September 6, 2011

Pyrenees Tour: Barcus to Bielle

Maison Carriquy, in Barcus, where I stayed last night, was perfect. A chambres d'hôte, my hosts, Corinne and Patrice Andreux, were warm and welcoming and fun to talk with. My room was large, beautiful, with windows opening on two sides and a huge, shared bathroom with shower and tub. Chez Chilo, an excellent restaurant within walking distance provided some of the most beautifully arranged and delicious food that I've eaten in quite a while. Dinner included veal scallops stuffed with mushrooms, rolled and beautifully sauced. Followed by a drop-dead delicious sable. I have no idea what the translation is.

I was sorry to leave. Barcus and Maison Carriquy would make a lovely base for exploring the countryside, which provided fabulous, if wet, riding all day yesterday. The Basque country would definitely be worth many days of exploring, including riding up into the Pyrenees from here.

But I'm on a mission, and I did leave. The route passed through rolling countryside, on small, narrow roads with very little traffic. They made for very fun riding.

Along the road I saw my first donkeys this trip. The little guy reminded me of kittens that will grow into their paws, but he'll grow into his ears.

The route took me through Oloron Ste. Marie, where I stopped at the Cathedral L'eglise Sainte-Marie, another romanesque church that has for centuries provided shelter for pilgrims on the Route de Compostella. The inside has maintained many painted columns and walls. The restorations were believable to my untrained eye, and the colors provided an entirely different feel than plain unpainted stone. I have read over and over that medieval churches were colorful, inside and sometimes out.

The medieval sculptures on the entrance to the church were telling. Bent over people grimacing while holding church pillars on their backs; knights on horseback trampling people underfoot; lions eating someone, only the legs remaining outside the beast's mouth.

By the way, the first bishop here was in the year 506, and his name was Gratus, followed by Licerus. The last  really Roman name I saw was in 988, when Gombaldus was bishop. After that, in 1025, French names appeared on the list. But in 1801 Oloron lost its bishop and was taken over by the bishop of Bayonne. Massachusetts closed my town's grammar school in the mid 20th century, after perhaps 200 years of having public schools in town. Guess these things cross cultures and eras, but the scope of time here provides a different perspective.

I sat and ate lunch at a cafe on the square outside the church and had a happy realization. People are interested in my loaded bike, and look at it. If it is locked near me, in sight, and I say hello, they come over to chat. Once one person talks, so do others. I think it's similar to my friend Roz's experience with Emma, her pooch.

Oloron turned out to be quite hilly with a steep slope down to the river, and another up the bank opposite. I was pleased enough with myself when I didn't get lost; with a good tourist map of the city in hand, I could find my way easily enough. When I was sure that I was on the correct route, I decided to pedal for a while, before stopping and  returning the Michelin map to the top of my map case. The road surprised me by going up, and up, complete with some of those famous French switchbacks. I hadn't anticipated that kind of climbing, but was satisfied enough with it. Eventually, though, I pulled out the map and realized that my confidence earlier had led me to miss a necessary turn. The climb was definitely followed by a fun, steep, though much shorter, return downhill.

The ride from there to Bielle was uneventful, the Pyrenees getting closer with every turn of the pedals. Some of you may recognize the name Bielle because the Tour de France passed through town last year, and it sits at the base of the route to the Col de Marie-Blanque. I'm told there is some very good and beautiful hiking on Plateau de Benou, on the way up. I hope to climb Marie-Blanque tomorrow.

The last photo is the view from the hotel window.


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