A walk above the woods

Peace Corps volunteers who taught English as a foreign language were tied to their schools during the academic year, but had long summer vacations. A few undertook special projects, but many took the opportunity to travel. Outside of what was then called TEFL, volunteers had to take time when they could, though many had jobs that gave them a lot of freedom. The Moroccans often described our jobs using the French word stage, essentially meaning training, and didn’t always expect much from us.

As Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco, travel to Europe, except for Spain, violated the Peace Corps country rules that were in place in the sixties. Many volunteers simply ignored them as they did other rules that they thought were unreasonable such as owning motorcycles. Volunteers seldom got caught and there was no real punishment. Staff probably found the rules restrictive, too, and often looked the other way. Without examining your passport, how would Peace Corps know what you did last summer?

There was a problem for volunteers, however, and that was Morocco’s location. Where could one go? It is not without reason that Morocco is known as the land of the farthest sunset. With an ocean to the west and a desert to the south, Morocco was a cul-de-sac.

Algeria was off limits as a hostile country in the sixties, sadly as my experience in Algeria suggested that Algerians were friendly and eager to meet Americans. Anywhere else required expensive airfare or a daunting trip across the Sahara. If you follow this blog, you can read about my Saharan adventure later. A few of us actually did the trip, crossing the Algerian desert by truck, but it was not a casual affair.

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On the road to Tamanrasset. Algeria, April 1971

I think that these rules may have loosened up over the years. Some volunteers had families with the means to provide funds for European trips. In the sixties, the Peace Corps was definitely elitist, just as the foreign service has always been, with many members coming from the Ivys. In any case, given the historical connections with Morocco, the Peace Corps judged Spain to be acceptable, but put the rest of Europe off limits.

By July, the heat had settled into Sefrou. The grain fields around the city had been harvested, and the country had taken on the thatch and earth colors that it would keep until the winter rains.

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The Saïs plain with the hills west of Sefrou in the distance

Bouiblane disappeared into the haze at the horizon, and the streets became dusty. Melons were on sale in the market, and life slowed down a bit.

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July at Bab Merbaa, Sefrou

Gaylord Barr, the volunteer with whom I shared the house in Seti Messaouda, and myself had persuaded one of the Peace Corps administrators, Don Brown, to come to Sefrou. Don had served in Oujda. He had never learned much Arabic, and wanted to improve his command of the language. We had a woman, Khadija, who cooked and cleaned for us. I fixed Don up with a tutor, my friend Hammad Hsein, and Don moved to Sefrou for a couple of weeks, where he had a chance to immerse himself in dialectical Arabic. Khadija would take care of Don and the pets. Off we went. I don’t know how much Arabic Don learned, but I know he enjoyed his time there that summer. Old Sefrou was lovely with its gardens and country walks.

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Out for air, walking along the old Jewish cemetery, Sefrou.

It always gave me a lot of pleasure to see women taking strolls past the old Jewish Cemetery or students walking together, studying for their exams.

Hammad was an elementary school teacher. He lived in Seti Messaouda, as did his extended family, just outside the city wall and down the street from me. I had gone to his and his brother, Hassan’s wedding, and I often ate at his house on feast days. I was told that he emigrated to France, as many other people I knew have done.

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Hammad Hsein, Sefrou, 1973
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Gaylord and Don Brown at Taffert in Morocco

In early July, the mesetas of central Spain bake in the sun, just like much of Morocco. Oleanders flower in the dry water courses, but the only green is where farmers can irrigate. The early Arab invaders surely felt at home there. For them, Spain might have been Syria. And when the Abbasids wiped out the Umayyads in the East, the Umayyad kingdom in Spain survived and continued as the caliphate of Córdoba until overrun by successive waves of Berbers from the Atlas.

The previous summer Gaylord and I went off individually and traveled in Spain, making short forays into southern France and visiting Carcassonne, Albi, and Pau. By coincidence or by the nature of things we traveled much the same routes though we were not traveling together. In retrospect, I think I might have suggested the French sites as I was interested in visiting them myself.

