September 15, 2012

Col d'Orgambide and Col d'Arnostéguy

First up is a photo of the morning light from a window in my room. Then there was breakfast, then today's ride.

Leaving St. Jean Pied de Port unloaded, my panniers left behind at Errecaldia, where I am staying, I found a fabulous route that went first to Col d'Orgambidé, and then stayed high to Col d'Arnostéguy. For governmental purposes, France is divided into Départements, I believe courtesy of Napoleon, as a part of his uniting it into one country. I am in Departement 64, which supports cycling in part by their list of bike routes, some of which are marked on the roadways. This one wasn't, but I found this route on their site, making a loop of it, instead of going and returning the same way, as their instructions do.

Leaving St. Jean PdP on the D301, my route followed the Nive River upstream to Estérenburcy, and then on to the fork with the D428 at Beherobie. It is a beautiful, fast river and a lovely ride. Taking the 428, the road begins climbing, never very steeply, just a long, steady climb, gradually switchbacking its way uphill. This was another one - car -at -a -time route, though without much traffic. What traffic there was simply swung out onto the grass to pass me. My sense of it was that the grade was never more than about 6%, though this is hard to guess. Unloaded, better road surface, chastened by the last two days' steep roads, stronger legs or lungs, who knows? Ride with GPS claims more, and claims more feet of ascent, but I doubt both.

Anyway, the ride stayed in the forest for quite a few miles, with good views out only occasionally, before emerging into pastureland. It isn't altitude that creates these high open areas above treeline, it is grazing animals. Good for views, characteristic of the French Pyrenees, and controversial.

At the sign near Col d'Orgambide, a bit of a ways off the main road, I stopped to take a photo of Papillon. A very kind man stopped, offered to take my picture, and then went on his way. How sweet! I left my bike there, and walked over to the signs .... it was windy!

Back on the bike, the route worked its way across the plateau, around the edge of something like a cirque, though I haven't seen a name for it, before reaching Col d'Arnostéguy. Always following along close to the Spanish border, the valleys could be steep to the sides, sometimes with farm roads showing clearly below.

I didn't see any other people, not even cars, for a few miles, and the route was beginning to feel a bit more isolated than I expected. As I was assuring myself that I hadn't missed a turn, that I was going to Col d'Arnostéguy, I came around a curve, and there were... pilgrims. Lots of pilgrims, walking, and a few riding, following the Santiago de Compostellae. These cyclists asked for directions, then headed off on the foot trail, away from the road, with all the others.

The descent was much steeper than the ascent, and both my host this morning, and the driver of a car who stopped to talk, told me to follow the main road back, not to go to Arnéguy. Too steep, both said. So I stayed with the main road and descended slowly, looking out for pilgrims, who were not always paying much attention.

The little horses are pottoks, a species proven to be thousands of years old, native to these mountains,  and once threatened with extinction. They are quite small, and strong, and were sent to work in the mines in England, used in circuses, on farms and for smuggling.

Speaking of which, this pass is quite famous for two reasons: during World War 2, many downed Allied pilots, and other forces, were smuggled by the Basques out of France to the Spanish coast, from where they were returned to England. And much longer ago, Charlemagne's retreating army, fleeing the Spanish, burnt Navarre, a town they thought Spanish. But the town was Basque, and the people were enfuriated. The men attacked Charlemagne's army near the pass, killing its leader, his nephew. The story was later made famous in the historically inaccurate Chanson de Roland.

Back to the route. It was windy, and steep. I descended the route described in Mon 64. Took a look at my brakepads once back at the chambres d'hote, and I don't like the look of the rear set. My bike computer tells me 37 miles, 4063 feet of climbing. A great day of riding and a route I surely recommend.


  1. The photo with the grazing horse has got to be one of the most enchanting. Glad to see you're having fun!

    1. M. Charnamit,

      Thank you! Those little horses are so beautiful and have such a long story of their own.

      I have just this minute returned from a concert of a choir of 8 male voices, performing in Basque, in L'Eglise Notre-Dame-du-Bout-du-Pont. The old church, of cathedral-like dimensions, inside the walled town. It was exraordinarily, heart breakingly beautiful.

  2. Just so beautiful: the mountains, the sheep...did you explain in an earlier post that I missed who these pilgrims are, where they're pilgriming to?

    1. I think I missed it. They are following the Route of Saint Hacques. It is a pilgrimage route, extremely popular in Medieval times, that has 4 or 5 major paths through France, all but one converge here. There is also a coastal route. I can't explain the mystery of how St. Jacques remains were discovered to be at Compostella, but there they were.

      The route has UNESCO World Heritage designation now. Many extraordinary churches are found along the route.

      There has been an upsurge in pilgrims again in recent years.

  3. The rubber is hitting the road! Excellent photos today and, yet again, a nice trip down memory lane for me. Looks like a fantastic route you found on the department's website, too. That's a resource I don't use enough.

    1. Gery,

      The riding is beautiful, varied and challenging .. fantastic. Departement 64 does a good job, I found kess in the Haute Pyrenees, whatever departement that is, I forget.

      Glad you've enjoyed the photographic memory-triggers. Until I get near the Etape route, I'll probably be in less familiar territory.


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