Tag Archives: ariege

Our First Camp in the Mountains: Orlu, Ariege

Camping. We all had a lovely time on our first camping trip so promised the smalls another couple of camping adventures before the end of the summer and rentrée.

A friend had spoken highly of Orlu, just south of Ax-les-Thermes, where there’s a beautiful nature reserve. I’d read a blog post of hers describing it and chatted with her afterwards and based on that wanted to visit. It wasn’t too far away so just right for a short two-night trip again) so we decided we’d give it a go.

The campsite I chose was the municipal site in Orlu: Camping d’Orlu. It was fairly easy to narrow it down because it’s the only site in that valley – unless you have a mobile home or campervan. Checking the website over and also reading various reviews, it sounded like it would work for us: the valley itself looked stunning and facilities-wise it had a playground, a pool, plus access to the river. Everyone looked happy in the photos. It seemed to fit the bill better than others and it was right in the place we wanted to be. What could go wrong?

Our First (and maybe last) Municipal Campsite

Actually, nothing really did go wrong. We just discovered that this kind of campsite, the busy kind where the world and his wife arrive to pack out their permanently-sited and privately-owned static caravans (complete with satellite TV), are not for us. Actually, I think we already knew that but our experience at the first site lulled us into a false sense of security where camping-with-the-masses was concerned. This site, while in a quiet and beautiful place, was busy. Too busy.

Two big things got on our nerves there. First, dog shit. What the fuck is wrong with dog owners!? We all love our pets. Just like we love our kids. But what we don’t do is let our cats or our kids shit on the footpaths everywhere. So what is it with dogs that makes this okay? There were a fair number of dogs on the site. To be fair there weren’t that many shits on the campsite itself, but a footpath leading into and out of the valley alongside the valley ran through the campsite and this was evidently where all the TV watching weekenders were taking their dogs for their shits. Ugh. It’s grim as an adult but when you have two small and inquisitive children who want to pick everything up, sometimes put things in their mouths (if not the things they just picked up then certainly their hands end up there), and also tend not to look where they’re going – jeez, the stress of even a short walk! No fun for us, no fun for them.

The second thing about this site: the cars. People were driving it felt like all the time. It was a small and densely packed site with a one-way system. Fine, but with two kids who want to play on the road in front of the pitch, that was another stress. I was a bit more relaxed about that than James (not that I want them to get run over, of course!) but to be fair to him there was a regular flow of cars past our tent.

Then there a few niggles, like the pool, which had been on the list of site essentials when making the choice. It was a nice spot and well-maintained, plus it had a paddling pool, but that’s no use if it’s closed. We arrived on Friday and fancied a dip but it was closed. It opened on Saturday at 1pm but the water was cold (24 degrees). The pool guy wasn’t happy about that either but there was nothing he could do. Later it was so busy it was impossible to swim and increasingly difficult to manage the two smalls, who just wanted to bob about in the armbands. Because the main pool was first too cold and then too busy, we splashed around in the paddling pool before that also started getting a bit too chaotic.

Some things we did like about the site were the playground, which was perfect for DD and DS. It had a baby swing – one of the first we’ve seen in France – a fab slide, a see-saw (which DD made alot of friends on) and plenty of shade. The other children seemed nice and DD had a great time with a few other children, mostly other girls, of the same sort of age. She protested every time she was told time was up and constantly wanted to go back and play, which is great – one of the reasons camping is a great holiday choice with children. (In a gite after a day spent trapsing around as a four it would be back to the house or apartment then TV, dinner and bed, most likely! Just like home.)

There were a few standard things you expect on a French site, like fresh bread or croissants in the morning (order the day before). The facilities were varying degrees of clean, depending on where you were on the site. The block opposite us was very clean and cleaned regularly, and there was plenty of hot water.

But it wasn’t just about the site. What about the area?

Orlu Nature Reserve

Although the campsite didn’t tick our boxes, the location was excellent. The village, Orlu, is in an area just outside Ax-les-Thermes called the Vallée d’Orlu and is a national nature reserve covering 4250 hectares. Access is restricted to those on foot: there are no roads through the reserve and no dogs allowed in order to protect wildlife. It’s soooo peaceful. To get there you drive down the valley passing through the villages of Orlu and Orgeix, until you come to the end.

