One of our favourite places is all of Spain the village of Etxalar. Pronounced something close to Eshalar, it lies on the western side of the Pyrenees, a few miles inside the border from France. It has a delightful restaurant, the Herriko Ostatua, which does a stunning good-value lunch of three courses for around 11 Euros, all cooked by the proprietor in the kitchen behind the bar. (See photo below.)
We like to sit under one of the outside awnings, looking towards Etxalar’s diminutive main square and the fronton, where children practise their pelota – the fast and furious Basque version of squash, in a half-open court, whose players usually bat the ball with an angular basket extending from their hands, but sometimes with their bare palms. We once saw a Basque dancing group there, wearing the tradition red scarves that are such proud cultural symbols for this people, with their tongue-twisting language whose etymology has long puzzled linguists.
The road that passes the restaurant on its right-hand side leads directly to France. It winds its way among the pines and the eucalyptuses to arrive in 20 minutes at a windy col that marks the crossing point. There is an austere café that is rarely open, and a grassy terrace often peopled with French twitchers, as bird-spotters are known. Their binoculars are trained on the French side and some the keenest among them display a chalk board where they record their sightings. The greatest prize is the Golden Eagle, followed by the Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, with its three-metre wingspan. We saw a cluster of a more common species of vulture, the Griffon, as they rode a thermal close to the mountainside in France.
These are not the high Pyrenees, but they still have a satisfying mountain feel, giving me the impetus to climb the nearest peak, a kilometre or so to the north. It is shown on the map as Ibantelli, lying maybe 200 metres on the French side of the border. Its height is 702 metres, a decent height you might think – but since you start from the col at around 480 metres, the height gain is proportionally far less.
And so I set off, following a steep track among the pines that led on to open ground, with views back down towards the valley containing Extalar. I was now moving among flat stones and gorse bushes, and then the approach to the summit opened up, following the crest of the ridge. It had a satisfying apex, with a path zigzagging among boulders and then following the skyline.(See photo above.) My breath quickened as I embarked on the final stretch, with a few scrambling moves before I breasted the grassy ledge that abutted on to a tumble of stones that comprised a natural cairn.
The views were spectacular, across to the French Atlantic coast, a distant shimmering blue, and then along the southern crest of the ridge that gradually rose to higher things to the west. I commissioned a summit photograph from some young French walkers (photo above), then sat a while to reflect that even a walk of just an hour and 250 metres could bring me the satisfaction I had known elsewhere – in Scotland, to name one mountain region. The descent was straightforward, taking around 40 minutes, so the whole trip lasted a neat two hours.
We did other small-scale things during our week near Extalar: visting a cidreria; eating at our favourite Basque restaurant, the Altxunea Erretegia,at Iturren; bathing in the municipal spa facilities at Lesaka. Then it was back to Santander for the voyage home. First we visited Santander’s new art gallery, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in June 2017. The current exhibition was no great shakes but the building dazzled as it bridged into the sea, providing ample public space to be enjoyed (photo above). It looked splendid too in the evening sun as we set sail for home on our Brittany Ferry – always such a relaxing and indulgent form of travel that extends the holiday until the home port comes into sight.