Call of the Pyrénées: unveiling the intrigue and magic #1

The first of three articles in this insider series is stacked with intriguing facts and enticing reasons for visiting the Pyrénées.

This is the first of three articles that are sure to get your spirits soaring as you plan your trip to the Pyrenees. Home to the Gascons, Basques, and Catalans, this remote, little-known part of France still clings to many of its secret places even today. Put this mountain range at the top of your travel wish list now: The Pyrénées.

Call of the Pyrénées

A powerful impression

The Pyrénées always create a powerful impression. They climb up out of the Bay of Biscay near Hendaye in the west and spread east until eventually petering out on the shores of the Mediterranean near Banyuls-sur-Mer. The French call this soaring mountain range that separates France from Spain ”La Frontière sauvage”.

A savage frontier it certainly is — and it’s full of surprises.

Call of the Pyréné

Two fascist European dictators met briefly at Hendaye station in 1940:
– Franco wanted to join the Axis Powers, but Hitler wasn’t so sure. After a few hours, the meeting broke up without accomplishing much.
– The Führer later confided that he’d rather have several teeth pulled out without an anæsthetic than another meeting with the Caudillo.

Reaching heights of over 3,400 metres, the Pyrénées form the Franco-Spanish border for almost four hundred kilometres from coast to coast. On the French side, the mountains rise up suddenly and dramatically from the flat plains of Provence, the Bearn, and the Basque country. And in Spain, they break through the hard, dry foothills of Aragon, the Navarre, and Catalunya to form a formidable mountain barrier.

The Société du Tour de France knows all about how impressive they are. As millions of viewers around the world know, the race’s route planners make sure that the Pyrénées have a prominent place in the TV coverage for several days every year.

Col du Tourmalet

In 1910, when the Tour first visited the Pyrénées, the course took the cyclists over several now-famous passes: Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque. These sectors were so gruelling that the eventual winner
famously screamed “Assassins!” as he rode past the race organisers at the end of the stage.

Pyrénées: Western end—Basques

At the Atlantic end of the Pyrénées, approximately three million Basques live as a stateless nation in an area that straddles the border.

Their language bears no relationship to any other tongue in the world and some anthropologists believe them to be the oldest ethnic group in Europe.

Cooking and cuisine are vitally important components of Basque culture, and they are reputed to ask themselves three questions every day:

  • Who are we?
  • Where do we come from,
  • and where are we going for dinner tonight?

Pyrénées: Eastern end—Andorra & Mediterranean

Towards the other end of the range, the independent Principality of Andorra is sandwiched between France and Spain in the eastern Pyrenees. The capital, Andorra la Vella is the highest in Europe and the country has the highest life expectancy in the world. Easygoing banking regulations, duty-free shopping, and low, low taxes mean that visitors are often locked in terrible traffic jams in the summer as ten million visitors flock in on holiday—all ready to
pounce on rock bottom price bargains.

At the extreme eastern end where the Pyrénées turn into coastal foothills and tumble into the sea, the water takes on a special kind of green: vermillion. This is the coast much beloved of a clutch of artists in the early part of the twentieth century. Picasso was there, so were Matisse, Dali, Vlaminck and many other Post Impressionists and Fauves. The Pyrenees often form a backdrop in their works which can be seen in galleries all over the world.

Anyone who thinks that Paris and the Cote d’Azur is all there are to France should think again.

Don’t miss these mountains. There’s a whole new world of tourist delights waiting for you on the high border between France and Spain between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

So keep an eye out for the next two articles on the Pyrénées. And make sure they’re on your bucket list of places to go on holiday. Write it down now.

Have you visited these fascinating places in The Pyrenees yet? Do you have any comments to add?

This 3 part mini-series ‘Call of The Pyrénées’ continues

1. Unveiling the intrigue and magic #1
2. Incomparable mountains #2

Image credits all via Wikipedia:
1. Mountains at Collioure – Andre Derain
2. Hitler/Franco at Hendaii
3. Sculpture on Col du Tourmalet
4. Biarritz on France’s Basque coast  
5. Basque flag
6. Basque independence wall graffiti
7. Església de Sant Esteve – Andorra    

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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  1. Barbara Jan 15, 2022 at 10:51 AM - Reply

    A fascinating series, Ray Johnstone. I am eager to read the next two!

    A side note of interest for historians is that Virginia Hall, World War II spy, scaled the Pyrenees’ treacherous 6,000 foot Mantet Pass in the dead of winter. Considered an impossible feat—she did it while carrying a heavy bag of radio transmission equipment and with one wooden leg!! Her story is told in Sonia Purnell’s bestseller, A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE.

    • Ray Johnstone Jan 17, 2022 at 5:10 AM - Reply

      Bonjour Barbara,
      Thanks for your comments, and thanks for the information on Virginia Hall. There can’t be that many female Americans who were in the SOE, but, much to my embarrassment I hadn’t come across her story. So thanks again for opening a new perspective on women spies in Occupied France for me. Unfortunately, it’s usually the male operatives who grab the spotlight, but I’ve tried to change that attitude with my articles on Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom and Noor Khan.
      Hope your read the other articles on the Pyrenees.
      Thanks again for your comments.

    • Barbara Chase Jan 18, 2022 at 5:00 AM - Reply

      You are most welcome, Ray! Can’t wait to read the next two in your series!! I have been intrigued with the Pyrenees for a very long time, and as I read Virginia’s story I gained an even greater understanding of their formidable terrain. Yes…A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE is a valuable piece of history. (I bought a paperback version on Amazon). Thanks for the other three names, as well. I will be looking into them!! Barbara

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