Best holiday destinations: French Pyrenees
The Pyrenees’ highest mountain areas begin east of Basse Navarre, it is almost entirely part of the Pyrenees National Park. The cities of the foothills are well provided with transport at the same time, which allows you to freely visit these wild and beautiful places both by rail (the Bayonne-Toulouse line) and by buses (directly to the mountains and through Accous to Spain). In addition to picturesque lakes, dense forests, alpine meadows, and mountain peaks up to 3,000 meters high, the attraction centers here are Lescun, Gavarnie, and Troumouse mountain circuses, each with its own characteristic landscape and vegetation.
Pyrenees National Park (Parc National des Pyrénées) was created in 1967 to protect mountain biocenosis from the tourism industry’s impact. Stretching along the Spanish border for more than 100 km, it covers 14 mountain peaks with more than 2,000 meters height, about 200 lakes, more than a dozen picturesque valleys, and two mountain circuses – Gavarnie, and Troumouse. Despite the closed nature of some areas, about 400 km of hiking trails have been laid in the park, but hunting and vehicles are strictly prohibited, since about 140 animal species live here, most of which are endangered.
There are parc information centers in Tarbes, Etsaut, Cauterets, Luz-Saint-Sauveur, Gavarnie, Laruns, and Arrens – you can get all the necessary information about the reserve in them, accommodation locations (there are about a dozen mountain refuges and a lot of hotels here) and campsites, a map, and weather forecasts (the latter neglected is strongly discouraged, since the weather in the Pyrenees is quite unstable at any time of the year). Camping and camp installation is prohibited in many park areas, one can set up provisional bivouacs at more than 2,000 meter heights only, which must be dismantled after 9:00.
In the foothills, it is worth visiting the ancient capital of Bearn and the French part of the kingdom of Navarra – the picturesque Pau town, the Betaram caves, the first capital of Bearn – the Orthez town with a characteristic fortified bridge (XIII century) and numerous ancient mansions, the Salies-de-Bearn town with its winding alleys and therapeutic thermal baths, the pretty Sauveterre-de-Bearn provincial center with the 13th-century Saint-Andre church and castle ruins and walled Navarrenx town lying almost in the Pau Valley.
The kingdom of dense forests and picturesque valleys begins in higher mountains, the true pearls of which can be considered the Aspe and Ossau valleys. There are the most beautiful places located above the Oloron-Sainte-Marie “gray town” (45 km to the west from Lourdes).
A modern freeway runs above the town to the tunnel of the Somport Mountain Pass, which serves as an endless dispute source between local residents and the central government. There is one of the information offices of the Pyrenees National Park located to the south, the Aspe Valley ecomuseum in Sarrance, and the ancient church of Notre Dame de la Pierre with a wonderful simple monastery. The Bedous town with a miniature castle, a church and a town hall decorated with beautiful arcades lies 7 km to the south. And 6 km south-west you can find a magnificent mountain amphitheater at the Le Billare, Table des Trois Rois and Ansabere peaks foot, a beautiful beach forest below the “tubular cliffs” of Les Orgues-de-Camplong, d’Arance castle (XII century) converted into an excellent hotel, the formidable Fort du Portalet (XVI century) and the last village on the French side of the border – Urdos with the best restaurant in the valley.
The Ossau Valley is known mainly due to its picturesque Midi peak (Pic du Midi, 2877 m), there is an observatory on top of it, and there are dozens of beautiful lakes and cliffs around. Also noteworthy is the Arudy town with a good museum, Maison d’Ossau (a comprehensive collection of the history, flora and fauna of the Pyrenees and the national park), a tiny chapel at the starting point for many hiking in the mountains – the Gabas village, surrounded by lakes the classic Pyrenees peak (Pic du Midi d’Ossau, 2884 m), as well as numerous ski resorts, which are mostly small in size, but are famous for good snow and low difficulty level.
