Cirque de Gavarnie in the High Pyrenees National Park
Of all the world's natural frontiers, the Pyrenees
make up one of the
most clearly defined. Stretching coast to coast from the
Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Mediterranean in the east, they form
a natural barrier between France and Spain which – until modern times –
was unpassable for several months of the year except by one route on
the Atlantic coast and a couple more very close to the Mediterranean.
Between these coastal routes, the Pyrenees rise
up to heights of over 3000 metres (10,000 ft) above sea level, and are
crossed by only a small number of passes many of which, even today, can
be blocked by snow in winter time, in spite of some high-altitude
tunnels. In the nineteenth century, rail connections between France and
Spain (albeit no direct trains, due to Spain's use of a wider track
gauge) were established right beside the sea on the Atlantic and
Mediterranean coasts; two more rail routes across the Pyrenees were set
up later, but they remained branch lines and one of them has since
In short, for the last few centuries, the Pyrenees
have effectively been a natural barrier separating France from Spain,
and seriously limiting communication and exchanges between the two
The Train d'Artouste, in the western Pyrenees
It was not always so. Until the Middle
Ages, the Pyrenees were a frontier area so far removed from the main
seats of power in western Europe at the time –France to the north and
Iberia to the south – that this mountain region lived in its own world,
or worlds. The Pyrenees were divided not along their crest by an
east-west border as they are today, but by lateral divides. At a time
when there were few long-distance communications, the western Pyrenees
became home to the Basques, the central Pyrenees were a part
of Navarre, and the eastern half of the area was attached to
the kingdoms of Aragon and Catalonia. In addition to these loosely
defined areas, there were other smaller communities, notably an area in
the northwest known as Béarn, and one isolated principality that has
survived to this day, high up in the mountains, Andorra.
This early division among different ethnic and
cultural groups explains why, today, the Pyrenees retain greater
differences between their eastern and western halves, than they do, at
any crossing point, between the French and the Spanish sides.
The French Basque Country is remarkably similar to the
Spanish Basque country, and the same Basque language is still used by
some throughout the area, though not as an official language in France.
On the east coast, there is a strong Catalan identity in the department
of Eastern Pyrenees. In the central Pyrenees, while the
landscape may be more arid and less green on the Spanish side, villages
and traditional building styles are much the same in France and Spain.
Romanesque cloister at
Saint Bertrand de Comminges
This is partly due to the trans-Pyrenean
communication that began in the 9th Century when the shrine at Santiago
de Compostela in northwest Spain became one of the most
important pilgrimage centres in western Europe. Ever since that time,
pilgrims have crossed the Pyrenees, notably the western half,
on their way to and way back from the great shrine at Santiago. In the
early years, the large number of pilgrims led to the establishment of
numerous monasteries, shrines and small churches in the valleys of the
Pyrenees, many of which survive to this day, making the Pyrenees an
area which has a particularly rich architectural heritage on both sides
of the border.
After the Santiago pilgrimage route fell largely
out of fashion in the 18th century, religion once again put the
Pyrenees firmly back on the map in the mid 19th century after
a shepherdess called Bernadette Soubirous, in search of a lost sheep,
claimed to have encountered the Virgin Mary in a grotto near the
village of Lourdes. Today, Lourdes is one of the three great Catholic
pilgrimage sites in Europe, with some 5 million visitors a year.
Geography and climate
The French Pyrenees are located mainly in the Occitanie region of
France (in the former regions of Languedoc
On the French side, the Pyrenees rise up fairly
steeply from the low-lying land of the Garonne and Adour basins in the
), and from
the lowlands of the Aude in the east. The foothills are fairly
well wooded, with deciduous forests and farmland. Towards the Spanish
border, as the land reaches altitudes of 1500 metres and higher, the
woods and forests give way to moorland that provides summer grazing
land for cattle and sheep, and plenty of opportunity for hiking.
The best opportunities for serious
mountain hiking and mountaineering in the French Pyrenees are to be
found in the department of Hautes Pyrénées, and notably in the area of
the Pyrenees National Park, where much of the land is at more than 2500
metres, culminating in the Pic de Vignemale at at a height of 3298
metres (10,820 ft) on the Spanish border. Vignemale is one of three
peaks at over 3000 metres in the French Pyrenees or marking the border
with Spain. The highest point in the Pyrenees is the Pico d'Aneto which
lies in the Ordesa national Park in Spain.
With most valleys in the French Pyrenees running
south-north, east-west routes involve numerous mountain passes at
altitudes of over 1400 metres, very popular with cyclists. The highest
of these is the 2115 metre Col du Tourmalet, some 50 km to the south of
Tarbes, which features regularly in the Tour de France.
