The Hautes-Pyrénées is a region of affable villages, ancient traditions and some of the most astonishing scenery in France. Here's how to get the most from the mountains
There is an actor in each of us, even if sometimes all we do is play the fool. Yet against the scenic backdrop of the great amphitheatre that is the Cirque de Gavarnie, even the greatest performance would pale into insignificance. This huge semicircle of soaring rock is almost beyond belief. Mountaineers have felt the pull of Gavarnie for many years, but those visiting the enclave for the first time – and, tucked away at the end of a very long and in places acutely constricted valley, ‘enclave’ it truly is – will simply stand in awe and wonder. It’s that kind of place; it leaves you breathless, in more ways than one.
Each year the French like to produce an ‘honours list’ of the best places to live in France, categorised by theme: education, security, quality of life, medical care, that sort of thing. The département of Hautes-Pyrénées never seems to get above middle ranking. But if dramatic scenery were among the criteria, no department would rank more highly. Many of the truly high landscapes are embraced in the Pyrenees National Park, and are largely uninhabited; lower down is a peripheral area, on the edge of the central zone. This area has 86 villages and around 40,000 inhabitants.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Cirque de Gavarnie and two similar cirques on the north face of the Pyrenees are adjudged worthy of World Heritage status. What is so special about this place is that it is a predominantly pastoral landscape, reflecting an agricultural way of life that was once widespread in the upland regions of Europe, but now survives only in this part of the Pyrenees. Transhumance was still widely practised here until recent times, a custom that sends the man of the household off into the mountains in spring with his sheep and a dog or two (often the huge Pyrenean mountain dog), to spend the summer months in the high pastures, not returning until September with a mountain of freshly-made sheep’s cheese and desperate to discover what's happened on the French equivalent of EastEnders. Now few follow in those ancient shepherding footsteps.
The landscape here is so dramatic that it provoked George Sand, the author and romantically linked associate of Frédéric Chopin, to depict the section from Luz St Sauveur to Gavarnie as ‘primeval chaos’; Victor Hugo was not to be outdone, and described the track through the Chaos de Coumély as ‘black and hideous’. Of course, it is neither of those, just a fabulous bit of driving, for everyone except the driver, although the spring of 2008 saw a huge avalanche of snow here that completely blocked the road for a few days. Such occurrences are to be expected, and underline the importance (especially for anyone intent on walking in the mountains) of seeking advice from the tourist offices on weather trends and the stability of snow; you may not be going above the snowline, but if the conditions are extreme enough, the snow will come to you.
Villages and views
At the height of summer, when the tourists flock in, Gavarnie, essentially a one-street town, seems to lose some of its rustic innocence and become a little more mercenary, making money while the tourists shine – and why not? But this period of mass invasion is short-lived, and then Gavarnie resumes its more affable persona, an all-season mountaineers’ centre and winter ski resort, but without the skiing paraphernalia that bedraggles places like Tourmalet, La Mongie and Gourette.
The great central river, the Gave de Gavarnie, is borne from the mountain snows and the Grande Cascade, a torrent of turbulent turquoise bullying its way through the rocks as it has done for thousands of years. Heading upwards from Gavarnie, it is a superb, twisting drive up to the Col du Boucharo, where the ascent of Le Taillon and other mountains begins. Non-mountaineers can safely satisfy themselves with the somewhat lower Pic de Tentes, which provides arguably the finest view of the cirque.
There are other towns and villages here of equal delight, of course. At the northern end of the valley, if you ignore Lourdes, is the spa town and resort of Argelès-Gazost, in a satisfying mountain setting renowned for its mild climate, a feature that derives from its isolation, imposed by the gorges of the upper Bigorre to the north and the high valleys of Cauterets and Luz St Sauveur to the south.
In the Place du Forrail, just behind the church in Argelès-Gazost, a youth orchestra is doing its best with ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, in at least four keys, some of them even in tempo. Round the corner in the Place de la République, ‘Percumania’ is beating out that rhythm on about 20 African drums with gusto and excitement as part of a brief but enthusiastic festival of art that is all very typically entertaining and agreeable, in that charmingly idiosyncratic way of life in rural France.
