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Trip Report Going Native in the Midi-Pyrenees: Nikki's trip report

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In August, I spent two weeks at a house exchange in the foothills of the Pyrenees with my husband and two daughters. I had fantasized for years about exchanging our house for one in the South of France, but this opportunity just fell into my lap when I saw a notice on an internet message board.

After a year and a half of discussion and planning, we were ready to go. My husband and I spent a week before the exchange in Portugal and Spain, and I have written about that portion of our trip here:

http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=35062668.

Photos from France are posted here:

http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=he0tnm3.1cwpvzhz&x=0&y=-57syru

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    After spending a week traveling in Portugal and Spain, my husband and I flew from Madrid to Toulouse on August 17. Our two daughters had arrived in Toulouse from Boston earlier that evening. We met them at the Hotel Albert 1er, where we were all spending the night. Our double room was nice enough, with a large new bathroom, but when I woke up the jet-lagged girls and saw their room, I wanted to switch. They had a beautiful big room with two beds, great tall windows facing the street, and a large fireplace with a mirror over it. I actually went to the desk and asked whether there was another room like that one available, but the desk clerk informed me that our room was actually one of the nicer ones in the hotel and that they were full for the night.

    I paid 85 euros for each of the rooms, booking through the hotel’s website, www.hotel-albert1.com. I had chosen this hotel based on its location near the Place du Capitole, figuring that we could walk there when we arrived late in the evening and find a place for supper. So that’s what we did. We chose one of the several cafes surrounding the large square and sat outside, eating a somewhat un-French meal for our first night in France: pizza for some and paella for others.

    Two women at the next table were eating a terrific looking ice cream concoction, so my daughter and I followed their lead and ordered a dish I believe was called something like super-choco. Ahh.

    The next morning my husband and older daughter walked to the train station to pick up our rental car. Two hours later, when they had not returned, the desk clerk offered to call the rental office to see if they had gotten there. Oh yes, they left an hour and a half ago with the car. I called on my cell phone and found out they had been driving around Toulouse all that time trying to find the hotel, which was on a street that was blocked by some construction. They were three blocks away, at the Place du Capitole.

    The desk clerk gave my husband directions on the phone. A half hour later they still had not arrived. I called again and was told they had parked the car at the Place du Capitole and were walking to the hotel. When they arrived shortly thereafter, the looks on their faces made me refrain from asking any questions. We hauled our suitcases to the garage under the Place du Capitole and drove to the exit.

    The way out of the garage led past automatic machines for payment by credit card. My heart sank, knowing that our US credit cards lacked the chip that would make them work. So we backed away from the exit and drove around the garage until we found an office with a person working in it and paid in cash. An inauspicious beginning to our stay in France. But it was about to get much better.

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    I had printed directions to our destination from the website www.mappy.com. The directions included a note that there was a speed camera at a certain point on the autoroute. Very useful information. We slowed down (along with everyone else on the road) and saw the camera as we passed it, feeling very smug. Ha. We would be repaid for that smugness later on.

    When we left the autoroute, shortly before the city of Tarbes, we had our first confusing moments. We couldn’t locate the road indicated in the owner’s directions to the house and made a wrong turn. Seeing a sign pointing toward a town I knew was in the right general direction, we started down a series of smaller and smaller country roads that did eventually get us where we were going, but that were not exactly the direct route.

    When we did find the tiny hamlet that contained our house, I was surprised to find that it was on a fairly major road for the area. Neither my map nor the owner’s directions had made that clear. But it made getting around a lot easier than I had feared from our initial approach on narrow roads through the cornfields, over the hills, and around tiny country churches with enormous crucifixes.

    We did find the house and it was wonderful. A 200-year-old manor house at the top of a hill with a big in-ground swimming pool and huge stone fireplaces. You wouldn’t think we’d need the fireplaces in the South of France in August, but you’d be wrong.

    We dropped off our bags and drove to the nearest town, Trie sur Baise. It was Saturday, and we figured we’d better shop in case stores were closed Sunday. It turned out that things were open Sunday morning also. But it was bustling in Trie Saturday afternoon. The town is a bastide, as are many in the area. The streets are laid out in a grid and there is a central square with a church and an old covered market. The shops are all arranged around the central square.

    We visited the butcher, the baker and the produce store. At the butcher, when I attempted to pay with my credit card, there was a period of confusion while the butcher and the woman who worked in the shop tried to get the US card to work in the machine. They were clearly unfamiliar with the swipe type of credit card. American visitors are evidently fairly rare here.

    While the people in the shop were being confused by our credit card, we were being confused by the meat. The cuts were almost all different from the ones at a US meat counter. So between my far-from-perfect French and the unfamiliarity of the items on display, I felt like it was an accomplishment to walk away with our veal chops, burgers, pate, and saucisson. At the boulangerie, we stood and gawked at the selection of bread loaves before selecting one as well as a tarte aux pommes. The shop girl found us amusing.

    Armed with the supplies for dinner, we then stopped at the supermarket on the outskirts of the town. Back to the house to put everything away and to have our first French supper prepared on the grill. With all our goodies, I felt like a kid in a candy shop deciding which ones to put out. By the time we got to the apple tart, I was in “pinch me, I must be dreaming” mode. And soon it was time to start dreaming for real.