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La Cité de Carcassonne from the new town below

Carcassonne needs the least introduction. The fabled walled city, heavily restored by Viollet-le-Duc, justly deserves its reputation as an icon of medieval military architecture, though if you would like to see a more authentic walled town, you might visit Aiguës Mortes instead.

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Carcassonne, looking toward the chateau and barbican.

I had wanted to visit Carcassonne, when I lived in France in 1965, but never made the time. In December 1965, I was living in Castelnau-le-Lez, and a neighbor and host to another foreign exchange student took us along with his daughter and dog, Blackie, to see the sun set on the walls of the city. I have returned a couple of times since. The last time my wife, Liz, and I walked the entire circuit of the wall, then dined on mussels at a little restaurant just outside the main gate.

Aiguës Mortes was built as a port for the Crusades, in a very short period of time, but it was never used as the French soon acquired more territory on the Mediterranean gaining better ports. It soon silted in, and lost all importance, for which we have to thank for its extraordinary authenticity and preservation.

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Aïgues Mortes, at sunset, friends and neighbors

Albi is probably known to most Americans as the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the place that gave its name to the Albigensian heresy, though it was never controlled by Cathars.

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On March 16, 1224, after being surrounded by an army of 10,000 for a year, the Cathars at Monségur marched down from their castle, singing, and threw themselves into a giant fire that had been prepared for them. They had the choice of abjuring their faith or burning. This was the end to the crusade against them, and the start of the Inquisition.

The center of Albi is occupied by a fortified, red brick gothic cathedral, and the adjacent bishop’s palace is a museum for Toulouse-Lautrec art. The buildings in Albi are distinctively red brick, and strech along the banks of the Tarn.

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Ste. Cécile, Albi

Pau would be the least known for most Americans. It sits on a hill that gives it an expansive view south to the Pyrenees.

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Panorama from the Boulevard des Pyrénées, Pau. Pic du Midi d’Ossau on the horizon is on the border with Spain

Henri IV was born in the Renaissance château in Pau, and cradled in a giant turtle shell. A statue of him stands outside the château, with the inscription, «Lou nostre Henrico », and the locals remain rightly proud of their native son. To ascend to the throne of France, he converted to Catholicism, and is known for the apocryphal quote, « Paris is well worth a Mass. » This cynical comment belies his success in putting an end to the religious wars that were tearing France apart, as well as for a public works program that helped modernize his kingdom.

Unfortunately, Henry was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic, and the regency of Louis XIII began, which, you may remember, was the setting for Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Its protagonist was the hotheaded D’Artagnan, a Gascon. Pau is in Béarn, a part of Gascony, a traditional term that applies to the lands south and east of Bordeaux. In Pau people appreciate armagnac as opposed to cognac, and local cuisine is shared with the Basque provinces next door.

Pau was a nineteenth-century watering spot for the British and a few Americans. The climate is mild and the atmosphere is calm. So much so that France trains paratroopers there. Today it is a regional administrative center with a university. I studied there in the summer of 1965, and my reason for returning was to see my former landlady, Madame Pinaud, who fed me a nice dinner, set me up with a date, and put me up over night. She was a widow, and the boarders she took in were an important source of her income.

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My room in Pau, chez Mme Pineau

Pau was the setting for a movie with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and a young Omar Sharif. Behold a Pale Horse is worth a watch. Banned in Spain during the Franco years, it dealt with a bitter Catalan anarchist, veteran of the Spanish Civil War (Peck), and a corrupt officer of the Guardia Civil who is out to catch him (Quinn).

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Anthony Quinn and Gregory Peck, during the shooting of Behold a Pale Horse

It never gained any popularity as Peck’s character is dour and bitter, the movie was in black and white, there was no love interest other than Quinn’s mistress, and the setting is obscure. Peck usually played a hero and nice guy, and his fans expected roles with those attributes. In his final trip to Spain, Peck enters Spain through the Brèche de Roland, of which more later.

The château of Pau also served briefly as a prison for Abdelkader, the Algerian patriot, known for military acumen as well as his chivalry. At the height of his power, Abdelkader controled much of western Algeria and even some of eastern Morocco.

