Bordeaux

Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

Following my week-long sojourn in Béarn, I headed north-west to Bordeaux for a whistle-stop 21-hour tour of France’s ninth biggest city. It was almost 4pm by the time I arrived in Bordeaux and checked into my hotel near the city’s central railway station, the Gare Saint-Jean.

Having dumped my stuff in my room, I set off for a walk around Bordeaux and soon came to rue my decision to arrive in the city late on a Saturday afternoon as it was heaving and far too busy to stop in the street to look at the places that interested me or (more often) work out where the hell I was.

The Basilica of Saint Michel in Bordeaux

My hotel was a 15 to 20 minute walk from the heart of the city centre, and as I strolled in that direction, I was soon distracted by the sight of the enormous 14th century Basilique St Michel (above) and La Flèche, the tall belfry next to it. I continued walking towards the old town and decided to veer off via the backstreets, but soon got utterly lost, ending up at the city’s Marché des Capucins.

Completely disorientated, I went back the way I came before veering off down another side street and soon found myself before the Grosse Cloche (below), one of the oldest belfries in France. Its giant bell is rung at midday on the first Sunday of the month and at six other times during the year to mark special occasions such as Bastille Day.

Grosse Cloche in Bordeaux

I didn’t spend long at the belfry because it was unbelievably busy, making it almost impossible to stop, as there were crowds of people walking past in all directions, as well as lots of cyclists who seemed to defy all rules of the road. There were quite a few interesting shops in this part of Bordeaux, but it was too crowded to stop and look at them as the pavements were so narrow, if you stopped, you blocked the path.

Disorientated and somewhat stressed by how busy it was, I soon lost my way again and found myself at the Place de la Victoire, far from where I wanted to be. Once I realised my mistake, I corrected course and carefully kept to the Cours Pasteur, passing the Musée d’Aquitaine on my way to the Cathédrale Saint-André and its bell tower, the Tour Pey-Berland.

I stopped for a little while to admire the architecture of the two magnificent structures, then headed into the old town, where I spent the next hour or so wandering up and down the streets, browsing in the area’s many shops. The old town wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as the other parts of the city (although it was still busy) and I found it much more bearable and relaxing, so much so, I finally started to enjoy my time in Bordeaux.

The Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

After an hour or so exploring the old town, I made my way down to the Place de la Bourse (above), a grand, elegant square with a showstopping fountain in its centre, the Fontaine de Trois-Gráces.

From the square, I crossed the road to take a look at the Garonne River and the enormous Pont de Pierre that spans it (below). The Garonne was huge and much, much wider than I was expecting, and after marvelling at how attractive everything was in the warm evening sunshine, I set off for a stroll along the river bank on the way back to my hotel.

La Garonne River in Bordeaux

The next day I was up and out of my hotel by 9.20am as I was keen to see as much as I could during the little time I had left in Bordeaux. But this being France on a Sunday, I was also aware that most places were likely to be closed for a while.

Undeterred, I set out in the direction of the old town along the Cours d’Alsace et Lorraine looking for somewhere to have breakfast. Every café and shop I passed was closed and the streets were practically deserted, in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the day before, so I was finally able to take my time to look around and get my bearings.

A croissant and hot chocolate at Le Duffour par Alfredo in Bordeaux

I’d spotted a nice looking boulangerie, Le Duffour par Alfonso, on the Cours Pasteur the day before, so I decided to head in its direction on the off chance it was open. Luckily it was, and I sat down to a simple, comforting breakfast – a croissant and hot chocolate (above).

After breakfast, I made my way to the Cathédrale de Saint-André and the Tour Pey-Berland. The bell tower already boasted a long queue of people waiting to go inside, but with my limited time left and poor weather and visibility, I decided not to join them.

Cathedrale de Saint-Andre in Bordeaux

Instead, I popped inside the cathedral (above), only to find (unsurprisingly) that the Sunday morning service was about to begin, during which time, the cathedral was off-limits to non-worshippers. As the service had yet to start, I nipped past the tape to keep out non-worshippers and had a quick nosy around. The cathedral was an impressive sight inside with wide, grey stone high-vaulted ceilings and an enormous stained glass window behind the altar.

The Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

When I stepped outside again, the heavens had opened and it was raining heavily, so I decided to spend my remaining couple of hours in the dry surroundings of the Musée d’Aquitaine (above) as I was keen to learn more about the region’s history. Inside the free museum, I made my way to the permanent exhibition on the ground floor, which takes visitors on a journey through the region’s history from prehistoric times to the end of the 18th century.

