The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the lives of millions of people across the world, with many taking to the outdoor life, not just for the fresh air but as a life-line in these troubling times. Walking, hill climbing and treking across suddenly discovered open spaces has become enormously popular. So, as travel restrictions begin to ease and yearnings grow for outdoor fun outdoors, let me wet your appetite: The Pyreenes awaits. This mountain range divides France and Spain and offers something for walkers of all abilities: short hikes on the gentle slopes or extreme challenges across miles rugged landscapes.
In France the mountains are known as Les Pyrénées, in Spain the Pirineos. The range extends over 491 kilometres and on the French side covers six departments: Pyrénée-Orientals, Aude, Ariege Haut-Garonne, Haute Pyrenees and PyreneesAtlantique. The mountains are vast, extending from the Mediterranean Sea at Cap Crues, to the east across to the Bay of Biscay at cap Higeur. The western ranges of the mountains tend to get more snow than the east. So, if its skiing that takes your fancy, west is best. However, back-packing in these mountains is a real adventure. There are beautiful colls (mountain roads) to discover and green sloping ranges to explore. To the west is the exciting Pyrenees Atlantique. To the east the Pyrénée-Orientals. In the mid-Pyrenees the terrain is rocky and uncompromising. For trekkers, the region is challenging and spectacular. It offers varied cultures and is physically breathtaking. Some of the mountain peaks rise to over 3,000 metres. Rivers, streams, forests and wildlife abound. Back-packers trekking across the entire range of the French Pyrenees can begin their journey from the chic resort of Biarritz in the west and finish in the pretty French sea-side resort of Banyols sur Mer on the Mediterranean. If you are looking for lively places to relax and have fun, visit the Adventure Rooms in Toulouse, where you can play a live escape game, or, paint balling in Millau. And for something inspirational, the Pyrenees has 126 awesome nature parks.
Flights: Flights from London to the Pyrenees generally start at around £70 for a single journey, depending on times and destinations. They can be reached by a number of airports. For example, flights with Skyscanner, from London to Pau is a good choice. There are also flights to Lourdes, in the Haute Pyrenees . For the most economical route London to Toulouse is a good choice too. The town of Foix is easily accessible from Toulouse and is a favourite destination for all types of holiday makers. To venture higher into the mountains, trains are available from main railway stations. Air travel takes a little over an hour to most of the French Pyrenees. The town of Foix is easily accessible from Toulouse airport and is a popular destination for back-packers choosing to fly as it is the nearest and the most economical way to begin exploring this beautiful mountain range.
Travelling by bus can be fun because you get to see the countryside and it’s economical too. For back-packers, there is plenty of hostels en-route. Buses leaving Victoria station London, offer inexpensive bus travel to most major cities in southern France from where you can access trains to various locations in the Pyrenees.
There are lots of train routes available from Paris to the Pyrenees. It really depends on where you would like to start your holiday.
- Trains to Pau on the West Pyrenees. The fast TVG train takes 5 hours 36 minutes. SNCF trains take 10 hours 14 minutes. The night train and takes 10 hours.
- Trains to Perpignan in the eastern Pyrenees. The fast TVG takes 5 hours 3 minutes. SNCF d takes 9 hours 26 minutes. The night train takes 9 hours 23 minutes. .
An example of a journey by train from London to Toulouse:
- St Pancras Station London. Eurostar (Tickets start from £110 single journey, but can be significantly higher is not booked well in advance)
- London — Paris Gare du Nord (change)
- Gare de Lyon Paris (change)
- Montpellier – Gare de Saint Roch (change)
- Toulouse – Gare de Matabrau.
From Toulouse take the train to Foix.
Important tips for back-packing in the Pyrenees
Back-packing in the mountains is an adventure but you need to be fit as trekking is strenuous if you are laden down with back-packs. You need to decide whether you will camp or stay in manned-unmanned huts along the way. The weather conditions in the Pyrenees can vary from very hot to blizzard conditions. To walk the entire length of the mountain range can take up to five or six weeks, maybe longer depending on the weather. You need to avoid trekking after dark as it can get very dangerous if the mists come down. You need a good map/guide to show you where the national parks are and where mountain huts can be located. It is very useful to prepare for this trip. Many trekkers have had to abandon belongings that became too heavy to carry.
