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The Pyrénées are a range of mountains that separate France from Spain. The mountains are steep and high (more than 10,000 feet at the highest points), so there are very few passes across them, making them a very appropriate border between the two countries. This entry describes the French side of the mountains.
The Pyrénées are a continuous line of mountains stretching in a West - East direction for 240 miles from the Atlantic coast at Bayonne to the Mediterranean coast at Perpignan. The north side of the mountain range is cleft by deep valleys, most of them going in a north-south direction. The climate is hot, with a lot of rain at the Atlantic end of the range and very little at the Mediterranean end. Because of the rain, the western mountains have plenty of vegetation, making them very picturesque. The mountains get progressively barer and more rugged as you go eastward towards the Mediterranean. This is very different from the Spanish southern side of the range, where they are dry and barren throughout.
The North side of the Pyrénées is watered by some large rivers, most notably, the Garonne, the Gave de Pau and the Ariège. The mountains are forested up to a certain altitude, giving way to 'alpine' meadows before bare rock is reached at the highest points.
Administratively, the mountains belong to six separate departements: Pyrénées-Atlantique, Haute-Pyrénées, Haute-Garonne, Ariège, Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales.
Walking in the Pyrénées
The Pyrénées offer every sort of walk from a stroll in the forest to serious roped-together above-the-snowline stuff. In general for the casual stroller, the western Pyrénées are better, as they are lower and less steep, and the trees go higher, allowing more opportunities for walks in forest, protected from the sun.
Eating in the Pyrénées
Although French Cuisine is famous throughout the world, the mountains are far from the gastronomic centre of France. 'Peasant fare' is the norm, which means plenty of meat, cheese and fish, but little in the line of sauces or even vegetables. It's possible to get a five course meal with starter, fish course, main course, cheese and dessert without seeing a green vegetable. Presumably, the locals eat vegetables at home and don't want to pay restaurant prices for them. As a result, a vegetarian will find it quite hard to get a decent meal. Having said that, if you are a meat eater, the food is good, the wine is excellent and cheap, and like everywhere in France, they know how to make coffee.
Particular specialities of the Southwest of France are Paté de Foie Gras (paté of fattened goose livers), Confit de Canard (duck preserved in oil or fat) and Cassoulet (a bean stew with small sausages).
A Guide to the Towns and Sights
The rest of this entry looks at various sights, ordered more or less from west to east.
Biarritz is a traditional sea-side town which was very popular in former times. Being at the Atlantic end of the Pyrénées, it has a much wetter climate than the Mediterranean resorts of the French Riviera, so it is no longer considered as fashionable as it once was. On the other hand, since 1957, it has been considered the surfing capital of Europe.
St Jean de Luz
Less well known internationally than Biarritz is the seaside town of St Jean de Luz. Situated on the only inlet for miles around, the town was a fishing port since the 11th Century, specialising in whaling. The inhabitants claim they invented the technique of harpooning whales. Nowadays, the port is still an important centre for catching tuna and anchovies, as well as being a picturesque centre to a delightful town. There's a good beach and a generally cosy atmosphere to the place.
The western end of the Pyrénées is inhabited by a race called the Basques. These speak a language which is unrelated to any other in the world (with the exception of the extinct Aquitaine language). While the rest of the world calls the language 'Basque', the speakers themselves call it 'Euskara'. Many more Basques live on the Spanish side of the mountains, where they are actively seeking independence from Spain. The Basques on the French side of the border are less vocal on the subject of independence, although equally enthusiastic about their language. You can see the Basque influence on the place names, with unpronounceable-looking names starting in 'tx' and with lots of 'z's and 'k's.
The mountains in Basque country are lower than the Central and Eastern Pyrénées and are generally wooded throughout. A good base for excursions is St Jean Pied de Port, which is on the old pilgrim route across the Col de Roncevaux (pass) into Spain.
The High Mountains
Laruns is a good centre for the exploration of the area around the Pic du Midi d'Ossau. This rugged mountain juts up from a delightful area of small lakes, forests and high-altitude meadows, making it a great place for walking.
The picturesque Lac d'Artouste (lake of Artouste) is reachable only by a little 500mm gauge electric train which brings you along a precipitous track of about 6 miles with spectacular views. Billed as the highest train in France, at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet, this can get very busy in high season so get there early to book your place.
