It's a small distance between Gavarnie and Lourdes but their attractions are so different; whether you come in search of wild mountain scenery or a place of religious pilgrimage you will find it here
The highlight of the Hautes Pyrenees mountains is the glacial cirque de Gavarnie, lying just under the Spanish border and a natural feature that justifies its UNESCO recognition.
In the summer, Gavarnie can be a circus. However, stick around. By evening it reverts to a nice village. With little traffic you can enjoy a quiet stroll with the backdrop of the cirque, perhaps up to the Romanesque church where there are graves of the early and later mountaineers, many who have died in the mountains. Some poignant gravestones are shaped like jagged peaks.
Stay at the Hotel Compostelle (Rue de l'Eglise, 65120 Gavarnie; doubles from 39 euros), elevated above the village with cirque views from its balconies. At the other end of the scale is the tiny La Bergerie campsite (Chemin du Cirque, 65120 Gavarnie; tents: 3.20 euros, adult: 3.70 euros) at the top end of the village with great views, from where longer hikes can be planned; there are numerous mountain refuges for the adventurous. A striking skyline feature is the Breche de Roland at 2,807 metres: a distinctive gap in the cirque ridge and once a popular smuggling route between France and Spain. This is a popular destination for longer hikes with a nearby refuge and access to ice caves.
There are horse rides available to the cirque costing 25 euros for a two hour plod. The road up the valley will take an hour on foot but I like the three hours 45 minutes loop walk up to the plateau de Pailla, from where there are lovely views over grassy pasture to rugged peaks: this is a great picnic spot. It is then another hour to the cirque itself - but what a path! Narrow, and elevated high above the valley, it winds round the mountain under precipitous overhangs until emerging at the Hotel du Cirque et de la Cascade. They serve passable lunches and drinks with an incomparable view of the cirque.
The Grande Cascade at 423 metres is the highest in Europe, but only purists need proceed further on the sweaty half hour hike to the bottom. The cirque is best appreciated from a distance due to its immensity and one of the best views is on the easy return walk, via the Prade Saint-Jean, a pretty area of pasture, forest and steams. This leads to Le Bondidier's tomb, another early mountaineer, and a little col with a superb view. It is like an Imax theatre as the towering 1,500 metre walls wrap themselves around the spectator, a perfect semicircle 900m across. For those less energetic, this col can easily be reached from the cirque valley access road .
Luz-Saint-Sauveur is 20km north of Gavarnie, a pleasantly situated town with encircling mountains and spa area. The old town’s fortified church truly deserves the name. Dating from the 12th century, it was strengthened by a high wall all the way round, bristling with crenulations and gun slits to protect local people from bandits. Marble quarries provided the smart surrounding town houses with elaborately carved doorways and window surrounds.
Northeast is the pocket- sized 12th century chateau of Sainte-Marie. Little remains other than two towers (free access), but it is a nice walk with an excellent overview of the area.
The town is an excellent place to arrange mountaineering or climbing days; a day climbing on the wall of Gavarnie cirque is 100 euros with the Bureau des Guides (Place du 8 Mai; +33 (5)62 92 87 28; www.guides-de-luz.fr).
There is bungy jumping from the Pont Napoleon, built in 1861 which spans the nearby gorge at a height of 90 metres; a jump will cost 65 euros.
The Hotel de Londres (8 Rue du Pont de Luz-St-Sauveur, 65120 Luz-St-Sauveur) is rather dated but well sited on the bridge before the town centre, with a nice terrace above the river for coffee or drinks. It has simple rooms starting at 40 euros but average food.
The hotel Le Montaigu (9 Route de Vizos, Esquieze-Sere, 65100 Luz-St-Sauveur) in a quieter spot a little further out, has the chateau behind. Smarter with en-suite rooms and terraces with a nice view, the prices start at 39euros per room.
The Youth Hostel (17 Rue St Barbe, 65120 Luz-St-Sauveur) is one of the best deals in town. Nicely sited in the old quarter, the low colourful building has an excellent value evening menu from 11.50 euros featuring local specialities. Dorms from 12 euros; doubles and half board available.
The most central camping is Camping Toy (17Place du 8 Mai, 65120 Luz-St-Sauveur), right off the town square (3.90 per person and 3.90 per site).
Camping Le Bastan at Esterre, five minutes away, is smaller and on the river, so a good spot for tents (from 10.80 euros per night for two).
30 km north is Lourdes. A chateau high above town contains a Pyrenees Museum covering regional flora, fauna and mountaineering.
You might happily bypass the town unless you are a fervent Catholic, with its too many mediocre hotels, overpriced restaurants, kitsch souvenir shops and resemblance to a vast open air hospital. An hour or two is sufficient. The grotto where Bernadette had her original vision in 1858 is the focal point: pilgrims file round, emerging to votive candles, and bathhouses. Nearby are taps of spring water; shops sell containers, including those in the shape of the virgin.
The 19th century Basilique du Rosaire et de l’Immaculee Conception towers above and there is a more modern underground version which holds 20,000 people.
Visit Gavarnie and Lourdes: two immense spectacles, one natural and one manmade and see where you feel closer to God. You might find the answer different from what you expected.