Camping in season – There are few restrictions on camping wild in the Pyrenees and it is a favourite for many back-packers. In the National parks, camping is not allowed within one hour’s walk of access points to the park. You are only allowed to stay one night in one place between the hours of 7.pm and 9.am. There are also camp sites quite close to the access points to the national parks. You have to use common sense when camping wild. Matches need to be used with caution and litter needs to be taken way with you when you leave.
Refuge huts: And there are many
- Manned refuges. To find these huts the symbol on the map is a black hut with a door. Accommodation prices usually start at around 12-15 Euros. There are shared rooms and dormitories. You need your own sleeping bag and you have to pay for food. However, you can take your own food and in some huts you can cook it too. There are toilets and a cold water supply. At the height of season it is better to book in advance. Reviews for some of the French manned huts are mixed. It seems to depend on where you stay. Most reviews found the accommodation basic and okay for one night: some managers at these huts are very welcoming, some are a little off-hand.
- Unmanned refuges. Sometimes called Bothies, the symbol on the map is a black hut without a door. The accommodation is free but it is expected that you will donate at least 5 Euros for the upkeep of the refuge. The huts are maintained by the walkers who use them. Mattresses are available but you need your own sleeping bag. There are no toilet facilities but the huts do have a supply of drinking water. They are good places to stay if the weather turns bad and you need more adequate shelter than a tent.
- Shepherds’ huts. These are used as emergency shelter. The symbol on the map is the outline of a hut. You will not be turned away in an emergency but you can’t stay there otherwise.
- Hostels. There are many hostels to choose from in the mountains, particularly in Midi-Pyrenees. Cadovin Perigord Youth Hostel has good reviews and is in a good location for trekking. The hostel is modern and has good quality facilities. Linen and breakfast is provided and there is a private shower and toilet. This hostel is okay for those who like it relatively quiet. It does not have a youth hostel “feel” to it and there are not many over-night travellers. The Residence les Marquis is a popular hostel for backpackers albeit quite pricey, but this is an ideal location in the Haute Pyrenees. The hostel is surrounded by forests and of course the mountains. Reviewers liked this place but said the accommodation is a fully furnished apartment that does not provide bed linen or sleeping bags. The facilities are basic but good value. This hostel is not very lively so be prepared for quiet evenings gazing at the stars. Luz Saint Sauveur Youth Hostel is a lively place to stay, particularly if you don’t want to spend your whole holiday trekking in the mountains. You need to take your own sleeping bag and you can see online exactly what you have to pay for extra, by way of meals, linen and other facilities. There is a large common room which gets rather noisy and a swimming pool. There are lots of activities on offer which include tennis, rafting, cycling, horse riding and hiking.
Walking/trekking – There are many economical ways of getting around on the Pyrenees. Of course the very best way to see this spectacular mountain range is on foot. It is said to be one of the last “great wildernesses” to found in Europe. Indeed whilst the landscape is diverse, inspirational and fascinating it should also be treated with great respect. The terrain in some areas is rugged and merciless, particularly in extreme weather conditions. However, there are many walking routes which can take you over winding colls (mountain roads) and across undulating pastures. The area of Barges is said to one of the most beautiful areas to walk in. It teems with wildlife of all descriptions, birds, butterflies and even the occasional wandering goat. Also there are bears in the Pyrenees but they are rarely seen.
The popular back-packing trek is the GR10 which is a route which runs the entire length of the Pyrenees. Walkers usually start from the Atlantic cost in Hendaye to Banyuls sur Mer on the Mediterranean coast. This walk usually takes around 50 to 60 days including resting periods. The French IGN publishers guide maps for the whole of the region. The attraction of this particular is its diversity in landscape and even culture. The middle of the Pyrenees is rocky and austere. The Mediterranean side is dry and hot. The Atlantic side can be wet and can be cold at times.