Most of the information about the displays was only in French, but my rudimentary understanding of the language meant I was (for the most part) able to follow it. The exhibition was okay, the highlight being the many Roman artefacts on display, which included quite a few very well-preserved mosaic floors. Bordeaux is an old Roman city and many of the artefacts were found in the streets surrounding the museum, and it was interesting to learn about this aspect of the city’s history.

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

The museum’s medieval and renaissance displays, by contrast, were rather disappointing as I’d been hoping to learn a lot about the region’s history and the people who shaped it, but there was very little about these periods. Even Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the region’s most famous rulers, was barely mentioned, bar a marble effigy (above).

Having seen all there was to see in the permanent ground-floor exhibition, I headed upstairs to the first floor where there was a huge exhibition about Bordeaux, covering the years 1800 to 1939.

The exhibition was really well curated and well designed, with lots of interesting artefacts on display, supported by information in French, Spanish and English. My only quibble was that a few of the information panels were illegible because they were written on glass or they’d failed to use contrasting colours on the panels, which meant the text blended into the background.

Display about Bordeaux's maritime history at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

The exhibition began by looking at the city at the turn of the 19th century, its growth and architecture, the wine trade and its notable citizens. It then moved on to a display about the city’s lengthy maritime history (above), featuring some superb model ships, and a sobering, thought-provoking and extensive display about the city’s links to the slave trade and the development of the French colonies in places such as Haiti, Martinique and La Réunion.

The display didn’t hold back as it explored the appalling treatment of the black slaves and the pervading racism at that time. I’ve visited a number of museums over the years that have glossed over the ugly aspects of their region’s or country’s past, and I was pleased that the museum did no such thing, but rather openly confronted and criticised the shameful aspects of Bordeaux’s history.

Recreation of an old grocery shop at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

The exhibition then turned its attention to life in Bordeaux as it developed into a modern city, including the development of its railways and commerce (above). All in all, it was a fascinating exhibition and I learned a lot. I came away with a much better understanding of the enormous impact the slave trade and the nation’s colonial history had on the city’s wealth, growth and development.  It was informative and eye-opening.

By now it was 1pm and time to head to the airport to catch my flight back to the UK. I left Bordeaux with mixed feelings. It’s a very handsome city with a long history, striking architecture, rich culinary heritage, great shops and lots to see and do, yet I can’t say I particularly enjoyed my time there.

However, I think this was largely down to my own stupidity in choosing to spend 21 hours in the city when it was at its busiest and quietest, and if I’d chosen to visit at any other time, I’d probably have had a fantastic time. I’d love to go back to Bordeaux, preferably some time during the week, to test this theory out as I suspect Bordeaux has the potential to be an incredible place for a short city break.

Travel tip

If you’re travelling to and from the city via its airport, hop on the number 1 bus, which will take you from the airport to the Gare Saint-Jean in the city centre, stopping at numerous points in the city en route. Tickets cost €1.60 and last an hour – you’ll need to buy your ticket before you board the bus, you can do this from a ticket machine or at your hotel.

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Chapelle Notre-Dame at Bétharram

Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

On the way to the Grottes de Bétharram, we spied an unusual church by the side of the road in Lestelle-Bétharram. So on the way back from the caves, we stopped to take a look.

The Chapelle Notre-Dame, which lies on the banks of the Gave de Pau, was built in the 17th century on what has been a popular site with Christian pilgrims for centuries. The chapel’s unusual shape and blue-grey hue was eye-catching and intriguing in itself, but inside I was blown away by how opulent the road-side chapel was. It’s one of the most lavishly decorated churches I’ve visited.

The area around the chancel was filled with an elaborately carved gold display with lots of statues, while the walls and ceiling were painted teal with a gold star pattern. There were marble columns, huge paintings framed in gold that looked as though they cost a fortune, as well as two ginormous crystal chandeliers. It was amazing and looked like something that belonged in Naples rather than a small chapel in a rural town in the Pyrenees.

Tomb of Saint Michel Garicotis inside the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

After our surprising experience in the main body of the chapel, we wandered down a corridor to another small chapel. This chapel was much simpler and home to a shrine dedicated to St Michel Garicotis, featuring a plush gold and glass tomb just behind the altar (above).

