Detox in the Pyrenees Atlantique

P4850812There is a place where the land, the sea and the mountains are one. A place that gets its name from the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenean range. It’s a department bordering Spain and home to the Béarn and Basque country. Welcome to the Pyrénées Atlantique.

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Rarely do we go away in the summer. These are the months when the Charente Maritime is utter perfection. Right now the weather is gorgeous, the pool is warm, almost at a hot tub temperature. The living is easy and there is no reason to leave.

But very occasionally a change of scenery for the weekend does us the power of good and I decided to conduct a little experiment to see what it feels like to go the opposite way in an increasingly connected world. I was going on a digital detox for 72 hours. I needed to give up the internet; no electronics, and no checking the mobile phone for emails. No flicking through Facebook or Instagram.

In a world where we’re so used to being constantly connected, this can be surprisingly difficult to do, and it was harder than I imagined. Whether stopping for a coffee or relaxing on the beach, I always have a quick check of my emails; it’s a habit. During my ‘experiment’ I have to admit I did allow myself to keep my mobile phone with me. Not with the intention of using it for the internet, because I didn’t and I switched off the data: but I kept the phone turned on for calls, just in case. Jack is away camping with his best friend and their family, 800 kms away in the Ardèche and he’s only 14, soI had to know he could contact me if he needed to. That was my only exception.

The problem with working from home and with an internet-based business is we never truly go on holiday. Gone are the days when I left the office the night before a vacation, not to think about work again for two weeks; now work comes with us, and it’s the same old circus but just in a different tent. The first half-day I mentally reached for my phone several times, but then it got easier and easier.

As the landscape changed during our 350kms journey south I forgot about my phone altogether.  We swapped the flat marais and the sand dunes of our home landscape for a rugged coastline and cliffs. The pale Charentais stone buildings of our home department gave way to a totally different style of architecture where white houses with red shutters dominate. The dark red was originally produced by coating the timber with ox blood, a coating reputed to protect the wood from insects and rot.

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We were in Basque country, possibly the most engrossing region of France. It is bewitchingly beautiful; the land stretches up to the Pyrenees from a battered coast, a development of gentle lush green hills that ends abruptly with harsh intimidating peaks.

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Sandwiched between the brilliant blue Bay of Biscay and the craggy foothills of the Pyrenees, the Pays Basque feels one step removed from the rest of France – which is hardly surprising, since it’s been an independent nation for much of its history, and has more in common with the nearby Basque regions of Spain. Proud, independent and fiery, the people of the Basque Country are fiercely protective of their history and culture. The region has been inhabited since the Stone Age. The language is a pre-Indo-European language of prehistoric origin that has no connection to any other in the world.

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The coastal town of Biarritz oozes old-money glamour. We know the area well.

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But we headed further south and the cliffs became bigger and more powerful. We stopped in St Jean-de-Luz, a town with a whaling background; it’s a traditional seaside community in the sense that one can buy an ice-cream, but it’s not so developed that you are overwhelmed by blow-up whales and plastic toys.

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We wanted to swim, but we didn’t want the crowds and so we took the coast road southwards again, seeking out a quieter less populated stretch of sand.

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We found the perfect spot

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and parked at a precarious angle on a steep grass verge beside the road and then we walked, down through the trees, down hundreds of man made steps

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to the most perfect beach. We scrambled over rocks and then we swam, the water was crystal clear and after the initial shock surprisingly warm, but with temperatures soaring to 39C/102F on land, anything was a fantastic respite from the heat.

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Perhaps the  loveliest stretch was the road from here to Hendaye.

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Hendaye is a French town located right on the border with Spain, just on the other side of the river from Hondarribia. It’s the most south-westerly town in France. Its location has made it an important point for commerce between both Spain and France. Historically speaking, this has also proven to be problematic for the town since it has been involved in every conflict between the two countries, but at the beginning of the 20th century the tension between Spain and France slowly subsided and now probably only exists in sporting contests!

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And then we drove just a little bit further, around the bay

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and into Spain; this had turned into quite an unplanned trip, and we just happened to find ourselves inadvertently in another country!

