The Pyrenees and the Basque region

We bought this book to sell at the shop even though it was about  Spanish Basque recipes and not French Basque recipes …. I started reading it and then it began  …        We had to go !! We needed to see if it was as good as it looked !

IMG_0802 - Copy (Large)We decided that we needed to compare both regions , so we would drive from Provence along the Pyrenees on the French side all the way to the Atlantic coast , then cross into Spain and come back on the Spanish side . One week ,1400miles ,  no freeways , a dozen ” Tour de France ” Mountain passes per day , bucolic picnic sites , a whole lot of scenic roads and tones of beautiful photos that I have to share to hopefully inspire you . Summer is just around the corner and it is time to plan that next trip to Europe !

Battery charged , a full tank of gas and we are on the road ! Time to give our 1962  beetle some exercise again ! Even though it doesn’t seems like the ideal car to drive …remember that the speed limit in France has gone down to 49mph on highways and even we can get tickets in a beetle !IMG_0487 (Large)It is late June and the “genets” yellow flowers smell sweet all over Provence .

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IMG_0131 (Large)We stop near Ganges .It is warm and the perfect day to picnic by the river …first day of our meat, dairy and gluten diet ! For some reason we can eat it all in France without any issues  so we enjoy it breakfast, lunch and dinner !

IMG_0146 (Large)Le Canal du Midi . We are getting closer to our first stop in Mirepoix. Le Relais de Mirepoix was a 2 stars hotel but felt like 3 ! Wonderful stay there .

IMG_0176 (Large)Mirepoix is a town in  between Carcassonne and Foix. It is a beautiful medieval town and should not be missed if you are in this area.The highlight of this ancient bastide town is the central square – the Place des Couverts – which is surrounded by medieval houses and arcades (the covered walkways in front of the shops).

Little fashion shot to showcase our cross body paper bags ( my favorite to travel with ) and best selling scarves ideal for cool summer evenings .

We start bright and early and stock up some local specialties for the road ahead at a near by bakery .

Set deep in the outstanding scenery and lush green mountain pastures is the beautiful town of Foix dominated by its medieval castle .

From Foix we officially start our Pyrenees Mountain journey …

 

IMG_0272 (Large)We keep going up and down , through some legendary Tour de France passes : Col Portet d’Aspet , Col de Peyresourde ,  Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet … 300kms ,  2 dozen passes ( I barely exagerrate )  and 12 hours later  we reach the tiny village of Viscos our base to explore the “Parc National des Pyrenees ”

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We fell in love with Viscos  and La Grange aux Marmottes ! Not only it is a quaint comfortable little hotel but a wonderful restaurant and after all that driving , we deserved a real meal !  (https://www.grangeauxmarmottes.com/en )

 

https://www.grangeauxmarmottes.com/en/restaurant.html#cuisine

It’s been unusually warm for the season witch makes hiking in the mountains glorious. Tourists have not yet arrived as school does not stop until the 6th of July and most places have just opened up for the season . We are heading to Pont d’Espagne first to hike to the Lac de Gaube get our legs going before the main course this afternoon !

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IMG_0361 (2) (Large)The small thermal town of Cauteret

Garvarnie is just south of Lourdes and a popular destination with tourists . It is the most popular hike in the Pyrenees and there is a reason !                                                               The Cirque de Gavarnie is one of nature’s most unique and spectacular creation . It is described as a rocky cliff  wall that forms a curved amphitheater. Numerous waterfalls tumble down the wall to create the rushing Gave River. The highest falls, la Grand Cascade de Gavarnie, has two tiers, plunges 1,385 feet and is the tallest in France. In town , you can watch the soccer world cup , catch your dinner in the river or hire a donkey if you do not feel like hiking the trail .

IMG_0411 (2) (Large)IMG_0448 (2) (Large)It is actually not such an easy hike ….not very hard but the terrain is very rough and rocky . Thanks to the French who always think about these things…there is a cafe right there where you can have a refreshing lemonade and ice cream as your reward !

An other beautiful day is ahead and time for us to hit the road again

Who needs a GPS !??IMG_0535 (Large)

300 Kms today and again a dozen passes on the program .

Le Col du Soulor is impressive . We “compete ” with the cyclists who are definitely beating us going down hill

IMG_0510 (Large)Cows and sheeps are free to roam. The valleys are deep and so green , we imagine Ireland or even New Zealand .  It is the vallee d’Ossau , then Irrati …our favorite cheeses …

We find the most romantic picnic stop we could imagine and enjoy again some simple cheese , bread and pate … shepherd’s style lunch .

All the sudden ….we are in the Basque region and everything is different …even the sheep !

IMG_0550 (Large)We are looking for traditional crafts , fabrics we could bring back for the shop …and stop in Espelette to check out the different products made with this prized pepper .

We arrive in Biarritz late afternoon …it is muggy .The weather looks unpredictable but we still decide to walk down to eat at our favorite table on the old port.

The hydrangeas are in full bloom and just gorgeous …this was the inspiration for us to grow them around the shop .

IMG_0582 (Large) (Large)Casa Juan Pedro is owned by 2 brothers and serve “a la plancha” grilled prawns and sardines . But our favorite thing here is the dessert : La Mamia local sheep milk “yogurt”…it is set like a custard but light like milk with a sweet taste like whipped cream …there is nothing like it . It’s one of those thing that you can only eat there because it’s fresh for just 2 to 3 days so we order 2 each !

We barely finish dinner when a huge thunderstorm strikes, flooding the streets . Rivers are coming down and we are soaked from head to toes !

After the down pour …lots of sunshine . It is a fantastic day to go to the beach but we are not staying here . We have been to Biarritz many times and want to spend more time to explore Spain. Still , we have to walk around town before to leave .

