Thursday, 7 June 2012

Pyrenean Pursuits

It was our easiest border crossing yet, where we simply caught a local train from San Sebastian in Spain to border town Hendaye in France. No passport checks - just a quick squiz at train tickets and we had leave to continue towards the French side of the Pyrenees.

There were a few hours to burn between connecting trains at Bayonne, so we dipped into a taste of French Basque Country's historic chocolate scene. At the end of the 19th century the town of Bayonne had more chocolatiers than Switzerland, and the few that remained to this day still made some beautiful treats that we didn't deserve, but gobbled up greedily anyway.

Hot Chocolate - Bayonne
Spiritual hotspot town, Lourdes, was packed to the steeples with tacky souvenir shops and flashing neon-light hotel signs, but at least it was easy enough to find accommodation. Architectural grandeur overlooked the town - the Byzantine style Basilica built above the revered Grotte de Massabielle was a beautiful building, and the huge Chateau Fort was imposingly perched upon a rocky hilltop with amazing views.

Sanctuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes
Chateau Fort - Lourdes
Looking beyond the tourist commercialism however, it was humbling to see the huge number of genuine pilgrims, many of whom were wheelchair bound invalids, who came here from all over the world in the hope of finding a cure for both physical and spiritual ailments in the sanctuaries of this place.

Pilgrim Stream Over the River - Lourdes
Candles of Hope. Sanctuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes
Lights on the Stream - Lourdes
Whether or not you believe, it was hard to deny the faith of these people. Spirits were undampened by the persistent rain; in fact there was something quietly refreshing about the atmosphere.

Holy Water. Pilgrims at the Sanctuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes
Faithful Vigil - Lourdes
Rocky Walls Near the Grotte - Lourdes
Spotlights Through the Rain - Lourdes
With plans to hit some big hills, we decided to capitalise on diesel driven torque, landing a no-frills Toyota Yaris for the journey from Pau to Chamonix over the next week and a bit.

What a Feeling! - near Col d'Aubisqui, Pyrenees
Incidentally, it was cheaper to buy a brand new GPS than to hire one, so we went gadget shopping (one of Ben's favourite pass times) and picked up one that came complete with roadmaps for all of Europe. We had plotted our journey through the Pyrenees based on what looked topographically interesting on the map. Incidentally, it took us awhile to realise the significance of the path we were about to travel.

Mist covered pastoral hills through the Vallée d’Ossau provided some scenic walks, allowing us to peek back in time where Pyrenean shepherds still kept watch over their flocks grazing by the road, and cow bells tink-tonked in the distance.

House on a Hill - near Col d'Aubisqui, Pyrenees
Low cloud gave way to huge bursts of blue sky with awesome views through the Vallée des Gaves. We stopped at Le Donjon des Aigles, in 12th century Chateau de Beaucens, where a large collection of birds of prey were housed and cared for using traditional medieval falconry techniques. It was a glorious afternoon in this place, seeing a huge variety of majestic eagles, hawks, falcons, vultures, owls, parrots, pidgeons and more, soaring above and around a crumbling medieval chateau spectacularly located in the mountains.

Ruppel's Vulture - Le Donjon des Aigles, Vallée des Gaves
Red Kite - Le Donjon des Aigles, Vallée des Gaves
Hooded Vulture - Le Donjon des Aigles, Vallée des Gaves
African Fish Eagle - Le Donjon des Aigles, Vallée des Gaves
Egyptian Vulture - Le Donjon des Aigles, Vallée des Gaves
Flying Hawk - Le Donjon des Aigles, Vallée des Gaves
During the birds-in-flight show, I joked to Ben "If I just stuck my arm out, do you think one of these birds will land?" Just as I said this, a curious red and blue parrot alighted on my shoulder!

Would a bird land? Before I could answer, an Eclectus Parrot landed on Tia's shoulder.
She thought this was kinda cool, but then it went to give her a kiss...
Sorry parrot, I'm married...
Early the next morning we scored one of only five free parking spots in Gavarnie to do the short trek to the amazing Cirque de Gavarnie. This was a mountain amphitheatre surrounded in a sort of giant semi-circle of cliffs, waterfalls and mountain peaks up to 3000 metres high. It was beautiful as well as impressive, with wildlife to match as Ben spotted his first shy Pyrenean marmot.

Cirque de Gavarnie - Vallée des Gaves, Pyrenees
Running water in the early morning light - Vallée des Gaves, Pyrenees
But perhaps the most surprising thing we saw throughout the Pyrenees were the numbers of lycra-clad pedallers puffing it out up the steep mountain passes, with the occasional carbon-fibre mounted speedster zipping past us and several other cars on the winding downhill. Nuts! Even more impressive was the fact that it took us three days of several-hours-per-day driving to cover the distance that Tour de France cyclists would complete in a single stage (one day!) - Stage 16 of the race this year in fact.

Tour de France Tributes - near Col d'Aubisqui, Pyrenees
I now have a new appreciation of the effort to surmount the highest pass in the tour, the Col du Tourmalet.

Col du Tourmalet - Vallée des Gaves, Pyrenees
I cannot imagine how anyone could concentrate on pushing themselves up the mountains when the scenery itself was so breathtaking. Flowing rivers of clear snow melt also accompanied us through steep, lush gorges of the Vallée de l’Ariège.

Colourful stones - Near Seix, Pyrenees
Soft water against sharp rocks - Near Seix, Pyrenees
We stayed here at the most friendly auberge on the river in a tiny village near Seix, followed by a welcoming stay with great family friends, Val and Mike in Quillan, sampling local cheeses and not wanting to leave.

Seix Cheese - Vallée de l’Ariège, Pyrenees

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