Wednesday, 15 August 2012

192. Escaping the heat..

12th August 2012. At the end of July, we took our now-customary break from the madding crowds of the Fêtes de Bayonne to escape to the cooler, saner heights of the Haute-Pyrénées. This year, the weather in the run-up to the Fêtes had been hot (mid-30s) and sultry - not our favourite combination. The freshness that usually prevails here was absent this year and it was hard to avoid the sticky, oppressive heat that held the town in its stifling grip. In anticipation of the thousands of cars that were about to invade the town, the Town Hall  had caused metal barriers to spring up all over the centre, protecting the most unlikely places from creative parkers - circling roundabouts, fencing off the central reservations of dual carriageways - in fact anywhere someone who'd learned to drive in Naples could park. In parallel, there were several creative campers who pitched their tents on pavements - nowhere's sacred!

So it was just as the big crowds surged in, we thankfully packed the car and headed off on the short (2 hour) journey to the mountains. In the still of an early afternoon on a hot summer's day  in the Béarn, we made a stop to give the dog a leg stretch at Salies-de-Béarn, a sleepy country town, and spotting a convenient café/bar - the Bar Saleys - we fancied something cold. As we took a seat at an outside table, I noticed something strangely familiar about the menu board outside: it advertised beer-battered fish and chips! (in English).

When the waiter appeared, Madame asked him for a citron-pressé - which made him do something of a double-take - and he shot back inside. A minute later, the owner came out and, in halting French, she conveyed the information that this staple summer drink was unavailable. In the background I'd detected the dulcet tones of my compatriots and yes, we'd blundered into an English-run French café. I can't think of many other institutions that so typify France as the village café. A brave move then to take on running a café which, in France, is expected to be the epicentre of village life in the same way that the village pub is in England. To run a café with only the flimsiest grasp of the language and offering fish and chips - and not the customary staples - is even braver. I wish them luck.
Chef Jean-Pierre Paroix

We'd booked at a delightful country hotel that we'd stayed at 2 years ago at Sévignacq-Meyracq and it was just as we'd remembered it. Buried in the depths of the countryside at the end of a single track lane, the three sides of the building enclosed a courtyard. The difference in the air was amazing.. we could breathe again after the clammy heat of the coast. 

Over the next few days, we roamed far and wide over the high Pyrenees. Even though it was the height of the summer tourist season, the mountains were refreshingly free of the crowds. We drove up several of the classic climbs that feature regularly in the Tour de France and near each summit loyal fans had painted the names of their particular heroes in large white letters across the roads. We went up the Col d'Aubisque with its vertiginous drop-offs, the Col de Pourtalet  and saw at close hand the impressive Pic du Midi d'Ossau (which is 2884m / 9462ft high.)
Pic du Midi d'Ossau

It's hard to imagine cycling up these mighty hills and yet there was no shortage of cyclists doing just that. 
Near the summit of the Col d'Aubisque

The descent from the Col d'Aubisque can be seen incised into the rock wall..!

Here's someone on a Honda Goldwing climbing the Col de Pourtalet.. something I'd love to do one day!

We discovered the Lac d'Estaing and again, we were pleased to find that we had it more or less to ourselves. We spread out a rug and had a picnic in the most idyllic of settings.. while Chibby attempted to lower the level of water in the lake by an inch!
He wasted no time in in doing what cocker spaniels do best - getting his feet wet! In fact, he couldn't keep out of the lake and he'd just stand chest-deep in the water staring into the middle distance.. savouring the moment. 
Lac d'Estaing
After checking the sky around for vultures (!) we had a short snooze - after which we took a walk around the lake. Somewhere to visit again.

Here's another on-bike video of someone enjoying the lyrical swooping descent of the Col d'Aubisque. If, like me, you were brought up in a safety-conscious country, the more-or-less complete absence of crash barriers caused me to focus 100% on the road - as there was nothing but oblivion lurking just a few feet away!

In a Tourist Office in the Parc National des Pyrénées a kind soul gave us a recommendation for a lunch stop that turned out to be an inspired choice - the Hotel/Restaurant Vignau at Gabas, a hamlet at the extreme east of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques close to the border with the Haute-Pyrénées.

Hotel/Resto Vignau
To be honest, it didn't look at all promising from the outside - a low building set against the roadside and there were no choices on the lunchtime menu outside. The set menu featured garbure, one of the specialities of the South West, as a starter, with lamb cutlets followed by tarte aux myrtilles (blueberry tart). However, I reminded myself that where there's a multi-choice menu, bought-in re-heated meals aren't far behind.. 

We stepped inside and found a table. The friendly owner came to tell us that we could have a sauté of rabbit as an alternative main course. Perfect! We ordered the set menu with the rabbit, with a 50cl pichet of vin rouge at a wallet-busting 3.70€!

The garbure was served in a huge pot and, as is proper, was rich with joints of duck. I admit to having seconds..
Here's how it's made.. (PS. That's some knife he's using!)

When the main course arrived, the serving of rabbit was copieux - as they say here - or generous as we'd say. The rabbit had been boned & it was served with a reduced red wine sauce and assorted vegetables, plus, as an extra, a side dish  of tagliatelli covered in cheese!

Finally, a home-made blueberry tart poked its nose over the horizon.. ("Must I ..?") Finally, after a coffee, we were done. I didn't eat again until breakfast the next morning!