- The best time to walk this route is June or the end of October when the weather is mild. Be aware of extreme temperatures in the mountains. Walkers who get into trouble on the mountains usually do so because of the heat or the cold. It can also be wet which can make walking a little unpleasant.
- Do not carry too much equipment. Remember there are plenty of hostels, manned and unmanned accommodation and camping places. Travel light. You will survive this memorable walk in much better condition than if you are loaded down with equipment.
- Trains/buses – Transport in some areas of the Pyrenees is subsidised by the French government. In Langudoc, for example, regional trains and bus services costs as little as one Euro. There are bus services from Lourdes to Luz and there are local bus routes from town to town and village to village, although you do have to check their timetables. Trains from Pau take passengers to Oloron Sainte Marie, which is a beautiful scenic journey that takes around 35 minutes. Fares start from around 10 Euros, depending on your destination. There is a bus service from Oloron to the Aspe Valley.
Like most other regions in France, local produce is used whenever possible. This makes travelling around France a delight when it comes to eating and drinking, even on a budget. To give you a flavour of the delights which await the hungry traveller, there are local walnuts, truffles, wild mushrooms that turn up in many local dishes, locally farmed soups and terrains, garlic, oils and chestnuts. In Gascony specialities include are goose, duck and pate. In the Haute –Pyrenees region the pot-roast is queen of the table alongside lambs liver, goats, hares, beef fish and cheese. Local wines and rough ciders are served with many meals. The best places to eat are farmhouse inns, local bistros and small family run restaurants and creperies. Rochefort (Western Pyrenees) – La Crepliere SARL at Rue Jean Jaures in Rochefort, near the city centre. This very French Creperie oozes charm. It has some excellent reviews. Foix (Midi Pyrenees) La Vertigo has some very good reviews as a good value place to eat. However, some of the menu may not suit English tastes, but it’s well worth experimenting with the local dishes. Cassolette is a popular dish and very filling if you are on a trekking expedition. There are delicacies such as pig’s ears and duck foise gras. Finishing time for serving is 9.30pm. Banyuls sur Mer – Domaine Pic Joan. This is a quiet restaurant next to the Solhotel which overlooks the Mediterranean. The food is excellent and has many good reviews. The speciality is sea food What is particularly good about this restaurant is that it serves and sells its own wine: Pic Joan. The wine is very full-bodied so cautious consumption should be exercised. Served with the fish dishes it is superb. Banyuls is situated at the base of the Coll de Banyuls and is a favoured final destination for back-packers finishing the GK10 route. Be aware that in summer months, Banyuls is a popular seaside resort and gets very overcrowded with tourists so it may be difficult to find accommodation unless you have booked in advance.
There is plenty of life-life for young people looking to blow off steam, particularly if the day has been spent in quiet solitude on mountain passes. Be prepared to travel into the nearest towns though. There are lots of comedy clubs to be found in Pyrenees towns. The Theatre des Noveautes (theatre of Novelties) is located in Tarbes at 44 Rue Larrey, 65000. This theatre has comfortable seating and sometimes the shows are in English, so it is worth checking out. Piano Bars are a great way to unwind. Le Dubliners on 7 Avenue Alexandre Marqui 65100 in Lourdes has some excellent reviews. The venue is small, but very friendly with a good atmosphere. Nightclubs can be found in most of the towns. La Purple is a Multi-space disco at 2 Rue Castellane Toulouse. Its publicity says the club is glamorous and sophisticated. It is certainly loud and lively and is considered to the place to be in Toulouse. The decor is the colour purple. Drinks are quite expensive as in most night clubs in the Pyrenees. Be prepared to wait in long lines to get into this venue. Once a very trendy place, La Caveau is still quite popular with the local youth. Located on 4 Rue Gambetta Biarritz, 64200, the club has begun to get some poor reviews with complaints about the rude behaviour of bouncers and the tired decor. Le Duplex at 24 Avenue Edouard V11 Biarritz has some great reviews. Doors open at 23.00hrs and close at 06.00hrs. The dance club is comfortable with nice decor. In the downstairs room “Le Pulp” the music is house-electro. Upstairs caters for the over 25s and includes rock music and electro-house. There is a dress code as with other evening venues in Biarritz, Tarbes, Lourdes and Toulouse.
