As the largest beech forest in Europe, the Iraty Forest unfurls its green mantle over nearly 20 000 hectares (49 000 acres) on both sides of the border with Spain. Along the Basque countryside, this millennial forest is home to beeches, fir trees, stags, and deer, but is also (as legends have it) the residence of mysterious and supernatural creatures. During a walk, horse ride, by bicycle, or on a fishing trip to the river, don't be surprised to spot furtive shadows flitting between the trees…
With a walking stick
Put on a pair of hiking shoes and follow the paths to discover the exceptional and varied flora of the Iraty Forest. Beside the majestic beech trees, the forest is home to hundreds of pine trees, Scots firs, mountain elms, French oaks, holly hedges, hazel, and black elderberry trees. At their feet, moss and lichens cover boletus mushrooms and girolles, and sometimes give way to peaceful rivers. Keep your eyes wide open, as the Lord of the forest, Basajun, a primitive creature who (according to legend), would protect walkers from any danger may be on your trail. From May to November, follow the human cry of the Basque shepherds, called irrintzina, which will lead you to the grasslands. These vast pastures are the domain of shepherd, evidenced by the traditional shepherd huts, the etxolaks.
On horseback or on the back of a donkey
While the trails of the Iraty Forest are made for walking, they can also be explored on four legs. Mounted on the back of a horse or donkey from La Forge horse farm (External link) , you can get a whole new perspective on the forest astride a quadruped. During your hike, the dolmens hidden among the trees will tell you another side of the mysterious history of the Iraty Forest, that of the Sorginetxe or witch houses. Like the cromlechs, the circles of erect stones line up on the plateau of Occabé, which you can reach after a climb in the shadow of the beech trees on the mountain pass paths. From this plateau, culminating at an altitude of 1,456 m (4,777 ft), the view of the surrounding peaks and summits is breathtaking.
By electric mountain bike
To tackle the passes and summits of the Iraty forest without getting exhausted, electric mountain bikes –for rent at Iraty Chalets–will be your best ally. The Crest of Hurhargieta, Peak of Orhy, Plateau de Cize…many routes of varied difficulties snake through the forest, leading you to the most beautiful sites of Iraty. Along the way, the Chalet Pedro (External link) , nestled in the forest, is an ideal stop to regain strength (and for a tasting of one of the Basque specialties on the menu), within view of the forest's canopy. You could also seize the opportunity to spend the night in one of its three gîtes (guest cottages) and to visit the spa and relax the most recalcitrant aches.
With a fishing rod
The Iraty Forest is crisscrossed by numerous bodies of water and rivers populated with wild trout. One of them, the Iraty, perfectly lends itself to a quiet fly-fishing expedition. A tranquility that could, however, be disturbed by laminak, mythical half-fairies, half-elves, who reside along the riverbanks of the forest! To enjoy your day in the best conditions, have a picnic stocked with the best products of the region, including the Ossau Iraty cheese, PDO of the best dairy of the region, or that of the Pays d'Aramits (External link) , located near Larrau.
In addition to mythical creatures, the Iraty Forest is home to species that are very popular among bird lovers. With your binoculars hanging from your belt, climb to the Organbidexka Pass (External link) , perched at an altitude of over 200 meters (656 ft.) to catch the passage of many migratory birds, such as the griffon vulture or the incredibly rare bearded vulture. To get yourself started observing these migratory birds or to deepen your knowledge, tours are available hosted by members of an environmental bird migration observation association.
Getting to the Basque Country