Across the Pyrenees (2017)
Sunday, July 9, St-Béat.
[Deb here: Having spent a second night in Tarascon-sur-Ariege due to the threat of rain yesterday, we pushed off immediately after breakfast this morning. The skies still were overcast and clouds loomed over the mountains; the overnight downpour had ended and we saw signs of clear skies ahead. Once we were on one of the mountain overpasses, we were literally riding through clouds. I had been concerned that visibility would be limited; however, the clouds were blowing away from us quickly enough and we could at least see the road.
Throughout the day we saw plenty of people in RVs on the side of the road who were apparently setting up camp in anticipation of having for ten minutes a front-seat view of the Tour de France coming through in four days.
We stopped for a coffee break at this mountain restaurant which overlooked a small lake.
The air was cold for the first time on the trip so we stopped to pull out our sweaters and stopped at a small restaurant along the road for lunch where B ordered escargots and steak tartare.
I ordered a salad with warm chèvre which turned out to be one of the best ever (the chèvre was served as bruschetta on wonderful sliced toasted bread) and we’ll try to do this at home.
After lunch we were enjoying the drive when the drizzling rain forced us to pull out our rain gear for the first time.
We were almost to St.-Béat when we took a break at a mountaintop hostel/snack bar and decided to check on rooms for the night. Using Booking.com throughout the trip has yielded great results at the last minute and I found that the options for the night had almost disappeared when I saw a listing for a camping/cabin type of bed and breakfast which was close to town and booked it. Very modest, but a terrace and a place to park the scooter, next to a horse farm.
After unloading our bags, we rode back to town to look around. Here is a panorama of the ancient village houses with their backs facing the Garonne River:
B had spotted the ubiquitous pizza oven truck in the center along the river bank and the owner was just setting up, so we’d decided to return once his oven was fired up and order a pizza for a light dinner since we weren’t hungry after our substantial lunch.
We ordered a pizza nicoise, including egg, black olives, anchovy.
[B here: the pizza was nothing to write home about (wait a minute!).]
B and Deb
Monday, July 10, Bagneres-de Bigorre
[Deb here: Early morning, we left our Gites camping cabin south of St. Beat, to find the nearest gas station before driving through the national park (where there are no fuel stations). We found one about six kilometers away at the supermarket Intermarche, successfully filled up the tank, and drove 22km to the next town where we stopped for a coffee break at a café. When I get off the scooter, I always help B remove his backpack which rests on the floor board between his feet. The backpack was not there! I quietly said, “B, where is your backpack?” At that moment we both realized that he’d left his backpack at the gas pump. No coffee break for us! We rode all the way back to the Intermarche, 22 km, as quickly as we could. When we arrived at the gas pump, there was no sign of his backpack! Thinking that someone must have found it and turned it in to the supermarket staff, I went over to the store entrance and B went to the loading dock. I began inquiring at of the staff, and when neither a man stocking shelves nor a woman at the checkout knew anything about it, I left the store to find B, who was also empty-handed. As I was walking toward B, I heard someone calling out to me running through the parking lot. Evidently, another cashier had found the backpack and brought it into the store and given it to the manager. B and I went back and were thrilled that the store manager had taken the bag to his office. So, we had to repeat the 22 km drive, adding 44 km and losing about an hour. Another lesson!
Today was cool with drizzle and we were happy to have packed waterproofed jackets and pants. Since the mountain passes are quite high, we are occasionally riding through clouds. This phenomenon seemed to thrill B, who admits that he hasn’t spent much time in the mountains. We stopped for coffee on a mountaintop and the clouds moved in so quickly that the road was now not visible, which delayed us about 1½ hours as we waited for it to clear enough for us to venture out.
This evening, just before arriving in Bagnere de Bigorre to spend the night, we stopped for coffee at a café where a BMW motorcycle was parked. I heard a chuckle from the couple who were sitting at the café and B said “Howdy” when they told us that this is the third time that they’ve seen us on our scooter! They invited us to join them and we learned that they were from the UK and also touring the Pyrenees through the mountains. The mountain passes that we’re taking are very popular among motorcyclists and bicyclists (since many of the roads are on the Tour de France), however, we seem to be the token scooter. As a result, we’ve had several people approach us to marvel at the Vespa and our travel route. Some looked envious!
B took this photo of a paper placemat that we’ve seen used at a couple of restaurants. The Pyrenees have a disappearing bear population and the placemat includes instructions on what to do if and when you encounter a bear! (It is a rare occurrence, however, early on the trip B tried to put me at ease by saying that he knows how to build a shelter against bears!) So few wild bears remain that they all have names, printed on the placemat.]
