LaFrance - Midi Pyrenees
|Introduction & History||
|What to do|
|Map & Getting there||Wild life/plants|
|Where to go/see||Further information|
Legend has it that Hercules was invited to the area and fell in love with a young beautiful maiden called Pyrene daughter of the King of Cerdagne. As is usual in tragic love stories, the girl’s father was infuriated about the affair , to such an extent that Pyrene ran away and found a remote hiding place high up in the mountains between Gaul and Iberia where the wild beasts roamed. Hercules tried to find her but the wild cats reached her first. She was buried in the Cave of Iombrive and Hercules wept and covered her grave in stones and formed the mountains that are named after her!
The Pyrenees are a range of mountains in south west Europe that form a natural border between France and Spain. They separate the Iberian Peninsula from France and extend for about 430km from the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic coast to Cap de Creus on the Mediterranean. Today 260 miles of mountainous area covers three regions and six departments. The mountain range occupies two thirds of the department of Hautes Pyrenees with peaks reaching higher than 10,000 feet. It is also home to about 220,000 people about half of whom live in the capital, Tarbes which is the prefecture; the sub prefectures being Argeles Gazost and Bagneres de Bigorre.
The Département of Hautes-Pyrénées is located primarily in the central Pyrénées mountains which for the most part the main crest forms the Franco Spanish border with the principality of Andorra sandwiched in between .
There is a difference in landscape between the French Pyrenees and the Spanish Pyrenees. The French Pyrenees are very steep. The mountains are cut through by valleys, which from time forgotten have functioned as trade routes. The most famous of them all is the Pas de la Casa, an ancient trade route on which still many people travel to and from Andorra, the small mountain state between France and Spain.
The Pyrenees are older than the Alps as their sediments were first deposited during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. It was the fanning out of the Bay of Biscay, pushing Spain against France and the intense pressure uplifted the earth’s crust affected the Eastern part and stretched progressively along the entire chain. The mountains are challenging and inviting rather than menacing. They are generally rounded and crumbling with Aneto at 3,404 metres the highest summit and attainable to an equipped walker as are Posets, Monte Perdido and Vignemale.
There are spectacular canyons like the Valle de Ordesa and imposing glaciated ampitheatres like Gavarnie, Troumouse and Estaub and deep cave sytems like Lombrives and Gouffre Pierre St. Martin.
The department is drained by three principal streams, the Gave de Pau, the Neste and the Adour. The sources of the first two lie close together in the Cirque of Gavarnie and the Adour descends from the Pie du Midi de Bigorre and irrigates the plain of Tarbes.
The climate is varied depending on where you are. There is a marked contrast between the east and the west which is particularly noticed in the glacial formations. There are none in the east as the quantity of snow falling is insufficient to their formation. The glaciers are confined to the northern slopes of the central Pyrenees and do not descend into the valleys like those of the Alps but have their greatest length in the direction of the mountain chain.
As to be expected it is very cold on the highlands, warm and moist on the plains where there are hot summers, fine autumns, mild winters and rainy springs. The plateau of Lannemezan has dry scorching summers and very severe winters.
The plains of the Hautes Pyrenees are dedicated to agriculture, growing wheat and maize, the bulk of which is used to feed pigs, poultry and especially geese for the fois gras. Rye, oats, barley and tobacco are also grown. The vine is cultivated and the wines of Madiran and Peyrigure are notable. Chestnut and fruit trees are grown on the lower slopes of the mountain to help soil erosion. Cattle raising is important particularly around Lourdes, Tarbes and the valley of the Aure.
The fusion of Arab, English and Navarrese blood has led to horse breeding being the principal occupation around Bagneres de Bigorre and Tarbes where there is a famous stud, and they are mainly reared for light cavalry usage in the army.
There are many natural springs containing minerals such as calcium sulphates, iron, sulphur and sodium that can be found at Cauterets, Barges and Lannemezan. Marble quarries are at Campan and Sarrancolin, slate quarries at Labasse and deposits of lignite, lead, manganese and zinc can also be found in the department.
