So this is it, another trek completed and all that remains is the final early flight from Toulouse. Yesterday was a day of relaxation and recovery before we enjoyed our celebration meal yesterday evening.
Ax-les-Thermes had quite an interesting air and quite a few of the group, myself included for a while, sat outside a bar in the main market square with rows of chairs set up outside the town hall opposite. A small group of us got a table and through the course of the afternoon we had a kind of musical chairs going as pretty much all the rest of the group joined us at one time or another. As the afternoon wore on the chairs started to be filled and what is obviously Ax-Les-Thermes' newest spectator sport took place. Now, I've never heard of it as a spectator sport before, but obviously it's popular as the seats very quickly filled. The chairs were set up facing a cash machine and a number of people braved the stares of the ranked people to get their cash. It's bad enough trying to remember my pin with somebody stood behind me, so what I would be like with hundreds of people watching doesn't bear thinking about! It turns out that there was some street theatre taking place (which also explains the young lads who'd turned up wearing heavy make up).
We arrived into Ax in the early hours of the morning (and the proprietor needless to say wasn't too impressed) after a 3 hour minibus journey from the end of the trek. For the first hour we were following a steep sided gorge, with the river flowing through it we had followed as we descended from the Col de la Claure yesterday. Before we got into the minibuses we were told to take our waterproofs off (for the first time in 3 days it seemed) but the torrential downpour made us understandably reluctant to do this outside. As we drove down the valley we were still astounded by the lightning that was flashing away with unrelenting fury, some 120 minutes after the storm started.
We stopped for an evening meal in the Spanish border town of Puigdcerda, where we were sat (still in our damp clothes) in a canvas covered extension watching the rain pummel the pavement outside. With crazy speed we could see the clock ticking round towards 11pm (and there was at least a 1 hour ride still ahead of us). The food was nice, unhurried and fresh (although the mushroom cannelloni portion could have been bigger!). Having settled into the room, the most important task was to prevent as much chemical warfare taking place in our bags as possible and so our first task was to drape as many wet clothes around the room as was humanly possible. Unfortunately, upon returning from breakfast the drying process had started and there was definitely a musty aroma assaulting our senses as we opened the door. A quick investigation didn't take long to identify the culprits, and so our boots were left outside on the window ledge to dry (our room was at the back of the hotel, on the second floor and so reasonably safe)
The celebration meal took place on the terrace of a barbecue restaurant just up from the main square and right behind our table they had huge barbecues on which they were cooking huge chunks of meat. Apparently, this is sourced from a local farm so fantastic in terms of food miles, and applied to the cheese (a bowl of baked cheese being the artery clogging vegetarian option) too. The service left a little to be desired, with confusion reigning at times but an enjoyable evening was had. The ‘-les-thermes’ part of the the town name comes from the warm springs here, and so our evening was wrapped up with a paddle in the warm springs which flow into an outdoor pool near the town centre (at the one end of the pool the water temperature naturally is 75c but a luxury for our much abused feet.