Monday, 20 August 2012

193. A walk on the wild side of the Pays Basque

18th August 2012. Things I see in the Pays Basque. (this could become a series!) I've been meaning to post this for a while - our local butcher, a stalwart of the community, has been advertising roast 'bif' sandwiches - as he spells it - on a placard outside his shop. His topical big seller while the London Olympics were on was the Big-Beñat..☺ It always made me smile. 

Also this morning I saw something I would rarely, if ever, expect to see in the UK - a lady of a certain age.. and then some (I'd say 70+) zipping by on a moped - complete with helmet - bringing her shopping home from the Saturday market! "Hell's Grannies.."

Then there are these voitures sans permis - or light cars as we'd call them. No license required.. All is explained here. About the size of a large domestic appliance, they often sound as if they're powered by, at best, a small motorcycle engine or, at worst, an outboard motor.. They're driven by under-18s, grannies and grandads and by people who've lost their driving licences. In our more conventional eyes, they're under-powered anachronisms and their limited performance damns them.

One of the many manufacturers of them here is Ligier - yes, the same company who used to race F1 cars. Aixam is another make I see often too. They could be described as a variable noise/constant speed car! They bumble around town at sub-orbital speed (max 45km/h) and, logically, have much to commend them. (There - I've said it!) We've all been brain-washed into thinking we need a car that will cruise at 160km/h in air-conditioned comfort with all the bells and whistles - whereas what we really need is a low cost and sustainable mode of transport.

Manufacturers know us all too well though and each year they tickle our senses with increasingly sophisticated gadgets - central locking, electric windows (ask yourself how long ago was it you owned a car with wind-up windows?), parking assistance, air con, 6 speaker (or more) in car entertainment, 4x4, cruise control, leather seats, stop/start, alloy wheels, metallic paint, tinted windows etc etc - the list is endless. Trouble is, how many of us are prepared to abandon the more conventional cars we've become accustomed to in favour of something as small as these cars with their embarrassingly low levels of performance and equipment? I suspect very very few of us. I know I'm not - but perhaps we should be. 

19th August 2012. 6h30. Just about to set off on the mountain walk - I turned on the small kitchen TV a few minutes ago in time to catch the last minute of a programme on France 5 about the 4 masted barque Krusenshtern. This is the former German ship Padua (seized by Russia as war reparations and now used as a sail training ship) that Eric Newby would have known from his voyage aboard Moshulu, a similarly-sized barque in the S Australian wheat trade.   
20th August 2012. A few creaks and groans from my knees this morning after yesterday's 15km in the mountains. The Météo forecast was for temperatures only in the mid 20s but the humidity was off the clock. We were all drenched in sweat after ½hr or so - even our Basque guide.

He’s the son of one of the wartime Comet guides, of which there were around 30 during WWII, and they each had their own routes leading to the frontier crossing points. As security was stepped up, the guides had to stay one step ahead of the Germans and this meant using paths/tracks that offered more & more concealment. We were walking on tracks that, if they were any narrower, wouldn't be tracks! I think some of them were made by pottoks (wild horses) but the majority were made by rabbits. Yesterday’s track was probably too demanding for the group in September and I doubt if we’ll be using it again. 

It started off with a long steady climb from just outside Espelette - first on a single track road, then onto paths littered with loose rocks, before finally switching to tracks that were practically invisible. We didn’t ridge walk (pity – we missed the views) but we skirted around the shoulders of the hills on these rabbit tracks surrounded by high ferns. Very hard going.

I wore shorts and those of us who did so all ended up covered in scratches – that attracted endless persistent flies. I had a good sized walking stick with a spike in the end – either that or a pair of ski poles is essential. I had 1½ litres of water and that was just enough for yesterday but on a hot day, it wouldn't have been. Had to sit down 2-3 times – my head was spinning. Don't think I had enough for breakfast. We were up and down hill a lot.. the uphills were killers in the humidity. Sometimes the ferns were shoulder high - a good tip from the guide - grab hold of them during descents. I did and they're surprisingly tough and good for stopping an out-of-control rush. I can't begin to imagine how they managed night crossings during the war. 

When we finished, I was exhausted after our 5 hour trek but I think much of that came from the humidity and the fact that I hadn't had much in the way of breakfast. I’d intended to take a hat but I managed to leave it behind - mistake. Oh yes, we all took a spare t-shirt or similar so we could change before the restaurant – the one I’d been wearing was soaking wet. The first cold San Miguel at the Venta Burkaitz in Spain hardly touched the sides! We were offered trout in garlic butter or piperade (my choice) to start - followed by lamb chops on the plancha or magret de canard (my choice).. Here's some more info on the area.

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.