Monday, 20 June 2016

Amidst Villages Peppering the Pyrenees

November 2015
After groggily showering and eating breakfast at the AirBNB in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we struck up a conversation with the owner and he drew possible paths to our end destination of Bayonne all over a map. He indicated which areas and villages he thought were the nicest, and with annotated map in hand we set off into the Pyrenees.
Autumn turned tall wild grasses the colour of rust and forced trees to surrender their leaves. With dramatic fiddle music on the Basque radio, it felt as though we had entered Rohan on our trusty steed Denis. The road wound through some beautiful scenery and quaint little villages. At one point we saw a herd of cattle with great big pointy horns like aurochs. One cow had a set of lopsided horns, one pointing towards the sky and one pointing down, leading us to believe that she wore a beret at a rakish angle in her developmental heifer years which caused the asymmetry.
At the apex of the mountain pass we crossed the border and suddenly, Spain! Hola.

Having descended the windy mountainous road, we happened upon an abandoned village that had long overgrown with competing clans of foliage. Oddly, we noticed there was a shiny new rubbish bin by one of the house husks, as well as a pile of freshly chopped firewood. We surmised there were squatters who had managed to apply for council waste collection. We left. They presumably stayed.
As we drove onwards we were reminded of Spain's bizarre roundabouts, which instead of driving around you may drive straight through. To alleviate our confusion we rubbernecked at several different herds of tiny ponies as we drove past. PONIES! Kawaii!

Upon recrossing into France we sneered at the relatively high diesel prices and pulled over in the unexpectedly pretty town of Ainhoa. I pretended to be all four of the Beatles for an Abbey Road lookalike photo, and we walked the length of the town admiring whitewashed houses with their painted red shutters.

You absolutely couldn't miss the large church in the centre of town. It was one of the only buildings left standing after the Spanish desolated the entire town during the Thirty Years War. The town was reconstructed from scratch after the war ended in 1648 and the circular sand-coloured part of the church is the heavily rebuilt original. The mismatched belltower is a later addition, though I prefer the style.

Inside the belltower was a grand staircase that led into darkness. No dreams of bellringing for me, then, unless I develop my low light vision.
Again we drove onwards, this time seeing no wee ponies. Instead we saw wee chillies in the world famous town of Espelette.

The Espelette pepper originated in Central and South America and was transported to France in the 1500's, where in the region of Espelette it was used to cure meats and gradually replaced black pepper as a seasoning. In autumn they are strung up to dry all over the town. Unfortunately we had narrowly missed the yearly chilli festival, which occurs in late October and attracts over 20,000 tourists.

We enjoyed playing 'Spot the Pepper' and agreed that this house had far outdone all the others. Tryhards. (This made a magnificent Instagram photo by the way. Now I'm the tryhard.)

Figuring we must sample this pepper of peppers, this seasoning of seasonings, we selected a local restaurant by seeing how many people had favoured each establishment and choosing the one with the fewest available seats. Sangria was had (why not?) and Espelette pepper was liberally applied to my roasted potatoes. The meal was decent, but honestly I didn't understand the hype around the pepper. It was incredibly mild and not particularly flavourful. I'll not be swapping out my run-of-the-mill black pepper anytime soon. (See what I did there? Pepper mill!)

Careening through Itxassou (no idea how to pronounce these Basque names), we parked at yet another pretty little village called La Bastide-Clairence and again walked along the main street. The houses here were potentially even cooler than in Ainhoa - this one looked practically medieval! (Fun fact: residents of La Bastide-Clairence are referred to as Bastidots.)

Clearly the village survived the Spanish invasion as this house boasted a construction date of 1560. 1560! Practically medieval! While many places in the area were destroyed during the Thirty Years War, La Bastide-Clairence grew as refugees from devastated neighbouring villages fled there and took up residence. 

On this rather attractive stained glass window can be seen both the scallop shell of the Camino de Santiago and the swirly four leaf clover that is the symbol of the Basque Country (it is called a lauburu - the Basque swastika that symbolises union of the region).
Our sightseeing quota filled for the day, we drove some more, this time to Bayonne. We checked in to our hotel, drove to the largest hypermarket in town and bought a banana. Alright...speculoos tiramisu too.

Today's post was almost called: The Spicy Guru of Lauburu