B and Deb
Tuesday, July 11, Laruns.
Today the big deal was to take the cable car up to the top of Pic du Midi, just short of two miles high and a world-renowned weather and astronomy station (e.g., the best views of the moon, apparently largely because the land does not tremble).
We packed up early at our awful hotel [Deb here: I liked the fact that the bed was the most comfortable of the trip so far.], went down the road for breakfast, and showed up at the La Mongie base station at 9:30a. Pretty early action for us! There was no crowd and the ride up (in two stages) was breathtaking (you knew that word was coming!), especially because you could see so clearly that the clouds were waaaay down below (actually more obvious in the third photo below).
At the top, we heard from a terrific English-speaking guide the wonderful tales of the site over the years beginning in 1883. The best story was of the transmission tower (the most important in France after the Eiffel Tower) which sits on a very large building erected in the 1960s.
Its large size was to accommodate the massive computer installation which processed all the data being collected. Today, the entire staff consists of one and the computer is his laptop! (“Lots of empty space” said our guide!)
Here’s a view on our way down; note that the white stuff you might mistake for snow are actually the clouds:
We left La Mongie around noon after determining that the next gas station was within reach and soon came to the spa town of Bareges where we stopped for coffee but than decided to have lunch. We continue to be impressed that almost any bar/cafe offers a terrific plat du jour for very little. In our case, it was faux filet with frites and salade for 9 euros.
[Deb here: After lunch the views from the road were some of the most spectacular of the trip; B made a comment that he didn’t know that such views even existed! Most of the people on the steep and winding roads were on bicycles; one rider tried to pass us on the left and we narrowly avoided a collision.]
After another hour of spectacular mountain roads we reached a pass and stopped for beer (we’d just bought some peanuts). By the time we were finished, a cloud had moved in and visibility was 30 feet. So we were stuck for 40 minutes while the cloud passed by.
We were pleased to pull into Laruns, a sizable town, by 5:30p, find our gite, do some shopping for a picnic dinner, and relax until bedtime.
B and Deb
Wednesday, July 12, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
There are two things which make or break an overnight stay: the bed and the shower. In spite of a high score on Booking.com, our gite of last night failed in both respects. Ugh!
We had a slow, pleasant day (passed up a cliff-side train trip which would have taken 3 hours) passing through mountain passes and valleys one after another. The itinerary we’re following (from a book called “Backroads of France”) told us to take a road which was barely a lane wide up into a forest. We followed the instructions for turns but couldn’t find our place on the large-scale Michelin map. Finally, we came to an intersection puzzled about which way to go and out of the bushes came two English birders with enormous lenses on their SLR digital cameras. They were able to set us straight (we were several inches away on the map from where we imagined we were!) and we continued on.
We faced once again the dearth of gas stations: had to go 20km out of our way to fill up before the final leg of the day.
About mid-afternoon, it occurred to me that I had never suspected that scenery of this beauty existed. It’s a shame these landscapes don’t photograph well but coming through a pass and seeing the mountainsides dotted with farmhouses and grazing cattle and sheep is just magnificent! Here’s a photo which suggests the extent to which we’re exploring the “backroads” of France:
About 4pm we were descending from a pass into the first town for a long while and stopped to rest. I craved hot chocolate and indeed that’s what we had!
We finally pulled into St-Jean about 6pm, booked our B&B and discovered that there was a one-Michelin-star restaurant in the local hotel. We were undecided (we were tired) until the restaurant website touted the chef’s “lasagne de foie gras”. That tipped the scales. I wish I could report a wonderful meal but our chief take-away was “no more haute cuisine.” The lasagne was NOT lasagne; it did have a sheet of fresh pasta in it but buried under a pile of foam which made it impossible to see what one was eating.
B and Deb
Thursday, July 13, Vieux-Boucau-les-Bains.
Wow, what a difference! We were looking forward to not having to worry about keeping the gas tank full but the trade-off for hitting civilization is all the traffic lights! We literally had not seen a traffic light for a week; the French (like the Italians) are enormous fans of rotaries (roundabouts, in English) whenever two roads intersect. Much of it has to do with slowing the traffic down since even those who would have had a green light must slow down and circle around. Which brings me to the hot button of every recent tour: speed bumps. Clearly, you are a nothing town if you’re on a main road and don’t have speed bumps. Not just enough to punish the irresponsible, but enormous bumps which are shocks at even 5mph. Not much one can do however.
