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October 7, 2019 / annakpf11

The Pyrenees

“…I find a rock with sun on it, and a stream where the water runs gentle, and the trees which one by one, give me company. And so I must stay for a long time, until I have grown from the rock, and the stream is running through me, and I cannot tell myself from one tall tree…My help is in the mountain, that I take away with me.”

—Nancy Wood, American poet (1936-2013)

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The untamed beauty of the Pyrenees takes us by surprise. More lush and rugged than the tidy Alps, the green pyrenean valleys and mountainsides are backdropped by fantastical jagged peaks and replete with hiking trails, waterfalls, lakes, thermal springs, and historic pilgrimage sites.

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We pass through Lourdes—a remarkable intersection of religiosity and capitalism—and carry on to the Hautes Pyrénées, where we have rented a cottage for four nights.

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As we near our destination, Dave casts a worried glance upward. “I hope our place isn’t way up there,” he says, pointing to a spot on the mountainside at least a thousand feet above the valley floor. But he suspects that it is.

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We start up the mountain, pausing to get our bearings at a tiny café in the sleepy hamlet of Saint-Savin. (Later we will wonder if the café only opens according to the owner’s whim, for it will be closed every time we drive past.)

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We steady our nerves with juice and Perrier and then continue up a single-lane track with plenty of stomach-clenching features such as gravel-filled potholes, blind corners and steep drop-offs. Eventually we come to an unmarked fork in the road, and with no obvious place to turn around if we choose the wrong way, we phone our host. We are almost there, she assures us, and directs us into a narrow, rutted lane marked with a sign that says “Proprieté Privée“. (Nothing to indicate that it is an Airbnb. Does she expect her guests to be clairvoyant?)

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Never mind. Tucked into the steep hillside, our stone cottage is rustic and remote, but has everything we need, including a pile of regional topographical maps and spectacular views across the valley.

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Before arriving in the Pyrenees, we’d planned to drive some of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France bicycle race (such as Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque), but the drive from the valley floor to our AirBnB has proved hair-raising enough, and besides, we’d rather spend our days hiking.

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Our “warm-up walk” turns out to involve clambering up a stoney path reminiscent of the Inca Trail in Perú.

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Moss and wildflowers border the trail, and the weather feels almost summer-like.

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After two hours of climbing we are tired and thirsty, but luckily (as usually is the case in Europe) a reward is in store.

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Seated on a restaurant terrace perched beside an impossibly turquoise lake, we enjoy a cold drink beer and tarte aux fruits (Dave), and apple juice and Perrier (Anna).

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In the evening, we retreat to our cottage and light a fire in the wood stove. While Anna prepares fresh trout, mushrooms, spinach, shallots and tiny yellow potatoes, Dave plans our route for the following day.

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In the morning, we tackle a longer, but less steep, trek to the Cirque du Gavarnie, a massive wall of rock forming part of the border between France and Spain.

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Our trail leads us through wide grassy meadows past grazing cows and horses, across streams and through groves of evergreens and deciduous trees, leafy and green even at the end of September.

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We stop for lunch (salad for Anna, croque-monsieur for Dave) at a hotel restaurant overlooking the longest waterfall in Europe.

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Water cascades down the rock face all year, fed by the glaciers that cling to the high Cirque.

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We’ve come just in time, for in a matter of days, the hotel restaurant will close for the season.

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Our time in the Pyrenees too, is about to come to an end, but first, a day out in Pau, capital city of the region. We lunch in one of the many bustling cafés offering a view of saw-toothed Pyrenees, stroll the historic center, and visit the historic castle, birthplace of Henry IV, King of France and Navarre.

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Next we will head to Spain, for five days of Spanish classes (Anna) and five days of tapas and Rioja (Dave).

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