The Pyrenees is a region renowned for its dramatic mountainous landscapes and lush green countryside. Traversing the southern border of France, it’s a place full of charming mountain towns and breathtaking scenery. So which places should definitely be on your list? Here are a few of our favourite places we definitely recommend.
Cirque du Gavarnie
A trip to the Pyrenees wouldn’t be complete without visiting France’s tallest waterfall (and Europe’s second tallest) set within the UNESCO World Heritage site of Cirque du Gavarnie. It’s around a two hour walk from the parking area in Gavarnie so we’d recommend wearing walking boots and taking plenty of water, but there is a small café halfway along the route where you can pick up lunch. As you walk through the forest a huge glacial “bowl” with 4,900 foot high rock walls emerges in the distance. As you get closer you’ll be greeted by rows of smaller waterfalls that cascade down the rock faces and of course the grand Gavarnie Falls itself which tumbles just under 1,400 feet to a huge plunge pool below. If you’re feeling adventurous continue walking to the Brèche de Roland – a 130 foot wide natural gap that looks unnaturally square along a mountain ridge of the French-Spanish border.
Pic du Midi Observatory
Since the 1870s astronomers from around the world have climbed the Pic du Midi de Borgorre to marvel at the night sky. The peak is now home to a world class observatory sat at an impressive 9,439 feet above sea level. Thankfully these days it’s not such a hard hike, you can settle back in a glass-sided cable car and enjoy panoramic views across the mountain range as you climb to the summit in just 15 minutes. Once at the top you’ll be met by uninterrupted views over 186 miles of snow-capped peaks and on a clear night you can even see the flickering lights of Barcelona on the coast (main pic). Aside from filling your lungs with pure mountain air, there’s also a fascinating museum which tells the history of all the discoveries made at the observatory. The most famous is that this is where the surface of the moon was first mapped in the 1960s. There’s also a restaurant at the peak so you can enjoy a spot of lunch in the clouds. A handy bit of advice if you’re heading here, make sure to wear sunscreen as the sun’s UV is more powerful at altitude so you can easily burn even on a cloudy day.
Col du Tourmalet
This mighty mountain stands nearly 7,000 feet above sea level and this year will make its 79th appearance in the Tour de France route, which makes it the most featured mountain pass since the Tour de France began in 1910. The western ascent begins from Luz St. Savieur and over the 12 mile route you’ll climb in excess of 4,600 feet up breath taking winding roads that hug the mountainside. Needless to say if you’re thinking of cycling the route, it’s not to be underestimated with both the west and eastern climbs averaging gradients of 7%; the east side features the steepest roads at an eye-watering 12%. However you get to the top though you won’t be disappointed by the views, on a clear day you can see a fifth of all of France! If you’re lucky you might even spot one of the 25 pairs of Golden Eagles that also inhabit this part of the Pyrenees. At the summit you’ll be also be greeted by a large iron sculpture of Octave Lapize gasping for air. He was the first ever winner of this mountain stage in 1910 and was famously quoted as saying to the race officials “You are murderers!” after completing the arduous ride.
A trip to the Pyrenees wouldn’t be complete without visiting its largest city, and it’s a real gem with a rich history of nobility and fine art. Most notably it was the birthplace of King Henry IV who transformed Pau’s once austere looking 14th century castle into a stunning Renaissance chateau, which was also used by Napoleon as a holiday home. Nowadays you’ll find the streets lined with grand villas and palm trees making the whole area just ooze with grandeur. If you’re an art-lover a trip into the Chateau de Pau is a must. Marvel at over 12,000 pieces of art including 500 year old royal tapestries, Renaissance paintings and intricate sculptures. A stroll down the Boulevard des Pyrenees is a great way to take in the panoramic views offered by the city’s elevation and you’ll find plenty of restaurants and cafes to stop at and take in the scenery. The end of the promenade seamlessly leads into the Parc Beaumont which features over 100 tree species, a beautiful rose garden, an ornamental lake and of course the Beaumont Palace. You won’t find many better places to sit and watch the sunset over the mountains.
Néouvielle Nature Reserve
This is one of the finest nature reserves in France, spanning over 2,000 hectares and featuring a foray of snow-capped granite peaks and jade green to steely blue lakes. There are numerous walking routes carving their way through pristine pine forest that are just perfect for an afternoon stroll and picnic. The area enjoys its own specific microclimate which brings an abundance of unique fauna and flora to the reserve, such as marmots and the legendary desman so make sure you stay on the lookout. There’s also nowhere else in Europe where trees grow at such an altitude and the bright pink rhododendrons and purple irises splash the hillsides in glorious technicolour. The reserve itself is only open between June-September.
One of the most important catholic pilgrimage destinations in the world, this relatively small town was catapulted into recognition in the 19th century when a humble shepherd girl called Bernadette received visions of the Virgin Mary in a small river grotto. The story goes that she asked Bernadette, who is now a Saint, to come to the grotto every day for fifteen days to bathe and build a chapel there. Other townsfolk soon joined her and they all started to notice the healing properties of the spring water, which to this day still draws over six million visitors each year with the hope of recuperation. Aside from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, there’s a thousand year old fortress with botanical gardens that’s well worth visiting and we’d also recommend taking a ride up the funicular to Pic du Jer. At the top you can head along a walking trail to a 360° panoramic viewpoint offering fabulous views over the whole town, Pau and the Argelès Gazost valley.
Luz St. Sauveur
Last but certainly not least is this charming spa town where our parc Airotel Pyrenees is located. Set right in the heart of the Pyrenees it’s the perfect base for visiting all our favourite spots and is itself full of character. Its distinctive stone buildings with dark slate roofs are built right into the steep hillsides that surround the area, which gives a real authentic mountain-town feel. Treat yourself to a trip to the local thermal baths which were popular with none other than Emperor Napoleon III. Over recent years these have been modernised with a host of new equipment for a rejuvenating end to a truly memorable adventure-filled holiday.