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In Hydrangea’s heaven !

We take the cornice road …it is picture perfect . The coastal villages are even more stunning than we expected . The typical Basque architecture of the houses , the small narrow streets are filled with cute shops and restaurants . It is charming , alive but not cheesy touristy . We are in love with St Jean de Luz and sad not to be able to spend more time here …but San Sebastian is our destination tonight .

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This is espadrille paradise ! The shop is packed , nobody can help me and after waiting a while , I finally give up thinking I will find many other shops if not here , in Spain …this won’t be the case ! But I have not given my last word and am in touch with the manufacturer to hopefully import some for our shop at some point !

We arrive in San Sebastian just in time to take a walk in the old part of town and catch a beautiful sunset with green flash  ! It is 10pm …IMG_0721 (Large)

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San Sebastian is a beautiful town ,  “La Concha” beach is very nice , the old town is typical but it is also dirty and all together we didn’t find the charm…  it is too big for us . I am sure the food is spectacular if you go to one of those Michelin restaurants but we have a hard time planning so far in advance and we were not hungry enough to have a full meal either . A few tapas watching some more soccer with the locals will do it that night and we cannot wait to get away to explore the Spanish Basque area the next day !

We left San Sebastian and drove along the coast to Guetaria . Nature is beautiful but it is surrounded by big industrial areas , lots of concrete , old ugly buildings with terrible architecture …it is grey , brown and not picture worthy . Guetaria saved our day ! It is a very small port village and we would love to come here once a week just to eat !

Just above the old port are a few restaurants with nice outdoor patios . We are going to Txoco , our friend Enrique Fleischmann’s restaurant . The cuisine is simple , the best ingredients are sourced  and prepared with perfection , knowledge  and great technique .  To us , there is something  about recognizing the fish you are about to eat that makes you salivate and makes you crave it .  We never experience that with nouvelle cuisine / haute cuisine / fusion or molecular cuisine …Everything is interesting , taste great , look wonderful but we have come out of those experiences short somehow . You do not know what you are actually eating anymore …

We asked Enrique to give us his chef’s selection as we could not decide … and we did not regret it .This will be a 3 hour lunch and the best meal of the trip !  I would have not chosen prawns again even though this is one of my favorite thing to eat in Europe , specially if I had seen them looking so plain …but those were THE best prawns I ever had . The flounder was exceptional , grilled to perfection , the pulpo with saffron and potatoes tender and tasty …IMG_0827 (Large)

Enrique sent us to a small shop where they process anchovies and we discover that canned “fresh” anchovies are soft and not that salty at all …we leave with some goodies !

Driving back to San Sebastian on the back roads of the Basque region will take us by Enrique’s other fine restaurant set in an elegant four-star luxury hotel where tradition and design come together naturally. I wish we were staying here tonight even though there is no way I can eat anything at this point !

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https:/iriartejauregia.com/en/inicio

What struck us was how massive the houses were in the Spanish Basque country . No little individual home here …everything is 2 to 5 story high in the villages or its surrounding .

Biggest regret was to leave the region without having a taste of its famous beef : Txuleta or beef from old cows with a more mature and buttery taste …Instead we pack some cured meats and hard paste cheeses for tomorrow’s road .

Tucked high in the Pyrenees, San Juan de la Peña monastery is one of the most important religious sites on the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela . Just 30mns south of Jaca .

This is the new Monastery :IMG_0876 (Large)The old monastery IMG_0879 (Large)IMG_0898 (Large)

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A surprise encounter with a shepherd and his herd on the move …we see them coming and go around our car

We continue on along the Pyrenees for the rest of the day . The villages lack charm  and the scenery is not spectacular . Worse is the urbanization of the area …you are driving in a very remote part of Spain but there are tones of unnecessary signs, posts, big bridges , tunnels ….makes you feel like you are on a freeway in the middle of town when you are indeed in the middle of nowhere ! We arrive at Seo de Urgel just south of Andorra where we found a  “5* ” Relais and Chateaux  for the night ! IMG_0965 (Large)It is quiet , the view is typical of a Spanish village ( lots of social apartment buildings ) . We take a walk in town but cannot seem to find a restaurant other than pizzerias and return to our “chateau” for dinner…witch despite the very dated look of the place was really delicious !

Next day we decided that we were done with Spain and were dreaming about some serious food again ….time to cross over to France asap !

France …now it is time to plan lunch ! Stopping in Carcassonne is not even a detour so we cannot pass a cassoulet specially since it got a bit cooler  ! IMG_0975 (Large)Carcassonne …a Unesco World heritage: It is an outstanding example of a medieval fortified town, with its massive defences encircling the castle and the surrounding buildings, its streets and its fine Gothic cathedral. Despite the mob of tourists witch is to be expected , it is totally worth going in the old city and wonder all the way to our best kept secret : “Le Jardin de la Tour” is tucked back and only  locals know about it . We’ve had wonderful dinners here and today’s lunch in the Garden by the tower is no exception !

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In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the registration of the Cité as a Unesco site , the artist Felice Varini was asked to create an artwork that make a dialogue in between the heritage site and contemporary art .

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This was just yellow tape that has been removed since then

IMG_1012 (Large)Cassoulet with duck confit is a must …but I cannot resist today’s special of razor clams….these are hard to find and just delicious !

Back to the parking lot , we have to laugh at the sign with the rates ! Why make it simple when you can make it that complicated !!!IMG_0981 (Large)We are giving in and jump on the freeway for the rest of the trip back home in Provence . But there is still one last thing we want to do :  Nimes is on the map !  They host concerts in the roman arenas all summer  and this is a fabulous way to enjoy this amazing historic site . Every year has different venues …2019 will see Elton John  ! https://www.festivaldenimes.com/ IMG_1247 (Large)

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