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Driving from Peyrepertuse to San Sebastian

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Would you please help us navigate from Peyrepertuse to San Sebastian in late August by car. We plan to start out Sunday morning in Carcassonne and hope to drive through Limoux to Peyrepertuse. We expect to leave the ruins by 16:30 to drive to our hotel near Mirepoix. From that point, we are uncertain how to navigate the Pyrenees except we know we'd like to have a meal in St Jean Pied du Port before winding up in San Sebastian/Donostia. What might be a worthwhile route and stopovers to consider without spending more than 2 or 3 hours in the car at any stretch? Thank you very much for your invaluable suggestions.

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    You forgot to give us one key bit of information - how many days do you have to make this trip? One - twenty???

    We've vacationed for 7 weeks in the Pyrenees between Perpignan and the Basque area. Lots to do, but I have no idea of what to suggest until I know how many days you have.

    Stu Dudley

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    We have 3 days to travel across the Pyrenees from Mirepoix. Main concern in posting is navigating the drive to San Sebastián, trying to hit some highlights. We appreciate that there is much better more to experience than our time allows. Interests include local culture, food and wine, as well as ancient and natural geographic sites. Thank you very much.

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    Three more questions:

    1. You indicated than you have 3 days for this trip. I should have asked "how many nights?". So - is that 2 nights & 3 days before arriving in San Sebastian, or 3 nights and 3 days?

    2. You want a meal at St Jean Pied du Port. I'm assuming that's at les Pyrenees restaurant (one of our "top 10" restaurants in France). Dinner or Lunch? (too far away from San Sebastian to drive after dinner with wine & at night). So - do you want to stay the night in St Jean & have dinner, or just stop for lunch?

    3. I assume you want "one-nighters" for places to stay. Please confirm.

    I have a doctors appointment soon. Answer these questions, and after I return from the Dr I'll make some suggestions.

    Stu Dudley

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    Thank you very much, Stu. Hope your appt went well. Three nights total - but one night we have reserved at L'Abbaye-Chateau de Camon. We would like to spend the morning in Mirepoix and then head toward St Jean. We have 3 days and two nights to get to San Sebastián. Lunch would be fine at Pyrenees if dinner would be too late to get to Hotel Niza in San Sebastián. Look forward to your response.

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    The stars (*,**,***) indicate the rating given to the site by the Michelin Green Guide - which I recommend you purchase. In some sections of the following, I did not look up the star ratings. You'll need the guide for the Atlantic Coast and Languedoc. You will also need Michelin maps # 342, 344, and 343

    Much of this has been "hoisted" from various itineraries I've written and other stuff I've posted to Fodors and saved.

    Since you mentioned starting in Carcassonne - I'll add some thoughts on that. We stayed in a gite just outside of Carcassonne for 2 weeks last year.

    Use Michelin Map 344

    Leave Toulouse on exit 5 towards Carcassonne & Montpellier. Since this is Sunday, there will be much less city traffic, and trucks won’t be on the roads. Continue on the A61 and visit Carcassonne***, which is the largest medieval fortress in Europe. After you pass exit # 23, look for the signs for the "Aire" exit, and get off the A61 and drive to the Aire for great views of La Cite (the "walled" part of Carcassonne) from the distance. Many tour buses usually stop at this "aire" vista. Then get back on the A61 and take the #24 exit and follow the signs to “La Cite”. Drive all the way to La Cite until you see the entrance gates to the fortress. There is plenty of parking to your right if you arrive before 9:30. We were last there in mid June ’15 for 2 weeks, and we feared that it would be crowded like Mt St Michel - but it wasn’t. But you need to get there early, because it can get mobbed in the afternoon. Perhaps arrive at 9:00, and walk the perimeter of the village between the two walls first. Then walk into the village and wander the streets until 10:00 when you can get into the castle for a visit. Rent a headset and take a self-guided audio tour in English. The tour will take about 1 hour. Since almost all of the commerce in la Cite is tourist-oriented, I imagine that all stores will be open on Sunday. La Cite is a good choice for lunch. Later in our '15 two-week stay in Trebes (near Carcassonne), we met two friends for lunch at Comte Roger restaurant in La Cite and enjoyed it.

    Unless you have lunch in La Cite, it is only a 2 1/2 hour visit.

