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Discovering the Pyrenees

He was reticent at first, but Mike Peake eventually fell in love with the Pyrenees – one gruelling step at a time

  • The Pyrenees
    The Pyrenees spans almost 400km and basically separate France from Spain. It's a no-frills destination.Image Credit: Getty Images
  • The Pyrenees
    The tiny Village d’Aucun is dwarfed by the imposing mountain backdrop.Image Credit: Getty Images
  • The Pyrenees
    Despite being a less popular destination than The Alps, The Pyrenees still gets busy at peak times of the yearImage Credit: Getty Images
  • The Pyrenees
    The Pyrenees is a popular destination for skiing, camping and paragliding.Image Credit: Getty Images

I am not, by even the vaguest definition of the term, a thrill seeker. While I acknowledge the presumably “awesome” rush that must go with paragliding off a cliff or hurling yourself down a black run, there’s not a chance I’d actually do either.

If you’re having a go, I’ll certainly watch, but as with skydiving, climbing and – to be perfectly honest – anything that’s much more dangerous than a brisk walk, the pleasure is all yours.

That said, I love a good mountain. I’ve driven wide-eyed through the imposing San Bernardino Mountains in California, peered appreciatively up at some of the gentle giants in Scotland and stood back in amazement at the rim of The Grand Canyon, which is probably not a mountain, but it counts.

However, if you want to get me really excited, just mention The Alps. I first fell for Western Europe’s finest range when a persuasive photographer I was with on a flight from London to Turkey convinced the crew to let us into the cockpit.

There were no bank-vault-style doors back then, just a beaming captain and his co-pilot, who seemed glad of the company – and more than happy to point out Mont Blanc and poke a finger at what they thought might have been the Matterhorn.
It was February, everything as far as the eye could see was blanketed in snow and it was a truly breathtaking sight. From 6,000 metres high, it looked silent, beautiful and terrifyingly inhospitable.

Today, I’m something of a fair-weather Alps addict. I spent a few days there in the Autumn as well as two whole weeks last summer, tramping through forests, fishing in lakes and looking on with mild bemusement as youngsters strapped to flimsy-looking parachutes drifted down to the valley floor.

I buy into it lock, stock and barrel: everything from the overpriced fondue to the cuckoo clocks, cable cars and chocolate. I’d move there tomorrow, even if enforced yodelling was part of the deal.

France’s other mountains, The Pyrenees, have never seemed much of a match. I imagine them jealously peering across at The Alps, wearing something of a glum Gallic frown, acutely aware of The Alps’ glitz and glamour, as well as their own standing as something of an impoverished second cousin.

Where The Alps are easy to navigate – endless roads snaking their way around col and cwm and oodles of user-friendly information online – The Pyrenees appear to be overseen by one man in an office with a second-hand fax machine. Seriously, try to find a book or a good website about The Pyrenees: those for The Alps outnumber them about 50 to one.

Warming up to the Pyrenees

So here I am, standing in the middle of The Pyrenees National Park with a grin the size of a boulder across my sun-kissed face. Oh, I am more than happy to eat my words. You want to slide over a slice of humble pie, I’ll munch on that, too.

Perhaps we should rewind a bit… “I know exactly where the action is when it comes to French mountains, and it’s East!” I’m paraphrasing, but this is basically my side of a conversation with a friend who had been trying to convince me to try The Pyrenees for some time.

For a start, he pointed out they’re less busy than The Alps. “Of course they are,” I scoffed, “because they’re only frequented by layabouts from Toulouse who can’t be bothered with the drive to Val d’Isére!”

It was a thin argument, of course, and eventually I gave in – only to instantly regret it when my friend wished me luck and I detected a look of mischief. Was there something I didn’t know?

Lots, as it turned out. Finding out where to go in The Pyrenees is like looking for free stuff on a budget airline flight. Normally knowledge is king when going on holiday, but finding helpful information on the internet was nigh on impossible.

Undeterred but mildly concerned, I looked through countless years of email traffic from travel PRs to see if there was anyone who promoted this vast and unspoilt region and could sneak me into a posh hotel… but nothing. Just for fun, I typed in “Alps” and got more than 60 email hits. “Pyrenees” was giving me zero. I was on my own.

If you’re looking for a luxurious holiday, where delicately-fingered ladies rub your back at the end of a long lunch in an unspeakably expensive mountainside restaurant, you’d do well to stop reading now.

The Pyrenees, which span almost 400km and basically separate France from Spain, are about as upmarket as a 1980s package holiday. Perhaps I’m being a bit cruel, but this really is a no-frills destination.

