I try to prepare my kids for the town of Tarbes. I had been to this town twenty-five years ago, but like many memories that have blurred over the years, I can’t remember how big the town actually is. Having just come north into France from big cities in Spain—Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona—I know that Tarbes will be a change. Maybe the kids are imagining Tarbes will resemble the walled Medieval city of Carcassonne we visited on the way to Tarbes.
“Tarbes is a little mountain village in the countryside. It’s not a big city,” I tell them.
However, the town is keen to prove me wrong. A sign indicates the town limits. In our rental car, we pass shopping centers, navigate through roundabouts, and crawl through bustling streets before we pull into the parking space of our host’s apartment building. Our host is my family’s former exchange student circa 1986, Nicolas (affectionately nicknamed by my American family as “Nick”), plus his wife and son.
We wake up Saturday morning and Nick suggests we go “downtown” for the annual main street festival. Pedestrians fill the main street, which is closed to vehicle traffic for the day. Vendors’ tables, booths, and canopies line the sidewalks. Their wares flutter from clothing racks and fill shelves. There is even a local car dealership with a car on display, where my husband and son find themselves most of the morning. My daughter and I stroll the streets, passing the Mayor’s historic-looking mansion. She finds a necklace we buy at a “discount.” It’s not a small village, it’s a bustling town.
When we return to the house to rest up for our afternoon adventure, my son tells me, “Mom, this isn’t exactly a small mountain village.”
“Oh. So my description wasn’t really accurate?”
“I was expecting like houses far from other houses on the side of a mountain. Goats and stuff.”
“Right…well, you make a point. It’s not as small of a village as I remember. I just didn’t want you to think it was going to be a big city.”
My daughter chimes in with a thirteen-year-old eye roll, “Yeah, mom! It’s not a village, it’s a big town! With a mayor’s house whose front yard is a city block with a statue in front of it and everything!”
We are indeed in the mountains, but the town of Tarbes is more city-like than I remember. It is thoroughly European, and that is the little element I forgot. In fact, one of the things I love about European towns is a good town center, no matter the size of the town.
Our trip has been hot and sunny through Spain and the previous day’s drive across southern France. The evening after we arrive, the skies open up and it pours rain. We fish out our long pants and warmer layers from the bottom of our suitcases. By the morning the rain has stopped. We spend the first cool afternoon at a Pyrenees Animal Park with our guide, Nick’s seven-year-old son, Max.
The park is high in the mountains, providing sweeping views of a beautiful green valley. The houses built into the side of the mountains are more like the picture I had painted of Tarbes for my kids.
Our seven-year-old tour guide doesn’t linger.
“Are you coming or what?” Max shouts over his shoulder (in French), almost out of sight he is so far ahead of us on the path. I spend the afternoon translating Max’s commands to my daughter and husband but let my son practice his French with Max and other locals.
We enjoy the cool misty afternoon hike through the pyrenees mountainside watching the local animals. We aren’t staying on the side of the mountain, but at least the kids get to experience little mountain villages after all, even if it’s only the view from the park.