In the Pyrenees: Cauterets

4 Oct

Lake Gaube, Pyrenees National Park.

Our roadtrip across France ends without fanfare. We find the rental office; we have no additional scratches to the vehicle’s interior/exterior; we managed to figure out that diesel is, in fact, gazole; we get to the office on time; the rental agent is a cute, perky, young French girl; there’s a city bus leaving within 10 minutes. I honestly think SendMoneyPlease, the world traveler, was disappointed everything had gone so smoothly. Where is the haggling? Where is the bargaining? Why haven’t we had to eat nothing but potato chips for dinner? We scheduled our car return to be near the Pyrenees National Park, and head directly for the mountain hiking and ski-friendly town of Cauterets, within walking distance of the Spanish border should you feel so inclined.

Cauterets.

After a week of driving, we’re both more than ready to get out and stretch our legs a little bit, and the Pyrenees offer as much hiking and scenery as you can manage. Our “luck of the Irish” continues to follow us: we began our travels in Dublin, stayed with an Irishman in Edinburgh, and now find another budget-friendly hotel run by an Irish couple in Cauterets – who are happy to give hiking and restaurant suggestions, loan us a map, and rent us a room overlooking the (so crystal-clear, it’s blue) Gave river.

The old railway station at Cauterets.

There are ski lifts and thermal spas year-round (though having a rheumatology clinic halfway up the side of a mountain seems a little awkward). There are walking and hiking trails for every level – but keep in mind that these are mountains – even the “pleasant afternoon introductory hike” turns out to be several hundred meters up. The 538-mile GR10 hiking trail runs across the top of town, and the old rail line has been converted into a paved bike and walking path but still winds past abandoned stations and crumbling spas from another era.

On our way to the Plateau de Lisey, near Cauterets.

The national park is gorgeous, well-marked, well-maintained, and best of all, free. The trails are varied and interesting – large, slick rocks give way to chilly fir forests; babbling streams with freezing water turn into mini waterfalls with old wooden bridges; there are flat, expansive valleys with grazing sheep, and swaths of trees felled by avalanches and rock slides all the way down the mountain side; there are tiny family-run bars perched on precarious outcrops, and I can’t help wondering which would be less safe: walking down after a beer or driving down after drinking nothing?

Coffee & fresh Edelweiss, Cauterets.

I’ve broken through an eyelet on my (non-hiking-shoe) sneakers from tightening the laces so much, and I think we could spend, oh, at least 10 more days here. The views are postcard-perfect and we’ve discovered the spinach gratin and tartiflette at the local market (don’t worry, ours didn’t have bacon). It’s so good, we find ourselves motivated (by the thought of roasted vegetables) to hurry back on the trails to make sure we don’t miss out. Every restaurant in town offers cheese-heavy fondue, potato-cheese raclette, and potato-cheese tartiflette; we can’t help but wonder: if this is what they eat in the summer, what could they possibly eat in the winter?

Lake Gaube, Pyrenees National Park.

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