Saturday, 22 July 2017

Back In Black Mountain: Part 1

Day 1: Two Lakes and a Transfer

9.50k

Although only a short 5-day jaunt, this trip – our fourth visit to Montenegro – had been some 3 years in the making. We had been hoping to visit our good friend Dimitrije and do some hiking together for some while, but time, circumstance and other commitments had meant it had taken a little longer than expected to arrange.

After all this time, we were justifiably excited to be heading back to Montenegro – it’s such a wonderful destination for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts! Thankfully, our flights ran smoothly, and with customs cleared we met Dimitrije in the arrivals foyer. It was so good to see him again after all this time.

Approaching Black Lake 
   
Our first objective was to transfer to the small mountain resort of Žabljak, the main base for exploring Durmitor National Park. Located in the northeast of the country, Durmitor NP is probably the premier outdoor location in Montenegro, containing the Tara Canyon, numerous glacial lakes and cirques, and almost 50 peaks topping out at over 2000m, so there are huge opportunities for hiking, biking, canyoning, rafting and other outdoor pursuits.

Looking across both lakes

Having dropped by our lodgings (the Lalovic Apartments) to drop off our kit and taken lunch at a nearby restaurant, we decided to walk round the twin pools of Black Lake by way of a warm-up. Being both beautiful and close to Žabljak, Black Lake is a popular destination for tourists and day-trippers. 

And it’s easy to see why, with it’s clear waters set in an amphitheatre of wooded slopes beneath impressive peaks, it makes for a picture-postcard setting. But walk a little way round the perimeter and the crowds disappear, leaving scope for quiet reflection.

Quietly exploring the lakeside

That evening we ate, as at lunchtime, at the Kotoba Luna, a simple, inexpensive mountain-type restaurant with large portions of traditional fare. The local diet based around ample helpings of meat, potatoes, grilled vegetables and salad may not be to everyone’s taste, but it suited us just fine.  

Zabljak at sundown

Day 2: Three Lakes and Half a Mountain

23.50k

Having taken an early breakfast in town and stocked up with sandwiches and snacks for lunch, we were ready for the day’s objective – an ascent of 2522m Bobotov Kuk, which is usually regarded as the highest peak in Montenegro (although there are some slightly higher summits in the Prokletije sharing the border with Albania).

We met up with two of Dimitrije’s friends from their outdoor club, Slavko and Veljko, and headed off towards our starting point at the 1907m pass on the south edge of the massif.

The road up to the pass where we started our hike

But despite all our plans and preparations, one thing beyond our control was the weather. Usually, ascents of Bobotov Kuk are accompanied by photographs of far-reaching views from a summit bathed in sunshine, but today the sky was having other ideas. A strong wind was gusting and low cloud scudded across the mountain tops, and we all paused to don extra layers before setting off.

On the right track for Bobotov Kuk

The walk to the base of the peak follows a typically undulating mountain path, clear enough on the ground and mostly straightforward but with one or two tricky sections requiring a hands-on approach. 

Patches of old snow still lying at the end of June

What was quite a surprise (although maybe not, given the weather conditions today) was the sight of patches of old snow, still lying in places even though it is almost July – a reminder, if one were needed, that winters in these parts are tough and cold.

Hiking in beneath the rock formation Zupci, which means "teeth"

After a little over an hour’s walking, we descended steeply towards a small lake, ready for a short break. From here on the route would get steeper, with loose rocks and protected sections to negotiate, so we took the chance to rest briefly and gather our thoughts before tackling the next section.

Lake at the base of the peak 

The trouble was that since we had set off the skies had got darker, the low cloud much lower and the winds even stronger. To reach the summit from here takes two stages – firstly climbing to a saddle at around 2350m, then on to the 2522m summit itself after a rocky scramble – and we were conscious that the saddle was now only intermittently visible through the mist, and the peak itself completely hidden.

