Monday, June 19, 2006

from Sare: natural progression

It dawned on me that I have become physically lazy lately. For, faced in the past weeks with fantastic hiking opportunities, I wasn’t taking them.

Here, in the Pyrenees, things have got to change. There are trails. There are paths. There are maps. Get moving!

Still, I don’t exactly rush the morning. Eventually I do stumble down to this:

Europe 06 France 3 217

…and by the time I finish and get around to putting up a post, the village clock has done its maximum number of hour clangs.

I do want to set out right then and there, I do I do. But everyone around me is eating the big Sunday lunch. It is my last Sunday in France. How can I not partake?

Reason prevails and instead of sitting down to a big four course meal, I go to a little cafĂ©-bistro type place (“taberna” says the sing) and order a salad with grilled goat cheese and pine nuts. And I vow that in commemoration of my months in France, I will, hereafter, always eat a Sunday mid afternoon meal of a salad with grilled cheese and pine nuts. With a glass of rose wine. After which I will probably do the nap things. Sorry, I’m digressing.

Europe 06 France 3 220
everyone eats

Europe 06 France 3 221
I eat

I had the presence of mind to purchase a detailed map of the area, trails and all. But for my uneducated eye, it was merely a mess of lines on a piece of paper. I had asked the pretty little desk/waitress person (emphasis on young) where I might go for a nice walk/hike in the country and she told me (in her youthful enthusiasm) that there is this ballade I should take. It sounded so lyrical! Yes, definitely, the ballade is just the thing. How long? Maybe four hours…

As I set out, I think of the essentials: food. Just in case I lose my way in the Pyrenees and have to survive on nuts and berries and whatever else I will have brought, for days.

In Sare, it is crucial that you bring home with you baguettes and a Basque cake for the Sunday meal. For any meal, actually. They sell Basque cakes everywhere: flat, cookie like cakes, sometimes laced with cherry jam.

Europe 06 France 3 219

And so I, too, must have a Basque cake-let.
And now off I go. But which way? The map does not fuss with the Sare streets and I get lost even before leaving the village. Remarkable. I ask the madame at the hotel (she is closer to my age and has less of that youthful optimism): which way is the path in the direction of the grotto?

Do you intend to walk there? She looks so incredulous that I think I am perhaps in over my head. It’s only four hours, isn’t it? I ask meekly. She shrugs and points in the direction of the mountains.

As always, these paths are easy at the beginning. I hum to myself, walk briskly, think of all the calories I am burning while taking photos of children playing, as parents dine, at picnic spots and in the shades of trees by their farms and homes.

Europe 06 France 3 229

Europe 06 France 3 231

But then, quite suddenly, the path narrows. And obstacle number one appears.

Europe 06 France 3 232

Can you identify the problem? I’ll help: a few steps back, there was a road sign that read: Watch out for the dog. I had noted it, thinking: wow, that must be some special dog, deserving of its own road sign.

And now I know that if there is anything special about this dog it is his viciousness. The animal is growling and barking so fiercely that I stop completely and consider my options. I take a lame step forward (the path passes close to the house), the dog tightens his circle around me and growls louder.

And so I shout toward the house: excuse me! hey you there! The dog is barking, I am shouting, what’s the matter with these people?

Eventually the woman of the house comes out. Yes? Are you looking for the path? It goes behind the house.
But the dog! She shrugs her shoulders and says – he’s nothing.
And so now I understand: the road sign is there to protect not me, but the dog: "slow down, dogs playing." I walk past, the dog whimpers and goes away.

The path is, for the most part, well marked. Where there is a fork, a blue arrow points in the direction you want to go. I concentrate on the scenery, which is stunning.

Europe 06 France 3 243

But it is hard going. Elevations change, so there is a lot of up and down. And there are the usual stones and muddy spots. Unlike in the Languedoc, where the wind moves the air around constantly, the air here is still. The sun comes in and out from behind a hazy sky. Flies buzz. I am the only hiker. I encounter exactly one living soul and it is her:

Europe 06 France 3 252

She crosses from one fern field to the next and throws me a “what are you doing here” glance. After the dog encounter, I am bolder and throw her one right back: “I’m hiking, so move out of my way.” She does.

[Ocean warning: readers who are sensitive to blood and gore should maybe just skim the next several paragraphs]

Eventually, the path shoots down to a creek and bends in a wide arch around pastureland. I am in good spirit. I’ve had no mishaps but for a mud splash (I had been so preoccupied with a photo op that I missed the entire mess in front and thus went in ankle deep; a stream helped fix that one).

But now, right in my path, I see a bone. Rather large. Too big for a picnic discard. And there are many many flies. And feathers everywhere. As the path bends once more, I see right before me a dead horse. Or, rather, three fourths of one, fine mane, still glossy brown hide, but parts missing entirely, having obviously provided much nourishment to vultures and such.

No, I did not take a photo. It seemed disrespectful. And no, I did not faint or vomit, even after observing … well, the details of the dismemberment. I walked briskly past, making as big a loop around the poor thing as I could.

And only after I was well past it did I began to wonder: why is there a dead horse here? Why did he die? What (nearby?) beast attacked him to begin with? What the hell happened there? And: hadn’t anyone passing along this path noticed? Don’t they, like, remove road kill on signed paths?

And it is at that point that it strikes me that I had seen no blue arrows lately. I walk further. It is so still there between the ferns and forest. Bird noises, flies buzzing. Nothing more. Possibly, somewhere lurking, the beast that killed the horse.

Ten minutes more and I realize that I am lost. I have to go back, past the horse, that same dead horse that obviously was not on the path because this was not the path, this was some road leading who knows where.

I wish I could say it was, after that, downhill all the way, that I sped like lightening and got to the grotto in no time.

In fact, it suddenly turned uphill all the way. And after three hours of hiking it also became clear that this trail was not a four hour loop but a four hour final destination designation and the destination was not the grotto, but the summit.

Europe 06 France 3 256
toward the top: where the wild ferns grow

In the middle of all these ferns, I came across a hut that acted as a shelter. A couple of French hikers were sitting enjoying a wine break (really). I asked about the location of the grotto and was told that I had passed it some 500 meters below.

I loop back, find the grotto, stare with amazement at this apparently ancient burial spot and place where cave people frolicked…

Europe 06 France 3 272

…and start thinking about heading back. And this is where I completely show my hiking weakness: I hate retracing my steps over difficult terrain. If you don’t know what’s coming, you can pretty much hike through anything and either you die or you survive and blog about it. But reliving the experience? No. I opt for the paved road for a more relaxed 10 km jaunt back to the village, sidetracking just toward the end, to get some more of that Basque countryside, farm animals and all.

Europe 06 France 3 281
regarding each other

Europe 06 France 3 300
they all look basically like this

BTW, is there anything wrong with feeding a little piece of Basque cake-let to these guys? They came right over when I paused for a photo and I neglected to carry with me a carrot or a lump of sugar. They appeared surprised, as if they had never tasted it before. They sloshed it in their drippy lips for a long time and then nudged around my bag for more. They’re not allergic to cherry jam, are they?

Europe 06 France 3 291
is there more?

Dinner is at an outdoor spot on the square. It is lively and brisk and absolutely delicious. Did I, the evening before, have trepidations about some of the foods in this region? All gone. I love it all.

Europe 06 France 3 305
white asparagus, scallops

Europe 06 France 3 309
fish, zucchini with egg

Europe 06 France 3 311
Basque cakes

Europe 06 France 3 308
looking up: a furled up France, a partly unfurled Union, in full glory: Pays Basque