Ossau and Aspe: two valleys in the French Pyrenees

by zara

Ossau and Aspe are two easily accessible and beautiful Pyrenean valleys, which are a great introduction to the region and with much to offer the traveller

South of Pau, lies the Ossau valley.  A (hire) car will give you the freedom to explore, the first stop being  the Juracon wine area with tasting possibilities. The scenery gets really attractive from Arudy with its classic u-shaped glacial valley. The sides rise steeply to mountain plateaus where animals graze in the summer months.

The Ossau lies on an offshoot of the voie du Piemont, a pilgrimage path leading to St Jacque de Compostelle. One charming village is Beost with a 12th century chateau and a 15th century church which has an elaborately carved marble doorway. Marble doorways and windows are a feature with carvings identifying the owner’s occupation or the scallop shell associated with the Compostelle route.

Bilheres has restored mills and an elevated view of the Ossau valley. Above lies the Benou plateau and the chapelle de Houndas, built in homage to Notre Dame who protected the herds against plagues. Good walks abound: one leads to spectacularly sited prehistoric stone circles which follow a ridge above the plateau with superb valley and mountain views.

Laruns is the last town as you go up the valley. It has a night market on Wednesday evenings and is a pleasant place to stop. On the old square there is a tourist office with free internet (Place de la Mairie, 64440 Laruns. Tel: +33 (5) 59 05 48 94. www.ossau-pyrenees.com )

On the other side is the Hotel d'Ossau which has reasonable rooms from 55 euros. Do not bother paying for breakfast: there is a good bakery/café in the square.

High mountain walks

Things are quieter after that; Eaux Bonnes is a spa town that once had hundreds of hotels, most now boarded up though the recently restored casino may herald a revival. The road climbs to the ski resort of Gourette then to the Col d’Aubisque at 1,709 metres, often on the Tour de France route. There is an easy two hour summit circuit with stunning views in all directions. You may meet a patou on this walk, the big white dog breed employed to protect the herds from bears.

South from Laruns, the road climbs up to Col du Pourtalet at 1,749m on the Spanish border. The Spanish side has shopping reflecting the price difference! Here one can syphon off wine, port and sherry from huge casks and buy by the litre; helpfully they allow tastings!

Towering above is the Pic du Midi d’Ossau at 2,884 metres. Below the border, the cirque d’Aneou makes a pleasant stroll: go as far and as high as you wish, the views are all excellent.

The Pombie refuge is a two hour uphill hike with a good chance of seeing isards (a type of mountain deer) and marmots. It is on a lake and a great introduction to the mountains without too much effort! (tel: +33 (5) 59 05 31 78; http://pau.ffcam.fr; open June - September. Dorms are 16 euro; half board is 37.50 euro.)

The Lac de Bious-Artigues is a pretty starting point for two classic walks. The tour de l’Ossau is a seven and a half hour circuit of the Pic. It is long and steep so keep in the mind the option of a night at the Pombie refuge.

The other lovely walk is the tour des lacs d’Ayous. Do it in a clockwise direction, so one has a steady climb up the valley then a sharp ascent to reach the first lake, Lac Casterau. If camping, the best spot is on the ridge to the left of the col before Lac Bersau with great sunsets on the Pic, the mountains behind stretching away in endless blues and greys.

Next morning wake to eagles flying from the Pic in bomber squadron formation. Lac Bersau is beautiful and you could spend a few days here chilling out and fishing. Though the National Park bans camping, you are allowed an overnight bivvy between 7pm and 9am - so you can camp, you just have to pack up the next day.

The easy option is the Refuge d’Ayous which has fabulous views over Lac Gentau at 1,980 m. It provides dorm accommodation and food (Tel: +33 (5) 59 05 37 00; www.parc-pyrenees.com; open 15 June to 15 September; 10.10 euro per night; half board: 31 euro).

All the above mentioned walks are easily accessible by car from anywhere in the valley, none being more than half an hour from Laruns, with plenty of parking at the trailheads. A local map will have them clearly marked.

It is worth a stop in Gabas where the Hotel Chez Vignau has reasonable menus from 13 euro featuring local specialities and a jolly little terrace for those summer days.

On to the Aspe

The parallel valley is the Aspe, more enclosed with steeper sides. One interesting walk is the Chemin de la Mature, part of the GR10, but originally carved out of the cliff by 18th century convict labour to get trees down the mountain for the French navy: it has a spectacular drop! Underneath is the austere Fort du Portalet, a WWII political prison (not open to the public).

Tucked away nearby is a charming hidden valley containing the Cirque de Lescun: a dramatic backdrop to old farming pastures, with lots of little fields and stone walls. There is a well sited french campsite: Le Lauzart (64490 Lescun; Tel: +33 (5) 59 34 51 77; Adults: 3.20 euro; Site: 4 euro; Open May - September) and the area is well worth leisurely exploration.

At the end of the valley is the little village of Urdos which has the old time Hotel des Voyageurs with a pleasant terrace for a plat du jour lunch - about 10 euro. (Doubles from 37 euro). A good place to smile and relax in the Pyrenees Atlantiques as the departmental road sign suggests!