Saint Lary Soulan
Peddling, Picnics and Perhaps a Pyrenean Bear Hunt.
When you live in this region of France it’s easy to think you don’t need a holiday. We are, after all, already there! However, everyone needs a break – even from somewhere as lovely as the Quercy.
Periodically, we try to sneak-a-peek at places that are easy to visit from here. No queuing at airports, no travel insurance, no luggage limits, simply pick your moment and go. Importantly, for us, if we’re going to visit, we need places that welcome Mimi, the smallest, hairiest and four-legged member of the family.
With all this in mind we headed, at the end of September, to the Pyrenees (determined to find a bear) we put all we’d need in the back of the car and set off south. On a clear-day the Pyrenees can be admired from many a Quercy garden, they can look very close.
No motorways, just a straight run down through the rolling Gascony countryside, through Auch and on to our destination, Saint Lary Soulan 65170. Three hours door-to-door and with plenty of places for lunch along the way.
Saint Lary’s surrounded by stunning scenery, it’s easy to access and just large enough to offer a few places to eat and drink and with plenty of accommodation (without any notions of grandeur) for the outdoor-loving visitors it attracts. We discovered people from all-over-the-world, crossing in both place and time, in this pretty village.
We stayed centrally, at a hotel called Les Arches (www.hotel-les-arches.com) which was a great base, friendly, clean, comfortable and with easy parking. The lovely breakfasts were greatly appreciated (especially by Mimi who is partial to a little ham and cheese to start her day).
The attraction for Robert was the cycling – he loves to pit himself against mountain passes and on this trip he enjoyed three, the Cols de Louron-Azet and d’Aspin and the Hourquette de Amcizan. Staying in the heart of the village and cycling from the hotel each morning worked well. An early attack on the mountains meant he could be back before lunch and then we’d time to explore on four-wheels rather than two, a lot safer for bear hunting!
The small (but quite impressive) supermarket was clearly designed for people looking for ‘food on the go’ and we found great picnic provisions there.
Three ‘exploring routes’ we’d recommend are. Firstly, the route up to the pretty little village of Aulon high in the Vallée du Lavedan. It was lambing time and so the hillside meadows were full of lambs enjoying the sun on their backs. The architecture in these valleys is defensive and prepared for heavy winter snow. The roads are narrow and the hairpin-bends sharp. Once in Aulon there’s a wonderful small restaurant called Auberge les Arylelets (www.auberge-les-aryelets.pas.nu). We ate on the small hillside terrace and the great food was presented with real style. It would be hard to imagine a more peaceful and idyllic location. Word of advice – do book – it is a long way to go to be disappointed and there are no places available for a plan B!
Secondly, we’d recommend travelling through the Vallée d’Aure to the Réserve Naturelle du Néouvelle. A long, winding road with huge mountains looming in all directions. You do wonder how a road is going to continue through all these steep slopes and lofty summits. The Réserve houses lakes; crystal clear, cold and absolutely stunning. These lakes form part of an impressive hydro-electric system run by EDF; which leave the landscape unharmed and the region beautifully managed. Huge dams stand silently and all life above and below thrives from this thoughtful meeting of man and nature.
Along the road up to the Réserve, settled in grassy paddocks stand old shepherds’ huts. These are often converted for modern-day visitors but appeared empty, shuttered and incredibly idyllic. We picnicked by a stream, reminding me of the Yorkshire Dales as a child. Peace, perfect peace, no obvious sign of human-life, wild flowers enjoying a late flurry fed by the season’s kindness and running-water the clearest you can imagine. However, no-matter-what any Yorkshireman tells you, the Dales don’t offer the sort of upward view of mountain peaks and that sense of scale that makes you feel really very insignificant. I tried and watched along the forest edges but I never saw a bear. Word of advice - take some camping chairs the landscape is stunning but hard!
Then thirdly, there’s The Rioumajou Valley, accessed from a narrow road very close to the village. This is a real must for walkers and nature lovers. Again there’s discreet and interesting work to harness the power of the often abundant (and I guess occasionally dramatic) water flow. This trail has long since been a route for shepherds and their flocks, a pilgrim route to Spain and a home for chamois goats, golden eagles and bearded vultures. It’s possible to get quite a long way up the route by car and then park easily to enjoy the wonderful surroundings, flowing stream, picnic tables and then pick from of a selection of different hiking routes to allow you to continue into the wild and enjoy all it has to offer. Maybe even the odd bear! Word of advice – take your camera – you will not want to forget.
Each afternoon we skilfully avoided cows, with large horns and eerie sounding bells, wandering on mountain roads. We’d return to the village for a ‘glass of wine’ and a fondue supper. We never worked out why the evening recital, broadcast to the village, of ‘tunes played on cow bells’ included in its repertoire Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini, I’ve tried to find its link to the Pyrenees but failed. We must go back and maybe find out more and maybe this time we will find a bear.