Driving down the valley, it felt just like being back at Wales! Spooky but wonderfully familiar. At one point it’s eerily similar: there’s a bend in the road and a little stone bridge over the river that feels just one of the villages en route to Betws-Y-Coed from Llandudno. What a shame there wasn’t an equally Welsh-feeling campsite! What it is with all these sanitised sites?

Anyway, back to Orlu. When you get to the end of the valley road your choices are park up and walk or turn around and go back. If you’re lucky enough to have a motorhome you can park up and spend the night there.

From the car park onwards is a visitor centre (for next time) and some other activities and workshops, including an awesome looking AcroBranch (like GoApe in the UK but way better), some cafes.

Because we were only there for a couple of nights, we only popped up, essentially our reccie visit, and made a to-do list for another time. Things on my lists include the Le Maison des Loups (The House of Wolves) and a proper walk into the reserve beyond the forge, of which there are many. In the reserve proper (which is closed off to dogs) there’s plenty of wildlife, including marmottes. I’ve never seen one yet so that’s a definite Must Do. There’s also Le Sentier d’Arazet, a walk through a woodland path and musical installations. Of course you have to pay (details on their website) but it’s another on the to-do list as it looks fab.

In future-future (because it’s not advised with kids younger than five) I want us to walk to and spend the night at Refuge D’En Beys, which is 1970 metres up, in the heart of the reserve and high on the mountain. Maybe we’ll try it next year (well, one of them will be five.) I can’t wait!! Aside from those two things, there are tonnes of things to do around there. Tonnes of walks and plenty of cycling opportunities, once the two small are up to that (if they’re into that.)

So that was Orlu. Stunning.

Will we go back?

Despite the positives, I don’t think we’ll be going back to that particular campsite, which is a shame because the staff at the main office were really friendly and helpful and the kids had a great time. Perhaps if we visit again our of season – so not August – we’ll have a different experience?

We definitely want to go back to explore the nature reserve and surrounding area, so perhaps I can persuade James to give the campsite another go if we see it’s less busy another time. Most likely we’ll opt for another one. In such a wild place there must be a wild campsite for people like us!?

What’s weird about this whole trip though is that I don’t think I took a single photograph. Not one! In order to pep up this post I’ve use pics from original website and also some stock pics from Unsplash. Sorry folks – I’ll get my camera charged up for the next one!

What happened next?

Based on our experiences this time my new Find A Campsite criteria were dutifully extended to now include:

  • in the mountains
  • quiet
  • no cars
  • no dogs
  • plenty of shade
  • no static caravans

Is that even possible in France? You’ll have to wait until my next post to find out whether I managed it or not.

Spoiler: Of course I did!


Main image: Photo by Ian on Unsplash

 

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Family Rides around Lac de Montbel (Part 1)

With the end of the grandes vacances rapidly approaching, I realised I had utterly failed in all of my cycling missions, namely to tick off a few sections (at least) of the Mirepoix-Lavelanet voie verte and also to ride around Lac de Montbel. Both routes are pretty local to me so with a few not-so-hot weather days showing on the forecast I decided to go for it, with Montbel top of my tick-list.

The VTT Pyrenees website lists two main routes around the lake that I figured could be tweaked then reccied for their trailer-friendliness.

  • Route 14, from Chalabre, following the voie verte north then taking a track down to the lake via the village of Montbel – 17km in total, classed as Circuit Familial, graded blue.
  • Route 16, which could also be started from Chalabre, which more or less follows the shore of the lake – 32km in total and classed as Circuit Sportif, graded red.

Since I wasn’t in the mood for tackling a major trailer ride on my own (James was having back trouble and didn’t want to ride and I hadn’t had chance to arrange anything with anyone else) we hatched a plan whereby he would drop me off on the eastern shore of the lake, by the village of Montbel, then drive over to the western shore to wait for us. We would picnic together once we arrived and, in the meantime, I’d get my ride and James would get some peace and quiet. James liked the idea, so that’s what we did. I also decided to strap DD’s balance bike to the back of the trailer as I thought it would be nice for her to have the option of riding too, if she felt like it.


I didn’t bother plotting anything beforehand, no GPS tracks or anything, as it was going to pretty simple, at least that’s how it looked from various maps, so I just set off with the plan to keep the lake on my right and ask for help/directions along the way whenever I wasn’t sure! One of the things I had no idea about was whether the route would be trailer friendly. There was no indication of such online so I was going to have to ride it to find out.

