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Our next site was Camping du Lac and we reached it early on the afternoon of Thursday 21 July.
Camping Du Lac is located on the outskirts of the village of Aricizans-Avant in the mountains above the spa resort town of Argeles-Gazost. Our route to the campsite was via a mountain road from village of Pierrefitte Nestalas as caravans are banned from the more direct route from Argeles- Gazost. Even the "permitted" route was very narrow and difficult in a couple of places, particularly when passing through the villages enroute.
Camping du Lac was the first long stay site of our holiday and we stayed for 9 nights. It is not as romantic as its name perhaps suggests as the lake of the title is a reservoir with a not particularly pretty dam. Nearly the whole of the campsite is sloping and so are most of the pitches. We had a very large, unmarked pitch on a large grassy area near the gate. We shared this area with 4 other outfits but all had plenty of room. We found it hard to get the 'van levelled – the jockey wheel was on a pile of ramps whilst the back end was almost on the floor.
We had a 10 amp EHU and a water point nearby. The waste and CDP point was, however in the main toilet/office block, an uphill walk away. The pitch had plenty of shade from mature trees.
The site had a small outdoor pool and, also, a boules area. In the 2 storey toilet/reception block there was a laundry room and very clean and adequate sanitary facilities. Upstairs in this block was a table tennis room, a TV room and a communal meeting room. There were a number of illustrated evening talks, eg, "Walking in the Pyrenees" in the communal room whilst we were staying there. The reception office sold a very small selection of basic foodstuffs and ice cream and fresh bread was delivered daily. It, also, had a range of tourist information leaflets. Take-away food such as chips, pizzas, etc could be cooked to order. The office of this family-run site was manned by the lady owner and her daughter. The daughter spoke excellent English and was very helpful. All of the notices, including, the day's weather forecast, were posted in several languages, including English, but there were very few other Brits on the site. We had chosen this site as a centre for touring the High Pyrenees and it proved excellent for this.
The site was very quiet and peaceful and kept very clean and tidy. There were good mountain views from some parts of the site, although not from our pitch. At £22.67 per night (2 adults, car, caravan and 10 amp EHU) I thought that this site was a little expensive. But I suppose it is a popular area and certainly there were only 2 or 3 vacant pitches left when we arrived.
In the adjacent village of Aricizans-Avant there was a pub and a restaurant. The latter was listed by "Les Routiers" and supposed to be very good but we did not try it. The pub offered internet access at 5€ for an hour but it was on their office computer rather, in a rather untidy backroom, rather than wi-fi.
From the campsite Argeles-Gazost was reached by a steep downhill drive of about 2 miles. It had a wide range of shops and a weekly market. There was a large hypermarket and, also, Aldi and Netto stores. In the central market area a very generous computer store had a notice up giving details of free wi-fi network and even put out a picnic table and chairs for web-surfers to use. I used this on several evenings after the shop had closed. The town, also, had a good Tourist Information Office with helpful English speaking staff. There are a number of other campsites close to the centre of the town.
After a few days exploring the local area and visiting the Tourist Information Office in Argeles-Gazost, for local information, we began our touring of the High Pyrenees on Saturday 2 August. We drove up into the mountains ``to the ski and walking centre of Cauterets and had a walk around this small town. We then continued along the D920 to the large car park at Pont d'espagne. We then took the cable car and "flying settee" chair lift up to the Pont d'Espagne nature reserve. After arriving at the top of the chair lift we followed a rather rocky but well-worn track for an hour to the beautiful blue glacier-fed mountain Lac de Gaube with its stunning backdrop of the Vignemale, the highest mountain in the French Pyrénées. The lake was just right for a soothing paddle for my tired feet. After another 20 minutes walk around the edge of the lake we enjoyed a picnic lunch by the streams in the pleasant grassy valley with views to the glacier beyond. After retracing our steps and taking the chair lift and cable car back to the car park we drove back along the Chemin des Cascades to Cauterets, stopping to look at the dramatic waterfalls, on the way.
The weather during our stay was very mixed but this is not surprising given the surrounding mountainous terrain. The days were generally fine but it rained on many of the nights. Monday 4 August was a wet day and so we visited the Grottes (caves) of Betharran west of Lourdes. The caves were really spectacular and much more extensive than any I had visited in the UK. We were the only English speakers in our tour group but our guide excelled himself. As well as playing the English recorded commentary at each commentary point he made a particular point of regularly drawing us to one side to repeat the commentary he had just given in French to the rest of the group to us in English. He was SO stereotypically French even down to a beret and droopy moustache – he looked like a character from "allo, allo". The tour finished with a boat trip on a subterranean river and then a train to conclude. The trip lasted about an hour and we travelled underground from one side of the hill to the other. We drove back through Lourdes but decided not to brave the crowds and lack of parking.
