Hard to believe, but for the ten years we've been here we have never really visited the Pyrenees. And they are only about three hours drive away.
Tod has driven through them coming back from Saragossa. We once sat on a terrace in Pau and lunched with their magnificent backdrop just over our shoulders. Years ago, I stood on the battlements at Carcassonne and wished I was in the mountains instead.
So, we decided finally it was time, booked a hotel and headed for the Ossau Valley, complete with dogs, and armed with maps, guide books and pages from Google showing the easy walks (we weren't planning on doing anything too strenuous).
The weather had been glorious for the previous two weeks - temperatures in the high twenties. Even when we caught the trailing edge of Hurricane Ophelia as it tracked across the Bay of Biscay going northwards, the blustery wind was warm. In the bright autumnal golden sunlight the thought of walking in the Pyrenees was delightful.
As we drove south the rain clouds began to bank up and we took comfort in the occasional bit of blue sky - perhaps the weather forecast was unduly pessimistic. By south of Pau the mountains were barely visible, grey sketched outlines appearing and disappearing against the grey sky. By our third "pit stop" (Bertie gets bored / car sick, starts to whine and needs the diversion of a quick walk) the rain was falling fairly fast. By the time we got to the hotel it was pouring.
Tod and the dogs stayed in the car as I dashed, dripping and bedraggled, into the elegant hotel foyer. Madame, looking at me with some horror, suggested that we and the dogs should stay in the annexe. She mellowed somewhat when I meekly agreed that yes please, we would like to book the restaurant for dinner - there was no way we were going any further!
The downpour eased to a mere steady drizzle and, knowing the dogs would need their constitutional, we set out macked and booted to explore a green lane immediately behind the hotel (great, where to go for tomorrow's early morning walk sorted).
We'd hoped to have the annexe to ourselves but a family of four arrived, banged and crashed doors, flushed toilets, ran showers and invaded what we'd already come to think of as "our space". They were English too - maybe for Madame the annexe was the "English ghetto"? I murmured that I hoped our dogs wouldn't disturb them - while quite convinced they would disturb us.
We hustled Vita and Bertie back into the car, hardened our hearts to his barking ("he'll settle down") and headed for the hotel restaurant. Throughout the meal we watched the rain in the dark falling into puddles on the tarmac, reflected in the lights of the hotel, trying to gauge whether it was easing off or not.
In a nearly empty room, Madame placed the English family at the next table - maybe she thought we needed the company? We tried not to eavesdrop, but did hear with some relief that they would be leaving in the morning.
Another damp walk in the dark and we decided an early night was called for. It had been a stressful day and the other family had settled down early - they planned to be up at seven. In the dark I heard Bertie pacing the floor his nails click, clicking on the lino and then the soft whining started - I hissed at him to be quiet, praying the English family were asleep. Vita too wouldn't settle, panting in anxiety and pawing the door. By midnight all four of us were dressed, up, out and walking towards the village in the drizzle, the dogs thrilled with exciting smells and dank burrows to investigate, the sound of cow bells from the steep valley sides in the background, low cloud drifting in and out of view in the beams of our torches.
We crept back to the annexe and opened and closed doors as quietly as we could. I lay in bed for hours, semi-rigid, longing for sleep, hoping that the dogs would stay calm and quiet. By seven the family were up and out. The dogs, exhausted, slept peacefully through all of the comings and goings.
Over breakfast, the rain still pouring outside the hotel windows, we decide to come home.
We wonder whether Madame would be displeased, as I'd booked for two nights. I approach her somewhat apprehensively to give her the news. However, when I mention that our dogs have been restless in the night and I was concerned about her other guests, she couldn't wait to get rid of us.
Next time, we've agreed, when the weather's fine I'll visit the Pyrenees on my own, with only my camera for company. Tod, Vita and Bertie will stay very contentedly at home.