Tucked away in the south west corner of France, just a hop from the Spanish border, the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region is the perfect spot for a peaceful break in autumn
A whirling parade of fruity flavours filled my senses, delivered by the chilled vintage Jurançon wine, as I sat on the terrace of Café La Munia, while I looked out on to the snow-capped Pyrenees blazing with the colours of Fall. It was that blissful moment of realization that all the shenanigans for a Schengen visa are worth experiences like these.
A few days earlier, I had touched down at the Pau-Pyrénées airport, which services the region that lies between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic Ocean in southwestern France, called the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. At the Pau train station, I had hopped onto the Intercity 14140 train, a 25-minute non-stop service to Lourdes.
After spending a day in Lourdes, I headed further south on a series of local buses, many of which had passengers as fragrant as if they had been marinated in Ricard. A much-loved French aperitif, Ricard’s flavour is derived from star anise, fennel seeds, liquorice, and aromatic plants from Provence, it is a favourite in rural France and is quaffed over a long and lazy Sunday.
My destination was the one-street village of Gèdre, about 40km from Lourdes but Henri, who served me an espresso at the local café, suggested that I stay the night not in Gèdre but in Héas, 8km south, towards Cirque de Tromouse. He was also kind enough to drive me there in his truck that seemed old enough to have been the official carrier for the French Resistance during World War II.
Héas was miniscule. It was as if the Pyrenees had grudgingly relinquished a little ledge on which were perched a few houses, the church and the La Munia café and hotel. We arrived around noon and I asked the landlady if I could have a quick lunch before I set out to explore the Cirque de Tromouse. She looked at me with pity because I was asking to rush through what is a celebration of the finest produce of the region. Lunch here, especially in glorious weather like this, is an event during which everything else is put on hold and you honour what is in your glass and on your plate with your time and attention.
“Non,” she said, shaking her head at my ignorance, “It will not be quick.”
Henri, who evidently favoured country cooking over commerce, seemed in no great hurry to get back so we settled down for a satisfying meal. The salad with ham, grapes, tomatoes and walnuts was drizzled with regional olive oil. The slow cooked lamb, marinated overnight was served over a risotto with truffle shavings and hot buttered corn on the cob. The dessert was a hot pancake with bilberry accompanied by a scoop of ice cream and a blackcurrant and apple tart. The ingredients were all fresh, seasonal and local, and the truffles had been dug up that morning. I lost count of the glasses of Jurançon wine I had. Lunch was definitely slow—it lasted three hours.
I bid adieu to Henri and went to Cirque de Troumouse, an amphitheatre-like formation of mountains. Troumouse is a wild and compact place with a statue of the Virgin that stands on a small hillock in its centre. On that autumn day, it was achingly beautiful under a deep blue sky and snow drifts in the distance.
The next morning, after a breakfast of fresh baked bread, local cheese and cold cuts on the patio, where I had to earnestly discourage the landlady from uncorking a bottle of wine at 8.30am, I headed to Cirque de Gavarnie, 17km to the west.
Gavernie is lower and more spread out than the compact Troumouse. The forest seemed to be ablaze with the orange and yellow colours of Fall. On the trails, where trees formed a canopy, the valley floor was covered with red fallen leaves and sunlight filtered through orange leaves above. A stream ran down the valley floor, and I sat on the rocks listening to the laughing brook and munching on wild red berries.
The next day, I set off for Salies-de-Béarn, 66km to the west of Pau, a city that gets its name from the natural saltwater of its springs. A soak in the spa leaves you feeling both relaxed and rejuvenated.
An hour’s bus ride further west got me to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Sitting pretty by the Atlantic, it is the quintessential Basque seaside town, with the Spanish border just 10km away. Charming art shops and cozy cafes sit beside a sheltered bay with beautiful views, and the catch of the day is cooked up every evening and served with local wine. I had made grand plans to explore the region further, but I was rather taken in by this charming town and spent the remainder of my vacation days there.
Pau is a 90-minute flight from Paris.
There are busses between Pau and the Pyrenees and trains in some sections too.
Pau airport has hire car counters representing Hertz, Avis, Sixt and National. For good deals book online. The traffic is sparse; the people are courteous, so driving is relaxing and easy.