The Central Pyrenees, immediately east of the Pays Basque, hosts the range’s highest mountain peaks, the most spectacular section by the border being protected within the Parc National des Pyrénées. Highlights – apart from the lakes, torrents, forests and 3000-metre peaks around Cauterets – are the cirques of Lescun, Gavarnie and Troumouse, each with its distinctive character. And for less sportif interests, there’s many a flower-starred mountain meadow accessible by car, especially near Barèges, in which to picnic. The only real urban centres are Pau, a probable entry point to the area, the dull city of Tarbes and pilgrimage target, Lourdes.
The bus from Oloron-Ste-Marie stops in the valley floor below Lescun; then it’s a three-mile hike up the hill to the village. Alternatively, you can hop off a couple of stops early and take a taxi from Bedous. Taxis can be taken from the garage on the southern end of town. Ideally phone or email ahead to book t 05 59 34 70 06 e firstname.lastname@example.org.
Victor Hugo called it “Nature’s Colosseum” – a magnificent, natural amphitheatre scoured out by glaciers. Over 1500m high, the Gavarnie cirque consists of three sheer bands of rock streaked by seepage and waterfalls, separated by sloping ledges covered with snow and glacier remnants. On the east, it’s dominated by the jagged Astazou and Marboré peaks, both over 3000m. In the middle, a cornice sweeps round to the Brèche de Roland, a curious vertical slash, 100m deep and about 60m wide, said to have been hewn from the ridge by Roland’s sword, Durandal. In winter, there’s good beginner-to-intermediate skiing at the nearby 24-run resort of Gavarnie-Gèdre, with great views of the cirque from the top point of 2400m.
From its namesake city, the Gave de Pau forges southeast towards the mountains, bending sharply south at Lourdes and soon fraying into several tributaries: the Gave d’Azun, the Gave de Cauterets, the Gave de Gavarnie and the Gave de Bastan, dropping from the Col du Tourmalet. Cauterets, 30km due south of Lourdes, and Gavarnie 37km southeast of Argelès, are busy, established resorts on the edge of the national park, but the countryside they adjoin is so spectacular that you forgive their deficiencies. If you want a smaller, more manageable base, then either Barèges, up a side valley from the spa resort of Luz-St-Sauveur, or Luz itself, are better bets. But pick your season well – or even the time of day – and you can enjoy the most popular sites in relative solitude. At Gavarnie few people stay the night, so it’s quiet early or late, and the Cirque de Troumouse, which is just as impressive (though much harder to get to without a car), has far fewer visitors.
Lourdes, 37km southeast of Pau, has one principle function. Over seven million Catholic pilgrims arrive here yearly, and the town is totally dedicated to looking after and, on occasion, exploiting them. Lourdes was hardly more than a village before 1858, when Bernadette Soubirous, 14-year-old daughter of a poor local miller, had the first of eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary in the Grotte de Massabielle by the Gave de Pau. Since then, Lourdes has become the most visited attraction in this part of France, many pilgrims hoping for a miraculous cure for conventionally intractable ailments.
Myriad shops are devoted to the sale of unbelievable religious kitsch: Bernadette and/or the Virgin in every shape and size, adorning barometers, thermometers, plastic tree trunks, empty bottles that you can fill with holy water, bellows, candles and illuminated plastic grottoes. Clustered around the miraculous grotto are the churches of the Domaine de la Grotte, an annexe to the town proper that sprang up in the century following Bernadette’s visions. The first to be built was an underground crypt in 1866, followed by the flamboyant double Basilique du Rosaire et de l’Immaculée Conception (1871–83), and then in 1958 by the massive subterranean Basilique St-Pie-X, which can apparently fit 20,000 people at a time. The Grotte de Massabielle itself is the focus of pilgrimage – a moisture-blackened overhang by the riverside with a marble statue on high of the Virgin, where pilgrims queue to circumambulate, stroking the grotto wall with their left hand. To one side are taps for filling souvenir containers with the holy spring water; to the other are the bruloirs or rows of braziers where enormous votive candles burn, prolonging the prayers of supplicants.
From humble beginnings as a crossing on the Gave de Pau (gave is “mountain river” in Gascon dialect), Pau became the capital of the ancient viscountcy of Béarn in 1464, and of the French part of the kingdom of Navarre in 1512. In 1567 its sovereign, Henri d’Albret, married the sister of French King François I, Marguerite d’Angoulême, who transformed the town into a centre of the arts and nonconformist thinking.