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When we returned to France we headed inland, away from the coast and up into the mountains. The roads narrowed and became barely wide enough for a shepherd with a sheep, let alone a car. Basque country is treacherous for those with no head for heights. One minute you’re in a gentle valley marvelling at the scenery the next you’re rock climbing.

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We passed through sleepy hilltop villages, and looking faraway to the left one could faintly see the Atlantic Ocean, its beaches populated by sunbathers and surfers. Straight ahead lie the greenest possible valleys – an area where civilisation blends seamlessly into the landscape, where the skyline is dominated by the barrier of peaks that form a natural division from Spain. The air is cool, blue and dotted with vultures and eagles.

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111 thoughts on “Detox in the Pyrenees Atlantique

  • Thank you for taking us along with you, I felt as if I was there, enjoying those mountains and the sea and the towns, stunning photos as always x

  • Another place to add to my bucket list! Lucky you! I need to digitally detox too, what a great idea, you always come up with the best suggestions!

    • Thanks Erin, it was actually great fun, I was amazed after the first day I didn’t miss the Internet at all! It was quite a shame to have to get back to the digital world again! Susan x

  • Sometimes I lock all my electronics away from myself and spend a few days reading a good book, the best sort of vacation in my eyes!

    The Pays Basque is absolutely stunning and your photos and descriptions do it great justice!

    • Thanks Lily, that sounds exactly what our two eldest daughters would do, read for days on end and ignore their electronic devices completely, which does make me very happy. The Pays Basque is gorgeous. Susan x

  • We’ve been skiing in the winter in the Pyrenees, but never visited during summer. It looks fabulous – I love the thoughts of ‘Alpine’ pastures being but a short car ride away from cool blue sea and beaches. Looks simply fabulous, thank you Susan.

    • It is fabulous Simon, you should certainly try and visit during the summer months, you can hike the mountains in the morning and swim in the afternoons, a truly stunning area. Susan x

    • Thanks Jeanne, You will have to spend several weeks visiting France now, exploring all the different regions! I love the Pays Basque, it’s a really stunning area and the coastline is beautiful with the backdrop of the mountains. Susan x

    • Thanks. Pau is a stunning city, we know it very well as we used to live in between Biarritz and Pau. We were there in February when we went skiing, but this time stuck to the Basque Country and for the most part the coast. Susan x

  • Beautiful! And yes, we all need the “detox” of getting away from electronics….It is good for the soul….
    Nancy
    wildoakdesigns.blogspot.com

    • Hi Nancy, I do believe it is good for the soul. I also think when we return to electronics we realise that some of the things we thought so important really aren’t as vital as they originally seemed. I thoroughly enjoyed getting away from it all and just having fun. Susan x

  • Oh this brings back memories Susan. Our pictures are practically the same as yours as we did St Jean de Luz and San Sebastien in May! We went to Hendaye too but I’m plucking up courage to say which end we sat in!

    • Hi Amanda, it’s so beautiful! We used to live in between Biarritz and Pau so it was rather fun to be back visiting friends who live there. I love Saint Sebastien, have many happy memories from there but this time there wasn’t enough time, just a quick trip over the border only. I adore the market and indoor market halles at St Jean De Luz and I love Biarritz in the winter, when the traffic is not quite so bad! It was fun to be back for a couple of days! Susan x

  • It has been a long, long time since I last saw the Pyrennes in person, so thanks for the brief virtual tour. Very refreshing.

    • Hi Mary, the Pyrenees are incredible, we all, adults and children, squeal with delight when we first spot them, looming up like huge black figures in the distance as slowly the landscape changes. It was a great break for a couple of days. Susan x

    • Hi Anita, dreams do come true, you of all people must believe this! I love the difference between the two countries that live side by side. the instant change in food, road signs, culture even and I love that the French side and the beaches are full of Spanish and the Spanish side is full of French, just as it should be! Susan x

  • I spent a week once, nearly two decades ago in Biarritz, one of the best vacations we have ever had, we stayed at a small hotel right on the seafront, but I forget its name! We went to all the places you have written about and also further into Spain, to St Sebastien. You have brought back so many memories today, thank you.

