BenLo Park
Pocket History

A Short Tour of the Pyrenees
September 12-16, 1997

The weather had been so fine all week. Temperatures were between 20 and 25 degrees during the day and the sun shone from that cloudless dark blue sky that you only see in the mountains. We decided it would be a shame to waste such fine weather, so why not take a little trip around the Pyrenees. Jane had to get back for a dental appointment, and I needed to return in time to make a speech. But we could manage five clear days.

After doing a few errands around town and attacking the ATM for some French Francs, we headed through the centre of Andorra La Vella and out towards Pas de la Casa. Before crossing the border, we filled our tank with some cheap fuel (Cdn$0.93 per litre). We love our new car, but she sure is thirsty.

The French border guard stared at us intently for a moment and then, with a barely perceptible nod of his head and flick of his finger, waved us on. We descended the winding slopes from the Port d'Envalira for l'Hospitalet, the first French village.

About fifteen minutes before, in Pas de la Casa, we had both decided we were not really hungry yet. Now, we decided we were ready for some lunch. We spied a small cafe with tables in the sun and a sign in French, Sandwich, and thought it looked attractive enough. Jane had a mammoth paté sandwich, and I had a Croque Monsieur, a ham sandwich with an egg and grilled cheese on top. Ça nous a fait du bien!

After about 50 familiar kilometres down the road to Toulouse, we turned to the west and began following the tiny roads, fringed with green, on our Michelin map. Our first climb took us from Tarascon up to 1249 metres and the Col de Port. From this gap between the Pic d'Estibat and the Rocher de Batail, we had a commanding view of the countryside in both directions. A hiking trail led off along the ridge, but we resisted the urge to exercise and returned to the car to ride.

At some time, the hills around here must have been denuded of trees. But now, they have been replanted. The interesting thing is that all the trees are planted in vertical rows. So hills, even in the far distance, take on a corduroy look.

The tiny road wound its way through many small Pyrenees villages. Some of the downtown streets seemed barely wide enough for one car, yet large trucks seemed to make their way through somehow. As the afternoon progressed, it got steadily cloudier. Each time we crossed a col, there was less to see as the clouds began to descend.

As we passed a small hotel with an attractive garden full of flowers, we debated stopping for the night. Two or three kilometres down the road, we had decided and there was a small road off to the right which we used to turn around. The poor guy behind me had already been exasperated when I slowed down as we debated stopping or not. Now, as I thought I was getting out of his way, I blocked his turn as well!

The hotel was cheap and cheerful, as they say. We checked the menu and the room, and checked in for the night. Having lots of time before dinner, we settled in to read our books and relax. A little more light would have made it easier. The dinner was fine, and the wine finer. After dinner we stopped in the bar and had a digestif, Armagnac for me, Amaretto for Jane. Doesn't digestif sound so much better for you than a drink after dinner?

What we should have bought in the bar was mosquito repellent. During the night, we had the shutters and windows open wide and the hordes descended. If only they could bite quietly and go away. At times you could hear two or three buzzing about your face as you hid under the sheets.

The morning did not bring fine weather. It rained during the night, and it was still raining on and off as we had our breakfast of hot chocolate, croissantes and baguette. Ready for the day, we descended to the Garonne river and turned south to the old spa town of Bagnière de Luchon.

Luchon Luchon struck us as a beautiful little town. It had obviously been a holiday and retirement spot for wealthy Parisians. The main street was lined with trees, wide boulevards for walking, and charming shops that appeared to be transplanted from Paris in miniature.

Downtown, there was a huge spa, very reminiscent of Vichy, and opposite, a small casino. Not far from the centre, old mansions reminded us of the glories of the past. Now they were shuttered and cold, but what stories the walls would be able to tell. Some day we should go back and spend a little time in Luchon. It looked like a great place to relax.

From Luchon we headed west across the north-south valleys of the Pyrenees. We wound our way up and down the roads that led to the cols between them. It was one of those days with low clouds. In the valleys, it often looked bright, but the passes were all completely fogged in and we drove slowly, hoping no one would appear going the opposite way.

Peyresourde-Balestas At least when we descended from the cloud covered peaks, the valleys were beautifully green, and the floating mists added a magical air to the scene.

We reached our destination for the day, St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, about five in the afternoon. This is the heart of French Basque country, and renowned for its food.