The Pyrenees are a natural border separating France and Spain and, although the highest peaks reach over 3000m, there’s some beautiful hiking between villages, keeping mainly to the valleys.
I’ve long wanted to visit the Pyrenees, attracted by the mountains and lured by the promise of good food and wine. Even better I’ve opted for a week’s walking, staying at three comfortable hotels, with my baggage transported between them, so nothing too strenuous. Getting here from the UK is relatively easy – a flight to Toulouse, a two hour train ride to Tarbes, then 45 minutes in a taxi up the valley to Lesponne. I’ll be here for two nights and the next day I set out on the first walk. It’s a fairly easy climb up to Lac d’Ourrec at almost 1700m and then it’s more or less back down the same way. By the lake there are stunning views of the mountains and on my way down I get a tantalising glimpse of the Pic du Midi, through the trees.
Next day I take a taxi to the cable car station just outside Lourdes and am whisked up to the 940m Pic du Jer with no effort. I’m rewarded with a view over the town, but storm clouds are moving in and I realise I have to get a move on if I’m not going to get wet. It’s a reasonably leisurely downhill walk across the valleys to the attractive spa town of Argeles-Gazost, complete with an English Park and a casino. In fact, the mineral-rich waters attracted the first tourists to the Pyrenees and for years the French government funded the treatments and even allowed licensed gambling.
Argeles-Gazost has a famous Tuesday market, but it’s distinctly soggy this morning as the rain has set in and it’s not worth lingering. Clad head to toe in my weatherproofs, I climb into the mist, wondering whether I might be better off spending my day at the gaming tables, but the rain clears at the village of Saint-Savin. This once had a thriving monastery, but these days only the 12th century Abbey church remains. It’s still enough to attract pilgrims, though, and I spot a busload, obviously on a side trip from Lourdes. The village itself is delightfully medieval, centred around a square with half-timbered houses, and there’s an attractive café where I stop to revive my spirits.
Overnight the weather worsens and morning dawns dark, with low cloud hugging the mountains. I take a trail from Soulom, hugging the hillside, once the only way along the valley and it passes the attractive small villages of Viscos and Sazos, looming out of the mist. I arrive at Luz-Saint Saveur just after lunch and have time to explore. There’s a fortified church, a ruined castle on a hill and of course a spa in the twinned village of Saint Saveur. Napoléon III stayed here for 23 days in 1859 with his empress Eugenie and she supposedly conceived her only son during her holiday. Her husband ordered the construction of the Pont Napoleon to link the two villages, and was an essential part of the road construction to Gavernie which is tomorrow’s destination.
I take the bus in the rain, passing Napoleon’s bridge and, within an hour, I’m in Gavernie. The mist is low and it’s raining but I have no choice, as this is meant to be the highlight of my trip and this is my last day. It’s a hard slog uphill through the forest and I’m meant to get magnificent views of the Cirque de Gavarnie but visibility is zero. I’m told that it’s an incredible wall of rock 1700m high, 14km in circumference, forming a natural amphitheatre and justly deserving its UNESCO World Heritage status. The rain which has been fairly gentle until now suddenly transforms into hail, and I’m pounded as I walk.
My goal is the Grande Cascade, a waterfall with a vertical drop of 422m, making it the highest in Europe. Of course I can’t see a thing but, since my bus isn’t for another four hours, I decide that at least it’s something to aim for. I trudge upwards over scree, not even sure what I’m aiming for, but suddenly the mist begins to list and I catch sight of the bottom of the waterfall. As I get closer, visibility gets better and finally the entire cascade is revealed. The sun even comes out in the valley and I suddenly feel that the whole walk has been worthwhile. Next morning, as I prepare to take the train back from Lourdes, the clouds have lifted and I feel sun for the first time. Even better I can see the mountain peaks and realise what I’ve been missing.