Seven go on a hike. It seemed a riotous idea when conceived around the dinner table in March. Instead of planning our children's summer adventures, as usual, we would have one of our own.
So, one glorious morning last August the Tufnell Park Woodcraft Folk (adult section) set out into the Val d'Azun, a thickly wooded valley dubbed the "Eden of the Pyrenees" by the French naturalist Raymond de Carbonnierès.
To be up high on a mountain-top in the sun, with a glittering landscape laid out before you – is there any place on earth better designed to make the spirits soar? I don't think so. Dramatic peaks and plunging valleys, wild country and wilder weather – nowhere brings you closer to the raw energy of the planet.
What marks the Pyrenees out is their atmosphere of laissez-faire. They are more unruly than the Alps, less organised, less ordered, easier to get lost in. If it's adventure of the unfenced variety you are after, this is where to find it.
The wife and I, have been going to the Pyrenees for years, lured back again and again by their combination of majesty and anarchy. You see it especially on the Spanish side – drier, dustier and more chaotic than the verdant slopes and tended villages on the French side – and, gloriously, safety averse.
I still have flashbacks to the day a few years ago when we traversed a ledge cut into the rock above a 500ft ravine, near El Pont de Suert. Meeting a backpacker coming the other way, I politely stepped to the outer edge to let him pass. There was no barrier and I was inches from the edge of the precipice. He came on without pausing, delivering a glancing blow to my shoulder with his rucksack as he passed. I wobbled – and then sweated buckets.
In Britain, such a path would have been closed instantly, or regulations would have imposed a head-high chain-link fence. But lose the danger and you kill the adventure. England may be a wiser and a safer country in which to holiday, but it's a lot less fun.
We have walked and camped wild in the Pyrenees, stayed in small country hotels and slept in isolated refuges – we once had a 50-bed dormitory to ourselves, in August. We never booked, except for one hilltop eyrie perched on the edge of a 3,000ft chasm, and were rarely turned away, even in the height of summer.
There is another bonus from spending high season in the mountains, away from the traffic-choked coast. The skies are blue; the sun is full – yet it remains deliciously cool. As you sit gazing at another breathtaking view, the warm rays on your skin, you breathe air that is as fresh and invigorating as any on earth.
No organisation is necessary. You can amble through the Pyrenees, as we have, with a car, a bag, a tent and some good maps. You can walk, if you have the spirit for it, from refuge to refuge, carrying your gear and taking pot luck on finding a space when you arrive.
But there is a middle way, walking from hotel to charming country hotel, taking in some of the finest mountain views, lured onward by the promise of a comfortable bed and the best mountain cuisine at each day's end, with someone else to do the booking, work out the route and carry your luggage. All you have to do is walk, gaze, eat and sleep – four ingredients of the perfect holiday.
You can also do it, as we did last summer, with friends. At least that is what they were at the start of the holiday. That first morning the gang thing broke down immediately. We wandered through Argelès, a charming tourist town, buying picnic things at random and found ourselves with a hundredweight of fruit, two tiny cheeses and half a baguette. Nul points for team working
We had rendezvoused the previous night in the lovely Hotel Les Cimes run by the delightful Mademoiselle Bat, who had a sweetly vulnerable look. Perhaps it was us that looked vulnerable. Over pink rainbow trout, delicious home-made fennel soup and a couple of bottles of Madiran – the healthiest wine in the world, as it happens, thanks to its high antioxidant content – we compared blister supplies and promised each other there would be no yomping, Falklands style.
Our first day out on the hills was a delight – a gentle meander along forest paths, a 1,600ft climb to the top of Mont de Gez with views up the Valley of Light as it is known, then a steepish clamber down to the Hotel Picos for a refreshing swim in its indoor pool before dinner.
Though we all followed the route sportive (spurning the route tranquille), it was a relatively gentle 7.5-mile introduction to the hike, dubbed a three booter (the toughest) in the Headwater brochure. This, it turned out, was part of the company's cunning plan to build our confidence – start gently at the beginning of the week and gradually turn the screw.
The second day dawned grey and thick with mist. We peered gloomily out of the hotel restaurant window during breakfast and thought about returning to bed. Until, that is, one of our number declared that this was a walking holiday and he was determined to walk. Slightly shamefaced, the rest of us fell into line.
In minutes our spirits lifted – who knows why. If it was damp and clammy, we didn't care. We embraced it. We had to abandon the ridge walk – a section that involved teetering along a precipice on a 3ft-wide path on account of the lack of visibility. It was shrouded in cloud. But the alternative path through the pine woods, wisps of mist drifting through the gothic trees, the resinous scent filling our nostrils, was magical.
At the Col de Liar where we stopped for our fruitarian lunch, we were joined by Europe's largest bird – the griffon vulture. Not just one but half a dozen of them glided lazily above our heads, showing off their 8ft wingspans. Later, we saw a flock of about 40 or 50 in the distance performing crazy pirouettes in the thermals.
Next day dawned bright sun, and as we climbed steadily across a meadow with wild horses we saw for the first time the real peaks of the Pyrenees – jagged spines and spires of rock jutting skywards.
At the top by Lac de Soum, four nuns in habits, wearing trainers and accompanied by two men carrying plastic bags, came skipping round the hill, just as our own trio of female wannabe Sound of Music stars had delivered a passing rendition of "Edelweiss".
We stopped for the 10th time for deep textual analysis of the route notes. One of the nerdy pleasures of a walking holiday is unearthing errors in the route notes. Despite their accuracy, if there was room for disagreement we found it. (How can you follow the middle path out of four?) Ending these arguments was simplicity itself. Someone would eventually cry "Well, I've got the bread" and head off, with the rest of us following hungrily.
This was the toughest day so far – 10 miles including a 2,600ft climb, and by the time we arrived at our chambre d'hôte in Aucun, with its magnificent polished wooden staircase, we were weary. But bossy Madame gave us no quarter. "Montant, montant," she cried, harrying us up to the attic room on the top floor, hard by the church clock with its musical chime.
One of the finest things about walking from hotel to hotel is how it stimulates not only the appetite but conversation about it. Madame Burband served a wonderful salmon trout with which we drank a jurançon sec on the terrace of the Auberge Camelat, named after the poet who lived there. We exchanged foodie anecdotes with a group of French ladies on a painting holiday and, next day, as we zig-zagged up the long steep hill, we discussed our personal food fantasies such as the virtues of cold toast and the ideal thickness of the butter scraped across it. The sun beat down mercilessly as we crossed a wide pasture up to the col with a glorious view up the Val d'Estaing and slithered 2,600ft down the other side and into a foaming stream. Cavorting and shrieking in the icy water the women seemed for a moment indistinguishable from the teenage daughters they had left at home.
We had by now hit a rhythm that allowed us to do the next day's walk up the valley and down in half a day – which meant we were back in time for a restaurant lunch and a snooze. Next morning we struck out early, and nearly 14 miles and 3,000ft of climbing and descent later arrived at the Hotel Le Viscos at St Savin.
"I would love to walk the GR10," said someone, cheeks aglow after their third glass of Vacqueyras. It is one of those Things to Do Before You Die – 578 miles from coast to coast. Now it seems almost possible.
And did we remain friends? Surprisingly, yes. At any rate, the same gang will be doing it again this year – in the Dolomites.
How to get there
Headwater (01606 720199; headwater.com) arranged this self-guided High Pyrenees Walk involving five to eight hours' hiking per day. Bags are transferred between hotels, and transfers, route maps and instructions are provided as well as half-board in mid-range hotels and auberges. This eight-day holiday costs from £909 per person with flights, based on two sharing, or from £609 self-drive.Reuse content