Right at the eastern end of the Pyrenees, the
Massif des Albères, peaking at 1256 metres, is an area of
typically Mediterranean hinterland, with dry scrubland and wooded
In terms of climate, the French Pyrenees are
subject to two main influences; warm winds from the southwest, and
Atlantic winds from the northwest. Thanks to the winds from the
southwest, the French side of the Pyrenees are often the warmest area
in France, specially in spring and autumn; but when the winds veer to
the northwest, days are more likely to be damp and rainy – a factor
that explains why Pyrenean valleys on the French side
tend to remain lusciously green through much of the summer.
For much of the summer however and parts of the winter, when
high pressure systems dominate over southern France and Spain, the
weather in the Pyrenees is likely to be sunny and dry.
The department of the Eastern Pyrenees (Pyrénées
Orientales) is the warmest and most southerly department in
for its early spring and its orchards. The area round the small town of
Céret, in the Tech valley, is reputed for producing the first cherries
of the year which ripen in late April.
Perpignan, Pau, Tarbes, Bayonne; and just to the
capital of the Occitanie region.
the French Pyrenees
Historic monuments in the Pyrenees and their foothills
- Mas d'Azil
(Ariège) - a remarkable drive-through cavern with prehistoric site and
- Grotte de
(Ariège) - one of the few caves with original prehistoric art that is
open to the public
- Grotte de
(near Saint Gaudens, Haute Garonne) - another prehistoric
cave with underground visits, and the largest number of prehistoric
hand symbols in Europe.
The Pyrénées Orientales
or Eastern Pyrenees department (PO)
has a particularly rich medieval heritage
Among the best sites are :
- Arles sur Tech.
(PO, west of Perpignan) Abbaye Ste. Marie, Romanesque church with
frescoes, and fine 14th century cloisters
southeast of Perpignan). A romanesque cathedral with tower and
- Saint Michel
(PO). Abbey church, tower and cloisters dating from 10th to
12th centuries, fine sculptures
- Saint Martin
(PO) another beautiful romanesque abbey from the XIth century.
former priory with romanesque church and cloisters, now a museum with
large botanical gardens.
(Ariège) Fine medieval castle on a rocky outcrop in
the town. Lots of steps up.
- Saint Lizier
(Eastern Ariège, near Saint Girons) - Historic small city - Romanesque
cathedral and cloisters, with fine 11th century frescoes. UNESCO listed
Comminges (Haute Garonne, near Saint Gaudens) Hilltop
town, church and monastery with romanesque cloisters- UNESCO
- Luz Saint
(Hautes Pyrénées) Fortified medieval church of the Knights Templar.
(Pyrénées Atlantiques) Church of Sainte Foy, with very fine romanesque
small towns to visit
- Eastern Pyrenees : Collioure,
Céret (with famed modern art museum) , Elne, Villefranche de Conflant :
historic villages : Castelnou
- Ariège : Foix
- Pyrénées Atlantiques : Saint
Jean de Luz - former fishing village on
the Atlantic coast.
Virtually the whole of the French Pyrenees and their foothills are an
outstanding natural site, and listing every specific site would take an
encyclopaedia. So here is just a short selection of sites that are
worth going out of one's way to visit.
- Grottes de
(on the border between Hautes Pyrenees and Pyrenees Atlantiques):
2.8 km of underground caves to explore by foot, train and
- Gorge de
(PO) - a road takes visitors through a very narrow gorge with sheer
- Cirque de
(Hautes Pyrénées) ; the most dramatic site in the Pyrenees National
Park, a narrow valley enclosed by rock faces up to 1500 metres high. La
Grande Cascade de Gavarnie is, with a drop of 422 metres, the second
highest waterfall in Europe.
- Pic du Midi
- (Haute Pyrénées) . Take the cablecar from the base station at La
Mongie, to the observatory at the top of the mountain, at an altitude
of 2,872 metres. Note: not cheap. Adult rate (2019) : 45 €
Train Jaune, or Yellow train.
(PO) A historic electric train service from
Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains to Latour de Carol
- Le Petit
Near Laruns (Pyrénées Atlantiques). A six km train journey on
a former narrow-gauge industrial railway at an altitude of almost 2000.
metres. Access by cablecar.
in the Pyrenees
are half a dozen major ski-resorts in the French Pyrenees, and more on
the Spanish side, including the slopes in the Val d'Arun which, though
in Spain, are more easily accessible from the French side of the
Pyrenees. See Skiing in
France - 2