Lourdes is a town dedicated to the Roman Catholic cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady, the mother of Jesus Christ. In 1858, a poor young girl called Bernadette Soubirous claimed that Mary had appeared to her in visions at a rocky grotto beside the Gave de Pau river. Where the vision had stood, a new stream flowed out of the rock. People drinking this water or bathing in it claim to have been miraculously cured of incurable diseases and illnesses. The whole of Lourdes is now devoted to the industry of bringing sick people to the waters in the hope of a miraculous cure.
The town is divided into two. The part belonging to the Catholic Church is tastefully laid out with gardens and buildings for religious worship. The miraculous stream itself has been piped and the water is available from a series of taps (faucets) where believers can fill up bottles they have brought along. It is also channelled into baths for immersion of invalids. The churches are well worth a look inside and everybody is welcome.
The rest of the town is a riot of tacky gift shops selling statues of the Virgin Mary; pictures of the Virgin Mary; bottles in the shape of the Virgin Mary in which to put the Lourdes water (they're not allowed sell the holy water itself); snow globes containing models of the Virgin Mary, and so on.
Gavarnie is a small village close to one of the most awe-inspiring sights in Europe: the Cirque de Gavarnie is a semicircular natural amphitheatre of rock, whose walls are vast vertical cliffs, in places more than two thousand feet high. The highest mountains in the Pyrénées tower above the cliffs, making it look like a sheer wall of rock a mile high. A giant waterfall, the tallest in Europe although quite narrow, falls for more than 1,500 feet from the top of the cliffs. Someone once calculated that if this was a football stadium, it would hold 15 million spectators!
Tourists have been coming to Gavarnie since the 19th Century, and not much has changed since then. You must abandon your car or tour bus in the village and either walk or ride on mules to the point where you can see the waterfall. This is about an hour's walk, so you probably need to allow about three hours for a visit.
Pic du Midi Observatory
Before the advent of the Hubble Space Telescope, the best place to put an observatory was on the top of a mountain, because the air is thinner and therefore clearer there. The Pic du Midi Observatory is located at 9,300 feet above sea level on the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. There is a road the whole way up, so you can drive to the top. Those who suffer from vertigo should let someone else drive and just shut their eyes, as the route is precipitous in places. At the top of the mountain, you should be careful not to over exert yourself, as the thin air does not provide as much oxygen as at sea level and you don't have time to acclimatise in the short drive up. The observatory itself is normally closed to the public, but the trip up the mountain is worth making just for the view.
Bagnères de Bigorre
Bagnères de Bigorre is an old spa town. It was a prime tourist destination in the 19th Century when people went to the mountains for the good of their health and 'took the waters'. Nowadays, it still attracts a fair number of French tourists but is obviously a shadow of its former self.
St Bertrand de Comminges
St Bertrand is a small picturesque walled town with a cathedral. The town is picture postcard pretty, with flowers everywhere and medieval narrow winding streets. The town is dominated by the cathedral, which has such interesting exhibits as a huge organ, 'the pride of Gascony', and a stuffed crocodile. The name of the town may ring a bell with readers of English ghost stories - the cathedral is the setting for MR James' story Canon Alberic's Scrapbook.
Bagnères de Luchon
This thriving resort is a centre for skiing in the winter as well as providing access to some wonderful walking country in the summer. There are hot sulphur springs, hence the name Bagnères (baths).
The Ariège Valley and Environs
In the foothills rather than in the mountains themselves, Foix is quite a large town. It is dominated by its castle on a rock, the three towers making it instantly recognisable.
Tarascon sur Ariège
Tarascon is a pleasant town on the Ariège river, set in a deep valley. There is a picturesque tower on a hill overlooking the town. There are a few decent restaurants. Tarascon is a good base from which to visit the nearby Niaux Cave.
Niaux Cave Paintings
The Niaux Cave has none of the stalactites and stalagmites that make most caves interesting, but it has a much more treasured feature: cave paintings. People painted on the walls about 12,000 years ago. Only a small section of the cave, deep into the mountain, was painted. Here you will see amazingly detailed pictures of the animals that these people hunted, along with what have been interpreted as spears and 'stick people'. The paintings look remarkably fresh and have survived the millennia well due to the dryness and darkness of the cave.
Visits to the cave are strictly controlled, with only 11 tours of 20 people per day and a 45-minute break after each tour. This is to prevent the gases breathed out by the visitors from damaging the paintings. In high season (July and August), it is almost impossible to get a place on one of the tours, but in spring or autumn you may be able to get a ticket. Take the place if it is offered, even if it is for 8 am! You won't get a chance like this again.