    Perhaps the best views of La Cite are from the Pont Neuf bridge between La Cite and the Bastide city (which is not part of the "walled" section) of Carcassonne. We did not walk over the older Pont Vieux - but the views from Pont Neuf of La Cite and Pont Vieux were spectacular. My wife took many of photographs of this view, and the best one ended up on the cover of her Shutterfly book that she made for our 2015 trip to the Languedoc. We also enjoyed walking through the Bastide city of Carcassonne. Lots of shops (including an excellent wine store) & outside cafes. Quite "active" also. I would not recommend it, however, if you are just visiting La Cite as a stopover between two other places.

    Leave Carcassonne heading south on the D118 to Quillan. Then the D117 south then east. As you pass Azat, the D117 becomes quite scenic. Shortly you'll see sights for Puilarens and the Chateau de Puilarens*. Turn right/south and drive on the D22 to this chateau for the view. We visited the interior, and it was not as interesting as the exterior or the setting which were quite remarkable. Return to the D117 and continue east to Maury. The stretch from St Paul to Maury is very scenic, plus when we were enjoying this drive in '15, cars were only allowed to drive north to south through the fantastic Gorges de Galamus. I believe that there are some sorts (don't know all the details) of traffic control through July & August - so be aware. We've done this route twice - once from Ceret and once from Carcassonne. In the summer, this region can get very hot. Standing in the sun and walking long distances uphill and over rocks to & through Chateaux can become very exhausting. Therefore, I suggest that you only hike to and visit the interior of one Cathars Chateau - Peyrepertuse would be my choice. If you get too tired from walking to several chateaux and exploring the interiors, you may run out of gas and cut this route short, which would be very unfortunate. Actually, this route is my favorite in the Roussillon region.

    If you have not already done so, read about the Cathars faith and history in the Green Guide (or other guidebook) and learn about their religion, life, and fate.

    My wife took a series of pictures of each of the Cathar Castles - beginning when each was just a speck on the top of the jutting rocks & then as we advanced closer & closer. Honestly, viewing these chateaux from the road allows you to focus on, and appreciate the awesome settings and the majesty of the ruins.

    At Maury, drive north on the D19 through the Grau de Maury** to Chateau de Queribus**. The views from the parking lot area are outstanding. You may want to walk into a field near the parking lot to get even better views. Continue driving counterclockwise on the D123/D14. This is an extremely scenic road. Now, drive to Chateau de Peyrepertuse***. Take lots of pictures on the way there. Visit the interior, but be aware that some climbing & walking is necessary, so you’ll have to walk along dirt paths, over rocks, & through some low hung trees to get to the chateau. Also, walking around the Chateau is treacherous at times – but worth it. Plan on a 2 hour visit. Then continue driving west and then south to the fabulous Gorges de Galamus**. At times, the road is only 1 car width wide. We were there in mid June twice & we didn’t encounter another car – I don’t know what happens in July or August when there are more tourists. Actually, if I had it to do over again, I would find a place to park the car and walk along this gorge on foot. Many other people were doing that, and since it is flat and in the shade at times, it will not be as exhausting as climbing up to a Cathars castle. At the south end of the Gorges, there is a large parking lot with many "lookouts". Park the car there and view the bridge with the small "hermitage" below. You can actually walk to this hermitage - several people were doing it - but not us.

    After exiting the Gorges area at St Paul de Fenouille, take the D117 west to Puivert, then the D16, D12, D7, then the D625 north to Mirepoix.. This drive should take 1 1/2 hrs

    Mirepoix++ is the one of our three favorite bastide towns. There’s a picture of it in the Green Guide. There are some very pretty outdoor cafes in the center square. This town is worth at least 10 photos. There are some nice shops in town too. It’s Sunday, but Mirepoix may be one of those towns that’s a very popular destination for the French tourists who like to stroll in a town on Sundays - so the shops may be open.

    I would try to reach Mirepoix on a Sunday and explore it then. There is a lot to see in the Pyrenees, and you want to drive through them heading west in the morning so the sun will be behind you.

    Switch to Map 343

    Monday

    Get on the D119 going west, and then the N20 south to Foix.

    Foix* is a very "practical" non-touristy town and worth a visit - but on your short trip, I would skip it. There is a large castle in the center of town (you'll spot it easily) but we were quite underwhelmed with it. We stayed in a gite near Foix for 1 week in 2012.

