Hiking report

Weekend trip to Ax les Thermes

For some reasons, Germany has an extremely concentrated period of holidays in June. And every year, I need a bit of creativity to come up with a plan to make a nice weekend trip (although it sort of fell apart for two years because of covid). This year, as I had an amazing week in the Pyrenees, and Aseel and Jana requested a nice weekend stay somewhere in France, I decided to book an apartment in Ax-les-Thermes.

Ax-les-Thermes is one of the biggest cities in the French Pyrenees, but it is still so unknown, that whenever I told French people that we were going to Ax-les-Thermes, I always got the same reaction: “Oh you’re going to Aix-les-Bains; that’s nice!”. Aix-les-Bains is by the way a city in the Alps, and not even the most famous one. This is the kind of stuff in the Pyrenees – it is just as high and mountainous as in the Alps, but somehow no one goes there. Well, to be honest when I heard of Ax-les-Thermes the first time, I also thought it was Aix-les-Bains.

Finding a place in Ax-les-Thermes turned out to be extremely easy. This is mostly a place for ski goers. So while there are a lot of accommodations, there is hardly anyone except for the winter. I got an apartment for something like 10 people. It was at the beginning of January this year. And all spots were gone within a month or so. We are still having a good rhythm this year. Amazing isn’t it?

After the success in Marseille, I finalised the plan according to what I understood there (mainly making sure that there’s no unknown place during the hike, where things could be super complicated). In the meantime, I also planned an extra cycling trip preceding the hiking weekend. I’m not going to write a blog post about the cycling trip, but if you are interested, just let me know – I’m more than glad to talk about it :).

This time, the format was like in Marseille: I organize the accommodation and everyone else somehow arrives according to their plans. I think I properly announced it a few times, but apparently my message didn’t come through correctly, and a lot of people booked the ticket in the last moment, which was of course a very bad idea as many people were travelling over Pentecost. In my case, I booked a ticket with Kartik at the beginning of February, when the tickets were released, so that we could get relatively cheap tickets.

So, as I already said above, we had a preceding trip from Toulouse to Sète by bicycle. Our weekend trip to Ax-les-Thermes therefore started essentially in the moment we brought back the bicycles. From there, we got a normal regional ticket to Ax les Thermes. As we could do all the stuff relatively quickly, we arrived in Ax some time past 3pm, which would have allowed us to go to the thermal bath, where Zaman, who had arrived a day earlier and was staying in a different apartment, went. As it turned out, we were not allowed to go there with the normal swimming shorts, so instead we walked around in the nearby area.

After a few weekend trips in different apartments, there has been a relatively urgent question of what to buy and what not to buy for the food, because in every trip we had to throw away quite a significant amount of food. After our walk we went to the supermarket and bought only the minimum amount of stuff we needed for the moment. After all, supermarkets are open also on weekends in France (only in the morning), so there was no need to buy everything at once.

In the evening, we met up with all the people who arrived in Ax and had dinner together. Miriam and others wanted to have crêpes, which Zaman and I didn’t want. So we went to a different restaurant instead.

In the evening, we started drinking wine we had bought before the restaurant. Amir and Julien arrived in that moment; we were then complete. Since they couldn’t have proper dinner, they ordered pizzas. Ax-les-Thermes has a population of 1,200 people; I was amazed that it was actually possible to order something. Miriam, who had proper dinner, somehow also wanted to have a pizza, but when it arrived she actually didn’t want it anymore, so that I was forced to take it for lunch the next day. Merci.

Day II (Saturday June 4)

Ax-les-Thermes is at 800 m above sea level. Still, we apparently got a very hot night and I had to take a cold shower in the night. I was thinking the shower was not so noisy, but I learned in the morning that I woke up half of the people. Sorry everyone …

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Shrijal got some croissants and chocolate croissants in the morning, just like in Marseille. We then started the hike some time past 9 am.

Since Ax is totally surrounded by mountains, it was extremely easy to make hiking trails there. The problem was, there were not so many possibilities for breaks. The one that I took had one restaurant and one refuge. It was only when we started hiking that we realised that the restaurant was closed. We were not so sure about the refuge, but since we had already started the hike, we simply kept going.