Shrine, part of the Way of the Cross, beside the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

Having seen all there was to see inside the incredible chapel, we ventured back outside to have a look at the shrine in a small building (above) to the right of the chapel. Inside, behind locked gates, there was a marble statue depicting an episode from Jesus’s life. We could see more of these unusual shrines dotted along a walking trail on the nearby hillside, so our curiosity piqued, we decided to follow the trail up the hill.

Church on top of the hill along the Way of the Cross in Betharram

As we climbed up the hill, we came across more and more shrines, and realised the trail – the Way of the Cross – led all the way to the top of the hill. We carried on until we reached the top, where we  found a simple church (above). Opposite the church, there were yet more shrines, as well as three statues depicting the crucifixion of Jesus in front of a graveyard (below).

Statues depicting the crucifixion of Jesus beside a graveyard in Betharram

For the second time that day, we were stunned by the scene in front of us as we hadn’t expected to find such an elaborate display when we started out. It was a little eerie on the mountain top as it was completely deserted, until a keep-fit class emerged towards the end of our visit. I really enjoyed our impromptu hike up the hill and our visit to the Chapelle Notre-Dame. The chapel was exquisite and the shrines oddly fascinating, and it was a wonderful, random and unexpected ending to our final day in Béarn.

Grottes de Bétharram

Stalagmites and stalactites inside one of the caverns at the Grottes de Betharram

On our final day in Béarn, we decided to spend the day exploring one of the region’s subterranean delights – the Grottes de Bétharram. The Grottes de Bétharram are a series of caves underneath the Pyrenees that can be visited on a guided tour, which allows you to explore the complex on foot, by boat and by train.

During the low season, the caves are closed between midday and 1.30pm, and as it was around lunchtime when we arrived at Bétharram, we decided to have a spot of lunch before the caves opened for the afternoon.

We stopped at a small shack nearby, which was run by an eccentric older couple who seemed thrown by having customers. When I asked for a cheese sandwich (one of the few sandwiches listed on the menu), the lady had to run to the fridge to check they had any cheese.

Preparing our food seemed to be a painstaking process, too, but 20 minutes later we had two sandwiches, a small portion of fries, two coffees and one earl grey tea. There were picnic benches on the grass near the shack, so we sat down at one to enjoy our meal.

Lunch over, we made our way back to the caves and found we had to wait until 2pm for more people to arrive before we could begin our guided tour. Once 2pm rolled around, we all piled on a coach, which took us to the caves’ entrance some 1km away, where we bought our tickets.

Looking down at the many flights of steps inside the Grottes de Betharram

Inside the cave complex, we were greeted by the sight of an enormous cavern featuring a series of steps that led down five storeys, as the caves are split over five levels (above). It was a cool 14° inside the caves, and our enthusiastic and friendly tour guide told us that the cave complex was home to another 12km of caves that were off limits to the public.

Stalagmites and stalactites in one of the incredible caves at the Grottes de Betharram

Rather than follow the steps down into the chamber, we were guided to the right, where we were taken on a tour of a gigantic cavern. The cave was spectacular with lots of stalagmites and stalactites, including a few gargantuan ones that had merged over the centuries.

The incredible mottled ceiling inside the Grottes de Betharram

The cave was full of beautiful and weirdly-shaped rocks, including ones that resembled a woman, Scooby Doo, a bear and a marmot. There were lots of pools, too, and an incredible mottled ceiling (above) that was unlike anything I’ve seen in a cave. It was a spectacular cave with lots of weird and wonderful features, and it was fascinating to walk through it.

Stalactites hang from the ceiling in the Grottes de Betharram

After thoroughly exploring the huge chamber, we came back on ourselves and made our way down the five levels of steps, taking note of the many incredible sights along the way. After a little while exploring the lower levels of the caves, we were ushered onto a long boat with a dragon’s head on each end, which took us on a 100m journey across a large pool of water.

On the other side of the pool, we continued walking through the caves, and for a time, were walking on a path alongside a small river that flowed through the cave complex.  Having followed the underground path for a while, we came to the final part of our tour – the train journey.

The little train at the Grottes de Betharram

The train was a small, multicoloured engine, similar to those you get in theme parks (above). We all clambered aboard, put on our seat belts and were off! We whizzed along the tracks at quite a speed and I was taken a back at how quickly we were going. I’d expected it to be slow and cumbersome, but the train was rather nippy. The train came to a stop above ground, and at the train station, there was a small shop and an excellent café housed in a grand early-20th century building.

