Thursday, 2 June 2011

A week in the Pyrenees, as experienced in early May.

If your ideal holiday features banned substances, alcoholic excess and ambiguous morality you might want to ask your travel agent about Ibiza. If, however, your feelings are awoken by the prospect of bathing in the same mountain spring as Henry IVth before strolling through a wood straight out of the sagas of Merlin, might I humbly suggest the Haute Pyrénées in France’s deep south ?

For those of you not familiar with this particular corner of Sarkozyland, it’s the French-Spanish border territory between Toulouse and Lourdes. The gîte we booked was a converted, nineteenth-century barn; lovely in principal but even after its costly makeover more suited to housing hay than half-cut holidaymakers. Built into a hill, the ground floor was half underground and no amount of dishwashers, satellite TVs or rustic light fittings could deflect from the fact that it was as damp as hell; three lizards doing the backstroke around the kitchen table were a sufficient giveaway. They could have added a couple more windows ; despite the glorious sunshine we awoke to every day upstairs in our bedrooms, going down to prepare breakfast was akin to a trip to the basement in a Hammer Horror film. Fortunately, there was an east-facing terrace where we could have a sun-soaked start to the day.

A more general point concerning barn conversions is the fact that you can take a crumbling, derelict artefact, give it a lick of paint and shove it into the limelight but it’ll still be as limp and damp as it was when it first saw the light of day. Anyone who has observed Britain’s Liberal Democrat Party will tell you this. A barn will always be a barn, even if its proud owner wants you to think it’s a castle. If you’re in any doubt, make sure one of your party has arthritis ; they’ll tell you soon enough.

All that aside, the barn was a few hundred yards down a dirt track, which made the car ride the kind of thing you’d pay £5 a go for at Alton Towers. The lady who handed us the keys was as talkative as you would imagine someone who lives in the middle of the Pyrenees would be, considering we were probably the first people she’d spoken to since 1985 to whom she was not directly related. When she unlocked the front door to the barn/gîte, she warned us that it was ‘pretty cold’, which did make me wonder why there wasn’t at least enough firewood to tide us over the first night. The option was electric heating which would be tallied up and billed extra at the end of our stay, should we be rash enough to use more than a single lightbulb for half an hour, offpeak. Other extras included bedding and towels…hmmm…You might be thinking I wasn’t overtly enamoured with the first impressions of our trip away from the big city, and you’d be right. Things could only get better, but get better they certainly did…

The location, the vallée de Lesponne, is stunning. This part of the Pyrenees could not be more different from the streetwise, money-grabbing Alps if it tried. At 700 metres altitude we weren’t in skiing territory, but practically every house in the surrounding villages was a fully-functioning farm. There’s a living, working, viable community there which is not reliant on hoards of Hooray Henrys descending every winter and turning the place into Sodom on the Slopes. Many restauranteurs and hoteliers in the villages are younger families without any trade experience who have given up city life in search of something more fulfilling. If you’re in Lesponne or nearby, pop into Chez Gabrielle, a hostel cum restaurant which also houses a delightful curiosity : a grocer’s shop kept as a museum. Said Gabrielle of the title kept the shop until the early 1980’s when she retired. Even then it looked like something out of the 1940’s. The current owners have preserved it exactly as she left it and guests can wander around, admire its retro beauty and overdose on nostalgia. Our lunch, comprised entirely of local produce, was superb : a nutritious garbure, honey-fried lamb and a courgette soufflé preceded by local saucisson and topped off with crème catalane. If you’re passing, give them your support, they deserve it. Follow the road another seven kilometers to the end and you’ll come across another debutant hostel which will serve as your base for your hike to the lac bleu as well as other landmarks. They’ll be happy to serve you a beer or two, aswell.

The simplest pleasure on a gîte holiday is just striding out of your own front door with your lunch in a rucksack. Every time we did this in Quercy a couple of years ago we were adopted by a filthy local dog who looked like a canine Bob Marley. Interestingly, the same thing happened to us this time in the Pyrenees. Are these dogs robots provided by Gites de France for our vacational pleasure ? You might almost think so, particularly as the one we had recently was just as bizarre as our Rastaman from 2009 : to all intents and purposes he was a dalmatian, but had the head of a rottweiler, six nipples and full male reproductive equipment. He looked like the kind of dog a ten-year-old would draw to frighten his little sister. It was as if Tim Burton had decided to work for the Disney Corporation. He was a great companion, though, seemingly enjoying his day out with the new kids on the block before we all headed home. We visited waterfalls, scraped our way through unchartered forests and marvelled, as pathetic city dwellers always do, at the purity of yet another mountain stream.

Our local Sin City was Bagnères-de-Bigorre, a gorgeous little town of around 8,000 inhabitants which is rather like a cross between Bath and Clochemerle. It has all the required faded elegance of a provincial spa town yet supports innumerable hotels, restaurants, town centre businesses and a rather large casino. We fell in love with it and vowed to return at the very least as visitors, but ideally as property buyers. If you find yourselves there, get your bread from Thierry Sauvage, Boulanger Artisanal, just opposite the covered market ; you will not regret it. It was also in Bagnères that we found out about the fontaine de Crastes just outside the village of Asté, a spring discovered around four hundred years ago and a favourite haunt in his time of Henry IVth, who praised the healing qualities of its mineral-rich water. A local health shop owner advised me to go there to bathe my eczema-ridden hands, so off we trotted. I’d had this atopic eczema for two months yet, after two fifteen-minute sessions at the source, it had completely disappeared. My hands felt afterwards as if I’d massaged them with cream moisturiser. Needless to say, as soon as we returned to the stress of the city, it all came back, but we were all left stunned by the ability of this water to boot a skin condition which confounds conventional medicine, effortlessly into touch. Our resolve to move to Bagnères-de-Bigorre became even more determined.

Having cured your body of unsightly skin conditions, you can then turn left out of the fountain and walk further into the forest to the Casque. The path will take you through dried streams, lichen-covered trees, impossibly huge, asteroid-like rocks, planted in your way as if freshly arrived from another planet. The sight of the sun piercing the trees was the stuff of legend, we felt in the presence of magick. The fact that a simple mountain stream had eradicated my eczema on the spot might have had something to do with it, though. It also occurred to me that there might be malevolent springs, too ; maybe our Disney dog had fallen into one and emerged equipped for all manner of things.

On your way back to the Lesponne valley, you might want to visit the Grotte de Médous. It’s on the outskirts of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and is open all year round. Most of the tour is on foot but finishes up with a 200-metre underground boat trip which children of all ages adore. Tradition was observed in the form of the tour guide, a young student whose training course was apparently modelled on Soviet shop assistant motivational techniques. She couldn’t have sounded more bored or resentful of our presence if we’d been actively preventing her from attending her own wedding ; even her reminder to us that she was only renumerated by the grace of our generosity contained no hint of hope or charm, just annoyance that she’d been condemned to work and study – free of charge – in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Poor love. Don’t let her stop you from visiting the grotto, though ; it’s fantastic.

Leaving this corner of paradise was, despite our troglodyte accomodation, the most difficult farewell of recent years. We’ll be going back, but if you all beat us to it and push the prices up, I might have to, in true barn-owner style, send you a bill for the extra.

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