13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 40

The great escape from other people

Michael McMahon goes skinny-dipping high in the Spanish Pyrenees

There is rust on the griddle of the barbecue, dust on the shoulder of the Pimm's bottle and must in the air in the sum

merhouse, where the cushions and the picnic rugs are damp. Each day, dusk limps in earlier and earlier, and it can't be long before the spirits start to go as flat as the paddling pool that has long been packed away. And yet now that the holiday season is over, the best time for a holiday has arrived — particularly if you have already had one, for stolen holidays, like stolen kisses, are sweet. Award yourself a bonus week or weekend away upon an impulse, and you will probably have far more fun than you had in the August fortnight you looked forward to for so long. With no time to build unrealistic expectations, you'll certainly be far more relaxed.

Any number of advantages conspire to make now the perfect time to snatch an extra break on the Continent. For starters, there is the matter of time itself. When you wind your watch forward in the Chunnel, on the ferry or after take-off, you roll back autumn by an hour for every day you are away. Sure, it'll be dark for an hour longer in the very early morning, but, unless you plan to get up to help the local farmer with his milking, you won't be around to notice. You will, however, feel the difference in the late afternoon, when long shadows linger reassuringly and there is no sense of being hurried reluctantly indoors. In late September, Continental sunshine plays on al-fresco ice cubes, come the cocktail hour; G&Ts at home reflect electric light.

Of course, you don't have to have a glass in your hand at six o'clock, and when there's daylight to be enjoyed, there are perhaps healthier ways to relax. One of the best holidays I ever had was taken in the Midi in late October, when the Mediterranean was still warm enough to swim in, and we had the best beaches entirely to ourselves. One of our souvenir photographs is of a vast, empty sandscape marked only by the footprints I made as I ran towards the sea and leapt into it: the putty-coloured blob on the horizon is me, bobbing contentedly in the water in my underpants. I hadn't thought to bring my swimming trunks, as it hadn't occurred to me that the sea might be so inviting so near to November. In the event, neither dignity nor decency was endangered; there was nobody within sight in any direction.

And that is the other great advantage of going out of season: much of the time, you have the place to yourself. Skinnydipping (and my own rather corpulent variant of it) is more difficult in high summer — though not, as I found a couple of months ago, impossible. My most recent fronts i grec frolic was enjoyed in a mountain pool high in the Spanish Pyrenees, in a lake that was so small and so very far from anywhere that it hadn't even been given a name. My wife and I reached it by taking what the map showed to be a variant of the Gran Recorrido footpath we had been following, but on the ground it was little more than a vertiginous, screecrossed sheep track. We scrambled up it and over a ridge to encounter an acrylicpainted stillness in which the peaks and the sky were reflected in the water without even a flicker of distortion. The view was ours and ours alone, and would be for as long as we chose to enjoy it. Meanwhile. on the main path only 100 feet below us, parties of other walkers were passing by every five or ten minutes; it was, after all, late July.

If we had followed the advice in our Rough Guide to the Pyrenees, though, we wouldn't have gone then — we'd be there now. 'In September, you'll have the freedom of all the mountains,' it asserts, adding that the weather tends to be more stable at this time of year, too. These days, any generalisation about the weather has to be taken with a pinch of globally warmed salt, but one truism that can still be uttered with confidence is that most people take their holidays at the same time. If you want to see the Colosseum unflooded by a sea of baseball caps, or find a seat from which to watch the apostolic automata mark the hour above the town-hall clock in Prague, you stand more chance of doing so now than ever you would in the last three months.

Under the cheaply criss-crossed skies of Europe, there are fewer and fewer places that can be visited in comfort while the days are long and the sun high in the sky. In July and August, one might be forgiven for thinking that every Dutchman with a wife, a tent and two blond bob-haired children could be located between pages 100 and 185 of the Michelin Motoring Atlas of France, or that any German capable of raising his right arm to drape a beach towel over a piece of plastic furniture had occupied a spot on page 186, 187, 188 or 189. Then again, it seems that anyone who is anyone in Islington is to be found within a tenminute drive of San Gimignano, while anyone who isn't could be with him within a quarter of an hour.

But they certainly aren't there now. Not in any numbers, anyway. If I had the money, and if my wife hadn't just got tangled up in another term of teaching, I'd chuck my camping kit into the back of the wagon and be off back across the Channel faster than you could wipe a steering wheel with a rag on a stick. I'd take the Condor ferry from Poole to St Maio, which is by far the most civilised crossing I've ever experienced, and I wouldn't have to pay much for it this time, because there are cheapissimo return tickets on offer for the rest of this month. Then I'd belt down to the Spanish border, weave my way up into the mountains west of the Col du Somport, and kg it up to the Lake of Astanes via a track that becomes so steep that it turns into an iron ladder near the top. After pitching my tent at the base of La Mujer Muerta. I would watch the shadows of vultures and eagles float gracefully across the water, and I would wander about with all the freedom of the horses, sheep and cattle whose bells clatter, clank and tinkle through the thin air. And when the time came to pack up and make for home, I would head north thinking not of the increasing gloom of the season that awaited me, but of the cheering fires it would soon be satisfying to light.