Cheap Pyrenees: Mountains, Mediterranean + Atlantic

Less than 300 miles wide, with the Atlantic on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, the Pyrenees – the mountain border between France and Spain, with peaks over 11,000ft – has everything you could possibly need for a fantastic holiday.

New cut-price ferry routes to northern Spain, by far the cheapest fuel in Western Europe and bargain out-of-season hotel rooms make it as easy on the wallet as it is on the eye.

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D25 Port (or Col) de Pailheres, just east of Andorra, above Ax-les-Thermes.

D25 Port (or Col) de Pailheres, just east of Andorra, above Ax-les-Thermes.

In tiny Andorra, nestled on the France-Spain border towards the east, unleaded 95 currently sells for €1.258/l compared with €1.419 in Spain and €1.518 in France. Diesel costs €1.129 versus €1.344 and €1.298 respectively. That’s virtually paid for your holiday right there.

Meanwhile, new budget ferry lines from Brittany Ferries and LD Lines get you to Spain from the UK for two thirds of the full fat cruise ferry price. LD Lines currently advertises one way two+car fares from £119. Brittany Ferries economie has proven so popular it’s fully booked until September but there is still space available on its regular services.

Biarritz from The President

Biarritz from the Hotel President

LD Lines drops off at two ports on the north Spain coast, either Gijon (handy for Portugal) or Santander. Head east through Cantabria, itself noted car country – see more here – via Bilbao and its famous Frank Gehry-designed, titanium-covered Guggenheim Museum. Just across the French border are the classic resorts Biarritz and Hyeres.

Biarritz had its absolute hey-day in the 1920s, a favourite of the Edward and Mrs Simpson. The wealth has retreated since then – it’s now best known as Europe’s surf capital – but the essence of its turn of the century glamour remains. We bagged this top floor room at Hotel President, 100m from the beach, for €140. That’s expensive by Biarritz standards.

Free driving in the Pyrenees

Free driving in the Pyrenees

Directly inland from Biarritz are the mountains. We chucked the map in the footwell, turned off the satnav, and just followed our noses. Free driving in the Pyrenees on deserted roads, even in June and September, with super scary barrierless gravel farm tracks too if that’s your thing.

Roads we can remember and recommend include Port de Larrau – with its campsite right on the Spain-France border – and Port de Pailheres, next door to Andorra, both stages on the Tour de France (see map below).

For the “best”, storied roads see any history of the famous French cycle road race. The classic combination starts at Bagneres de Luchon, slap bang in the middle of the mountains, and heads west on D618 Col de Peyresourde to Arreau where it picks up the magic D918 for – in quick succession – Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque.

You might notice from the map, Lourdes, Pau and Tarbes are not far away, all worth a look.

The 1,000ft Mallos de Riglos, foothills of the Pyrenees, from the A-132 heading north from Ayerbe.

The 1,000ft Mallos de Riglos, foothills of the Pyrenees, from the A-132 heading north from Ayerbe.

On the Spanish side we made one of our all-time best ever roadside hotel finds, the Hotel Villa de Ayerbe, on the A-132 heading north west from charming, sleepy Huesca. At €60 the clean neat room was nice enough but the restaurant was fantastic, menus signed by Ridley Scott, Eva Green and Orlando Bloom. They all stayed here while filming Kingdom of Heaven. The waiter wouldn’t let us buy another bottle of cava because it would put us over the limit for driving the next day.

Similarly we found another bargain €60 B&B room at the all-wood, chalet Hotel Rene Roy on the outskirts of Ax-les-Thermes in France, surrounded with wooded mountains. We’re not sure Rene Roy is still there but you’ll struggle to pay more than that anywhere, even now. That’s the overall point about the Pyrenees: it’s most popular in the winter. Summer is out-of-season.

For nicer places check out Relais & Chateaux.

Ascending N116 up the Tet River Valley from Perpignan to Puigcerda.

Ascending N116 up the Tet River Valley from Perpignan to Puigcerda.

You can hardly go wrong descending the Pyrenees on the Mediterranean side. The main N116 from Spanish border town Puigcerda is right out of central casting, down the narrow Tet River gorge with chateaux and monasteries high on the hills above. The racy option is the N260/C-38 from Puigcerda via Ripoll.

This is the Roussillon, the single biggest wine-producing region in the world, responsible for a third of France’s total production. Vines are everywhere.

Salvador Dali said Perpignan, set back a few miles from the coast, was the Centre of the Universe. We loved it but it’s way past its best. Ancient, unloved massive wooden doors standing the test of time on endless old buildings in quiet, unlit dusty back streets and high ceilinged parquet floored apartments going for a song. And the ace Le Double Y restaurant where we had our first Steak Tartare.

If that’s not your thing then the spectacular Cap de Creus peninsula is just fifty miles south over the Spanish border. Until recently Roses was home to El Bulli, the world’s best restaurant. Or perhaps you would prefer Barcelona? It’s just two hours direct from Perpignan on the wide, smooth AP-7.

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