I realize that I should have provided some sense of our route through the Pyrenees, so here’s the map from “Backroads of France”:
We were excited to be so close to St-Jean-de-Luz that we were up and at ‘em this morning. Lovely breakfast from our host in a delightful B&B on a hill overlooking St-Jean. We then forced ourselves to write posts but soon we on the road. Our first stop was Espelette, home of the famous piment d’Espelette, a mildly spicy version of paprika. Indeed they do hang peppers outside to please the tourists.
Right on the square was a high-end bakery specializing in Galettes Basques, something I wasn’t familiar with. So of course we had to have one: cherry rather than creme. Its a sandy dough with good keeping properties surrounding the filling.
When we got to St-Jean-de-Luz it was 2pm and we made a beeline to our favorite quiche place, which in fact calls its specialty “tartes salées et sucrées”. We were the last customers served but had Deb’s favorite: potato, Compte and Camembert. We had to once again remark that they could do a land office business in Harvard Square! We, or rather I, followed the tarte with a fine gelato.
Our visit to St-Jean accomplished, we turned to the business of the afternoon: to get far enough along towards Bordeaux that we would not have an impossible ride tomorrow. (We’d easily decided that we wanted to be in Bordeaux for the 14th of July celebrations.) It was a bit of a grind through Biarritz and Bayonne but we were then into the endless marshlands which fill the coast from Bayonne to just below Bordeaux. (In 2010, when we were in a car, we had a very memorable drive on the autoroute and we well aware of the potential boredom.) Lots of straight-as-an-arrow roads for 10km at a stretch but that meant we made good time compared to the mountains.
By 6:30p we’d stopped in the seaside resort town of Vieux Boucau, rather tired and ready for our peanuts-and-beer routine. Much later than usual, we started searching for someplace to stay and discovered a horrid void for 50km around save a single overpriced (100 euros) room in town. We bit that bullet and when we checked in 15 minutes later, the owner was turning away inquiries. The first time we know of when we got the last available room for miles. Better than the alternative!
We satisfied ourselves with gateau Basque and frites for dinner at a hamburger shack just across the road from the hotel which was one large sand dune from the ocean.
You’d think we’d be smart enough to turn in early (normal is 10pm) but no, we were up recovering from our ride until 11:45p!
B and Deb
Friday, July 14 (Bastille Day), Bordeaux.
[Deb here: We set the alarm and were out of our room this morning in the Cape Cod-like Vieux-Boucau-les-Bains by 8:30am. With the long drive ahead to Bordeaux, we knew that we’d need to spend most of the day on the road. We finished yesterday’s gateau Basque for breakfast
at the café in the center and then we were off. The roads to Bordeaux from the south run through an expanse of natural park and marshes. We remembered that our drive on the Autoroute in a car from Bordeaux south to St. Jean-de-Luz took forever and was almost boring, so I was prepared for a long and tedious trip. Surprisingly, since B had chosen the coastal rural route, we passed through small villages all day long, and were able to find places to stop for coffee and also for a terrific lunch of the local, naturally farmed mussels and a duck magret, with a half-bottle of chilled Bordeaux rose.
A wonderful lunch on the covered terrace allowed us to keep an eye on the Vespa and our bags without lugging everything into the restaurant. The setting was just perfect with only a few other diners.
We checked into our hotel in the center of Bordeaux and immediately made our way to the café around the corner for coffee. Here is a panorama:
] [B here: About 6pm we took a spin about town on the Vespa winding up at a square near the cathedral where the city was sponsoring rock bands and dancing for the holiday:
We returned to the hotel and were on the street at 10:15pm when the fireworks were scheduled to start. It was a reasonable display for a city the size of Bordeaux but not on the level customary in Boston on the 4th. Nonetheless, it was fun to see them (we never get to see 4th of July fireworks anymore because we’re away) and it made for a festive time.]
B and Deb
Saturday and Sunday, July 15 & 16, Bordeaux.
When it gets this lazy, there’s not much beyond meals to report: two days in Bordeaux with the sun shining!
On Saturday, we woke knowing we’d have to move to a different hotel; we’d booked a relatively expensive three-star to be in the center for the 14th but could not stay. After a long, leisurely breakfast at the corner café (and a final coffee at the super-artisanal coffee shop next door to the hotel — the first real capuccino since Genoa), we headed across the river to the little two-star which has turned out to be one of the very best of the trip.
Just outside the door is a tram stop on the three-line tram system which serves the city: comparing it to the Green Line is unfair. So we hopped on and went to the main train station on the theory that it would be surrounded by plausible places to have lunch. We picked a large and popular place across the street and indulged. I had the burger made famous by Daniel Boulud, the one with added foie gras (and mushrooms). Deb had her usual chèvre chaud composed salad in the usual enormous portion.
