France – Western Pyrenees

Our longest break in a while, 6 days away and once again heading to France, and once again meeting up with people – my parents!  In a rental just south of Pau.  With a couple of days before and after meeting them to explore the Spanish and French Basque Country.

First Night

We started off heading to the French border at Irún, before getting off the motorway in an effort to avoid the French tolls, and heading south, still on the Spanish side, taking a left at Bera and heading up towards the border.  We crossed over through some lovely beech woods, and headed to Sare on the French side.  We’d driven through Sare before on our visit to La Rhune last year, but hadn’t stopped in the town, which we’d heard was a pretty one.  There is a great AC area, well signposted, just a minute’s walk from the centre.  8€ a night, payable at a typical car park machine.

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We had a lovely evening walk around the town, and a drink in one of the several bars on the square.

Day 1

After a good night’s sleep we headed back into town to pick up some breakfast, and managed to get a sneak peek in the church – which really was huge!  And had the most beautiful wooden balconies inside, it looked more like a theatre.  Also some lovely examples of Basque headstones in the cemetery.

We then headed to our first stop of the day, just back over into Spain to Zugarramurdi – the town famous for witches.  And also for its huge cave, which was our first stop.  Parking up in the official cave car park, plenty of room at that time of the (weekday) morning – but I imagine it gets packed at the weekend.

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It was a nice walk through the village and its humongous Basque houses to the cave.

The cave was 4.50€ entrance – and it was so worth it!  You’re given a map which shows the circular route around the cave area, starting by going up to a viewpoint, and then down (a whole load of steps – there are a lot of steps) through the woods to Hell’s Bridge over the stream.  Following the stream up through the woods to the HUGE cave mouth, one of three, and the huge cave itself.  Various routes around the cave, including past the witches’ field, lots of fun exploring it all!

After visiting the cave, we felt it only right to check out the Museo de las Brujas, the witches’ museum.  Zugarramurdi was the site of many prolonged witch hunts in the 16th century, and the museum is very well set up – with English audios.

We then headed up the mountain to a picnic spot with dedicated AC parking we’d seen on Park4Night  at the Puerto de Otsondo – a great spot with picnic benches, covered BBQs, washing up sinks, toilets, and the start of several walks.  We had a lovely lunch in the cloud!

Going back down the other side of the mountain, we then stopped at the little village of Maya – little village but HUGE houses!  Really imposing Basque houses lining the one street of this previously walled village with its church and mill next to the parking outside the gate.  Worth a stop – and an ice cream!

We wanted to get a walk in that day, and we’d seen a short walk mentioned in the great Sunflower Basque Country guidebook in the nearby town of Erratzu – to the waterfall of Xorroxin.  It was a lovely walk through the woods, very well signposted and obviously being well looked after, and the waterfall was very impressive at the end of it!  Instead of retracing our steps, we followed the signpost back to Erratzu through the village of Gorostapolo, which was an easy climb, a quiet road walking back, easier than the return through the wood, and some lovely views up to the mountains beyond, where we were heading next.

Then we headed up to the Puerto de Izpegi, which Berta climbed well, and as we stopped at the top to change drivers (the other side was rather vertiginous, and not to Gonzalo’s taste!), we did consider spending the night there along with the other 2/3 vans there – a nice flat spot with great views, but we continued on down the other side, through St Jean Pied de Port (ever-bustling with pilgrims) and on through the dark to the town of Tarbes, which was better placed for our next day plans.

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Puerto de Izpegi

Day 2

Having slept in Tarbes, in a nice flat parking area down by the river.  Tarbes is a nice town, although completely in cloud whilst we were there, but it did have a great bakery to get our lovely French breakfast in!

Our main objective of the day was to visit somewhere we’d driven past many times, but never actually got to – the Gorges de Kakuetta.  This gorge is a curious place, starting with the fact you have to pay to go in!  But once there, you can see why – there’s quite a lot of upkeep involved in keeping it safely open to the public with boardwalks, alarm systems (quite alarming in themselves!), and rock retention.

The gorges have a dedicated AC parking area with toilets, not that flat, but only a short walk from the start.

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And the walk is pretty stunning!  The start (you pay in the bar) is next to a turquoise blue lake, and after a short sharp climb and descent, you get to a tunnel which is the start of the real gorgey stuff.   Boardwalks (slippery) hanging off the steep sides of the gorge take you up through the beautiful green trees and ferns to a huge waterfall coming straight out of the rock – which you can walk behind.  The noise and power of the water was quite something.  A little further on and you are lead to a subsidiary of the main river coming straight out of a large cave mouth, and after entering a short way, this is the end of the walk.  Starting early had been a good idea too, we practically had the whole gorge to ourselves on the way up, and on the way back could see how it was starting to fill up for the day as we had to stop and let people past for quite a lot of the return leg!

After getting back to Berta, we continued along the road to the village of Sainte-Engrâce, famous for its 11th Century church.  We parked on the outskirts of the village and wandered down to the church, which had some beautiful painted stone carvings and some great examples of Basque headstones too, well worth the visit.

