This post finally takes us into the Pyrénées. If I was to list the reasons for deciding on which part of the south of France to visit, the Pyrénées would be quite near the top of the list. As a young boy, I was obsessed by a range of sports (still am today) and was fascinated by the Tour de France in which these insane cyclists would cycle up and down mountains day after day. Admittedly, this was probably for a reason that only a kid could come up with, by the fact there was a successful American cyclist called Greg LeMond. Gregs are not particularly abundant in the world, so if I came across one, I tended to follow them even I they had a different spelling. A case in point was a Jamaican 400m runner called Greg Haughton who I used to support at every Olympics and World Championships. Along with LeMond, the sport of cycling in my youth was dominated by a Spanish legend, Miguel Indurain, who won five consecutive tours in the early 90's. Being obsessed with sport, I used to read a UK magazine called Total Sport as a kid. I mention this for two reasons; firstly the featured an article on Miguel Indurain in which they stated his resting heart beat was 28 bpm. This statistic blew my head at the level of fitness and athletic ability this man had which and the stat stayed with me to this day. Secondly, I think this magazine started my love of photography. Every month a the front of the magazine there was a feature on the best sports photography on the month. I just remember these photos being phenomenal and this was by far my favourite section of the magazine. Being to able to drive (note: I am now very much an armchair sports fan!!) up some of these famous mountains climbed annually by the Tour de France held a major appeal for me.
We embarked on a circular route in and out of the Pyrénées which would take us down through the foothills in Oloron-Sainte-Marie and through the Aspe Pass via the E-7 road and the Somport Tunnel into Spain. The highlight of this section was the Fort du Portalet. Built in 1846 for Louis Philippe to guard the border of the Pyrenees and to protect the pass of Somport from Spanish incursions, the fort is situated high on a cliff face overlooking the Gave d'Aspe and the winding road below. I found the nearest section of the verge which was wide enough to pull in, abandoned my wife in the car and then set off on foot back down the road. Photos in the bag, I realised I had to jog back up the mountain in the midday sun to reach my waiting wife. With new respect for the Tour de France cyclists (it wasn't even a steep section!) and a little warm we set off Spain and our lunch destination of Jaca.
Through the Somport Tunnel and down into in the Spanish province of Huesca, the town of Jaca forms part of the The Aragonese Way section of the pilgrim route of the Way of St James. We decided to stop here for lunch in this old medieval fortified town due to a recommendation for the owner of our rented farmhouse. Unfortunately our indented venue was closed but we settle on the small tapas bar Cafe Fau, which is located on the square adjacent to the old cathedral. I thought get its location, the tapas bar might be a tourist trap, but there seemed to be plenty of locals so we gave it a try. The food was good and decent value although we ordered too much food as usual. We arrived a little later than planned so we ended up in the Spanish siesta after lunch with the result of the majority of shops closing. After a bit of walk around the quiet and beautiful old centre of the town we started back on our return journey.
The circular route would take us back over the higher mountain pass of the Col du Pourtalet which reaches an elevation of 1,794 m and links the Ossau and Tena valleys. Working our way back through northern Spain, the clouds started to roll in and by the time we were half way up the Spanish side of the Col du Pourtalet, the heavens had opened and we were subjected to the full thunder and lightning downpour. Thankfully, as we got higher passing through the various ski villages on route to the border, the weather cleared and when we reached the French border we were treated to spectacular views of the symbolic Pic du Midi d'Ossau, still capped in snow, glinting in the sunshine in the surrounds of cumulus mediocris clouds. The only good news for us from the recent bad weather in the region was the amount of snow that was still present in mountains. This definitely added to the overall experience.
We continued down the french side of the mountain stopping a few times to get some more shots as the road wound its way down via a series of hairpin bends down into the river valley. We had planned to work away over the side of the mountains via Arrens-Marsous and Argeles-Gazost towards Lourdes, but at that stage we getting tired of the driving so decided to implement Plan B and come off the mountain at Laruns and head for home. This was probably in hindsight a good idea as 10 minutes later the heavens opened again with torrential rain. Not much further down the road we were suddenly surrounded by a flock of sheep who were walking themselves down the road with no owner in sight. Being surrounded by 30ish sheep on both sides of the car was a strange experience.
The other trip we undertook while staying at the farmhouse was to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port which is located near to the Spanish border towards the western extent of the Pyrénées. Similar, to Jaca, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port is part of the pilgrimage route of the Way of St James. Three of the French routes forming the French Way and departing from the cities of Tours, Vézelay and Le-Puy-en-Velay converge at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port before the pilgrim route passes through the Pyrénées to Roncesvalles. The town is very popular starting point for modern day walkers walking the French Way setting off the long arduous journey to Santiago de Compostela in the west of Spain. The town retains quite a touristy feel, which gives the impression that the town has grown up around tourists and very much geared for the tourist and traveller. More so than Jaca in Spain which has retained more of a local feel in its old town centre.
The city gate, Porte St-Jacques, are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site leads to the Rue de la Citadelle, a narrow cobbled street which makes its way down the hill through the picturesque old town to the 14th century church Notre-Dame-du-Bout-du-Pont and the Porte Notre Dame town gate. Passing through the town gate, an old masonry arch bridge takes you over the River Nive rising back up a small hill to the opposing fortified gate, Porte d'Espagne, set into the town wall. When you first enter the old town via the Porte St-Jacques, the 17th century citadelle towers above you on the left, sitting imposingly on the hill of Mendiguren. The short walk up to the citadelle provides panoramic views to the east over the tiled houses of the old town with the hills in the background.
This post finishes the section of trip in the rented farmhouse, but our travels continued a little bit longer as we headed back to the Atlantic Coast, but this time over the Spanish Border and to the Basque town of San Sebastian.