We decided to carry on for a while, and review the situation as we went. Half way to the saddle, we met a couple of other hikers who had got that far but turned back because of the inclement conditions. 

Decision time: deciding to head back down

It seems that Bobotov Kuk was determined to hide it's charms from hikers today. Slavko and Veljko decided to carry on towards the saddle (which they eventually reached, filming a short video of themselves clinging to the mountainside and showing just how windy it was), but with the clouds ripping across the sky like time-lapse photography, we three decided it was just a bit too risky and turned back.

A glimpse of what might be visible from the summit on a good day 

After a longer rest stop at the lake, we started to retrace our steps towards the cars. Of course, just at that moment the sun came out! The temperature rose and the mist evaporated a little, all of which made our retreat look over-cautious.

But the cloud was still whizzing past overhead and the wind buffeting and gusting strongly enough to force us into a stagger and knock us off the path, so we were happy we’d made the right choice especially as, moments later, the summit was again immersed in thick cloud.

Confirmation we had made the right decision

By now, Slavko and Veljko had returned from the saddle. Having taken a short cut near the bottom, they’d cut off a chunk of the route and we found them lounging beside the path waiting for us.

Because of our prompt start to the day it was still quite early, and people were heading out to the mountain as we were heading back. On the way, we met a couple of Scots and a group of Norwegians and stopped to discuss conditions.

Descending one of the protected sections
on our way back to the car

Our climb was over, but with plenty of the day left, we had a chance to do something more. So, after a quick stop for drinks in Žabljak, we headed for Ivan Do, near Black Lake, to do the 3-Lakes walk.

Snake Lake!

Our first objective was Zminje Lake (which translates as Snake Lake, and doesn’t refer to the shape) about a 40-minute hike away. We followed the track from Ivan Do, soon cutting up into the woods on a pleasant path between the trees. At this lower altitude, it was a warm, sunny afternoon, a long way from the cool, windy, misty conditions of the morning.

Walking with Natasha & Yasha

As we ambled through the woods, we met up with Natasha and Yasha, a mother and son from St Petersburg. Chatting as we went, we talked about everything from the Russian education system to Premier League football to the fact that their flight from Moscow to Podgorica was quicker than ours from Stanstead. It’s always interesting to learn about other cultures, even if only briefly. 

We are on the route of the Via Dinarica, the new Balkans mega-trail

Part way back we said farewell to Natasha and Yasha, and headed off uphill towards Jablan Lake, about 90 minutes away.

After a 40-minute uphill section, the path levelled off, traversing the hillside through grassy pasture and thin woodland before a slight drop down to a small lake beneath tall cliffs. By now, it was around 7.00pm, so we had the lake pretty much to ourselves as we had a quick snack and a drink and soaked up the beauty and quiet.

Low evening sunlight on the mountains

Retracing our steps to the path junction and on to Ivan Do took about an hour-and-a-quarter, but the journey was eased by the wonderful views and gorgeous quality of the low evening light.

Black Lake in the distance

It had been a long day, but an excellent one. Sure, we were slightly disappointed not to have summited Bobotov Kuk (we will have to come back again to do that!) but the opportunity to explore other areas of the park meant we saw more of Durmitor than we had expected, which was a real bonus.

Nearing the end of the hike in fading light

We had dinner at the Kotoba Luna again, with kebabs and chicken, grilled veg, salad and beers on the menu – just the job after a full day on foot. It was almost 10.00pm when we arrived at our digs after a long but fantastic and diverse day, and even the power cut just before bedtime couldn’t take the shine off an excellent day.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Le Puy Route - Part 6

Long Days, Short Days & Rainy Days - Cahors to Moissac

Day 7: Cahors to La Clos de Gamel

30.00k (18.67 miles) / No Ascent or Descent stats

We were up and breakfasted quite early, first setting off back through town to pick up lunch stuff for the next couple of days. Having run low on picnic food, we took the opportunity to stock up.