Places to visit:
Lac de Gaube – When back-packing though the Pyrenees, especially if you are traversing the whole range, it is difficult to find places to visit that are every bit as inspirational as that which you are already experiencing. However, there are some places that are well worth taking a look at. Lac de Guabe is one of the most scenic locations on the mountain range. Located in the Haute-Pyrenees it has spectacular visas. Crashing waterfalls cascade down through mountain gorges, spectacular arched bridges stretch over perilously steep mountain sides. It is not hard to understand why visitors to the region have posted their breathtaking photographs on the internet. To access the lake start at Cauterets and head for the Pont d’ Espagne (The Bridge of Spain). From here you can take the cable car, which will take you to the Clot Plateau. Continue your journey to the lake by chair life. Lac de Gaube has the most dramatic scenery. The majestic Pyrenees Mountains soar above the lake providing a breathtaking backdrop to the lake which, on a clear day reflects the mountains in its icy blue water. Lac de Guabe was a fashionable spa in the 19th century. To the left of the lake is a hotellerie which serves refreshments during the summer season.
Lake Oô – Back-packers in the vicinity of Bagnères-de-Luchon should take time out to do this walk. It is very popular with visitors. The walk from Bagnères-de-Luchon to the lake takes about an hour. The waterfall which feeds into the lake is totally stunning. As you climb, the walk does get a little harder but it is certainly not strenuous. The first trek takes you from Louchon to the Col de Peyresoude and on to the barns Astau. This part is relatively easy. At the barns you can stop to eat at the restaurant and then continue to Lake Oô. The signs to the lake are easy to locate and to follow. You will want to stop and take photographs and generally take in the spectacular views. The climb is not strenuous and can be done without too much effort, so take your time and enjoy the magnificent scenery. The lake itself was once natural but has been extended by a massive dam which services the needs of around 26,000 people so it is now mostly man-made. There is a refuge close by the dam. The dam was completed in 1921. The trail to Lake Oô can get very crowded in the summer months, which is a measure of how moderate the climb is. Once at the lake, visitors are rewarded with the most spectacular view of the waterfall which cascades down the mountain side from 300 metres high. The waterfall has become a famous landmark and after heavy rain the waterfall is joined by dozens of others, quite literally bursting out of the walls of the mountains to crash into the lake. The attraction is on the GR10 route so for those back-packers walking this route, Lake Oô is a nice simple excursion that affords spectacular returns for the time-out from walking expeditions across the Pyrenees.
Cirque de Gavarnie – Many people visit the Pyrenees and never get to see this magnificent natural phenomenon. The cirque is extraordinary limestone circles which were formed by huge prehistoric glaciers. The most famous of these cirques are to be found in the Hautes-Pyrenees in the commune of Gavarnie. The most magnificent feature of the cirque is the Gavarnie Falls which has a 413 metre vertical drop. The cirque stands 1,700 metres high and is 14 kilometres in circumference. To explain this attraction better, imagine gigantic stone terraces in perfect circles surrounding some of the world’s most famous landmarks such as Mont Perdu and Le Brèche de Roland (Breach of Roland). To access the cirque you need to go to Gavarnie, which is in front of the wall of the cirque. The walk to the base of the cirque takes about 2 hours from Gavarnie. The challenge then is to climb to the Brèche de Roland which is a natural gap between two cirque walls. The gap is 40 metres across and 100 metres high. It has an elevation of 2804 metres. The Breach of Roland is on the border of France and Spain and legend has it that the gap was made by the sword of Roland de Roncevaux, a medieval knight. The sword was given to him by King Charles 1, later Charlemagne to defend the Franks from the Bretons. The area is steeped in history and the parish church in the village of Gavarnie is a UNESCO world heritage site
So 2020 here we come. Get planning for some fun in the Pyrennes.