I started to have my first doubts about this within a few minutes of James pulling off in the car when confronted with a steep and sandy bank with a gap only just large enough to fit the trailer. Thanks to the timely arrival of some helpful (and somewhat skeptical) walkers we made it up and over and were on our way. Only a few minutes in and I was already starting to wonder whether this route would be good with the trailer. The path the other side was narrow, not something I’d have worried about usually but given I’d only managed to get a few hundred metres from the start thanks to assistance I was really hoping it would get better. The narrow path was nice for me to ride on but it meant the trailer wheels were dragging a bit on the grass either side and my two passengers were getting bumped around a fair bit. I wasn’t sure they’d tolerate that over 7 miles. Luckily, the first of four dams quickly came into view and the path opened out. So far so good.

The next section of the route was pretty nice to ride, wider for a short while and then into some woods, following the bank of the water. Lovely!


I was just starting to relax when a bloke came hurtling out of the woods and, after a quick exchange of bonjours, started gesturing and saying, “attention!” (which the French say in the same way we would say, “be careful!” Hmm… I flagged him down and asked him what the problem was and he said to be careful because there was a difficult section coming up. Difficult how, I wondered. Then I spotted it. It was one of those fabulous dirt drop ins, a bit like a half-pipe, great fun to ride but not so great with a trailer in tow! I stopped, took a picture (which really doesn’t do the depth of it justice) then backtracked to look for a path that would take me round it. Of course, I wasn’t the first person to pass that way and not like the look of that drop, so there was a path, which I duly pushed the trailer round until I was back on the trail. First hurdle overcome. Yay, onwards!


After that it was pretty easy going again. The track was nice and it was generally wide enough for the trailer to pass easily with the odd tree root to avoid, so it was a case of picking the most suitable line for the trailer so that the littles didn’t get bumped around too much. It was good fun!

About half way to our destination a wrong turn delivered us to a section of the lake where the water was so low I ended up riding beyond the end of a track onto the hard-baked clay, which was interesting! The littlies weren’t too happy about it as it was very bumpy. I was keen to get off it in case there were any soft patches and I ended up stuck and dragging bike and trailer out of the mud. As soon as I was closer to where the shore would usually be I made for the obvious path.

At this point, on a nice flat, wide track, it seemed a good point for DD to have a go on her balance bike. She had a short scoot then assured me that she was worn out and needed a rest – convenient because there also appeared to be some dinosaur-like tree stumps sticking out of the mud that were calling out for exploration. I’m fairly sure she’d have stayed on her bike for longer if curiosity hadn’t got the better of her.


She really wanted to go down and take a closer look so we parked up, liberated DS, and wandered down to check them out. DD was playing with her new dinosaur friends while DS was more interested in the white cranes that we’d disturbed when we rode across the clay and were now coming back down to land near the water’s edge. With the water well out of easy reach to either of them it was a nice place to relax and take a break.


After both passengers had had a reasonable run around and we were all topped up around for a few minutes, I bundled them both in the trailer so we could get on. We’d been gone about an hour and I didn’t want to be out all day in case the sun defied the forecast and came out in full force. Plus, James was waiting for us and I wasn’t sure how easy or hard the rest of the ride would be. I rode back towards where I thought the start of the trail was, had a moment of indecision, turned back the way I’d come, which turned out to be the wrong way (had there been more water it would have been an island), so turned tail again. At this point a small group on mountain bikes were heading my way, making me doubt my indecision! Had I’d missed a part of the trail? Was I in fact going the wrong way again? I stopped to ask if they knew the way, which they didn’t, told them I thought that was the wrong way, then showed them the map on my phone. They seemed quite convinced that I was going the right way, which I was relieved about. After a quick chat with them – about the trailer, the kids, the cycling, the low level of the water, and why I was in France – they set off again, back the way they’d just come, and I followed along. “Have we got some new friends now, Mummy?” DD asked. That’s my girl.

The next section, which I’d been dubious about taking when I first saw it, looked like it was single-track going into the woods. I knew from the map it had been made into a Strava segment so art of me was definitely a bit worried that it might not be good with the trailer. When I ride solo with the trailer I’m pretty good about asking for advice – generally I want to avoid getting lost or running into problems and, as a crowd was forming around the junction of this latest section of trail, I asked a few people whether it would be okay with the trailer. A few said, sure. One woman said that it was narrow in places and maybe the trailer wouldn’t fit. I didn’t understand everything she said but look on her face suggested she really didn’t think it was a good idea. Another was keen to convey that it was bumpy and not flat. Obviously, I’m the wrong person to tell that too! One of the men in the group  I’d just met asked whether I was going to ride it. I shrugged and said I’d try – and we both laughed.

