The distant mountain peaks are glinting in the early morning sun, as though sprinked with icing sugar. There’s the merest dusting of snow on the highest mountains, but as always it brings the peaks into sharp definition, making them seem closer. We’re starting to slide into autumn now, and I’m frantically collecting the shiny purple sloes from our blackthorn tree to make into rich, glossy jelly. The leaves are just starting to turn, and the fruit trees groan under their weight of apples and quinces. Quince trees, in particular, do very well round here, and most properties have them. They tend to be placed in the corners or on the boundaries of properties, and indeed their French name coing is thought to have developed from coin or corner, from when they were used as boundary markers.
It’s a beautiful day today, and promises to be warm (in the high twenties), so we’re off to the mountains for the day. We’re going to the Lac d’Oule above St Lary, which is a favourite walk of ours.
As we drive through the valley, we’re starting to get a bit worried. The temperature has dropped to only 12 degrees, and we haven’t brought any warm clothes with us. As the D929 turns into a little winding mountain road and we start to climb though, the temperature climbs with us and is soon a respectable 19 degrees. We pull over onto the verge so that Monty can stetch his legs, and the landscape ahead reminds me of a science fiction film, with a huge, surreally clear moon lying low over the jagged peaks.
The road is single track in places, and several times we have to drive into the ditch to avoid a car coming the other way, its driver steering with one hand and waving a Gauloise cheerfully with the other, but we make it to the main car park unscathed.
We’re right on the edge of the national park here, where dogs aren’t allowed, so we can only set off in one direction. We ford the stream and take the rocky, well-defined path up the side of the mountain.
The path loops round in slow, shady serpentines between heady-scented pine trees, reminding me vividly of the mediterranean. We catch up with a group of four walkers, one – to my great delight – with several baguettes sticking out of his rucksack. Otherwise, we see no-one until we reach the top of the dam. The climb is over now, and we follow the rocky path up to the Refuge de l’Oule – a mountain inn that serves drinks and lunches to summer walkers, and meals to skiers in the winter. The homemade sign on the path says that the inn is open, but we’ve wised up now and we’ve brought our lunch with us as we’re between the busy summer and winter seasons.
Climbing up the narrow rocky path, we’re amazed to meet a car coming down – an old green Renault driven by an elderly farmer in a beret. To get up here, he must have driven up the winding forest footpath we’ve just climbed – no mean feat in a car that obviously has no four-wheel drive and looks like it has no tyre tread either. The farmers are busy moving their sheep off the mountain for the winter, so maybe he’s been checking some outlying flock.
As we walk along the dam, passing the inn, we see it is indeed closed. Monty’s disappointed that the three resident dogs – Dameuse, Néo and Tchoun – aren’t there to greet him as we walk straight past. Right next to the inn is a chair lift, shut down for the summer and looking a little desolate with the chairs swaying in the breeze. We’re walking on the ski runs now as we round the corner and start to skirt the lake, anti-clockwise. We’re soon out of the trees and into the open. A few small rowan trees still line the path, hung with spectacular bunches of bright red berries. Tiny blue butterflies flit across our path, which is bordered by dozens of purple autumn crocuses.
We’ve got a good view of the lake now, and it’s a shock. Last time we were here – in June – the reservoir was full, but now it looks like there’s only a third or so or the normal amount of water.
After a quick stop for lunch, it’s a shady stroll on the broad level path to the far side of the lake, passing the little stone hut where we’ve occasionally seen a patou in the summer months.
Apart from the climb at the beginning of the walk, it’s all pretty easy and level and we arrive back at the car two and a half hours after setting out. As we start the drive back down the valley, the afternoon sun is picking out pale patches of snow on the highest peaks, reminding us that the skiing season is on its way.