The part of the Pays Basque we come to work in is the gateway for the final push on to Santiago de Compostella and, as I’ve mentioned before, Ostabat – a hop over the col from us – is at the confluence of 3 major Pilgrim routes that wend their way to this spot from all over Europe. Countless people have for a thousand years made their way along these routes mostly I imagine for reasons connected to their religious beliefs. More recently – again I’m guessing – some event in the life of the secular pilgrim (if there is such a thing) has demanded some time out, a period of reflection that might provoke some catharsis or put some demon to bed. A number might do it just because it’s there.
It’s easy to see why at least this stage of the Pilgrim’s journey would promote finer feelings, clear the hay loft of baser thoughts and, if they were so inclined, to marvel at the work of their particular god.
For Cook and me, we just needed to get out of the kitchen and get some fresh air and a local chum recommended a circular route that took us to Spain via the Col de la Pierre-St-Martin (2348m), down into the valley to Isaba, back up to Port de Larrau (1573m) and into Larrau for an excellent lunch. From there, a quite narrow and sometimes precarious minor road took us back to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port where, coming down to earth, so to speak, we shopped for the next day’s lunch and dinner for the walkers.
The first part of our trip was our much trodden route to Mauleon. Following the road to Tardets, Montory and Lanne, a right turn to Arette is where things started to get interesting. As we climbed, the temperature dropped and as we got further into the mountains it looked as though we’d be crossing the Col in IMC until we got above Pierre-St-Martin when the clouds disappeared.
And continuing the aviation theme, some of the hairpin bends we next encountered were the nearest thing to entering a spin in an aircraft; throttle back, next to nothing on the clock, full rudder and the rotation starts!
Dropping down the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, the views towards Isaba and on into Spain were spectacular. We hugged the Southern slopes and turned right towards Port de Larrau. Larrau village is a few clicks further on and this is where I recommend a stop for lunch. The restaurant in the middle of the village has panoramic views of the Pyrenees and the food is excellent. The fact that you’re miles from anywhere and the restaurant is full says it all.
From Larrau, a stop at Chapelle St-Sauveur, where there’s a memorial to the work of those involved in helping the Allied soldiers over the Pyrenees and into neutral Spain, affords more stunning views of the singular Basque countryside.
The mountains soften as you descend towards St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the extraordinary, almost model railway-like landscape returns. The reason I think, for this comparison is because the air here is so clear that every little detail is discernible from a great distance. It’s a new perspective, almost like being given a new pair of eyes.