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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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