The Pyrenees, part 2 – France

After a week of siesta-ing in Spain, the time had come for Chris & I to make the trek around the Pyrenees by car to the French side of the mountains (if you read my last post you may be wondering why I didn’t discuss our time spent in Pamplona… unfortunately, we weren’t big fans).

To avoid any unexpected closures in the mountain passes, we decided to drive around the Pyrenees instead. It was amazing to watch the landscape change from arid desert (very Colorado-esque) to lush forest on the other side. We rented an apartment in Lourdes, which we didn’t realize was one of the Catholic capitals of the world. The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in Lourdes to a young girl. Today, religious pilgrims travel from all over to visit the Sanctuary and drink the water from the spring where Mary appeared. Lourdes is definitely a tourist destination, and with that came lots of diverse choices for food. A personal favorite of mine is kebab (not like kabobs here in the States; think shaved lamb and beef, french fries, veggies, and spicy sauce all wrapped up in a pita-like shell), and I was so excited to introduce Chris to this personal delicacy. He loved it so much, and we both loved practicing French with the woman who owned the store, that we came back twice.

From Lourdes, we were able to travel very easily around to lots of great hikes and sights. Some of our favorites:

Le Pic de Bazès

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With weather being much more unpredictable on the French side of the mountains, this ended up being our only successful summit hike. The beginning was mellow and gently sloping up dirt trails, until we came across the actual pic de bazès. That section of our hike was admittedly pretty tedious, but the views definitely paid off. I also loved being able to hear the constant clanging of bells from the grazing cows and goats that joined us up towards the top. We spent over an hour enjoying our lunch, soaking up the sun, and listening to the bells chime in the distance.

Lac de Gaube

Drive into the mountain town of Cauterets, follow signs for the Pont d’Espagne, and follow the steep, windy switchbacks until you can’t drive anymore. At the end of this road is one of the many entrances to the Pyrenees National Park, and the trail which leads to Lac de Gaube. The path follows the streams that run from the lake, surrounding you constantly with the sound of flowing water. After about 45 minutes of walking, the lake appears framed by beautiful mountains the the tiniest peek of a faraway glacier. I thought water that blue was reserved only for the tropics; I never thought I would be able to find it in the mountains.

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As there were all over France, more grazing cattle (with bells, of course!) lined the trails.

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Pau & Toulouse

I unfortunately didn’t snap any photos, but Chris & I loved the cities of both Pau and Toulouse. It has been a dream of Chris’ to one day see the Tour de France. Lucky for him, we got to watch it twice! We watched the end of a stage just outside of Pau, where he captured the leader Chris Froome in his yellow jersey zoom by. The next morning, we trekked to the center of the city to watch the start of the following stage. I had never realized that aside from the riders, the tour includes dozen upon dozens of sponsor vehicles dressed up as floats, police on motorcycles, and of course the team cars stacked to their max with spare frames. It was incredible to witness!

Toulouse, on the other hand, was a young and vibrant city with lots of great restaurants and shops. We wandered around for hours getting lost in the narrow cobbled streets.

Carcassone

A friend of ours suggested that if we were in the area to stop by the medieval city of Carcassone.  Although the architecture and history of the site are absolutely incredible, we were a little disappointed by the amount of cheesy souvenirs and tourist shops that lined the inner walls of the fortress. All those elements aside, this was a really interesting stop on our road trip. As we drove near, the city seemed to rise up out of nowhere and we both audibly wowed at how incredible it looked from a distance. It’s worth a stop, especially if you decide to take one of the guided tours into the rooms that are inaccessible by the general public.

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My final word of advice for the French region of the Pyrenees is to come prepared with some basic language skills and a handy pocket dictionary. Although this region sees many tourists and you can easily find someone who can speak English, the same may not be true for your maps, road signs, or guidebooks. Having no luck finding guides before our trip, we stopped in a bookstore in Lourdes to buy our maps for the trip. Every guidebook we purchased was in French, so in the evenings I would translate some key words I wasn’t familiar with to make our journey a bit easier the next day. It made those moments of *oh-darn-I-think-we-missed-the-trail* less stressful for us.

Nowadays, I think a lot about the Pyrenees. I think about the pace of life in Europe and how even in the mountains, things are slower and more relaxed. I think about how nice it is to actually sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee, instead of tossing it in a to-go contained and chugging it on the way to work. I think about those bells a lot, and how I wish I could find that sound in the mountains back home. I think about how long I can justify waiting before going back to the Pyrenees.

 

Happy trails,

Kait

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