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Nine wild rides to the Pyrenees

From the Alps to the French Riviera and back to the mountains. This time the Pyrenees. We’ve got a long way to go. For now Caroline is feeling ill, so we’ve decided to take a break from camping and rest in a hotel to recover. We need to be fit and healthy where we are heading.

It’s too expensive in the Camargue or Arles for that matter. The closest place we can get a cheap relatively decent room is Nîmes. It looks like a fairly nice city so we make plans. There is an Ibis budget hotel, right opposite the train station in Nîmes. It’s the most comfortable looking one out of the cheaper hotels. Good location, modern and cheap.

Grubie Grubie Grubie

Chatting with our Aussie friends yesterday, we realised that they are leaving on the same day as us: today. We told them about our hitchhiking plans to the Pyrenees. There is only one way out from our campsite and it goes via Arles which is already halfway to Nîmes. They offer to drive us to Arles! Awesome, we don’t have to piss about early in the morning, we can avoid the bus and the walk to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and already make good progress without wasting any time!

We agree to leave around 10AM. We are packed and ready. Michael and Sue are tending to a few last minute tasks including sorting out their cute little scruffy dog, Grubie. Around 10:30AM we hop in their camper van and wave goodbye to the Camargue. Caroline sits with Sue in the back and I ride upfront with Michael and Ruby, who is very much begging for attention.

Aydin riding up front in the caravan with Grubie

Artists in Arles

The satnav goes haywire and Michael has a bit of a breakdown trying to fix it. After around 45 minutes they drop us off right next to the centre of Arles. Since we’ve not done much yet, we’ve got plenty of energy still. We traipse through Arles with our heavy rucksacks and cross the Rhône to get to a spot on the other side of town where we think there will be traffic heading towards Nîmes. We couldn’t have been more wrong though. Out of the little traffic there is, none of it pays any attention to us.

A few hours pass and we decide to walk back to the centre of Arles with the idea of catching a bus. When we arrive back in the centre, there is a tonne of traffic. We decide to stick our sign out randomly, not on any particular street or corner and immediately a car screeches to a halt in beside us.

Simon, an artist, drives us all the way to Nîmes, where he drops us off a short walking distance from our hotel. He’s a super cool guy, transporting a boot full of his work from an exhibition. He casually talks about his best friend who is the only one buying his art but is also addicted to heroin. We tell lots of stories and laugh all the way to Nîmes and we actually speak in English so Caroline doesn’t have to carry the conversation for once! Simon has visited the Pyrenees and tells us how magnificent the mountains are.

Nîmes: Chores & disappointments

Nîmes amphitheatre
Image by Guy Dugas from Pixabay

On the first full day in Nîmes, Caroline is resting in the hotel. I have some Student Finance chores to sort out. Since I’m travelling and not working I’m not paying back my student loan. Well, Student Finance doesn’t like that and they are demanding I send proof and various photocopies of documents and bank statements. As you can imagine that’s pretty inconvenient while travelling via hitchhiking & camping.

The hotel helps and prints out all the documents I need and directs me to the post office. When I get there of course nobody speaks English, after all, it is France. When I ask for an envelope one of the cashiers tells me to go to the tobacco shop. Right. Makes sense.

I cross the square and see a tobacco shop. I go in and purchase an envelope and a stamp. Back at the post office I realise the envelope is too small, there are too many documents to fit in it. I also realise I’m missing a document so I head back to the hotel.

Nein no non

Later on, I go back to the tobacco shop and ask for an envelope. He looks at me confused (it’s a different cashier). I repeat slower, an envelope please. He says: non. I repeat, maybe he doesn’t understand (envelope is envelope in French). I tell him I know he sells them I bought one here earlier. Non non non. I pull out the envelope from earlier and slam it on the counter. I BOUGHT THIS HERE TODAY. He shakes his head and sits down. I can’t believe it, what is happening? Am I going crazy?

I have to leave, I’m going to scream. I pace around in a circle outside and calm down. 200 metres around the corner I find another tobacco shop and buy an envelope instantly. Back at the hotel I scream in to my pillow. Take me to the mountains right now. To the Pyrenees.

Or to the pub. Caroline decided that I definitely need a drink after this so she’s taking me to the Irish pub. There’s always an Irish pub wherever you go. This one is… well. If you were Irish you might cry. There’s some half-arsed Halloween decoration but apart from that it’s empty, and closes half an hour after we arrive. Which makes it 9pm. Nîmes is NOT a party city.

