Béarn is a one of those French names that has leapt into our view now and then without me ever having a clear idea of where it is or what it signifies. Sometimes it appears to be linked to Gascony and the Pyrénées but other times it’s described as its own distinct region. While the real D’Artagnon is the most famous Gascon of all, his fictionalized namesake in “The Three Musketeers” was from Béarn. It’s hard to nail down.
Even doing a little research on the website for the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the department where Béarn is located, left me confused. On the homepage it asks if I’m feeling more “Béarn” or more “Pays Basque.” Though I’m familiar with the latter, clicking through both really didn’t provide any more clarity on the mystery that was Béarn. Aside from giving its name to Béarnaise sauce, the significance of Béarn eluded us. Béarn is in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, but there’s no real definition on their tourism site either.
Even worse, I can’t pronounce Béarn correctly. It’s not Bay-urn or Bahrn (rhymes with barn) or Bayrn. It’s more Bay-arrrn (say the latter like a pirate’s “arrrr, matey”). Two weeks after going, it still takes me five minutes to say it clearly enough so that a French person will understand where we went on our vacation.
It seemed the best way to understand Béarn was to just go, which is what we did over the winter holiday. We had explored much of the central Pyrénées and wanted to try some place new. As is our habit, we made this decision two days before we were scheduled to leave and then scrambled to find lodging. This is incredibly dumb and irresponsible on our part and yet once again, we were saved by the pure dumb luck of an internet search engine which led us to book three nights at D’Orride, a bed and breakfast just south of Pau.
The two-hour drive from Toulouse was pleasant enough as we skirted along the north side of the Pyrénées. I booked a car through Getaround, the peer-to-peer car rental platform. It was my second time using Getaround and overall it went smoothly. But like most other such platforms that started off as person-to-person rentals, this particular car seemed to be owned by an agency that rents many such cars. Still, the cost of €220 for five days not including gas was far cheaper than any traditional car rental agencies.
The real adventure began after leaving the highway and trying to find D’Orride, which sits about 35 km southwest of Pau. Google Maps is not terribly reliable in the French countryside and it took us down several dirt roads that led to dead ends. We finally called D’Orride’s owner, Didier, who guided us to the correct turnoff, which is where we found the next challenge. In our email exchanges, Didier warned us that the long dirt driveway leading to D’Orride had suffered from the recent heavy rains. He wasn’t kidding. It was a muddy mess that had us plodding along slowly and wincing whenever the bottom of the car scraped the raised grass median of the driveway.
Don’t let this put you off. Because D’Orride turned out to be a marvel of ambiance and hospitality. And that long driveway also means the house is isolated, and peaceful, surrounded by nothing but countryside.
Upon parking our car, we were greeted by Didier and three excited dogs. He and his wife, Marina, had restored the stone farmhouse they had purchased just a few years ago. The stone exterior looked immaculate as did the light-blue wood framing, new without being too modern. He led us into the courtyard and then the building with our two rooms.
The bottom floor of our building featured a vintage gym, complete with punching bag and old weight machines. They all worked and were safe, Didier assured us, even if I had my doubts. More importantly, next to the gym was a sauna room, which we used aggressively in the coming days.
Climbing a short set of stairs, we landed in a hall that led to two rooms. To the right was the room called “Germaine”, for me and my wife, and the left was “Emilia,” for the kids. Each had a distinctive décor that followed the vintage theme, with little touches like a dressing mannequin, old wicker fans, as well as antique books and photos. Germaine also had a large circular window looking directly south to the Pyrénées, an inspirational view to start and end each day.
We had arrived late in the afternoon but wanted to sneak in a little hike before the sunset. Didier suggested a path that started just behind D’Orride. We wandered out a large door into the back where chickens were running around under fruit trees. Just before exiting, we noticed on the door a picture of Jane Fonda. D’Orride has a small claim to fame: In 1966, during her French period after marrying director Roger Vadim, Fonda filmed “La Curée” (“The Game is Over”) at D’Orride.
Climbing a small hill from D’Orride, we were quickly surrounded by countryside. The B&B is set far from any other houses. We passed a field of cows grazing on one side, and sloping fields on the other that dropped dramatically before turning into the Pyrénées beyond. Whatever Béarn was, it certainly did not disappoint.
A Family Dinner
After cleaning up, it was time for dinner. We crossed the courtyard into the building with the kitchen and dining room. There we met Didier’s wife, Marina, her mother who was visiting from Paris, and their son was who down from Agen for the holidays. The meal would be a family affair as we sat around the table together.
Marina brought out two large serving plates. One was covered with carrots and stuffed mushrooms. The other was pintade, a dish I hadn’t yet tasted in France. Pintades are large guineasfowls and this one was prepared with potatoes, rosemary and garlic. Tender and delicious, and with several glasses of red wine, it was enormously satisfying without being overly decadent or showy. As the French might say, we were regaled.
During our conversation, we learned that Didier and Marina had lived in Paris most of their lives, but several years ago decided to leave it behind for a quieter country life. Anyone with the wisdom to leave Paris immediately earns points in my book. They purchased this farmhouse and restored it with the help of local artisans. Creating the interiors’ vintage look had been a kind of treasure hunt, searching for various items on eBay or antique shops, amassing each object one by one.
As dinner wound down, I finally worked up the courage to ask the question that I had been worried might sound offensive: What is Béarn? Didier seemed only too happy to offer an explanation.
