7th March 2010. In all this talk of the Pays Basque, I have somehow neglected to mention what is probably the most symbolic feature of all the French Basque country and that is - La Rhune.
Access to its summit is from the Col de St. Ignace (169m), which is midway between Ascain and Sare. The road up to the lower station from Ascain is described on a cyclists web site as "a gentle snaking climb (my italics) up to a very popular funicular railway taking tourists to the top of La Rhune for a view of the ocean". Cyclists clearly have a very different view of the world to the one I see!
Once at the Col de St. Ignace station, there are two methods of reaching the summit of La Rhune - there's the Petit train de la Rhune, a rack & pinion metre gauge railway that slowly grinds its way up to the top or - you can walk up. A popular option is "Train up and walk down.." or, if that smacks of being too easy, try it the other way round - aka the Hero option! If you intend taking the train up on a fine summer's day, be advised that it is an incredibly popular attraction and parking will be an issue, as will the queues for a ticket. The trick is to make an early start, looking to be at the Col de St. Ignace station no later than 9am. If you leave arriving there till later in the day, you'll be treated to a Masterclass in the Noble Art of French Queueing - say no more! A return ticket is ~14€ and dogs are charged at 50%.. ouch! There's a vulture towards the end of this clip! And despair ye not.. the accordionist stops at around 4.25..!
Make sure to check the weather forecast before leaving as the conditions can change quite markedly up there. There is a small Spanish-run restaurant/snack bar at the summit as well as a number of shops selling tourist gizmos, alcoholic drinks and tobacco at Spanish prices. I'd recommend taking a picnic as the food in the cafe could best be described as average, plus why sit indoors when the views outside are so special?
Take a picnic, sit ouside and drink in the views which are really stunning. From the summit on a clear day, you can see waay up the coast north of Bayonne to the start of Les Landes. St Jean de Luz lies before you and inland the Pyrenees march away to the south east in a blue haze.Right! Enough sight-seeing.. think it's time to refresh the inner man. Here's a recipe for Les Pommes de Terre Sarladaises (potatoes sauteed in goose fat, garlic & parsley) - the finest recipe for potatoes known to man: Ingredients:
750g (1½lbs) of waxy potatoes
3 tablespoonsful of goose fat (or, if serving with Confit de Canard, use the duck fat from the tin)
1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
2 finely chopped cloves of garlic
Some coarse sea salt, freshly ground black pepper.
Peel and slice the potatoes fairly thinly and dry them in a clean tea towel. Heat the goose fat in a heavy frying pan with a good-fitting lid, and when it starts to smoke, put in the potatoes to colour over a high heat. Keep turning them so that they don't stick and when they start to colour, cover the pan and moderate the heat. Allow them to cook for 30 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes or so to brown in the fat. Add more goose fat as required. Towards the end of the half hour, stir in the chopped parsley and garlic. Turn out on a dish covered in kitchen paper to soak up any excess fat, sprinkle with the salt and serve... Mmmmmm!.