Wednesday, 31 October 2012 12:07 PM
The Pyrénées Atlantiques department of southwest France is a land of contrasts. With sandy beaches, rugged mountains, miles of picturesque countryside and quaint, historic towns galore – this is the region for holidaymakers with variety on their minds.
One thing that was immediately obvious as we drove through the pretty Béarnaise countryside, fields of golden corn either side of us extending as far as they eye could see, was that we were definitely travelling to an area where there would be more honey-brown cows than snap-happy tourists.
The roads got quieter and the pointed peaks of the Pyrénées became more defined as we approached the interior of rural Béarn and the base for our stay – a charming Béarnaise farmhouse near Navarrenx, a historic fortress town.
We had chosen this rural idyll to be close to both the Pyrénées Mountains and the beaches of Biarritz (both an hour’s drive from Navarrenx). Not only that – a stay in Béarn promised perfect cycling country and more picture-perfect towns to while away the day than you could possibly hope to fit into one week.
The Béarnaise farmhouse in Gurs, near Navarrenx
Our farmhouse certainly lived up to the photographs. From the very first glimpse of the pretty stone-built property complete with classic blue shutters, I knew I was going to enjoy my stay. The owners had lovingly renovated it to the highest standard without losing the charm that comes with staying in such an old property. They were also obviously very clued up about what it takes to run a holiday rental – every last detail was taken care of.
With a large kitchen – perfect for cooking up feasts – roomy bedrooms (one with an impressive en-suite) and a cosy living room-cum-dining room, it certainly ticked every box. I could see how cosy it would be in winter with its wood burning stove and homely interiors – an ideal winter refuge from which to explore the nearby ski centres of the Pyrénées. However, with days of hiking, cycling and exploring on my agenda, late summer was the perfect time to visit.
The Pyrenees National Park
Dominating the skyline like jagged teeth, the Pyrénées more than match up to the Alps in terms of scenery. Our destination was the Pyrénées National Park, part of which incorporates the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Armed with all our hiking paraphernalia we decided to tackle the five-hour circuit around the seven lakes, starting at the Lac Bious Artigues (1,422m). As soon as we entered the interior of the park we were greeted by the verdant Ossau valley, overlooked by the craggy Mount Doom-like Pic du Midi d'Ossau (2,884m) – one of the more recognisable peaks in the park.
Not only did we enjoy some spectacular vistas throughout the walk, but we barely came across a soul. Admittedly we did get a little lost (a few more signposts would have come in handy!), but had we not stepped slightly off the path we may not have spotted a group of wild alpine marmots hopping around – a real highlight (nearly stepping on a snake – not so much). Nearby Laruns – a pretty village high up in the mountains – was the perfect stop-off on the way home for a petit bière and a cake or two from the local patisserie.
The Gorges de Kakouetta
Our next excursion to the mountains took us to yet another area, deeper into the Basque country. Although located in the same department – Pyrénées Atlantiques – Basque Country is noticeably different to Béarn and it feels as if you’re almost in a different country altogether. Each village boasts a traditional pelote court (a Basque sport, rather like squash) and the Basque road names look more akin to Welsh – but with a lot more ‘x’s. We came here to explore the Gorges de Kakouetta – one of the most spectacular of a series of gorges cutting through the limestone ridges forming the border with Spain. We walked along the narrow path snaking through the gorge and were treated to a great view of the 20m-high waterfall at the end. The bright sunlight filtering through the narrow fracture of rock, highlighting the glittering river below, was quite a spectacular sight.
Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz
In complete contrast, an hour in the other direction will take you to sunny Biarritz, which offers great shopping, beaches and nightlife. Surfing is the name of the game here and there’s nothing nicer than sitting drinking a cafe crème on the lively promenade watching the surfers take on the waves.
Nearby St Jean de Luz – a pretty seaside town and fishing port which dates back centuries – for me, was the stand-out town of the area. Although small there’s plenty to see and a walk along the promenade towards the picturesque old port is a nice way to see the sights. You can easily get lost in the series of winding, cobbled streets lined with quaint restaurants and bars; I opted to soak up the atmosphere in the harbour-side square where I sampled the local Eki Basque beer and watched the world go by. It was hard to think just a day before that we were high up in the mountains enjoying a very different view – but that is the joy of holidaying here.
On the days that we decided not to venture far, we set our sights on visiting some of the historic villages and towns dotted around the area. We started off in local Navarrenx where we hired bikes from a local bike hire business – Prêt à Rouler (only 10 euro for a half day and the equipment is excellent). The town itself boasts an interesting history. The solid fortified walls encircling the town – built by Henri d'Albret, the King of Navarre in the mid 16th century – once withstood a four month siege in 1569. In fact, the walls have never been breached.
Once on two wheels, we made our way to chocolate-box-pretty town Laas, cycling through beautiful countryside along the way – the occasional cow peering over at us as we passed and yet more corn fields, gently swaying in the wind. The grand 17th century Chateau de Laas is worth a visit and its gorgeous gardens – split into different areas and styles (the bamboo garden was my favourite) – are free to meander around.
An hour’s cycle (and several hills) later we found ourselves in Sauveterre de Béarn – another pretty town boasting an impressive 13th century church, l’Eglise St Andre, and the ‘Bridge of Legends’ extending out into the Gave d’Oloron. From here, the view of the church, scenery and Montreal Tower is wonderful. The river itself offers white water rafting, kayaking and game fishing for enthusiasts.
Baked moules at the Auberge de la Fontaine
Back in Laas, we dined at Auberge de la Fontaine – a local restaurant opposite the Chateau de Laas in Place Brigitte Bardot, named for the fact that the film star had supposedly stayed there. The hearty regional fare was simply excellent and the best local cuisine we had come across in the region. I dined on baked mussels, tender rump steak and finished off with a delicious chocolate mousse.
Our stay in the Pyrénées Atlantiques department had included so many different landscapes, views, activities and experiences. A holiday of remarkable variety – and all in one week.
By Sarah Gibbons
Where to stay:
The Farmhouse, Gurs, accommodates up to 8 people, including baby facilities. It is open all year round and serviced by several low cost airlines. Prices from £595 to £995 per week. Booking through online France specialists French Connections, telephone 01580 819303.
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