The Pyrenees mountain range, forming the frontier between France and Spain, stretches 480km from the Mediterranean westward to the Atlantic coast, and presents some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Europe. Rising millions of years ago from shallow seas when the African and European continental plates collided, they have been sculpted and scoured by the great ice ages into the dramatic chaos of crests and crags that forms the frontier ridge surpassing 3000 metres in altitude, descending steeply into a varied landscape of deep canyons and breathtaking cirques, giving way further down to lush green meadowland among sky-blue lakes and pristine woodlands, riddled with sparking streams and cascades. A sanctuary of natural beauty, the Pyrenees are also one of Europe’s great playgrounds. For lovers of the great outdoors – hikers, climbers, skiers, as well as cyclists and kayakers, not to mention birdwatchers and naturalists of all kinds – the mountains are truly a paradise, although here there are strict rules of play and occasionally harsh punishments meted out for not adhering to them. You do need to be fit and well-prepared!
At the heart of the Central Pyrenees lies the Parc National des Pyrenees Occidentales, founded in 1967 to preserve the pristine beauty of the region from overdevelopment by the tourist industry. It encompasses 48,000 hectares stretching 100km along the centre of the range, and includes the highest peaks in the entire range, reaching past 3000m in altitude. Three hundred and fifty kilometres of walking trails of all grades of difficulty wind through the Park, and the GR10, the great cross-Pyrenees walking route, as well as the high-altitude route HRP, snake their way across on their way from coast to coast. During the hiking season, roughly mid-June through September, one can enjoy the spectacular scenery and fresh mountain air with or without one of the many accomplished and interesting guides available. Occasional mountain refuges offer shelter and sometimes refreshment along the way; along some routes there are chairlifts to spare hikers a lot of the hard and perhaps less scenic work, and there are information centres (the Maisons du Parc) with local lore and telephone weather updates available. Hunting is banned throughout the Park, and golden eagles, vultures, marmots, chamois, as well as the elusive Pyreneen brown bear all share the magnificent habitat and can be spotted by the observant.
The most dramatic scenery can be found in the several grand cirques, immense, often nearly-circular mountain formations. Perhaps the most breathtaking is the Cirque de Gavarnie, a world heritage site, and described by Victor Hugo as “Nature’s Colosseum, the most mysterious edifice of the most mysterious architect”; another writer, George Sand, however, was somewhat shaken by the views, calling it “a primitive Chaos, c’est l’enfer!” At the heart of the Cirque is the Grande Cascade, fed by the glacial waters from Monte Perdido and at 423 metres the highest waterfall in Europe. For those avid hikers with loads of experience and the proper gear, and blessed with good weather, the Brèche de Roland is the best of the routes in the area; at the top you stand with one foot in France and one foot in Spain. Heading northwest along the ridge you come to Vignemale, at 3298m the highest point in the entire range. There are great views of Vignemale from the Pont d’Espagne, which is the most popular walk from the skiing and mountaineering centre of Cauterets, as well as a delightful series of waterfalls (called the “Rendez-Vous des Cascades”) fed by the waters of the Gaube and the Marcadau; the Lac de Gaube has been a hikers’ destination since the mid-1800s.
For the piste set, the Central Pyrenees offer over 50 lively holiday destinations, and have come to rival the famous Alps resorts in quality of facilities, with little of the overcrowding and anonymous character which unfortunately occasionally affect them. Cauterets is a village resort famous in earlier times as a spa, with its thermal baths fed by 10 different sources, and has slopes for all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Gavarnie, at the very end of the road down from Lourdes, features the longest beginners’ run in the Pyrenees, as well as hair-raising runs for the more experienced, and long cross-country runs, all set against the gorgeous scenery of the Cirque. Two more modern resorts further to the east are the linked resorts of Barège and La Mongie, making up the Domaine de Tourmalet, the largest winter sports area in the French Pyrenees. There are 100km of runs of all grades, 43 lifts, and 36km of cross-country skiing, and plenty of aprés-ski activities nearby.
Throughout the region are towns well worth a visit when those aching bones need a rest day: Pau, birthplace in 1589 of the region’s most famous son, Henry IV, has been popular with the English since the 19th century, and home to the first French rugby club since 1902. Tarbes is an old fair and market town. The old Roman outpost of Oloron-Ste-Marie, at the confluence of the Aspe and the Ossau, and Argelès-Gazost, with panoramic views from the upper village are both worthy stopping-off points on a day’s wander through the area. And of course Lourdes, the famous Catholic pilgrimage site, must be seen at least once, if only to experience its unique and colourful collision of devotion and commerce read our article on Lourdes.
Cirque de Gavarnie
Pic du Midi
Lac de Gaube
© JCRT Midi Pyrénées - Dominique Viet