Discovering new walks in the French Pyrenees

As avid hikers and ultra-runners living in the French Pyrenees, Alecsa and Doug Stewart initially struggled with the lockdown restrictions on outdoor exercise. Here they look back on their summer in lockdown and the routes they discovered while running and walking in their local area.

Fuilla, a village at the foothills of the French Pyrenees
Fuilla, a village at the foothills of the French Pyrenees

Living in a village at the foot of the first high mountains of the French Pyrenees makes you feel very lucky, especially during a lockdown. The village is surrounded by green fields and fruit-growing orchards, and we are just over over half an hour away from the Mediterranean Sea.

On the 15th of March, President Macron announced that we would join our Spanish neighbours in stringent lockdown. We were limited to an hour a day of light exercise of up to 2km in total, within 1km of home.

The limit on outdoor exercise came as a blow to me and my husband. We are keen ultra-runners and hikers, and had started to train for our next trail running race in May. The weather was just starting to improve. We were eyeing the nearby summit of Mount Canigou (2785m) and wondering when the snow would melt enough to allow us to climb up there again.

Instead, we had to turn our backs on high altitude climbing and long-distance running and make the most of the situation by exploring our local area.

Fields near home in southern France
Fields near home in southern France

It’s amazing what can be discovered within 1km from home.

In the early morning, before the heat set in, walking through the village streets meant enjoying all countryside noises: birds chirping, dogs barking, cockerels crowing. It reminded me of my grandparents’ house in a village not much bigger than our tiny Fuilla. From our gate to the village school, the road is a gentle incline which warms up the legs for the steep climb ahead.

Being situated in a mountain valley means there isn’t much room for flat walking. The hills rise sharply on both sides of the Rotja river, whose rolling waters were abundant with melting snow, providing an ever-present soundtrack for every morning walk.

Walking from home allowed us to rediscover some of the historical buildings in Fuilla. The school is the heart of the village, with its picturesque clock tower rising at the foot of snow-capped mountains. It was built in the 19th century and normally welcomes about 30 children of various ages.

Cows enjoying the woodland near Fuilla
Cows enjoying the woodland near Fuilla

During lockdown, I would pass the quiet building and make my way up the hill to the cattle farm overlooking the village, where a small herd greeted me with sleepy moos. It is here that I uncovered a new “secret” path to walk, which transports me into the wilderness like the proverbial wardrobe into Narnia.

The old canal network, once vital for delivering water to pastures around the valley, is no longer fully utilised. It was replaced by more modern irrigation methods, but the old artefacts remain. The old canals contour round the valley and wind through the forest, offering enchanting single track trails that are wonderful to walk or run.

I’m always excited to walk into the woods and make my way through thyme patches and elderflower bushes. Wild lavender and rosemary also grow in abundance on the sunny slopes around our area.

There is real excitement in discovering a new trail, particularly in a place that you thought you knew well. From only a few hundred metres further along the canal, a “balcony” opens above the valley. From there, I can enjoy a view of our village and appreciate the beautiful Pyrenean valley we live in.

An old 'orri' shepherd's hut in the woods
An old 'orri' shepherd's hut in the woods

I found even more hidden treasures on my walks. I spotted an orri – a ruined shepherd’s hut made entirely of stones – peeking out from under fallen over branches and overgrown vegetation.

There was always something new to uncover, which made these short walks from home all the more enjoyable. The forest has now reclaimed many of the older industrial features, but these give a clue to the past.

Sticking to my allotted hour, I would rush back past drystone walls at the back of my neighbours’ houses and hurry home, greeted by a symphony of dog barks along the way. And this is when I realised that there is still so much to explore, even in our own backyard.

We are now allowed to make our way out up to 100km from home, without a time limit as to how long we exercise. Hiking and trail running in the high mountain ranges are back in our lives.

But we continue to explore our local area. As a lockdown lesson, we dedicate every Wednesday to finding a new trail. Always close to home, but somewhere new and exciting to explore.

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