Long before Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and started the Christian movement known as Protestantism, there were other protesters, who objected to one or another of the Christian Church's teachings. These were branded as heretics and stamped out by force. One particularly popular group were the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians, because they were centred in the countryside around the town of Albi, a good distance north of the Pyrénées. The Cathars believed in two Gods: the greater God, who was perfect and created the universe, and the lesser God, who was imperfect and created our imperfect world. They considered Jesus' message of pure love to be directly from the greater God, but that his crucifixion was unimportant since it concerned only his imperfect physical body. They also believed that since sex concerns only the imperfect physical body, it is not of any concern to the greater God. They encouraged casual sex rather than sex within marriage, as they believed it was less likely to lead to new babies being born into this world of suffering.
All these beliefs brought down the wrath of the established Christian Church on them. The war which wiped them out (the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1244) was a bloody one, and it ended at the tiny citadel of Montségur. This is a very steep hill offering views of the valley all around. On the top of the hill is a fortress. This is where the Cathars had their last stand. After they were defeated, the victors demolished the fortress so that it could not be used again. All that remains is a ruin.
The most interesting feature of this town is the huge stone-lined pool at the corner of the main square, which is heated by natural hot springs. It was built in medieval times as a bathing place. For reasons of hygiene, full immersion is no longer recommended, but feel free to paddle your feet. Some parts of the pool are hotter than others so try the water in a few places.
This is a wide plateau on the southern side of the mountains which for historical reasons is part of France. Its climate is much hotter and drier than the north side of the mountains. The main town in the Cerdagne is Font Romeu, which makes money from tourists in the winter as well as the summer - there is skiing in the Pyrénées, although the snow is not very dependable.
Because the Cerdagne is so sunny, it is the perfect location for harnessing the sun's energy. At Odeillo, an array of motor-controlled mirrors on the hillside is used to focus the sun's rays onto a giant parabolic mirror which further focuses the rays onto an oven, where enormous temperatures can be reached. This is used for scientific research into high temperatures. At nearby Targassonne, a similar set-up is used to generate electricity.
Saillagouse and the Yellow Train
Another pleasant place to visit is Saillagouse. From there, you can catch the Train Jaune or 'Yellow Train' to the nearby fortified town of Villefranche de Conflent. This is a masterpiece of fortification designed in the 1670s by Vauban, France's foremost expert on the subject, built to survive attack by cannon. Villefranche guards an important pass between France and Spain.
The Eastern Foothills
This tiny village was rocketed to fame by a mystery. In 1891, the penniless parish priest of the local church was making some changes to the church and he supposedly uncovered some old parchments containing a coded message. Soon afterwards, he took a trip to Paris. On his return, he started to spend massive amounts of money on a huge and eccentric renovation program for the church, spending the equivalent in modern terms of millions of pounds. The mystery is where the money came from. Just about every possible theory has been advanced and plenty of impossible ones too. The most elaborate explanations involve conspiracies featuring such exotic concepts as the Ark of the Covenant, the Knights Templar and the direct bloodline descendants of Jesus Christ. Nowadays the village is over-run with treasure seekers, trying to find clues in the church or the nearby mountains.
The eastern foothills of the Pyrénées are used for growing grapes. The area around Limoux (in French) produces a white sparkling wine called Blanquette de Limoux. While not up to the standard of Champagne, it is an excellent refreshing drink which won't cost you an arm and a leg.
Carcassonne is not in the Pyrénées, but it is only a few miles north, in the foothills. It is the most perfect example of a fortified town in existence. Situated on a hill with the high mountains behind it, Carcassonne looks like something out of every 'Knight and Fair Lady' film you've ever seen. The walls around the town were completely restored in the 19th Century. Evenly spaced along the walls are round towers with those little conical roofs so typical of French castles. Entrance to the town is by a fortified gate with a portcullis. Once inside, the entire town is pedestrian, as you could never drive a car through those tiny streets. Tourists are well catered for, with plenty of gift shops and restaurants, although the overall effect can be a trifle overpowering.
These magnificent mountains offer something for everyone, whether you have a few days or a whole month to spare. Waterfalls, miracles, castles, prehistoric art or modern solar energy; it's all there in the Pyrénées!