What I knew about the Pyrenees before my trip:
– they are mountains
– they separate France and Spain
– there’s a small country, Andora, inside the mountains
– there’s a rich history thanks to this being the crossing between Spain and France – going back to Roman times. This has been a crossroad for the Moors who moved into France (as far north as Tour in 732 A.D. for the Battle of Tour.. a date that I will never forget thanks to a 10th grade World History study session for Ferg’s classes). Today this area is still affected by the more ‘recent’ history of the Cathars and the Basques.
– These mountains are dotted with caves, which led to making them a natural hiding place for Jews during the Second World War.
What I now know about the Pyrenees:
– They are relatively easy to reach if you fly into Toulouse and start heading south. (OR alternatively into Barcelona or Bilbao and then drive North.)
– Street signs are in French and Basque
– There is a culture of exceptionally good food alive and well in these mountains
– There are ski resorts throughout the mountains
– The people are incredible friendly and willing to let me butcher the French language as I try to re-awaken vocabulary I learned twenty years ago.
– Because of the way the clouds moved, the French side of the mountains are lush and green and fertile, and the Spanish side… even visible with the naked eye, is dry and brown.
– There are beautiful little Alpine-esque villages that dot the countryside. Architecture looks Swiss, but they are uniquely Basque at the same time with white washed walls and heavy wood shutters in either blue or red.
– At night you can hear the incessant ringing of bells thanks to the huge bells adorning cows and sheep in this region
– They like making dishes from tomatoes, paprika, basil mixtures.
– In almost every village is a little boulangerie for fresh bread and a charcuterie where you can buy pate, sausage and foie gras to your heart’s content (or detriment, depending on your cholesterol levels!)
– And the landscape through these mountains will take away your breath with their dramatic, sweeping, majestic beauty
My dad and I spent two days ‘peaking’ at these mountain peeks – sometimes on roads that were barely wide enough to fit our tiny little Ford Ka rental car and yet were still two-way; sometimes on roads that gave me a complete new understanding of the term ‘hairpin’ (you see no motorcycles in these mountains, the curves are just two tight!); sometimes in fog and clouds that you could barely see the white line in the road… or whether there WAS still a white line in the road; sometimes through little villages with 11th century churches and little cafes where they serve Heineken or English beer and omelets with cèpe mushrooms for lunch.
Always, with views that leave you stunned.
At one point we were 2000 meters high, above the clouds that were settling into the valley, on a peek so narrow that where we pulled the car over to take pictures, you could stand still and take pictures in the French AND Spanish directions.
We stayed over night in a little town called Barcus – at a charming chamber d’hotes run by Corinne and Patrice. Waking up with the echo of bells and the views of their garden is a great way to start.
In the little village of Barcus there’s a total of 2 restaurants and 1 café. But man, what food! We had dinner at Hotel Chilo’s restaurant – flavor, quality and presentation rules there as an absolute dictator! We drank a local Rose and a dry Juarancon sect (dry white wine), feasted on foie gras seared in truffle oil, chicken stuffed with herbs and served with vegetable risotto, and a dessert called a sable breton that is basically a brownie-type base, topped with caramelized apricots, shortbread cookie as thin as the mountain air, and ice-cream. And this, Nota Bene! – in a tiny little village that has only one doctor and is worried about replacing him when he retires!
They have their priorities straight!