    Here are some very interesting things to do in the Foix area. You probably have time to visit only one of these sites

    Most of the places below are described on this web site
    http://www.grands-sites-ariege.fr/en/

    Visit the Parc de la Prehistoric ** Open 10-8. When you get to the ticket booth, reserve the Grotte de Niaux for some later day or time. Reserve an English tour. There is a discount for both the Parc Prehistoric and the Grotte. The Parc Prehistoric, especially the museum, is fantastic - we spent several hours visiting this new complex.

    Grotte de Niaux** 1 tour per day in English.

    Underground river of Labouiche* 9:30-4:30 1 ¼ hr boat tour. This was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be.

    Into the Pyrenees

    From Foix, take the D17 west. This D17 is the very famous pretty Route Verte**. It is described in the Green Guide. This is a beautiful drive - going over the the Col des Marrous, Col de Peguere, Sommet de la Portel** (15 mins RT walk), and the Route de la Crouzette**. At the D618, head west to the D3, then south to Seix. St Girons is ugly - so don't head north when you hit the D3.

    From Seix, take the D17 west through the Vallee de Bethmale, to les Bordes, then north to Audressein, then the D618 west, then the D85/D44 to St Beat. Then find your way to Bagneres de Luchon*.

    The drive from Foix to Bagneres should take you around 3 3/4 hrs. If you:
    1. spent a couple a couple of hours in Mirepoix, and a couple in Foix and departed Foix around 13:00 after a quick lunch - you should reach Bagneres at 17:00.
    2. If you spent a couple of hours in Foix only, you should get to Bagneres at 15:00.

    I'm not a big fan of Bagnores, but it is a "convenient" place to stop for the night (but I wouldn't).

    Switch to map 342

    Now you are entering the best part of the Pyrenees - the "famous" cols (mountain passes). From Bagneres, head west on the D618 to Arreau. This is an interesting village to explore. You might try to make it this far on Monday so you can explore the following mountain passes and sites more leisurely. It is a 45 min drive from Bagneres to Arreau - so you "might" arrive between 16:00 & 18:00 depending on how much time you spent in Mirepoix and Foix (but zero time in Bagneres - which is my recommendation).

    Michelin lists a Hotel Angleterre in Arreau.
    www.hotel-angleterre-arreau.com
    We had a nice lunch by the river in Arreau and it is a small & delightful town to explore. You might think I'm "pushing" Arreau for your final destination on Monday - I am!!

    Tuesday

    Now over the beautiful & famous Col d'Aspin***. Weather always seem to be best in the mornings in the Pyrenees - so head out early after a nice breakfast in Arreau. The D918 takes you over the Col d'Aspin. You'll see lots of "free grazing" cows, horses, and sheep in the Pyrenees. Like I sadi - this is free grazing - and they know it. We saw a visitor get a little too close to a horse once & the horse did a "number" and scared the daylights out of the visitor.

    You will end the Col d'Aspin drive in St Marie de Campan. This village is full of hay-stuffed costumed lifesized "dolls". Look for them.

    Now over the most famous col in the Pyrenees - the Col de Tourmalet. Take the D918 southwest & over the Col. Stop at the col rest place and have your picture taken under the statue of the bicyclist "huffin & puffin" trying to climb the col.

    On to Luz St Sauveur and then to my favorite region in the Hautes Pyrenees - just south of Argeles Gazost. If should take you about 1 3/4 hrs to get over the two cols and to the area just south of Argeles Gazost

    Overnight in the "Haute Pyrenees". This is your chance for the "stay in one of those lovely, picturesque little villages" . We dined at two very nice restaurants, which are also hotels in the Vercos mountain region in the Pyrenees. They are close to each other - both just south of Argeles Gazost. The first one is La Grange aux Marmottes in Viscos (population 44). www.grangeauxmarmottes.com . The second one is Les Viscos in St Savin (population 372). www.hotel-leviscos.com .

    Visit the fabulous Pont d'Espagne*** - which is a short drive from your hotel. It is just south of Cauterets* - which is a charming "Belle Epoque" alpine town. Though Cauterets is less of a tourist mecca than it was in times past, you can still see and appreciate its "glory days" and many of the grand old hotels have been converted into apartments. Get to the Pont d'Espagne by driving through the Val de Jeret**. You can read about the Pont d'Espagne in the Michelin Green Guide for the Languedoc - but there really is no "trick" to visiting this spot. Just drive there, wander around and admire the scenery, the convergence of two rivers, and the rushing waters. The force of the raging waters is remarkable - quite deafening when you are close by. Go up the ski lift to the mountain lake, and perhaps have lunch or a drink at the restaurant by the lake. The Pont d'Espagne is a "don't miss" in this region. Between Cauterets and the Pont d'Espagne, you'll pass one of our favorite restaurants in the region - L'Abri du Benques. There is a magnificent water cascade next to the restaurant - you'll hear it before you spot it.

