The majestic Pyrenees create a natural border between Spain and France. The range stretches across the Iberian Peninsula from the Bay of Biscay, in the west, to the Mediterranean Sea in the east. From Bilbao in Northern Spain, one can reach the border quite easily and then drive along the French side of the Pyrenees. But, between Bilbao and the border town of St. Jean, there are too many picturesque villages that must be explored.
If you have time to take the side roads closer to the Bay of Biscay, there are quaint fishing villages, like Bermeo and several great surfing spots like the famous beach at Mundaka, where international surfing competitions take place.
Just off the main freeway is the resort town of San Sebastián, which is worth a few days’ visit alone. Besides the attractive downtown, historic old town and scenic promenades, there are wonderful wide beaches for swimming and an ample array of tapas bars (called Pinxtos, in the Basque Region) and gourmet restaurants. If you can visit in the off season, such as early October, the beaches are uncrowded, yet the weather can still be quite mild. In late October, 2013, people were still swimming in the bay.
Another twenty minutes drive up the coast, the smaller town of Hondaribbia is developing its own reputation for creative cuisine and fine dining. Less crowded than its famous neighbor, this lovely town would also make a great base for exploring the beautiful Basque coastline. We spent just one night there and hope to come back some day.
We decided to cross the border and explore the French side of the Pyrenees as we made our way east towards Barcelona and the Costa Brava of Spain. We made the drive easily in two days, but I would recommend spending more time in this area. Besides the quaint villages and historic castles, one can find the French Basque gastronomic delights everywhere. Then there are the mountains, themselves, that offer many outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, cycling and walking.
Driving along the two lane highway one can stop at almost any town and find an excellent meal. We wandered into Orthez, where we found a small café with the chalkboard menu outside—always a good choice in France. We were not disappointed with our excellent lunch special, along with the best pommes frites ever. The salads in this region are always generous, with the best French cheeses and delicate greens.
But, back to the Pyrenees. We did manage to find a day hike near the tiny town of Montségur, about halfway along our route. We found a B&B online and arrived in town with enough time to walk around the picture perfect village and enjoy another splendid Basque meal. We planned our hike for the next morning, before we had to hit the road again.
The French Pyrenees were the last stronghold of a group of people called the Cathars, who practiced a religion that was forbidden by the Catholic Church. Driving along the highway, one can see the many remnants of castles and fortresses built at the very tops of the surrounding hills. One of the last Cathar fortresses to be conquered by the Church (in 1244) was the fortress of Montsègur.
The start of the trail to the fortress is a short walk from the small village of Montsègur. We got an early start on the trail and only saw one other group. The well groomed trail is steep, but the views of the valley make it a pleasant walk.
Once you reach the stone fortress, it’s easy to see why this was one of the last strongholds. The position of this fortress is perfect for viewing the entire valley. There is no way that the Cathars could receive a surprise attack. Getting up these steep hills must have been a challenge for the delivery of goods from the town below. But, by the looks of the stone walls remaining, it must have offered excellent protection for the brave Cathars who dared to defy the King of France.
There was no charge to walk around and explore the ruins of the fortress. There’s not much left of the castle and the interior is quite sparse and open to the elements. It was very peaceful up at the top on a fall weekday. We were by ourselves for most of the time, and we could only hear the birds and the whistling of the winds. But we heard that during the summer, this is a more popular hike, and the trail can get busy.
The people in this region are somewhat isolated, like their ancestors before them. They are known for their individualistic spirit and different attitudes. After all, they do live in a very rugged part of the country.
As a few tourists passing through, we found the French Basque people to be warm and kind—and, they sure know how to cook! Don’t miss out on the Basque bread or those exceptional French Fries.