With that my new group of friends set off and I followed. It didn’t take long for them to leave me behind but I found it reassuring that they were in front somewhere and also knowing that there were quite a few people out. The trail was nice to ride, having opened out a bit again, and tt was all going well. Then I reached a point where the trail split into two levels, running side by side, too narrow for the trailer meaning I had to keep one wheel on the higher track and another on the lower one. With the trailer at 45 degrees it was something of a challenge and it was at that point that almost resigned myself to ending my ride. I say almost. After checking the map, I decided to continue on until the next bend, pushing the bike, pulling the trailer (while also putting my weight on it to stop it tipping down the bank). If it had been hard beyond there I think I would probably have turned round but it turned out to be only a short section and we made it. DD was a little upset by it (she was on the side facing down the bank when it nearly tipped over) and DS, the trooper, slept through the whole thing!

After that I was starting to wonder whether the next section would be too much but really didn’t want to have to turn back so asked a few people I came across what was up ahead and no-one pulled any faces or expressed any concern so I carried on. The trail opened up again. Nice. Time to relax and just ride.

A fallen tree later, with help from another couple of cyclists, I was asking another walker for advice. How was the trail up ahead? “Fine”, said the woman (a mother who was with her young son who was riding his bike alongside). “Just watch out for the steep part.” Her husband was there wearing a black t-shirt and he would help, she said.

Onwards, over some roots, riding through the woods, wondering when this next obstacle would present itself, I suddenly found myself grinding to a halt on a steep bank that seemed to come out of nowhere! Thanks to my mountain bike shoes and cleats I had enough grip to drag myself and the trailer up there in one go. Just. Once at the top, I found the couple that had helped me over the tree. We all exchanged “phews!” over the steepness of the trail then I looked in dismay at the descent – a steep, lovely, rideable drop on the mountain bike that was completely inappropriate for a trailer carrying my two most precious possessions. Luckily the guy, who must have seen the look on my face, pointed round to the left where there was another path, which although still quite definitely down was not anywhere near vertical. I thanked him then set off that way  – on foot. It was a bit rocky but the rocks were wide and smooth and it was easy enough to get the trailer over. Once the other side the trail continued as it had before. If the woman I’d spoken to before was right, that was the only bit to watch out for. Good – and according to the map, nearly at our destination.


By now we’d been out for getting on for two hours including stops. As with all activities involving small people there’s a limit to how much can be done, so now I was keen to get back to base and have lunch before anyone started getting stressed or upset. A few more bends later and the final dam came into site. We made it – phew!! I called James, who was having a coffee at the restaurant, and headed down to meet him. He’d had a coffee and went off to get me one, then I suggested take out pizza. The restaurant on the Leran side of the lake does excellent pizza and I felt we’d earned it.

After a very fine picnic – complete with fresh, hot, homemade pizza – we walked down to the water’s edge with our swimming gear. Sadly though it was not to be. The water level is very low this year – hence my being able to ride on what should have been the bottom of the lake rather than the shore – which meant anyone wanting to swim would be standing on clay and rock with the bottom dropping away very fast. It wouldn’t be nice underfoot and isn’t safe for the little ones. We decided we’d had a good enough day out already and headed home.

Thinking about the route afterwards, would I do it again? Would I recommend it as a trailer ride? Well, yes, I definitely plan to do it again. But only if there’s another adult with me. I needed quite alot of help, compared to other rides I’ve done with the trailer, and might have had to turn round or run into trouble if there hadn’t been so many people around. I was fine because it was a busy Sunday in August. On a quiet Wednesday afternoon at another time of year, I might not have been so lucky. Lucky for me I have some other bike-mad parent friends with a trailer and I’m pretty sure they’ll like the sound of it. I’ll recommend it to them, definitely and suggests they come with me next time! But that’s them. Anyone who isn’t excited by the idea of rooty paths and isn’t up for an offroad adventure would be better off sticking to flat or more sanitized routes, like the voie verte or one of the road-based easy routes around Puivert. That’s one of the things I love about the cycling here: there really is something for everyone!

Read all about my second ride to Lac de Montbel in Part 2 (coming soon).

(Copied from my other blog, One Woman Two Wheels, posted on 31/08/17.)