PUBLISHED: 14:10 12 January 2015 | UPDATED: 15:58 06 January 2016
The diverse department of Hautes-Pyrénées in south-west France is characterised by its contrasting charms. Paul Lamarra explores the area
The Pic du Midi de Bigorre sits at the heart of the department of Hautes-Pyrénées. Almost 3,000m in height, and improbably topped by an observatory and a rocket-like transmitter, it is a distinctive landmark visible throughout much of the department.
Encased in snow and ice for much of the year, fortified with rocky cliffs and bristling with domes and dishes, it resembles a James Bond villain’s lair. It can only be accessed by a cable car that swings across the empty voids of the Coum de Pic and the Coum de Secours from the ski resort at La Mongie.
It is, however, open to all and there is a welcoming hotel, where budding astronomers can spend the night viewing the heavens alongside professional stargazers. During daylight hours, it is an excellent viewpoint from which to look out over the Hautes-Pyrénées: a department split between the mountains and the plain.
Across the plain in the distant north, and against the indistinct borders with Gers and Aquitaine, are the rolling hills of the Madiran wine country. In the middle distance, is the departmental capital of Tarbes, and the A64 motorway that links it with Toulouse in the east, neighbouring Pau and Bayonne on the Atlantic coast.
Extending in every other direction is the sea of high peaks that give the department its name. On the southern horizon, Vignemale, 3,298m and the highest point in the French Pyrenees, appears as a huge molar in the toothy jaw of peaks that forms the border with Spain.
Before the revolution, this was essentially Bigorre, a frequently disputed territory, controlled first by the Romans as part of the province of Gallia Aquitania. In the 13th century, during the Hundred Years War, the English seized it from Phillip IV of France. Restored to France, it was then passed to the noble House of Foix and then by marriage to the kingdom of Navarre. Henri IV of France, who was also Henri III of Navarre, brought Bigorre under the control of the French crown in 1607.
In reality, the mountainous Bigorre was, by default, an independent state; such were the difficulties in penetrating the mountains. The Vallée de Gavarnie that reaches south from Argelès-Gazost in the west of the department, could only be reached via the rocky depths of the narrow Gorges de Luz or the Col du Tourmalet at 2,115m.
Completely cut off for nine months of the year by snow, this was the Pays Toy. Toymeans ‘short’ in the local patois, and reflects the squat almost square stature of the Toy people – a characteristic that grew more pronounced with their prolonged isolation; an indomitable people said to fear only God, lightning and avalanches.
Driving up the modern road through the Gorges de Luz, it is easy to understand their preoccupation with the latter two. Before emerging into a narrow valley, the road, frequently strewn with stones, is overhung with rock and flirts with the surging Gave de Gavarnie. In such narrow restricted confines there are few hiding places from fickle natural phenomena.
At Luz-Saint-Saveur the valley splits. The left-hand fork climbs a coiling road of countless hairpin bends over the Col du Tourmalet via the spa resort and ski-station of Barèges. Barèges together with La Mongie, on the far side of the col, are the yin and yang of the Grand Tourmalet ski area. Barèges is a traditional mountain town popular with families, while La Mongie is a modern purpose-built resort offering ski-in/ski-out and a vibrant après-ski scene.
Grand Tourmalet has around 120 kilometres of piste which puts it on a par with many resorts in the Alps, and is one of 11 resorts across the Hautes-Pyrénées. Saint-LarySoulan has a traditional Pyrenean village as its base station, and is linked by cable car to Saint-Lary-1700. There is a further resort of Saint-Lary-1900, and they all combine to offer 53 lifts and more than 100 kilometres of groomed slopes.
Further up the Soulan valley towards the tunnel through to Spain on the south side of the pristine Massif Néouvielle, is Piau-Englay, a smaller purpose-built resort, the architecture of which seeks to mimic the surrounding rugged mountainside.
Back in the Vallée de Gavarnie is Luz Ardiden. A small domaine that evokes the spirit of the early sixties when skiing was opened up to everyone, and there is a still a sense of that excitement in this off-beat resort. There are plans to link Luz Ardiden with Cauterets to the west. Cauterets, a handsome neo-classical spa town with a grand belle-époque casino, is perhaps the smallest ski resort with around 35 kilometres of piste; although of the Hautes-Pyrenean resorts, it is definitely le plus chic.
In winter, the road over the Col du Tourmalet becomes a piste, negotiable only by downhill skiers, but when the snow finally melts in June, the skiers are replaced by growing numbers of cyclists hoping to emulate their heroes in the Tour de France, and conquer the gruelling climb known as the géant.
Graded hors catégorie, i.e. a climb so long and steep that it is beyond catergorisation, the ascent of the Col du Tourmalet is an almost permanent feature of the everchanging route of the Tour. Its first appearance was in 1910. Back then it was no more than a dirt track. When Oscar Lapize reached the summit he screamed “assassins” at the anxiously waiting organisers who had gambled the future of the race on including the col.
