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The start of the Pyrenees

The start of the Pyrenees Jean Cousseau
26 Aug
A ride up La Rhune, on the French-Spanish border, gives an insight into a unique regional Basque landscape

Cloaked in bright white cloud, a vivid turquoise blue directly above my head, it feels like I’m standing in the actual sky. A passing plane would hardly get a second glance. Turning southwards reveals a mass expanse of peaks emerging from this blanket of cloud, stretching out far beyond the horizon. It’s easy to see why this is described as the starting point for the Pyrenees.

My day had begun 905m further down, at sea level, where the beach in the Basque town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz meets the cool currents of the Atlantic. As the locals gathered for a swim in the morning sunshine, I gazed up at the mountain looming over the town – La Rhune, the largest peak of the surrounding landscape. La Rhune gives the impression of looking over your shoulder wherever you stand in the town, as though watching daily life unfold. It feels only natural to gravitate towards it.

I started the short drive towards the mountain, through small villages such as Ascain, where children out on the street played a slow version of pelote, the favoured sport of the Basque region, and then up winding roads, with brave/foolhardy cyclists attempting to pedal into the French hillside.

Twenty minutes later, eyes adjusting to the morning sunshine, my gaze was drawn to the quaint and traditionally-styled train station at the 169m-high station for Le Train de La Rhune – the train to the summit. Even here the air has turned from a warm and salty sea breeze into a cool mountainous wind. In each direction, you’re surrounded by a deep green, with grassy slopes sharply ascending every which way. A wooden-panelled carriage – my vessel to the summit – sat waiting, its gleaming exterior belying its 90 years of existence.

landscapeLooking eastwards across the French Basque country (Image: Jean Cousseau)

As my fellow passengers and I gently trundled up the track, it wasn’t long before we were presented with a impressive panoramic view of the Basque landscape, stretching all the way from Biarritz and central France in one direction, to San Sebastián and Spain in the other, and then up towards our destination of La Rhune, with its peak masked by cloud. Grassy green slopes cascaded away from us on all sides, while vultures silently circled overhead, no doubt keeping their eyes peeled for breakfast.

Le Train de La Rhune was opened in 1924, the result of an idea which had first been mooted as early as 1908. Despite a suspension during the events of the First World War, construction recommenced in 1919 and five years later was finally declared operational. Its strategic position led to various military occupations during the Second World War, but it reopened shortly after the end of hostilities and by the 1990s had become one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions.

After around 15 minutes of climbing the hillside, I found myself joining in on an involuntary gasp, as the train turned a corner and we stared at an immense craggy slope on an adjacent cliff face, on the far side of a what felt like a canyon falling away on our left-hand side. Huge, sharp rocks burst out of the mountainside, piercing the sky above.

trainsCarriages on Le Train de La Rhune (Image: Jean Cousseau)

Moments later, we slowly ground to a halt. The wind whistling through the hills and the chirping of crickets were the only sounds audible over the ensuing silence. As we waited for a second train now making the journey back down on the same line to slowly navigate the passing tracks alongside our stationary carriage, a hardy walker and his dog gave enthusiastic greetings as they strolled past. A chill blew through the windowless carriage, and I found myself adding a layer to what, in hindsight, was hardly mountain-summiting attire.

Scattered across the hillsides, spots of white and brown gave away the positions of several pottok – a regional breed of wild pony, whose Basque name literally translates as ‘small horse’. These rugged animals spend most of their lives in the mountains, grazing on the lush plantation fed by rainclouds blowing in off the Atlantic, subsequently emptying their contents on these, the first peaks they encounter. A curious foal wandered over towards the train as we passed close to a small gathering of animals, before a summoning call from his mother saw him quickly trot back over to join the herd.

pottokMother and foal pottok on La Rhune (Image: Jean Cousseau)

The scenery became more and more spectacular until, at the last moment, it vanished from sight entirely, as the train surged head-first into the cloud cloaking the peak. We pulled up at the station and stepped out into a misty wonderland. Walking the final few steps towards the viewing platform, another member of our party showed me his phone, which every few seconds was alerting him that he had crossed over into Spain, then back to France, then Spain again. The top of La Rhune marks the exact border crossing between the two neighbouring countries.

Now, here at the top, as the clouds eventually parted, that spectacular view re-emerges, and it becomes possible to trace the landscape as it rises from the sea, and begins its rapid ascent skywards, towards our position. On the other side of the platform, I stare out at the infamous Pyrenees themselves, as the range begins its 300-mile journey southeast towards the Mediterranean.

mountainsThe very start of the Pyrenees mountain range (Image: Jean Cousseau)

Panting heavily – understandably – hikers file past, having made their own way up the mountain on foot. Faced with the drop in temperature as the altitude climbs, most are layered in full European winter gear, either determinedly marching forward, eyes on the prize, with no time to stop and talk, or instead choosing to collapse in a heap the moment they reach the summit itself.

Taking everyone by surprise, one hardy fellow suddenly emerges from the mist, not only at a steady jog, but shirtless and shoeless as well. Before the gathered crowd has time to compose themselves from the arrival of this unexpected figure, he turns on his heel, and immediately begins the long route back down the mountain again. To some, La Rhune is a spectacular day out. To others, it’s simply a training ground.

runnerSome people are more at home in the mountains than others (Image: Jean Cousseau)

Gazing over this varied landscape – with the added significance of what these mountains have symbolised for centuries – highlights how rare it is to be able to take in a whole region from a single vantage point in this way. The Basque people are always keen to tell everyone how special this part of the world is and, right now, I believe them.

Before I can develop these thoughts, however, a breeze picks up, the clouds roll in again, and my view disappears. It’s time to head back down to the beach.

For more information about La Rhune and Le Train de La Rhune, visit rhune.com. For more information about travelling to the Basque region, visit terretcotebasques.com.

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