Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Once a year, my family goes on a week-long summer holiday in the Pyrenees, the mountain range straddling France and Spain. We stay at refuges, traditional mountain huts (or hostels) that provide the basic necessities of mountain life – food and shelter. This year, instead of doing a refuge to refuge loop, I opted for a week-long stay at a single refuge. Refuge Wallon Marcadau has all the hallmarks of a first-class refuge: spectacular scenery at the base of four glacial valleys, easy access trail and a clear river running below its windows. Why, then, is it falling apart?
Surprisingly, Refuge Wallon Marcadau is on a renovation waiting list that keeps getting postponed year after year. I didn’t know that and as a result, did not realize just how rough and old-school this refuge would be. Don’t get me wrong, I love rough and old-school. I do, I do. However having some background explains why the Google reviews are all over the place — either 1/5 or 5/5. We went in blindly and came back in love with the area. The building may be falling apart without the bare necessities of modern life, but Refuge Wallon Marcadau is a hidden gem.
Bear with me while I lay down the facts and forgive a few downbeat notes. This story has a happy ending.
Websites for Pyrenees refuges are notoriously clunky and true to form, Refuge Wallon Marcadau has gone the extra mile in adding pizzaz to the UX with
It’s like a burrito website – three websites wrapped into one! When I booked in June (for an August stay), I started with my usual refuge checklist. Since there as no description of lodging options, I clicked on the photo gallery tab to see what dorms looked like – found not a single pic inside the building. Even a Google search was mysteriously unproductive. To make up for this gap, I’ll give you a few room pics below.
What about food? Some Pyrenees refuges are famous for the quality of their food, partnering with local farmers and wineries. Regarding Refuge Wallon Marcadau, Google Reviews were a mixed bag, going from scathing (the food was almost inedible and cheap – it seemed to be packet mashed potatoes and packet sausages) to ecstatic (Best food of my life big up ! The donkey carry the food up for those wondering). The website is minimal: “Hot food available all day (evening meals by reservation).” How’s that helping knowing what food options there are? Again, I’m gonna fill that gap and give you a clear idea of the gourmet experience below.
Why some bureaucrat at the Commission Syndicale de la Vallée Saint-Savin (organism that runs the refuge) thought they would do without info on rooms, food and basic facilities is beyond me.
Despite the website UX fail, this refuge is really worth persevering.
Undeterred, I booked on the Spanish language website – 5 days for my 79-year-old dad, my 11-year-old nephew, my husband, my 14-year-old daughter and myself. Funny enough, the Spanish booking website lists hot showers and hot water in the facilities tab.
Yeah, right. They clearly have pranksters on staff.
Starting at Pont d’Espagne, two hours south-west of Toulouse, we buckled up your backpacks in the car park, grabbed our hiking sticks and promptly forgot our paper map of the Marcadau valley area inside the car boot. Clever move.
Of course, we didn’t realize our mishap until we reached the refuge after three hours of walking in the mist on a fire trail. The walking was easy, one of the easiest access routes to any refuge we’ve ever stayed at and to make it even easier, we hopped on a mountain gondola for the first 100 m of elevation gain. It was not really necessary but it was fun for the kids and brought smiles on my nephew’s face.
The mist was so thick that we joked that when we’d spot the refuge, it probably meant we were already there. Indeed, when we spotted it we were basically on its doorstep and thanks to a steady drizzle, the front tables outside offered ample room for backpacks.
At 1865 m / 6120 feet high, Refuge Wallon Marcadau was initially built by the Touring Club de France in 1910 to replace a wood cabin with a small two-level building with 18 beds. Behind the main room, the refuge warden had a small private area. Back then, visitors to this remote valley included pioneering mountaineers, big game hunters (bears, isards) or fishermen (trout) while lower in the valley, high-end tourism reached peak popularity thanks to the proximity of religious pilgrimage city Lourdes and to famous Victorian thermal baths in Cauterets.
The refuge remained a small mountain shelter, extended several times, its sister building was branded a Chalet in the early 1930s and over time, the whole thing became an architectural mess.
The 1930s three-storey Chalet included two large communal rooms with wood stoves downstairs, two luxury bedrooms with washbasin and bidets, a dozen standard rooms without water on the first level floor and on the second level, three big dormitories under the roof. It’s quite likely — though only my guess – that standard rooms were later partitioned into smaller bedrooms with bunk beds and that the two luxury bedrooms were converted into group rooms with bunk beds – rendering the presence of bidets useless if not socially awkward. As far as I could see, the 1963 extension is currently off-limits.