The ancient Lourdes (37 km southeast of Pau) is the main attraction in the foothills, it is one of the most important centers of religious pilgrimage in Western Europe.
The Saint-Savin town with a picturesque 12th-century abbey church, fortifications of a later period, beautiful Romanesque interiors, and the Black Madonna statue, which was brought from Syria in the 12th century according to legend, lies southeast from Lourdes. There is the already mentioned Luz-Saint-Sauveur further south, known as a beautiful climate resort since the XIX century. The town attraction is the Saint-Andre church, built at the end of the XII century and fortified in the XIV century by the Knights Hospitallers. This opens the most convenient way to the famous Gavarnie and Troumouse mountain amphitheaters, which Victor Hugo called the “Colosseums of Nature”.
Formed by the influence of glaciers, which flowed from the surrounding mountain peaks for thousands of years, they attract thousands of tourists due to magnificent landscapes, glaciers, waterfalls, and snow that does not melt even in summer. The main local attraction lies to the east between the Astazou and Marbore jagged peaks; it is the vertical rock wall of Bres de Roland, according to local legends carved from the mountain range with the legendary Roland Durandal sword (this is the female name in French).
The Bagneres-de-Bigorre (15 km east of Lourdes) resort town is famous for its thermal baths with an original central pool covered by a unique wooden dome. Campan Valley (Vallee de Campan) begins upstream the Adour, its settlement architecture is very different from the valleys in the west. The local houses’ roofs are tiled with slate, but the houses themselves and the sheds are stretched in a line, forming very characteristic house-walls with an obligatory balcony, looking at the sun. The valley capital, the tiny Campan town, is known for its interesting covered market (XVI century), numerous old buildings, and a fortified church of unusual architecture.
The Comminges Valley, stretching from Bunier de Luchon to almost Toulouse, begins further to the east, it is an ancient feudal county that also covered the upper Garonne Valley. The area hallmark is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the Pyrenees – the Saint-Bertrand de Comminges cathedral, similar to the fortress, built over three centuries from XIV to XVII, as well as the adjacent monastery of the XII century. You can also see the graceful Romanesque Saint-Just church in Valcabrere, the Gargas Caves are famous for their rock paintings, a good Regional Museum in Bagneres de Luchon, and several ski resorts around it.
The Pyrenees’ eastern regions are quite significantly different from the west ones in their climatic conditions. Wet mountain forests give way to dry transparent groves of the Mediterranean type, mountain meadows – to dry wastelands, and beech and pine – to thyme and cistus here. The Spanish influence is more pronounced here also, since most part of the region historically belonged to Catalonia, and was finally included in France in 1659. Historic sites, with the exception of beautiful mountain landscapes, caves, and castles, are concentrated along the coast and in the mountain valleys lower sections here.
Whether you are arriving from the western Pyrenees or ascending to Andorra from Toulouse, you will meet the Ariege valley certainly in the way as a dividing line between the Atlantic regions of the west and the Mediterranean zone. The long Ariege valley, stretching from high peaks on the border with Andorra and the Ax-les-Thermes resort areas to fertile agricultural areas north of Foix, forms the center of the department of the same name. Moving around the valley itself has not the slightest difficulty, since a modern highway and a railway line from Toulouse to Spain stretch along with it, however, the most picturesque places of the region can be visited only by jeep or motorcycle in most cases.
The Ariege departments administrative center and the smallest provincial capital of France location is 82 km south of Toulouse. This is a pleasant town of narrow lanes and semi-stone buildings of the XVI-XVII centuries with an attractive old quarter, sandwiched between the Ariege and Arget rivers. Three towers of the Comtes de Foix castle (IX-XIV centuries), which now houses a small exhibition and museum complex, rise above all this.