A tourism industry has replaces Hautes-Pyrénées’ traditional craft industries. Its tourism is centered primarily about the popular spas of Bagneres-de-Bigorre and Cauterets and the old fortress town of Lourdes which has become one of the world’s most popular pilgrimage venues. Winter sports also attract tourist to Hautes-Pyrénées. Other economic activities include hydroelectric generation, beans and corn cultivation, deciduous fruit growing and sheep raising.
In prehistoric times, when great floods covered many parts of Europe, the mountainous areas such as the Montagne Noire, the Massif Central and the Pyrenees were islands where life continued. Especially in these regions prehistoric man lived, of whom the oldest remains in Europe (450.000 years old) were found in the caves near Tautavel.
The Cro-Magnon, a descendant from the South African San people, who replaced the cavemen of Europe about 30.000 years ago, also lived in the Pyrenean mountains as shepherds. By 6000 B.C., their herds had become so huge that the landscape of the lower Pyrenees had changed completely by overgrazing.
Keeping sheep and goats was the main means of survival in the mountains and valleys of the Pyrenees and there is much evidence that even so long ago shepherds relied on dogs to help them.
Historically the department of Hautes Pyrenees was part of the province of Bigorre which was inhabited by the Bigorri who were probably Aquitanian people speaking a language related to the old Basque language. They had been a mix from Iberian people of the south and Celts from the north. Bigorre was conquered by the Romans in 56BC and incorporated into Gallia Aquitania which was divided into three separate provinces; Bigorre becoming Aquitania Novempopulana.
After belonging to the Visigoths, Bigorre was held by the Frankish kings at Toulouse after the battle of Vouille in 507. It was granted as a fief to Arista, a kinsman, who later became the first King of Navarre. The tiny portion of Navarre, north of the Pyrenees known as basse-Navarre, along with the neighbouring Principality of Bearn, survived as an indepemdent little kingdom which passed by inheritance to King Philip IV of France in 1304, and in the 15th Century to the counts of Foix and then to the house of Albret. The last independent king of Navarre, Henry III who reigned from 1572-1610 actually succeeded to the throne of France as Henry IV in 1589 thus founding the Bourbon dynasty.
In 1620, French Navarre and Bearn were incorporated into France proper by Henry’s son, Louis XIII of France. The title of the King of Navarre continued to be used by the Kings of France until 1791 and was revived during the Restoration 1814-1830.
After the citizens of Reims successfully thwarted the attempt of Edward III of England’s siege to the city during the Hundred Years War, a frustrated Edward marched into Burgundy and ultimately to Paris but these unsuccessful campaigns led to peace talks in Brittany and the terms of the truce were finalized by the Treaty of Calais and ratified by both the French and English at the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360. Under its terms Edward renounced his claim to the French throne and in return the whole of Aquitaine was ceded to England and so the Hautes Pyrenees/Bigorre belonged to the English crown until it was reclaimed by the French in 1453.
Before the French Revolution Bigorre was made part of the military area of Gascony and for judicial matters depended on Toulouse but unlike many other French provinces Bigorre kept its provincial status and 1790 after lobbying the Estates General at Versailles it achieved the status of a department. However Bigorre itself was not large enough to meet department criteria so the province of Quatre Vallees, a fragment of the province of Nebouzan in the east and several areas of Gascony to the north of Bigorre were joined with Bigorre to create a new department of Hautes Pyrenees. Quatre Vallees and Nebouzan protested vehemently but to no avail and Tarbes, the capital of Bigorre was made the capital of the new department.
Toulouse Blagnac is the largest airport
within reasonable reach of the Hautes Pyreneesis and has regular flights to and from the UK.
The majority of the low-cost airlines (include Ryanair, Easyjet, and Flybe) fly into these destinations as well as British Airways and Air France.A very useful site to look for flights with a number of airlines at one time is www.skyscanner.net
Hire cars are readily available at the airport and you can book these
in advance when booking the flights.
Carcassonne Salvaza Airport
Aeroprt Pau Pyrenees
The airport is halfway between the two towns at
Tarbes is the capital and the most important town in the region, being home to half the departement’s population.
