Excursion to Gavarnie

On my last full day in the Haute-Pyrénées I made a day trip to Gavarnie, to have a look at the Cirque de Gavarnie which is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I caught the bus up at 9am and was the only one there for the trip up in one of those big tourist buses. As such, I had the full attention of the very lovely bus driver, Pierre. Along the way he enthusiastically told me about the hydroelectric system and centre operating in the region; gave me the names of various pistes and cols; and told me about the risk of avalanches and things generally falling from high places. Things such as large boulders. We passed one house that was literally bookended, so both sides, with boulders as tall as the house. Those are some lucky buggers. When I remarked that it was pretty scary to see these massive rocks knowing where they came from, he good-naturedly replied: “Yeah, but that’s nature.” God I loved the guy!

I am aware that I am probably fast sounding like an idiot here but I went the wrong way as I was looking for the path to the Cirque via the township of Gavarnie. In my defense I really do think that the signs and path indicators here are much more subtle than they are in NZ. It´s almost as if in France they assume that as a naturalist-trekker-type person you would possess some especial conscientiousness, whereas in NZ we want to make absolutely sure tourists get what they want without falling down the side of a hill to their death. In my prosecution the Cirque is massive and unmistakeable,so even if the path that leads towards it didn´t look like my kiwi understanding of a path, I should have realised that going in a tangential direction had a lesser chance of getting me there. At any rate I could now draw a map of the streets of Gavarnie for anyone who so desired it. (Little more than 5 streets….)

I finally got underway on one of the best walks of my life. My first ever trek on snowy terrain! Being a cautious one I was worried at first that I wouldn´t be able to go all the way because my boots are normal hiking boots. No spikes for grip. I had lingered briefly in front of a snowshoe hire store in town but couldn´t bring myself to hire them since a) I wasn´t sure if they were really necessary, and b) was sure that with them on it would be even more apparent that I didn´t know what I was doing. I think on that a little wistfully now though… I mean snowshoes… that´s the stuff of Archie comics!

It´s interesting for a walk because you can already very clearly see your purpose, your destination, from the outset. The Cirque de Gavarnie, towering granite amphitheatre. It doesn´t actually ever seem to change in size, which is kind of an obvious statement since of course it doesn´t literally change size over the course of one walk. But it seemed as if the conspiracy that occurs between your eyes and your mind in order to teach you how to understand distance and perspective doesn´t work with a structure that is all of organic, outsized and highly defined in shape. Throughout the walk you are aware of it in the same way you are aware of a large, character piece of furniture in the living room, like a tall piano or a blocky armoire. Distinctive, but somehow unobstrusive in spite of its size – something so unique that it has nothing more to do than to just be. 

The question that struck me a number of times as I started my walk was thus: Why keep on with the walk to see the Cirque when I can´t stop from seeing the Cirque at any point anyway? There were a number of other walks veering off the main track that were calling out to me… ¨I´m a real track Susan! None of this obvious, touristy, oooh UNESCO blahblah wonder crap! Take me and you´ll be different to all the other tourists of Gavarnie… Come on, you´ve seen the Cirque. We all have. Take me and be different! Be a real wanderer!¨

More or less.  I don´t quote them word for word.

I kept with my mission to see this wonder though. In this world where it seems that any experience can be bought and you´re on a crazy ego trip if you think you can ever uncover anything new, I am usually foolhardy and probably more than slightly pretentious in deliberately avoiding doing what the majority of people I pay attention to are doing. This time I didn´t follow my natural inclincation to deviate.

Here it is then, the reason to go on the walk to the Cirque de Gavarnie. It doesn´t ever look different, but it FEELS different the closer you get to it. This might be a function of the perfectly snow-blanketed curves and fields as well, walking in endless white is incredibly soothing. But I think it is importantly something to do with the Cirque itself. I sat down on a rock at the end of the main path (which continues on as a more narrow path deeper into the Cirque, definitely not doable without snowshoes) directly in front of this large mountain of stone, and couldn´t leave it. My stomach was growling loudly, trying to convince me that I had seen the Cirque and done the walk, that that was all I needed. But I couldn´t leave it. I couldn´t, I really couldn´t. I wanted to sit down in the snow and snuggle back into the rock, facing the Cirque, and stay there forever. I wanted so much to be a myth, the girl who sat there for so long that she too melted into the landscape. It was pure peacefulness. I remember trying very hard to remember some of the things I had been worrying about over the last few days, trying to kick my normal way of thinking into action. I failed completely. I couldn´t think about anything except how happy I felt. And how I didn´t want to leave. Well… and one more thing… I had the blasphemous thought that if people would only make places like this their church, I would go to church. I would always go to church. It wouldn´t matter what religion you called it, I would go just to be there. Doesn´t it make sense too? You wouldn´t have to waste time trying to instill in people a sense of faith, awe and love when the church itself does the job already.

I was sad to leave and I felt like I was being ripped away from my natural home. By that I mean… I don´t know, the metaphor of a plaster being ripped off from skin is fairly apt. I, the plaster, felt like where I was then was my natural home. Sure, it wasn´t, it wasn´t where I came from. But I fit it exactly. I was practically skin too.

It´s a dumb analogy but I really was a sad little homeless plaster.

I hope I go back and see if it feels any different in summer. Plus summer apparently yields donkeys. Fingers crossed.


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