From Pau, the easiest route back to Spain was by rail through Canfranc. The second largest railroad station in Europe, Canfranc is perched high in the mountains. Trains had to switch from one gauge of track to another, as the gauges differed between France and Spain. Trains do not pass there any longer. The station was shuttered in the early nineteen seventies, and today is just a curiosity, rusting away in the wilds.

I think that the idea of crossing the Pyrenees through the Brèche had been in my mind for a while. I knew that the site was spectacular as I had visited Gavarnie, and I had watched Behold a Pale Horse, probably one of the late night movies CBC Toronto used to show after the 11:00 p.m. news. It is said that the Spanish government blocked its showing on American TV networks. Over the winter of 1968-1969, I began a correspondence with a member of the French Alpine Club in Tarbes. I had wanted to get some serious climbing experience, and he counseled me to enroll in the Union Nationale des Centres de Plein Air, a summer sports program for French kids. I asked him about crossing the the Pyrenees from Torla to Gavarnie, and he recommended the hike, saying that it was not difficult. If you research it on the Internet, you may find it described as one of the finest treks in the world.

I cajoled Gaylord into going with me. He did not share my passion for wandering about high mountains, but he loved nature and appreciated Spain.

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The Tangier-Algeciras Ferry with Gaylord snoozing in the deck chair

We set off in early July 1969, taking the train from Fes to Tangier. Crossing from Tangier to Algeciras, we took a night train to Córdoba, where we spent the next day looking at the medieval center and the Mezquita. I had been there before, and have gone back since. The Mosque is a gem. The previous summer I got off a night train from Algeciras and wandered at 4:00 a.m. through the twisting and turning streets of the old quarter. Here and there were lights of a bar or hotel, but most was shadow and dark and quiet. It felt very much as if I were at home in Sefrou.

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La Mezquita, the great Mosque at Córdoba

Spain did not have many fast trains in those days, and second class ticket holders were crammed six or eight to a compartment. The weather was sweltering, but we were used to it and it didn’t bother us. I remember Águila beer was eight pesetas a bottle. With roughly seventy-five pesetas to a dollar, it was easy to quench our thirst. Águila was a pale lager, and, on the train, at least, it came in small bottles, cheap to buy and easy to drink. It has sadly disappeared, swallowed up by big European breweries.

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Nothing better for a long, hot train ride

The long rides afforded some time to read and I think I read Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War, still one of the best books on the subject sixty years later. The previous year I reread The Lord of the Rings. I remember riding a bus through the Catalonian Pyrenees on the way to Andorra. It had piped music, and the driver was playing the Concerto de Aranjuez. It was a grey day, a bit misty, and the forests appeared in various shades of green. As the bus climbed toward Andorra, the peaks moved in and out of the clouds. It was a magical way to take in the spectacular scenery.

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The old Atocha Station, Madrid

Arriving at the Atocha Station, we got a room at the Hotel Atocha. I had stayed there before. The rooms were threadbare and ratty, but it was conveniently located near the center of Madrid, across from the station, and the staff were friendly and used to dealing with budget travelers. I had come down with something, and had a fever. I remember going to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which I had never seen, in a big theater with chilling air conditioning. I ended up spending a day in bed while Gaylord saw sights in the city. I made a quick recovery, though, and we soon left for northern Spain by rail.

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Torla, at the end of the day

Torla was a little mountain village and not on any rail line. I think we got off in Jaca, and had to hitch hike through Sabiñánigo to get there. It sits in a small valley, between the National Park of Ordesa and the town of Broto in the valley below.

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Broto, in the valley below Torla

At the time, Torla wasn’t as developed as it is today. Near the entrance of the National Park of Ordesa, if you were wealthy, you could stay in the Parador in the valley of the park. That was something like staying at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, and just as expensive. We stayed in a pension in Torla, paying five dollars per day for room and board. At the time, you were able to drive to the park, and we hitchhiked. Today there is a shuttle bus, and the park is closed to automobile traffic.

