Get back to na­ture on a jour­ney through the dra­matic Hautes-pyrénées.

A.K.A. THE BIRDS, THE BEES AND THE BUT­TER­FLIES Go­ing on a road trip is a great way to re­ally ex­pe­ri­ence an area. Lara Dunn ex­plores the Hautes-pyrénées and its high life

France - - Contents -

Driv­ing back to­ward Toulouse, I am glad to be a pas­sen­ger. My eyes are drawn to the not-so-dis­tant, mist-wreathed moun­tains to my side, huge birds of prey wheel­ing above the road in the summer sky. These are the views that have been our con­stant com­pan­ion over the past five days and it is a wrench to leave them be­hind. It feels so much longer ago that we ar­rived at bustling Toulouse air­port to start our Pyrenean road trip; we have seen, done (and eaten) so much. That time di­la­tion is al­ways the sign of a great trip, I feel.

Our ar­rival in Bag­nères-de-big­orre at the start of the trip was a lit­tle fran­tic. Rush-hour traf­fic at Toulouse meant a slightly later ar­rival than planned, but the pe­riod love­li­ness of our first ho­tel soon put paid to any stress. It was tempt­ing to wan­der around the his­toric spa town, but that would have to wait un­til to­mor­row, din­ner was on the cards. Din­ing on the lo­cal spe­cial­ity of Noir de Big­orre pork steaks, the River Adour bub­bling nois­ily along be­side us matched our ex­cite­ment at the days to come.

Bustling mar­ket

A tour of Bag­nères-de-big­orre is not com­plete with­out a trip to one of its spas. At one point, there were re­put­edly more than 40 spa es­tab­lish­ments, some lo­cated within the cel­lars of peo­ple’s houses. Now, just two re­main, the med­i­cal-treat­ment ori­en­tated Grand Ther­mes and the more relaxation-fo­cused Aquen­sis, with its rooftop whirlpool baths and chapel-like in­door pools. Emerg­ing re­ju­ve­nated from the lat­ter, we wan­dered the streets and me­an­dered through the mar­ket, one of the most im­por­tant in the area, and groan­ing with lo­cal pro­duce from cheeses to Basque spices. All too soon, it was time to leave, though, the lit­eral high point of the trip awaited – the Pic du Midi de Big­orre.

The drive to La Mongie led us through small com­munes, clus­tered in the green-sided val­leys, yet more broadly spaced than the Alpine vil­lages we had ex­pe­ri­enced in the past. Al­ready, cy­clists were in ev­i­dence, mak­ing their slow

and tor­tu­ous way up to their ultimate goal of the Col du Tour­malet, such an icon of the Tour de France.

Ev­ery inch the ski town, La Mongie seemed to be doz­ing on this summer day, the road empty enough for a lone don­key to be idly stand­ing in the mid­dle. The weather was against us, with thun­der­storms fore­cast, meaning our planned din­ner and stargaz­ing soirée at the Pic du Midi was trun­cated to a hur­ried as­cent, clouds rapidly gath­er­ing as the two ca­ble cars climbed.

The drama and power of na­ture was clearly in ev­i­dence as we wan­dered around the ob­ser­va­tory plat­forms at 2,877 me­tres, grey masses roil­ing both above and be­low us, the winds pick­ing up suf­fi­ciently to have us scur­ry­ing for the ca­ble car back down. Real moun­tain weather. Huge grif­fon vul­tures (or pos­si­bly lam­mergeiers) soared in cir­cles, de­fy­ing the brew­ing storm.

We back­tracked a lit­tle the next day, mak­ing our way down to the tiny town of Cam­pan for one of the high­lights of the lo­cal cal­en­dar, the Fête des Mar­i­olles. The town is well-known for its quirky tra­di­tion of mounaques – coarse dolls cre­ated orig­i­nally to mock un­ortho­dox lo­cal wed­dings but now used more for en­ter­tain­ment. Through­out the summer, the dolls ap­pear in cre­ative and strange tableaux in win­dows, bal­conies, door­ways and sheds all around the town, and vis­i­tors can buy their own kit from the Ate­lier des Mounaques.

The roads closed and the fête be­gan, groups in pe­riod cos­tume from around the world – by spe­cial in­vi­ta­tion only – pro­cess­ing through the town. Folk dances and mu­sic filled the small streets with life and doubt­less the cel­e­bra­tions con­tin­ued long into the evening.

Mak­ing our way up through La Mongie once more, we soon reached the fa­mous Col du Tour­malet, shrouded in cloud and teem­ing with tired but ju­bi­lant cy­clists. The pass is so sought after that it is pos­si­ble not only to hire ‘or­di­nary’ road bikes from Tour­malet Bikes in Luz-saint-sauveur down in the val­ley, but even elec­tric road bikes (tour­malet-bikes.com, €55 for a half­day). By all ac­counts, it can take just and hour and a half to reach the col by e-bike from Luz, as op­posed to the sev­eral hours it would take en­tirely self-pow­ered. Hav­ing de­scended the pass in the car, and see­ing its switch­backs, we chose in­stead to ex­plore the three-di­men­sional town of Luz-saint-sauveur, leav­ing the cy­cling for an­other visit.

