September 14, 2011

Pyrenees Tour: An Abbaye and a Gouffre

Last night's chambres d'hote, The Cat who Snores, was delightful, with a very enjoyable breakfast. The house is a city house, built before l820, and terraced up the hillside. The garden was above the house, up a long set of exterior steps that the owners built. The town, Bagneres de Bigorre was pretty well destroyed by an earthquake in 1660.

Another guest was from Montpellier, and breakfast was leisurely, with lots of animated conversation about language, governments and the state of the world.....hmmmmmm.....

So I left later than usual and took the road to visit L'Abbaye de l'Escaladieu, a 12th century Cistercian Monastery. This road had a fantastic, very long and sometimes somewhat steep downhill that I didn't expect. Guess I only notice the chevrons when they  indicate climbs, because when I checked, there they were on the map.It was a delightful ride down to the valley with the Abbaye. The Abbaye was another of the many pilgrimate stops on the way to Santiago de Compostela. It was inhabited by monks until 1830, a more recent date than many others I visited.

The Cistercians were strict, their architecture simple and symmetrical. I don't know if the earthquake damaged it, for my untrained eye is difficult to tell what is original, what reconstructed. The photo of the three small nooks in the exterior is a photo of the "library" where their books were stored. Unfortunately, I arrived only an hour before the lunchtime closing, so didn't spend as long as I might have. The stained glass work was simple but beautiful. I find Cistercian Abbayes lovely, and quite beautiful, but was to learn that not everyone does. Perhaps another word would be more appropriate.

The small three-vaulted enclosure in the photo was in the cloisters, and was the library! The precious books were stored in this spot, safe, dry and conveniently located for the monks who needed them.

Couldn't find a place for lunch, so I ate some leftover cheese and chocolate and continued on to Le Gouffre d'Esparros. I don't know the translation, but the difference between a gouffre and a cave is that you enter a gouffre from the top, and a cave from the side. I raced to get there before 2:00, to join the tour at that hour, and arrived breathless after the gradual climb from town. I arrived just after 2:00, and the group had already departed, but that tour had been full anyway, so I purchased a ticket for 3:30. A large tour bus arrived at about 2:15; there was a tour at 3:00 that was for that bus group only.

While I was waiting, one of them joined me on the bench where I sat and started a conversation, then another and another, so I had the chance to visit. They were mostly residents of northern France, all retired. They were very friendly, and gave me one of the places with them, at 3:00, so that I wouldn't have to wait longer.

Pictures were not permitted in the gouffre, so I can't include images, but it was extraordinarily beautiful, all kinds of crystal formations, many extremely delicate. Unlike yesterday, this one didn't feel creepy-wierd. The water that makes the stalactites and stalagmites is rainwater, though there was once a river. It is extremely clear when you see it in pools. Or perhaps they are underground ponds? Never expected to visit so many caves, but hopefully there will be two more, these with prehistoric paintings on the walls.

Today's pass was not a high one, but it felt difficult enough, and I knew why. It is hot and I missed lunch. I always turn into some sort of jelly or something like that when I don't eat enough. The roads wind up, down and around, beautiful riding. Some of the photos are included to give a a sense of the size of the roads to any other cyclists reading.

After that I came to St. Laurent de Neste, where I am staying at La Souleillane, a 3-star chambres d'hote in town. I was invited to join the family for dinner, and am very grateful, since there isn't a restaurant nearby and it gave me  an opportunity to share a meal with a family here. The two boys are about 10 and 14, if  I remember correctly. Dinner was delicious, and very welcome, soup, quenelles, salad, and local cheese. It was very fun, a special treat for me, and one of those impossible to plan things that sometimes happen. My room was huge, large enough for a couple with a child, beautiful, very comfortable (the two do not always go together but they do here) and with a large bath.

Not sure quite what tomorrow will bring, but I'll head to St. Bertrand de Comminges.


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