– Good time of the year to go: July or August (although there is also skiing in spots like Issarbe in the winter… but some roads may be closed then.)
– Fly into Toulouse or Bayonne, and head south, or Bilboa or Barcelona and head north. (You can also plan your visit by following the route of San Juan de Compostela!)
– You WILL want to rent a car.
– Pau is a larger city, but the area around it is very industrial. Heart of the city is beautiful though. Dominating the city is the Château de Pau, where French king, King Henri IV, was born in 1553 (He’s famous for the quote… “Paris is well worth the mass!” My former history students better remember!)
– Oloron- Ste-Marie is a beautiful city (formed out of 3 former villages that grew into each other) with views of the river and great architecture. The cathedral (a UNESCO site) is worth the visit. When driving in Oloron, to head south, follow the signs for “Sarragosa” otherwise you may be going round-and-round-and-round at the roundabouts!
– Stop and visit (and buy!) some of the wines from the Jurançon area :) Great stuff! Especially the sweet dessert wines.
– Don’t miss the beautiful 13th century church in the little village of Ste-Engrace. Across the street is a lovely cafe that serves omelettes with local wild mushrooms (cèpes) and bacon. BUT, they close at 2pm!
– Navarrenx is the home of one of the fortified castles that dot the area and well worth a stop for lunch or a walk.
– L’Hopital-Ste-Blaise has a gorgeous church and a cafe in its shadow… and great views of the valley around it.
– For the most breath-taking and dramatic views, make the drive south from Oloron-Ste-Marie through the Vallee d’Aspe: the little villages of Bedous and Lescun are well worth the trip in terms of views alone.
– In Lescun, stop for a beer and some local ham on the plain, but make sure you drive THROUGH the town for the best views of the valley below.
– Where to stay: I recommend Maison Carriquy in Barcus. Corrine and Patrice are amazing hosts and you will sleep not only in incredible comfort, but also wake up to views that force you to pull out the camera. And the bathroom… like a slice of heaven! (Especially when you are used to tiny cramped spaces of adventures in water from the shower everywhere!) You can contact them at www.maisoncarriquy.com. Corinne and Patrice are super sweet and incredible hosts! This is a great place to use as your ‘base’ for exploring the area.
– Barcus itself is a quiet little town located in a valley – but don’t miss the truly exceptional Pain au Chocolate at their boulangerie… AND make sure to have dinner at Hotel Chilo’s restaurant. On the pricier side of things, but worth every bite! Their three course set-price menu is SO worth it… every dish a great introduction to local Basque flavors, presented with flare and style.
– If you are a fan of decorative arts, visit Château de Laàs. A beautiful 17th century home, it has one of the best collections of decorative arts in Aquitaine and has it displayed to give you the sense that the baron has just stood up from the table and his meal and will be back any moment.
– Be prepared for cooler temperatures. If the weather forecast says 80F in Toulouse, in the mountains it will easily be 10 degrees cooler!
– Take hiking boots and a picnic basket! Amazing hiking trails and options to see more by foot.