Some time ago I went on a trip with my mother, travelling in France to revisit childhood holiday destinations. Mum wanted to see La Rèole and my aged aunt Maggie (related several generations back), thinking (rightly) that this would be the last time we’d meet up.
Maggie had arrived in La Rèole when fleeing northern France during the Nazi invasion in 1940 – and stayed. She worked as a Milliner and lived on a quaint little street built over a railway tunnel.
Rue du Tunnel was an Impasse (a cul-de-sac) with a simple railing at the end above the tunnel exit. Beyond the railing you could see the next tunnel about 100m away, and trains would skittle between the two tunnels with a loud arrival and sudden departure. It was always remarkable how as kids, my sisters and I got used to this sound and slept right through. I have lots of childhood recollections of La Rèole, and some other time I will write about this town on the far edge of the Bordeaux wine region.
A trip took us away from Maggie’s down to the Pyrenees, travelling over the three Cols: Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde to Bagnères-de-Luchon. In 2018 Sarah, Lola and I got to go there in Brian, our expedition rig of a great 4×4 and roof tent.
The Cols will be well known to cycling fans, regularly featuring as some of the most fearsome climbs of the Tour de France. Like Mont Ventoux in central France, these can be the stages that decide the Tour, certainly the King of the Mountains, and represent a unique challenge to even the best riders. This is also a popular skiing area, with the town of La Mongie being possibly the best known, but there is skiing on both sides of the Col du Tourmalet and beyond.
As you start the rise up to the Col, you drive through a high walled valley with many signs warning of falling rocks, and sections of road protected either with nets or open-sided tunnels. The rise is gentle but starts getting more extreme as you climb, and looking back, there are amazing views to the West.
We had decided to stay overnight at a plateau called La Bastan, near some then-inactive ski lifts, 600m below the Col. From here we could see the Pic du Midi de Bigorre with the Observatory at its peak. This area is regarded as a ‘dark sky’ and the Perseid meteor shower was in progress when we were there. We had high hopes of a spectacular view. Sadly it was cloudy when we arrived, so we despondently retired for the night. However, as luck would have it, we woke at 4am to find the skies had cleared, so we sat outside and watched as streaks of light went across the sky beside a great view of the Milky Way.
We were not the only people to have chosen this location to stop but there was plenty of space to go round, and we were able to eat, drink, and wash at the cafe/restaurant where Christophe served us well and cheaply – and helped us brush up on some basic words in Spanish.
As you climb up the Tourmalet, the rough ground on either side is home to many of wild mountain flowers, and you can see a grouping of colourful bee hives in one corner of this plateau. It is good to see the bee population and the flowers supporting each other in this way.
Whilst I would have liked to drive up to the Pic du Midi, we were firmly told that this was not allowed and that the route was very difficult. Despite Brian’s motto “you can go fast but I can go anywhere”, we agreed that we needed to obey that rule.
The section of the Tourmalet after La Bastan is a steep but steady climb to the Col. You get increasingly interesting views and see the plateau reduced to miniscule size below.
Part way up we saw a herd of cattle sat down on a mound, looking like it was the easiest place to be. We knew there were livestock about as we had heard the bells they wear announcing their movement and location when we stopped for the night.
Many brave-hearted souls take on the challenge to cycle up and down the Tourmalet as it snakes its way to the Col through a series of hairpin bends. We passed many cyclists in varying degrees of exertion, although pride and sheer determination stopped anyone from getting off to push!
Round one bend we found a shrine established by a cycling club from a town in the Netherlands. Every year they cycle the Col to raise funds and remember people who have died from cancer. Each rider brings with them a small piece of chunky dark grey slate, inscribed with a memory, a name or a message and leaves this stone here. There are also some framed pictures, flowers, and even the odd cycling shoe and glove. It is a very touching sight.
The Col summit is, well, the Summit. There is a safe space to stop if you fancy, and there is of course a monument and information to browse for those interested in the Tour de France. There was quite a crowd there so we moved on.
Continuing down the mountain, La Mongie is a victim of brutalist ski architecture. Now the urbanist in me may like some brutalism, but this is not quality. You could be moving through a modern residential area of many Eastern European cities, and this being summer there was not even anywhere open to get breakfast. Alongside this, La Mongie has some of the largest car parks I’ve seen outside an airport.
Our English Springer Spaniel Lola was fascinated to have her first encounter with llamas when we came across a small group wandering through one such parking area.
We travelled on to Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde and through Bagnères-de-Luchon, thence to Spain… which is a story for another day.