How much I hear you ask? The addition was la cerise sur le gâteau.. 35.10€..(£27.50 or ~US$43)
If ever you find yourself in the high Pyrenees in the vicinity of Lourdes or Pau - and you have a taste for real French country cooking at its best (and, as luck would have it, you're wearing a pair of elasticated waist pants as well), then no hesitation allowed, make the detour south to Gabas (from Pau it's only 50km)  Unsurprisingly, there wasn't an empty table in the house..

Here's a very apt song for the moment - it was played to death during the Olympics and it also fits in well with the Comet story:
Last weekend (6th) a small group of us from the local Comet association had another practice walk over one of the newly-discovered WW11 escape routes for the Comet commemoration in September. It involved around 5½-6hrs of walking..

Marthe Mendiara
 If these walls could speak..
We started at Anglet quartier Sutar just after 9am and walked down to the house (left) that had been Marthe Mendiara’s Restaurant Larre during WWII - a famous hiding place for some 150 Allied airmen and one of their last stops before they undertook the crossing of the Pyrenees. From there it was a level walk down to the Nive. After a steady walk along the tarmac’d river bank we arrived at the outskirts of Ustaritz where we took to an overgrown grassy track. After emerging onto the main road from Bayonne to Cambo, to avoid walking on main roads we drove the short distance to a side road near Souraïde where we started walking again and it wasn’t long before we arrived at Le Pont du Diable
The old Roman bridge, Le Pont du Diable, Larressore
There, we enjoyed a picnic lunch sat around at a stone table at midday in the dappled shade of some old oak trees. All was quiet except for the splashing of a nearby stream. In former times, the bikes of the evaders would be left against the old bridge here to be recovered later by the baker Mattin Garat in nearby Larressore.

Finally, we set off again along an old contrebandiers (smugglers) grassy track.. After a while, this led to a steep field where we climbed uphill to find the owner of the field waiting for us - holding a large axe! (something of a "Deliverance" moment!) I was relieved to find that he was expecting us and was smiling! He recognised our guide Dominique Aguirre (they're cousins). This was Sauveur Aguerre – the son of the passeur Baptiste. He pointed out the position of the Mandochineko borda which was where the airmen were sheltered. 
Mandochineko borda
From 20m away, it was completely invisible, overgrown with creepers. This location would have been perfect for concealing strange faces in an area where everyone was known. I'd somehow managed to leave my camera in the car so the three photos above are courtesy of here

All morning, I'd heard the others (all French) mentioning 'la pizza' and so I'd understood that one might be on the lunchtime menu.. However, when we arrived at Sauveur's farm I noticed its name on the wall  "Lapitza" - mystery solved! Sauveur's wife kindly provided us with some very welcome refreshment. 

We then set off back to Le Pont du Diable where we had a car waiting and returned to Bayonne.

Undeniably this itinerary is not as demanding as the more traditional Saturday route - but it is equally as legitimate and as valid. In former times the route passed through what would have been a strongly rural landscape. Inevitably, some modern development has taken place – with some new highways, residential properties and, in places, light industry. Nevertheless, I found it fascinating to re-trace the footsteps of these once-secret routes through the verdant Basque countryside.

It will make a perfect contrast to the new Sunday route which is as demanding as anything the more usual route offers.    

We have a final practice over the mountain route next Sunday. I see the long range Met forecast is saying 35°C for Sunday! Could be interesting.. 

I should mention the Olympics - if only to have an excuse for putting a picture of Katherine Grainger up! It's not often that I'll admit publicly to shouting at the TV - but I must be honest - as Katherine and Anna sculled home for a well-deserved gold medal I was offering vocal encouragement.. OK, you win, I was shouting "Come on, girl! COME ON!!" at the telly! Great to see someone achieve their dreams. Well done the two of you!☺

17th August 2012. Just heard that the walk in the mountains planned for Sunday has been called off due to the heat wave that we're experiencing. Pity - as I was really looking forward to doing it but it's probably a wise decision in view of the forecast temps. The forecast for here today is 40° (104°F if you still work in °F) - with temps in the mid-thirties over the weekend.  

Sunday is back on again..!☺ Someone spoke too soon.. 

18th August 2012. Further to what I've written in this post and in previous ones about the creeping influence of pre-cooked meals appearing in restaurants here (unthinkable just a few short years ago), while out with the dog this morning I spotted a lorry marked "Relais d'Or". This is another company (like Brakes) that specialises in supplying the restaurant trade and all it means is that we're going to have to be increasingly selective about where we eat - on those rare occasions we eat out. Remember, avoid restaurants with menu that feature a squillion choices. Search out the ones that have little or no choice and you'll be eating somewhere that has a kitchen - with a chef (novel concept!) - that actually prepares their own food - as opposed to some low-paid clown just banging a chilled or frozen meal into an oven or microwave and waiting for the ding! The moral is - if you see a lorry marked Relais d'Or or Brakes outside a restaurant you were thinking of visiting, think again and vote with your feet.


Lesley said...

Pooch looks very happy in the clear mountain water.
It's the first time we have been privy to all the computer instructions! Always amazes me what goes on behind the keyboard.

Pipérade said...

Yes, he's in his element in these places! He loved it.. there's nothing he likes better than to get soaking wet before finding something filthy to roll in. We were surrounded by cow-pats at the lake and well, you can imagine the rest!
You spotted me checking that the video had loaded correctly.. you would not believe the amount of code that's required for all this.

Lesley said...

Mind you, I wish we had bought shares in Brake Bros of Lenham 30 years ago.

John said...


How did today's hike go ?



Pipérade said...

Couldn't bring myself to encourage them..

Pipérade said...

Hi John,
Just found this comment of yours - we've spoken since!
Don't know how I managed to lose it.