It is also known as the Ville du Cheval as the Cheval Tarbais, a type of cavalry horse are bred at the Napoleonic stud farm Les Haras and they can be seen in training during the months of July and August. Tarbes was a Hussar garrison town and the Musee Massey houses an extensive collection of cavalry uniforms.
Tarbes is the birthplace of Marechal Fochs, the supreme allied commander during WW1 and his home a 2 Rue de la Victoire is now a museum.
The Cathedral Notre Dame de la Sede is of Romanesque origin but it has been repeatedly refurbished over the centuries. However a 14th Century cloister remains and there are sculptures depicting strange images of nature acting out of character like swans killing a bear to be seen.
The most prominent landmark and a popular meeting point is the fountain Duvignau which is decorated with images of wildlife. There is a busy market which is held on a Thursday morning in Les Halles on Place Marcadieu.
The French town that bears a name famous now in every corner of the earth -- Lourdes -- was one of the most obscure and lowly of the towns of France. Dominated by its old fortress, it is placed in the very gateway of the mountains and built along the banks of the Gave, between the Turoun deras Justissias, and the Gers, between the Béout and the Lapaca.
Lourdes was hardly more than a village before 1858 when the fourteen year old Bernadette Soubirous had the first of eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary in the Grotrte de Massabielle by the Gave de Pau.
The first pilgrimage took place in 1873 and nowadays over six million pilgrims arrive every year and the town is totally committed to looking after and exploiting them.
During her ninth apparition, on 25 February, Bernadette claimed to have been directed to a spring that had hitherto not existed in the grotto even though the waters of the Pyrenees runs into the town. Its discovery by Bernadette, witnessed by hundreds of onlookers, was eventually declared miraculous. Studies have shown that the water is pure and contains chlorides of soda, lime and magnesia, bicarbonates of lime and magnesia, silicates of lime and aluminium, oxide of iron, sulphate of soda, phosphate, and organic matter but otherwise, it is believed to contain no therapeutic ingredients but the water was claimed to be capable of healing the sick and lame and of the many thousands of pilgrims who visit Lourdes every year, some claim to be have been miraculously healed. It is estimated that the spring has produced 27,000 gallons of water each week since it first emerged during Bernadette's visions.
Clustered around the grotto are the churches which were built as an annexe to the town in the late 19th century. The Basilica - Place du Rosaire et de l’Immaculee Conception built in 1871 is the Cathedral of Lourdes and is a gigantic ediface largely dedicated to the sightings.
Regular masses are held here in 6 languages and the Basilique St. Pie X is one of the World's largest churches can hold 20,000 people at a time.
Musee Grevin - 87 rue de la Grotte has over a hundred waxwork figures depicting the life of Bernadette and Christ.
On a rocky bluff is the Chateau-Fort de Lourdes - 25 rue du Fort. It was once an English stronghold in the 14th century and later became a state prison. You can take an elevator to this castle high above the town to discover the military history of the town. There is a museum here containing Pyrenean farming implements and outside are models of Pyrenean house.
Everyday there is a market in the city centre with local produce at this covered market as well as regional foods with some stalls offering free samples. This is also the scene for tri-annual horse sales for breeders.
Nearly all the shops are given to selling tacky curios but just
outside Lourdes one can escape the kitsch. There is Tydos Karting at
Carrefour de Bagneres, a great karting track located just outside Lourdes
and caters for adults and children. They have mini-golf and big bouncy
castles for the little ones and Lourdes Lake is a lovely facility situated
just 3 minutes from the centre and people flock here on a nice day for
fishing, sailing, canoeing, pedaloes, mountain biking and horse riding.
The mountain village of Lescun is 900metres above sea level and once sheltered a leper colony. The small village is home to ancient grey stone houses with slate roofs, old stone water troughs and very few facilities apart from the grandiose views which makes the visit so worthwhile.
It is situated in the Vallee d’Aspe and offers a cirque or ampitheatre with dramatic peaks reaching up to 2504metres at the Pic d’Anie.
Lescun is the base for some hearty although not too difficult walks and the obvious walk is the GR10 which takes you through beech forests, and along pine stippled ridges giving breathtaking scenery like the organ pipe crags of Les Orgues de Camplong.
