Call of the Pyrénées: Top of the Pops for Walkers in France #3

This is the third and final article on the memorable and exciting Pyrénées. Hopefully, it will get your travel plans into focus and help you move these magic mountains up your list of important places to visit.

So no more excuses — write the name down and start planning your next trip now: PYRENEES

Part #1 – Call of the Pyrénées: unveiling the intrigue and magic
Part #2 – Call of the Pyrénées: Incomparable mountains
Part #3 – Call of the Pyrénées: Top of the Pops for Walkers in France – This one

Top of the Pops for Walkers in France

The Pyrenees sometimes come second compared to the higher and more celebrated Alps. But this needs re-evaluation. They form an almost impenetrable frontier along the whole length of the Franco-Spanish border, and in many respects, they are the more impressive chain. Although harsher, wilder, more rugged, and more dramatic, they are crisis-crossed with thousands of well-signposted roads and paths, and peppered with countless mountain towns, villages, and hamlets. Accommodation and meals are always easy to find.

The Cirque de Gavarnie is, without doubt, the jewel in the crown of the Pyrenees.

It’s an absolute “must-see” if you ever find yourself near the Parc National des Pyrénées, just south of Lourdes. [here you can access a media guide for this region – a pdf]

This UNESCO World Heritage site is a semi-circular 6.5-kilometre-wide glacial plateau that forms the backdrop to one of the most stunning vistas in France.

Victor Hugo was gobsmacked when he first saw it in 1886:

It is a mountain and a wall all at once; it is the most mysterious building by the most mysterious of architects; it is Nature’s Colosseum; it is Gavarnie.”

The famous Grande Cascade waterfall is easily accessible. The walk from the village to the foot of the cirque and back takes 2 hours and is considered “moderate” even for children. More adventurous walkers can climb up to the dramatically forbidding, but accessible, Brèche de Roland. This cleft in the cliffs has been compared to the gap where a tooth has been wrenched from a man’s lower jaw. According to legend, Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland, mortally wounded in a battle against the Moors, made the pass when he threw down his sword, breaching a cleft in the cliff face running along the chain of peaks.

On reaching the breach, hikers are rewarded with breathtaking views over France and Spain. C’est magnifique.
Don’t forget. Write it down now: GAVARNIE

Another gem for hikers is only a kilometre or so off the N116 as it passes through Thuès-Entre-Valls and has a series of awesome, precipitous canyons,
with pathways on ledges in the cliff face originally excavated to access water to supply a hydroelectric plant. The paths are easily accessible but quite nerve-wracking to explore. After about an hour on the cliff face, ten ponts des singes, or monkey bridges, lead on up to even more staggering views
from a balcony that overlooks, it seems, the whole of the Ariege.

One of the strangest sites in the Pyrenees lies close to where the Route Nationale dives into the Somport Tunnel. It’s a huge railway station and junction complex. A what?

Yes, little used, but a gigantic train stop high up in the mountains. The immense Canfranc International railway station opened in 1928 and remains one of the biggest in Europe. Known as the Titanic of the Pyrenees, was constructed on a grand scale to serve as a major hub for cross-border railway traffic. The main building projects an elaborate Beaux-Arts style. It has 365 windows, 156 doors, and a 240 metres platform. (That’s the length of almost two and a half rugby pitches—right on top of the Pyrenees.) The station has had a range of highs and lows, including the Spanish Civil War and World War Two, before succumbing to its current state-of-neglect, decay, and decline. It needs heaps of loving kindness but is well worth a visit if you ever cross into Spain via Somport.

Another pilgrim path to Compostela, the one from Arles via Toulouse, also crosses the Pyrenees at Somport before winding its way down through Aragon to Jaca. Then it turns north towards Pamplona and the Rioja where pilgrims must choose between continuing with the Camino Frances (the French Way) or going to the coastal alternative, Camino del Norte. But wherever they cross, eyes fixed onwards and upwards on their spiritual goal in Galicia, they never forget the emotional and physical high points in the Pyrenees.

These mountains have got it all — there’s something for everyone.

  • Towering peaks, precipitous cliffs, and secret valleys.
  • Caves, crevasses and canyons.
  • Intriguing flora and fauna.
  • Mysterious valleys.
  • Picturesque villages lost in time.
  • Excellent hotels, B&Bs, hostels, and refuges.
  • Forbidding passes,
  • fantastic scenery, and generally good weather.
  • There are also lakes and tarns and tumbling, racing rivers and streams.

So the next time you’re anywhere near them, don’t miss the call of the Pyrenees. And, once you’ve been there when you’re in a reflective mood, memories will often “flash upon your inward eye” to remind you that the Pyrenees really are magic mountains.

Have you ever taken any of these pilgrimages? Please share in the comments below.


About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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