Crossing The Pyrénées & A Fab End To Our Trip – Sauveterre-De-Béarn, France
I can hear the river from our campsite. It’s a pleasant humming, calming sound, and the moment is made all the lovelier by the view of the sprawling medieval city right above us. It’s the end of a fab day, perhaps the best on our mini-trip so far and it’s rather fitting that it should happen today, of all days.
This was the very last day of my motorhome trip with dad to Spain, plus it was his 77th birthday, two momentous events that we wanted to celebrate in style.
And we had come full circle. We were back in France where we now live, back where Paul and his dad started the Camino just a month before, and back together for dads Bday, something that we probably haven’t managed since I was a kid. Circles of life and time, with the magic of travel to bring it all together. It’s a sweet story, n’est ce pas?
Plus there was this campsite in a place we’d never originally planned to visit. It was just one of those happy coincidences that sometimes happen on the road where you choose a place based on random factors, maybe a few good reviews and the fact that it’s kinda on the way, and you find a spot that absolutely blows you away.
So yeah, today was a big day and thanks to nomadic serendipity it all came together like a fine soufflé.
We Start With A Spectacular Drive Over The Pyrénées
Our first part of the day was a spectacular drive over the Pyrénées into France.
We’re following the Camino De Santiago (in reverse) along N-135, as we have been for the past several days, and today’s drive would take us over the mountains into France. It’s a stretch I’d been looking forward to for weeks.
This is where most pilgrims on the French Way start their trip. The Camino crosses the Pyrénées here, climbing from around ~170 m/560 ft in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to either Col de Lepoender at 1,450 /4,757 ft (if you take the high trail) or Ibañeta Pass at 1,057 m/3,468 ft (if you take the low trail) and then steeply down the other side.
By foot it’s a knee-buckling hike with lots of steep and (at times) fairly rough terrain, known as some of the hardest walking of the entire trail. Every pilgrim struggles here, but if the weather holds it rewards them with the most spectacular views. This is lush, green, high, mountainous terrain with panoramas that go on to infinity. When Paul and his dad passed through here they had clear weather, and so they got to see it all. It was one of his favorite memories of the walk, despite how tough it was.
By motorhome it’s a much easier experience. N-135 (which turns into D933 in France) is a single-lane, curvy road that takes a bit of concentration to drive, but is an absolute pleasure in good weather. It’s very lightly trafficked (we saw maybe 3 cars the entire way?), wonderfully scenic and offers plenty of spots to stop and enjoy the view. A true joy to experience.
Our First Stop Is Roncesvalles
This location has some key historic significance. In 778 the Battle of Roncesvalles was fought in the nearby pass where Charlemagne’s army, commanded by Roland and riding with the cream of French nobility was defeated by the Basques.
Shortly after this date (in 813) the relics of St. James the Apostle were discovered in Galicia and pilgrims started walking this route to Santiago. The buildings on the grounds date back to the 13th century where initially a pilgrims hospice and monastery were erected, followed by the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria and two on-site chapels, the chapel of St. Augustine and the chapel of Sancti Spiritus.
For Camino pilgrims this is their first stop in Spain and it’s a welcome pause after the strenuous hike over the pass. It’s located at ~900 meters (3,000 ft) and it’s one of the biggest albergues (hostels) on the Camino, offering 183 beds spread over three floors. The place is basic well-kept.
We arrived early morning and parked in the spacious parking lot right behind the church. There’s not much to see in Roncesvalles apart from the buildings, but we walked around and visited the church and chapels, and then had a nice espresso overlooking the grounds. It was a cool place to reflect and think about Paul, his dad and all the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that pass through here each year.
We Take In The Views At Ibañeta Pass & Drive Down The Other Side
From Roncesvalles it was another short drive to our next stop, the very top of the mountain pass at 1,057 m/3,468 ft Alto de Ibañeta.
There’s a small, modern church here as well as a stone shrine in honor of Camino pilgrims and Roland, but what really makes it worth the stop are the views. It’s simply spectacular with clear mountain panoramas as far as the eye can see. Dad and I both soaked in the surroundings while Polly bounded around happily, loving the colder temperatures. There can’t be too many dogs that have stood on mountain passes in both USA and Europe, don’t you think?