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    Kerouac, oh, so you've met my daughters.

    Ann, yes, thank you for the recommendation for Hotel Albert 1er. Not sure my husband would thank you though, since construction on that street made it so confusing to access that he gave up trying to drive there from the train station after trying for two hours.

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    On Sunday morning we went back to Trie to shop, just because we could. There are at least two butchers and three bakers, and we hadn’t been to all of them the first day. After lunch we headed out with the maps and the guidebooks in search of the Grotte de Gargas.

    Navigation was a bit awkward because it took us time to figure out that a road shown on our map as N117 was actually called D817 on the signs. We went around a few traffic circles several times before we caught on. When we arrived at the Grotte de Gargas without reservations, we had to wait an hour for a tour and ended up on the last tour of the day. All tours were given in French only.

    By the time our guide arrived, it had started to rain. We climbed up a fairly steep path to the entrance of the cave and then filed in. This is a cave with prehistoric art. There are some engravings of animals, but the most visible form of art is a remarkable collection of hands stenciled on the walls by prehistoric artists, who blew powdered ochre and charcoal onto the walls around their hands to create the outlines. Many of the hands have missing or partially missing fingers, and there have been many theories proposed to explain this. Evidently this is one of only two caves in which hands are missing fingers in this manner, although many caves have painted hand stencils (we saw some at Pech Merle two years ago).

    Scientists have considered whether the prints are of hands that were mutilated either through disease or some form of ritual, but a more current theory is that the prints portray a form of sign language. No way to know for sure, of course.

    There were several young children on our tour, one of whom cried and screamed continuously. I was already straining to understand the French guide and translate for my family, and the noise made it more difficult. But the total experience was very positive. Being in the presence of the creative works of people who lived up to 30,000 years ago gives one a sense of perspective and of awe.

    We drove back to the house for another dinner on the grill chez nous. Restaurants in the countryside are sparse, and few if any are open Sunday night. But the amazing fruit, vegetables, meat, bread, and wine all originating within a small radius of where we were consuming them made eating at home a great pleasure.

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    Monday’s excursion took us in a new direction. We were hunting for Gallo-Roman towers scattered throughout the countryside. According to my guidebook, Cadogan guides Gascony & the Pyrenees, these towers are especially dense in the Gers departement, in the valley of the Baise River. They are about thirty feet tall, and most have niches for statues.

    We found one in a cornfield next to the Baise, across the river from a pretty old mill, near the village of Biran. There was no marker and no clearing from which to view the tower. There were ditches alongside the road and a farmer working in the field. So we stopped in the road (not a whole lot of traffic there) and took pictures. The tourist information provided by Les Amis du Vieux Biran says this tower is known as la Turraque in Gascon and dates from the end of the first century.

    There was a sign in the road pointing to a twelfth century church. We followed the road a short way and came upon the church, but it appeared to be surrounded by private property, and as we drove up the driveway, a curious dog followed us. It wasn’t clear that we were supposed to stop there, so we did not get out and explore further.

    We drove on to the village of Biran, a one street fortified hill town known in Occitan as a castelnau. We went inside the church to look at its huge carved stone altarpiece and to get out of the rain. There is a square tower remaining from the ruined castle, and a round tower attached to a fifteenth century manor house, or gentilhommiere.

    We drove from Biran toward Auch and visited the cathedral there. The gorgeous stained glass in the cathedral was created by the French artist Arnaut de Moles in the sixteenth century. Even though it was cloudy and gray outside, the color of the windows was bright and intense. After admiring the set of windows, we went inside the choir stalls, an enclosure in the center of the cathedral, which required a small admission charge. There is an amazing amount of detail in the over 1500 carved wooden figures inside. The wood was soaked in water for fifty years before carving in order to harden it and preserve it. The technique seems to have worked; according to the tour guide, in 500 years there has never been any maintenance required for the wood other than dusting it.

    The road from Auch was a bigger one than the country roads we had been traveling on, and as we cruised along heading for home, a bright light flashed. Oops. This is how we learned that those speed cameras aren’t just on the autoroutes.

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    I'm excited about this report as well. I'm considering a home rental in the Basque area for next year.

    We just returned from a trip that included a home rental outside Bordeaux. So far, your experiences (and even the photos of the home) are strikingly similar to ours. I'm looking forward to more. Thanks for posting.

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    Tuesday was market day in Trie. It was raining, and the vendors seemed somewhat sparse, or at least there were fewer than I expected. I wondered whether there were more when the weather was better. But there was more than enough for sale to fill a couple big market baskets to take home, and to provide a fertile ground for photography. One stand was selling four or five varieties of melons. I can still taste them as I write this. There was a truck selling cheese, and the vendor there was cheerfully giving out wonderful samples to all passers-by. It worked on me; I’ll take a chunk of each one please. I took a pass on the chevaline truck though.

    After lunch we headed out in a new direction with the goal of touring vineyards in the Madiran wine region. We got a bit turned around in Artagnan and found ourselves once again on back roads through the corn fields for much of the trip, which made the drive a longer one than necessary. No musketeers came to our aid, but we crossed and re-crossed the Adour River and found our way in the driving rain through villages with water running along both sides of the road.

    By the time we started seeing grape vines alongside the road, the rain had stopped. We followed signs and drove around for a while deciding where to stop for tastings. Our first stop was at the Laplace vineyard at Chateau d’Aydie. The three wine drinkers of the family sampled and chose a couple bottles for purchase while I took photos of the beautiful grounds and of the workers trimming the vines. The host in the tasting room was a serious, picturesque fellow whose portraits graced the walls.

    My older daughter, who has toured vineyards in California, was surprised and delighted to find that here the tastings were free. However, my husband found that these free tastings ended up being fairly costly because after the effort the wine makers put into welcoming you and providing all these samples, you felt obligated to buy something at each stop.

    After visiting a second vineyard, we had a few bottles to take home, and my husband wanted to stop with that. But we were having fun and wanted to see more and so he was outvoted. We stopped at Domaine Pichard and the host poured several samples. The Madiran wines are all red, and are distinguished by a large percentage of tannat grapes. But there is also a white wine produced in the region, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, and the host here told us that it is customary to drink this with foie gras. So we ended up buying some of that also. And then the host threw in a free, unlabeled bottle for us to try at home.

    I love the French.

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    Thanks for the comments; they are much appreciated.

    StCirq, I got my information about castelnau from the web site of Les Amis du Vieux Biran (http://tinyurl.com/yuvza4).

    ekscrunchy, an observant reader has informed me that the creature is "an ordinary slug," although it doesn't look ordinary to me. In French it is evidently known as une limace.

    My husband at first thought it was a ceramic garden ornament. Then it moved.

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    We drove home and I forced my husband against his will to agree to go out for dinner. We had eaten at home the first three nights and I was ready to go to some local restaurants. I pointed out that I had no complaints about his abilities as a grill chef, but after all we were in France, and we didn’t get to go to restaurants in France very often.

    We ran into difficulties finding a place that was both nearby and open. We ended up at a restaurant at a hotel in Trie. I was happy enough with my meal, since if I’m eating duck confit I’m going to be pretty happy no matter what. But my husband was not happy with his meal so the evening was not a success. We would have better luck later on though; we just had to learn that spontaneous meals in the immediate vicinity were not necessarily the best choice.

    Our evenings in the house were mostly spent reading. I was fixated on reading guides and maps of the area and planning our excursions, but everyone else went through an enormous quantity of books. The house had two very large living rooms, only one of which we ever used. Both were furnished with comfortable sofas and we made a fire in the huge stone fireplace because it was really chilly in the house. We could have turned on the heat, but that seemed so odd in August in the South of France and the fireplace was so much more atmospheric. My husband spent much of each night sleeping on the sofa because it was so comfortable that he fell asleep reading.

    The house was so very attractive, and on such a grand scale, that my husband’s comment on arrival (other than that we had gotten the better end of the house exchange) was that he expected the local peasantry to come batter down the doors and windows and revolt against us.

    It was pointed out to him that the French revolution took care of most of that sort of thing quite some time ago.

    In addition to the living rooms, the first floor had a dining room and a large, well-equipped eat-in kitchen. There were laundry facilities and a ping pong table in an area which must have been the barn. Two half baths downstairs, one off the kitchen and one off one of the living rooms.

    Upstairs there were five bedrooms and three baths, one of which was inside the master bedroom along with two sinks. Clearly this place was much too big for us, and we thought it would be a great house for a much larger group. Lots of party potential. The beds were all new. There was also a small living room with television and computer upstairs.

    This is a two-hundred-year-old house, so there are floors, stairs, and walls at all sorts of odd angles, with steps going into and out of rooms. Lots of woodwork throughout. Lots of character. And a resident dormouse population that can be heard scrambling about above the ceilings and between the walls, especially at night. We learned all about dormice from a book on the subject that we found in the living room. And our older daughter caught a glimpse of one when it scampered through her room one night. I am told that hasn’t happened before.

    But we’re used to this aspect of country life. We caught a plumber once in a mousetrap at our house on the Cape.

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    Wednesday morning a blazing sun was shining into our bedroom window. Excited by the possibility of a warm, dry day, I got up early. The peaks of the Pyrenees were visible through the window for the first time since we arrived.

    By the time anybody else was up, the sun was gone. We never saw the Pyrenees from the house again. The rest of my family probably thinks I was hallucinating.

    I had not yet driven our car in France. It had been decades since I had driven a car with standard transmission. But this morning I decided to take the plunge, and I brought our older daughter along as a guinea pig to go to the bakery in Trie.

    A word about topography. A glance at the area on Google Earth shows that North of the A64 autoroute there are many ridges extending northward from the Pyrenees like fingers. Separating these ridges are slivers of flat land with cultivated fields. Local roads that go in a North-South direction are fairly flat, bordered for the most part by cornfields. But roads that go from East to West go over the ridges on winding roads with impatient drivers behind you.

    There was only one of these ridges to cross between our house and Trie. I only stalled about three times trying to get out of the steep driveway from our house to the road. Once on the road, I was fine, probably shifted later than I should have going up the hill, but we made it to the bakery without incident.

    While in Trie, my daughter decided to get a haircut. A morning of bold decisions all around. I needed to accompany her to tell the hairdresser what she wanted done. Although my daughter took French in school for five years, she feels unable to use it at all. Neither one of us remembers the chapter in her book about hairdressing vocabulary, although we both remember that there was such a chapter.

    The first beauty parlor we looked at had people waiting. We walked to another one, where there was a woman all alone. We went in and asked if my daughter could get her hair cut. The woman said yes, but that it would be done by a man who was walking in. He started putting on an apron and asked what she wanted. I quickly ran out of words and started pulling up my own hair to show the idea of layers. Her hair is long, my hair is short, but somehow he got the concept.

    The haircut came out great. The hairdresser said she really needed it. He said she looked “plus mignonne”. I had to agree. I think he said that layering is called “dégradé”.

    I think I only stalled a couple times getting out of the parking lot and made it back to the house without annoying too many drivers. Emboldened by my success, I decided to drive both girls to Tarbes after lunch for some shopping. Tarbes is the nearest city, but we had not been there yet. The road to Tarbes went over several ridges, punctuated by several flat stretches. My younger daughter told me I seemed calmer than I am when my husband drives. Well, appearances can be deceiving.

    But we got to Tarbes and found a place to park and started to explore. I went into an antiques shop and the girls went off in search of more interesting fare. We met up a short while later and I heard the sound of a piano coming from inside the large market building. We investigated and found that there was a band setting up for a performance in the tango festival that was going on all week.

    While the band rehearsed, I stayed to listen and the girls headed off to shop. They came back and told me they had found a street with lots of promising shops, so we walked back there together and I browsed in a bookstore until I was summoned to come pay for some purchases. I could hardly deny them a new sweater for one and a jacket for the other; after all, we had not packed appropriately for this cold, rainy weather. As for me, I had brought only one long sleeved shirt, and I had worn it every day since arriving in France.

    The stores were all starting to close, so we walked back to our car and drove home. I really wanted to go out for a nice restaurant meal, but at this point I had reached planning breakdown. The few very local restaurants I tried to call were closed. So we got in the car and drove back to Tarbes.

    We ended up at a place we all liked a lot called Aux Tables d’Antan on the Place de Verdun in the center of Tarbes. We arrived after 9 PM, and the waitress had to find out whether they would still serve us. Dinner here is eaten earlier than we had become accustomed to in Spain and Portugal. This restaurant served very hearty regional fare in large portions. As we finished at around 11 PM, our waitress put on a helmet and went out to her motorbike to drive home. There is a website for the restaurant at www.aux-tables-d-antan.fr.

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    I am enjoying this so much!!! Although I promised myself I would set aside today to pack for my own trip coming up, I am staying glued to the screen to read the installments...sounds like a great trip!!

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    On Thursday we decide to go to the thermal spa at Bagnères-de-Bigorre. This resort town located on the Adour in the Pyrenees has natural thermal springs that have attracted people since the Romans were there. An old casino building has been updated into a complex called Aquensis, where you can buy a pass for two hours for 16 euros per person. There is a large pool with various types of water jets, bubbles, whirlpool effects and waterfalls. There is a hammam with a steam bath and tearoom serving spiced tea. On the upper level there are two saunas (very hot and impossibly hot) with a cold shower to dunk yourself under afterward. And on the roof there are jacuzzis and a pool with a clear bottom so that swimmers can be seen from underneath from the main pool area.

    Signs throughout the complex urge “calme et silence”, but there is little of either while we are there. Families with children of all ages are making the atmosphere more like a beach party than a day of relaxation. It’s an interesting experience, though.

    We dined at home that night. All our meals at the house were wonderful, using products from the local stores and markets. Grilled meat and vegetables, cheese, pates, sausages, various prepared foods and salads from the charcuteries, we were not suffering. Not to mention the wine that we had brought back from the vineyards, and the bread and desserts from the bakeries.

    This was our younger daughter’s last night in France. She had to get back to the real world, move into her new dorm, and start classes before the rest of us returned. Her flight left Toulouse on Friday morning at 6 AM. I wasn’t awake to see it, but apparently she and my husband, still awake at 2:30 AM, left for the airport without ever getting to bed. They found the airport, my husband found his way back to the house, and our daughter got to Boston without further incident. Her suitcase had an unplanned stopover in Amsterdam and arrived in Boston two days later.

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    Friday morning I drove into Trie with my daughter for bread and other goodies. We stopped at the supermarket for whatever else we needed because it was about to close for over a week. This was unfortunate, because the nearest other supermarkets were all about half an hour away. We had become accustomed to the convenience and to stopping in for various things that we needed on an almost daily basis. For instance, we became addicted to the smoked salmon that was available in packages at a far lower price for a far better quality than we have available in our part of the world. We had bought some for breakfast almost every day. And there were all sorts of things in the supermarket to fill in our meals that we could never get at home: duck sausage for the grill, smoked duck breast, I want some now.

    There was a fish truck in the center of Trie and we wondered whether it only came on Fridays. There is no fish market in the town. A crowd of older people looking like a Hollywood casting call for French villagers had gathered around the truck to buy fish, blocking our way out of the parking lot. The women were standing around the truck making purchases; the men were a few feet away chatting. One of the men came out to wave and guide me as I drove between this Gallic Scylla and Charybdis. Somehow I avoided running over his toes.

    The sun had finally come out. We spent this day around the house, finally getting the opportunity to use the pool. At least that’s what I think I remember; there are no photos from that day to jog my memory further.

    That night, or maybe it was the next night, we had dinner at a restaurant in Pouyastruc, a village between our house and Tarbes. The restaurant was called Aou Soum, which in the local Bigourdan patois means au sommet, at the summit. It was indeed at the top of one of the ridges, with a theoretical fine view of the Pyrenees, if one could ever see them through the clouds and the haze. We had tried to get reservations here on two previous evenings without finding them open. Reservations are essential therefore, if only to make sure they will be serving when you arrive (05 62 33 24 60).

    This was a lovely meal. There was one couple there when we arrived, and at some point I heard loud lapping noises coming from their table. When the woman noticed me looking startled, she smiled and told me it was their dog, which was sitting unseen under the table. A party of about six older couples came in after that and appeared to be having a good time with lively conversation. I thought I picked out some distinctly southern French accents with rolling r’s and extra syllables.

    I had garbure to start the meal. Last time I had this was in college, when our dorm would make a communal meal on Sunday nights. Our resident faculty member had traveled in France and came up with this idea for a soup/stew that contains everything but the kitchen sink. The dish and its name became a running joke between a friend and me, so I had to have some to celebrate the memory. I hope she remembers.

    Garbure is based on white beans, which are grown in Tarbes. Driving through the area, we had passed a field with a big white bean cartoon figure looking something like Casper the friendly ghost, extolling the virtue of the haricot Tarbais.

    There was also magret, some nice fish dish that my daughter ordered, and a very nice plate with assorted small dessert items. There appeared to be only two people working there, a woman serving in the front and the chef in the kitchen. I would go back to this restaurant (a good thing, too, since it was one of the closest ones to the house).

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    I just googled a bit and found out that bigarade is the French name for the bitter oranges grown in Seville.

    Bigourdan is the dialect spoken in the Bigorre, the region of France around Tarbes, which was a province before the French revolution.

    I love the internet.

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    On Saturday we headed East in search of ancient ruins and pottery. As we approached Montmaurin, we took a detour down the Gorges de la Save, a wooded canyon along which are limestone cliffs studded with prehistoric excavations. We did not locate any of the caves themselves but we passed several parties of hikers and picnickers. We drove up to the village of Lespugue, just outside of which my husband and daughter followed a trail to the ruins of a thirteenth century castle overlooking the countryside. Then we stopped at La Hillère, where there is a cemetery with an old chapel that we read houses a beautiful mosaic, but the chapel was locked. Next to the cemetery there are Roman ruins that may be the remains of a villa similar to the one in Montmaurin, which is where we headed next.

    The Gallo-Roman villa at Montmaurin is a large site alongside a river. There are remains of a huge, luxurious residence with two hundred rooms, heated water under the floors, a temple, and separate rooms for use in summer and in winter. A few mosaics remain on the floors.

    This is one of the large and best-preserved Roman villas in France. Cornfields run right up to the walls of the villa. There is a view toward the village of Montmaurin at the top of a hill beyond fields of sunflowers. This is an unspoiled site in a rustic setting that probably did not look very different when the villa was inhabited.

    We drove from the archeological site to the village of Montmaurin, built in the bastide style, with a public swimming pool in the central square. It was getting good use on this warm afternoon. We were in search of drinks, but there were no stores visible in this town, so we drove on.

    Outside the town of Boulogne-sur-Gesse we found La Poterie Hillen (www.poterie.fr). In a beautifully landscaped setting filled with garden decorations made at the pottery sits a studio and shop where we selected an assortment of items. The house where we were staying had on display a set of dishes from this pottery which I had admired, so I bought several small items in a matching glaze to bring home as mementos.

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    Sunday was our anniversary. We decided to celebrate by driving up into the mountains. The weather had improved. The caretaker had come and fixed the leaky roof over our daughter’s bedroom. A can of Drano had eliminated the backed up drain in our shower. Life was good.

    Our first stop was Bagnères-de-Bigorre. The last time we had been there, it was overcast. This time, it was a revelation, with mountain scenery all around. Who knew there was a mountain at the end of that street? We stopped at a bakery for bread just in case we were inspired to picnic (we had brought along some saucisson for the same reason).

    As we drove through the town, we saw a flea market set up beside the river. Stop here, please. Great anniversary present. I found all sorts of treasures. How much for that Baudelaire livre de poche? Twenty centimes. And that set of nesting copper pots? Five euros. I’ll take two of those santons, s’il vous plait.

    I had to walk around for a while and think about the set of brass scale weights in the wooden case, even though the vendor dropped her price ten euros for me. When I returned, she and her friend were excited to see me. Someone else had come and examined the weights, and she hadn’t offered him the discount because she thought I would come back. And so I had. It’s sitting in my kitchen now, alongside the wooden tobacco jar from the guy with an accent I had never encountered before who spoke at lightning speed.

    When I showed up at the car with my several bags, my daughter said, “How did you buy so much stuff? I saw nothing but junk!” “It’s not junk, it’s brocante.” Sounds so much better in French.

    We continued driving up into the mountains and came to the village of Campan. There is a tradition in this village of displaying stuffed figures that resemble the harvest dummies we see in New England in the autumn. These hay-filled people, called mounaques, were posed on porches and balconies and seated on benches throughout the town. According to the Cadogan guide, the origin of these figures can be traced to a wedding custom: when a local girl married an outsider, the town would demand money from the groom to throw a party. The villagers would mock the wedding couple by holding satirical effigies of the couple over the wedding procession.

    There was a market set up selling local cheese, honey, liqueur, and pork products, among other things, under the sixteenth century market building and beside the sixteenth century fountain.

    The farther up we drove, the more bicyclists we passed. The road up here became very steep and winding, and we admired their stamina. The Tour de France follows this route, and I suppose these folk were attracted partially for that reason.

    We stopped in the ski town of La Mongie, eating a lunch of crepes at an outdoor cafe before lining up for the cable car that would take us to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. On the way up, we passed a flock of sheep which appeared to be a startling shade of aqua-marine. At the top of the mountain, there is an astronomical observatory built in 1888 that was active for many years and which provided the maps of the moon used by astronauts during the lunar landings. The observatory has been deactivated now and is used as a tourist site and museum.

    There are wonderful views in all directions, and we sat in the sunshine taking it all in while having cold drinks on the terrace. There were telescopes set up outdoors with a young guy looking like an MIT grad student on hand to explain what one was looking at. The telescopes were pointed at the sun, and we were supposed to be able to see sunspots and solar protuberances. All I could see was a big red ball, but my daughter thought she saw some sunspots.

    Inside the museum, there were films showing the life of the early astronomers who had to make their way up the mountain on foot. That must have been some life.

    Back down the mountain, we continued up the road from La Mongie to the Col du Tourmalet. This area is open grazing land for sheep and cows. The cow we waited for in the center of the busy street in La Mongie seemed less perturbed by seeing us than we were by seeing her. And the very steep winding road up to the pass was definitely made more interesting by the sudden appearance of sheep in the road after rounding a bend with a sheer drop beside the road. Usually with an impossibly fit bicyclist coming down in the other direction to add further interest. Glad I wasn’t driving. Or bicycling, for that matter.

    At the top of the pass there is a sculpture of a bicyclist, Le Geant de Tourmalet. After admiring the view, we left the giant behind and retraced our steps back to the house.

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    Monday promised to be hot. We went to the market in Mirande in the morning. This was bigger than the market in Trie, with separate areas for food and for clothing. My daughter and I bought a couple of cheap purses and scarves and tablecloths before heading over to the food area for olives, cake filled with walnuts, fruit, bread, and photographs.

    As we drove back toward the house, we passed several farms advertising foie gras and decided to go into one. There were all sorts of things for sale in cans and jars. We had bought foie gras at a roadside stand a few days earlier, as well as a jar of duck hearts stuffed with foie gras. I hadn’t figured out what to do with the duck hearts, and when I saw them for sale here as well, I asked the farmer how you prepare them. He said to serve them cold, sliced in half, and showed me a recipe for a salade Gasconne with the halved duck hearts and smoked magret arranged around salad greens. OK, now I know what’s for lunch.

    We bought some more foie gras as well as a sauce to eat with pate. So much foie gras, so little time.

    After lunch we hung around the pool. This was the hottest day of our vacation, the kind of day that's so hot that as soon as you get out of the pool you need to get back in to cool off again. Fortunately the thick stone walls kept the house cool.

    Dinner that night was at La Ferme Auberge du Lac, in Puydarrieux, a few miles past Trie. Reservations are required at 05 62 35 54 92. There is a web site at http://www.ferme-du-lac.com/. I didn’t get a picture of the haystacks arranged into the shape of a cow at the entrance to the driveway, more’s the pity. Dinner was served outdoors and it was cooling off enough to be a beautiful evening. We enjoyed our dinners. Garbure. Homemade charcuterie, more duck, either confit or grilled magret with an interesting rub. Green beans and sautéed potatoes. Fromage.

    The host came out and when we asked if he was the chef he smiled and said no. But who cooked dinner? He did. Not a chef though. Modest fellow. He said they have many English-speaking guests because of the large number of people from Britain buying houses in the area. He was sorry that his seven years of English classes in school had not taught him enough to speak any English. My daughter commiserated, a kindred spirit, although one with whom she could not communicate.

    The only other guests that night were a party of two English couples, and we were encountering our own language barriers with them. We were all deciding what to get for dessert. It became clear that we were talking about entirely different food items when one ordered flan and was surprised to find that it was custard. Well yes, I said, isn’t it always custard? No, I was informed, in England it was more like quiche. And as we continued to discuss desserts, it seemed to me that I was more likely to get what I expected ordering from a French menu in France than I would be at a restaurant in England.

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    Tuesday was another sunny morning, so we headed toward the ocean. We took the autoroute and encountered a patch of rain that made our beach plans look unlikely, but the rain ended and we saw nothing but sunshine the rest of the day.

    Our first stop was Biarritz. We parked in the garage under the casino, which is right across the street from the Grande Plage. We had lunch in a café with a view of the beach and watched the surfers. One end of the beach is devoted to surfers and one to swimmers. The waiters at our café looked like surfers. There are chairs and umbrellas for rent at reasonable prices both on the beach and on the promenade overlooking the beach.

    After an hour or two of beach time, we changed out of our bathing suits and drove along the shore toward St-Jean-de-Luz. The area around the picturesque fishing harbor was very crowded with tourists, but we lucked into a parking space and walked around for a while. I shopped in two stores selling Basque linens and ducked into a chocolate shop for a couple of truffles and macarons in honor of the local chocolate industry, brought to the area by Jews escaping the Inquisition.

    We drove to Bayonne. I had no map and no clear idea of the layout of the city and we drove around for a while looking for parking. We found a spot along the Nive River. Directly across the river I spotted the Musée Basque. We visited the museum, which has a fascinating collection of artifacts of rural Basque life. I want to go to the flea market where those things are sold. There was a collection of objects of sports and games, including the most enormous bowling ball and pins I have ever seen. A fascinating film showed an old community theatrical historical re-enactment. The museum was recently re-opened after a major renovation and it is an attractive, well-designed and interesting collection.

    There were several restaurants along the riverfront, but none were open yet at 6:30, when the museum closed. So we sat at a quayside bar and had drinks until we could go for dinner. The restaurant right in front of our car was open, and although I have misplaced the name, it was a very nice choice for a casual Basque dinner. I had an ocean salad, which consisted of greens mixed with shrimp, smoked salmon, tuna, and I forget what else. Then grilled fresh fish. My husband had a great fish soup with aioli, and my daughter had a veal stew.

    After dinner we made the drive back home, which took about two hours.

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    Wednesday was a day of rest. I have no idea what we did, other than enjoy the pool and the house. We probably did a lot of reading. Maybe we played Boggle. I probably spent a lot of time weeding through my pictures. I know I didn’t take any.

    We had one more major excursion to take, and that was to drive across the mountains into Spain. Looking at the weather report for the two days remaining to us, we decided to go Thursday. It was looking pretty sketchy, though. Very cloudy. But we took a chance on the weather and headed South toward the Aragnouet-Bielsa tunnel. The road climbed steeply and near the top of the climb we stopped the car and got out for pictures.

    The clouds were hanging low and obscuring the view of the tops of the hills. It was very chilly at the top, and I was wondering whether this trip would be worthwhile. Just before the tunnel we passed a structure by the road and wondered what it was for. I thought that it might have been a toll booth, although the crossing was free now. It didn’t occur to me until later that it must have been the border crossing. Not needed now that people pass freely between France and Spain without showing passports.

    The tunnel was unlighted. When we emerged on the other side it was a bit brighter out, and I had more hope for a decent day. One of the first things we noticed in Spain was the hydroelectric plants. The rivers on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees are almost all dammed. I read in the Rough Guide to the Pyrenees that the area was a Republican stronghold during the Spanish Civil War, and that Franco punished the people living there by damming the rivers and flooding the valleys that had been used for agriculture.

    The land on the Spanish side of the mountains was dryer than the French side. And the sky was getting bluer. This made my daughter and me recall our drive to Santa Fe last May, when we passed from the green countryside of Colorado to the yellow high desert of New Mexico. The change was a bit less abrupt, but by the time we had driven a few miles into Spain, it was a beautiful, sunny day. I was very glad we had taken a chance on the weather.

    We stopped at the medieval village of Ainsa, parking in the lot next to the castle at one end of the village. Despite my extensive research, I had read nothing about this hill town. Most of my books dealt with Portugal and France; I had neglected the Spanish part of our itinerary. This was a pleasant surprise. The village has been heavily restored. The castle contains a museum about the nature of the Pyrenees, but we didn’t go inside. We walked on the castle walls for nice views of the countryside. Inside the castle walls there is a large open space, and workers were erecting a tent for what looked like a party or other event. Looked like a nice place for a shindig.

    Walking out the other side of the castle wall, we entered the village. The Plaza Mayor is a big public space lined with restaurants, so we settled into one for lunch. There was quite a breeze, and it was all we could do to make sure our glasses and napkins didn’t blow away. We weren’t entirely successful; my husband’s shirt was covered with wine stains by the time we left. A family with small children observed the wine glass fall toward him, and it was the source of some great amusement.

    The restaurant was Restaurante Alberto, and we enjoyed our lunch there very much, wind and all. My husband and daughter shared paella, which was really good, and I had some dish made from pork cheeks. My daughter started with a very nice spinach pie with nuts. I can’t remember my appetizer, but I do remember thinking it was very good. Should have taken pictures, should have taken notes, should have written my trip report sooner, oh well.

    I spoke to the waiter in French; he said more people around there spoke French than English, which makes sense. He was hesitant to take our US credit card, saying that when he tried to use one the night before, the machine broke. But today it worked, he said we were lucky, and we were on our way again.

    We decided to take the road past Torla and Biescas, returning to France over the Col du Pourtalet. This route took us through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery I had seen in a long time. We passed hills that looked like they had been lifted from the earth with an ice cream scoop. Old villages and castles dotted the landscape. There were views up to rocky peaks in all directions.