    • Hi Jane, I love Biarritz. We used to live in between Biarritz and Pau, and Biarritz was my favoured place for shopping, we had our favourite restaurant for lunch and used to love walking along the beach in the spring and autumn, when it was still pleasantly warm, but not too busy. Susan x

        • It wasn’t so long ago, we were there six years ago, so we didn’t see any changes at all. Biarritz has always been a popular town, ever since European Royalty started visiting back in the 1800’s. X

    • Thanks Sylvia, that’s the problem, when we ignore the internet we miss out on so much, it’s a catch 22 situation, I have come to the conclusion that one has to find a happy medium, a balance between the two, connected and disconnected! The problem is the internet has become a point of reference for virtually everything and the phone means we are instantly available. I am as guilty as the next person, I assume that everyone is available all the time, at the very least by text! Susan x

  • Digital detox sounds intoxicating to this girl! Thank you for including us on your mini break. France is chock full of bewitching places and it is so good to explore them. The Basque Country is captivating and must rank in my top 5 …. You remind me it has been too long!

    • Oh yes Basque Country is definitely in my top 5, we haven’t been to Biarritz or St Jean de Luz for about 6 years so it was fabulous to return and stay with friends, and of course take in a tennis tournament for our youngest daughter! The Digital detox took a lot of thinking about, sounds silly, but I was concerned that I might miss something important, then I thought, if anything is that important I will always have my phone with me, someone can use this now relatively old fashioned method of communication and actually speak to me! AFter that I was away, loved it, I had so much more time!!! I highly recommend it. Xx

      • My Doctor is convinced of the direct correlation between social media and Anxiety. He speaks of the tide of depressive illness changing to a tide of anxiety disorders and advises detox and taking back control as a first line of defence. When he shared this with me in January I did a lot of reading on the subject and do believe the theory holds water. As a result, my habits have changed and I recommend the same to others. When I visited him I was a jangling bundle of nerves suffering from a feeling of vertigo and radical hair loss. A month later I felt like me again. There were other factors at play, of course but taking control of the digital really helped xx

        • Fascinating, and I can see why it makes sense. We really have no idea what this digital age is doing to us mentally and physically, only time will tell, but I know it is vital to limit the hours spent on the computer for both us and our children. Having said that, now I want to google this to learn more about it, and that means more time on the Internet, it’s a catch 22 situation! Xx

          • I have taken to making lists in my note book of the things I need to Google and then working through the list at a set time rather than ad hoc as I did before. I agree – only time will tell what effect this digitalia is having on us and therefore like anything else we aren’t certain about it is wise to be frugal

          • That sounds really practical and organised, the trouble is half of my best thoughts comes when I am in the shower, driving, or walking the dogs. I was actually discussing at length anxiety and computers with our eldest daughter, she spent two weeks this summer without using her phone or computer at all and loved every second of it and she did feel a great deal more relaxed!

          • No THAT is heartening …. That a young woman from the next generation a) did it and b) felt the benefit. I use a voice recorder when walking The Bean for those moments of clarity but the shower poses a more knotty challenge!

          • What is even more interesting is that after a couple of days she didn’t miss her phone/computer one bit, in fact she said she would rather like to not have one at all! Of course she’s a Uni student, that would be impossible but she loved not being beholden to the phone.

          • Very interesting. My youngest (who is a Uni student) came off social media at the end of last term and has not really returned. I think our girls need to start a revolution 😄😄😄

  • I THOROUGHLY ENJOYED THIS BLOG! THANK YOU FOR THE BEAUTIFUL PICTURES! Have you ever read the Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker? They are set in the Dordogne and the Perigord. They are delightful, easy reads, but well written. Walker also wrote a book about the cave art. You might like them.
    Would you mind awfully if I tried to paint from some of you pictures? They would make beautiful landscape paintings…..
    Thanks again,
    Janie Horn

    • Thank you so much Jane. No I haven’t read these, but I shall look them up, I love new books and am always open to suggestions. I would be delighted for you to paint from some of the photos, choose whichever you like, I am very flattered! Which medium do you work with? Susan x

    • Hi Alison, it’s a beautiful part of France, one of my absolute favourites. Some of the coastline really is very like New Zealand. Only the architecture is very different. I love the old villas in NZ and the contrasting stark modern new builds which I do think are extremely stylish. Our house was an old school house which was literally picked up and moved in three parts from just south of Auckland to the Bay of Islands! Susan x

  • This is a wonderful introduction for me to this area, which I have visited only in literature. I hope that you will write more about those two days. “…[h]ike the mountains in the morning and swim in the afternoons” sounds close to perfect to me. And your travel writing is so fine!

