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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ax-les-Thermes, France (Part One) – June 9-14, 2012

During the The Great Reconnaissance Mission of 2010 we spun down the mountains from Andorra and discovered Ax-les-Thermes peacefully nestled along a river and boasting a number of hotels that fit our budget (for that trip under €100/night)--not to mention a number of patisseries.  Being so close to the plentitude of dog-friendly hiking in the area it immediately made our list as a Must Return with Salt.  (Note that dogs are not allowed in the French National Pyrenees Park further west.)

So we did our due diligence and visited a number of local caravan parks, discovering one just west along N20, Le Malazeou, with a lovely, one-mile pedestrian path along the river linking it back to Ax.  (I am hoping a two-mile walk to my daily pain au raisin may just keep me from gaining too much weight.) 

This is where we find ourselves today; pitch 612 (not that there are 600 pitches), with the river along the front door and just steps from the satellite shower block which, it turns out, plays an important role in our stay.

First, the practicalities:  We have discovered only one campground with full hook-ups in the area, a municipal camp, 1 kilometer or so from the town of Merens-les-Vals, on the N20.   As you know by now, we would have chosen a full hook-up pitch over everything had we known it existed (we didn’t find it on our prior Recon Mission), except that you cannot walk into Ax.  You can walk into Merens, but it is decidedly not a cute town. 

We have electric at our pitch and they offer a motor vehicle waste disposal area (no hoses which we find quite odd) the use of which would require us to hitch up Salt, drive to the top of the campground, dump then try to turn around and bring her back down.  Not an impossible chore but not an enjoyable day out either.  Luckily, just a few kilometers up the N20 is a Carrefour with an Aires de Service area, including hoses (usually €6 per use.)  So when the time does come we will pull Salt up there and clean her out—at least turning around will be easy.

However, to minimize our trips to the dump area, we decided to try utilizing the shower block for more than just showers.  It turns out I quite enjoy doing the dishes over there (for vegetable prep I still prefer Salt—it’s just faster.)  But the dish washing area is quite the social spot.  I often learn a new French word or two but more often get to hear the praises of Salt.  She is quite a hit here, appearing, I am sure, in many people’s pictures of their family vacation in Ax.  The [very helpful and bi-lingual] office staff mentioned that “everyone” wants to talk about Salt when they visit the office.  I think this has helped us secure our pitch for almost a month, even when it is approaching the "Must Have a Reservation" time in France.

But back to the fun!  We have had two incredible hikes, the scenery is even better than we imagined it would be, although the weather (and then often the scenery) changes on a dime.  During our first hike toward Etang de Compte we had glimpses of wildflower filled meadows leading up to icy peaks before being rushed out of the valley by the rain.  On our second hike, our breath was taken away twice:  Once when hiking above 2001 meters near the Col de Pailheres (must get in better shape!) then again when struck by the view down to the Etang de Noir, just moments before the clouds rolled in. 

Both areas are on the list for upcoming backpacking trips.  (That’s “wild camping” to my European readers.)  I recorded a short video of the overlook with the clouds rolling in but will need to locate a stronger internet connection before I can upload it.
Speaking of backpacking, we decided we had better set up our tent as we purchased it just prior to leaving Laguna (September 2011) and haven’t used it once.  So back at camp, we managed to get it up in record time even while constantly pushing Rosco back—he loves a good tent nap after a long hike.  

Our North Face Minibus 2 is just as cute as ever, so cute that I looked at SP and said, “I think I’ll sleep out here tonight!”  And so it happened:  Our first night under different roofs in nine months.   The Noses, of course, were with me in the tent; Rosco because he would have been devastated to have missed out and River because I didn’t trust that SP would kick her off our bed in Salt.  A dangerous precedent as we both slept so well we might be hauling out the tent more often than not!

And so we settle into what might be our favorite spot so far.  There will be many more pictures coming (hopefully starring some fish!) and at least one DITL hiking video.


PS:  We dropped into a sports store to ask about fishing and ended up purchasing our licenses.  The already helpful man became indispensable when he brought out his laptop and we commenced to converse via Google Translate.  (By the way, a fishing license for me was only €30, but SP’s was €85—I guess they don’t think women will fish as often.  Or, perhaps, as successfully.)