Setting off

Returning to the Louis Philippe bridge, we made our way beside the loop of the river to the Pont Valente, an elaborate fortified bridge that has carried pilgrims out of Cahors for 700 years.

Pont Valente

Since reaching Cahors, there had been a noticeable change of atmosphere about the route, and one which would remain with us for the next few days. Up until now, that feeling of being “on Camino” wasn't necessarily always there, which may have been down to the relative dearth of villages and towns through which the route has passed. The GR65, whilst broadly following the pilgrimage route, was also designed to skirt more civilisation than the more direct Spanish route.

Crossing the bridge out of town

After crossing the bridge (and passing the Three French Ladies – TFL) we hit the steep climb up to the Croix de Magne on the ridge above town. The route then takes a lengthy detour to pass under the busy N20 motorway, before following quiet lanes and paths towards the hamlet of Les Mathiuex, where we stopped at the gite for cokes and a rest. The TFL were there too.

View from the Croix de Magne

We dropped down into the valley, heard planes race by low in the sky and climbed towards Labastide-Marnhac where we stopped for lunch at a handy picnic table. After the rain of the past couple of days, it was nice to have good weather again.

Lunch stop, Labastide-Marnhac

Exiting the village, we again passed TFL and began a lengthy stretch of some 12k towards Lascabanes. The walking here is through woods or open spaces and is much, I imagine, like the South Downs. One section, we were brought to a stop as a cuckoo broke from its normal two-note song to entertain with a rarely-heard three-note version.

Continuing with the woods / heathland mix of countryside, we kept high on the ridge for a while longer, before dropping into the valley towards Lascabanes.

On reaching the village, we began to look for our accommodation, only to find it was actually another 3.5k away. So, we trundled on, through more nice shady woods and along a level tarmacked lane, until we reached the Chapelle St-Jean-le-Froid, where we called in for some cool.

The last kilometre was off route. This place had better be worth it, we thought.

La Clos de Gamel

And it was. La Clos de Gamel is another farmstead, with the out-buildings turned into guest rooms, two swimming pools, and a great setting. We were made very welcome by Chantelle and David, offered complimentary cold drinks and use of the pool (taken – it was glorious on such a hot day) and allowed to settle at our own pace.

Our room

We had a swim, rest, and tidy up, then joined our hosts plus other guests, Patrice and Marie, and neighbours Rene and Anita (originally from Holland) for a lovely meal with wonderful relaxed company. We chatted in a mix of French and English, and all got on so well. It was a fun evening, not least because Rene came in a restored bright yellow Panhard car, which was a great talking point.

This 1952 Panhard has been lovingly restored


Such a beautiful car

It seemed a shame to call it a night, but more walking beckons for us and the others tomorrow, so with some reluctance we headed for bed.

Day 8: La Clos de Gamel to Lauzerte

22.25k (13.80 miles) / Ascent 520m / Descent 668m

After a lovely breakfast outside, with coffee, juice, bread, jam, and yoghurt, it was time to take our leave of La Clos de Gamel – a sad moment, as we had had such a lovely time.

It was already sunny and quite warm as we got underway, taking a slight detour back to the GR65. The walking was superb, some of the best of the week, chalk uplands with views far and wide.

On the way to Montcuq

Our first objective was Montcuq, a hilltop town some 8k away and apparently the half way point of the Route St Jacques. From now on, we would be closer to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port than Le Puy.

If you were thinking of a small town in France, where folks come from round about to do not much in a relaxed and unhurried manner, and where incomers would choose to sit in cafes to acquaint themselves with the locals, this would be the place.

Village centre, Montcuq

We had cold Cokes in a market square café, bought a sandwich for lunch, and whiled away a delightful half hour.

Path climbing out of Montcuq

Moving on, we covered about another 3.5k to the church at Rouillac, where we had a quick look inside, taking refuge from the heat of the day before joining the TFL at the picnic table for lunch.

