The Pyrénées: Idle pleasures
The mountains are not just a playground for elite cyclists and intrepid hikers, as Carolyn Boyd discovers on a gentle exploration of the Hautes-Pyrénées
The Tour de France riders take on these mountains every year, but so too do thousands of amateur cyclists who pit themselves against these jagged peaks, vertiginous passes and hairpin bends. Elsewhere, hikers venture into the awe-inspiring landscape to immerse themselves in the wilderness and feel the blood coursing through their veins. On the rumbling rivers, canoeists and white-water rafters feel a surge of adrenalin with every rapid they pursue. Faced with so many opportunities for heart-thumping action, my family and I made a plan: we would do precisely the opposite.
Sweat and adrenalin are all very well, but for those who prefer a relaxing holiday or are less able to indulge in activities, the mountains still hold appeal. With pretty villages and enticing markets in which to wander, cable cars to whisk you to the summit and spas that pamper and ply you with bubbles, there really is no need to exert any energy at all. With this in mind, and just 24 hours after Bagnères-de-Bigorre came alive with the hullabaloo that was the finish line for stage nine of the 2013 Tour, we sauntered into the town for a relaxing lunch and a trip to the state-of-the-art spa, Aquensis.
It is here that the tradition of taking the thermal waters at Bagnères-de-Bigorre has been reinvented for the 21st century with a host of ways for visitors to relax and be rejuvenated. The main pool is housed in a cathedral-like space, supported by wooden, tree-shaped beams. From here you can spy swimmers doing laps in the glass-bottomed pool in the roof-top above you. There is a hammam, sauna and a spa on the second floor overlooking the indoor pool; many of the beauty treatments on offer here are inspired by nature and feature Pyrenean honey, flowers and, of all things, donkey milk (see Prêt à Partir on page 17). It’s a great place to unwind and the roof is a real sun trap if you simply want to sink into a deckchair and breathe clean mountain air. After a delicious salad lunch at a nearby bistro, we window-shopped and admired some of the 19th-century architecture before pausing a while in the Parc du Musée Salies, the pretty gardens next to the Musée des Beaux-Arts Salies.
The road between Bagnères-de-Bigorre and Saint-Lary passes the famous Col d’Aspin that has featured in the Tour de France some 71 times. As we made our way back, we slowed to read, from the comfort of our air-conditioned car, the many names and words of encouragement painted on the route to spur on the Tour de France riders as they took on the climb. Approaching the col, the views down the valley were spectacular. Cows chewed the cud in fields alongside the road, seemingly oblivious to the beauty around them, while groups of cyclists rested on the grass to take a breather and admire the view before enjoying a heady freewheeling descent.
A few days after the Tour riders passed through Saint-Lary on their way to the Hourquette d’Ancizan mountain pass, we followed in their tracks, driving along a spectacular section of the D113. Again, the roads were daubed with competitors’ names and encouraging words. As a light rain began to fall on the windscreen and with the mist hanging in the mountainous crags, the road began to look ever more daunting. My husband changed gear and we sped on down the mountain towards Payolle, no effort required.
Close to the Lac de Payolle, we spied a stream next to the road where a few picnickers were sprawled between the pine trees enjoying the sun. Finding a small spot nearby, we too spread ourselves out and spent a couple of hours feasting on our picnic and paddling with our daughter in the shallow water of the gentle stream. Apart from the occasional car, the spot was as tranquil as any of those lofty picnic spots we could have reached via a hike.
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Our picnic contained the bounty of the Thursday morning market in Arreau, one of the oldest markets in the area and a lovely event, brimming with produce from across the Pyrénées. Stalls laden with cheese, honey, liqueurs, charcuterie, brightly coloured pottery, soaps and baskets lined the streets and filled the town’s pretty arched marketplace. The town is perched at the confluence of the rivers tumbling down from the Louron and Aure valleys. We bought juicy tomatoes and crisp lettuce from local farmers close to the marketplace and across the river admired paintings and other crafts made by local artisans. There is a short signposted walk around the village, showing off its church and other monuments historiques. It makes for an easy jaunt, but for a more energetic discovery you can embark on one of the many wonderful hikes up both of the valleys.
As much as we would have loved a hike, especially to enjoy sensational views from the top of a mountain, our travel companions – our daughter aged two-and-a- half years, our son just three months old – were not so keen (or able)! The answer, then, was to take the Pic Lumière cable car from Saint-Lary. Packed with skiers in the winter, the summer service on the télépherique that whisks you up to the 1,700-metre-high Pla d’Adet above the village is rather less in demand, allowing you to move around the cable car to get the best views.
It deposits you at the base of the ski resort, from which most hikers carry on walking up or down the mountain, but for us, a picnic was in store followed by an ice-cream from one of the two cafés. Saint-Lary’s own spa beckoned after our descent, and we spent the afternoon in the swimming complex at Sensoria, which, with its fountains, whirlpool baths and slides built in and around a series of artificial rocks, makes for a more family-friendly spa experience. A more grown-up – but no less fun – aquatic experience is on offer at Balnéa in Loudenvielle, a small town in the Louron Valley that has hosted three stage finishes of the Tour de France, most recently in 2007. Set next to the pretty Lac de Genos-Loudenvielle, this newly built spa has a number of different baths to enjoy. The outside pools take inspiration from the Japanese ‘onsen’ tradition of bathing in hot springs and the baths take two different routes towards a central pool of very warm water.
It was a real treat to sit and admire the mountains around me, through the rising steam. Inside, the Roman-style baths are equally pleasing, with a large central pool under a glass-domed roof. Fellow visitors were bracing themselves to walk into the 14°C Frigidarium to get their hearts racing before relaxing in the lukewarm Tépidarium and the 36°C Caldarium.
The experience was inevitably heart-pumping, but so too was the drive to and from Saint-Lary: taking the D25 and D225, there were countless switchbacks and hair-raising bends, as well as the sensational views and pretty villages we had come to enjoy on our drives through the mountains. While we weren’t breaking a sweat and certainly weren’t losing any calories, we had a taste of the adrenalin on offer in these stunning mountains and decided the high-octane experience was best left to the cyclists, yellow jerseys and all.
By ferry/car: Carolyn travelled with Brittany Ferries (tel: 0871 244 1400, www.brittanyferries.com) from Plymouth to Roscoff and drove the ten hours to Saint-Lary, coming back via the Le Havre to Portsmouth service. Fares start from £79 one way for a car and two passengers. Alternatively, take the ferry from Plymouth to Santander, then Saint-Lary is a four and a half hour drive.
By rail: The nearest TGV station is Toulouse, and you can connect to most of the Pyrénéan resorts by SNCF coach.
By air: Fly to Pau, Biarritz, Lourdes or Toulouse.
WHERE TO STAY
Carolyn and family stayed in Lagrange’s Clos Saint-Hilaire Residence, Chemin de Vieille Aure, 65170 Saint-Lary-Soulan. Prices for a 2-bedroom split-level alcove apartment sleeping up to 8 starts at £247 per apartment per week on a self-catering basis. For a review see the August issue. Prices start from £93.50 per person per week based on two people sharing a one-bedroom apartment, accommodation-only.
Tel: 0892 160 500, www.lagrange-holidays.co.uk
WHAT TO DO
Rue du Pont d’Arras
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 95 86 95
Donkey milk bath treatment €48.
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 40 71 71
Tel: (Fr): 5 62 49 19 19
The market takes place every Thursday morning.
Saint-Lary tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 39 50 81
Haute-Pyrénées tourist board
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 56 70 46