Saturday 5 September: After working on the Standaert farm for about two months, Pa and Frans returned to Toulouse and stayed for a week with Mme Passaret whose daughter we’d met a few days earlier. Then they began their journey across the Pyrenees. As arranged, they and five others secretly followed a woman who led them by train to Montréjeau, where they switched to a smaller train heading for Luchon. They alighted at Loures-Barbazan, and walked to Siradan, the last French place mentioned in Pa’s book.
We made the same journey, although there are no longer trains on the single-track rail from Montréjeau; they were replaced last year by a coach service. And we stayed on the coach until Marignac; we’d been unable to find accommodation elsewhere, so made that our base for the next five days. On arrival we discovered that the village was very small, and we could not find the way to our B&B. A lady told us it was at least two kilometres, way above the village. No fun with the luggage on an almost vertical hill – in fact, we had to abandon the case, and Ian went back with our host to collect it. We were pleased to discover that there was a shorter and easier way into the village, although still very steep.
Sunday 6 September: We took the bus back as far as Loures-Barbazan, so we could walk from there as did Pa and the others. We found the railway station (no longer used as such) where they alighted. We then walked south, mainly following the railway line, to Saléchan, where they were welcomed into the stationmaster’s home above the station (now converted into a house). When it was dark, the stationmaster’s daughter led them to the Hotel Lamolle in Siradan. This is no longer a hotel, but local people identified the building for us. We really enjoyed the walk, as it was through a valley, with flat easy paths among magnificent mountain scenery – a great combination!
After Siradan, the next place mentioned in Pa’s book is the village of Les, in Spain. So we do not know exactly where they crossed the Pyrenees. But any reasonable route between the two would take them close to, if not actually through, Marignac where we were staying. We took our dinner tonight in the B&B: together with our hosts and another guest, we enjoyed a great four-course meal, not counting the aperitifs and coffee. We spent three hours at the dining table!
Monday 7 September: Today we walked up into the mountains. Before starting to climb, we spotted in the village a memorial to those escapees who had crossed during the war, at risk of their lives, and the passeurs who let them through the mountains. The reference was to those who had joined the Free French Army, but it had resonance for us as well.
We did not expect to follow Pa all the way to Spain – that would have been too difficult for us – but we wanted to go as far as we could. The first part of our walk – following an old road – was easy, the rest less so. Twice we started on a path that looked promising, but then petered out. So we never managed to get above the treeline. But the weather was good, the scenery beautiful, and we got a clearer idea of how difficult it would have been for the men crossing in secret. We arrived back at our accommodation exhausted – and ready for another French feast!
Tuesday 8 September: By now we’d followed Pa’s route as far as we could through France. We needed to be back in England for a week or so in mid-September, and it seemed appropriate to have a break between France and Spain. Having decided this, we’d booked a flight home for Thursday 10th, which meant we had two more full days in the Pyrenees, without any research to do.
Today we took the coach to Bagnères de Luchon, at the end of the line. Luchon is a resort town, popular for skiing in winter and hiking/cycling in July-August. In September it is relatively quiet, although coming from Marignac it seemed lively to us. We hoped to get a good view across the Pyrenees, but were disappointed to learn that the cablecar operates only at weekends in September. In the morning we did a town walk, and in the afternoon we walked out of the town to the village of Juzet, where there is a waterfall worth visiting: it is not enormous, but very picturesque.
Wednesday 9 September: This part of the Pyrenees is close to the Spanish border, and we were constantly reminded of that fact: notices in both languages, and signs pointing not only to Espagne but to particular Spanish towns mentioned in Pa’s book. Having failed to make it over the hills, we decided to try an easier route today. From Marignac we followed the main road to the nearby village of St Béat. Walking along the road was not much fun as there were many heavy lorries thundering by, but there was no sensible alternative. St Béat proved to be quite touristy, and we spent time there detouring up to the chapel on the hill, taking photos of the marble sculptures and having coffee – unusual to find a functioning bar in these parts!
Ian had found a much better route for the next part of our walk, from St Béat to Fos, the last village before the border. Our path ran between the mountains and the main road, so was scenic but quite easy. However, we did manage to take the wrong turn at one point, and walked quite a long way uphill before realising our mistake. From Fos we continued walking (along the main road again – no alternative) to the Spanish border. We just set foot in Spain, and then had to begin our return journey (walking back to Fos, where our kind hostess came to collect us). But it seemed an appropriate ending to Part 1 of our journey, even though we know it was not the exact route that Pa took: we had followed him all the way from Zaandam to Spain.
Thursday 10: After four warm, sunny days, we woke to find it was raining, and the clouds were very low over the mountains. We stayed in our accommodation for a while, but then the weather cleared and we went out for a short walk, up to the Chapelle Soueste. Although by then it was quite sunny, the paths were very muddy, so we returned to the B&B in a very grubby state. And no clean clothes left, because later that day we were heading home!