As we twist and turn along the mountain roads in the
, I wonder how high up we will have to go to reach our destination, a tiny
. My palms start to sweat, and I grip the car door handle too tightly every time we round another bend. Next to me, my husband is oohing and ahhing over the stunning scenery, and when I open my eyes, I see why he's so impressed! Rocky outcrops, snow-capped peaks, and tree covered hills - and the roads are actually excellent.
Eventually, we arrive in Sauto and are greeted by our hosts, who show us around the gorgeous gite that we will spend the next month in -
. Its rough stone, original exterior and traditional, slate roof are what first charm us about our holiday home, originally built by shepherds in the 1700's. It has since been lovingly rennovated by its current owners, who have managed to seemlessly meld traditional styles with every modern, eco-friendly convenience. The tasteful combination of stone and wood throughout makes the house feel warm and inviting, while the baskets, copper kettle, traditional tools, and antique cow bells hanging from the beamed ceilings add a touch of Catalan nostalgia. We are enchanted by the old wooden "barn" doors, and the stone steps up to the balcony which enjoys spectacular, sun-drenched views of the dramatic peaks and valleys.
Although Sauto may not be considered a destination in itself, it proves a perfect base for our visit to the Pyrenees; it is tranquility at its finest. There are no shops, no traffic; in fact, no commercialism of any kind. The only noise you might hear is the pleasant jingle of the bells around the necks of every cow and sheep grazing on the mountainside, and the odd bark of a border collie. The biggest commotion the village ever seems to see is the weekly descent of the the local shepherdess with her flock!
Despite its peaceful and seemingly isolated location, Sauto allows easly access to so many attractions. Several times during our stay, we take the five-minute drive to
, a walled 17th century fortress town and Unesco World Heritage site, also home to the world's first solar furnace which offers an informative hands-on tour. Another ten minutes, and we are in any one of a number of world class ski resorts, including
. For us, it is autumn, so no skiing, but plenty of beautiful mountain and lakeside hikes. And for the "après-hike," it's off to one of the many thermal baths in the area for some steamy open-air relaxation.
A half hour takes us to the Spanish border town of
and its fantastic Sunday morning market, or
Villefranche de Conflent
in the other direction, a picturesque eleventh century medievel fortification by
. A stroll through the town to check out the craft shops and restaurants, and then we drive the five minutes to Les Grottes de Grand Canalettes, an extraordinary system of ornamental caves.
An hour and a half gets us to
for a little shopping trip, and the same distance on another day takes us into the Ariage region to see some amazing prehistoric cave paintings at
. So much to see and do, it's impossible to fit it all in!
And the best part of all this exploring? At the end of each day, we get to come back to La Fougere, light the woodstove, and cozy up with a glass of wine. No hotel, no bustling chalet-filled resort, just the peace and quiet of the mountain. Perfect.
Jane Hastelow is a former high school English teacher and curriculum coach currently enjoying a year of family travel and education with her husband and three children. She has a BA in English and a Masters in Communications. Jane loves to combine her passion for writing with family travel. You can also follow her adventures at