You can see the longest navigable underground river in Europe – Labouiche 6 km north-west of Foix, you can take a tour for 7.5 euros (from April to June and September daily, from 10.00 to 11.15 and from 14.00 to 17.15; in July and August – daily, from 9.30 to 17.15; in October and November – on weekends and holidays, from 10.00 to 11.15 and from 14.00 to 16.30). There lie the Mas d’Azil prehistoric caves with a magnificent natural tunnel 500 meters long located 25 km west of the town. This cave complex, stretching for more than 12 km underground, was inhabited for more than 20 thousand years and was used as a refuge by the Albigensians and Protestants in the XIV-XVI centuries.
One can visit the most famous galleries in March, October, and November on Sundays, from 14.00 to 18.00; in April – May – from Monday to Friday, from 14.00 to 18.00, on Sundays – from 10.00 to 12.00 and from 14.00 to 18.00; in June and September – daily, from 10.00 to 12.00 and from 14.00 to 18.00; in July and August – daily, from 10.00 to 18.00; an entrance ticket costs 6.1 euros (includes entrance to the Prehistoric Museum in the Les Mas d’Azil village).
Niaux village lies south of the Tarascon town; it has an interesting Pyrenees Museum, famous for its unrivaled collection of tools, interior items, and old photographs illustrating the rapidly disappearing traditions of this region people. But the real reason to go down to this small village is the huge cave complex (Grotte de Niaux) 2 km north of the outskirts. In addition to 4 km of underground galleries with rock paintings of the megalithic period (about 11 thousand years BC), you can see the underground river bed, as well as go to another “cave city” Grotte de la Vache near the Alliat village. This is a relatively rare example of a populated cave, where you can still see the foci, bones, and tools of not only more or less late eras but also of the Paleolithic period. The third cave of the region – Grotte de Bedilhac – is located above the village of the same name (5 km from Tarascon) and also contains examples of Paleolithic art, although not in such numbers as in Niaux, there are much more stalactites and narrow unexplored manholes here.
There is the Ax-les-Thermes well-known town and resort located 26 km to the southeast of Tarascon in the Ariege river upper part, it is surrounded by high mountains covered with forests. There are the Miglos Castle ruins, the picturesque Port de Lers mountain pass (1517 m), the remote Aulus-les-Bains resort village, the Saint-Lizier town famous for its beautiful cathedrals and a beautiful Romanesque monastery (both – XII c.), the magnificent Highlands of Sault (Pays de Sault) with its “strongholds of the Albigenses” – the Roquefixade (XII-XVI centuries) and Montsegur (X-XIII centuries) castles, La Frau gorges with their cliffs about a kilometer high, allowing direct sunlight to go to the bottom only at noon, beautiful arcades of the 13th-15th centuries on the market square in the Mirepoix town (Mirepoix, is already almost on a plain, 24 km northeast of Foix), as well as fortified Benedictine Abbey (XII-XIV centuries), and the Camon village castle around the Ariege valley also.
The Aude River valley runs to the east from the mountains, going to Carcassonne itself. The small town of Limoux with a picturesque old bridge and a historic core, the Alet-les-Bains thermal resort, the Saint-Georges and l’Aude gorges canyon system with the magnificent Grotte de l’Aguzou cave, the D’Usson and Donezan castles ruins (the last refuge of the Albigensians, in which they kept for another 11 years after the fall of Montsegur), are of interest here.
A lot of historical places are generally associated with the “Albigensian heresy” in this region – romantic dilapidated medieval fortresses, which are called “Cathar castles” here, crown almost every fifth hill to the west and north of Perpignan. The south of France, especially Roussillon, Languedoc, and eastern Ariege, was the main territory of the spread of this Christianity movement in the XII century. Pope Innocent III accused the Albigenses of heresy in 1208 and persuaded the French king to start a crusade against them, and the “battle for the faith” broke out in these areas with an unprecedented bitterness. The Albigensians were defeated, but their castles still attract the attention of thousands of tourists, which is facilitated by the carefully preserved local legends about the allegedly innumerable “Cathar” riches buried somewhere in these mountains.