    We will be having our annual 5-7 days at Wallowa Lake, at the northern edge of the only alpine mountain range in Oregon (the other ranges are volcanic). Among the many reasons I look forward to this is the absence of Internet connectability, cell-phone reception and television. We spend our time hiking, swimming, kayaking, boating, reading, chatting with our friends over long outdoor dinners, gazing at the Milky Way so visible above. No kids this time, but our two dogs are great playmates!

    Reading your description of the Pyrenees reminded me of the many people, of all ages and physical capabilities, who escaped occupied France during WWII by walking over those mountains. What an accomplishment…(and how sad the horrors that compelled them to do it)!

    Enjoy the rest of the week. We are having a very unusual (the new normal?) spate of high heat: 38° today, 40° degrees tomorrow and 39° on Saturday. I will be trying to complete a work project in our non-air-conditioned, but normally quite comfortable, house!

    • Hi Leslie, thank you so much, I would love to write more about the area, we hope to return, we know it well and always love it, time was quite tight on this trip as we also had a tennis tournament for our 9 year old whilst there. Your days on the Lake sound like my type of absolute heaven, the perfect holiday with the perfect outdoor activities that I just love. It’s been equally hot here too, 39C all of last week and the beginning of this week, it was really way too hot for a tennis tournament. It has turned cooler today but next week the temperature is set to soar again. Like you we don’t have air conditioning, we are forced to close the shutters on the southern and western side of the house in the afternoon to keep the sun out, something I actually hate doing, I love the light, but it does keep it very much cooler. We must be becoming quite French! Susan x

      • That’s what we do to keep the heat out too, only we close curtains or blinds rather than shutters, so a bit of light permeates. How did the tennis tournament go, in that heat? Does your 9-year-old like to compete? During the many years that our kids were playing team sports and/or dancing with a school company, most of our travelling revolved around their games or performances. That was so much fun! P.S. If you all ever want to join us at Wallowa Lake, come on over…we have just the cabin (or two) for you!

        • Hi Leslie, thank you so much, careful what you offer, you might just find 7 of us knocking at the cabin door! It sounds fabulous, the children all said “yes let’s go!” I reminded them it was about 12 hours on a plane, so maybe not this weekend! Both Gigi (9) and Millie (16) are big competitors! Gigi has decided she wants to be a champion at all costs, so yes a vast amount of driving to lessons and tournaments, but I wouldn’t change a thing, I love it and I support them 100% all the way. She played brilliantly and was runner up against 10 year olds so we were very proud of her. The heat was immense and quite unbearable. Afterwards we went to the beach and just lay in the sea for ages! Have a wonderful week, Jack our 14 year old is camping in the mountains of the Ardeche, lucky thing, he is home tomorrow after two weeks, he has had a fantastic time! X

    • Thank you so much Sheryl, it is a stunning area, totally unique. Thank you for taking the time to comment, always much appreciated and great to have you following along. Have a lovely weekend. Susan x

  • Hi Susan, just gorgeous, thank you! The Atlantic Ocean is wonderful, I just love it. Although I’ve crossed through the Pyrenees into Spain, I haven’t been to the corner of France that you described….maybe one day….it looks beautiful…. Also, I loved your description of being able to eat ice cream, but not being overwhelmed by blow-up whales 🙂 Have you read my “Moving Can Make You Happy” blog ?
    Have a great weekend ❤

    • Hi Jeanne, I love the little corner of France that is Basque Country, it is totally unique and feels like one is entering a totally different country, the architecture changes quite dramatically. You see I knew someone would get my blow up whale problem, sometimes beaches are just too full of plastic tat to enjoy, but a good ice cream is always a pleasure for the children! I shall pop over this evening and have a read of your post, although we are NOT moving again! I have had my fill of moving, plus it rains a lot more down there and I am not a rain fan, plus we used to live in between Biarritz and Pau so I know the area very well, been there and done that! But it was fabulous to go back and rediscover places! But it’s good to be home too! Have a great weekend, Susan x

