Fascinating secrets and off-the beaten track places in the Pyrenees

Facts compiled by Pyrenean expert blogger Steve Cracknell.

1. The Spanish border with France changes every six months

One of the most important places in the Pyrenees, from a historical point of view, is Pheasant Island. This is a tiny, uninhabited islet 200m long by 40m wide in the River Bidasoa. Flowing into the Atlantic, the river separates the French town of Hendaye on its northern bank from the Spanish Irun opposite. The islet is in the middle. From 1 February to 31 July it is Spanish; for the rest of the year it is French.

The islet’s status as a condominium (shared between the two countries) commemorates the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.

Romanesque Paintings in Église rupestre Sainte-Marie de Vals (Ariège

Meeting of Louis XIV of France and Philippe IV of Spain on the Île des Faisans in 1660.

Painting by Jacques Laumosnier www.histoire-image.org

2. Spain is north of the Pyrenees

The 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees specified that “the Pyrenean mountains that in former times divided the Gauls from the Spanish, will now be the division of the two kingdoms”. But, there are several areas of Spain to the north of the watershed. Zugarramurdi has one of the darkest names of all the places in the Pyrenees. It is in Navarre and is Spanish, despite being to the north of the mountains. Perhaps the French negotiators were not too keen on incorporating a village that had attracted the attention of the Inquisition as recently as 1608. Six inhabitants were burnt at the stake in 1610 along with the effigies of further five who had died in prison. Their crime was ‘witchcraft’. There is a very interesting witchcraft museum in the village as well as the caves where the witches were supposed to have had their covens with the devil.

The Basque mountain village of Zurgarramurdi in Navarre, one of the places in the Pyrenees with a dark history of witchcraft.

Zurgarramurdi to the north of the Pyrenees within the state of Navarre

Llivia (population 1700) is an enclave of Spain within France in the bumpy plain just east of Andorra. It was the bumps that made life difficult for the negotiators of the 1659 Treaty. Llivia, officially a town, remained Spanish but is surrounded by ‘French’ villages. More Information.
The Val d’Aran is also north of the watershed, and much the largest of the three areas. Significantly, the valley was cut off from Spain every winter – until the opening of the road tunnel in 1948. This gave the locals a degree of independence which they have kept through the centuries. At the time of the 1659 Treaty the local language was Aranese, a variant of Occitan and this is still a co-official language along with Catalan and Spanish. But going back even further, the area was Basque. The name Aran derives from the proto-Basque ‘haran’ meaning valley, so Val d’Aran is somewhat tautologous.

The village of Ainsa set in the mountains of the Pyrenees

The village of Ainsa in Huesca

3. Seven languages are spoken in different places in the Pyrenees

  • Spanish
  • French
  • Catalan, spoken in Catalonia, Andorra, and in the French Pyrénées-Orientales. It is the mother tongue of over 5 million people. http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/european_languages/languages/catalan.shtml
  • Occitan was widely spoken in the southern third of France until compulsory education was introduced in 1882. The deliberate suppression of Occitan continued for a century.

Today the language is in danger of extinction. According to an official survey in 1999. More Information. Occitan was then the mother tongue of 610,000 adults but was only transmitted to 60,000 of their children. Variants spoken in the Pyrenees: Languedocien, Aranese, Gascon and Béarnese.

  • Aragonese is currently spoken by 10,000 to 30,000 people in the Pyrenean mountains of the autonomous community of Aragon. Aínsa is the largest town and a historic centre.
  • The Basque language is spoken by around 750,000 people, the vast majority living on the south side of the Pyrenees. Like Catalan, it was suppressed by Franco during the dictatorship (1939–1975) but since the return of democracy it has been revalued and many of the younger generations are more fluent than their elders. Of all the languages spoken in the Pyrenees, Basque is the only one that doesn’t belong to the Indo-European group, as all those Ks and Xs make clear.

More Information.

More Information on the Basque Language.

  • and Whistling . One of the most unusual places in the Pyrenees is the village of Aas in Béarn. Here, shepherds used to whistle to each other across the valleys. The language was discovered and recorded in 1959 when it was on the point of dying out. It is now being taught in a secondary school in Laruns. 

4. The animals in the Pyrenees that are not as wild as you might think

Although marmots are now common in the Pyrenees, they were only reintroduced in 1948. The last time they had been seen in the mountains was 15,000 years previously, at the end of the last glaciation.

Another animal that has been reintroduced is the ibex, in 2014. Laña, the last Pyrenean ibex died in 2000. More Information. One of the places in the Pyrenees to see here is in the visitor centre in Torla. Scientists tried to revive her by cloning in 2009. A kid was born, but only survived a few minutes. Ibex are still difficult to spot but the population is now around 250.  

A family of marmottes in the Pyrenees

Marmots in the Pyrenees

More controversially, the brown bear population, down to five in 1995 is being reinforced with fresh blood from Slovenia. The population has reached about forty. Some shepherds in the Béarn think that bears are a part of the Pyrenean heritage and mark their cheeses with a bear’s footprint. More Information. But a vocal sector of the farming community contests the project and there have been many demonstrations in varying places in the Pyrenees.

