The Starving Artist in the Pyrenees

Salut! I hope everyone is safe and well. This week I’m taking you to the Pyrenees. This year has looked very, very different to how I (and the rest of the world) had expected. Camille and I had talked about WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which is actually how we met in Canada, travelling to see new parts of France and possibly finding summer jobs in the Pyrenees. To cut a long story short, this didn’t happen. We have spent half of our time living in Camille’s home town with his mum, in Benet, a tiny agricultural town in the Vendee in the mid-west of France. The rest of the time has been spent 15 minutes from there, in a much larger town, called Niort, which has a very similar feel to Bendigo. Occasionally, Camille and I are lucky enough to get away from the area, to explore other truely breathtaking places. This wasn’t my first time in the Pyrenees, Camille and I spent four days in his cousins’ holiday house in April last year. It was cold, with patches of snow still clinging to the peaks, but still very beautiful. This year we arrived in August and the transformation from the early spring landscape I had witnessed the year before was amazing. For the previous two weeks we had checked the weather forecast and had been dreading sitting in the house during the big thunderstorms that were predicted to arrive every afternoon. In reality, we had better weather than we could ever have asked for, with sunny yet humid days, rain at night and just one torrential downpour after driving an hour and a half to our destination. That’s the magic of mountains, they’re predictably unpredictable ! We had set off just before 5am on our six hour drive, with two of Camille’s friends and their two young kids. All six of us squeazed into the car with a trailer on the back packed to the max, after an expert game of tetris to fit it all in. We had to leave early because the traffic heading past Bordeaux during the peak hours is some of the worst in France and already at 5am there was a steady stream of headlights along the autoroute. Another couple of friends, their little boy and another friend took the road to join us the next day. The first glimpse of mountains rising up in front of you after a long, flat drive will never lose it’s magic for me. Especially these mountains, bright green with rocky peaks, dotted with little white and brown spots, which baa and moo and often jingle as they graze. The holiday house, is one of many old stone houses, or bergeries in French, in the area. It’s sat quite high on the side of a mountain, just past the quiet little town of Argeles-Gasost. The bright green grass, with wildflowers in full bloom everywhere you turn smelled so bright and fresh. There is an amazing view from the house, backed on one side by a mountain, the 180° view on the other side looks out over mountains that are impossible to take your eyes off. If you’re a nature lover in France, the Pyrenees have got you covered, that’s for sure and if you’re not a nature lover, you will be once you leave. The first morning was magical and something I will never forget. I had woken up early (after trying, unsuccessfully to get Camille to go on a sunrise hike with me), grabbed my yoga mat and headed outside. The sun was just waking up, the people were still in their beds and so the only sounds were the distant calls of the horses, sheep and cattle that roam free and the ringing of their cowbells, which farmers use to locate their flocks. The bells sounded like prayer bells in a monestry, it was very meditative. Then the sun eventually came up and a stunning sunrise set the tone for the day. Further up the mountain, after passing local cheese and honey stalls on the sides of the road, you could be forgiven for bein a little disappointed that part of the city had followed you to the mountains- traffic jams. Not the usual traffic jams though, these ones are much more innocent, caused by animal meet and greets and slumber parties being held right in the middle of the road. Ocasionally these road blocks last quarter of an hour, until someone decides it’s time to move them along. There is also a lookout and restaurant at the base of some hiking trails, where many of the horses hang out under the trees and wait for visitors to give them a scratch. The second day was another early morning, but all of the men and I set off for what we thought would be a good introductory hike for two of the guys who had never hiked before…what we got was an insanely beautiful view of the valley, thanks to a continuous uphill track, full of switchbacks over a five hour return hike. The lesson learned here was, never trust the difficulty rating of a hike given to you by a local ! It was really worthwhile though, with views the whole way up. Marmots, a stag and ‘blue rocks’ which turned out to be sheep hiding in a gully joined us on the journey. In all honesty, the top was quite disappointing, as it ended at a manmade dam, which is not my idea of natural beauty, but did have crystal clear blue water and ice cold streams to cool off in. A tip for if you decide to head out on this hike though, pay attention to your footing ! I’m no beginner hiker, and feel pretty confident on my feet. That confidence was dented when my foot slipped on the edge of the trail. In the first instant, I thought I was all good and could get my balance back, but a millisecond later my feet were where my head had just been and I was summersaulting down the mountain, landing a few meters in front of bewildered Camille who had been walking in front of me around the switchback only seconds before. He will never let me live that one down, that’s for sure ! Apart from hiking, we did two other really great activities that were definitely worthwhile. Whitewater rafting was the first, it was a heart pounding way to see the valley from a different perspective. The guides were set on throwing each and every one of us in the water, so the motto of the trip was to jump in before you’re pulled in, making the wetsuits a must against the glacially cold water. The trip was about two hours and great fun, there are plenty of companies to choose from. The other activity was Les Grottes de Béttharam, not far from Lourdes. Now, Lourdes is a place that to me is interesting, but very overrated. NEVER make the mistake of going on a religous holiday like we had the year before on Easter. This year was MUCH quieter and the church was as beautiful as ever. Apart from the beautiful church and cave, the town is largely built around selling plasic Virgin Mary statues and bottles of water from the spring in the cave, which has been said to have been the place of around one hundred miracle medical recoveries since it’s descovery. Although it is a place that many people love and find very powerful, I feel that the beauty and authenticity of the town centre is lessened by the hundreds of super gimmicky stores and the many thousands of people. Les Grotte de Bétharam on the otherhand, although also mindblowingly busy, with a waiting time of around two hours, was worth the wait and deserving of the hype. It’s the largest cave system in Europe, passing under the border between the Haute Pyrenees (where I was staying) and the Pyrenees Atlantique. It’s a one and a half hour guided tour of a truely enormous cave system, with huge stallectites and stallecmites, a boat ride and a train back to the entry. Foodwise, although we cooked at home most nights and prepared our own lunches for the daytime trips, we did eat out on the last night. Although we weren’t able to go to the restaurant we had wanted, due to a very highly priced kids menu, we did have a lovely and very French dinner elsewhere. Often in France there are single-plate options, or set menus. I chose a set menu, with a simple egg and jambon secs (which translates to dry ham, but is like proscuito) salad, confit duck for the main and chocolate mousse for dessert. Chocolate mousse is definitely an underrated dessert in Australia, but is super popular in France, and far more dense and rich that what we are used to at home, in my opinion it’s always a good choice. The Pyrenees are more widely known for their wildflower honeys, blueberry tartes (tarte de myrtilles), as blueberries grow wild in the mountains, cheeses that can be bought in giant rounds or wedges straight from the farmer and cured pork crusted with pepper. It’s definitely a region that has my heart and I would recommend anyone planning a future trip to France to add it to their list of places to visit. I know it was as a long read, but I hope this piece gave you some inspiration and new daydream material. A bientôt à tout ! Samara Peace

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