of manure the size of a basketball (dung, excrements, feces, poop, the stinky stuff… Whatever you want to call it). Pyrenean chamois, one of the protected species, somehow lay these huge droppings even though they are a relatively small animal (the size of a deer). Luckily, I am close to the river, and spend the next few minutes doing laundry the traditional way.
Once I arrive at the top, I meet a local hunter* scouting the mountains with magnifying glasses. I approach him and he shares with me another pair of glasses he owns. We join forces on the quest to find Pyrenean chamois**. Sadly, a virus has swept the region, so a large number of them are perishing. Locals have teamed up to do a count and assess the damage. It’s not looking good. After a little less than a hour, and a long conversation on the history of the region, it’s time for me to head back. I say goodbye to my new friend, and wish him good luck! At the bottom of the mountain, I see a rock climber on a boulder and can’t resist the urge to join him. I postpone my departure by another 30min and climb with him. He is Catalan, and doesn’t speak any English (or French). So we’re left communicating with hand gestures, sounds, and face expressions. It was a pretty fun sight.
* The type that protects endangered species, I don’t even know why they call them hunters.
** Yes, I omitted to tell you this is also the tale of how I became superhero!
The next morning, as my trip in the south of France ends, I hop on the train heading towards San Sebastian, Spain. Having woken up in a hurry, I didn’t have time to eat or drink anything (not even water). And unfortunately for me, the train I was on didn’t have any form of catering. The train agent I ask tells me I should have the time to hop off and grab a drink at the next station. Naive as I was, I get off at the stop and quickly buy a drink. As I turn back towards my train, I hear the familiar sound of a pressure valve releasing its pressure, the train doors close, and it starts moving. [Help me out here, and use your imagination to picture the following:] Having a filled plastic glass in each hand, I start running towards the train franticly, splashing all the liquids over myself, and shouting whatever words come out of my mouth. The train had left with my bags and my ticket…***
*** On the bright side, at least my bag won’t be caught on the train without a ticket!
So here I was in Tarbes (don’t ask where that is), with nothing other than my phone and my wallet. So what’s the first thing I do? Go have lunch, I’m hungry! Just kidding, I actually go talk to the information center to get this sorted out. After a few negotiations, we manage to get my bags out at the next station and book a seat on the next train out of Tarbes. I will pass by that station and pick up my bags, then continue on to San Sebastian. Now that all this is cleared, I can go have a filling lunch! And just in case you thought that wasn’t enough, my connection was an hour late, and the following train didn’t have a functional AC on the hottest day of the summer so far (above 40 deg. C.). I will skip the description of how much I sweated, but you get the picture.
So that about covers most of my short but tumultuous two days in the South of France. I almost did drive myself crazy, and got what I wanted in the process: an adrenaline fix! Next stop is the very relaxing beach front of San Sebastian (North of Spain). I expect it to be a little less agitated, so you won’t have to worry too much!
[Once again, I already left San Sebastian but am late in posting updates. The next update should come out soon. Don’t be so demanding, I’m on a summer break here!]
[This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here]