It’s a warm hazy day in mid-September, and we’re off to Bagnères-de-Luchon to walk from the Hospice de France. This mountain inn is one of our favourite starting points – there’s good access and parking, and the opportunity for lots of different walks.
The Hospice itself is an old mountain refuge that’s been extensively and recently refurbished, and now offers drinks, meals and accommodation in spring, summer and autumn.
So far, we’ve used it as a starting point to walk to Spain, and we often walk the lower path which leads to the waterfall, as it’s a shady route in hot weather. Today it’s still pretty hot, so we’re planning a shorter walk on the mountain behind the Hospice, and we’re hoping to be down in time for lunch.
After a brief pause at the Hospice to find out what time they stop serving lunch (2pm), we set off along the front of the building towards the river then climb the hill on the left. A stony path quickly takes us into the forest, and we’re grateful for the shade as the sun still feels strong. The climb starts to get steep, and the path zigzags lazily between the trees, the loose stones on the surface hard to see in the dappled light. After a few minutes, the path splits into several directions, and we take a moment to check our bearings while Monty lies down in the grass with a very loud and pointed sigh.
We’re planning to walk up to the Fontaine Rouge, a loop of around two and a half hours which should give us a great view of the mountains across the valley, so we take the left-hand path, a narrow trail cut between two banks. After around 45 minutes of hard slogging uphill, we emerge onto the ridge.
Although the summer display of wildflowers is coming to an end, there are still a few small purple orchids on the mountain, along with heather, tall yellow flowers I don’t recognise and some odd-looking thistles, consisting of a single huge flower and no stalk. Tiny blue butterflies are still industriously circling the gorse bushes, and the air is full of the chirping of cicadas and the distant musical clanging of cowbells. There’s a scent of wild thyme, and I accidentally crush some mint with my boot, releasing the sharp, fresh fragrance. It’s cooler up here, and there’s the first slight suggestion of autumn in the air.
The path leads up along the crest of the ridge, with a fantastic view to the left of the pass over to Spain. We meet a couple walking in the opposite direction, and stop to exchange Bonjours. The lady stoops to pet Monty, adding to her companion, “Il est magnifique, ce chien!”. Monty raises one ginger eyebrow in acknowledgement, then trots after us.
Now we’re out on the ridge, we can see where the cowbells were coming from – the mountain pasture is home to dozens of Blonde d’Acquitaine cattle, a handsome tawny-chestnut breed that’s common in this area. Standing slightly aloof are another group, almost pure white with long horns, looking a little like Limousin but lighter in build. The two herds aren’t mixing at all, and the white cattle look a little awkward, as though they’ve wandered into the wrong party and aren’t sure how to break the ice.
Presently we reach a little mountain refuge, and are slightly alarmed to see a signpost that reckons it will take us an hour and forty minutes to return to the Hospice. The times given on French signposts are generally pretty accurate, and as it’s now 12.20 we’re cutting it very fine for lunch. We push on.
The path has now widened into an unmade road, and descends gently through pine trees. Every so often, we walk into a pocket of warm air scented with pine. There’s a sudden scuffling behind us, and we both turn in sudden horror, afraid that Monty’s managed to fall off the mountain – but he’s still with us, and smiling his trademark grin that he’s managed to flush out a pheasant.
The path’s turned sharply upwards again, and as it’s now 1.52pm it’s just a slog to the top; we eventually emerge into the carpark of the Hospice at five to two. I rush straight into the restaurant to beg the chef’s indulgence for a couple of salads, but as there are several diners still in situ they’re happy to serve us whatever we want.
We order our meals and relax at an outside table with some cold drinks, watching the antics of the two resident donkeys who wander around the area around the Hospice, canvassing the tourists hopefully.
After lunch, we’re planning to head back into Luchon for another, more leisurely walk along the river – with no time constraints.