Then came the long, curvy, steep descent down the other side.
I was initially a little bit worried about driving the rig down this road since LMB doesn’t have an engine brake like our old RV did (how I miss that feature!). So I kept it super slow and used the gears to manage our speed. We passed through a multitude of perfect little Basque towns, with beautifully kept houses in accents of white and red, finishing up at the bottom of the hill in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. LMB handled great and there was zero engine or brake smell once we stopped, the results of a perfect drive!
Déjà Vu In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
It felt strangely odd being back in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This is where the Camino started for Paul and his dad in mid-April and it seemed just moments ago that I dropped them off in the motorhome to start their trek.
This time around it’s just dad and I, and we are simply passing through, so we decided to stay at the Aire instead of the municipal campground. They’re actually located right next to each other, both within a super short walk of downtown, although the Aire is a little trickier to find (you have to go around some back roads to get there). It’s a lovely little spot however, with individual concrete pads, electricity hookups and decent shade, and all for only EUR 9 per night. The French seriously know how to do Aires!
We parked the rig in an open site, paid our parking fee and walked the short 1/4 km into town along the river with Polly. In town we strolled around for a bit enjoying the beautiful weather and (surprisingly) few people, and then we had a lovely birthday lunch with plenty of wine for dad. A wonderful way to celebrate the day!
We Discover the Neatest Medieval Village
After our leisurely lunch we made the last 30 minute drive to our camping spot and awesome find for the night.
Camping Du Gave is a quiet little campground with lovely shaded sites for the bargain price of EUR 14 per night. The real gem however, is that it’s set just below the fab medieval village of Sauveterre-de-Béarn. The latter is a spectacular little village dating back to the 11th century and it is the real deal complete with an impressive stonewalled fortress (Tour Monréal), a lovely church (Eglisee Saint-André), dramatic cliffs, hidden alleyways and an old stone bridge (Pont de la Légende).
Originally built as a walled refuge, Sauveterre grew in importance in the middle ages as its bridge provided one of the main routes to Spain by pilgrims trekking from deeper within France to Santiago de Compostela. The full bridge is no longer intact, but a part of it remains and the rest of the town is wonderfully preserved and a real joy to visit.
After a well-deserved siesta, dad, the dog and I walk up the pathway from camp into town to explore, discovering all the hidden crevices of the city and gawking at the amazing views from the fortress over the Pyrénées and the river below. The town is super quiet too, so we feel like we have it all to ourselves which is quite the treat.
With the sun low in the sky we stop for an alfresco meal at a teeny little French restaurant right beside the historic church. It’s the perfect end to the day for dad. A wonderful town, a local meal with wine and all in view of a gorgeous church. Just what the doctor ordered!
And So Ends Our Mini-Trip To Spain
This was it, the last day of my mini-trip to Spain with dad. I can’t deny it was tough, probably the toughest trip I’ve ever done simply because we traveled so much, visiting a new town everyday and covering many more miles than our typical slo-mo style. Plus I was solo-driving and it was my first time with dad (and all the pets) in LMB. He is a tall man and neither of us are spring chickens anymore, so it took time for both of us to adapt to each other and to moving around in the space.
But it totally worked out.
Once we both found our routine (as did the pets), we had a grand ‘ol time seeing a ton of stuff that we would never otherwise have experienced. And in the end that is exactly why we do this. To have moments that are unforgettable, to experience things that are new and open our minds, and to soak in the beauty of this world. Yeah it’s a little sappy, but that’s what motorhome travel is all about for me.
Now, when’s the next trip????
Coming Up Next -> Miles, costs and practical details of our mini-trip to SpainSPONSORED LINK:
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in this blog post may be affiliate links, so, if you click on the link and make a purchase, I receive a commission. Note that all opinions are 100% my own and I only link to products we personally use, thoroughly love and absolutely recommend! Amazon, the Amazon logo, AmazonSupply, and the AmazonSupply logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates. WheelingIt is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.