As I may have recently mentioned, we just spent a terrific holiday in SW France, where it seems that (utterly unlike the UK) the summer of 2012 has been unseasonably hot and dry. While we were there, the temperatures were consistently above 32°C/90°F and on several days reached 38°C/102°F. We stayed in a gorgeous little cottage whose only drawback was that it had no pool. But it didn’t take us long to discover the many local opportunities to cool off…
Driving the roads around this area, it’s not uncommon to see cars crammed into a layby or parked on the verges, or sometimes turning off down unmarked tracks. Almost invariably these are the locations for river swimming, and we discovered a few favourites very quickly, three of which are indicated on the map.
Off to the West of this map (about 20 minutes drive) is a lovely man-made lake at Puivert, where the local council has brilliantly created a sandy beach, set up a café, marked out areas for safe bathing and supplied a lifeguard on duty 6 days a week, and even built a diving jetty. But no toilets that normal humans would want to use. Still, the water is warm and the views are gorgeous.
Also off the bottom right of the map, on the road between Rennes-les-Bains and the tiny village of Sougraigne, is a fairly famous bathing spot known locally as La Fontaine des Amours. I’ve heard from different sources that this refers either to the shape of one of the pools formed by the river cascading down the valleys, or the fact that it’s a spot where two streams meet and become one. In any case, it’s almost impossibly lovely there, nestled below the road, overhung by steep hillsides of dense forest.
But because of this secluded, shady location, the water in La Fontaine is really, really cold. Even during this scorching summer, it moves too fast and never gets prolonged sunshine. Our younger daughter Eleanor was usually fine with wny pool, lake or river, but no sooner had she splashed into the deeper pool here than she screamed to get out. While we were there some local kids splashing around kept joking that they were turning into glaçons (ice cubes)…
The river at La Fontaine is the river Salz, so-called because it not too many miles upstream it bubbles out of the ground from a natural salt-water spring, although it’s barely noticeable to taste. Further downstream we found two lovely spots in the same river. At Rennes-les-Bains and close to the ruined Cathar castle at Coustazza, there are small concrete river crossings, just big enough for cars or (more likely originally) small farm vehicles and tractors. These bridges have been transformed into semi-effective dams, slowing the river flow just enough to create a pool deep enough for swimming.
The spot at Rennes-les-Bains was terrific, with easy access, a couple of benches nearby, and while it was just about deep enough for an adult to swim, it was also perfect for our children to splash about in safely. It seemed extremely popular with the locals, who would turn up for a late afternoon dip, and with walkers and cyclists to cool off.
Perhaps our favourite find was the spot at the top of this map, on the road North from Couiza up towards Limoux. A large layby on a sweeping bend in the road is the clue, and once you’ve scrambled down a short but steep path to the small beach, the river Aude awaits you.
There is easy shallow-water access and a small sand-bank on the near-side of the river. 50 yards downstream there’s an outcrop of rock for jumping (about 8-10 feet high). Better, though, just upstream the river narrows to a mini- set of rapids, which make for some exciting swimming for grown-ups in deeper water. And there are these amazing natural caves on the far side…
We loved swimming in the rivers and lakes of the Pyrenées – and are already trying to work out how we might go again next year. I’m not sure I would be brave enough in the UK, as the cold water of La Fontaine was only nearly bearable because the ambient air temperature was over 90ºF. River swimming was a revelation to me. If you’ve got a Mediterranean climate or a wetsuit I really recommend it.