The nar­row streets quickly peter out at the top of the town, trans­form­ing

The dolls ap­pear in strange tableaux in win­dows and sheds

swiftly into leafy, rocky hik­ing trails draw­ing the walker ever up­wards. A me­an­der along the GR10 which passes through town showed us heav­ily bur­dened trekkers en­joy­ing a length­ier, and vig­or­ous moun­tain ad­ven­ture.

The next day, though, we had our own ad­ven­ture planned, with a guided but­ter­fly walk in the moun­tains. But­ter­fly spe­cial­ist Jude Lock took us to some­where she hoped was above the mist that had set­tled in the val­ley, where the but­ter­flies could en­joy their cru­cial so­lar-charg­ing. While pock­ets of cling­ing cloud even­tu­ally drove us on from Lac des Glo­ri­ettes with its im­pres­sive dam, vivid wild irises and play­ful young mar­mots, we en­joyed its stun­ning views as well as suc­cess­ful but­ter­fly spots.

By the time we were back at the car, I had al­ready seen sev­eral types of the fri­t­il­lary fam­ily and plen­ti­ful mar­bled whites as well as the smaller ringlets, en­demic to the area. Our sec­ond walk, at the Cirque de Gavarnie, was more fruit­ful, as the sun broke through and warmed the in­sects. Here we saw more of the same species, but also the larger silver-washed fri­t­il­lary, the shock­ing or­ange flash of a male scarce cop­per and nu­mer­ous scar­let and black-spot­ted bur­net moths. Weighty bum­ble­bees of var­i­ous types visited the plen­ti­ful flora, too. Be­fore we knew it, we had reached a promon­tory, of­fer­ing a su­perb view of the vast wa­ter­fall-dot­ted wall of the Cirque de Gavarnie, that natural bar­rier be­tween France and Spain.

That evening, con­tin­u­ing the in­sect theme, we visited the Pavillon des Abeilles in Cauterets, a com­bi­na­tion of bee pro­duce em­po­rium and shrine to all things api­cul­tural. As a beekeeper my­self, it was fas­ci­nat­ing to see a video show­ing the tran­shu­mance prac­tices of the re­gion, and I was sorely tempted to sign up for three days of bee yoga run by Bal­lotFlurin, which runs both the shop and a flour­ish­ing larger en­ter­prise of bee­based reme­dies. Def­i­nitely one for a fu­ture visit! Cauterets’s im­pres­sive, largely 19th cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture shows just how prof­itable, and in­ter­na­tional, spa tourism was in its hey­day. It still is, to­day, to a de­gree, and the lo­cal spas are still ex­tremely pop­u­lar.

Sit­ting be­side the serenely turquoise Lac de Gaube the next day, high above Cauterets, yet only an hour or so’s relaxed walk from the town, the quiet power of the lo­cal waters was clear. It was tough to leave the glo­ri­ous peace of this moun­tain lake, all greens and blues. On the way back to the tu­mult of the Pont d’es­pagne, via the chair­lift that trans­forms the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of this spot, we bade farewell to yet more but­ter­flies, small sparks of blue dot­ting the pink and pur­ple of the flow­ers. There was no doubt, we would re­turn. The Pyrénées had stolen a cor­ner of our full-to-burst­ing hearts.

Later, after vis­it­ing a very dif­fer­ent set of heal­ing waters, at the Grotte de Mass­a­bielle un­der the im­pres­sive Sanc­tu­aire in Lour­des, we stood on the hill oc­cu­pied by the Château Fort. Gaz­ing down on the town, we were struck by what an amaz­ing and trans­for­ma­tive re­gion this was – both spir­i­tu­ally and phys­i­cally. It was hard to leave. See page 60 for travel in­for­ma­tion.

GET­TING THERE

By air: Lara trav­elled from Bris­tol to Toulouse with easyjet (easyjet.com). The ser­vice op­er­ates daily from Bris­tol, Lu­ton and Gatwick from £33.99 each way. Ryanair (ryanair.com) op­er­ates a ser­vice into Lour­des air­port five times a week from £19.99. The drive from Toulouse Air­port to Bag­nères-deBig­orre takes around 2hr. Car hire op­tions abound from around £250 for five days. See page 25 for other travel in­for­ma­tion.

WHERE TO STAY Villa Rose

54 Rue Georges Las­salle 65200 Bag­nèresde-big­orre Tel: (Fr) 5 62 34 09 84 vil­larose65.com This B&B is a real hid­den gem, decked out in pe­riod style, com­plete with wooden floors and sa­lons. Dou­bles from €110 in­clud­ing break­fast, which can be taken in the gor­geous salon des ti­sanes.