The special Intersite Pass card has been issued (the price is 4 euros) for guests’ convenience, one can purchase it at any of the eighteen participating castles of the department and tourist offices. The card gives adults significant discounts when visiting the fortresses of Carcassonne, Lastours, Sesac, Saissac, Caunes-Minervois, Saint-Hilaire, Lagrasse, Fontfroide, Puilaurens, Queribus, Aguilar, Peyrepertuse, and other historical sites (children with the Intersite Pass card visit these places for free).
An area including the eastern edge of the Pyrenees, as well as the lowlands around Perpignan and along the Mediterranian coast, is known as Roussillon from ancient times and named in honor of the Sordonian tribe main city – Ruscino, destroyed by the Normans in 859, or “French Catalonia”.
There are many hiking and horse riding routes in the Pyrenees running from town to town, from the castle to the resort, through the most picturesque places of the Pyrenees National Park, the Luchon, and Cerdagne plateau, as well as along the green foothills. Mountains open usually from mid-June to the end of September, and although thick snow cover is rare, traveling in these parts is not recommended in winter – the weather is very changeable and the places are deserted. Numerous alpine resorts stretching along the border are also attractive, from which short excursions around the surrounding mountains are constantly organized, as well as trips by jeeps, quad bikes, or simple tours for climbers.
Lot Department is arider by nature than its northern and even some southern neighbors. However, numerous gorges, cave paintings, and dilapidated castles give it a kind of “wild” charm.
Picturesque Rocamadour town lying in the deep, canyon-like valley of the Alzou River, is considered the main attraction of these places. Gourdon town is the second point for tourists’ attraction traditionally in this area.
Cahors town, located in the department southern part was the Quercy historical district capital and Catholicism stronghold in the religious wars of the Middle Ages. To the west of Cahors, the Lot River banks covered with vineyards hide many colorful settlements, including the ancient town of Luzech with the Chapelle de Notre-Dame-de-l’Ile Cathedral and the XIII century defenses, the village of Puy L’Eveque with its old honey color houses, the picturesque village of Saint-Martin-le-Redon with a powerful Bonaguil castle (XV-XVI centuries), the old walled city of Penne-d’Agenais with the XIII century castle ruins, as well as an ultramodern Museum of wooden architecture in the pretty ancient Monflanquin town.
Figeac town located at the very east of the department is well known due to its unusual architecture. You can find a unique Foissac caves archaeological site to the south near the village of the same name and the medieval citadel ruins hidden in a dense forest near the Peyrusse-le-Roc village, excavated by scientists only recently. But one of the most unusual of Lot settlements is considered the Cardaillac village perched on a clifftop in a miraculous way, it is a kind of open-air museum of medieval architecture today.
It is worth seeing the tiny but very beautiful Espagnac-Sainte-Eulalie village (18 km west of Figeac) with its picturesque church also, the romantic Marcilhac-sur-Célé with a dilapidated abbey and a war memorial (the village was the site of one of the first French guerillas “maquis” march off during World War II), visit one of the best open-air museums in France – Plein Air du Quercy and be sure to visit the Pech Merle caves, known not only for their beautiful underground galleries, but also for unique cave paintings.
In the valley of the Aveyron River (Aveyron is already the territory of the department of the same name east of Lo), there are such interesting objects as the ancient St-Antonin-de-Noble-Val village sandwiched between the limestone cliffs, the Villefranche-de-Rouergue town with its picturesque old mansions and cobblestone streets, the graceful Najac castle (XV-XVI centuries) above the town of the same name. We note in the Tarn and Garonne department the dilapidated Penne castle, God knows how perched on a high rock, considered a Romanesque architecture masterpiece cloister and church of the Saint Pierre abbey (VII-XIII centuries) near the Moissac town, as well as the picturesque Montauban city (Montauban is the Tarn and Garonne departments capital) with dozens of well-preserved medieval buildings.