The afternoon was shaping up to be quite hot, and as we continued we were glad of occasional shade to offset the heat, especially on a couple of the climbs. After the rise up to Montlauzan, we opted to miss the village and rested instead in the shade beneath a large tree.

Crossing the valley, we entered the département of Tarn et Garonne for the 7k stretch to Lauzerte. After an initial climb, the walking was level in the main, but the final descent into Lauzerte was very steep and slippery, and would have been treacherous in wet conditions.

Topping up at the spring

Arriving in Lauzerte, we stopped for an ice cream, then followed a busy and dangerous main road for half a mile to the hotel. And what a hotel. On the plus side, the host was nice and there was a swimming pool which we took advantage of. On the other hand, it was a bit run down and there were some odd characters hanging around. The meal was basic but fine, but it was obvious that it was living on faded glory and the whole place had seen better days.

Local football match

We went to watch some local football afterwards, and we were happy enough in the end – when you are tired, you can cope with anything as long as you get food, water and a bed.

Day 9: Lauzerte to the Auberge de L’Aube-Nouvelle

13.75k (8.50 miles) / No ascent or descent stats

Thunder during the night had given us a strong clue as to what to expect this morning – rain. Varying from steady to quite heavy, we set off for the climb up to Lauzerte, had a quick look round the little town, and bought cherries in the market.

Marketplace, Lauzerte

Already a bit behind the clock, we left the town and dropped into the valley. The way was pleasant but unremarkable, and after a sweaty climb the far side the rain had abated and we were able to shed hot waterproofs.

Colourful hedgerow

Eglise St-Sernin-du-Bosc

After a steep descent on a stony track, we reached the restored Eglise St-Sernin-du-Bosc, and popped in for a quick look round. Moving on, we followed a succession of muddy tracks, quiet lanes and busier roads.

Crops in the fields

We had descended into another valley just beyond Mirabel when the darkening skies finally released their contents. Only just in time, we donned waterproofs again. As the rain became heavier, the going became more difficult as already wet ground became awash with water.

As the intensity of the rain reached a crescendo and water ran freely down the hillsides, the tracks became increasingly muddy and slippery. I fell, and with one side covered in mud we splodged along for a bit until we reached the Auberge de L’Aube Nouvelle, which thankfully was open – but only just!

We were invited in and brought hot coffee, dripping water and mud all over the tiled floor as the deluge outside continued, thankful for their kind hospitality even though not properly open.

Another pilgrim was ensconced in the lobby, though he was stopping there for the night.  

Weighing up our options, we came to the unpalatable decision to end our walk there and then, and pick up again from this point next time. It was a bit defeatist, but anything other than walking the roads would have been impossible – or at least very slippery and muddy.

It was a shame, but on the plus side it did give us a bit more time to look round Moissac. We called a cab and were whisked into town in minutes, while the rain fell.

Streets of Moissac

Safely installed in our hotel, we rested up and dried out for a bit. By late afternoon, the rain had stopped, so we went for a look round Moissac and something to eat. As if to endorse our earlier decision, the heavens opened again as we had our meal, and as the water tumbled from the awnings all around, we were glad to have opted for a sheltered spot.

Sunday

With almost a full day at our disposal, we had chance for a good look round town. Heading for the market and delis to pick up food for lunch, we first walked along the side of the canal before climbing up to a viewpoint where we sat and read our books for a while. Pottering round some of the nearby lanes, we began plotting our next visit.

Walking by the canal

Looking over Moissac from the viewpoint

Back in town, we had final drinks and eats in the main square. A brass band started playing – hilariously, outside the Abbey and on the pilgrimage path of the Route St Jacques, they played a version of Highway to Hell. AC/DC never sounded quite this way before, nor quite as ironic!

Then back to hotel ready for pick up and home. We know we will most likely be back again, although we are not sure quite when as yet. This Camino business gets under your skin, and we have plans afoot to do some more. St Jean-Pied-de-Port awaits, then other routes across Europe - more than enough to keep us busy for the foreseeable future!

