by Elizabeth Willoughby
Outside of July when the taut, glistening muscles and shimmering shorts of riders are pedaling through the switchback roads during the Tour de France, the Hautes-Pyrenees is largely forgotten by everyone not training for the next race. Ask anyone without a bicycle about the Pyrenees and you’ll get, “It’s the mountain range that divides France and Spain.” Now ask where to stay and what to do. The answer is invariably, “I don’t know, I’ve never been.” What a miss.
Striking mountains, blooming meadows, icy-green rivers and fresh, clean air, it’s just what one would imagine. You’ll be sharing the hairpin turns with cyclists, and in summer you’ll also be sharing the road with motor homes on their way to Spain. Forget passing. Take your time and enjoy the scenery. But there’s something else to enjoy as well.
The refined cuisine served in picturesque villages and small, family hotels is an unexpected treat of the delectable kind. Local specialties of France’s southwest include the Noir de Bigorre pig, Barèges-Gavarnie sheep, Tarbais bean, Basque cheeses and Madiran wines, and the chefs and vintners are being unabashedly creative with tradition. The Hautes-Pyrenees is a dazzling feast for the eyes and a twirling waltz for the taste buds.
1st stop: Pau
Daily flights from Paris (CDG and ORY) and Lyon (LYS) to Aéroport Pau (PUF)
122 kilometres/ 76 miles from Biarritz Anglet Bayonne Airport (BIQ)
200 kilometres/ 124 miles from Toulouse Blagnac Airport (TLS)
222 kilometres/ 138 miles from Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport (BOD)
259 kilometres/ 160 miles and from Bilbao Airport (BIO)
Pau makes an ideal home base from which to explore the Hautes-Pyrenees (despite that it is the capital of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques region next door), and is worth exploring for a few days. A strategically located market town, Roman soldiers marched these streets long before Henri IV of France (1553-1610) was born in the castle downtown, but it was the year-round pleasant climate that caught the attention of British soldiers in the early 1800s (during the Napoleonic wars), which turned Pau into a destination for Victorian high society and home to gentry when the wars ended.
Take a walk through Beaumont Park with unexpected flora. Besides pine, maple, magnolia and birch trees, the microclimate also allows for palm, banana and sequoia trees. Free concerts take place in the park at Le Théâtre de Verdure from mid-July into August. The nearby palace, now used as a conference centre, is a fine example of Belle Epoque architecture that primes visitors for a stroll along the kilometre-long Boulevard des Pyrénées at the end of the park. From the Boulevard, look to your left for panoramic views of the mountains in the distance, and a bird’s eye view of the villas and the 1860 train station metres below. On your right you’ll see elegant Belle Epoque apartment buildings and cafes specifically built to take in this vista. At the end of the street is where the funicular railway stops, letting out passengers coming up from the train station.
Just beyond that is “Good King Henri’s” castle, home to the National Museum of the Chateau of Pau, with royally furnished apartments and tapestries. In the cobbled streets of this Chateau quarter of the old town are many shops and restaurants selling local products and specialties.
If you’re visiting in September, ask Pau Tourism about its “Heritage days” for unique activities. Pau Tourism also sells gourmand passes for a gastronomic taste from a range of shops, boutiques, cafes and markets around town, including Les Halles, where vendors sell delicious local products (look for the official Red Tag, the mark of quality and origin). In summer, Pau Tourism also offers guests tours of the English villa quarter by bicycle and the castle grounds and promenade by horse and carriage. If you find yourself in Le Triangle quarter, Show Case Time offers live jazz, soul, funk, rock, salsa and more for less than 10 euro (2014).
Created by Napoleon I, the oldest stud farm in France, Haras de Gelos Stud Farm, is in Pau. A tour includes a master blacksmith and master saddler at work. Visitors can also go to the oldest golf club in continental Europe, the Pau Golf Club, go wine tasting at the surrounding Jurançon wineries, such as Domaine de Souch, and for something more vigorous, go canoing and white water rafting with Pau-Pyrenees White Water Stadium.
Easy daytrips in Pyrénées-Atlantiques from Pau could include:
Sauveterre-de-Béarn: a mediaeval town that may have been used as a refuge (Sauve Terre = Safe Ground) even before it appeared in record books in the 11th century. Its gate and drawbridge (now only the stone structures remain) were on the Way of Saint James pilgrimage route. An intact church, the Viscount’s Castle, other buildings in original condition, and the legend of Queen Sancie’s trial by God live on.
Salies-de-Béarn: Wander around this village’s 16th-century streets, visit the Napoleonic town hall from 1810 and the churches and museums. Then make your way to the Jardin Public and thermal bath house. Bring your bathing suit and indulge in a saltwater cure – the town’s natural supply of saline water is ten times saltier than seawater.