Weird Irish pub in Nîmes

Aigues-Mortes second attempt

Another day, bored, while Caroline is resting. I decide that I will try again to visit the pink salt lakes of the Camargue. They are easier to get to from Nîmes, there is a direct bus to Aigues-Mortes and the bus station is a 5 minute walk from the hotel. I make some sandwiches, pack my bag and wait for the bus. It doesn’t come. Other people arrive, it still doesn’t come. I wait over an hour and it doesn’t come. The next bus is scheduled to come in 10 minutes so I wait for that: it doesn’t come.

I go back to the hotel and ask if they know something, they are utterly unhelpful. I check again online, no mention of anything, disruptions or special events. Asking again at the hotel reception if today is some holiday and they casually say, yes, it’s “All Saints’ Day”. The bus never comes, another wasted day. France is super frustrating to backpack in.

Direct connection to Toulouse

Now our journey to Spain begins. We consult Hitchwiki and devise a plan. Today we are aiming to get to Toulouse, but first we need to get to a highway ramp. We take bus number 5 from the bus station just outside of our hotel and get off at the stop Lionceau. From there we walk around 10 minutes to the highway toll station and our designated hitch point.

It’s quite an intimidating spot, lots of cars zooming past. Someone stops offering to take us part of the journey. It’s still early and we’ve got time, so we decline opting to wait and try and get a more direct ride. It pays off and after about an hour of waiting we get a ride.

A young mother with two children takes us on possibly our longest single ride, non stop to Toulouse. 300KM and a 3 hour drive. Caroline entertains the children with our hitchhiking sign and whiteboard markers and makes some small talk with the generous lady. Now and then she points out the window at some landmark or attraction including the magnificent Citadel of Carcassonne. As we approach Toulouse we try to explain where to drop us off, but it’s complicated. While on the highway around the outskirts we notice an airport. Surely it is easy to get a bus near the airport so we ask her to stop and that is that. All the way to Toulouse in one ride, not so far from the Pyrenees now!

Pyrenees-pitstop in Toulouse

Fortunately Toulouse public transport system has an app. We check the app and sure enough there is a bus stop near us which will take us to the centre of Toulouse. We have a quick walk around Toulouse, grab some supplies we need (whiteboard pen because the kids in the car emptied ours), eat a delicious empanada and grab a coffee at a cafe where we look for somewhere to stay. Rooms are pretty expensive here so we opt for somewhere a little out of the city on Airbnb. Toulouse looks like a really nice place, classical European, slow pace, lots of students and young people, good food and more. We don’t have time to experience it properly but it’s one for the books.

More beautiful old towns

A swam on the canal in front of cute houses
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St Wolfgang at night reflecting in the lake from the opposite shore
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Wild and without a ticket

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The town walls of Chur from above with mountains in the background
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Wild and without a shortage of rides

After a very short introduction we are packing our bags and leaving St. Gallen for Filisur via Chur. As always, we wish we had more time but that seems to happen with every place we visit. St. Gallen was unexpectedly beautiful. We were not prepared for it since we only came so Caroline could visit […]

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Looking over Lucerne castle in the morning
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Into the Pyrenees

The next morning we consult Hitchwiki and decide on our route. We will head to Centre de détention (the prison) via bus number 58 from Basso-Cambo. We jump on the bus without buying a ticket, our excuse if we get caught is we are just stupid tourists. Taking the bus to prison is pretty funny. There are lots of strange and unsavoury characters on it going to visit their criminal friends.

We exit and walk the final stretch to the motorway ramp, where we wait about 5 minutes before Frédéric picks us up! Frédéric is super nice and from what we can understand he is a primary school teacher on his way to work. He is very interested in our travels and when we say we want to get to the Spanish border in the Pyrenees he explains he can only take us part of the way but then he gets on the phone and starts blabbing to someone. He keeps on driving and then we come to a very pretty small town named Saint-Béat. We wave goodbye and he rushes off to work. It turns out we are only 10KM from the border! Frédéric drove us 110KM in the end, great start to the day!

View from above of Saint-Béat in the Pyrenees

Saint-Béat is incredibly idyllic, nestled in a valley in the Pyrenees, built on top of the beautiful river. All of the buildings are a uniform shade of grey, contrasting perfectly with the lush green landscape. We can easily imagine how pretty it must look covered in snow.

The town is the epitome of France where old age pensioners stroll around carrying baguettes over their shoulders. You can’t make it up. We assimilate and purchase our own baguette, snacking on a bench on the high street. We garner various confused stares from locals, we are probably the first backpackers this town has seen in a while. At least it feels that way!

Hitchhiking fire safety hazard

Happily enjoying the day, we are getting rides, the weather is perfect and landscapes are stunning. We never expected the Pyrenees to be so green. We gently stroll to the other side of town (there is only one road) where we will try to hitch a ride into Spain! As usual when crossing borders we are slightly nervous, everything changes and we need to relearn all the basics, words, manners, customs, food, etc. Spain is more complicated than the previous countries where Caroline obviously speaks German and some French; we have zero Spanish between us!

