Les Pyrénées (Relais & Châteaux)
Route 4. Biarritz to La Charité-sur-Loire
Price bracket: ****
On the basis of lunch and a fairly exhaustive tour of the premises, as described below, I vote for Les Pyrénées as one of the best hotels in France: not one of the most luxurious, or palatial, but one of the best. As far as I could see and taste, the Arrambide family does everything right and judges the balance between Basque tradition and modernity to perfection. There are one or two gaps in its collection of red Michelin guides going back to 1900, but this is a minor blemish. And I’m not sure about sitting room space for wet days, of which there are many in this corner of France. Expensive? Of course it is, although not by Relais & Chateaux standards of extravagance. What would you expect?
The hotel is in a place which would deserve a visit anyway: St Jean is a beautiful old walled town at the foot of the western Pyrenees, where three of the French pilgrimage routes converge. Many pilgrims start their long walk here, arriving by train from Bayonne in the afternoon and setting off for the high mountains in the early morning; for others, St Jean is a half way house. Pilgrim, why not treat yourself to a night of gracious living at Les Pyrénées? For non-pilgrims, the spectacle of humanity in transit adds to the fascination of exploring the old citadel.
Movie trivia: the crew working on the excellent Emilio Estevez film about the Compostela pilgrimage, The Way, starring Martin Sheen, stayed at Les Pyrénées and commandeered a bedroom for the filming of the morgue scene. Les Pyrénées knew the film had come out when they received the first booking request for the Morgue Suite.
(Un peu d’histoire. I selected Les Pyrénées for lunch after a long morning’s bike ride from Biarritz – about 60km – with a new cycling companion who had shown worrying signs of exhaustion, dehydration, and all-round clapped-outness as the morning went on. It was the first day of a long ride for us, and I took the decision that a morale boost was essential. It worked).
“Les Pyrénées is an old coaching inn outside the walls of the citadel. It has been in the hands of the Arrambide family for ever. They started it, have built it up and cherished it. Les Pyrénées has a Michelin star, which since my visit to Troisgros I now call a macaron. It looked expensive and inviting, a real treat.
Madame Arrambide, whom I found rather a handful – to pronounce, not handle – was stationed at the front desk. The Arrambides may run one of the best hotels in south west France but they do not give themselves airs.
“Would you like a shower before lunch?” she asked, having perhaps caught a whiff on the breeze as the electronic door slid open to admit us.
“Yes I would,” said Paul. “Very much.” He went out to his bike to collect a change of clothes and was led away to his own suite. I sat down to read a magazine, and as I was still sitting there 20 minutes later I asked Madame Arrambide if I could have a look around. She summoned a senior member of the clan, perhaps the most senior, whom I am tempted to call Adambide, to be my guide.
Although clearly in the advanced grip of a most painful affliction, Adambide showed me every room in the house – except one suite, where a tremendous Niagara-like roar told us Paul was either dead or still busy in the shower – and the beautiful garden with its inviting pool. Adambide was particularly keen to show me the more modern rooms, which come with an impressive array of buttons to press, to adjust the temperature, open the shutters without getting out of bed, turn on the TV while in the bath etc. “I adore the new technology,” Adambide told me proudly, “but some guests prefer an older style of room.” Les Pyrénées, very sensibly, has both. I was worried about Paul, but the guide would not abbreviate the tour.
Eventually Paul reappeared. “That was the best shower of my life,” he said.
Lunch started with langoustine, followed by lasagne au foie gras and carried on in similar vein. It was fabulous. The waiter kept urging us to have more wine – our afternoon ride to St Palais was downhill all the way, apparently: the merest bagatelle – and was so attentive, Paul had enough to drink for once. But in my friend’s memory lunch at Les Pyrénées is eclipsed by the shower.”
Price bands: from * (B&B for less than 50 euros per person in a shared room) to ***** (expect to pay at least 175 euros)