Navarrenx: Henri II of Albret, King of Bearn and Navarre, had this fortified town built between 1538 and 1547 with a thick outer wall, rampart walk, watchtowers and a fortified gate.
Where to stay
Hotel Parc Beaumont
You might think the hotel was modelled after a French colonial cruise ship, but it was actually fashioned after Le Palais Beaumont, the former palace in the park that this hotel overlooks. The hotel offers exceptional service and is well located near the park, shopping, the old town and promenade, and to the spa in the hotel’s lower level. Don’t pass up a gourmet meal at the hotel’s restaurant, Le Jeu de Paume, whose chef moved here from a Michelin star restaurant. If the weather is good, as it usually is, enjoy your delicious dinner and excellent wine outside on the terrace.
Where else to eat
Le Bistro d’ à Côté
If you’re exploring the downtown on a week day, this place is an excellent option for lunch. Settle in on the square under the awning, and begin with a sweet white Jurançon wine from the region to wash down your starter: a slice of foie gras over wedges of leek, tomato, melon and smoked duck. Follow that with axoa: Basque pork meatballs with garlic, onion, pimento and other secret ingredients that the chef is keeping to himself, and finish with a mousse of oven cooked rhubarb with honey and sugar and topped with a raspberry and biscuits. Some Fridays throughout the year, live jazz and blues bands play here.
2nd stop: Lourdes
41 kilometres/ 25 miles from Pau
If you’ve ever wondered what a pilgrimage was like without having to actually do one, Lourdes should be your next stop. It’s close enough to Pau to be a day trip if you don’t want to stay overnight. Lourdes is where, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous 18 times over five months. Naturally, this is a place that attracts the ailing looking for a miracle. Six million pilgrims visit Lourdes between Easter and October – the only city in France with more hotels than Lourdes is Paris.
Besides shrines and basilicas, the grotto where the apparition appeared to Bernadette is where visitors flock (there is now a statue of Our Lady to mark the spot). Mass is offered in 22 languages; the crippled are immersed into the Massablielle Spring waters, praying to be healed (of the 7,000 healings that have been recorded since 1858, the church officially recognises 67 of them as miraculous); visitors follow 15 stations on the Way of the Cross (the 15th was added in 1885 to symbolise the resurrection); and each night at 21:00, a procession of hundreds of volunteers pushing wheelchairs leaves the grotto, the invalids carrying candles to light the way and singing Ave Maria of Lourdes, the song that describes the story of the apparitions. June is a good month to be here when the crowds are not yet overwhelming. The Sanctuary fills with pilgrims early in the day, but over lunchtime it becomes empty.
Also worth a visit is Chateau Fort, an unconquered fortress from the 11th century. Today it is a museum representing the area’s regional history, flora and fauna, as well as 19th and 20th-century domestic life in the Pyrenees. Rooms display domestic scenes, 18th-century furniture, tools, instruments and artwork. The fortress has its own botanical garden with models of villages demonstrating their strategic layout of homes and fortifications. Climb the narrow, spiral stairway with worn stone steps to the top of the 14th-century keep for a view over the Sanctuary, the town and the mountains.
Where to stay
Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres Spa
The Gallia & Londres hotel was built by Benoite Soubirous and her husband Jean, a cousin of Bernadette, when they found that their small boarding house was not enough to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. By 1900, Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres was unique in Lourdes due to its size and luxuriousness. Today, although the suites on the sixth floor do not have balconies, they are in the best condition and the most spacious. Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres provides the ideal location with its own gated parking lot, a view over the garden and river, and only a five-minute walk (past shops selling religious trinkets) to the Sanctuary where the shrines and basilicas are. It’s also only a few minutes’ walk in the other direction to restaurants, shops, more souvenirs and to the Chateau Fort museum. The hotel closes after October and reopens for Easter.
Where to eat
A 10-minute walk from Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, this restaurant serves hearty local cuisine and delicious desserts. Service is great if you don’t have a lot of questions, especially about the wine selection. Try Alexandra’s cassoulet, a slow-cooked casserole of southwestern France. It contains white beans, confit (normally duck or goose, but cassoulet can also use pork, garlic sausages, pork sausages and mutton), and is often served in a round, earthenware pot.
A 20-minute walk from Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, Le Magret is worth the stroll. Its chic, colourful interior is fun and playful, including the fish bowls. Excellent, friendly service is augmented by good knowledge of the menu and suggestions for wine pairing. True to the region, Le Magret has specialties that you would expect, like veal, duck and lamb, but it has many fish options as well. Try their tasty Pyrenees trout.