I really enjoyed our visit to the Grottes de Bétharram. The caves were unbelievably beautiful and some of the best caves I’ve been to, with lots of interesting and unusual features. Our guide was friendly and welcoming, and the short boat trip and train ride at the end were great fun, too. Well worth visiting.

Pau

King Henri IV of France's chateau at Pau

The elegant capital of Béarn is the former home of the kings and queens of Navarre, and as such, boasts a rather impressive château. Needless to say, castle-lover that I am, I wasn’t about to miss out on an opportunity to visit Pau during our week in Béarn.

Our first port of call on arriving in Pau was the Boulevard de Pyrenees, an attractive promenade that overlooks the Gave de Pau, and on a clear day, as its name suggests, boasts excellent views of the nearby Pyrenees. After a short stroll along the promenade, we made our way to the Rue Mal Joffre, where we stopped for tea and cake (gateau Basque, a local custard tart) in a quiet, friendly salon de thé that sold exquisite chocolates, jams and pâtisserie.

Happily sated, we headed outside and continued along the street until we reached the magnificent Château de Pau. With its gleaming ivory walls, navy slate roof and red brick tower, the château looked mightily impressive and I was very excited about going inside.

The entrance to King Henri IV of France's chateau at Pau

Inside, the excitement quickly wore off when we were each handed a sheet of paper in English and ushered onto a guided tour. It turns out you can only visit the castle on a guided tour – in French. Now in France, I expect to join guided tours that are all in French and have happily done so many times before. With my rudimentary French, I can usually follow the tour and pick up on what the tour guide is saying.

However on this occasion, the tour guide droned on and on and on for what seemed like an age in each room and I couldn’t keep up with what was being said. We had the bare minimum of information about each room on our sheet of paper, which meant we and all the other people on the tour who didn’t speak French (and there were quite a few) were left bored out of our minds wondering what on earth the tour guide was saying because there didn’t seem to be that much to talk about in each room.

Everyone was also deadly silent during the tour, which meant we didn’t feel comfortable wandering around, looking at things and chatting among ourselves, as we felt obliged to silently stand and listen attentively to what was being said.

A statue of King Henri IV of France in the grounds of the Chateau de Pau

The rooms we visited were interesting to look at, with lots of grandly furnished spaces and marble staircases on display, although I got the sense we only saw a small part of the château. All the rooms had been furnished and decorated in the 19th century in imitation of how it might have looked during the reign of Henri of Navarre, and there were lots of tapestries hanging on the walls. It was essentially a shrine to its most famous resident, King Henri IV of France, but none of the contents, as far as I could tell, were authentic.

All in all, I was left feeling a bit disappointed by the château. I’d been looking forward to our visit, but once there, I found it a colossal bore and rather underwhelming. I was disappointed by how little of the castle we saw; the imitation interior, which relied far too heavily on tapestries for my liking; and the lack of information about the royal family of Navarre and how they used the château. It would also have been good to have been forewarned about the guided tour before we joined it.

The grounds at the Chateau de Pau

The tour over with, we went for a stroll around the château grounds, passing the small gardens, which were full of flowers and herbs, and briefly looked inside a tower, which featured an exhibition about the old currency of Navarre.

We then headed back towards the centre of Pau to have a look around the city’s other major sites. Given its long history, I’d expected Pau to be home to lots of medieval buildings but instead most of the buildings we passed dated from around the 19th century. The city is charming and elegant with superb shopping (there are lots of expensive-looking clothes shops and chocolatiers), but there wasn’t much in the way of places to visit other than the château.

Inside the Eglise Saint-Martin in Pau

One place we did look inside was the Église Saint-Martin, an attractive grey stone church, not far from the château. The church featured high-vaulted stone ceilings, and like so many churches in the region, an elaborately decorated chancel with lots of blues, purples and reds (above). We also briefly stopped by the winter palace, the Palais Beaumont, in the city’s Parc Beaumont. But there wasn’t much more to it than its attractive façade.

The winter palace, the Palais Beaumont, in Pau

Having walked all around the city centre and exhausted all the sites, we made our way home. My disappointment about the château aside, I found Pau to be a handsome city that boasts some excellent shops, and if I were rich, it’s probably where I’d go to do my clothes shopping. I really liked the city, it had a nice atmosphere and was a pleasant place to stroll around, and I got the impression that it would be nice place to call home if you were looking for a French city in which to live.