Thirty kilometres south of Lourdes, Cauterets is a pleasant but unexciting little town. It has risen to prominence because of its waters which is still much in demand for the treatment of rheumatism and ear, nose and throat complaints. In modern times, it has also become one of the main Pyrenean ski and mountaineering centres.
Its origins as a spa began with Count Raymond de Bigorre's grant of land to the monks of St-Savin in 945 AD. In the seventeenth century, Marguerite d'Angoulême came to take the waters and wrote her Heptameron here. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were its heyday when the neoclassical architecture came into being, and the Romantic worship of mountains. Many celebrities of the time visited the town to take the waters such as Victor Hugo Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Debussy and Edward VII.
Most of the town is squeezed between the steep wooded heights that close the mouth of the Gave de Cauterets valley. The Maison du Parc has a small natural history museum that is open daily with free admission and has film shows on Wednesday and Saturday in season (5.30pm; €3.80).
Once poor and depopulated, Gavarnie has become a victim of its own success. It’s outstanding natural beauty has led to it becoming the venue for the overflow of tourists from Lourdes and so the town is now an unpleasant mess of pricey accommodation, souvenir shops and mediocre snack bars. The main street suffers from high smells particularly in the summer from the droppings of the dozens of mules, donkeys and horses used to ferry visitors up into the cirque.
Victor Hugo called the cirque "Nature's Colosseum" for it is magnificent, a natural amphitheatre scoured out by a glacier. It is nearly 1700m high and consists of three sheer bands of rock dyed by the striations of seepage and waterfalls, and separated by sloping ledges covered with snow.
To the east, it is dominated by the jagged peaks of Astazou and Marboré which are both over 3000m. In the middle, a corniced ridge sweeps round to Le Taillon, hidden behind the Pic des Sarradets, which stands slightly forward of the rim of the cirque, obscuring 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 skiing for beginners and intermediates at the nearby, nineteen-run resort of Gavarnie-Gèdre, with great views of the cirque from the top point of 2400m.
The Hautes Pyrenees are renowned for stunning beauty and is an area of outstanding scenery which makes it an ideal place to travel to and spend your time in the great outdoors.
There are very many lakes, cirques, grottes and peaks to enthrall even the most seasoned traveler and the walking and skiing is incomparable.
There are runs for all levels and in most cases cross country skiing is catered for.
There are five main ski resorts
The GR10 or Sentier Pyreneenne as it is sometimes called is a classic long distance walk across the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean that takes a lower route than the more arduous Pyrenean High Route. Nevertheless it passes through striking mountain country and gorge scenery. The easy ascent of the Pic du Midi d'Ossau has been described as an excursion. It climbs from village level up through the middle mountains and then over higher passes and summits as it heads due east.
A substantial part of the GR10 A substantial part of the trek traverses the Neouvielle Nature Reserve as the path weaves its way up through the Aygues Cluses valley and over the Col de Madamette. Aygues Cluses is a local Occitan (Occitania was the old 12th Century Kingdom of this area) phrase meaning twisted waters... the valleys in the Neouvielle are marked with lots of little rivers and lakes as well as beautiful flowers. After the Neouveille Nature Reserve the GR10 continues eastwards over the mountains and past the villages of St Lary Soulon, Germ, the lovely Lac d’Oo and Bagneres de Luchon
The whole route takes about 50 days to complete. The GR 10 runs from Hendaye on the west coast through the mountains of the Pays Basque, Béarn and Hautes Pyrénées to Luchon. From here it continues generally in an easterly direction to pass the sparsely populated Ariège, then across the Pyrénées Orientales to end on the Mediterranean coast at Banyuls- sur- Mer. The total distance is some 538 miles (866km).
If you want to walk any part of it then the following publications are
strongly advised to be purchased beforehand.
There are six main valleys to explore:
The Aspe Valley
For further information on routes, guided walks and general advice the
National Park of the Pyrenees has its own website at:
Pics, Lacs, Cols and Cirques:
The snow lashed Pic d’Anie at 2504m looms over Lescun and its magnificent cirque. Below the village in the hollow of the cirque is Camping le Lauzart (Tel: 0559345177). There is a small shop in Lescun where there is also a hotel, The Pic d’Anie and a gite d’Etape (both on Tel: 0559347154). From here the walking and climbing is of varying lengths and abilities.
