The border between two cultures

The mountains rise above the mists in the Pyrenees

Ask a person where Christianity and Islam stand face to face with a long history of conflict, and their answer will surely be the middle east. If they are somewhat more well read they may say the Balkans, President Clinton's "I have to have a legacy" foreign policy sandbox which will turn to quicksand soon enough.

It would take a reflective and well read person, however, to mention the Pyrenees. And yet these mountains were all that held back the Moors from charging, unimpeded, into France and the heart of Christian Europe. Still full of ballads and romances about Roland and his French forces, the mixture of Spanish, Frnech and African cuisines produces foods, wines and flavors unlike those anywhere else in Europe.

As well as remarkable cycling. The Pyrenees were one of my trips' greatest highlights. The mountains form a spine (quite short, actually..perhaps more like a neck!) that is the border between France and Spain: indeed the old saying is that Europe ends at the Pyrenees. Teams vanquished in recent UEFA cup action might wish it were true in more than just spirit. Andorra is a peaceful mountain country which boasts a capital of the same name; in contrast, the fiery Basques battle for their own country in the west region near Pamplona. I wove my way over the Pyrenees five times. The first crossing was a silent and wet one near Roncesvalles, famous for its story of the Ghostly Horn of Roland. I listened for the horn, but its somber tones of betrayal were lost that night amidst the rain and wind. (Yet the locals say it is precisely on such nights that the horn is heard!)

My other crossings were more auspicious, in fact they were spectacular, for the clouds lingered and often played games with the peaks that had to be seen to be believed. You must realize that I had no foreknowledge of this range whatsoever. So as the mists dissipated and the rock faces seemed to solidify in front of me, I often had to stop and let my jaw drop as I regained my breath. Still early Spring in this highland region, the snows were white and the icy streams young and vibrant.

The tour de France always has several stages here, most notably the col de Tourmalet. As each day brought it closer I heard conflicting reports about its NO, snows last night..YES..they have been cleared...NO..a small avalanche....By the time this world rider arrived on the scene it was closed again. But there are so many passes and side valleys in this marvelous region, I soon found other challenges.

As the photos show the roads are good to excellent with very reasonable traffic and often a broad shoulder. Grades are not as bad as in the alps, 6% to 7%; nor are the passes as high as their central European brethren.

For a very useful guide about walking and hiking in the Pyrenees, hceck out this site about the GR10 a hiking path that follows the entire range. If you wish to cycle the entire Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route across northern Spain to the gorgeous town of the same name, go to this site which describes the entire Camino Santiago by bike.