Another controversial incomer is the grey wolf. So far there are fewer than half a dozen lone wolves in the mountains, mainly at the Mediterranean end. There are no known wolf packs. Griffon vultures are a special case. Very common in southern Spain and North Africa, their presence in the Pyrenees was diminishing in the last century until they were encouraged to return.  Various initiatives including a bird-watching site in the Ossau valley have tipped the balance.  More Information.  The beaver has also returned. Eighteen beavers were imported illegally from Bavaria in 2003 to various places in the Pyrenees. It is thought that there are now over 500 in Navarra. And now one of them has had its passport stamped in France, in the Basque country. More Information.

Saint Jean Pied de Port on the Camino de Santiago

Saint Jean Pied de Port on El Camino de Santiago

5. St James’ Way wasn’t always as popular as it is today.

In 2018 a total of 327,378 pilgrims arrived at Santiago de Compostela, Some 10% of them started in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port just on the north side of the Pyrenees. The number of pilgrims in recent years has been impressive, particularly when compared with 1978 when a mere 13 stepped through the Santiago cathedral doors. But the modern figures are nothing in comparison with the Way’s medieval heyday (1100–1250 CE) when it attracted an unbelievable 250,000 to 500,000 per year, in a Europe with roughly one-tenth of today’s population.

6. Eglise rupestre de Vals (Ariège)

One of the best places in the Pyrenees to see Romanesque frescoes is at a gem of a church in the Ariège foothills. Except for being perched on a rock outcrop dominating the village, it looks relatively unimpressive from the outside. But you only have to pull on the door to realise that this is no ordinary place of worship. The entrance leads to a stairwell carved into solid rock.

The door at the top of the stairs in turn opens into a nave on three levels, with numerous Romanesque frescoes and paintings. 

Romanesque Paintings in Église rupestre Sainte-Marie de Vals (Ariège

Eglise Rupestre de Vals

A man dressed as a bear in a fiesta in St Laurent de Cerdans

7. Bear festivals

At the start of the 20th century there were over a hundred bear festivals in different places in the Pyrenees. Most have now succumbed to rural depopulation, but near the Mediterranean (Pyrénées-Orientales) three of them are biting back. Every February each of the villages acts out its variant of the common theme: a young maiden is attacked by a bear who intends to take her back to his den. She is rescued by hunters who parade the bear before skinning it on the village square – to reveal the man inside. It is a rite of spring, like carnival. For my mind, the Prats-de-Mollo version is the most exciting.

This is not a bear

8. Chopping wood is a sport

Would you pay 30€ to watch two men compete with axes and then run around a stadium? In the Basque country they do. Rural sports – carrying milk churns, picking up corn cobs, stone lifting – are big here. In the competition I went to see, along with 700 aficionados, the two young men had bet 6,000€ on which of them could chop ten 43cm-diameter logs in half and then run 9km.

The takings of the show – 21,000€ minus expenses – are paid to the aizkolari (axemen) so that even the looser drives home with a tidy sum. During the summer months various places in the  Pyrenees, particularly the Basque Pyrenees, have village festivals where Basque sports are one of the highlights in the cultural programme. More Information.

Wood chopping competitions are a popular event at festivals in the Basque Country

The Basque Sport of Wood Chopping

One of many concrete bunkers built on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees

Bunkers of the Spanish Pyrenees

9. Concrete nests are a feature in many places of the Pyrenees

The Línea P nests (nidos in Spanish) are dotted all the way along the Spanish side of the frontier: concrete bunkers dug into the ground or half hidden in cliffs, still waiting for the Allied invasion after the WWII. There was indeed an incursion in October 1944: Spanish republican soldiers crossed into the Val d’Aran hoping vainly the Allies would follow them. But it was rebuffed in five days. Classically Franco was preparing for the last war. But when the next one came, instead of attacking through the mountains, the forces of democracy invaded by the beaches. And instead of khaki and Kalashnikovs this army came dressed in bikinis and armed with the Beatles.

10. The Baztán Trilogy

The Baztán series by Dolores Redondo is set in and around the small town of Elizondo in Navarra. A witch’s brew of Basque myths, but set in the 21st century, it follows a detective from the town on the trail of killers with obscure motives. Much of the interest is the settin. The Baztan Valley is one of the most beautiful and bucolic places in the Pyrenees; a place that hasn't quite entered into the modern world and this atmospheric setting couples with tensions in the detective’s own family circle. El gardián invisible (The invisible guardian), Legado en los huesos (The legacy of the bones) and Ofrenda a la tormenta (Offering to the storm) have been translated into more than fifteen languages. You can visit the area and learn more about its history and traditions on a Basque Mountain Experience Walking week.

Fiesta time in Elizondo in the Baztan Valley, one of the most bucolic places in the Pyrenees.

Elizondo - The Capital of the Baztan Valley

GUEST BLOGGER: Steve Cracknell. Text and photos (except where indicated) © Steve Cracknell, pyreneanway.com all rights reserved

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Articles on the culture, languages, traditions and values of the Basque Pyrenees as well as stories taken from over two decades of our own, personal Pyrenean Experience.