From the Basque country, I drove westwards along the Pyrenees, staying on the French side of this magnificent mountain range. Straight as an arrow between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, a natural border between France and Spain, between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.
If you want to go anywhere fast, stay in the plains, but it will be a boring drive. Just west of the Basque country, the Béarn (that of the sauce béarnaise) is positively depressing. Rickety houses, ugly towns, fields of maize – I find maize a particularly depressing crop.
Villages like Sauveterre-en-Béarn were built as refuges from invaders, coming from all directions. High above the gave (that’s the name of rivers around here), its walls and fortress were key to a whole community’s survival. Now they have sleepy places where people get married in a picturesque church and travellers stop for a meal, before leaving again.
This is the southern end of “la diagonale du vide”, “the empty diagonal”, going from the Pyrenees in the South, through the Massif Central, and up into the Northeast of France. Away from coasts, river valleys, international borders or mineral resources, this band of land has stayed rural, relatively poor, and empty.
The mountains are what makes this region. In the Vallée d’Ossau, literally Vale of the Bear, nature deploys at its fullest. Dominated by the 2884 metres high Pic du Midi d’Ossau, the valley extends 50 km north to South from Bastide de Rébénacq (another strong place) to the Col du Pourtalet, on the Spanish border.
In the vallée d’Ossau, like the other valleys that lead onto Spain, the tradition of hospitality runs deeps. The hostile climate and terrain of mountains seem to foster gentle, humble people, aware of the value of mutual efforts and help. But these valleys have drawn their prosperity from travellers since times immemorial, too: pilgrims of old on their way to Compostela, now tourists. They are met with welcoming smiles, backed up by true generosity and kindness.
It was a bright morning as I walked up the steep slopes. The high mountains’ shadows create stark contrasts. Vultures take off from their night’s rest on the cliff of La Pène. They cross the valley to seek the sun’s warmth on the East-facing slope. The hum of traffic of the valley bottom is soon replaced by the cows’ bells. Each village in the valley has a “port” or a “courtal”, a summer high base for the shepherds, with a few refuges and holding pens.
During the summer, the blond Béarnaises cows share the high pastures with heavy horses, and a few sheep. They drink the spring waters at long stone drinking throughs, dotted on the mountains. I have never seen such big tadpoles than in there. Heather, delicate orchids and the luminous blue Mediterranean sea holly to be found in between the bracken. On other slopes, woods of beech, pine, hazel. Somewhere in this vast landscape, there are bears still, which adds a thrill to the hike.
A vulture feeding station allows for close view of the birds; they are huge. But when they take off, they are simply in proportion to the mountains. Later, as day builds, birds of prey – vultures, eagles, kites, buzzards – assemble and circle upwards, then disappear off into the next valley. In their serene silence, they have such presence.