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A view from the pension room over the roof tops of Torla

The food in Torla was local, fresh, and tasty, and was served with plenty of local wine. Gaylord remembered it, a few years before he passed away, as some of the best food in his life! There was a bar which had a TV, and one could sit and watch the Tour de France while drinking cheap Spanish brandy and expresso. There wasn’t much night life in Torla. With the windows open, you could hear the Río Ara.

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The bridge over the Río Ara at Torla

We hiked around the valley for a few days before continuing.

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One of the numerous waterfalls
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Tower from valley bottom

We climbed the canyon walls to the clavijas of Cotatuero one day, but we had no harnesses or ropes so we couldn’t proceed.

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Tower near the Cotatuero trail

Unfortunately, I had left my boots in Madrid. I desperately looked for replacements, but the choice was limited to either ski boots or canvas shoes with rope soled interiors, a cheap and popular choice in Spain.

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On the way to the clavijas of Cotatuero

My French correspondent had not factored in difficient footwear nor large amounts of snow, and, though the canvas shoes were comfortable, neither they, nor the heavier work boots that Gaylord wore, were really suitable to the task. Most of the way from Góriz to Gavarnie I walked in the equivalent of wet tennis shoes! We should have suspected a lot of snow as we found the Río Ara with an ice bridge over it in the lower part of the canyon. Ice axes would have been handy. The previous winter had been a snowy one.

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Ice bridge over the Río Ara

The National Park of Ordesa and Monte Perdido has been designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, and certainly merits the distinction. A steep glaciated canyon, with hanging waterfalls, lush beech and pine forests, and snowy uplands, the Park may not be huge, but it is breathtaking. It reminds me of Yosemite, with its waterfalls and vertical cliffs, but the rock is limestone and just above the canyon walls are snow-covered peaks.

Our plan, and a very reasonable one we thought, was to climb to the Góriz Hut, above the end of the valley, stay overnight, then to cross through the Brèche de Roland and descend to the town of Gavarnie, which I knew from a visit in 1965. We had no reservations at Góriz, but if you were to plan this trek today, you would probably need them. All we had to guide us was a rough trail map handed out by the park people. Today there are excellent maps. Góriz to Gavarnie is a long day’s hike.

The hike up the valley was easy, and we soon left the forest of beeches and pines behind.

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Nearing the end of the canyon, with companion bota
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Upper reaches of the canyon. The Góriz Hut is just above the end.
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A view back down the canyon

At the Góriz Hut, there was a group of young Aragonese kids, dressed in local colors, who played flutes, sang, and danced after dinner.

I think they climbed Monte Perdido the next day, and I remember looking wistfully in that direction the next morning, before setting off for the Brèche. We would have been totally unprepared for that ascent.

We had left most of our clothes in Torla, to be retrieved on the way home, so that we could travel light. The proprietor of our pension packed a copious lunch and dinner of roasted chicken and sandwiches and, of course, wine. That was our food for the hike, and we didn’t buy food again until we reached Gavarnie.

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On the way to the Grotte de Casteret

We had sleeping bags, but I don’t remember real outdoor wear of any sort. We just had jeans and shirts with sweaters and light jackets in our packs. I had an old wool Pendleton shirt that my uncle Bill had handed down.

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Leaving Góriz

Luckily, the weather cooperated. The sun was brillant until we crossed through the Brèche. The French slope had damp clouds rising out of the valley, but no real precipitation.

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Looking back toward Góriz.

We didn’t think finding that route would be difficult.

Had the weather turned, it might have been a problem, but the Spanish slopes are sunnier than those of France, and we had luck with us.

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On the trail to the Grotte. The bota seems to have gotten a lot of use!

From Góriz we headed to the Grotte de Casteret, named after Norbert Casteret, the famous French caver.

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A Spanish group and me, outside the Grotte de Casteret

There was a group of hikers there, and, at that time, you could easily enter the cave. At about 9,000 feet, the cave has a frozen lake and waterfall. That itinerary took us out of the way.

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The Brèche from the environs of the Grotte

We decided that we would descend to the basin under the Brèche and climb back up. This turned out to be trickier than we had reckoned. It was around noon, and the snow on the Spanish slope had melted and become slippery. We plodded up to the Brèche, slowly and carefully.