Pic du Midi
The Pic du Midi at 2877m has a rocky twin peaked summit visible for miles around. It can be walked from Gabas with a steep 4.5 kilometre climb to Lac de Bious Artigues, a dam with the campsite Camping Bious Oumettes on its stony terraces (Tel: 0559053876) that also has a small shop.
Just under the Pic, beside the lake is the Refuge Pyrenea Sports (Tel: 0559053212)
A round trip of the peak, excluding the summit, takes about seven hours but it can be broken by a stay at the CAF Refuge de Pombie (Tel: 0559053178).
A short distance out of Gabas past the Lac de Fabreges a telecabine swings up to Pic de la Sagette which 2032m to connect to a miniature railway that runs for 10 kilometres through he mountains to Lac d’Artouste.
It was built as a hydroelectric dam in the 1920s but was later converted for tourists. The train trip lasts for 4 hours including time to walk to the lake. It is open from June to mid September.
The col is 1000m above the village of Laruns and is often on the route for the Tour de France.
The grassy rounded ridge has numerous shooting butts along it bearing testament to the amount of wood pigeon slaughter that occurs during the autumn.
There is a café at the top but if the legs have given out there is a bus from Laruns during July and August.
Cirque de Gavarnie
The cirque is an easy fifty minute walk from the little town of Gavarnie and the track ends at the Hotellerie du Cirque which is a snack bar.
To the left the Grand Cascade at 423m is the highest waterfall in Europe. The uninitiated can climb a little higher to the CAF Refuge des Sarradets for stupendous views. An easy path back to Gavarnie follows the eastern side of the cirque to the Refuge des Espuguettes.
The path is through the valley cut into the pine laden slopes. At the refuge one can climb for about forty five minutes for a view over Cirque d’Estaube, Monte Perdido and Spain otherwise turn right below the refuge to return to Gavarnie.
Pic du Midi Observatory
The observatory is located at an altitude of 2890 meters (9470 feet) and has acquired its world wide fame from its remarkable astronomical achievements : the mapping of planetary surfaces, the determination of the period of rotation of Venus, the preparation of the Apollo Moon landings but astronomy is presently the most important field of research conducted at this Observatory,
This Observatory is also open to amateur astronomers, and a 60-cm reflector is exclusively reserved for their projects. The summit also houses an important communication, radio and TV transmission center with a tall antenna.
It is open to visitors virtually every day from March to October but
check the website for details. One travels up to it by cable car and there
is a café and facilities.
A few kilometres from the Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges basilica, Gargas
is famous for its walls, decorated with enigmatic paintings of hands. There
are nearly 250 hands of children and adults with one or more fingers
missing. Open afternoons daily from April to mid October
Well worth a visit is the subterranean cave Gouffre d’Esparros with
its crystal rock formations and stalactites and stagmites. See the website
for details of openings and its son et lumiere.
Le Haras National de Tarbes – Maison du Cheval
Tel : 05 62 56 30 80. 0pen all year, Mon – Friday. Guided visits only.
Chateau de Mauvezin Lourdes
The fortress is open daily from 15th
April to 15th October and afternoons the rest of the year.
Chateau Fort de Lourdes:
Musee Grevin Lourdes
Tarbes Festival from 21st to 25th June celebrating music and horses.
Equestria, festival du Cheval et de l’Art
There are over 700
religious buildings in Hautes Pyrenees and there are few mountain villages
without Romanesque chapels.
following centres have further information:
Office du Tourisme de Luz-Saint-Sauveur
Office du Tourisme de Piau Engaly
Office du Tourisme d'Arreau
Fauna and Flora
The Pyrenees are a have for a wide variety of animals, birds and flora.
Common creatures that can be spotted are red squirrels, foxes, deer, badgers, stoats, weasels, common lizards, asps, vipers, natterjack toads and salamanders. Many timid creatures have taken to the highlands to avoid humanization with its pollution and hunting.
