A two hour drive from Toulouse airport along winding roads, past sunflower fields and beautiful farmland is the tiny town of Loudet. So tiny in fact that apart from a church, houses with terracotta roof tiles, chickens and fields there isn’t much else….perfect for escaping everything. This equaled six days in the Midi – Pyrenees of exploring, drinking red wine and munching on bread and cheese, bliss!
Our Gîte ‘Pyrenees View’certainly lived up to its name with views of rolling fields and snow capped mountains. Evenings were spent relaxing on the front terrace barbecuing and quaffing on sparkling wine or a tasty rosé, while watching the sun go down and the clouds change from dusky pinks to vibrant oranges leaving just a faint outline of the mountains in the distance…
A supermarket was the first thing on the agenda to stock up for the week ahead, especially as the nearest shop from Loudet was around 25 minutes drive. This was followed by a stop off at a boulangerie to get the all important bread and croissants! Arriving at our Gîte via a tiny lane we were greeted by owners Jane and David who gave us a quick tour and a welcome bottle of red. Blue skies, sunshine and 38°C heat meant it was time for a quick dip in the pool.
Surrounded by farmland every morning we would stroll along tiny lanes hardly seeing any traffic. Walks took us past barns with donkeys peeping out, fields of wild flowers and crops, vineyards, buildings with wonky shutters, goats living in a house made from an old barrel and lots of chickens. Apart from cockerels there was pretty much glorious silence and limited wi-fi meant that relaxing and reading was the number one option.
A twenty minute drive to Montréjeau had us peering over the bridge into the fast flowing river below and exploring the local boulangerie and charcuterie. (The equivalent of a butchers in England but with dried and cured meats.) Here we found lots of meats hanging and tons of tasty local cheeses. I loved observing the locals greeting each other with double kisses, so very French! Next it was on to San Giron for a spot of lunch, the highlight for me was dessert; a chocolate mousse which was to die for. Made from dark chocolate and oh so light and fluffy in texture, one thing the French are good at is definitely dessert! A lovely river and waterfalls surrounded this gorgeous town, this was a beautiful characteristic of many of the towns we explored. Leaving San Giron, on a lovely drive along winding roads I caught a glimpse of children swimming in a crystal clear stretch of water. Pulling over to explore, a check of the map indicated that this charming little place was Engomer. We strolled along the river’s edge past elders chatting in the shade and buildings on stilts above a weir with pastel coloured shutters. I stopped to take few photos of a small Fromagerie and a man fishing, it was such a picture perfect area and felt somewhat undiscovered.
Day three saw us drive across the border to Spain stopping at Bossòst for a coffee, full of alpine chalets this little town had a very Pyrenean village feel. I was still a little confused as to whether I was in France or Spain it felt like such a novelty to be suddenly in a different country! Continuing through Spain, we drove up further into the mountains along winding roads and down into steep valleys. Passing Vielha a large ski resort and continuing into the Vielha tunnel, a three-mile stretch through the mountains added more excitement to the journey. Coming out the other side, yet more gorgeous views and alpine rivers greeted us. This signalled a quick stop off by the river and a paddle to cool off from the midday sun, the tranquil rush of water looked very inviting but on dipping my toes in I came to realise it was in fact icy cold! Feeling hungry and as we were in Spain, Tapas was on the cards. The tiny village of Aubert had the answer, so small I’ve not really been able to find out anything about it online. A five minute drive from Vielha in the Aran Valley, or Val d’ Aran the restaurant Roc ‘n’ Cris served up cracking Tapas, so be sure to visit if you ever pass through the area. Unsure what to try and speaking minimal Spanish we asked the lovely waitress to choose a selection for us; she was very excited at this prospect and we were looking forward to being surprised! Starting with bread, mussels and a tuna dish, a plate of tasty looking cured meat and anchovies followed. Octopus and a dish of snails were next, the snails were apparently a very local dish to the area, the waitress checked with us first to see if we wanted them. Having never tried snails before I felt I should…I have to say I am up for trying anything new, but I did struggle with the snails, perhaps thinking about it too much in the process! After much deliberation and picking the smallest one I could I shut my eyes and went for it. I was actually pleasantly surprised as it tasted pretty good, but I left it at just the one! Finally a lamb dish appeared and ending our Tapas selection nicely was a chocolate mousse. It was a delicious selection and such a novelty driving over the border for lunch.
Still not tired of exploring we jumped in the car and drove 32 miles to the pretty town of Arreau; one thing I noticed about all the towns in this area of France is that they all seemed quite untouched by the tourist scene. There were often a few tourist type shops to be found but no sign of ice cream vans or stalls. Going in between school half terms meant that we hardly saw another soul around, it was nice to feel like we had these beautiful places all to ourselves.
From Arreau we hit the mountain roads towards Bagnères-de-Louchon; signs here indicated that the Tour de France would be using the route. As we meandered up the mountains more signposts displayed the altitude, climbing higher and higher the views became more and more dramatic. Snow capped mountains and steep valleys appeared all around. Stopping at 1563 metres Matt and I jumped on a landmark indicating the altitude for a photo. Following hairpin bends down into a huge valley was an adventure in itself. Arriving in Louchon the temperature must have been up above the 30 degree mark so we decided to relax in the shade with a beer. Our mission here was to find the gondola up to the ski resort of Superbagnères; in winter Louchon turns into a bustling place for après ski. Feeling refreshed we walked along the high street and came across the base of the gondola. A word of warning, in the height of the summer the gondola cabins become sweltering so take plenty of water! It takes just 8 minutes for the gondola to climb 1800 metres, just over one mile high, the views of Louchon and the surrounding mountains were fantastic. It felt strange to be standing on a ski resort with no snow, and to see chair lifts lying dormant. Looking just like a scene out of ‘The Sound of Music’ cows were busy grazing, the bells around their neck majestically ringing. The air felt fresh and clean and although warm there was still snow on the peeks of the higher mountains. Looking out across the vista I spotted a glider far below us, the Pyrenees Mountains certainly have some epic views summer and winter.
On our last full day it rained heavily, a trip to a market at nearby Lannemezan came in handy as I bought a very smart umbrella! The market was huge and lined up along many different streets in the town, full of local fruit, vegetables and cheese plus some interesting bric a brac stalls and not forgetting heavenly bread and pastries. It was well worth a visit even though it was pouring down with rain.
Day 6 signalled the end of our break, on the drive back to the airport in Toulouse there was an opportunity to stop off by the sunflower fields, I’ve never seen so many sunflowers, endless fields of yellow finished off by terracotta buildings in the distance. France is just picture perfect and this was a lovely end to a lovely break.
Things to know:
A Gîte is the name for holiday accommodation in France, typically the owner will live nearby or often on site and be on hand to welcome you when you arrive and assist when needed.
Lunch in France tends to be served in most restaurants between 12pm – 2pm, this is worth bearing mind as after that time you will be hard pushed to find anywhere serving food until dinner time.
If you plan to cross the border into Spain take your passport as Police sometimes stop cars for random border checks.
The Gondola in Louchon costs €9.50 per adult for a round trip.
Lannemezan market is on Wednesday mornings until midday.