An old man stops and we can’t understand a word of what he says. His accent is so thick, we’re not even sure if he’s French or Spanish. He’s driving an old pick up truck full of jerry cans and there’s also a large petrol powered grass cutter tossed in the back. There’s not enough room in the front for the both of us so I get in the back with our rucksacks. It stinks of petrol, there’s pools of it on the floor. Considering the above, imagine what he does next. Lights a cigarette of course. Needless to say I’m a bit worried. Are we going to be blown to kingdom come?

15KM passes and we are surprisingly unscathed as we climb out to safety. The madman with a death wish rattles off down a dirt road in to the Pyrenees. The next ride takes us 20KM to a bit of a larger town but still not really large, Viella. Less eventful than the previous ride, the guy has a big van with a quad bike in the back, he is off to ride around the mountains for the weekend. He drops us off on the wrong side of town and we have to walk half an hour to a decent hitch point.

More hitchhiking adventures

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Mountain views with a cute wooden gate with towering mountains behind
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February 5, 2019
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The town walls of Chur from above with mountains in the background
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Wild and without a shortage of rides

After a very short introduction we are packing our bags and leaving St. Gallen for Filisur via Chur. As always, we wish we had more time but that seems to happen with every place we visit. St. Gallen was unexpectedly beautiful. We were not prepared for it since we only came so Caroline could visit […]

April 23, 2019
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Caroline looking over a moody Spiegelsee
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Wild and without a ride

It’s cold. It’s raining. Not only is there not a pub open in this god forsaken village, but there is also no traffic in it; understandably I guess. We’re leaving Tragöß and Grüner See for new adventures to Spiegelsee and the surroundings at Schladming. We wave our biker friends good bye as they screech past our […]

December 3, 2018
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Pyrenees politics & the Catalonian language

The next ride is even shorter, clocking in at a record 13KM, a young woman who speaks a bit of English. She drives us to Baqueira, where she works at the ski resort in the Pyrenees. Interestingly, she informs us that the first big fall of snow should happen very soon! Finally, she teaches us a few Spanish words and then throws a spanner in the works; this region of Spain is actually Catalonia, so their native language is actually Catalan. Naturally they understand Spanish though.

Side note: this trip was actually in 2017 at the height of the Catalan independence movement. In situations like this language can play an important role in escalation of tensions, so it is important to be conscious and respectful of local culture and identity.

Baqueira is a classic ski village, pretty and lots of big hotels. It’s dead right now though because the ski season hasn’t started yet, but it will any day now. It looks like a world class place to Ski though, totally off the radar.

We are now getting very close to Espot, it’s approximately 40KM away. The first ride takes us from Baqueira to an abandoned petrol station about 5KM before the turn off to Espot. A local business man who speaks very good English is with his elderly mother. We drive over a stunning mountain pass, with jaw dropping views of the Pyrenees and we talk a lot about politics in Catalonia. We attempt to stay neutral and he explains the situation from the perspective of the Catalans. It’s intriguing and apparent that much of the media coverage has been very pro Madrid. It’s a lot more nuanced than it seems and the Catalans seem to have many reasons to be disgruntled.

Pyrenees service station stop

Our driver drops us off at the abandoned petrol station where we sit on the floor for a bit and have a rest. We soon make a beautiful new friend.

After a short break we make our way back to the road. There is barely any traffic so we walk in the direction we need to go. If we don’t catch a ride we might be walking for the next 5 hours because the side road to Espot is 10KM long and climbs up 400M in to the high Pyrenees. The worrying was unwarranted and after walking a kilometre or so our last ride of the day picks us up. A guy in his twenties explains something about work and we understand that he is driving to work in Espot. It turns out that he is coming home from work and does not need to go to Espot at all. He is taking a complete detour to bring us to our destination, he just wanted to help! What a hero.

Welcome to our home for the next few days, Espot, the Pyrenees!

Caroline sitting on our Espot campsite pitch in the Pyrenees

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

Easier said than done. You will have much more success with your own car. Hitchhiking works great too. Failing that you can at least get close to Espot with some public transport. In summer there is a national park bus connecting some of the smaller towns around the Pyrenees. See here for more information.

Things to do in Espot

There is not really anything to do in Espot itself, it’s just a gateway to the national park. Go to the tourist information, get a map, pick a route and hike!

Accommodation

We stayed at the campsite Camping Solau which was nice enough. They also have rooms, which we stayed in one night when the snow came. The lady running the place is not the warmest, but she is helpful.

Check out some deals on Booking.com below

Booking.com

Pro Tip

Visit in the winter, it’s absolutely gorgeous. One of the prettiest national parks we have ever visited!

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