  • I’ve just found your blog and I love it. Living in the Southern Hemisphere means that a trip to France is available to us on occasion, not as often as we’d like. Your blog brings the country to life and makes for enjoyable reading after a long working week.
    Really love your photos and easy writing style. So refreshing and exactly what I enjoy reading.
    Keep it up

    • Hi Sue, thank you so much, where are you in the Southern Hemisphere? Wherever, you are no doubt starting to think about Spring and Summer, whereas I am just wishing that summer would never end! France is a gorgeous country, so happy you get to visit from time to time, next time try and come to the Charente Maritime, I’ll show you around! Susan x

        • Where our youngest daughter was born. It’s a beautiful country and we enjoyed every second of our time there, I just wish it wasn’t so far from our family in England, hence we didn’t stay. Are you north or South Island?

          • Love the South Island. We were living up in the Bay of Islands, stunningly beautiful, loved every minute of it, our youngest was born in Auckland. But we missed family, and with 5 children it’s a long way to go back and forth to the UK, not to mention the expense. But I still miss it now!

  • We are planning to drive from Biarritz to Portugal in September next year so I found this post very interesting. We will be passing through the Charente Maritime next month on our way from Auray to Le Bugue, so please keep the good weather coming if you can! Thank you for your terrific blog … one of my favourites.

    • Hi Margaret, we are planning on driving down to Portugal in October, I’ll let you know how it goes! It sounds as if you are covering a lot of France, are you stopping off in the Charente Maritime or just driving through? So happy you are enjoying the blog, have a fabulous weekend, Susan x

      • Hi Susan, We’re having one week in Auray, then travelling down to Le Bugue for another week, stopping off for one night in St Jean d’Angely on the way through. I’ll look forward to the post about your trip to Portugal with interest as I’m really keen to see the Basque country and at least some of Portugal. Cheers!

        • Hope you have a great trip down, next time you do it come and see us, we are about 45 minutes west of St Jean D’Angely. You will adore the Basque Country, it is so completely different to anywhere else and as you head down the motorway, the mountains will suddenly start to become visible in the distance, a complete contrast the flatness of the Landes. The cuisine is fantastic too! Have a great Sunday x

  • Sounds like enjoyable trip for all the family. We stayed in Sr Jean de Luz a few years ago then drove on & did a similar trip staying in Pau and loved the vast difference in the scenery. I’m sure you feel revitalised not having used the internet.

    • We used to live down there, in between Biarritz and Pau, a truly stunning area indeed with such vast scenery, but also a tendency to be very wet in the winter, almost double the annual rainfall we get here in our little micro-climate. But having said that it was fabulous to go back and revisit old haunts! And with no internet, it was fabulous! In many ways I wish it was always like that, but it simply wouldn’t be possible! Susan x

  • The last time we were in Spain we crossed over to Biarritz for a leisurely lunch and forgot the time and had to “hot foot it back” so as not to miss our flight.

  • That looks like a fun place, Susan, and a bit of nice water by the looks of things. I fancy that Mrs P and i will have to take a trip down that way. I have always wanted to ‘do’ the north coast of Spain, so it looks a fabulous starting point. Plus excellent food to boot, I understand. What’s not to like?

    • Start in Biarritz Phil and then wander down the coast and into Spain, first great port of call is then St Sebastien, easy to spend a week in Basque Country in between France and Spain and having a wonderful time and, as you so rightly say, a gastronomic delight. Susan x

  • Thanks for taking us on the ride with you! I did notice your digital absense, though. Lovely pictures, and I can hardly believe how tall your youngest is!

    • It was rather nice to have a break though Nancy! Actually I am doing lots with the children these last two weeks of the holidays and so will not be doing as much as normal on the blog or Internet, I want to enjoy the last of the summer with them all. They are all growing up far too quickly, I want to press pause! Susan x

    • I think it’s really important to put the phone away, break free from the Internet and just let the emails build up for a few days, it is so totally refreshing! I love this part of France and we have many very good friends there which makes it even more special. Susan x

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