Thursday

Travel France. Eyewitness Penny Walker from The Adventure Creators talks about the Pyrenees


The Pyrenees are a place where France's humid air meets the dry air from Spain. The mountain range stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, with the tiny microstate of Andorra that sits between France and Spain. The plant world consists of many species that grow only here. And did you know that the last of France's brown bears live here, together with large birds of prey such as golden eagles and griffon vultures? Chamois (goat-antelope), otters and, above all, many marmots (aka groundhogs) create an untouched paradise.

Penny Walker, Francophile throughout, always dreamed of a life in France and has been living in the Pyrenees for over ten years. When she and her husband started their research for a place to live in the country of their dreams, they were looking for a place that is reasonably priced, has beautiful scenery, a great climate, fantastic food, fascinating history and culture plus amazing wildlife. With the central French Pyrenees, they found a place that ticked all the boxes on their wish list. The area is perfect for hiking, road biking, mountain biking, horse riding and also snowshoeing and skiing. Easy to understand why Penny can't imagine living anywhere else.

Penny Walker

Penny started her adventure holiday business two years ago. She is a perfect example of a person living her dream. She found a way to share her enthusiasm for the Pyrenees with travellers and outdoor fans and creating a living from it. She offers tailor-made adventures- and outdoor holidays. You dream of a mountain bike trip through the Pyrenees or of hiking and bear watching? The trips are designed so that tourists will have exactly that experience during their stay, they were pursuing to have. Responsible tourism is close to Penny’s heart and she supports local guides and producers. Nothing makes her happier than the positive feedback she gets from visitors after she created unforgettable experiences in the Pyrenees for them.

The Touristin: Three words that characterize the Pyrenees?

Penny Walker: Unspoilt. Beautiful. Accessible.

The Touristin: How do you get around the Pyrenees?

Penny Walker: I recommend visitors hire a car as this gives them the greatest flexibility for exploring the area. There is, however, a basic public transport network that runs through the foothills with buses that criss-cross the area. The authorities are also in the process of re-opening (expected 2020) a railway line that will make it possible to travel by train from Paris straight to the town of Bagneres de Luchon in the heart of the Pyrenees, which will be fantastic for those looking to keep their carbon footprint low.

The Touristin: What is the best kept secret about the Pyrenees?

Penny Walker: The whole of the Pyrenees chain is one of Europe's bestkept secrets! Many people have no idea that this mountain chain which runs from the Atlantic in the west to the Mediterranean in the east forms the natural border between France and Spain. Everybody has heard of the Alps, but the Pyrenees are much quieter, much better value and a much more accessible mountain range. They are still relatively undiscovered and even in peak tourist season, the area is not heaving with tourists. There are numerous cheap flights from Paris to Toulouse airport which is only 1 hour to 1h30 straight up the autoroute.

The Touristin: What is your favourite borough/suburb/area in the Pyrenees and why?

Penny Walker: The mountains and foothills of the central Pyrenees is the most unspoilt and authentic area of the chain. Few tourists, a rich heritage and culture and a wild mountain environment in which we've got brown bears! There are over 40 of them in this area. I have seen their tracks in the mountains and found their fur on trees against which they have rubbed but have not yet seen a real live bear. I do however coordinate wildlife holidays in conjunction with local wildlife guides and bear experts on both the Spanish and French sides of the chain which give visitors the best possibility of seeing these creatures in the flesh. I must tag along on the next trip.

The climate in the central Pyrenees is also a great mix of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Not too wet or dry. Not too hot or cold. Just perfect.

The Touristin: The best place for a hot chocolate or coffee in the Pyrenees?

Penny Walker: I've not had a bad hot choc or coffee anywhere in the area.

The Touristin: What is one restaurant we must try out while in the Pyrenees?

Penny Walker: The Auberge d'Antan in Saint Girons in the Ariege area of the Pyrenees is unmissable. It has been created in the old 19th-century stables of a lovely old chateau. Yannick specialises in traditional local gastronomy and regional dishes of SW France, many of which are created in the big old open fireplace which is the focal point of the auberge. Fresh, local and seasonal produce is always used and the menus are fantastic value. I welcomed Viv and Jill from WAVEJourney to the Pyrenees in June and they wrote about the food that you will find in the Ariege in the article Travel France Fantastic Value Dining in the Ariege Pyrenees.

The Touristin: Where would we meet you on weekends?

Penny Walker: Up in the mountains somewhere. I often tag along with the professional local guides that I use for the hiking, snowshoeing, mountain biking and adventure holidays that I create here. It's a great way to get to know my clients and to get my mountain fix too.

The Touristin: Do you have a favourite museum/gallery we all have to visit when in the Pyrenees?

Penny Walker: Not so much a museum or gallery but the prehistoric caves, Grottes de Gargas, should be on everybody's 'must visit' list. The cave system was inhabited by Cro-Magnon man almost 30,000 years ago. They are known for the stencilled hand paintings and etchings of bison and ibex that you can still see on the cave walls and ceilings. It's very atmospheric and thought-provoking.

The Touristin: What are some of your favourite places to shop for

A) groceries and B) clothes in the Pyrenees?

The weekly village farmers markets are the very best place from which to buy fresh, local, seasonal produce direct from the growers. You'll often find small stalls on which farmers sell fresh vegetables that they have harvested that morning, eggs laid by their own free range hens and fruit picked from their own orchards. Much of it is organic and the quality is exceptional.

Clothes? I can't answer that as I tend to live in my outdoors gear.

The Touristin: What souvenir shall we bring back from the Pyrenees?

Penny Walker: Foodwise I'd suggest some locally made saucisson or maybe some chocolate produced by the Dardenne chocolatier who have been making organic chocolate products near Bagneres-de-Luchon since 1897.

Or for a really authentic souvenir that will stand the test of time, how about a handmade shepherd's beret. Did you know, the French beret originates from the foothills of the Pyrenees and the town of Oloron-Saint-Marie where it was first created 175 years ago!

The Touristin: Thank you so very much Penny, all the very best to you and your business. Stay safe on your adventures. Cross fingers you will see your first bear in the wild soon.

Meet Penny on Twitter and visit her website The Adventure Creators. Meet more locals from all around the world in the Eyewitness - City Guides series.

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Greetings stranger. I always try to be myself and to be a tourist as often as I can. I would love to get in contact with lots of hard travelling tourists who love to be out and about as much as I do. I am looking forward to all your comments. Thanks so much in advance.