Our time was up in Torla. Now it was time to head over to the French side of the mountains. Our next objective was the town of Gavarnie. It's only 8.2 miles from Torla to Gavarnie as the crow flies. But even a crow would have to circle to gain altitude. The two towns are separated by one of the highest sections of the range. It is possible to hike from one to the other in a day. It took us almost four hours of driving. The roads were narrow and winding. We had to cross several high passes, one to cross the main crest of the range and several others to go from one appoach valley to another. The weather was nice so we had some good views of the mountains as we traveled. Navigation was easier than from Barcelona to Torla even though at one point on the French side we missed a turn. Only a few miles further we came to a village that we knew was too far, so we doubled back and found our turnoff and got back on course. We arrived in Gavarnie without further incident.
We had reservations at the Hotel Le Marbore. It is a small family run hotel. The owners were a French couple. The husband did most of the cooking, at least he was always wearing a white chefs outfit and hanging around the kitchen. He didn't speak a word of English. His wife was the hostess. She spoke a little English. There only seemed to be two other employees - an older black lady who cleaned the rooms and a young man who might have been her son who helped in the kitchen and also seemed to do some pickup and cleaning around the hotel. All of the hotels, restaurants and shops in Gavarnie seemed to be small family operated businesses.
Gavarnie is a small village but it is much more "touristy" than Torla. There are a quite a few souvenir shops mostly selling tacky stuff. Their specialty seemed to be a small stuffed animal with a battery operated "wolf whistle". So any shop that you passed you always heard this "wheet whew" whistle, you know like guys would whistle at pretty girls back in the 1940's. I guess it was supposed to be clever and funny but I was only there a few days and I was getting tired of hearing it. I think it is one of those toys that you buy as a gift for the kids of someone that you really hate.
By the time we had checked in and gotten settled it was almost 2 pm. By this time were pretty hungry for lunch. We walked down the main street of the village (which is easy because it is the ONLY street in the village) looking for a restaraunt. We found one with an extensive menu, meat dishes, pasta, even omlettes. The latter sounded really good to Sandy so she asked the lady what kinds of omlettes she could get. "No omlette. Lasagne." Sandy pointed to the menu and showed where it said omlettes. "No omlette. Lasagne." was the response again. We were really hungry so we figured that would be good enough. At least it didn't take us long to decide what we wanted. We ordered a single lasagne for us to share. The lady seemed quite surprised. Probably chalked it up to weird foreigners.
And we were weird foreigners. Everyone we saw in Torla seemed to be Spanish. In Gavarnie there were mostly French tourists with some Germans and Dutch and a few rare Brits. We didn't see any other American, or other non-Europeans the entire time we were in the mountains.
After lunch we decided to take a short hike. The mountains had clouded up but it didn't look like rain in the valley (obviously I had not learned my lesson in Torla). We started up the valley towards the Cirque du Gavarnie. This is a huge cirque with cliffs thousands of feet high and has the Grand Cascade, the highest waterfall in Europe. But not far up the valley we came to a trail junction. We decided to take the side trail figuring we would save the hike into the cirque for another day when we had more time. Our side trail hiked up to a statue of notre dame on a high point above the village. The peaks were still in the clouds but we got a good view of the village and its setting and managed to walk off our half-portions of lasagne. The most excitement came as came upon a heard of cattle grazing on the trail. This was on a fairly steep hillside so we didn't have much choice but to stay on the trail. And the same was true of the cows - they really didn't want to leave the trail to get out of our way. Sandy was pretty nervous, which was probably reasonable since they were big animals. Being the brave and chivalrous husband, I took the lead and shooed them ahead of us. We Idaho folks just have cowboy in our blood.
Experienced hikers that we are, we made sure that we were back to the hotel in time for Happy Hour. We were in France - we had an excellent bottle of wine. Then we decided to find a place to have dinner. When I booked the hotel the lady had asked if I wanted full board (room and breakfast and dinner) or just half board (room and breakfast). I chose the latter. When we travel we like the freedom to try different places for dinner. But when we walked through the village it was totally deserted. There wasn't a single person out. All the shops and restaraunts were closed, unless they were with hotels. This was very weird. We figured that our hotel restaraunt was as good as any other, so we went back and asked our hostess if we could get dinner. The answer was no - she needed to know in advance if we were going to have dinner. Oh, oh. We went back outside as the only place we had seen open was a very small deli. The proprieter didn't speak a single word of english but was friendly and helpful. With appropriate pointing and motions we got some bread and cheese fruit and diet cokes. We were just in time. It was eight oclock as we left and the guy turned off the lights and locked the door as we left. (More on the guy in the deli later.) We went back to our hotel room and had a pretty good meal.
Over the next few days we figured out Gavarnie's cycle. Because the Cirque is so famous, lots of tour buses come in during the day and stop for a few hours. Some people take the half day hike into the Cirque. Some people hang around the village to shop or eat or drink. But by about five oclock all the tour buses clear out. Seems that people that stay overnight all eat at their hotels. A different system but it works.
The forecast for the next day said rain in the morning and clearing in the afternoon. In some ways that is the ideal hikers forecast. It gives you a good excuse for sleeping in late. No need to get up at some ridiculous early hour so that you can be on the trail by first light. When we got up the next morning it was indeed rainly lightly, confirming the wisdom of our decision to sleep in. We had a leisurely breakfast and spent the rest of the morning hanging around the hotel. Sandy did email (of course the hotel had wifi - we were in the mountains not on another planet) while I read a book on the napoleonic wars. At lunch time we went back to the same restaraunt. For lunch Sandy was able to get her omelette. I had the plate du jour - a small steak and pomme frites. By the time we were done the rain had long stopped although it was still mostly overcast.
Time to start hiking. To reach the Cirque du Gavarnie you just hike down the village street and when the village ends keep going. The trail is wide and filled with tourists but it does rise steadily. After about two miles and a thousand feet of elevation gain (oops, I mean 300 meters of elevation gain) we reached the Refuge. In Europe there is often a refuge after hiking some distance into the mountains on trails. They offer overnight accomadations to long distance hikers and climbers. They offer meals and drinks to day hikers. Backpacking is not nearly as common as in North America. For most tourists this is the turn around point. But we hiked another mile, and more importantly another thousand feet of elevation gain, up to the very base of the falls. It really takes the close view and the distant view to appreciate the scale of the Cirque du Gavarnie. Because up close, the falls and the surrounding cliffs completely tower over you. But when you see the distant view, you realize that you could see only a tiny part of the cliffs. An incredible place.
On the way back we stopped at the refuge for a well deserved diet coke. It was quite a spectacular setting sitting on the patio. Unfortunately it was overcast but it was still spectacular. The place would be incredible on a bright sunny day. Then it was time to hike back to town.
This time we had arranged for dinner at our hotel. It was a set menu which is a little risky for us, since neither of us is an adventurous eater. Turns out that the dinner wasn't something that I would have ordered, but it was ok.
After dinner I hurried over to the deli before it closed to get a couple of diet cokes. This time when I asked for diet cokes, instead of "un? dur?" that I got yesterday, the shopkeeper asked "one? two?". Wow. He must have been studying his english just for me. As I said earlier, I don't think that they get many non-European visitors. I was impressed.
Tomorrow would be our last full day in the mountains. The forecast was for a bright, sunny day. No sleeping in tomorrow. We were hoping to get in a big hike before we had to head back.