The more you travel, the more you learn about travelling. In Cauterets in the French Pyrenees we made a silly mistake, a mistake that we have now learned from and won’t be making again.
We asked a local family: “What hike should we do with our kids?“
Now, hang on a minute… isn’t that good? Getting insightful tourist recommendations from locals is what savvy independent travellers do, right?
Well, no. Close, but not quite. Remove the word “tourist” from the previous statement and try again. What we should have asked the locals was: “What hike would you do with your kids?”
The difference may seem trivial but it is actually quite profound and in this instance led us, quite literally, up two entirely different paths.
By asking “what hike should we do with our kids?” we inadvertently signalled that we were unknowledgable about the local area (sadly, true in this case) and that we just wanted to “see the sights”, take some photos and move on (not true). Based on what the locals knew about us and what we asked for, they – quite understandably – advised us to make the hike from the Pont d’Espagne to the Lac de Gaube. Just like everyone else visiting Cauterets.
Now, before I go any further, I’d just like to make something absolutely clear: this was, indeed, a beautiful hike between two wonderful natural attractions – the gushing waterfalls of the Pont d’Espagne and a magnificent glacial lake.
But it’s not what we wanted.
Coming from the relatively low-lying and densely populated Luxembourg, we wanted our kids to experience the Pyrenean mountains, not merely to see something photogenic in the presence of crowds of tourists. We wanted pristine wilderness, a sense of space and solitude, an opportunity for our children to appreciate uninterrupted grandiose nature with all its wondrous sights, sounds and smells.
We did not want to be greeted by a car park of Disneyland-esque proportions, we did not want opening hours, we did not want a bombastic visitor centre filling our entire field of view, we did not want a long list of rules and regulations… and we definitely did not want to see the sign that all dog owners dread:
This is absurd. They asphalt over an area the size of Luxembourg for parking facilities to attract coach-loads of noisy, path-eroding, litter-spewing humans to a site of outstanding natural beauty… and then ban dogs for “the protection of the flora and fauna”??? Having invested time preparing for and getting to the Pont d’Espagne (not to mention the €6 parking fee), we were not in the mood for irony-heavy regulations, so we decided to ignore the signs and hiked up to the lake anyway. Oonagh the border collie attracted several dirty looks from snooty day-trippers along the way, but she didn’t seem to let it bother her*.
Rant over: the Lac de Gaube is – undeniably – supremely beautiful; a smooth carpet of blue-green extending towards the massive snowy bulk of Vignemale mountain, the highest in the French Pyrenees. After a hot and sweaty hike up, it was the most natural thing in the world to remove our socks and shoes and take a paddle in the crystal-clear water. However, no sooner had we done so that we observed that no-one else – not one of the several hundred people milling around the lake – was doing the same. Was this forbidden too? Probably. But we didn’t care – rebellion felt great by this stage of the day.
Wounded by our Pont d’Espagne experience, we went back to the local family and, in carefully worded French, asked what hike they like to do with their kids. With understanding in their eyes (and was that a hint of remorse?), they told us that they like to hike in the valley of the Gave de Lutour, starting near the “La Fruitière” refuge / hotel.
Well, the contrast could not have been greater. Parking Daisy the bus at the edge of the forest a kilometre or so before La Fruitière, we packed our rucksacks with enough provisions for a whole day, crossed a rickety old bridge, and set off up the valley.
Our hike in the Vallée de Lutour was perfect and dimensionless: I have genuinely no idea how long we spent there, nor how far we walked; it doesn’t matter anyway because we had finally found what we had come to the Pyrenees for.
In a theatre of towering mountains, the kids were free to act as… kids; free to run, explore and dream. The dog – according to a sign near the refuge – was “tolerated”, which seems to be as good as it gets in this part of the world.
The kids wandered through herds of bell-clanging cattle, picnicked by the stream, invested time in closely observing a colony of ants at work, and climbed every boulder along the way. We didn’t see any sights comparable to the Pont d´Espagne / Lac de Gaube, but the experience that we had in the Vallée de Lutour was much, much richer.
Moral of the story? Be careful in what you ask for, because you might just get it…
Daisy the bus visited Cauterets in July 2016
© 2016 Jonathan Orr
* Disclosure: We later learned from our campsite owners that dogs are, in practice, allowed on one path up to the Lac de Gaube (the path that we used, by chance), as long as they are kept on a leash. We did not see any sign or notice indicating this during the walk itself but sincerely hope – for common sense’s sake – that this is true.
I’m linking this post to a few travel blog “link-ups”, all of which are full of interesting tales from the road. Please go check them out: