In the shadow of the Pyrenees, lies the ancient region of Béarn. A wild, untamed land dominated by its stunning scenery, it’s an area of myths and legends, and has an otherworldly, spiritual feel. It’s a collection of rugged, impossibly tall mountains, and lush green forests and fields, and is home to an abundance of wildlife, including magnificent birds of prey and adorably cute marmots.
Having spent childhood holidays on the eastern and western fringes of the Pyrenees, we decided it was time to explore the central part of France’s natural border with Spain and booked a gîte for a week in Béarn.
Our week was spent following the pilgrim trail to Bétharram and Lourdes, and sightseeing in the region’s capital, Pau, home to Henri IV’s elegant chateau (above). We also spent time touring the wine-growing areas of Madiran and Jurançon, going underground at the Grottes de Bétharram, and of course, exploring the Pyrenees themselves in the Ossau Valley.
Given the varied, and at times, imposing terrain, the region’s food revolves around hardy mountain animals. Goat’s and ewe’s milk cheeses are abundant, the local standout being the delicious Ossau-Iraty, which is made using unpasteurised ewe’s milk and has a slightly nutty taste. We were lucky enough to be staying near a fabulous fromagerie and had great fun picking out cheeses. Tomme de Pyrenees and a wonderful blue goat’s cheese from the region were among our favourites.
With all the great cheese the region produces, it stands to reason that it also needs some good wine to help wash it all down, and luckily, the Madiran and Jurançon regions provide just that.
We spent a day driving around the small towns and villages of the Madiran region on the look out for vineyards producing the robust, earthy red and ended up sampling (and subsequently buying) a number of bottles in the local wine co-op. I’d never heard of Jurançon, a white wine produced in the region around Pau, before visiting Béarn, and being a fussy white wine drinker, I was surprised to find I rather liked the dry version, Jurançon Sec.
Béarn might not be top of most people’s list of places to visit in France, but I found a region steeped in history with excellent food and drink, lots to see and do, and of course, breathtaking scenery. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Lourdes (above), Pau (the shopping’s superb) and Bétharram, and all in all, I loved my week in the region. If you’re looking for somewhere to go in France that’s a little off the beaten track with unspoilt landscapes, great hiking and a fairly traditional way of life, you can’t go far wrong with Béarn.