I am entering the foothills of the Pyrenees, the tops of which are covered with a light dusting of snow after the overnight rain, like icing sugar on a coffee cake. It is cold but clear and the road snakes upwards to the Col-de-St-Ignace, where a tourist train takes visitors to the top of La Rhune, the highest peak in the area at 900m. But today I pass the deserted car park and empty tracks and continue on to Sare (or Sara in the Basque language), a pretty mountain village, nestled in the hills which are awash with autumnal hues, from the lush green of the meadows to the rust-coloured leaves of the trees.
A few kilometres on, up another winding, dead-end road, are some caves – Les Grottes de Sare. Inhabited in Neolithic times by Homo sapiens, they are now home to nine different species of bat. Much as I hate bats, I am intrigued by the caves and their two million year history.
I take the guided tour, along with a young Spanish couple, and as we enter the caves, the sound of txalaparta echoes through the chambers. It is an ancient Basque musical instrument (similar to a xylophone) that was originally used for communication. There are not many stalactites or stalagmites, which I’m told is due to the clay layer above the limestone which keeps the caves dry. Except they are not truly dry, as the trickle of water down the walls and the flow of the steam along the floor attests to. At one point there is an interesting slide show about the myths and legends of the caves, cleverly reflected in a pool of water.
After an hour we emerge into daylight where an outdoor exhibition, using dodgy, expressionless mannequins wearing hippy wigs, provides further insight into the life and death of Neolithic man. Personally, I’m thankful to be living in the 21st Century and retire to the heated café to celebrate with a piece of Basque gateau and a warming cup of coffee.