We returned to the tram and took a ride around town; so many beautiful stone buildings making it clear what a prosperous place this was in the 19th century. Deb had searched for and discovered the premiere cheesemonger of Bordeaux whom we’d visited with Oldways 15 years ago: Jean d’Alos. So we hastened to the shop in the hope that they also had the fabulous jam we can find only at E.A.T. in NYC. No jam, but terrific cheeses and the chance to stock up on house presents for our coming visit to a law school classmate.
Back home Deb had found a Laundromat a block away, so I settled myself at the bar a vin next door
with a gin and tonic made with a fancy German gin. By the time the clothes were dry, we’d consumed many more and run up a bill justified only by the prospect of clean clothes.
That accomplished, we repaired to the room for our cheese feast, a Brie de Meaux, a fine Roquefort, and a perfectly ripe Epoisse. And a remarkably decent baguette given the neighborhood.
Sunday: A full 10 hours of sleep makes a big difference. At breakfast at the hotel we had an amusing incident. Deb had yesterday asked the husband/owner to put our juices and milk in their refrigerator; this morning the wife was very embarrassed to admit that she had not understood the milk was ours and had opened it for the café au lait!
Slow morning at a café across the street researching places to eat and reading the Sunday Times online. I found an appealing wine bar with local cheese and sausage boards and off we went.
Following a coupe of cremant with peach, we had the Basque and Savoyarde (and glasses of Chenin and St Emilion):
Followed that with coffee at a café and ice cream from an artisanal maker. More laziness! Except that Deb was proactive about our dinner reservation: we’d called repeatedly without success but it was only two blocks from our lunch spot so off she went and came back smiling with a 7pm reservation!
We lazed around until it was time for our next meal. The restaurant (La Mélodie) in the heart of the city had a very high rating for its 20 euro menu. We had a wonderful meal: Saint Nectaire cheese and bacon from the oven, foie gras with fig jam (far right), magret with five pepper sauce.
As we were in the middle of our plats, the lights suddenly went out; a lot of scrambling to try to get them on again. Each time the circuit breaker went off almost immediately. It was amusing for a while although many diners who hadn’t yet ordered abandoned ship. Here’s a picture of Deb in the dark; the fact that you can see her at all is due to the stunning low-light capabilities of my Canon S120 point-and-shoot (she’s lit by light from the door).
By the time we finished dessert, a fine creme caramel and tarte Tatin, the lights were still not on! A fine and memorable meal (and value), especially the glasses of wine, a Médoc and Saint Emilion.
Early to bed so we can get to Saint Emilion early tomorrow to see the sights before heading on to visit Ned Martin and his wife Nan about 85km east of Bordeaux.
B and Deb
Monday & Tuesday, July 17 & 18, Saussignac.
On Monday, our objective was to reach the French home of my law school classmate Ned Martin and his wife Nancy for a two-night visit. Ned had suggested that we spend some time in Saint-Emilion, a place we’d never been. Its most significant sight (beyond the wine shops which constitute at least 70% of local commerce) is one of only three monolithic churches in the world, that is, a church hewn from a single rock. It was an impressive space, particularly because it was built in the 11th century. The weight of a very large bell tower built much later has caused some serious cracks so the interior pillars have been reinforced for a century and a half.
After a truly miserable lunch which persuaded us never again to eat in a tourist center, we left for Saussignac with plenty of time to spare, arrived at Ned’s at the appointed 6pm and had the expected hours of lively conversation catching up on the past few decades. Ned and Nancy prepared a terrific dinner of grilled magret and potatoes cooked in the rendered duck fat.
Their house sits on a ridge overlooking the town of Saussignac with the neighbor’s vines as a frame.
On Tuesday, after a leisurely breakfast (including two eggs I could fry myself!), we set out to visit a local chateau (Monbazillac) which had been taken over by the local winery cooperative and turned into a really fine museum where we could see a great deal of seventeenth century country furniture in context. The wine tasting which followed was very useful as very little Bergerac wine gets imported to the US.
Our lunch at a small local restaurant (attached to one with a Michelin star) included this memorable steak tartare with caperberries, shaved parmesan, and hazelnuts:
Our dinner tonight was a finely grilled 3.5 pound cote de boeuf (rib steak) preceded by the canned foie gras we’d been carrying around for many days unopened because we don’t carry a can opener. (Of course, we now do!)
It was a great visit and we were pleased to have the chance to really catch up after only having had a chance to say hello at our actual 50th reunion last fall.
B and Deb