The area around Ax is sometimes densely surrounded by forests, but sometimes there are also fields. Under today’s scorching sun, it was so good to be in the forest at the beginning, when we were going upwards. But then when we reached the highland, it was amazing to have fields, which allowed us to see all the surrounding areas.

We had several breaks under trees. Obviously, some people walked faster than others, but in strong contrast to Marseille, there was nothing too complicated, so there was no urgent need to wait for the others either.

There were also a lot of plants there, that I had never seen in Germany. Julien, on the other hand, is somehow super familiar with a lot of plants and could explain their utilities etc. to the other people. It was almost like a guided tour.

Far in the field, we could see the refuge that I talked about above (can you see it on the photo?). Luckily, it was indeed open. It was run by a Nicaraguan family (why…?) and even though there was nothing to eat, they could still offer drinks and more importantly, toilet. Besides, it was a really nice place, so we simply stayed there for a while.

We were almost starting to think about going back to Ax-les-Thermes after the refuge, but then realised that the hike was way too short for this. So instead of going back, we made a loop in the nearby area (which is more or less what you see on the Komoot map above).

We then went back via a different path, slowly going down. It was actually amazing to see how gradual those height changes were. Today, in the first part, we were almost only going uphill. Then in the loop, it was mostly flat (and again, since we were in a large field we could see the surrounding areas really well). Finally in the part going down to Ax, we were really only going down.

With the temperature going well above 25 degrees, it was really hot under the sun, but still we could find enough trees to have pleasant breaks. To be honest, I can hardly remember whether we have ever had such a perfect hike.

Directly after the hike, we went to the supermarket in the city center and bought stuff for the evening. Since this area of France is not particularly famous for its culinary culture, we decided to eat at home, unlike in Marseille. Menu: pasta with salad. Why not.

Zaman, Miriam and I were particularly careful about buying exactly the right amount, and also to get some buffer stuff, such as bread (which actually remained from the morning) and chips.

Apparently it is rather rare in this period of time that people buy so much stuff in the supermarket. The owner, who was anyway super friendly, gave us two bottles of wine for free. Another great point for Ax after the hike!

Contrary to my personal success of the hike (and the shopping, as the pasta and salad almost exactly disappeared), the atmosphere was a bit tight in the apartment. There were some personal issues between some people and also work-related issues for some people. As far as I can say, most of the people were actually not personally concerned, but it still affected all of us. To be honest, I thought we might all go to bed right after the dinner. It was particularly frustrating, because in principle everything was really perfect in that moment.

Fortunately, there was Julien’s guitar. We started singing easy songs at the beginning, also it was mostly only Miriam and me, but then at some point everyone started singing. Singing so loud, that we started wondering whether the neighbors were not disturbed by this.

Some time after midnight, we all went to bed.

Day III (Sunday, June 5):

In the morning, I bought went to the bakery and got some bread. While everyone seemed still kind of exhausted, Zaman and I was planning the hiking trail over, because in the evening he realized that there was a nice path to this area called Ax 3 domaines, which is this one mountain that I thought was not properly accessible on foot via hiking paths, because the side of the mountain is fairly steep. On the other hand, it is actually a skiing area and had some restaurants and cafés, which make it of course more attractive.

So we simply followed his plan and went up the hill. It was already close to 10 am when we started.

On the way, we could clearly see that this was not an official hiking trail. At the same time, I would totally not complain about the track, because it still existed and was manageable. As the slope was very long, it felt like we would be in the forest forever.

Then we reached Ax 3 domaines, where there were empty apartments everywhere. As I already said above, this is a skiing area, and in the summer it’s apparently nearly a ghost town. It felt so weird to be there because everything such as café, restaurants etc. was there; there was just nearly nobody.

Among all the empty places, there was just one restaurant open. As it was a bit too early for lunch, and especially we all had something to eat (I warned everyone in the morning because I wasn’t sure if anything would be open), we just ordered drinks. Obviously, there was no one other than us. Not only in the restaurant, but also on the street.

After a long break, we continued our way. At the beginning, Zaman and I planned to walk on the piste, but as it turned out, there was tracks between the pistes, that even OpenStreetMaps didn’t know. This is by the way the reason why there is no map for this track, because now I cannot really know where we were.