3rd stop: Gavarnie
90 kilometres/ 56 miles from Pau
49 kilometres/ 30 miles from Lourdes
Check in at Le Brèche de Roland hotel in Gèdre, then drive another eight scenic kilometres (five miles) to the village of Gavarnie. Beyond the village’s tourist office, restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops, simply follow the river towards Cirque de Gavarnie. You cannot miss it. One of the “Grand Sites” of the region, this steep-walled semicircular basin is the most famous of three, with 17 peaks that reach over 3,000 metres (9,840 feet) and the highest waterfall in Europe.
If you follow the path that starts along the left bank of the river, within an hour you’ll arrive at a hotel in the mountains for a welcome beer to quench your thirst on the terrace with the best view yet of the Cirque. Don’t believe it if you hear the walk is only 20 minutes – it’s at least 40 minutes from the forest line if you’re not running, and although the path starts out flat, it gets gravelly and continually steeper. You may see some visitors wearing sandals, but sturdy shoes are a better choice. After your respite, the walk back downhill is also welcome.
Cyclists train on these same cols (passes) that the Tour de France uses, as well as routes that are dedicated to cyclists (the Laurent Fignon route from Barèges up to Tourmalet; the Greenway of the Gave from Lourdes to Pierrefitte). An app is available for timing (www.timtoo.fr) and timing chips can be obtained from most tourist offices. Tourist offices will also give certificates to cyclists after their climbs and stamp their Passeport Vélo books used to record climbs of the four cols (Tourmalet, Luz Ardiden, Soulor-Aubisque and Hautacam). The books can be exchanged for bronze, silver or gold Brevet Cycliste Hautes-Pyrénées qualifications.
The Gavarnie-Gèdre ski station, one of six in the Gave Valley, is here overlooking Cirque de Gavarnie. Besides the spectacular vista, it also has the longest green slope in Europe, which starts right from the top of the resort.
Where to stay (and dine)
La Brèche de Roland
This hotel has undergone a few transformations, but three centuries later the property is still with the same family and the original house remains. The first expansion was done by Philippe Pujo’s grandfather in 1950; what was once the thick outer wall of the main house now divides the lobby from the lounge. The last renovation was done in 2011 by Philippe and his wife, Odile, although it looks like it was done just yesterday, with wooden floors, furniture and accents that warm the spotless rooms.
After hiking in the Cirque, relax in the sauna and then take a drink on the terrace with a view of “La Brèche de Roland”, the big notch in the ever-snowy mountaintop after which the hotel is named. Watch cyclists in training pass by, or the Tour de France if you time it right. Philippe serves drinks in the lounge/bar that has a gentlemen’s club feel – it’s the old family room, which begins to fill with guests leading up to dinner time.
The Pujos allow a local rancher to use their land for grazing in exchange for some of his beef, lamb and veal for La Brèche’s kitchen. After a day of hiking or biking, a meal of regional specialties is just what you’ll need. Ask Odile for wine suggestions to go with your thinly-sliced Bigorre black pig ham with melon and sorbet starter, and a mutton stew from Baregeoise sheep with new potatoes main dish. Barèges-Gavarnie breed of sheep is unique even in the Gaves Valleys. A vanilla mascarpone mousse is the perfect final touch.
4th stop: Pic du Midi
Pic du Midi de Bigorre
34 kilometres/ 21 miles from Gèdre if the pass to Col du Tourmalet (D918) is open
— the pass could be closed in June due to snow or for roadwork in the run up to the Tour de France
87 kilometres/ 54 miles if the pass is closed
— this would require returning to Lourdes and going up the other side (D935)
Another of the “Grand Sites” of Midi-Pyrénées, Pic du Midi is home to an astronomy research centre at 2,877 metres (9,439 feet). It welcomes tourists for day visits and overnight visits that feel like one is closer to the stars than the earth, so cross your fingers for clear skies. A cable car brings guests up from La Mongie (call ahead – the cable car does not run if winds are over 70 kmph/ 43 mph). Those staying overnight are accommodated in former researchers’ quarters. Local cuisine is served in the restaurant before guests receive a lesson on the stars at the observatory. The adventure ends after breakfast the next morning when the cable car brings guests back down to the village.
Where else to stay
Domaine de Ramonjuan
If your overnight booking at Pic du Midi is cancelled due to the wind (like it was for me), you will be accommodated elsewhere, but don’t expect luxury. Three-star Domaine de Ramonjuan Hôtel (25 kilometres/ 15 miles from La Mongie) could be an alternative. The husband and wife owners acquired the resort in 2012 and do their utmost to give it a personal touch. With its proximity to mountains and rivers, with its own soccer field, tennis courts and outdoor pool, and with rooms in both the country house main building as well as modern apartments in outbuildings, Ramonjuan is popular among cyclists, hikers, groups and families (pets are not welcome).