Lapize went on to win the mammoth 326-kilometre stagebetween Bagnères-de-Luchon, in neighbouring Haute-Garonne, and Bayonne on the Atlantic coast in 14 hours. As well as the Col du Tourmalet, the stage included the Col de Peyresourde, the Col d’Aspin, Col du Soulor and the Col d’Aubisque.
It was, however, neither cycling nor skiing that prompted the building of roads through the Pyrenees. It was Emperor Napoleon III, who originally conceived the idea of a route over the cols. His idea was for a route thermalelinking the area’s numerous thermal spas in Saint-Lary-Soulan, Bagnères-de-Bigorre, Barèges, Luz-SaintSaveur and Cauterets. Empress Eugénie’s enthusiasm for bathing in the naturally heated and sulphurous waters
made the practice fashionable, and the likes of Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand followed.
Eugénie’s particular favourite was the marbled halls of the spa at Luz and her bathtub remains as a souvenir of her visit. The current vogue for general well-being has given the spas a new lease of life, and it is a natural resource that combines perfectly with skiing, cycling and hill-walking.
Les Bains du Rocher, in Cauterets, were reopened in 2010, and feature a large, outdoor lagoon. Immersed in water that is naturally heated to 38ºC, bathers can lie back and watch the snow pile up around them or the sunset behind the peaks that surround the village.
The large indoor pool at the cathedral-like Aquensis spa in Bagnères-de-Bigorre is ideally placed to ease away the aches and pains of skiers and cyclists returning from La Mongie or Le Tourmalet.
Hot water and muscle-pummelling jets are common to all the spas, but the Sensoria wellness centre in Saint-Lary-Soulan also recreates a fantasy prehistoric world of caves, gorges and waterfalls for the bather to explore.
Those who came to take the waters were followed by those who came in search of the sublime, and the first hardy landscape tourists travelled by charabanc from Luz-Saint-Saveur to be overwhelmed by the massive Cirque de Gavarnie.
Carved by a glacier, this awe-inspiring amphitheatre is 6.5km in diameter and its walls rise to 1500m. To see over the top into Spain, you would have to climb the equivalent of five Eiffel towers. In 1997, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Flowing over the rocks is the Grand Cascade. At 427m high, it is the highest waterfall in Europe. During the winter months, it is frozen solid and ice-climbers from all over the world to attempt to climb it.
Flavours in the Hautes-Pyrénées are unsurprisingly robust. Garbure, a warming ham, vegetable and bean broth is served in copious quantities in almost every restaurant. Among the best, however, is the garbure served from the hatch at Chez Louisette on the slopes above Barèges.
Barèges is also famous for its succulent lamb, and only those shepherds whose flocks are sufficiently close to the abattoir for their animals to walk there can claim the sought-after AOP. Pork in all its forms is a staple of Pyrenean menus. The cured hams, known as Noir de Bigorre, produced by an ancient breed of pig that roams free in Bigorre hills, are highly valued for their deep and lasting flavours.
Most cheeseboards feature the Tomme des Pyrénées. Most are made from cow’s or ewe’s milk, but occasionally goat’s milk. Almost always, the dense, round cheeses with a thin skin and a white or pale yellow flesh, are produced in small quantities by the herder.
Beyond Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, on the road to the Col d’Aspin, at a spot known as Little Canada is the Auberge des Trois Pics, a roadside inn that specialises in ancient Pyrenean recipes. Small, cosy and heated by a roaring log fire, the inn offers a warm welcome to guests who can sample, among other things, la farcidure, a beef and chestnut pancake that dates back to medieval times, and the strange, spiky-looking gâteau à la broche, which is made by placing the mixture on a stick and rotating it slowly over an open fire.
Robust flavours require a robust wine, and the local Madiran is the perfect accompaniment to a mountain meal. Grown in the hills beyond the plains to the north, the Tannat grapes fully ripen in the hot summer and dry autumns that usually follow. The resulting wine is a strong, opaque almost black red wine that is very tannic but very enjoyable.
The snow-capped mountains to the south are still in sight, but feel like a world away. Lining the long main street in the village of Madiran are homes built of warm sandstone and roofed with red tiles rather than the hard, blue rock and slate that characterises many of the buildings in the mountains.
Between Madiran and the mountains is the low-key capital of Tarbes: an elegant palm-decked town with the huge La Halle Marcadieu at its centre. In its 19th-century heyday, people travelled from Spain and all over the south-west of France to trade in horses and mules. Now mainly confined to food and occasionally flowers, the Thursday morning market remains one of the biggest in the area attracting more than 20,000 people.
The most appealing aspect of Tarbes is its park and, in particular, the 25-acre Jardin Massey. Laid out more than 200 years ago, it is a green oasis of ponds and exotic cacti. There is also an orangerie and a museum dedicated to the régiments des Hussards and a steam-powered petit train.
Unfortunately any grandeur that Tarbes can muster will always be overshadowed by the high Pyrenees. However, the locals know that living in a department split between the mountains and the plain means they will always have the best of both worlds.