Ossau Valley

View from the top of the mountain at Artouste-Fabreges in the Pyrenees

I couldn’t very well spend a week in Béarn, in the shadow of the Pyrenees, without spending at least one day exploring the majestic mountain range. So we set off on a road trip that would take us through the Ossau Valley, one of a number of valleys cutting a swathe through the Pyrenees.

The Ossau Valley is the third largest Pyrenean valley in Béarn, starting just south of the regional capital Pau and running all the way to the Spanish border. We followed the D920 and then the D934 into the valley, passing a number of small towns along the way, the most notable being the charming town of Laruns.

After Laruns, we began steadily climbing as we continued to follow the road along the side of the mountain.

The spa village of Eaux-Chaudes on the banks of the Gave d'Ossau

At Eaux-Chaudes (above), we stopped briefly to stretch our legs. The small village is situated on the side of a mountain above the Gave d’Ossau, and in the 19th century was renowned for its hot springs. The pretty, peaceful village is still home to a spa, but there were few signs of life during our visit.

With no cafés or bars open, we hopped back in the car and continued our journey, passing the town of Gabas and a fair few hydro-electric stations, before reaching our destination, Artouste-Fabrèges. The Pyrenean village is essentially a mini-tourist resort and is home to a large dammed lake (below), shops, restaurants, a cable car and a tourist train.

Artouste Dam and Lac de Fabreges in the Pyrenees

The village was busy, far busier than anywhere else we’d been in Béarn, and there were quite a few bus loads of tourists milling about. Our plan, after we’d had a spot of lunch (goat’s cheese and tomato crêpe), was to take the cable car to the top of the mountain and to hop on the tourist train. The little yellow train claims to be the highest train in Europe and runs from the top of the mountain to the picturesque Lac d’Artouste, which is otherwise only accessible via a three-hour long walk.

The only snag in the plan came when I went to buy the tickets and found they were sold out for the day – at 1pm! Undaunted, we decided to take the cable car to the top of the mountain and have a look around instead.

The mountain was very steep and I was glad the cable car was doing all the hard work for us as I wouldn’t have wanted to climb it. From the window, I spotted a number of furry creatures, which looked like mountain beavers, running along the side of the mountain. They were super cute and I later found out they were marmots, which are a familiar sight in the Pyrenees.

View from top of the mountain at Artouste-Fabreges in the Pyrenees

After alighting the cable car near the top of the mountain, we decided to keep going until we reached the top so we could get an even better view of the valleys and peaks around us. The views were spectacular and it was an incredible sight. The mountains and lakes were stunningly beautiful, and we spent quite a while soaking up the sights and watching the cows and horses milling around the mountain top.

We then made our way back down to the café next to the cable car station, where we stopped for a hot chocolate, which we sipped on the outdoor terrace overlooking the valley below. Having soaked up our fair share of glorious mountain views, we travelled back down the mountain in the cable car (and saw more marmots), before making our way back up the Ossau Valley and home.

Madiran

Grapes growing on the vines at Aydie in the Madiran wine region

Being partial to the odd glass of red wine, I was keen to spend some time touring the Madiran wine region while I was in Béarn. The area is known for its full-bodied, robust red wines, and produces a less well known white, the Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, too. Following a map of the Madiran wine region in my guide book, we set out for a road trip around the vineyards.

Grapes growing on the vine at Aydie

Our trip started in the small bastide town of Lembeye and followed the D13 through the villages of Castillon, Arricau-Bordes, Cadillon and Conchez-de-Béarn. The countryside was pleasant enough during this part of the route, but I was surprised by how few vineyards we saw. There was field after field of corn, but only the occasional grape vine, and if it wasn’t for my trusty map, I wouldn’t have known we were in wine country.

A field full of grape vines at Aydie in the Madiran wine region

After the first leg of our journey, we crossed the hills to the village of Aydie and we finally started to see lots of vineyards (above). We briefly stopped in the tiny village to look around, only to find there wasn’t much more to it than a few houses, a church and a château, but it was very quaint and delightful. Plus the outskirts were full of vineyards!

The charming 11th century church in Madiran

We continued along the route and decided to stop again in the region’s namesake town, Madiran, which turned out to be a very charming little place. Sadly, pretty much everything in the town was closed when we arrived, including the lovely looking church that dated from the 11th century (above). So after a brief tour of the deserted town, we hopped back in the car and continued our journey.