People come here to spend their time out of doors. They also come for good food after a day of outdoor activity. Hearty meals with ample portions “are made with cyclists’ energy needs in mind,” says Isabelle, the owner, but it’s not just about volume. Traditional cuisine is creatively presented with plates of cooked ewe cheese parcels over leafy greens and bacon, roast veal in wild mushrooms or roast beef with scalloped potatoes, and homemade raspberry cake or strawberry mousse. Ask Isabelle which Madiran wine to select.
Last stop: Saint-Lary-Soulan
46 kilometres/ 29 miles from Domaine de Ramonjuan Hôtel through the nature reserve park (D113)
47 kilometres/ 29 miles from La Mongie through the nature reserve park (D113)
115 kilometres/ 71 miles from Saint Lary back to Pau
On your way to Saint Lary, take the D113 detour through the romping and rolling hills of this nature reserve, whose Pic Hourquette d’Ancizan reaches about 1,500 metres (4,920 feet) and where wild donkeys, horses and other wildlife, and cyclists, campers and kite-flyers roam free among the fields, forest and winding road. When you’re finished in Saint Lary and are returning whence you came, take the Col d’Aspin (D918) just past Arreau for twisty roads and a beautiful vista from the lookout point at the peak.
Saint-Lary is a ski town, small, compact and walkable, with the shops, restaurants and hotels one expects to find in a resort town. Be sure to try a gâteau à la broche, a Pyrenees specialty. Making this cake is an art. A mixture of flour, eggs, butter, rum and vanilla are poured, layer upon layer, over a form, which turns on a spit over an open flame for up to two hours. It looks like a pancake Christmas tree and tastes like heaven.
Outside of winter provides the opportunity to hike various nature trails, the easiest of which begins around the corner from the tourist office in the centre of town. The RIO pool, spa and fitness centre is a large complex open year round. Sensoria RIO is an aquatic play area for the family. Designed to look like a cave, faux rock walls and walkways divide the area into several little pools with timed waterfalls and bubble jets. A large window looking out onto the mountains provides light and space in this area that is fun for kids and the bigger ‘uns.
Sensoria Spa offers facials, massages, peelings and body wraps, as well as two or three-day-long wellness breaks and discovery packages. All include access to the thermal pool, sauna, hammam and Jacuzzi. After a winter day of skiing or summer day of hiking, a hydro massage and micro jet bath will soothe muscles and mind. The Tour de France comes through this town for three days in July, attracting more visitors than throughout the rest of the year.
Day trip: Aínsa’s intact mediaeval town in Spain makes for a worthwhile day trip from Saint Lary. The narrow, switchback road (D929, D173) is a pretty drive with views of deep valleys among the mountains until it reaches the lengthy Aragnouet/Bielsa tunnel, which crosses from France into Spain. Continue on the A138 about 45 kilometres (28 miles) to the town of Aínsa. Overlooking the river and modern Aínsa is the old fortified town, strategically located on a steep hill. Its Plaza Mayor is where goods were once bought and sold.
Today it is encircled by shops and restaurants under the arcades that used to provided shelter to merchants and their produce. Leading out of the plaza are long lines of storied residences that overshadow slender streets. Potted trees set between doorways provide greenery and flowering pots sit on narrow balconies above. The gently curving streets slope downwards past ancient wooden doors to restaurants, the Romanesque church, crypt and cloister, tower, castle and keep.
Where to stay
Mercure SensOria Saint Lary
There is no better location for a hotel in Saint Lary than what Mercure SensOria enjoys. It sits at the base of the ski lift and next to a ski equipment rental shop where you can store equipment if you brought your own, and where you can purchase ski lift passes. The hotel is a short, five-minute walk into the busy town centre’s shops and restaurants, but you only have to walk to the end of the hall to get to the Sensoria pool and spa, which this hotel manages. Some of the best croissants in the Pyrenees are supplied to the hotel’s buffet breakfast (look for the least cooked) by a maître artisan.
Where to eat
Don’t confuse the two La Grange restaurants – this La Grange restaurant is not in a hotel in Arreau, which is 10 kilometres (6 miles) away and owned by the same family. Saint Lary’s Le Grange is only a kilometre (½-mile) away from Mercure SensOria hotel, in the opposite direction of downtown. Set back from the main road, gourmet Pyrenean cuisine is offered in a farmhouse-like setting inside, or on the terrace outside. Beautiful presentations come in sensible portions, and the chef makes delicious artwork from local, seasonal products. Carrot soup, spiced cod, grilled sausage, spinach timbale, matched with the right Madiran wine, you can’t go wrong.