Walking the COMET Escape Lines

Tours, Guided Walks & Holidays including the Comet Line border crossings of the Pyrenees

Comet Line walk and views from the Carlist towers en route

The Comet Line (Le Réseau Comète) is a famous escape line that operated between 1941 and 1944 during World War II. It was the brainchild of a 24-year-old Belgium woman, André de Jongh (known as Dédée), a young nurse who, at the outbreak of World War II, found herself nursing Allied soldiers and pilots who had fallen – or been stranded – behind enemy lines.

Dédée organised a network of Belgian and French resistance workers to help evacuate Allied pilots out of Nazi-occupied Europe over the Basque Pyrenees and the Bidasoa River into Spain. Here, while dodging Franco´s police,  (German sympathizers), Basque smugglers helped to guide the pilots into the hands of MI9 who then facilitated their return to Great Britain via Gibralter.

A total of about 700 - 900 people were helped or hidden by the Comet Line and roughly 300 Allied pilots were guided to safety over the Basque Pyrenees. The number of people working for the Comet Line is more complex to calculate as anonymity was a form of self-protection, however, it is estimated that about 2000 - 3000 people helped guide, lodge, feed and clothe the pilots, among these over 150 were captured and killed directly by firing squad or perished in concentration camps. If the resistance workers were caught they risked a far more terrible ending than the pilots themselves. Many were women and children, with children as young as eight helping to attend the pilots hidden in their family houses or guide them from one village to the next.

Making Hay in the Baztan Valley

The Terrain and People of the Basque Pyrenees

The final stretch of the Comet Line escape route crosses the French / Spanish border at the Bidasoa river near Endarlatsa in the Basque Pyrenees – just 30 minutes from where we live. It is an intricate crossing winding along hidden stream valleys and mountain shoulders; through tunnels and past isolated mountain farms but it is not too hard for intermediate-level walkers. Unlike the Freedom Trail in the high Pyrenees, the mountain tops that the pilots climbed were only some 500 m - 600 m high (albeit that they crossed by night, in the fear of being shot either by the Nazis on the French side or Franco’s henchmen on the Spanish side of the border).

The stories of the courage, danger and - at times - the audacity of the Basque people involved in the final crossing of the Comet Line escape line are often terrifying – sometimes even amusing – but always inspiring.  For years the families and children who hid the pilots in their attics in safe houses such as Bidegain Berri or Jatxou Baita (Urrugne) or Sarobe (Oiartzun) kept their secrets to themselves. Only now the stories are starting to be told.

I have had the honour to spend time with the last remaining survivors of the Comet Line - then mere children - and their stories have been recounted in some of the blogs below. This information has also been compiled in my memoir 'In the Footsteps of Smugglers' which will be published in the UK and US in summer 2024 by Bradt, the world's leading travel publisher. 

Recent Blogs on the Comet Line. 

Basque Children of the Resistance

In-depth Case Study of RAF Pilot Jim Allison's Escape over the Pyrenees 1943 

Alternative WW II Comet Line escape routes through the Baztan Valley 1943 -1944

One-Day Smuggling & Resistance Tour of the Basque Borders

One-day tour: Sample Itinerary:

9:00

Transport to the Basque Pyrenees

Transport from San Sebastian. Journey time one hour.

10.00

French Safe Houses & Resistance Paths

Drive over the border to the outskirts of Urrugne to see the French safe houses where the resistance network known as the Comet Line hid allied soldiers and pilots during WW2. From here they would make their final night crossing over the Bidasoa River into Spain.

We learn the story of the Comet Line and the fate of André de Jong (Dédée), the inspiring leader of the Comet Line who was captured at the safe house, Bidegain Berri, on 15th January 1945 where she stayed just one night too many. We also try to understand what it was like for the families, women and children, who risked their lives for the resistance, and for the Basque mountain guides who passed the pilots to (relative) safety over the Bidasoa river from France into Spain. We hear about the antics of the enigmatic resistance guide, Florentino Goikoetxea.

After visiting the area of the safe houses, we take an easy to moderate walk into the hills along mountain trails and shady stream valleys. Initially, this walk is gentle, becoming more moderate as it climbs towards the border. This walk can be tailored to your walking level.

The story continues as we drive into Navarra and through the ravines of the Bidasoa River. Here we explore the crossing points along the river. We see the guards’ houses, railway tunnels, rocks and ravines on the border and try to understand what it must have been like to cross the river when it was in flood, in the darkness, wearing ill-fitting, sodden espadrilles, and with the Gestapo on one side of the border and Franco’s police, the Guardia Civil, on the other.

13:30

Local Basque Lunch in Donamaria

We enjoy a 'Menu de Degustacion' at a traditional, Michelin-recommended Basque restaurant hidden in a distant mountain valley far from the madding crowd. This award-winning, family-run restaurant only works with local Basque producers and Navarran wines. It is located by the side of the river with beautiful gardens and grounds - so there may be the opportunity for some wild swimming! A talk with its owner about the secrets of Basque cuisine.

16:00

Smugglers' Villages & Smugglers' Tricks

After lunch, we return slowly towards San Sebastian stopping off at one of the bucolic smuggling villages near the border. Here we hear about the history of smuggling in the area immediately after the second world war. What sort of contraband did they smuggle? Why did they smuggle, and what were some of the clever ruses they used to bamboozle the Spanish Guardia Civil? What was it that made the Basques, smugglers par excellence?

18.00

Transport to Hotel

Transport back to Irun. We can pick up in San Sebastian for group of 4 people or more.

Additional Information

Price

Price starts at 260 euros per person (for a group of 4 people or more). This price includes gourmet meal at a Michelin-recommended restaurant. Price for 2 people starts at 285 euros pp. All participants require a minimum fitness level and good walking/hiking shoes.

A longer 26km one-day tour (including both the French and Spanish sides of the Pyrenees) can, at times, be tailor-made for advanced walkers on special request. Please enquire.

Our Total Basque Mountain Experience Products

My research is based on my personal contacts with the last remaining family members of the COMET resistance line, and with former smugglers from the Bidasoa Valley. Special thanks go to Madeleine Larreche from the safe house Jatxou Baita (Urrugne), Paco Iriarte from the safe house Sarobe (Oiartzun) and Juanbi Milhura (grandson of Xan Milhura) from the safe house Jauriko Borda in the Baztan Valley.  The historian 'Juan Carlos Jimenez de Aberasturi ' and his meticulously documented book  'Camino a la Libertad'  have been an invaluable source of up-to-date information.

In 2024 my memoir 'In the Footsteps of Smugglers' will be published by Bradt in the UK and US - it comprises not only my work with the Comet Line members and their families but also my years of experience living here among the noble Basque mountain shepherds and smugglers of the Pyrenees.

Further information

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