The wine merchants at Crouseilles

Our next and final stop was Crouseilles where the Crouseilles-Madiran wine co-op is based, and where we planned to sample and buy some wine – the only problem was finding it. We got horribly lost following the D648 as instructed by the map, when the road seemingly turned into a dirt track with lots of crossroads and no signposts. After a few wrong turns, we eventually made our way to Crouseilles and found the local wine merchant in the château (above).

A bottle of Madiran wine bought from the wine merchants in Crouseilles

The wine shop was full of bottles of Madiran and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh at prices to suit all budgets – some were cheap, others were wildly expensive. The wine merchant was really friendly and let us try various wines while we decided which ones to buy. Armed with a good few bottles of Madiran (above) and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, our road trip was over, and it was time to head back towards the main road and our gîte.

Lourdes

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France

Nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees, Lourdes is France’s most famous pilgrimage site. Having been to Santiago de Compostela in Spain some eight years ago, I was keen to visit Lourdes during our trip to Béarn to compare the two sites and to find out why this Pyrenean town attracts some five million Christian pilgrims each year.

The miracle around which the town’s fortune was built occurred in 1858 when an 18-year-old shepherdess named Bernadette saw 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The miracle allegedly took place in a small grotto on the outskirts of town, the Grotto of Massabielle. A small spring is then said to have appeared where Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary and this water is reputed to have miraculous healing powers, which is partly what has attracted so many millions of pilgrims over the years.

Lourdes photographed from the town's chateau

It was a grim, grey day when we visited Lourdes and the rain was chucking down. Having parked in the town centre, we headed to the Tourist Information office where we were given a map by a cheery man who helpfully pointed out the main areas of interest – namely the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, which was built on the rock above the Grotto of Massabielle, and the castle.

We decided to make our way to the sanctuary first and followed a walking trail through the town, which took us past shops selling all manner of religious souvenirs, including statues, fans, fridge magnets and candles. As we neared the sanctuary, the number of pilgrims increased massively and there were lots of people in wheelchairs or who were old and infirm who, I’m guessing, were hoping to be healed by the grotto’s waters.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes (above) is situated within a large oval park and I was blown away by how enormous it was. It’s ginormous and mind-bogglingly ostentatious. The sanctuary consists of a tall, grey stone structure with a basilica at the bottom, huge flights of stairs and ramps on either side, a crypt above the basilica and a church on top of that. There are also lots of statues dotted around the park, including one of the Virgin Mary and another of Bernadette with a flock of sheep.

Inside the basilica at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

Not quite sure where to begin, we made our way to the basilica, entering via a set of ornate gold doors. Inside, we found a massive cavern boasting a white stone ceiling, red marble walls engraved with the names and dates of those apparently cured by the site’s waters, and above the altar, a gorgeous gold and blue domed ceiling (above and below). Around the sides, there was a series of small chapels featuring lots of gold and paintings depicting different scenes from the Bible. It was very elaborate.

The ornate gold and blue patterned domed ceiling inside the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

When we walked back outside, we found the rain had stopped so we decided it was a good time to visit the grotto where Bernadette experienced her visions. Situated under the huge rock on which the sanctuary was built, there was a long queue to get to the grotto. Once in line, we were quickly shepherded to the tiny grotto and filed past it in no time, with the pilgrims around me touching the rock as often as possible. The small miraculous spring was partitioned off behind a pane of glass.

The crypt and the church at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

We then made our way up the stairs to the crypt where some of Bernadette’s remains are interred in a small chest. There were lots of small plaques in the crypt, too, with people giving their thanks for the miracles that happened to them after visiting the grotto. One was from a formerly childless couple who conceived following their visit.

Inside the church at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

From the crypt, we nipped upstairs to the church on top of the sanctuary. Once there, we found there was a service taking place, so we only stayed briefly, before making our way back down the stairs and through the park to the town’s Boulevard de la Grotte. Part way up the street, we stopped at Eleanor’s Salon de Thé, which was run by a friendly woman from the West Midlands, for a warming cup of tea and a bowl of vegetable soup.

Happily sated, we then walked through the town’s narrow streets to find the entrance to the castle, which is perched high on a rock in the centre of town. At the bottom of the rock, there’s a small office where you pay your entrance fee – from there, you can either take the stairs or the lift to the castle on top. We took the lift.

