The Pyrenean Traverse, Day 17: Cheeeese…!

It was a delightful gîte to spend the night. The only drawback: it is located just below the church tower. That is why I have heard the bells of 11pm ringing, and the ones of 11:30pm as well. But also the ones of 12am, of 12:30am and – yes – of 1am too. After that I must have fallen assleep, because the next time I heard the bells, they rang four times. Even before they have the chance to hit 7am, I get out of bed. I make coffee for my husband and prepare breakfast: the rest of the brioche bread.

Wim comes stumbling down the stairs half an hour later. We turn on the TV. Given the prevailing storm we want to check the weather forecast. For today, rainy weather with clearings is expected. We are not too disappointed by that. During the morning news, we hear that 350 people were evacuated in Barbazan due to the flooding of the Garonne. Barbazan is the first village that we will pass tomorrow, and it is exactly there that we have to cross the Garonne. That does not bode well…

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We put a € 20 bill together with a note on the table of the gîte. Then our “working day” starts again. Neatly dressed up in our rain uniforms we are ready to go. Around 9am we clock in and we immediately start climbing over a forest path. Despite the short night’s sleep, my legs feel fresh and they bring me up the mountains without too many problems. Just before our eyes a deer jumps across the path. Rain drops start dripping down again, but the weather gods change their minds. Just before we take a turn to the next forest path, we think we see something between the leaves that looks like a cautious sunbeam.

Below us we see La Neste streaming. Here and there she has flooded some fields. Before this misery, farmers were complaining that their crops were far too small due to the lack of sun. Now the abundant rain has destroyed all that was left… We try to help the local farmers in our own way by purchasing cheese from a farm on our route. We follow the signs that bring us in a tasty way to the “fromage de la ferme”. A cheerful man immediately steps outside and welcomes us with open arms. He points to our hiking boots and trousers that are dragging tons of mud. He laughs and does not want us to take off our dirty shoes when we enter his shop. “Shall I give you a tour and explain how we produce our cheese,” he suggests. Before we can even think of an answer, he starts to tell us stories about the 30 year history of the farm. He shows the large copper kettle in which the whole process begins. There is a ball of cheese that is two years old, which can only be eaten grated, because it is simply stone-hard and you would break your teeth trying to bite a piece of it.

Then he takes us to a dark room, where dozens of cheese balls are sleeping in silence on wooden racks. Occasionally they are woken up and put on their stomachs. To avoid bedsores, I think … We can taste different types. Each time he cuts delicious chunks of artisan culinary pleasure with an exaggerated big knife. We enjoy the taste and this unexpected personal tour. It is a beautiful intermezzo on our hiking adventure that threatened to sing a bit out of tune due to the bad weather. Just when we think we have tasted all his specialties, he conjures up a plate of charcuterie. Paté, ham, sausages, … He makes it all. There seems to be no end to the tour and the accompanying tastings. He pours us two small glasses of red wine. That he does not make himself, he admits. But still it tastes deliciously.

We buy some cheese, smoked ham and pâté from the man. Extra weight that – for once – we just love to put in the backpack. But not everything, because we eat part of it as a picnic in the garden of the farm.

When our stomachs are full we continue our way. We only have three hours of hiking to go, but the muddy terrain makes the climbs double as heavy. Every two steps we go up, we slide one down. Some parts are completely impassable. In places where the path is completely washed away, we have to search for alternatives through meadows or over barbed wire and electric fences.

Our trek suddenly starts to look a lot like a “spartan run”. And I feel delighted because of it. The nastier, the better, right? But all that muddy greasiness entails that we take a lot of hours for “only” 12 miles (20km). In one of my many slidings I suddenly feel a stinging pain in my thigh.

In order to recover a bit, but also because it is still very rainy, we decide to spend the night in a simple hotel in Saint Bertrand de Commminges. When we step inside the hotel to book a room, we see nobody but a sleeping old man on a seat in the entrance hall. We cough three times and he wakes up. He apparently is the manager of the hotel and he promptly gives us a discount on the room. The room represents less than nothing and the hygiene can also be questioned, but instead of complaining we call it “charming” and we are just happy with the roof above our heads. We let our bodies soak in the teeny-tiny bath in the adjoining bathroom. While lying on the bed, I keep staring at the intriguing old wooden beams in the ceiling for hours. Their deep nerves breathe a rich history. Saint Bertrand is categorized as one of the most beautiful villages in France. And I can perfectly understand why.

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