For Dillon’s family

September 2015.

Hills, history and wine

Dear Dillon,

Your tour through the Pyrenees is infused with both rich history, ranging from the Romans to the Moors, and ample opportunities to experience the heart-stopping beauty of the mountains and valleys. When you exit the high-speed Ave train at the Zaragoza Delicias railway station, you will be met by your guide, Ricardo.

This is a nine-day introduction to one of Europe’s most beautiful, and relatively unexploited mountain ranges: The Pyrenees. You will delve into the past, and learn about the rich history of the area, from before the Romans to the Moors, and on to modern times. You travel in the most modern train the “Ave”, and by the oldest means—on foot. Our journey includes an opportunity to cross the Pyrenees from the Spanish Guarrinza Valley to the French Aspe Valley. There will be no lack of variety.

Day 1: Zaragoza

Dillon, your first stop will be the Aljaferia Palace, where a local historian will be on hand to give your family a private tour. The Aljaferia, built in the 11th century as a palace for Islamic rulers, is one of Spain’s best examples of Islamic architecture, showcasing intricate geometric patterns and brilliant color. The oldest section of the palace, the Troubadour Tower was built in the 9th and 10th centuries, and later renovations added a Medieval Christian influence. The Aljaferia Palace now houses the Cortes (Regional Parliament) of Aragon. After the tour, you will have a chance to stroll through the streets of the old city as you make your way to lunch.

Since you described your family as adventurous eaters, a reservation for lunch has been made for you at the nearby Restaurante Méli Mélo where you will sample pintxos, artistic Basque-style tapas which feature a variety of toppings, such as cured meats, fish or vegetables on top of small slices of bread.

After lunch in Zaragoza, you will venture to the medieval town of Alquézar, situated on the edge of the Guara Mountains at the foot of the Pyrenees. Here there are many gentle hikes available for your family to walk off lunch and stretch out your legs after your long day of travel. You will spend the night at the Hotel Boutique Maribel, on the edge of a nature preserve.

Day 2: Hecho Valley

Hecho Village is set in an unspoiled mountain setting, where residents speak a medieval Aragonese dialect called Cheso. You will be spending two nights here in a family-run, cozy bed and breakfast, with a view of red clay rooftops and lush hills. The pace of life in the Hecho Valley is very slow, and per your request, your family will have two days of leisure time together to wander the narrow cobblestone streets overlooking the valley, or enjoy the limitless natural wonders of this region. Incredible hiking trails take you through ancient forests, 1500-year-old yew trees, past streams and lakes, and offer magnificent views in every direction. You will see bronze-age burial circles, Neolithic dolmens and enjoy magnificent views of the surrounding peaks. Here, your daughter Julia can enjoy riding horses, while the rest of you will delight in rock climbing, caving and even archery.

Day 3: Hecho on foot

Enjoy a gentle walk along a 2,000-year-old Roman road that winds its way above a deep gorge, or travel a circular loop that explores a side valley beneath Bisaurin (2669 meters), the highest peak in the area. You might also hike high up in the valley and return via a different route through ancient forest and alongside a raging mountain stream. You will pass ancient yew trees, and your children, Eric and Julia, will enjoy the unique animal life such as marmots, chamois and many birds of prey. You return to the start of the walk through high alpine pasture and beech forest. If you wish to take some time to explore the surrounding area, one mile north of Hecho is the Monasterio De San Pedro De Siresa. The 11th century church that survives there is a marvelous example of Romanesque architecture. For dinner, I recommend the mushroom crepes and the pork cheek at a restaurant called Gaby. It can get crowded, but the hotel can call and secure a reservation.

Day 4: Aragón

Two hours from Hecho is Tramacastilla village, situated high in the Tena Valley. As we discussed, you will be staying for two nights at a boutique hotel with a spa which you requested as a treat for your wife, Susan. Tramacastilla is situated on the western slopes of the Tena Valley. Close by are a myriad of hiking options, including areas of rolling hills and lakes, steep sloping forested slopes, and high and arid rugged mountain peaks. Many guided hikes leave from the hotel, and hiking here can also be tailored to suit the interest and ability of your family. If you are all eager for a longer adventure, you can even hike into France! To soothe your tired muscles, choose from a wide range of spa treatments when you return.

Day 5: Tena Valley

After a morning of leisure, the afternoon will be spent riding the unforgettable Petit train d’Artouse, a narrow gauge tourist railway in the French Pyrenees, and the highest train in France. The train winds its way slowly through the vibrant mountains and offers breath taking views of the scenery. The train is reached by a ten-minute cable car trip up the mountain. Once at the station, the trip itself takes about an hour. Enjoy a sandwich or light lunch at a small café, and then strike out on the fifteen-minute walking trail that leads to a lovely lake. With any luck, you will also get to see the marmots. Dillon, this is an experience that your family will never forget!

Day 6: St. Etienne De Baigorry

San Sebastian is your first stop today, and it is a city famous for its fine restaurants. If your family enjoyed the Basque pintxos, two popular places are La Cepa or Ganbara. Other restaurants I would recommend are Mugaritz, Restaurante Rekondo, or the well known seafood restaurant Elkano.

After lunch, you’ll be off to France, to the village of Sainte Etienne De Baigorry. This peaceful village of just over 1,500 people, is situated beside the Spanish border in one of the greenest valleys, and was once part of the kingdom of Navarre. It is close to St. Jean Pied de Port—an important pilgrims’ resting place on the famous St. James’ Pilgrims’ Way. Traversed by the Nive des Aldudes River, the village has kept its simplicity and charm. The food is excellent, and the atmosphere is wonderfully relaxing. The Church of St. Etienne, its organ, the Roman bridge, and the Chateau d’Etchauz are the architectural highlights here, as are the beautiful stone homes of the residents. You will be staying at the family-run Hotel Le Source de la Nive built alongside the river, a perfect location to wander the streets of this medieval town to shop and enjoy the gastronomy.

This area is known for excellent (and very strong) Irouléguy wines: the only “appellation controlee” wines from the Basque country. From your comfortable hotel, you will have three days to sample the wine, and taste other local delicacies such as sheep cheese, cured meats, and chocolate. During your three-day stay enjoy a fine meal at any of the restaurants near St Jean Pied de Port, such as the renowned Les Pyrénées, or La Ferme Gormande in Ossès.

You and Susan might enjoy taking a cooking class alone or with the kids, or your whole family can rent bicycles and take a guided tour.

Day 7: Wine region

At your request, Dillon, this is a day entirely dedicated to the wine produced in this region. First, enjoy a tour of the Cooperative Cellar of Iroulégay for a wine tasting featuring wines of selected vineyards, cheeses, and charcuterie. Later in the day, arrive in Brana Este in Saint Jean Pied de Port, where you will have a walking tour of the vineyard, listen to a presentation by a winemaker, and then head into the tasting room to sample the result of their labor.

Day 8: The hills

This is your last full day, and it is a day of leisure. After breakfast, enjoy more hiking in the surrounding hills or slowly wander the cobbled streets.

Dillon, it has been my pleasure to plan this nine-day Western Pyrenees journey for you. Please do not hesitate to contact me at any time, should the need arise.