    Near the border, we stopped at a rest area for photos. It felt like the end of the world. But just a little farther up the road we came to a ski area with all its attendant development.

    We did make one stop after coming down from the mountains, at a bakery outside Pau, where I bought a flaky croustade made with apples and Armagnac, just in case we got hungry later that night. While I was in the bakery, my husband watched a woman selling pizza out of a truck with its own wood burning pizza oven. She was doing a brisk business. If only we were hungry.

    We had had a very long day of driving on steep, winding roads, and we were all ready to get out of the car by the time we got home.

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    Nikki, you're doing very well writing at your dining room table. I even had to get out my Midi-Pyrenees map to see all the places you visited. We drove into that area as far south as Lectoure at the end of our Dordogne trip last year to visit a woad dying attelier, Bleu de Lectoure. Very lovely, pastoral, quite unspoiled countryside.

    I know that Sheila has a house in that area that she sometimes rents and checked her website to see whether you stayed nearby, only to dicover that you actually exchanged with Sheila! Cigalechanta has stayed there too and says it is lovely.

    Since fodorites can't write about their own rental places, I have accumulated a list of fodorite renters that I am happy to share. I have absolutely no interest in this other than that renting from a fodor regular is different than renting from a stranger. moolyn@hotmail.com

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    Friday was our last full day in France. My daughter and I took a last trip to the bakery in the morning, finally getting there early enough for croissants. Ah, maybe we’re getting adjusted to the time change. The fish truck was making its Friday fish sales.

    We spent most of the day at the house and around the pool. There were still a couple of things we wanted to do though. My daughter wanted to shop at Kookai in Tarbes. And we had some idea of trying to get to the Musée de la Déportation et de la Résistance, also in Tarbes. By the time we were ready to go, it was too late for the museum. So we headed for the shopping street and explored in our own ways. There was a Monoprix and a branch of Galeries Lafayette.

    As I sat on a bench in the park in front of the Hotel de Ville, I watched the people and thought how differently they looked and dressed from the people in the countryside. The people in this small provincial city looked more modern than the folks gathered around the fish truck in Tri-sur-Baïse. Maybe they were just younger. And the people back in Trie must be their parents.

    We decided to eat dinner at home for our last night. We had too much good food sitting at home waiting to be finished, not to mention the wine. But we didn’t have a main course, so we looked for a store in Tarbes. We ended up at a huge supermarket where we had to walk a mile or two to get to the butcher counter and ask the butcher to cut veal chops for us.

    Back at the house we cooked and ate and packed and fell asleep, waking up the next morning to the view of a beautiful sunrise and the prospect of a long day of travel.

    We drove to Toulouse, returned the rental car, and walked through some construction to the terminal. We waited on line for the check-in agent, who told us our connection in Amsterdam was too short, they shouldn’t have issued us tickets for that flight, and the computer wouldn’t let him print out boarding passes.

    A supervisor told us he would send a telex (don’t they have phones?) to the gate in Amsterdam and tell them we were coming, but that we would have to go to the transfer desk in Amsterdam. Our flight arrived in Amsterdam on time and we were at the transfer desk with over half an hour before our flight was scheduled to leave for Boston, but the desk agent told us the flight had already closed and there was no way we could get on it.

    He said they shouldn’t have sold us those tickets. Oh well. He found us a flight to Paris and got us on the next non-stop flight from Paris to Boston, so we ended up being delayed by just a few hours. And instead of Northwest, we were now flying on Air France, so the food was better and there were French movies to watch en route.

    My bags decided to stay an extra day in Amsterdam, but everyone else’s bags were on the Air France flight with us. Our younger daughter was at the airport to pick us up (we had called to tell her of the delay; what did we ever do without cell phones?) and we got home without further incident. After traveling for something like twenty hours, I was ready for bed. But I would turn around and do it all again tomorrow.

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    Interesting question, Anselm. As we passed over the sheep in the cable car going up to the observatory, the French woman next to me pointed and said to look at the brebis aquamarine. I was looking for green cheese, didn't realize that was also the word for sheep.

    But now I'm thinking, moon rocks.

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    hi again, nikki,

    I so enjoyed your report.

    I hope your husband has forgiven me for recommending such an inaccessible hotel.

    if it's any comfort, when we left it we couldn't get a cab to get to the station to pick up our hire car, so we had to walk all the way there, past some rather dodgy looking folks and shops, dragging our suitcase behind us.

    then we couldn't negotiate the exit to the car park and almost pranged the car.

    does that help?

    regards, Ann

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    "My bags decided to stay an extra day in Amsterdam"

    I wonder why? :-D

    Nice report - I've been keeping a look out so I could read the entire report in one sitting - a wonderful way to spend a Sunday evening.

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    Alya, in this part of town it's still Saturday evening.

    Ann, I haven't told my husband the hotel was anybody's idea but my own, and for that matter I haven't told him I had any other choices. So I think we're both safe.

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    Nikki,

    I've only just figured out that it's September :-D

    I missed my bookclub meeting last week because I thought that Thursday was Wednesday. Got home on Thursday checked my mail and realised I was 2 hours late - I did call and apologise.

    In July I turned up a day late because they changed the day from Thursday to Wednesday.

    Too blonde(ish) sometimes :-(

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