Walking in the Pyrenees May 2016
Having followed the Tour de France on the TV for a number of years we had always wanted to visit the Pyrenees. This May our dream came true. As we don't like driving for too long we decided to split the journey and visit another of the great cathedral cities of Spain - Burgos. But before even Burgos and just across the border we stopped for lunch in the delightful and picture perfect medieval town of Ciudad Rodrigo. Restored by lunch we were soon zipping along the wide open plains of central Spain.
As we were only in Burgos for one night we chose a hotel right in the centre of the old town. Hotel Norte y Londres was a good choice, comfortable and quite old fashioned. We arrived at the end of the afternoon but were soon out and about exploring. Burgos is dominated by its huge cathedral and not for nothing is it described as Spain's greatest Gothic cathedral. It really is massive. Rather than having a huge central aisle, it seems to consist of a number of individual chapels, each one a masterpiece. Although we were there a couple of hours you could have easily spent an afternoon or longer exploring this massive building. Having spent so much time on the cathedral meant we didn't see much else in the city but we weren't disappointed.
The following morning we were off again, we had decided to follow the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, albeit going in the opposite direction. As we headed across Rioja country we saw a constant stream of walkers as it is so popular nowadays. After a brief stop in Puente la Reina, another popular resting place for pilgrims, and bipassing Pamplona, we slowly climbed the foothills of the Pyrenees, crossing the border just after Roncesvalles. We were expecting pine forests here but as the hills are not that high it was mainly mixed deciduous forest and in Mid May, very pretty.
Strangely enough there was no welcome to France sign and the only indication that we had crossed the border was that the signs were now in French. It was then only a short hop to Saint Jean Pied de Port, another popular place with pilgrims. However, journey's end for this part of the trip was just a bit further on, deep into the Basque countryside in the village of Lecumberry and Hotel du Fronton. After quite a long journey it was great to relax with a glass of wine and a plate of local cheese and ham and contemplate the rich green countryside.
We stayed there a couple of days. On the first we were back in the car to explore the pretty Basque villages. We had discovered that it was market day at the busy village of Espelette so this was our first stop. Like nearly all of the Basque villages here it was almost too pretty, with many of the freshly painted half timbered houses draped in dark red chilli peppers for which it is famous. Although stallholders provided many local cheeses, hams and vegetables, it was mainly for tourists but interesting all the same.
From here it wasn't far to the coast and our next destination: the popular resort of Saint Jean de Luz. With its perfect sandy bay and golden sand, it has long been popular with the European smart set, evident in the impressive 17th and 18th century houses lining the narrow streets and pretty harbour. It's still popular with tourists and a good spot for a reasonable seafood lunch. We ambled more on the way back, passing more pretty villages, notably Ainhoa, which despite really only being one street is supposed to be one of the prettiest villages in France. Of course everyone toes the line and the perfect 17th century houses are all in one of the two Basque colour schemes: whitewashed walls and either deep red or pale green painted wooden beams and shutters.
Back at the hotel, we went for a walk around the village and into the countryside taking advantage of the sunshine and the long lengthy late spring evening. Lush green fields kept perfectly manicured by small herds of cattle.
From here, we left the Basque country and headed further east. After spending a few nights in hotels it was time for the tent. We found a great campsite, Camping de la Foret which although is right on the edge of Lourdes, now a decent sized city, felt very rural. Perhaps not so surprising to regular campers, most of the customers were in camper vans but we managed to find a great little spot on the edge of the site shaded by woodland. the husband and wife couple that ran the site were also very friendly and informative and so we soon had our plans made for the next few days.
As we were keen to get into the Pyrenees proper and get walking, our first trip was to the Pont D'Espagne, not far beyond the spa town and ski resort of Cauteret. It was about an hour's drive. We were expecting May to be fairly quiet but there were plenty of cars in the huge parking lot that marks the start of the Pyrenees National Park and a great walk up the valley. There were quite a few on the walk up to the lake, as it was a national holiday, but certainly not enough to spoil our enjoyment. It wasn't a long walk, about an hour up to the glacial lake of Gaube but it was spectacular. The weather was still good, warm and sunny but there were pockets of snow beside the path and of course the peaks were still covered and glistened white in the sun. We came back a different route, down one of the ski runs nearby with less foot traffic and were rewarded with our first sighting of wildlife, an isard, the Pyrenean Chamois, a goat antelope. Apparently this animal was hunted almost to extinction in the 1940s for the production of chamois leather but now there are estimated to be about 25,000 in the wild.