One of the stone buildings and the keep that make up the Chateau-Fort at Lourdes

At the top of the rock, we discovered that the castle isn’t so much a traditional castle as a series of buildings and ramparts that are also home to a museum where you can learn about the traditional way of life in the Pyrenees. The elements of traditional life on display included life in a Béarnaise kitchen, an exhibition of black and white photos of agricultural workers taken between 1965 and 1980, and models of the various animals you can find in the Pyrenees.

View over Lourdes and the Pyrenees from the ramparts at the town's Chateau-Fort

My favourite part of the castle was the Pointe du Cavalier Sud, high on the ramparts, which offered incredible views over Lourdes and the Pyrenees (above). The low lying grey clouds had lifted by the time we reached the ramparts, so we were able to see parts of the magnificent mountain range for the first time.

After the ramparts, we continued our tour of the museum. The exhibits included one room that was a recreation of a traditional Pyrenean bedroom, displays about local games, ceramics and agricultural tools, and a fascinating exhibit about the region’s costumes.

A recreation of a traditional Pyrenean cottage inside the museum at the Chateau-Fort in Lourdes

Towards the end of the tour, we learned about the history of the castle, before climbing a narrow 104-step spiral staircase to the top of the keep. I’d expected the top of the keep to have amazing views of the Pyrenees, but unfortunately it was covered and home to a rather dull display of granite and other building materials. The climb to the top of the keep was far more exciting than the exhibition within.

The tiny chapel at the Chateau-Fort in Lourdes

The next building we ventured inside was home to a series of artworks, including a genteel set of paintings of Lourdes by Louis de Bondidier, as well as a temporary display about the various castles that have inspired artists. We finished our tour with a peek inside the castle’s stone chapel (above), which looked rather simple from the outside but turned out to be ostentatiously decorated inside with statues and lots of gold and marble. By now we’d seen all there was to see in the castle, so we headed back down to the town via the lift.

The magnificent Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

I really enjoyed our day trip to Lourdes – there was a lot more to the town than I was anticipating. We spent around five hours in Lourdes and could easily have spent longer as there were parts of the town, such as the parish church, that we didn’t get a chance to visit.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes (above) is huge and an incredible piece of architecture, while I hadn’t expected to find a large castle perched high on a rock in the centre of town. Lourdes is a fascinating and classy town with lots to see and do, and very friendly people. It was well-worth visiting and, I have to say, possibly preferable to Santiago de Compostela.

Oloron-Sainte-Marie

The Gave d'Aspe in Oloron-Sainte-Marie

On our first full day in Béarn, we decided to spend the afternoon in the nearby city of Oloron-Sainte-Marie, the capital of the Haut Béarn region. The town is situated around the point where the Gave d’Aspe and the Gave d’Ossau meet, and has been a major trading hub in the region since the 11th century.

Our first port of call in the small city was the Quartier Notre Dame, and on our way to the quarter, we passed a plaque commemorating 19 young resistance fighters who were captured and sent to concentration camps in May 1943 where they died from hunger. It was a sobering and poignant reminder of the terrible impact the Second World War had on families in the region.

Continuing our walk, we came to the Église-Notre-Dame (above, left) and when we stepped inside, we found the place deserted. Wandering around the church, which was painted a pale cream and light grey, I was struck by how pretty the sanctuary was. Its walls and ceiling were delicately painted in shades of red, purple, green and gold (above, right), and its pink and purple stained glass windows were also delightfully pretty. It was a beautiful, peaceful space, if a little shabby and neglected in parts as some of the paintwork desperately needed touching up.

The Gave d'Ossau in Oloron-Saint-Marie

From the church, we made our way towards the Hotel de Ville and followed the signs to the Quartier Confluence. The path took us over the two rivers, the Aspe and the Ossau (above), and walking over the bridges that spanned them, we got a real sense of the potential combined power of these two rivers as we watched gallons of water pouring down the rivers and over the weirs.

We continued along the path until we reached the town centre again, which was pretty much deserted. We decided to stop for coffee in the only café we could find open where we were rudely and brusquely told we couldn’t only order drinks and had to order food, despite the fact that other people were sitting outside with nothing more than coffees.

With nothing else to see and all the other cafés and shops closed, we headed back to the car. On the way out of town a car beeped its horn at us angrily when we stopped at a red traffic light and then overtook us at speed, with the passenger sticking two fingers up at us as they drove past.