    Wednesday

    It is about 4 1/4 hours to St Jeau Pied de Port from the Argeles Gazost area. So if you want to make it to St Jean in time for a 13:30 lunch, you had best depart this region by 8:30. In case you decide to linger longer in the beautiful Pyrenees - I'll suggest some side trips along the way back to St Jean. If this was my trip - I would spend the time in the Pyrenees - and skip lunch - just visit St Jean.

    To drive to St Jean Pied de Port, head towards Argeles-Gazost and then take the D918 over the Col du Soulor and then over the fabulous Col d'Aubisque**. We drove over this col 4-5 times while we stayed in a gite in Gaillagos. It is very scenic - perhaps our favorite. At the end of the col, you will arrive in Eaux-Bonnes. My wife loved the "old" hotels in this spa town. Continue on to Laruns.

    Side trip
    Now, check your watch. It is about a 2 3/4 hr scenic drive back to St Jean from Laruns. If you do not want to have lunch in St Jean - perhaps you have 4 hours available to take a gondola trip, then a tiny train up higher into the Pyrenees with lovely views of snow-covered mountain peaks. From Laruns, take the D934 south. When you get to the smaller D431, take it north to the Gondola starting place. Take the Gondola, and then the very scenic train to La Sagette. The most scenic views are from the left side of the train going up. At the termination of the train trip, you have the option of walking to Lac d’Ayous, but we did not take this trek – most people on the train did not either. This entire gondola/train trip will probably consume 3-4 hours, but it is well worth it.

    No side trip
    From Laruns, head north on the D934, If you want to stretch your legs - Bielle* is a nice visit. Then head west on the very pretty D294. If you have an extra 1 1/2 hrs to spare (no lunch in St Jean), take the N134 south toward Lescun* for a visit. There is a marvelous walking path above town (look for the dirt road before you get to town). This path has restful, magnificent views. We took a break along this path, sat on a bench, & simply "took in" the scenery.

    If you don't have the 1 1/2 extra hours to visit Lescun, at the N134 drive north to the D918 and take the D918 (you've been on the D918 quite a bit these last 2 days) all the way towards Tardets-Sorholus. Just before Tardets, take the D26 south to Larrau, then the D19 west over the scenic Col Bagargui*, then the pretty D18 to St Jean Pied de Port.

    Stu Dudley

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    "– I don’t know what happens in July or August when there are more tourists"
    Gorge de Galamus : Alternate traffic circulation in July and August.
    You can walk along the gorge (less than a mile) or take an electric shuttle for a very modest price (50 cents in 2015).
    Note that by strong wind (the infamous tramontane) Queribus and Peyrepertuse are closed to visitors.

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    My Wife's Sutterfly album from one of our trips to the Pyrenees in 2012
    https://stududley.shutterfly.com/31
    Click "Full Screen"

    Because of Shutterfly software problems, some titles & captions are missing or truncated.

    You didn't ask - but here is some info about the Pays Basque region.

    This itinerary assumes that you are staying in a "central" spot like Sare - where we stayed for 2 weeks in 2012. We've also stayed in Osses for 2 weeks in about 2001.

    The stars in the following text refers to the star ratings given by the Michelin Green Guide.

    Things to do & see
    1. La Rhune rack railway ***. Do this on a clear sunny day, and get there as early in the morning as possible so the sun will not be in your face for the view of Bayonne, Biarritz, & St Jean de Luz. It is just outside of Sare on the way to Ascain. Plan on 2 ½ hrs: 45 mins up & back, & 1 hr on top.

    2. Espelette*, and Ainhoa* are our two favorite small villages in the immediate region (they really capture the Basque "look"). You can drive through Ainhoa, but you will need to park just outside of Espelette to visit it. Espelette is a great place for lunch. They have a nice Wednesday & Saturday morning market. Sare* is an appealing village - but we like Espelette & Ainhoa much more. Ascain* and Itxassou* are starred in the Michelin Green Guide - but we didn't think they deserved the stars. The D20 between Ainhoa and Espelette is a very scenic road. Take a tour of a typical historic Basque house http://www.ortillopitz.com/

    La Rhune in the morning, Espelette for lunch & visit, followed by Ainoa would be a great day - but don't do it on a Sunday or Monday morning when shops are closed.