The Le Puy Route - Part 5

Foie Gras & Friendships Forged - Cajarc to Cahors

Day 4: Cajarc to Limogne-en-Quercy

21.12k (13.18 miles) / Ascent = 606m / Descent = 437m

We had a somewhat shorter day in store for today, but one which turned out to be very rural with almost no villages except for Gaillac encountered along the way.

Narrow streets of old town Cajarc

After the physical demands of the previous two days, we set off a bit later than normal at about 9.00am. As it's a bank holiday and a Monday, two reasons why shops in France don't open, we were wondering about getting lunch stuff – would there be anywhere in Cajarc to buy food?

Fortunately, we found a boulangerie that was open and bought ham and cheese baguettes and two quiches – enough lunch for two days with our exercise- and heat-suppressed appetites.

Looking back towards cajarc

It was very quiet out walking. We saw dolmen man (a chap we had first met at the dolmen yesterday) a couple of times early on, who sped ahead but twice went the wrong way and eventually disappeared altogether, but aside from there were few walkers about.

Nearing Gaillac

The next village, Gaillac, was equally quiet. We popped into the church which, besides being cool, held a statue of St Jean Gabriel with an unusual Chinese styling. It turns out he was a C19th French missionary who was brutally martyred in China for failing to renounce his faith, and canonised as recently as 1996.

Statue of St Jean Gabriel, Gaillac 

Beyond Gaillac, we followed a nice sun-dappled path rising through the trees. This landscape of tree-covered limestone plateaux cut into gorges by the major rivers is known as the Causses, and although we were grateful for the shade the dense woodland offered up reduced views.

After a lengthy spell of road walking, we picked up a path again and soon came upon an unusual sight. Surrounded by a confetti of colourful scallop shells, we found a sort of impromptu road-side café and stopped for drinks and a rest. There was no mention of this stop in our guidebook, nor any advertising en route – at least as far as we saw. But this unexpected stop was very welcome, especially given the lack of other food and drink stops.

Colourful drinks stop, near Mas del Pech

Moving on, we followed more stony tracks and walled lanes through a couple of tiny hamlets barely big enough to warrant a name, and with around 5k still to go we took a break for lunch.

Poppy field near Mas de Dalat

Somewhere near Mas de Dalat, we met Karen from the US via Paris, one of the first English-speaking walkers we had met. With a chance to do so, we talked a lot, all the way to Limogne-en-Quercy, and kept doing so over cold beers. It’s funny: we see hardly anyone all day, then, come late afternoon, walkers inexorably migrate towards a bar and a group coalesces. 

We found our rooms in a nice chambre d’hote nearby, and after a tidy-up pottered back round to the bar for dinner. Our starter was a tiny bowl of asparagus soup, followed by a large plate of salad, charcuterie, pate and the like, which was great. 

Then, expecting dessert, we were surprised to find an enormous plate of whole turkey leg in a chorizo sauce set in front of us. It was no good – we couldn’t eat it all! So, ready for lunch tomorrow, a whole turkey leg plus four slices of bread were carefully secreted away, to be smuggled out later after our ice cream desert.

Day 5: Limogne en Quercy to Mas de Ceres

21.00k (13.10 miles) / Ascent = 331m / Descent = 326m

Breakfast at the chambre d’hote was a communal affair, with us plus four other French walkers enjoying coffee, jam, bread and fruit, and Dolmen man outside preparing for the day ahead.

We set off about 8.20am. Skies were overcast for practically the first time all week, and we left town with the threat of rain in the air.

Walled track near Limogny-en-Quercy

We joined a wide walled track beneath trees, with a gentle descent that made for easy walking. After about 15 minutes, we took a short detour to see another dolmen – this one much smaller and more intimate than the previous one.

Small Dolmen

The going was straightforward and route finding simple, and we made good progress. The skies continued to darken, and thunder rumbled away somewhere to our right. Just before the rain hit we caught up with Karen, and walked for the next hour or so with her, the conversation a distraction from the increasingly heavy rain.