This track had a lot of trees. At the beginning we thought it was a bad choice, because we couldn’t really see anything from there. But then whenever we got out of the woods, we could have a magnificent view over the area in front of us.

It was a bit pity that the weather was not really with us today. Well, we really cannot complain because the weather forecast was saying it would rain today. Not only it didn’t, but also every now and then we could see the blue sky.

At some point on the slope, we picnicked for a while. We were in the middle of this beautiful green field, which could almost appear in Sound of Music or something.

We hiked maybe one hour more or so, then reached the top of the area. Today, we were at around 2,000 m and slightly higher than yesterday. Indeed, it was significantly colder than in Ax les Thermes. As a matter of fact, we might have been able to see snow if we had continued a few hundred meters more in the vertical direction, but that would have required a few hours more of walking, and anyway it was already a wonderful area, so we simply stayed there for a while.

It was not quite out of exhaustion that we were all having a nap there, but much more because it was such a nice quite area with constantly changing sky and some breeze coming from the nearby mountains. There was obviously no one nearby.

We stayed there until we seriously started feeling cold, then went down the piste this time (because it was faster). By the way there was a public toilet on top of the mountain, even though the skiing facilities themselves were actually closed.

We wanted to have another drink in the restaurant, but it was closed this time. I mean, it makes probably nearly no sense for them anyway to work in this period of time. We had a short break there and went down the mountain.

In the apartment, we had a very large appéritif, because the evening before didn’t allow us to consume quite as much as I thought we would. This time, however, the atmosphere was much better – so much so that I really didn’t have to think about the evening before anymore.

At some point, because there was essentially only junk food in the apartment, but also we wanted to enjoy the last evening outside, we all went to the city center and sat in a brasserie. Usually in other cities the restaurants are closed on Mondays, but here in Ax les Thermes apparently many of them are closed on Sundays. Well, it might make sense for them because usually tourists leave on Sundays.

I had a salad and a glass of pastis, which is a local drink from Marseille which tastes like ouzo, but it’s usually drunk with ice cubes and bit of water. It comes from Marseille, but now it’s widely drunk in France, especially in the summer.

There was this party atmosphere in the city center, even though this is a city of merely 1,200 people. I wonder whether it’s like this all year long here.

After this, we went back to the apartment and kept drinking. We had a great evening and did an amazing job finishing all the bottles that we had bought.

Day IV (Monday, June 6)

As some people were leaving early in the morning (taking a train leaving some time past 8), we got up all early, while Miriam got some bread from the bakery. After they left, we started cleaning up the place, even though there was not much to do anymore. Besides, there were Kartik, Gopi, Jana and Aseel helping me, and with all of us together, it didn’t take much time. Actually, overall this was probably for me the easiest weekend trip ever in terms of cleaning – I hardly did anything during our stay there. On the one hand, this time we got helpful people in the apartment. On the other hand, I heard afterwards that Jana did much of the stuff. I’d like to thank all of them for their effort here.

So we could easily take the train some time past 10, leaving for Toulouse, where we did more sightseeing with some more people that left with the earlier train. Kartik and I had another day in Paris, then back to Düsseldorf.

And this is the end of our trip to Ax-les-Thermes. In terms of hiking, this was definitely the best trip we’ve had so far (even though Amir disagrees). Speaking of organization, I have to say things went smoothly. Maybe there’s one thing that came up during the trip: just like every time whenever we get an apartment for all, there were difficulties concerning the bathroom. At the same time, we saw in Marseille that we don’t really need a very large living room, as long as there is enough space for everyone to be there. So maybe from next time we’re going to get smaller apartments and get together in one of the apartments.

Maybe I should mention that there was a problem for many people with the arrival in Ax-les-Thermes, as they mostly booked the flight/train tickets only a few weeks before the trip. As we were traveling over Pentecost, of course it was difficult to get one, especially for a place that’s relatively far from Düsseldorf.

In the coming months, I’ll probably try to find a city like Ax-les-Thermes, a small, but lively city that we can reach by train. And even though there’s not really a city like Ax-les-Thermes in the Pyrenees, I love this region like nowhere else. I’ll probably try to find another possibility in the near future here as well.

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