Early on the morning of Tuesday 5 August we left the campsite and drove along the D921 to Luz-St Sauveur before taking the D918 over the Col du Tourmalet (altitude 2115mt). The road climbed, by a series of steep hairpins, through glorious mountain vistas to the summit. The route was thronged with cyclists seeking to emulate the riders of the Tour de France. We parked at the summit for a drink and ice cream at the summit cafe before taking turn to pose under the metal sculpture of a Tour de France competitor. We then continued on to the ski resort of La Mongie. A modern and rather ugly town La Mongie was busy with tourists but we managed to find a parking space before ascending by cable car to the summit of the scenic Pic du Midi Bigorre (2,865mt). The cable car was very expensive, c£25 each, but the ascent is breathtaking, not only because we were packed into the cable car cabin like sardines!!
At the summit there is a scientific research station and astronomical observatory with an interesting museum and display. The views from the summit terraces over the peaks of the Pyrenees, which spread as far as the eye can see in all directions, are magnificent. It is said that one can see 1% of the world's circumference, 400km, from the summit. After several very pleasant hours on the summit we descended in the cable car to the La Mongie. From there we continued east along the D918 and D935 through the wide, lush green Vallee de Campan with its quaint thatched farmhouses. As it was by then evening we did not stop at Bagneres-de-Biggore but continued on to the junction with the D937 and our route west and then south back to Argeles-Gazost.
On Wednesday 6 August we made another early start and took the D918 on another drive into the High Pyrenees. We had thought that we might drive as far the Col de Pourtalet and take a brief excursion into Spain but we did not get that far. After driving over the lower Col de Soulor (1474mt) we continued our ascent to the Col du Aubisque (1709mt). At the summit of the Col d'Aubisque there are 3 giant bike sculptures to commemorate its use in the Tour de France. There were, also, horses and goats roaming freely around the car park begging for food from the tourists.
After a brief photo stop at the Col du Aubisque we continued on the D918 in the direction of Laruns. After a toilet break in the market village of Laruns we turned due south on the D934 towards the Col de Pourtalet and Spain. The D934 follows the Vallee d'Ossau as it climbs into the high mountains. Although a main route with a good surface it is a very bendy and rather narrow 2 lane road and we had to drive carefully. The road was, as always, busy with cyclists seeking to emulate their Tour de France heroes as they toiled up the steep gradients. It was interesting to note the respect with which the French drivers treated the cyclists, patiently driving behind them until traffic conditions permitted them to overtake, giving the cyclists a safe, wide berth as they did so. Realising that we did not have enough time to continue to the Col de Pourtalet and Spain we stopped at the small skiing station of Artouste at the southern end of the narrow Lac de Fabreges which stretches along the valley floor.
From Artouste we took the cable car which ascends to the Pic de la Sagette (2031mt). The cable car gave stunning views along the valley and of the Lac de Fabreges below. Near the cable car summit station is the terminus of the Petit Train d'Artouste. This narrow gauge railway, originally used in the construction of the Lac d'Artouste dam, has now been converted into a tourist attraction. Each of the brightly painted red and yellow engines has its own name. The train system was very busy and so we booked timed tickets and whiled away the necessary wait enjoying the lovely views. After quite a long time we boarded one of the open carriages of a train for a spectacular ride with superb mountain views. At the end of the line we were able to climb up a very steep and stony path to look at the dam and Lac d'Artouste – the dramatic mountains at the far end of the lake form the border between France and Spain. We then returned to the train for the spectacular return journey. From the Pic de la Sagette station we descended to the car park on the valley floor by cable car. Our return journey took us north along the D934 to Pau before turning to east on the D937 to Lourdes and then back to the campsite.
We spent Thursday and Friday 7 and 8 August at the campsite chilling-out and planning the next stage of our holiday journey. On the Thursday afternoon we were treated to an unexpected spectacular by the French army. A large military helicopter hovered and swooped above the wooded hill to the rear of the campsite and a number of troops hung from a harness suspended below the aircraft. After "entertaining" the campers in this way for about 30 minutes the helicopter then hovered over the surface of the Lake and some of the troops jumped from the helicopter into the lake to retrieve items dropped from it.
We had enjoyed the spectacular mountain scenery of the High Pyrenees but Cary felt in need of some "seaside therapy" and so we decided to travel up the western coast of France and stop at the Ile de Re. Obviously August is the peak of the French Summer season but after a number of phone calls from the campsite payphone to many of the Ile de Re sites listed in our Camping Guidebooks we finally managed to book a pitch at Camping de Provident at the northern end of the Ile de Re.
We packed up the 'van during Friday 8 August, paid our bill and said our goodbyes to the owners. On thanking Madame for a pleasant stay Cary was treated to a warm and friendly hug. Early on the morning of Saturday 9 August, with the caravan in tow, we carefully drove down the mountain road to Pierrefitte Nestalas and then north along the valley to Argeles-Gazost. From Argeles-Gazost we took the D821 to Lourdes and then the D940 and D917 before rejoining the A64/E80 east of Pau. We turned westwards and began our long journey up the western side of France to the Ile de Re.
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