Wednesday, September 7 stage 10
Ax les Thermes to Escouloubre
Col de Pailheres 2001 m
At first we were going to have a rest day but as the next stage is long and hard we decided to split it into two days. So off we set again in the sunrise to breakfast beside a sulphurous fountain of steaming hot water in the centre of Ax les Thermes. From here the cold road starts straight up from the town; the Col de Pailheres, up a lovely quiet road getting drier and harder to find water. We stop at a closed ski station but there is no water and we lunch in the grass on a hairpin bend. The road steepens after the ski station and it is quite hard work. There are not many refreshments or water so we are pleased to find a little farm creperie that looks deserted. We go right up to the dark door and there see a dishevelled remote-looking mountain boy who makes crepes. So we sit in the sun with the umbrellas flapping and straining, soon to be joined by the others – an English party who thought we might be the authors of the alpine cycle touring book who are going to cycle Iceland to Patagonia next year. Everywhere we go people are friendly and joking. The descent from Pailheres is wonderful and we thought we would soon be at Escouloubre where we’d phoned ahead to a Gite d’Etape, for a chambre d’hote.
One of the men at the creperie was English and living in Ariège and tells us that best way to Escouloubre, so we follow his way; up steep hills, on tiny roads, round in circles and spend an extra two hours on this, but see lovely sights. We descend a steep gorge to the curious hamlet of Escouloubre les Bains, dark, cold, and cut into the rock, with waterworks and fantastic limestone shapes vying for attention in the cool shadows.
The town of Escouloubre itself is quite big but there are no shops and the gite is not well signed. It is actually a working farm, making charcuterie and has great views and a lovely big room with a soft bed. We eat dinner all together, our hosts, the farm workers and two other French guests, following beers in the sun. There is an array of pork charcuterie including Rillettes, Boudin and Saucisses. The meal is hearty and simple but we make the mistake of buying a bottle of wine before it then finding that wine is flowing amply from pitchets at the table. As far as we can tell from the rapid and gutteral dialect among the farm workers they are talking about what a pain cyclists are, how they block the road and get in the way of road users on these narrow steep roads.
Later we speak with the French couple. The wife is supporting her husband to do with the Raid Pyrenean. They tell us it will get very hot after Col de Jaux, and start to seem more Spanish.
We enjoy the soft bed.