Pyrenees Atlantic Starting Point
Fresh off a delightful stay at Mimizan Plage along the south Atlantic coast of France, we made our way down the coast to the border of Spain.
The target destination was La Rhune at the start of the western side of the Pyrenees. This is a tourist attraction and mountain with an interesting history in terms of the tram railway system which was constructed in 1924.
Anyway, at this tourist spot you can catch the electric train which ascends to the top of the mountain, La Rhune (not too high – around 1,000 meters).
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Don't Always Believe the GPS
Our first attempt of getting to La Rhune, didn’t quite go as planned... As was the case a few times on our back roads trip, our portable car navigation device sort of led us astray (just by a bit).
We ended up missing a cut-off for La Rhune (in France) and found ourselves in Spain. We didn't realize that however, until we saw the road signs displaying both Spanish and French.
So we kept following the navigation system's directions, even though we had a bad feeling that things weren’t going right.
We kept getting directed to a smaller and smaller road, until finally when our friends referred to the road ahead as a ‘goat path’, that we decided to go no further… WE ended up having to do what probably was an 11-point turn (our rental van had terrible turning).
We took a few photos of the mountain view ahead of us and surprisingly, the navigator wasn’t totally wrong… The mountain in front of us was in fact La Rhune.
After getting to the actual tourist attraction later on, we came to realize that we were actually looking up at the La Rhune train terminal at the top of the mountain.
I guess it was our fault for missing a direction and the navigator just tried to redirect us to La Rhune the best way it could.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take into consideration the dimension of our vehicle in relation to the goat path !!!
Back Roads Tours = Unplanned Surprises
As has always been the case in our back road adventures however, when something doesn’t go quite as planned, it does quite often lead to new unplanned treasures.
In this little detour we went through the very quaint town of Bera, where I got a glimpse of a Pelote court (a ball game unique to this Basque region).
OK enough about that adventure, so we did end up working our way back onto the proper route and did finally end up at the La Rhune Tourist Centre and departure station (Gare de Saint-Ignace). Two trains depart and arrive approximately every 25 minutes.
The Electric Tram
There are a few souvenir stores and snack bars and fortunately I purchased an Australian Outback styled hat for 7€ - well worth it given how sunny and hot it was that day. The train fare is 18€ which isn’t too expensive given the amazing experience that lays ahead.
The open style train is more like a tram and surprisingly, a large number of people are able to get onto the train cars - a good thing considering how many people were in line.
Ascend to the Top
The 25 minute ride up to the mountain lazily winds its way around a couple of low mountains on some fairly steep sides. The speed at which the train travels seems fairly slow, but you soon appreciate the wonderful views (and photo opportunities) this affords, in seeing for the first time the fauna and flora of the Basque mountains.
Unique Pyrenean Wildlife
The views are spectacular and they keep getting better and better the higher the train climbs. Along the way you will see wild horses called Pottoka (Basque pony) and if you are lucky, some may pose for that perfect photo. You might even get a glimpse of the Manech Red Head Sheep.
Spectacular Panoramas of Spain, France & Atlantic
At the top of La Rhune, you get an amazing 360 degree panoramic view of the French and Spanish Pyrenees foothills as well as the Atlantic Ocean. Even though it is only just over 1,000 meters high, surprisingly you really get a sense of being fairly high up.
At the top, the Udako Etxea restaurant offers a nice place to eat, inside and on their patio with some amazing observation lookouts as well.
The wildlife experience continues at the top, as not only might you see some of the wild horses but some goats as well. They all walk freely amongst the visitors, including the outside terrace. It's always nice to share a cappuccino with a goat...
Oh yes, a word of warning – watch where you step or kneel for that perfect photo!
The Perfect Picnic Spot - Second to None...
From the top you can take a short walk to a couple of rocky edges (be careful) with incredible views of the lower valleys and the Basque Pyrenees. This would actually be a wonderful spot for a picnic (and some people were doing just that).
The Optional Hike !
You can see several trails descending to the bottom from all sides of the mountain. Now for those of you with a bit more time to dedicate to this excursion (and more physically fit...), you can actually take one of these trails to head down or up the mountain (quite the trek)...
You'll need your map however, to determine whether your trail ends up in France or in Spain. And... you would be saving 18€. Good luck with that…
Well we finished up in the souvenir shop to do the tourist thing. I purchased a very reasonable pocket knife with ivory handles with a sketching of the famous Griffon Vulture, the emblematic bird of prey of the Pyrenees.
Then back on the train to head back to Sare. Nice way to relax on the way down and get back in from being under the sun.
I am so glad we chose to do this excursion for the start of our Pyrenees adventure because it truly is a unique experience. Add this to the long list of ‘must do’ experiences in France.
Well, that’s it for this adventure.
Stay tuned for my ‘back roads’ blogposts on the French Pyrenees > RVDH…