The web gave me lots of impressive pictures of hulking, snow-capped mountains, but when it came to fancy hotels with bubbling spas, gaily-painted wooden chalets or even images of spotlessly clean cattle with those charming brass clangers tied to their necks: no. It was as if I was planning a holiday to The Moon.

Genuinely confused and running out of time, I realised the way to do it was the old-fashioned, hands-dirty, head-down-and-get-on-with-it route: in other words, it was camping or nothing, which is why you’ll understand that it was with a heavy heart that I finally set off for France’s other mountain region.

Doing it the hard way

The typical way to do The Pyrenees is to fly to Pau or Lourdes, but I chose to drive across France.

As with all mountain trips, the holiday started with a giddy “Not far now!” feeling when I spotted the first peaks, and it was several frustrating hours later when I was actually among them. But what a view!

I found a delightful spot in the heart of the Val d’Azun in the French department of Haute Pyrénées, where even at an elevation of 1,000m, I was towered over by mountains.

No snow at this time of year, but I couldn’t care less. There was a river gurgling past, huge birds of prey circling in the thermals overhead and a group of lithe young cyclists from Aberdeen University in the next tent.

Yes, they made me feel like an ancient uncle, but they at least stopped me from feeling foolish: if The Pyrenees were good enough for these strapping young fellows – and, indeed, the entire Tour de France posse, which had whizzed through earlier – I wasn’t going to be disappointed. All I needed to do now was to explore.

Luckily, just like The Alps, the Pyrenees are a walker’s dream, with paths signposted all over the place. The big one is the GR 10, which pretty much takes you from The Atlantic Coast to the Med, and will eat up the best part of two months.

Instead, a more manageable 4km hike leads me to Lac d’Estaing, where I peer into waters so clean it’s as if someone had filled it with spring water, which, now that I think about it, I suppose they had.

This is epic scenery on a grand scale – there are even bears here, somewhere – and just for the heck of it, I scramble up a mountain to survey the view. By scramble up, I mean “ascend slowly about 1/10th of the way.” Best not to rush things.

Villages in the Pyrenees lack some of the charm of their Alpine cousins: in place of all that wood, chintz and decorative hearts is stone – and lots of it. The resultant vibe might best be described as a bit grey.

But it feels real, earthy, as if you’ve stumbled across a 19th-century British mining town surrounded by 3,000m-high mountains. People are friendly, prices are lower than The Alps, and slowly, it all grows on you.

In fact, several days in, leaning back in an open-air swimming pool in the small town of Arrens-Marsous, where verdant slopes on all sides make it feel like I’ve slipped into a giant avocado, I’m as content as can be. Best of all, the assembled bathers are not being buzzed by paragliders. Or passing traffic. There aren’t thousands of school kids on summer camp. If this is The Alps’ second cousin, it is a quiet, well-behaved one.

As the leg muscles steadily harden into a beautiful polished oak, I take on higher and higher walks. I barely see a soul. Not that this corner of The Pyrenees is lifeless: the town of Cauterets is a little like a less polished Chamonix; Argelés-Gazost is brimming with activity; Lourdes, if you’re passing, has a lively market, bustling town centre and an abundance of hopeful invalids. Then there’s white-water rafting, climbing, paragliding – everything you’d find in the Alps, only more tucked away and less obvious.

For me, though, it’s the scenery that is really delivering. There are more than 100 3,000m peaks dotted around, and even though most that I spy are in the 2,000-2,500m range, never once am I disappointed when I crane my neck.

Pure bliss saves itself for my last day, in a car-free slice of gorgeousness that you have to pay a couple of Euros to enter. This protected sliver of The Pyrenees National Park doesn’t seem to have a specific name, but it’s basically the end of the road for anyone who follows the signs to The Pont d’Espagne, an old stone bridge that spans a waterfall and puts you within spitting distance of Spain.

I smile as I realise that this is the exact picture-postcard mountain experience I have longed for since first poring over National Geographic as a young boy.

An elderly man appears from a path and asks me if I’ve encountered a woman wearing a baseball hat, explaining with mild concern that she wandered off to take some photos an hour ago. I’ve not, but even a missing OAP can’t shake the feeling of euphoria as I wander through the most pristine valley in the world, where fir trees, a foaming white river, canyon walls and majestic peaks all tumble into view.

There’s no one else here but me, my worried friend and presumably his good lady. Probably best not to tell him about the bears.

As the sun falls, I leave The Pyrenees smitten. They might be no match for The Alps in terms of tourist-friendliness and cuckoo clocks, and they’re not where you’ll bump into George Clooney or spend a day’s pay on an appetiser. But for solitude, nature and pure jaw-dropping views at every turn, they
are every bit The Alps’ equal.