The refuge’s history is no less intriguing. During WW2, it became a base for French resistance youth groups that went into the mountains under cover of leading Christian and nature expeditions. In fact, many Pyrenees refuges facilitated escapes from France into Spain and north Africa which, when Goering discovered the plot, led to the Cauterets valley being completely banned. Still, illegal mountain activities carried on until France’s liberation in 1945.
By and by, thermal tourism declined, snow sports tourism took off painstakingly and summer tourism became a thing for baby-boomers.
Upon our visit in 2019, we found out that Refuge Wallon Marcadau is due for a massive overhaul (full demolition except historical facade, full reconstruction) and it’s possible that my description bears no resemblance to the place you discover when you visit but what the heck.
It’s not every year that we stay at a dilapidated refuge about to be demolished, complete with peeling paint, asbestos warning signs and creepy bidets.
This brings me to our 2019 trip. From the outside, Refuge Wallon Marcadau is a pleasant stone building. Once you step inside through the tiny vestibule with mismatched Crocs, another world opens up.
Communal rooms are dark even on the sunniest day and as this refuge features no daytime electricity, the absence of electrical lighting makes them even darker. The only source of electricity comes from a few solar panels on the outside walls but they are undersized and can only supply energy for a few hours at night.
Communal rooms are where people get together, eat, play board games and read. At dinner time, the refuge wardens switch on stylish ceiling lamps and fire exit signs. As you can observe, tables are quite close together which serves the greater social purpose of getting to know your neighbors — whether or not you wish to.
After I checked in, a young woman assigned us two bedrooms upstairs – bedroom #12, a 2-person bedroom and bedroom #4, a 3-person bedroom. Really, two bedrooms to ourselves? Super stoked!
Well. Both bedrooms were worn out, stuffy and dirty. As both bedrooms looked out on the back of the building, we could easily see where cows grazed which was cool.
However, they also sported rusty metal bars on the windows for that special carceral touch, which made the pastoral views even more special.
My daughter and I headed to #12 which was as bare bones as humanly possible. A simple bunk bed with worn mattresses, two blankets and two pillows- no shelves, wall hooks or nooks for stuff. We simply put our bags on the floor. I found out at night that my pillow smelled of old cigarette and we switched rooms to #9 the next day. This here is #9, a much more cheerful bedroom.
My dad, my nephew and my husband shared #4, clearly an old luxury bedroom — the washbasin and bidet were wrapped in thick black plastic and duct tape.
I very much regret that I did not take a single photograph of the scary bidet but I did photograph…
… another 4-person bedroom (note the bunk bed elegantly blocking one of the two windows), and…
… the hallway. The fire extinguisher indicates a certain regard for safety, a somewhat useless effort seeing as the stairway’s too narrow for any type of emergency escape anyway.
Let’s move on to happier news.
When you’re hours away from the closest city and you’ve spent a day outside, food becomes a real motivation. At Refuge Wallon Marcadau, we were half-boarders which entitled us to breakfast and dinner.
I’ve seen better breakfasts but let’s face it, wardens and staff at Refuge Wallon Marcadau struggle with limited means and big summer crowds. As a result, breakfast consisted of: the previous day’s sliced bread, dried toast or pain d’épices, with (surprisingly good) butter, (surprisingly bad) industrial jams and sugar. On the drinks front, it was a choice of coffee, hot chocolate, powdered milk and hot water + cheap tea bags. Tea is not a beverage of choice in France, sadly, and it usually reflects in cheap breakfast tea bags. Most years I bring my own tea bags but like our paper map, my tea bags didn’t make the trip.
Dinner was definitely an improvement upon breakfast, though we were nowhere in Michelin star territory.
Here is what we ate during our stay:
Given the quantity of beans consumed every night, you can understand why the upstairs hallway literally smelled of bean fart in the morning.
Few refuges can claim their own Spanish-style chapel but Refuge Wallon Marcadau certainly can. It emerges above a hill looking down on the refuge and is strikingly picturesque.
I couldn’t find much info on the chapel and it’s really rare to find chapels in remote valleys of the Pyrenees, so I asked the wardens. They replied: “It is currently used for the yearly August 4 pilgrimage to La Grande Fache commemorating a miracle. A reminiscence of Lourdes?”
