All things French

Rural landscapes
Last Updated 23 January 2016, 18:35 IST

When I was working in the Loire Valley in central France, I planned to spend my Christmas holidays in the Pyrénées in the south-west of the country. Getting there was going to be a challenge since all the trains were fully booked. Fortunately, however, a friend’s friend was driving to Toulouse and since he was going alone, he gladly took me along.

Staying in the countryside around here, I managed to visit Toulouse, the pink city of France with its pastel façades, the small town of Albi and its imposing red brick cathedral overlooking the Tarn river and Carcassonne, an impressive medieval walled town straight out of a fairy tale. From here I took a train to the holy city of Lourdes and then a bus to Luz Saint-Sauveur where my friend picked me up and drove me to a tiny mountain village called Betpouey in the Pyrénées National Park. I was going to spend the next few days in his uncle’s house in this tiny hamlet. His uncle was a shepherd and kept his sheep next door so I got a chance to feed the lambs milk from a feeding bottle. Despite the cold weather, the barn felt warm and was filled with the sound of bleating.

Quaint nature

I walked around Luz Saint-Sauveur on the first day. Nestled in a valley, this little town of grey slate roofs is surrounded by the lofty Luz Ardiden mountain chain. The main sites of interest are its church and its castle. The constant sound of gurgling reminds you of the presence of a river. There were several visitors from other parts of France preparing for the impending ski season. That night, we had a wholesome meal of soup and meat with baguettes, without which no meal in France is conceivable. It had been a rather cloudy day and as we prepared to go to bed, the season’s first snow began to fall outside. It was magical!

The next morning was a cloudy one. After breakfast, I stepped out to explore the village of Betpouey. Walking past several houses and barns, the path led up the mountain along a cold stream. Everything was covered in snow and the place was unrecognisable in its newly acquired white garb. Soon, I was high enough to see the whole village, but ominous clouds had begun to descend menacingly from the hidden peaks and then it started snowing again. I reached the road where a jeep drove up to me and an English woman emerged from the window asking if I had seen her lost dog. Since there was no clear view and the path was quite slippery, I asked if I could go down the road towards Betpouey with her while she looked for her pet. She agreed and a few moments later, a huge white dog with a fluffy coat appeared near the road. I was surprised that such a huge animal could go missing! At this point, I was quite close to my destination, so I thanked the woman and walked back. In the evening, my friend’s cousin arrived from Toulouse, to ski down the freshly covered powdery slopes, and was going to stay back for Christmas.

In the morning, the sky was a clear blue; a perfect day for outdoor activities. We drove up to a ski station called Barèges where we parted ways — him to ski and me to trek. A hiking path lined with snow-covered trees led to a place called Plateau de Lumière, a vast expanse of shimmering snow from where the entire Luz Ardiden chain revealed itself. This truly was a sight to behold! There wasn’t a soul around so the snow was still soft and pillowy, sparkling like crystals in the late morning sun. I trekked downwards for a couple of hours past typical Pyrénées-style stone buildings. Back in Betpouey, we spent the evening feeding the lambs, and after a dinner of delicious sausages and local goat cheese, we called it a night.

Christmas in the country

On Christmas day, my friend’s mother arrived from a neighbouring town and we all had a Christmas feast together. I was keen on visiting a nearby cirque called Cirque de Gavarnie, separating France and Spain, but since everyone was busy, I had to find my way there on my own. Apparently it was common to hitchhike here, so I walked to the main road and stuck my thumb out. Within no time, an elderly skier driving back home picked me up but dropped me to a fork in the road leading to my destination. I almost immediately found another car driven by an extremely interesting person who lived in the village of Gavarnie, worked in the national park as a guard, and loved trekking.

He shared several interesting facts about the region with me and mentioned that his dream was to hike in the Himalayas. It was my turn to share stories from my visits to the Himalayas. He went out of his way and took me as close to the cirque as he could by car, and bade me goodbye. I walked along a stream and arrived at a massive wall of stone. The impressive structure is 3,000 metres wide and has a waterfall streaming down its face in warmer months. Now it was frozen and my friend in Betpouey, an avid high altitude trekker, had told me how he had climbed the frozen falls in winter and camped up on the cirque in summer. By now, the sun had dipped behind it and I started making my way back to the parking lot to find a ride back before it got dark. I was in luck since two people agreed to drive me to Luz Saint-Sauveur. I enjoyed hitchhiking in France because many people were willing to help an immobile traveller!

My last evening in Betpouey was spent with my hosts. My friend’s uncle who didn’t know how to drive and had never left the region asked me how I had traversed thousands of kilometres that separated France from India. His French was hesitant and heavily influenced by Occitan, the local tongue. When I told him that I had flown, he was flabbergasted and asked how the plane travelled that far without stopping many times to refuel! Now, I was astonished. Visiting this remote part of France was an eye-opener, making me realise that even in the most developed countries in the world there are quiet corners where there still are people who remain blissfully ignorant of modern conveniences that we cannot think of living without.

Other must-visits

  Grotte du Mas d'Azil: A prehistoric cave and prehistory museum   The Mas d'Azil Cave is an exceptional site found in the limestone mountains at an altitude of 310 m. This fascinating place offers a peek into the prehistoric world.

During the last Ice Age, the cave provided shelter for animals and it was inhabited by prehistoric man during the Aurignacian, Magdalenian and Azilian periods, as evidenced by the weapons, tools and artwork found in the cave.

Saint Savin is a sleepy village nestled in the Pyrénées foothills, surrounded by hillside pastures where sheep graze. About 15 km from Lourdes, this tiny town consists of a main square with a fountain; a 12th-century abbey church; a few streets of old houses; and a post office, which is usually closed.

 Bagnères-de-Luchon is a spa town with springs that were frequented in Roman times, and three ancient Roman baths have been excavated in the region.

(Published 23 January 2016, 16:13 IST)

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