Thursday, May 31, 2018

Lourdes to Pau

The Pyrénées are still in the clouds
Grande Randonnée is French for big hike and is normally shortened to GR. Their length varies a lot, but they typically take several weeks to hike (e.g. I did the GR5 in 2015 over about 4 weeks); they are big undertakings. On moving to Pau I realized that I had a GR that wasn't really very G at all and was actually doable in a day - the Chemin Henri IV or GR 782. It's basically a hike from Lourdes to Pau (or vice versa) along a roman route, following the crest of a long, low ridge. I've been looking for a chance to do it, and selected today - a cool, dryish day in an unsettled period of weather. 

So I took the 7.30 train from the station in Pau to Lourdes and found the trip a bit sobering - it seemed like a lot of terrain to cover on foot in a day; what had I let myself in for? It was drizzling in Lourdes and I loaded up with sandwiches for the 40+ km hike back to my house. The weather cleared up pretty quickly and I had pleasant hiking conditions as I ticked off the kilometers. After nearly 10 hours hiking I arrived home - tired but satisfied - just managing to beat a shower; great timing! A full GR in a day! Some pics.

Friday, May 25, 2018


We have several interesting birds that visit our garden for food but (so far) Idris is the most exotic. Idris is the name we have given to a Eurasian Hoopoe (or maybe a couple - I think the male and female look alike) that comes and feeds on our lawn most days. He's got a long beak and pecks away at the grass and normally flies off with a tasty morsel in his beak. He's only a summer visitor, he winters in Africa and our full time residents (e.g. blackbirds) don't seem to fight with him.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Le Grand Prix Historique de Pau

Passing move in Bugatti race
The weekend after the Pau Grand Prix is the historic grand prix (more info here) and it's a very different atmosphere - much less intense and more of an exhibition than anything else. While the cars are obviously slower, they offer a better spectacle on the circuit; overtaking is possible (thanks to longer braking distance, no aerodynamics and cooperative drivers) and slip angles are a bit higher. 

Parked outside the Palais Beaumont
Anyway, my wife and I went along on the Sunday and watched a few races and soaked up the atmosphere and we both enjoyed it. Like most of the locals we've talked to, I thought it was the better weekend as a spectator. Some   pics.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Pau Grand Prix

We've seen all the preparations - signs, fencing, guard-rails and diversions - for the last 6 weeks or so and, finally, the Pau Grand Prix was held this weekend. The race is held on a very narrow, twisting street circuit and overtaking is very difficult (in fact, almost impossible in modern racing cars); the circuit is very like Monaco's, but actually narrower. The race has been held since 1930 and this was the 77th edition; previous winners include Jim Clark. Now, it's a Formula 3 race and the highlight of a whole weekend of racing for different types of cars. 

Formula 4 race
I went and saw a few of the races on the Saturday, including the 1st of 3 F3 races over the weekend. It's very impressive for a number of reasons. First, there are a lot of logistical challenges - e.g. the circuit is 2.7 km long and has to be protected by twin layers of fencing. Second, all motor racing involves accidents and, on such a narrow circuit, they have to be dealt with very efficiently; generally the damaged car is retrieved by one of the strategically placed huge cranes as the safety car neutralizes the race for a lap or two, before racing resumes. Third, the circuit is obviously a huge driving challenge; you wouldn't be allowed to design a modern circuit with so many blind bends, undulations and kerbs and with such a narrow track. For the drivers, it must be a pretty high pressure event, especially when they have 3 races over a single weekend.

But, in terms of a racing spectacle, it's spoiled by the virtual impossibility of overtaking. The race is won or lost in qualifying and at the race-start. This doesn't take anything away from the event's challenge or the skill of the drivers, but it certainly reduces the spectacle. Some pics. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

Hiking in the clouds

Into the clouds...
I set off for a shortish day hike on Le Layens, a 1625 m high mountain in the Pyrénées that is used as a paraglider launch. Everything went very well until I joined the final ridge, and saw that clouds were moving in from the North. Hmmm, this wasn't in the forecast I saw. Very quickly I found myself in the clouds hiking along a long, indistinct ridge without any real paths. Finding the summit wasn't that hard (just keep going up) but after that navigation became more difficult. For the next hour or so I spent most of my time looking at my compass and peering into the mist, hoping to recognize the few landmarks on the map. Even as a hiker, the mist can be very disorienting - at one point, I thought there were a group of sheep 200 m away, only to realize it was a bunch of daffodils about 15 m away!

Anyway, I followed the intended route, even if it was a little more stressful than I expected. Near the end of the hike, I popped out of the clouds and pretty much the first thing I saw was my car, 750 meters directly below. Maybe next time I'll pack a GPS for my hikes...

Some pics.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Le Trône du Roi

Le Pic d'Anie from Le Trône du Roi
For the last couple weeks I've been looking at the Pyrénées, trying to work out if the snow-line was high enough to permit some hiking. Today's forecast was excellent so I decided it was worth a try and went on a hike up Le Trône du Roi. It's a popular hike on essentially the 'front-range'' of the Pyrénées - so at 1266m not a big mountain but quite a steep hike to a sharp summit and a short drive from Pau.

It all went according to plan, with excellent views of the bigger snowy peaks and a taster for more hikes to come. Some pics.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Big Waves at St-Jean-de-Luz

Typical Basque Architecture
Our 'local' coast has changed from the Med to the Atlantic and it's quite a contrast. The Med always seems to be warm, sunny, calm and blue - even in the middle of winter. The Atlantic is much more elemental - even in summers it can be moody, gray and stormy. The differences go well beyond that; the Atlantic - with the Basque architecture - has a charming 'old world' feel while the Med feels like some modern, Californiaized development. Marinas contain sailing and fishing boats, rather than only luxury yachts. 

We could see most of these differences on a day-trip we made today to St-Jean-de-Luz, a fashionable Basque resort. We didn't know much about the town before our visit, but we learned a lot from the little information plaques throughout the town. It has the only sheltered bay on the south west coast. Before the sea-walls were constructed, the sea would advance a meter per year, but afterwards the town built its wealth on fishing and piracy!

The weather was very pleasant, with almost no wind. But, as we were strolling around, we noticed big waves breaking over the distant sea-walls. We had to see what was going on! So, after a leisurely lunch, we took a boat out to the Fort de Socoa. We were mesmerized by the spectacle! On one side of the sea-wall, spray, mayhem and spectacle; on the other side, kayakers calmly paddling around. I'm keen to go back when it is windy!

Some pics I took. If you want more spectacular waves, look here.