Further south along the valley lies Luz St Sauveur. Actually, it’s two villages of unequal proportions flanking the river. St Sauveur is little more than a single street across the Pont Napoléon – from which hardy souls are disposed to bungee jump (saut à l’élastique) from time to time. But Luz, formerly completely isolated in winter, has developed into a likeable and well-equipped tourist stopover, and, like Argelès-Gazost, is a great base from which to explore on foot, bike or by car. The road up to the Col du Tourmalet runs from here, striking into alpinist and skier country. Any drive up to the col (where you can get good coffee and food, as well as tacky souvenirs) might be completed bearing in mind that during the Tour de France the cyclists actually come up (2008) or down this road, no doubt starting the descent in the sincere hope that when their bikes reach Luz St Sauveur, they are still attached. It is an amazing route, penetrating outstanding countryside, most of it near vertical and still farmed in the traditional ways of the Pyrenees; perfect for that phone-free pique-nique of tomette pur brebis, baguette and melon beside a cool and crystal mountain stream while watching marmots and griffon vultures in abundance.
On the way to Gavarnie you encounter Gèdre, a delightful and generally passed-through village in a lush green hollow surrounded by flowerful hay meadows; a pause for lunch here never goes amiss. The onward route to Gavarnie is obvious enough, but Gèdre is the key to those other two superb cirques, Troumouse and Estaubé. Like Gavarnie, the Cirque de Troumouse is enormous, and said to be large enough to accommodate an audience of three million, although the car park would be a mite over-crowded.
Reaching westward from the main valley are two hugely delightful mountain roads; one a through route to the Ossau valley, the other a through route to nowhere except a display of terrific mountains and lakes. Key to the latter is Cauterets, a spa resort for many years and still popular with visiting ‘curists’ who come for a regulation three-week break on the French national health.
Cauterets is quite charming in a modest and agreeable way. It’s certainly not big enough to get lost in, and it is well worth getting here in time for lunch. It is also a stepping stone to a fabulous region of superb high mountains and lakes beyond the locale known as Pont d’Espagne. You’ll probably get wet taking a picture of the ancient bridge, but there is so much white and turbulent water here that a gentle spray will seem like gossamer. All the way up from the main valley, you are accompanied by the most dazzling displays of waterfalls and cascades. It is unrelenting, and continues far into the mountains, on the one hand to the splendid Lac de Gaube (and convenient hostelry), where you can gaze across the lake and down a long valley to the great cliffs of Vignemale while enjoying lunch or a beer.
On the other hand, you can walk on beyond Pont d’Espagne into a region known as Marcadau, an old word meaning ‘market place’, and an indicator that in times past the pastoral people of France and Spain met here to barter and sell goods, and retrieve sheep that may have gone walkabout, unintentionally slipping into France or Spain. ‘Spectacular’ lacks enough punch to adequately describe the scenery here; you just gawk at the scenery and find your own words… or not. The Lac de Gaube option can now be achieved by using télésièges, but for Marcadau you have to walk. If you don’t want to go all the way into the Marcadau sanctum, you can head back at the Pont de Cayan to effect a supreme circular walk of around four to five miles.
The road across into the Ossau valley begins from Argelès-Gazost, and heads first for the Col du Soulor, superb enough, and hugely popular throughout the summer months with cyclists who can’t deign to lower their personal standards by joining the Tour de France. If the road to Col du Soulor is one thing, then the continuation to the Col d’Aubisque is quite another: imagine a massive, vertical cliff face into which someone has carved a ledge – that’s the road, and its darkened tunnels are popular with donkeys and cows in hot weather. Take care!
Hautes-Pyrenees: high mountains. There are towns and villages galore. But high mountains are what this region is about. High, extravagant, breathtaking mountains.
By air: there are flights from London Stansted and Manchester to Tarbes-Lourdes. Ryanair fly from London Stansted to Pau.
By road: from Ouistreham (Caen) ferry port (Britanny Ferries) it is a drive of 560 miles to Argelès-Gazost down the west side of France, mainly on autoroute, as far as Bordeaux, and then cross-country.
By rail: the French TGV operates four services daily from Paris to Lourdes. A shuttle runs from Lourdes to Argelès-Gazost, but car hire would be needed to get the most out of the region. All rail services throughout France can be arranged through RailEurope in the UK: 08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk.
Where to eat
Le Viscos: 1 Rue Lamarque, 65400 Saint-Savin. Tel: 05 62 97 02 28; www.hotel-leviscos.com.
Restaurant Le Casaou: in Le Miramont hotel (see Make it Happen).