Signpost, Bach

We were reasonably soaked by the time we reached Bach, but the rain had stopped and we were beginning to dry off as we decided to stop for drinks. A rest was required: we had completed almost 12k this morning without a stop or any food, so we enjoyed the break.

Our next overnight stop was some way off route – around 4K or so, in fact – so shortly after Bach we bade farewell to Karen and struck off on our own. For the first time this week, we were following the orange blazes instead of the usual red-and-white-striped waymarkers. Passing through Veylats, we stopped for lunch at a handy picnic bench, the mainstay of which was turkey sandwiches purloined from dinner last night.

Mas de Ceres

From Veylats, it was a couple more kilometres to Mas de Ceres. It's a beautiful old farmstead, right in the middle of nowhere. We got a nice welcome, and were asked in for a cold drink and a brief chat, after which we popped to our room to rest and clean up.

Lentil and terrine starter - delicious!

Dinner featured a starter of lentils and a delicious terrine, with a vegetable and herb omelette for main course, bread and cheese and ice cream to follow and a cup of tea to finish. Last night’s meal was good but a bit too big – according to our host, that restaurant is renowned for its ample portions. This meal was simple, tasty and manageable – and for us that meant it was perfect!

Day 6: Mas de Ceres to Cahors

26.25k (16.25 miles) / Ascent = 537m / Descent = 624m

Breakfast was simple but delicious – homemade yoghurt, bread and jam, juice and coffee. These rural stops may be a bit off the beaten track, but have proved to be a highlight of the trip.

Leaving Mas de Ceres

As we set off, rain began again – steady at first, but increasing in persistence until it became quite heavy. Our first challenge was to find our way back to the GR65, which we did without too much trouble, and after about an hour we were passing through Mas de Ver – the first named place on this section of the route.

Once again, we are in sparsely populated countryside, with almost nowhere en route to buy food or drink all day. Because we were running slightly behind those who overnighted elsewhere, we saw no familiar faces all morning – in fact, we saw few people at all until Cahors.

A brief sunny spell

Rain meant we trundled on without a break, and it was close to midday, over three hours after setting off, that we stopped for just a few minutes for pizza and apricots, sitting beside a busy motorway junction.

Stony track on the way to La Quintade

Each time the rain abated, we thought we had seen the last of it. The sun would come out and the temperature rise, and we’d have good weather for a while. However, some time later we would catch another heavy shower that soaked us properly again.

Descent into Cahors, with rain sweeping in

As we headed into town, we crossed the Louis Philippe bridge over the Lot. At the end of the bridge, in the old toll-booth, the L’Octroi provide support to pilgrims. We were invited in for a cold drink and a passport stamp: chatting briefly, they enquired politely if we were Julian and Claire? It seems that Karen had called in earlier and asked them to look out for us – pilgrims looking out for one another.

While we were there, we met another pilgrim who had walked all the way from Geneva. As this is something we have a mind to do in due course, we quizzed him a little about his route. He said it was good, and confirmed that at least one proper route does exist, which is encouraging news for our future plans.

As we passed through town on the way to our hotel, the heavens opened. Amidst the heaviest rain of the day, we sploshed through the streets and arrived at our hotel bedraggled and dripping wet. It wasn't long before we were installed in our room, though, and set about drying ourselves and our wet things.

A relaxing drink at the end of the day

Having had just a 10-minute sit down during a 16-mile day, we were ready for a rest. Then we tidied ourselves up and went out for dinner, opting for a bar on the main square in case any pilgrims passed by. None did, but we had a nice meal (salads, ice cream / pannacotta, beers) and enjoyed the quite busy atmosphere. We even managed to successfully challenge the bill in French!

Unusual clock

To help dinner settle, we had a quick look round the old town before returning to the hotel. It looks quite interesting, and on another occasion we might have been tempted to explore further.