    3. St Jean Pied de Port* is one of the most popular destinations in the Pays Basque. We stayed near there in Osses for 2 weeks in 2002. St Jean is a major stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Campestela. You'll see lots of "shell" signs (symbolic of the pilgrimage) everywhere. St Jean is a tad touristy. It has one of our favorite restaurants in France. It's quite an interesting village, particularily if you explore outside the touristy center. It takes 1 hr to drive to St Jean from Sare.

    4. Visit the Bidasoa Valley in Spain. From Sare, take the D406/NA4410 to Bera (which we did not find to be very interesting), then the N121A to Lesaka, Etxalar, Sunbilla, then the N121B back to Ainhoa. We took the N121A north into the Honarribia and the San Sebastian area several times.




    Cities to visit

    5. Bayonne** is the most interesting "old" city in the Pays Basque area and stradles the river (the "old" and the "older" towns on either side). We parked at the Place General de Gaulle (see the Michelin Red guide) at the north end of town. Follow the walking itinerary in the green guide. Shops close up tight for lunch, and the city is rather "dead" at night. Visiting Bayonne might consume most of a morning or afternoon. We thought the Musee Basque** was only mildly interesting.

    6. Biarritz** is a very interesting resort town. Old mixing with the new!!! Just wander in town. Make sure you walk the western peninsula to the Rocher de la Vierge* and walk La Perspective for the views**. We spent most of a day in Biarritz - we sat in several grassy areas and just admired "things".

    7. St Jean de Luz** is a great beach city. Lots of shops & a long beach. If you want to have a "beach day" - this is where to go. They have a nice Les Halles food market, and several well-stocked shops that sell Basque fabric which is unique (mainly stripes) & entirely different from the Provencal patterns. We purchased several "runners" that we use on our dining room. The Maison Louis XIV* was interesting to visit. We visited St Jean several times and parked near the train station.

    8. San Sebastian** is one of the most popular destinations in Spain. We had dinner there one night and wandered around for about 1 hr before dinner. However, we were entirely un-prepared to drive into San Sebastian. We had a GPS - but we really didn't know how to use it. We did not have good maps. We got lost!! We never went back for a thorough visit because of the trouble we had getting there. You should go and plan to spend most of an entire day there. The restaurant where we dined was OK - not one of our favorites in the Pays Basque.

    9. Hondarribia* in Spain was the real "surprise" of our trip to the Pays Basque. It is a fortified medieval "upper" town, with an interesting "fisherman's quarter" below. The latter would be a good place for a lunch; there are many choices. Our second favorite restaurant in the Pays Basque was Restaurant Alameda, just outside the fortified walls in Hondarribia. We visited the city several days before we dined at Alhambra - and actually parked near Alhambra to visit the city.

    10. Bilbao and the Museo Guggenheim*** is a popular destination with museum folks. Friends really enjoyed the museum - but we are not museum fans & have not visited Bilbao

    11 . Pau** (pg 247) is a "perplexing" city. It gets 2 stars from Michelin and the few people on Fodors who have visited Pau, have liked it. We've visited it twice and found it to be a "not very lively" city. We were there for the first time on a Saturday (market day) in about 2002 and the market was quite active - but there wasn't the "life" in the city that you would expect on market day. We were back in 2012, and the city had made many civic improvements. But on this "sunny day" (after a week of gloomy/rainy weather), there was still not much life in the city. We wandered down the main thoroughfare, we visited the chateau, my wife shopped at Galleries Lafayette while I dined at an outside cafe (two-thirds empty) - and there was still little life to this city. We simply didn't "connect" with Pau.

    Scenic Drives

    Most of the area east of the A63 is quite scenic. In addition to the D20 between Ainhoa and Espelette, the "Route Imperiale des Cimes" (the D22 between the D10 & St Pierre d'Irube) is very pretty. So is the road just to the east of the Imperiale des Cimes - the D76 between the A64 and the D22. At the "col" in this road, there is a very scenic picnic spot.

    The Corniche Basque** is a short but scenic road. There is a nice view of Chateau d'Antoine Abladie** along this road. For some reason - we did not visit this chateau in 2012, but my wife remembered visiting it in 2002.

    Stu Dudley

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