Then we had a decision to make.  It was fairly obvious the road we needed to take to continue east towards Pau, but the road on the map was marked in red and white – apparently a dangerous road.  Hmm.  Well…we decided to take it anyway, and we’re still a little confused as to why it was marked like that – it was a very nice forest road up to the Col de Soudet, from where we continued, for our curiosity, to the ski station of La Arette Pierre Saint Martin, which still had quite a bit of snow (but was obviously closed).

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Arette Pierre Saint Martin ski station

Just out of a bit more curiosity, we continued up to the border with Spain at the Col de la Pierre Saint Martin, where there’s an easy parking lot and some lovely snowy pine tree views over on the Spanish side.

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Spanish snow

Then we headed back over into France and decided to try some more interesting mountain roads to find a spot to stop for lunch.  If the other road was “dangerous”, then we decided to check out a forest road which had a barrier at the start, but it was open so why not?!  It was a very beautiful and (thankfully) empty road down through the Forêt de Irati, and we stopped on the side of it on a wide corner for lunch.

After lunch and a lovely birdsong filled siesta in the forest, we continued on down the Aspe valley, then over the Col de Marie Blanque and through the beautiful Plateau du Bénou before going down into the Ossau valley, and on to Gan to meet my parents at their rental.

Day 3

Thanks to the lovely owner of my parent’s rental, we had a nice quiet night parked in their drive, and a feast of pastries for breakfast.

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Lovely French breakfast

We had a quick morning stop at our overnight alternative in Gan had we not been welcome on the drive, at the Jurancon winery in town, which had full water facilities for 2€.

We then all headed back up to Plateau du Bénou from the day before for a walk – or rather two combined walks!  The Plateau is a glacial hanging valley, with great examples of moraine and other features.  It’s really very stunning, a great place to spend a day or night and has a wide range of walks available.  We chose to combine two to take in the flat upper valley and then the views back down over the Ossau valley further below.  We started by parking up right in the middle of the upper valley in the parking area, joining the Turon de Tecouere route at point 2 on said link.  The walks are very well marked and easy to follow.

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Plateau du Bénou

We then walked on down towards the Chapel de Houndas, picking up the second walk, the Circuit des Cercles de Pierre.  This takes you up above the Ossau valley to a series of stone circles with the most fabulous lookout.

We then walked back to the Plateau, but not before stopping off at a barn on the way for some local cheese – and wow – what cheese!  Delicious and very decently priced.

Ok, to be honest, we ate all the first lot of cheese during lunch we then had in the valley, and had to go back and buy more before we left, it was that good!

On the way back to Gan, we stopped off at the little town of Rébénacq.  We’d had this down as another option for overnighting near Gan as it has a great little AC area, but with only 5 spaces it was already full up, so good job we didn’t need to!  We parked up anyway though and followed a marked route around the bastille town from the area, which was a pleasant stroll.

Day 4

We woke up the next morning to…sun!  For the first time on the trip we could actually SEE the Pyrenees in the distance – more precisely from the pool at the rental, and yes, we had a quick dip to celebrate!

We then headed off in a kinda back-home direction.  We started off by driving along some beautiful windy roads towards the town of Monein, with its huge church.

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In the town of Monein we also came across an information board with walks in the area, which gave us a lunch stop idea – the Lac de Vielleségure.  There are two parking areas at at this little lake, we started off for lunch in the more sheltered area with picnic benches, before moving to the more exposed area to leave Berta to walk around the lake (felt a little safer), between the thunder showers!

We had a clear objective for that evening, the town of Salies de Béarn, famous for its salt and we had heard it also had a great AC area.  It did indeed, 7.60€ with EHU included, large pitches – and unsurprisingly it was nearly full on arrival (although it doesn’t look it in the photo below!).

We hooked up and decided to walk into town to check it out.  It was very shut!  But lovely to wander around nonetheless, with a very picturesque old centre and lots of rambling flower-filled streets.

Day 5

After a lovely quiet night, we were woken by the school bell of the neighbouring school at 8.15am!  We enjoyed the morning lazing around the van with the back doors open sorting ourselves out for the return leg.  Before we headed off, we stopped off at the famous salt plant of Salies to see the salt being shoveled around and pick up some souvenirs from the shop.

We wanted to get on, back over the border into Spain for lunch, and spotted what looked like an interesting spot just past Zumaia on the coast.  A little windy road took us up to the very well appointed picnic area of Elgorriaga (including open toilets) on the Camino de Santiago, and above the famous Flysch coastline.  We parked up – flat enough to cook, and enjoyed our lunch in the shade on a picnic bench overlooking the coast, watching all the walkers hiking by.

We then decided to check out the little circular walk marked from the area, taking in the Mirador del Flysch with views over the rock ledges of the coast (all the way from Zumaia to Deba), and some lovely sea views.  It was a great break in the journey back to be sure.

So a great few days away, despite the pretty awful weather – although we did more or less manage to avoid actual rain.  There’s so much to explore in this area and we love it every time we visit.

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