We're standing outside the front door of Chez Vignau, in Gabas, ready to take off for the day. A blue Renault with two old (very old) black-capped Frenchmen pull up. They roll down the window.
'[French] [French][French] Santiago?' We nod. The driver's eyes widen and he puts his hand in front of his mouth. They rattle out more French, we nod politely. When they finish, they both look superbly self-impressed. We gather they've told us their own we-crossed-the-Pyrenees-and-survived Camino story. We start the day off by getting horribly lost when, shortly after leaving Gabas, we followed what seemed like a Camino sign leading off the road and into a forest. Well, not 'horribly', exactly. It was the most beautiful 5km detour I've ever taken, all fairyland forest, dripping ferns and babbling mountain streams. When I checked the GPS after a while, we were walking completely in the wrong direction. It put us two hours behind, and we have a mountain to cross.
Returning to the valley road leading to Portalet we followed various footpaths alongside the Ossau river, climbing higher and higher. The Ossau valley here is truly spectacularly beautiful. At one point we paused at the ruin of an ancient pilgrim's hospital built specially to house not only travelers but also soldiers for the protection of pilgrims against bandits. Fortunately now there were no thieves in sight, only a group of kayakers getting ready to brave the rivers's icy rapids. It kept raining intermittently, so it was ponchos on, ponchos off the whole way. After about two hours we reached the point where a footpath branches off the road, climbing steeply to Col de Peyrelue, where we'll cross over into Spain. It was drizzling a thin layer of moist, and swirling mists kept the peaks we were heading for hidden. We paused a few dozen metres up for the last of our bread and cheese, and with a car on the road below hooting encouragement we set off. As we gained height rapidly our pace slowed quite a bit, and we soon started encountering large patches of snow obscuring the path. We slowly and gingerly crossed each one, us South Africans not being used to walking in snow at all. Fortunately I had a GPS map of the route we were following, because it was now too misty to see more than a few metres ahead. As we reached the summit It looked and felt like heaven, almost totally white and perfectly quiet. Imagine, we walk the Camino and end up in such extraordinary natural wonder...
After about an hour we reached a dilapidated wooden signpost, halfway buried in snow, informing us that we're standing on the French-Spanish border. We felt like pioneering explorers! From here it was a slip-sliding way down on a muddy sheep track that kept disappearing, our only guide being the GPS map. We weren't unhappy to see the deserted ski lift stations of Formigal, meaning we were back in civilisation! It was a long walk along a busy stretch of tarred road before we stumbled into Sallent de Gallego. By now it was almost nine o'clock, and darkness was setting in. We'd been on the road for twelve hours, walked 34 kilometres over difficult terrain and gained 800m in altitude. No mean feat! Walking into town, we booked into the first hotel we passed. It was a luxury place way above our budget but we didn't care. We deserved it.