The wild boar, prominent in so many parts of the Midi Pyrenees is prolific in the Hautes Pyrenees. They are omnivores which emerge when it is safe at night having spent their days in the thickest and steepest parts of the forests. However they do love to wallow in mud and can sometimes be spotted near water or marshland.
The Isard is a Pyrenean Chamois and has become the emblem of the Pyrenees and used to represent national park boundaries. It is smaller than the Alpine Chamois and has narrow curved horns. It likes high altitudes and steep slopes having hooves that are excellent for gripping slippery rock. Today there are over 5000, a growth in over three thousand over the last thirty years. It is a protected species and it can be spotted in Orlu, the Osseau valley and around Cauterets.
The alpine marmot disappeared from the Pyrenees in the last glacial era but it has been successfully reintroduced. They feed off plants and flowers, live in family groups and hibernate over the winter.
Exclusive to the Pyrenees is the extremely rare Pyrenean desman. It is a small insectivore that lives at an altitude of 2200m spending most of its time in the clear crystal mountain streams.
There had been fears that the lynx had become extinct in the Pyrenees but there has been increasing evidence from as low down as Ariege and St. Girons in Haute Garonne that the lynx still survives today. Although there has been evidence to show three populations across the Pyrenees, tracking the lynx is difficult as they are very reclusive.
Wolves are very adaptable creatures and can live in all kinds of environments. In the Pyrenees they were wiped out by man and wolves have not been seen in the Pyrenees since the 1920s, but they appear to be making a comeback: some wolves have been spotted in the Spanish Basque country and one crossed into the Hautes Pyrenees and was promptly shot. If they cross the mountains from Spain, they could spread through the Pyrenees from the west.
A hundred years ago the brown bear was in all the valleys of the Pyrenees but by the 1980s they were almost extinct. In 1996 2 female bears were reintroduced and a male bear was released in 1997. Using radio collars their activities were monitored. In the first year the 2 females had 5 cubs and although they are protected and the family is still growing they are still teetering on the brink of extinction.
The Pyrenean bear is the smallest of the bear family. They are omnivores and have a huge territory. They are rarely sited but typical evidence of their presence is a footprint with five toes and visible claws, the back footprint resembling a humans. Other evidence are scratchmarks on trees and short, fat, granulated, sausage type excrement.
There are a number of large bird species in the Pyrenees such as kites both the Red Kite and Black Kite, and eagles; Booted, Short-toed, Bonellis and Golden Eagles. Alpine choughs are also a common sight as are vultures, the Griffon, Egyptian and the rare and majestic Lammergeier.
The Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture is the rarest breeding vulture in Europe breeding in the Pyrenees, in Greece and the northern Caucasus, and in very small numbers in Corsica and Crete. A reintroduction programme began in the Alps in 1986 with the first breeding in 1997, this population now numbers about 200 and birds are regularly seen in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. In 1998 fully wild Lammergeiers successfully bred in the French Pyrenees.
Their habitat is usually 1,000-2,000m altitude in mountains. Found in areas with deep valleys and high ridges, nests on inaccessible cliffs or small caves and requires presence of chamois, ibex or wild sheep for carrion.
The spring months of June and July are spectacular for the pastures and mountainsides are completely carpeted with purple Pyrenean irises, wild blue aquilegia, indigo blue gentians, giant yellow gentians, maroon fritillaries, pink orchids, white asphodels, white Pyrenean buttercups and scented narcissi, and tiny clusters of pink saxifrage and thyme. There are several uniquely Pyrenean species such as the Pyrenean saxifrage, the Pyrenean iris, the Pyrenean blue thistle, and the ramonda.
With so many flowers and grassland, butterflies are seen throughout the Summer particularly widespread species such as the Apollo Parnassius, Apollo and Swallowtail. In September, the beautiful Hummingbird Hawk Moth can be seen hovering around flowering thistles.
Two restricted butterflies occur here; and Gavarnie Blue, Agriades pyrenaicus, as well as the Glandon Blue, Agriades glandon which belongs to the family Lycaenidae Glandon Blues only fly at high altitude amongst sparse vegetation. The male has a bluer tinge than the all brown female, and they are covered with a lot of fine hairs. http://www.butterfly-guide.co.uk/regions/pyrenees/hautes_pyrenees.htm