The least-expected thing about Pau is its English connection: seduced by its climate and persuaded (mistakenly) of its curative powers by Scottish doctor Alexander Taylor, the English flocked to Pau throughout the nineteenth century, bringing along their cultural idiosyncrasies – fox-hunting, horse racing, polo, croquet, cricket, golf (the first eighteen-hole course in continental Europe in 1860, and the first to admit women), tea salons and parks. When the railway arrived here in 1866, the French came, too: writers like Victor Hugo, Stendhal and Lamartine, as well as socialites. The first French rugby club opened here in 1902, after which the sport spread throughout the southwest.
Pau has few must-see sights or museums, so you can enjoy its relaxed elegance without any sense of guilt. The parts to wander in are the streets behind the boulevard des Pyrénées, especially the western end, which stretches along the escarpment above the Gave de Pau, from the castle to the Palais Beaumont, now a convention centre, in the English-style Parc Beaumont. On a clear day, the view from the boulevard encompasses a broad sweep of the highest Pyrenean peaks, with the distinctive Pic du Midi d’Ossau slap in front of you. In the narrow streets between the castle and ravine-bed chemin du Hédas are numerous cafés, restaurants, bars and boutiques, with the main Saturday market in the halles just northeast on place de la République.
With its links to the adjacent, equal-sized domaine of La Mongie over 10km east on the far side of the Col du Tourmalet, Barèges offers access to the largest skiing area in the French Pyrenees, including downhill pistes totalling 125km (1850–2400m) and 31km of cross-country trails through the Lienz plateau forest (1350–1700m). Beginners’ runs finishing in Barèges village are much too low (1250m) to retain snow, so all skiers usually have to start from the Tournaboup or Tourmalet zones. High-speed, state-of-the-art chair lifts are the rule at Barèges, and runs have been regraded to make the resort more competitive, but La Mongie over the hill, despite its hideous purpose-built development, offers even higher, longer pistes. For more information consultgrand-tourmalet.com.
The GR10 passes through Barèges on its way southeast into the lake-filled Néouvielle Massif, part of France’s oldest (1935) natural reserve, and a great hiking area. The best trailhead for day-hikes lies 3km east of Barèges on the D918 at Pont de la Gaubie (you’ll see a small car park and an abandoned snack bar), from where the classic seven-hour day-loop takes in the Vallée des Aygues Cluses plus the lakes and peak of Madamète, followed by a descent via Lac Nère and Lac Dets Coubous back to Gaubie.
The Parc National des Pyrénées was created in 1967 to protect at least part of the high Pyrenees from modern touristic development – ski resorts, paved roads, mountaintop restaurants, car parks and other inappropriate amenities. It extends for more than 100km along the Spanish border from Pic de Laraille (2147m), south of Lescun, in the west, to beyond Pic de la Munia (3133m), almost to the Aragnouet–Bielsa tunnel. Varying in altitude between 1070m and 3298m at the Pic de Vignemale, south of Cauterets, the park includes the spectacular Gavarnie and Troumouse cirques, as well as 220 lakes, more than a dozen valleys and about 400km of marked walking routes.
By the banning of hunting and all dogs and vehicles (except local herders), the park has also provided sanctuary for many rare, endangered species of birds and mammals. These include chamois, marmots, stoats, genets, griffon vultures, golden eagles, eagle owls and capercaillies, to say nothing of the rich and varied flora. The most celebrated animal – extinct as of 2004 – is the Pyrenean brown bear, whose pre-1940 numbers ran to as many as two hundred; the twenty plus current specimens are descended from introduced Slovenian brown bears. Although largely herbivorous, bears will take livestock opportunistically, and most mountain shepherds are their remorseless enemies. To appease the shepherds, local authorities pay prompt and generous compensation for any losses, but the restocking programme remains highly controversial, with pro- and anti-bear graffiti prominent on the road approaches to the park, and troublesome animals being shot illegally by aggrieved farmers or herders on a regular basis.
The GR10 runs through the entire park on its 700-kilometre journey from coast to coast, starting at Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean and ending at Hendaye-Plage on the Atlantic.
A destination for hikers, cyclists and snow-sports enthusiasts rather than casual day-trippers, the route up the Ossau valley rises fast towards the gnarled eminence of the Pic du Midi and the Cirque d’Aneou on the Spanish border. Outside winter the landscape is lush and green, with high pastures grazed by the sheep whose milk provides the distinctive Ossau-Iraty cheese, a Bearn/Basque delicacy not to be missed. Near the Col, look out for marmots (a type of rodent), that never stray far from their burrows. The villages on the way are little reason to stick around – except for unremarkable Laruns, in order to stock up on supplies, and the two spa resorts of Eaux-Chaudes and Eaux-Bonnes, which retain charm even if they have seen more prosperous times.