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Gaylord Barr ascending the Spanish side of the Brèche

The Brèche is a imposing natural feature, a gap in a knife-thin rock face, about 120 feet wide and 330 feet high. It sits at 9,100 feet, above and to the left side of the Cirque de Gavarnie. It cannot be seen from Gavarnie, but it is clearly visible from many high points of land. From the summit of Pic du Midi de Bigorre, it appears as a tiny notch on the horizon.

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The mountains on the far horizon are on the Spanish border. The Brèche is a tiny notch on the right hand side of the photo. In the foreground is the Neouvielle Massif. Taken from the summit of Pic du Midi.

The Spanish call it La Brecha de Rolando, and the locals attributed it to the times of Charlemagne. Roland was Charlemagne’s best knight, who accompanied the king to Spain to fight the Moors. Roland was mortally wounded, and fearing that his magic sword, Durandal, would fall into enemy hands, he tried to break it against the rock. The rock was split, but the sword did not break.

With some trepidation, we arrived at the Breche. Looking back was Spain.

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View back into Spain from the Brèche

Looking down into France, we saw a steep snow slope.

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Hikers on their way to the Brèche

A couple of hikers were on their way up to the Brèche. They had ice axes, and we wished that we had had them, too.

The view to the east, into the cirque was spectacular.

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Descending from the Brèche, I am crisscrossing the slope. The cirque is in the background

To the right, clouds floated in the cirque. With no ice axes, we zigzagged back and forth, carefully traversing the slope, until we reached the hut.

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Sarradets Hut, from below the Brèche

I did not expect all the snow, and was relieved when we finally reached the hut, and got off the slope. A fall would have meant a long slide, and possibly an injury.

My canvas shoes had been soaked all morning, and my feet were wet and cold. We needed a break and ate some of our provisions while the clouds rolled up from the cirque. I was able to switch to a dry pair of socks.

There was a French couple with children at the Sarradets. I think that they were surprised to find foreigners, who did not seem very well prepared for what they were doing, and they eyed us suspiciously. Maybe they thought we’d walk off with their ice axes?

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Resting at Sarradets

Having rested, we began the trip down to Gavarnie. The snow, which had caused so much consternation, soon disappeared, replaced by a broad stone trail. We met a young Frenchman coming up the trail to Sarradets, and said hello. He asked where we hailed from and was visibly surprised to find that we were Americans. The day turned darker as we continued down, and when we finally trudged into Gavarnie, it was almost night. We found a place to stay, showered, and went to bed. I think we were too tired to eat, and very sore to boot. I wanted out of those soggy canvas shoes much more than food.

The next morning we arose late to find the clouds parting. Sitting on a cafe terrace, we enjoyed café au lait, croissants, and a magnificent view of the cirque.

A rock wall rising thousands of feet, with a myriad of small waterfalls, the cirque has the highest waterfall in Europe. Victor Hugo described it as a coliseum, and, enclosed on three sides, it resembles an amphitheater. During the last ice ages, huge mountain glaciers occupied the cirque and hollowed it out. Layered strata form ledges and collect snow, and the snow provides horizontal banding that contrasts with the vertical walls adding contrast to the overall effect.

Since it was cloudy and dark, I took no pictures on the way down, but I have a couple from 1965 that give an idea of the trail and show the cirque from a different angle.

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Gavarnie, August 1965
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The beginning of the trail to Sarradets, in Gavarnie

If I were to do this trip today, I think I would return to Torla on foot via Bujaruelo, or a more scenic route. I’d also be dressed for the trip. But that summer we were just happy to have arrived, and still tired. After eating we hitched down the valley. We wanted to get to Pau, but hitchhiking wasn’t easy and we only got as far as Lourdes. With nothing else to do and stuck for the night, we poked around the souvenir shops and went to a Truffeau movie, Mississippi Mermaid. The next day we bussed to Pau to catch the train to Spain. Picking up our belongings, we traveled back to Morocco, stopping in Madrid to get my boots at the Atocha Hotel. My big adventures were over till the next Peace Corps summer, the subject of yet another blog post.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

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