I found said miracle. In October 1941, a woman slipped while climbing the snowy slopes of La Grande Fache (3,006 m/ 9862 ft), the local big summit. Her ice axe broke and she almost fell 200m off the exposed ridge, only miraculously surviving when the strap of her ice axe got caught between two rocks. To thank God for her survival, the climbing party erected a chapel to the Virgin Mary of Lourdes on the summit of La Grande Fache. It still stands there, a lonely concrete shrine somewhat incongruous at the top of a mountain.
Anyhow. Every year on August 4, hundreds of people converge to the chapel to celebrate a French-Spanish Pyrenean gathering created in 1942 after this “miracle”. A local priest celebrates mass in the chapel and the next day, blesses walking sticks, ice axes and ropes before people climb La Grande Fache.
My 14-year-old daughter is part of her school’s board game club and when she arrived at Refuge Wallon-Marcadau, one of her first reactions was to check on their collection of board games. Like hostels, refuges offer a variety of board games for people to borrow but more often than not, they are old and incomplete.
By luck, it looks like someone at this refuge is very clued up about modern board games as they had 7 Wonders, Ticket to Ride (Europe edition) and Catan amongst others. Imagine my daughter’s joy! Of course to be on the safe side, she had brought Exploding Kittens in her backpack so that kept us busy one evening but the following nights, we used the refuge’s board games. By miracle, they were complete and in good condition! By an even greater miracle, a young man noticed us playing 7 Wonders, we invited him to join our table and it turned out that he had interned at a board game store and was quite the professional. His younger sister, an even fiercer player, joined us too and we spent a great evening playing 7 Wonders and learning killer strategies to win the game with their family.
On that note.
Much can be said about meeting nice people at refuges. Because you eat at communal tables of 8, you share food and chit-chat with your table neighbors. Because you see someone poring over a map before a meal, you walk over and ask about their itinerary and the weather forecast. Are you spotting an old-timer outside? Time to strike up a conversation on his achievements. We were thrilled to make new board game friends just as we enjoyed exchanging trail notes with others on all the days of our trip.
I love that refuges are designed in a way that’s so old-fashioned that they promote human interaction — something internet has greatly reduced.
Talking of the devil. We are so used to being connected 24/7 in our city lives that it comes as a cultural shock when you reach a place without any internet coverage at all. As none of our phones had any service, I simply switched off my phone during 5 days and had a lovely time doing things that don’t require screens – writing in my journal, taking photographs, talking, reading.
When we eventually hit a spot with a signal on the trail, we quickly sent a few updates to our family and our oldest daughter who were wondering why we were being so quiet.
The world kept on turning. Switching off from internet during a few days is a wonderful experience.
I want to praise the quality of service we received at Refuge Wallon-Marcadau. During our first evening meal, my daughter had to walk outside to settle down as she was getting overwhelmed by the noise of conversations, the close proximity to so many people and the smells of food. I mentioned it to the young woman who was servicing our table, saying that my daughter likes it more quiet, when she wondered why my daughter had left our table. Note that I didn’t request any special treatment.
On the following days, we were placed at a separate table far from “loud” tables whenever possible, which really improved our experience tenfold. Not only was my daughter happier but my dad, who’s hard of hearing and uses hearing aids, was finally able to hear the table conversation and join in. Honestly, I’m very grateful to how considerate the staff at Refuge Wallon-Marcadau were to our particular situation and on several other occasions, they were very helpful. Theirs is not an easy job but they do their best to make guests happy.
For anybody concerned that staying a week at a place without hot water or showers is a problem, think again. How about immersing yourself in the crystal clear waters of a mountain-fed stream? In a few waterfalls perhaps or a lake? How about connecting with nature like you’ve never done before?
For us who love cold water swimming, the total absence of modern bathrooms was a golden opportunity to indulge into what we love doing on a weekly basis. Each day, we found quiet spots on the river to bathe and used an eco-friendly soap to wash. Even my father, who’s not a big fan of cold water, motivated himself to get in the river once and waded in almost every lake that we stopped at. Here I am emerging from my first “wash” in a stream. Do I look happy or what?
This report wouldn’t be complete without mentioning dozens of furry neighbors roaming the hills around the refuge – marmots! Groundhogs, if you will. Look at that cute face. If you hear the sound of whistles in the mountains, it’s probably marmot speak for “Everybody under cover!” Apparently, that’s how they communicate and shortly after their whistles, it’s not difficult to spot a large rodent running up or down the mountain. Gotta love marmots.
This concludes my report.
I hope you enjoyed reading it and that you will consider visiting Refuge Wallon-Marcadau, before or after demolition, to enjoy this gorgeous part of the Pyrenees.