The following day we were back into the heart of the mountains to probably the most famous single site in the Pyrenees, The Cirque du Gavarnie, a glacial scoop out of the heart of the high range has created a spectacular semi-circle of cliffs, some 1,400m from the bottom to the high ridge top. Again it was about an hour's drive, this time to the small tourist village of Gavarnie. Unfortunately the weather was starting to turn and we were expecting cloud and a cold wind so we put on our warm hiking gear.
As it happened once we were out of the village and started the climb, the clouds parted and we were treated to another lovely day. Again it was about an hour's walk up to our destination, the famous cirque. and once again we weren't disappointed. The photos simply do not do justice to the fabulous views. And again, we managed to find a less touristed path on the way down and were treated to another wildlife treat - marmots. In actual fact they were relatively tame and didn't seem threatened by as at all. Probably used to tourists I suppose.
By the next day the weather had turned so it was good that we had chosen this day to simply wander around Lourdes. I am not religious at all, so I'm torn by Lourdes. At one level I see it simply as a money making ploy, almost a whole industry based on a fallacy with shops selling overpriced tat preying on susceptible religious tourists but on another you can't help but be amazed by the town and its total focus on these tourists/pilgrims and the spirituality of the place that resonates everywhere. And, as a regular tourist there is plenty to see for a day or so, including the obviously impressive cathedrals and the museum in the fort.
After 3 nights in Lourdes we headed further east, out of the Haute Pyrenees and into the Haute Garonne. The camp site we had chosen when we planned the trip was closed, but we were lucky enough to find a good municipal site in the small town of Aspet. It was by a small river and we had it mostly to ourselves for the 4 nights we were there. the lady in the small tourist office was great as well, so we soon had plenty to fill our days. First up was the Cathedral of St. Bertrand de Comminges with its village of the same name - another member of the Most beautiful villages of France association (the question arises how many most beautiful villages of France are there?). It is a very impressive cathedral however, with various parts built in Roman, Gothic and Renaissance times. It was noted somewhere that it is the most impressive building in the Pyrenees. I'm not going to argue.
It also became apparent that the area was hugely popular with hikers and we managed a couple of interesting walks. On one day, it absolutely chucked it down, but as that was the only rainy day we had on the whole trip, we weren't disheartened and we managed to get in a few geocaches as well.
The following day was absolutely gorgeous. Walking along country lanes with views across to the snowy peaks was sheer joy and we were followed the whole way by a scruffy dog from the village that marked the start and end of the walk. In addition to plenty of birdlife we also managed to spot some orchids, including a new one for us - the lady orchid.
Our time in the Pyrenees was up but we still had to get home so we decided to split the journey in San Sebastian and Braganca. We only stayed one night in San Sebastian but it was long enough to explore the old town and enjoy some of the amazing food for which it is justly famous. You can either eat at one of the Michellin starred restaurants of which there were a few in town or go for the tapas, or pinchos as they are called here. We went for the second option and we weren't disappointed. As usual, we were out eating early in the evening enjoying a few quiet pinchos. By the end of the night the places were heaving. Given the rather steep prices, obviously no one in San Seb was feeling the pinch!
We also made a stop in northern Portugal at Braganca. It's a curious little town. In the heart there is the amazing castle and cluster of medieval dwellings below it, then outside the walls, there is the old town which, I have to say, looks rather shabby and in much need of refurbishment and then outside this is the new town which looks quite prosperous. A strange mix. Anyway, the castle and environs were very interesting, the castle doubling as a museum of old armoury, and we had a great meal in the old town.
It was quite a busy place as there were quite a few (Spanish) tourists enjoying the Portuguese prices. But the meal was great and was a bit more imaginative than the usual Portuguese fare. We also managed to stay in a great Solar, the Solar de Santa Maria, a stone's throw from the castle. Apparently it was built in 1639 for the Head of the Spanish forces when they ruled the roost here and since then it has been a convent and a school. And there was a great breakfast with everything imaginable on the table. Just the sort of thing we needed to keep us going on the final leg of the trip which saw us cover 2960kms in 13 days.