Hôtel La Mongie Créte Blanche

La Mongie 65200 Bag­nèresde- Big­orre Tel: (Fr) 5 62 91 92 49 la-crete-blanche.fr A fairly func­tional ski re­sort ho­tel hides pleas­ant, de­sign-led cosily ap­pointed rooms from €87, break­fast €11. Five min­utes’ walk from the Pic du Midi ca­ble car sta­tion.

Hôtel Les Tem­pli­ers

6 Place de la Com­porte 65120 Luz-saint-sauveur Tel: (Fr) 5 62 91 68 72 ho­tel-luz.com In the his­toric heart of town across the mar­ket square from the Église des Tem­pli­ers, this com­pact ho­tel com­bines tra­di­tional charm with all mod cons and a warm wel­come. Dou­bles from €79, break­fast €9.50.

Lion d’or

12 Rue Riche­lieu 65110 Cauterets Tel: (Fr) 5 62 92 52 87 ho­tel-cauterets.fr Owned by the charm­ing Lasserre fam­ily since 1913, this de­light­ful three-star ho­tel has char­ac­ter, warmth, a touch of lux­ury and ex­cel­lent food served in a relaxed and in­ti­mate set­ting. On a warm evening, try the out­side ter­race. Dou­bles from €76, break­fast €12, €33pp ex­tra for half board, which is su­perb value.

Grand Hôtel Gal­lia & Lon­dres

97 Boule­vard Rémi Sempé (car park/sat nav ad­dress) 65100 Lour­des Tel: (Fr) 5 62 94 35 44 grand­ho­tel-gal­lialon­dres.h-rez.com Large, com­fort­able, mod­ern ho­tel a few min­utes’ walk from the Sanc­tu­aire, with an in-house spa, bar and busy din­ing room. Dou­bles from €73 in­clud­ing break­fast. Gated car park €15 a day.

WHERE TO EAT Fabrique du Ter­roir

3 Av­enue Maquis de Pay­olle 65200 Bag­nèresde-big­orre Tel: (Fr) 5 62 91 15 51 car­repy.com/restaurant Part butcher/del­i­catessen, part restaurant, this stylish place by the river spe­cialises in the cu­ri­ously beef-like Noir de Big­orre pork. Menu from €22.

Restaurant Le Schuss

6 Boule­vard du Pic du Midi 65200 Bag­nèresde- Big­orre Tel: (Fr) 5 62 91 90 10 restaurant-schuss­tour­malet.fr Cosy, mod­ern, alpine-style restaurant spe­cial­is­ing in good qual­ity lo­cal fare and fon­due/raclette. The menu uses in­gre­di­ents in a va­ri­ety of ways, such as ma­gret de ca­nard with dif­fer­ent sauces. Mains from €10.

La Tasca

17 Place Saint-clé­ment 65120 Luz-saint-sauveur Tel: (Fr) 5 62 92 96 22 latasca-luz.fr Franco-span­ish restaurant run by a for­mer Lon­don po­lice­man. Lo­cal pro­duce features strongly and the set­ting is lovely, par­tic­u­larly the ter­race. Make sure to try the beers brewed on the premises. Mains from €14.50.

Hôtel­lerie du Lac de Gaube

Lac de Gaube 65110 Cauterets Tel: (Fr) 6 74 51 56 28 gaube-seyres.fr The won­der­ful lake­side set­ting is matched by se­ri­ously good – and gen­er­ous – food in­clud­ing some of the best con­fit de ca­nard I have eaten. Mains from €17.

WHERE TO VISIT

Aquen­sis, Bag­nères-deBig­orre, aquen­sis.fr. Pic du Midi, pic­du­midi.com, adults €38. Cam­pan, Fête des Mar­i­olles, sec­ond week of July ev­ery year. Guided but­ter­fly walk (half-day. var­i­ous lo­ca­tions) with Border­line Hol­i­days, tel: (Fr) 5 62 92 68 95, bor­der­line­hols.com. Bains du Rocher Spa, Cauterets, bains-rocher.fr. Pavillon des Abeilles, Cauterets, pavil­lon­desabeilles.com. Pont d’es­pagne and Lac de Gaube, Cauterets, adults €15.

Sanc­tu­aire and Château

Fort, Lour­des, sanc­tu­aire ac­cess free, Château Fort €7 for adults.

The Pont d’es­pagne crosses the Gave du Mar­cadau south of Carterets

FROM TOP: Dancers at the Fête des Mar­i­olles in Cam­pan; The ob­ser­va­tory at the sum­mit of the Pic du Midi; A fri­t­il­lary but­ter­fly

ABOVE: The Château Fort in the pil­grim­age town of Lour­des; TOP: The Cirque de Gavarnie cre­ates a natural border be­tween France and Spain

ABOVE: The Villa Rose in Bag­nères-de-big­orre; ABOVE RIGHT: The Aquen­sis spa cen­tre

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