Tuesday, 2 August 2011

159. From the Pays Basque to the high Pyrenees

2nd August 2011. Arrived back home yesterday after a long weekend (Fri-Mon) up in the high Pyrenees to the south east of the Pays Basque. We stayed at a small hotel at Luz Saint Sauveur (French version here) next to a rushing mountain torrent..

Luz Saint Sauveur (left) lies an hour by winding road (52km) to the south of Tarbes. We were surrounded by mountains that ranged from 6-9,000ft and the winding roads in the valleys between villages took us through breathtaking scenery with some vertiginous drop-offs. No place to drive if you suffer from vertigo..

The first place we visited was to see the famous Cirque de Gavarnie and the cascades (waterfalls) which are some 422 metres (1380-odd feet) high.. It was clear why the Pyrenees had, for so long, provided a natural barrier between France and Spain. Mountains rose sheer from the fast flowing streams that roared their way through the tight valleys and the steeply sloping hills were closely covered in mountain oak and pines - or, as I like to call them - trees. 
Cascades, Gavarnie

Difficult to convey the sense of space and grandeur - but, to give you an idea, that waterfall dwarfs the Eiffel Tower by almost 100m!
This is where the dog drank his own weight in water!

Lac de Gaube

View from the summit of the Col du Tourmalet
This last picture (above) was taken from the summit of the Col du Tourmalet looking west back towards the start. This is a mountain climb that's been used as a stage in the Tour de France for a long time. It's staggering to think that these racing cyclists are not only able to ride a bicycle up this road - but also to race up it too. From Luz Saint Sauveur, it's a continuous climb for 19km up to the summit which is 2115m - 6939ft - high. Remember, too, that the air at this altitude contains much less oxygen than at sea level so, in addition to the effort made by the legs, their lungs must be bursting by the time they grind their way to the top. There were more than several cyclists doing exactly this during their summer holidays.. each to their own! In fact, we spotted one guy running up it..

This is definitely an area we'll be returning to as it's only a two hour drive from Pipérade Towers here in Bayonne. Highly recommended - even at the height of the tourist season it was still far from being crowded. I fell asleep on one 7,000ft high mountain top (as you do!) up in the clouds while waiting for the cable car - with the result that my face now resembles a beef tomato.. and I could probably serve as a danger to shipping!

I almost forgot: one evening we had a bottle of Chateau Bouscassé Madiran.. It's been a long time since we enjoyed a red wine so much as we did this one. Well worth hunting one (or more) down. I must see if I can find it around here.
PS. Many thanks to S&B for their comment below.. I had a look at their link to the Chateau Bouscassé Madirans and I wouldn't argue with a single word. Forget the great Bordeaux wines (for a few moments) and beg, borrow or steal a bottle of this. I must be honest - we'd been drinking a Buzet red at the hotel .. and while it was OK at the price, it was nothing spectacular. They ran out of it one evening and our waiter substituted a bottle of the Bouscassé for it at the same price as the Buzet. The difference in quality screamed out of the glass at me.. I checked the price via the net when we returned and it retails for more than I usually pay for a bottle in a restaurant. Multiply by at least 2 for the restaurant price and it's clear that our waiter did us an enormous favour! I used to look for Madiran in England but I was never able to find anything this good. I'm no good at describing wine in the way the critics do - "cigar boxes, pencil shavings, liquorice and red fruit.." All I can say is that it was like velvet on the tongue and it lingered long in the mouth - but not long in the bottle! A truly memorable wine.

PPS. "Is it me..?" Department. I thought I'd share this with you.. While we were away, we were sitting in a café somewhere and I was tearing the end of the paper tube of sugar for my coffee. I tore the end of the first one, poured the sugar in my coffee and crumpled up the paper and put it in the ash tray. I then took the second one - tore the top off it and poured the sugar straight into the ash tray.. How did that happen? Have I now reached the age when I'll open my eyes one day to find I'm standing in my pyjamas in a shopping centre? Tell me I'm not the only one!

Finally, on the theme of Luz Saint Sauveur, Napoleon III used to visit the area and he apparently said one day that he'd like a bridge to be built to span a local gorge. Four years later, in 1863, it was duly completed. Nowadays it's used for bungee jumping or saut à l'élastique as it's known here. Here's a clip that shows what it's like to fall 90m.. Did we try it? Er no..

3rd August 2011. I mentioned Woody Allen's new film "Midnight in Paris" a few posts ago - hands up all those who've seen it...? This is "Bistro Fada" - a catchy little swing jazz guitar number from it..

4th August 2011. Every now and again, a moment comes along that reminds us why we like it here so much. For example, this morning we took the pooch for a walk around Lac Mouriscot at Biarritz. Even at the height of the tourist season, we were almost the only ones there. There's a shaded walk around the lake and the cool waters were just too tempting for Chibby - he didn't waste any time in getting wet and muddy. On our return, we had lunch outside on the terrace - Madame had bought some fresh crab legs and sardines. We had the crab legs with a salad and then we fired up the plancha to cook the sardines with her patent Piment d'Espelette marinade. I served some cold Sangria - and afterwards we had some fruit. Then, a Turkish coffee and a cigarillo.. under the umbrella in the heat of the afternoon sun. Perfect.. The thought crossed my mind - could we do any of this back in the UK..? Answer? Regrettably no..


Lesley said...

Had to stop the Cascades vid. twice to go to the loo.
Any news on the dog's puppy arrivals yet?

Pipérade said...

Too much information!☺
It was the same at the hotel - waking up at 5am to the sound of the rushing torrent below wasn't conducive to staying in bed!
The pups? The bitch lost them.. she had some kind of infection and the vet prescribed antibiotics which he said might harm the pups - he was right.
Wonderful area around Luz Saint Sauveur - we're definitely going back there.. but to a different hotel!

Lesley said...

Shame about the pups.
Lovely region to visit and the 'summer' is becoming as popular as the 'winter'. It's close enough to us for a couple of days trip and our dog thought that the water looked very tasty.

Pipérade said...

He's a bit particular about his water.. it's got to be fresh! We were carrying a bottle of water for him but it wasn't fresh enough (for him!).. so no wonder he enjoyed standing chest deep in cold fresh water.. drinking for Britain!
Luz Saint Sauveur is an excellent base for touring in that region.. (the food at the hotel wasn't brilliant though)

POW16783 said...

Wow, I think you certainly manage to express in words and photos the sense of space and grandeur. Wonderful. I was very tempted, VERY tempted, until you mentioned the narrow roads and the drop offs. I'd be ill ;-(

Loved the clip, "What a shar".

Pipérade said...

You truly do get a sense of the high Pyrenees in that area - the mountain scenery is spectacular but, yes, it was hard for me to look away from the roads..
Don't let that put you off tho'..!
Highly recommended.

S and B said...

Thanks for your wonderful description and photos from the long weekend in the high Pyrenees. We have been enjoying your blog for months now and have it on our computer's opening/home page. You may be interested in this recent article about Madiran wines which gives the Chateau Bouscasee a very good rap. http://gourmettraveller.com.au/madiran-france.htm (sorry can't get the link to highlight)

S and B

Pipérade said...

Many thanks for your kind words S & B..
I'm a bit of a Madiran fan - I think it's been overshadowed by perhaps more famous wines for far too long. Why don't we see it more widely available? Probably comes down to production. Had a quick squint at Google (Aus) but it doesn't look like it's available down under. You'll just have to make that trip! Regards, P