Gave d'Ossau in Oloron-Saint-Marie

The incident rather summed up my feelings about Oloron-Sainte-Marie – I didn’t like it. There wasn’t much to see in the city, it was oddly deserted and the few people we came across weren’t particularly pleasant. Needless to say, during our week in Béarn, we only revisited the city to go to the supermarket and otherwise avoided it like the plague. Easily the most disappointing place we visited in Béarn – everywhere else, luckily, was lovely!

Béarn

Artouste Dam and Lac de Fabreges in the Pyrenees

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.

The village of Eaux-Chaudes in the Ossau Valley in the Pyrenees

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.

Henri IV's chateau in Pau

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.

A wooden board with cheese and bread

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.

Grapes growing on the vine at Aydie on the Madiran route du vin

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.

Lourdes photographed from the town's chateau

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.

Poitiers

Cathedrale Saint Pierre in Poitiers

With its ancient churches, numerous bookstores and fantastic shops, Poitiers is one of my favourite French cities. Its medieval centre is a delight to wander around, a maze of winding streets featuring charming timber-clad buildings and distractingly tempting food shops and cafés.

When we arrived in the city, we decided to take a self-guided walking tour around its medieval centre, which took in most of the city’s sights. After a quick cup of coffee near the university, we set off down the Rue Gambetta, stopping to look in the many shops that took our fancy – and there were quite a few! – along the way.

Our first destination was the Church of Saint Hilary the Great. The church is a short walk beyond the city centre, tucked away in a residential area, and as I followed the map to the church, I had to repeatedly reassure everyone that we were going the right way.

The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built in the 11th century to honour the first Bishop of Poitiers, St Hilaire. The Romanesque church is a striking, weathered building, the highlight inside being its beautiful high vaulted ceiling, and I was glad we’d made the detour to go to the church as it was well worth seeing.

The back of the Palais de Justice in Poitiers

From the church, we walked back towards the city centre, where we passed the impressive town hall and carried on walking in the direction of the Palace of Justice. The palace was once the home of the counts and dukes of Aquitaine, and counts the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine among its former inhabitants.

Its renowned for its dining hall, the Salle des Pas Perdus (the hall of the lost footsteps), which was commissioned by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the late 12th century and is so-called because it’s said to be so big you can’t hear any footsteps within. We weren’t able to go inside on the day we visited, so we stopped to admire the stunning view of the back of the palace instead (above).

Baptistery of St Jean in Poitiers

We then made our way to the Rue Jean-Jaures and carried on down the street to the Baptistery of St John (above). The Merovingian baptistery is said to be the oldest church in France and dates back to the 4th century. We had a quick look inside and found it to be a fascinating, unusual place with amazing medieval frescoes on the walls and random stone sarcophagi dotted around the place.

Saint Pierre Cathedral in Poitiers

From the baptistery, we headed over to the city’s cathedral, the Cathédrale de Saint Pierre (above). The impressive 12th century cathedral was commissioned by Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and was built on the site of a ruined Roman basilica. It’s a massive, imposing structure from the outside, while inside it’s an elegant space with creamy stone walls and a high vaulted ceiling.

An ornate doorway at the Saint Pierre Cathedral in Poitiers

We spent ages looking around the cathedral, admiring its many notable features including its 13th century wooden choir stalls, its bright, colourful stained glass windows and its grand 18th century organ. I was particularly taken by the intricate carvings above the main doors (above).

Having looked around the cathedral, we headed back to the town centre, passing some quirky and intriguing shops on the Rue de la Cathédrale and the large Notre-Dame la Grande church as we went.

Before leaving, I was keen to visit a large bookshop I’d passed earlier in the day on the Rue Gambetta, Gilbert Joseph. I’m a massive bibliophile and always on the look out for some new (French) children’s history books I can read, so I was keen to check out their selection. Despite having a very thorough rummage – much to everyone else’s consternation – I couldn’t find what I was looking for.

With its long and varied history, characterful buildings and excellent shopping, Poitiers is a wonderful city and I could easily have spent longer there. In fact, I probably could have done with a whole day just to browse in all the interesting shops I passed. The food shops in particular looked very enticing, especially the chocolate shops and patisseries, and I’d probably need a month to eat everything that took my fancy.  I thoroughly enjoyed my day trip to the city, so much so if I were ever to move to a French city, Poitiers would be at the top of my list.