The Ossau Valley: Meanderings Through France 4
The Ossau Valley: so close to Nature
If you are a nature lover and in need to recharge your batteries, the Ossau Valley is the right place for you. Located in Béarn in the Pyrenees in the south of France, its landscapes often look like they haven’t change for centuries. Combining ancient traditions and modernity, its inhabitants succeeded to keep their ancestors’ way of life while opening their valley to the outside world. Tourism began in the middle of the 19th century when Eugenie de Montijo, wife of the French Emperor Napoleon 3rd, came to the Ossau Valley to take the waters. A hot thermal spring had just been discovered and the people of the valley built a town out of nothing to welcome all the people who came to follow the example of the Empress. It was named Eaux-Bonnes (Good Waters) and nowadays thousands of people still go there every year.
“Ossau cheese” is probably the best-kept tradition in the valley. It is said that farmers make this cheese since 2000 years with the milk of a local sheep species. Every year, in June, they lead their flocks of sheep to the pastures in the mountain where they stay until September. It’s the time to make the best cheese of the year. Fed with the wild grass and flowers the ewes’ milk tastes wonderful and so does the cheese. After milking the ewes twice a day the shepherds add rennet to the milk and heat it in big cauldrons. No need of a thermometer: to check the temperature they put one of their elbows in the cauldron! Once curdled, they drain the cheese for several hours and shape it in moulds to get round cheeses weighing 5 to 6 kg.
Then the cheeses are taken down the mountain to cellars for maturing. Those cellars are worth a visit: set on shelves hundreds of cheeses kept in a cold and humid atmosphere are regularly salted and turned upside down. Each shepherd put his own mark on every cheese. He makes so that when the maturing is over he will be sure to get back his own cheeses.
In Gabas, a small village down the valley, you can pay a visit to “Le Biscaü” a cheese cellar and a restaurant where you can taste Ossau cheese made with spring, summer or autumn milk and cheeses at a different stages of maturing. See for yourself which one you best like.
To meet a shepherd and buy cheese, get in touch with Regis Carrere, 1 Carrerot St in Laruns. In summer you can meet him in his ‘estive’ the old French name of the small farmhouse high in the mountain where the shepherd stays with his herd for the season. There, close to the Col du Pourtalet, in an amazing landscape you will see him working with his flock and making every morning his Ossau cheeses.
“Le Petit Train d’Arouste” (Little train of Arouste) is a day excursion not to be missed. Visitors have to come to Fabrèges on the bank of a large beautiful dark green mountain lake, where they get the “eggs” of the cableway to reach the starting point of the train, higher in the mountain.
Initially created in 1920 to carry freight and workers to build a dam on Arouste Lake the train was turned into a touristic train in 1932. It’s a high mountain train and the highest touristic train in Europe. It will take you up to Artouste Lake at an altitude of 2000 m. Located at high altitude its rails are covered by snow for several months each year, so the train is only on duty from late May until early October.
Seated in open-air carriages you will go up the mountain for a 50 minutes trip along steep slopes. The track goes through a preserved prairie where indigenous flowers bloom, azaleas, rhododendrons, saxifrages, artemisias and many others.
Once arrived at the top a 10 minutes walk will take you to the Artouste lake overlooked by the highest summit of the Ossau Valley called the Midi d’Ossau, 2884 m high. Having a picnic on the lake bank is great and if you are lucky enough, you will see marmots and chamois. There are several walking tours starting from Artouste Lake that will take you higher up in the mountain (get all the information’s at the Tourist Information Centre in Fabrèges).
The “Col du Pourtalet” is a mountain pass at an altitude of 1794 m on the borderline with Spain. It is the starting point of many walking tours in the heart of the Western Pyrenees Natural Reserve. The Casadebaig family opened a hotel there 80 years ago and they still welcome tourists in the “Hotel du Pourtalet” that has been recently restored. The view on the Aneou Cirque and the Midi d’Ossau from the lovely rooms and the restaurant is absolutely fabulous. There is a new wellness centre where you can relax after a day of skiing or climbing. And to get even better have a meal at the restaurant where they do traditional and tasty dishes made with local products.
If you want to indulge yourself without spending a fortune go to “Les Bains de Secours” one of the best restaurant in the region. The chef, Jean-Pierre Paroix, is “Maitre Restaurateur” an official title awarded to chefs demanding the best quality of food. Bread, lamb, veal, beef, fish, ducks, delicatessen, cheeses, fruits and of course wines, each product is rigorously selected at local producers. No wonder the dishes are so delicious.
‘Les Bains de Secours’ offer also rooms with view on the countryside.
‘Les Bains de Secours’ in Savignac-Meyracq tel: 05 59 05 62 11
There are plenty of outdoor activities you can do in the Ossau Valley: horse riding, climbing, potholing, paragliding, canyoning, fishing, camping near one of the numerous lakes and so on…
To get to Ossau Valley, The Pau airport is very close – 25 miles from the entrance of the valley- and offers direct flights to London City airport.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny
About Annick Dournes & Frederic De Poligny
|Annick Dournes and Frederic de Poligny are two French tourism journalists who travel the world for many years. They will share with you their very favourite experiences of worldwide travels. Those about France, their native country, will be found on a regular basis in their chronicle “Meanderings through France”. Web|