Béarn was once its own independent principality for a couple of hundred years during the Middle Ages that had developed its own patois, mixing French and other regional languages. In the Pyrenees-Atlantiques department, it forms the eastern half. The western half, Pays Basques, was the kingdom of Navarre which at certain points also included parts of Spain. If you ever saw “La Reine Margot,” a beloved French classic that is in reality quite dreadful, the Henry brought to marry Margot is King Henry of Navarre, who was actually born in Béarn, just to make things more tangled.
After some bloody religious wars, King Henry would ascend to the throne of France, founding the Bourbon dynasty that would rule over France (except for a brief detour into revolution and Napoleon’s empire) into the 19th century. So the Sun King and all that jazz, you can trace back to Béarn. In the process, Navarre and Béarn got sucked into France in the 17th century. Which in France is practically yesterday.
So, Pyrénées-Atlantiques is a department uniting two very different regions. But beyond history and culture, Didier explained, Béarn is more mountainous while Pays Basque covers more beach territory, including famed beach town Biarritz. A more basic way to ask “Béarn or Pays Basques” is really: Do you want to go to the mountains or the beach?
Gourette and Col d’Aubisque
The morning started off right with a sumptuous breakfast. This is a moment in France where we try to keep expectations low. The French idea of breakfast can often be a croissant and coffee, which is a bit lacking by American standards. Fortunately, we were greeted with bowls of fruit, yogurt, cereals, croissants, and an offer of eggs.
From D’Orride, our itinerary for the day would take us to Gourette, one of Béarn’s ski stations. The hour drive wound through several small towns before beginning to ascend. A small stream accompanied us on one side as we rose higher. We discovered that we were on the “Route du Fromage”.
We passed countless stands and trailers parking along the roadside selling local cheeses. The most prominent valley in Béarn is Ossau, while Pays Basque has the forested area of Iraty. Together they form the Ossau-Iraty cheese region which claims to have the most cheese-producing farms in France. We stopped at one trailer to sample a few and walked away with a large chunk of Ossau-Iraty that mixed sheep and goat milk to create a flavorful but still mild taste.
We arrived in Gourette just before noon and headed to the tourist office. We had come not to ski, but rather because I had booked us an hour in a jacuzzi on the mountainside. The hot tub is part of a small enterprise called L’Aventure Nordique, which also does guided snowshoe hikes and an igloo where you can spend a night. The website promised temperature of 38 degrees which tempted us to take the chance.
We picked up tickets for the gondola that took us a short way up the mountain. In this western part of the Pyrérées, the summits are shorter than the central region but still spectacular.
As is typical these days, there was only a bit of man-made now on the slopes below so skiing for us wasn’t really of interest. L’Adenture Nordique base was just a short walk from the top of the gondola. We changed clothes inside a small hut and then slipped into the water. Much to our disappointment, the temperature was closer to 32-33 degrees. This might have been bearable on a hot summer day, but even on a mild winter one we were shivering. We hopped out after a few minutes of praying the wood fire would heat things up. Though our son seemed perfectly content and insisted on staying in a bit longer.
The owners felt quite bad about the whole thing and in the end only charged us about half the €17 per person price. In the end, it was not great tragedy and the views were pristine. But our quest for a hot springs experience in France that matches our experiences in California continues.
We took the gondola back to the base and randomly picked one of the restaurants, Le Grand Blanc, for a scandalously late lunch at one of the restaurants. And then to take advantage of the temperate afternoon, we drove a short distance outside of Gourette toward the Col d’Aubisque.
This mountain is known as one of the tougher routes during the years when the Tour de France passes through this way.
We weren’t feeling quite so sporty. A gentle walk up the main road which had been closed for the season was invigorating enough for us. To the west and north, we were surrounded by peaks just dusted with snow. The mountains may be lower here by they still paint a dazzling panorama.
Home Day at d’Orride
The luck that had been with us during this latest improvised vacation ran out the next morning. My wife had caught a cold that knocked her flat and left her bed ridden. That this turned out not to be a total disaster was largely thanks for D’Orride and our hosts.
We decided to just spend the day at D’Orride rather than venture out to explore more of Béarn. After explaining the situation to Didier and Marina at breakfast, they graciously prepared a tray of food for me to take up to our bedroom for my wife. Though we had been using the sauna once each day, they agreed to turn it on a couple of extra times because the eucalyptus gave her spirits and sinuses a boost.
After making our own picnic lunch and eating on the back terrace with the kids, I took them on a longer version of the same hike we had taken the first day. We returned to D’Orride and spent a quiet afternoon reading and playing a board game we’d brought. It was the kind of relaxed, uneventful day that we all needed but wouldn’t have happened if one of us hadn’t gotten sick. D’Orride made for the perfect setting for such a day.
In the evening, three of us joined our hosts again for dinner. Marina had prepared a daube, a hearty stew with beef, carrots and a wine sauce. After dinner, they prepared another tray of vegetable soup for me to take back up to the bedroom.
The next morning, my wife had rallied enough to join us at our final breakfast. We had mentioned that it was our son’s birthday, and as we sat down, Didier arrived with a croissant that had a candle and the number 17 on it. We sang joyeux anniversaire to our delight and to our adolescent son’s endless embarrassment.
We could have easily spent a week at D’Orride, but for this trip we only had the three nights. (Total cost for 2 rooms plus dinners: €713. Extremely reasonable.) Still, this short stay was just enough to get a little taste of Béarn and leave us with the desire and curiosity to return and explore the rest another time.