Heading Heavenward in the Pyrenees

The French mountains are a beautiful blend of wilderness and centuries-old culture, and a tourist’s first sight of the Pyrenees can be unforgettable: They emerge from the summer haze like a bank of thunderclouds, assuming the stature of real mountains as canyons, ridges, and snowpack resembling an alpinist’s dreamland.


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The French Pyrenees.

Photo by Guillaume Baviere-CC

Many a camper in France’s Pyrenees Mountains has been awakened from deep sleep by a brutish wild-thing roar. This distinctive holler, like a brawling caveman’s—Herrauggghhh!—frequently accompanies the powerful thumping of hooves. The sleepy camper might easily imagine that he or she is being charged by a centaur.

But it’s just the Eurasian red deer—which, according to at least one travel website, makes a sound that can be “scary in the middle of the night.” Bingo.

The red deer is a close relative of the American elk. Indeed, the rocky peaks, pine forests, trout streams, and wildlife of the Pyrenees are almost a perfect Old World reflection of the American West. Wolves, lynx, marmots, mountain goats, and even brown bears live there. But the Pyrenees are also studded with stone villages, castles, and shepherds’ huts—a beautiful blend of wilderness and centuries-old culture unseen in our own mountains.

Meanwhile, church bells—Europe’s ubiquitous anthem—clang every quarter hour across the chasms, reminding visitors that they aren’t in Tahoe anymore.

A tourist’s first sight of the Pyrenees can be unforgettable. Upon approach, they emerge from the summer haze like a bank of thunderclouds, assuming the stature of real mountains as canyons, ridges, and snowpack become clear to the eye.

This range looks like an alpinist’s dreamland.

The Pyrenees are also a paradise for bicycle tourists and comprise one of pro cycling’s most celebrated mountain regions. Dozens of great climbs in the Pyrenees have played linchpin roles in the Tour de France, often as spectacular mountaintop stage finishes: Soulor, Aubisque, Superbagneres, Tourmalet, Portet de Aspet, Luz Ardiden, and Hautacam are legendary ascents that take cyclists and motorists from green hardwood forests into wind-whipped alpine heights.

For instance, a tiny ribbon of highway leads up the 15-mile, 3,000-foot ascent to Col (French for “pass”) du Soulor. The road follows a small trout stream before launching up the flank of a brilliant green mountainside. Slowly, the trees thin out and views open to the south, where looming peaks two miles high mark France’s border with Spain. Its highest point is generally a circus of activity, with motorists and Spandexed cyclists all clamoring about the summit sign, posing for photos.

Tour de France fan graffiti covers the asphalt on the major climbs, with stars’ names written in huge white block letters: George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador. En route to the Hautacam ski station, an observant passersby might still see the faded letters of another name, spray-painted long ago onto the cliffside highway barrier but barely visible now: LANCE!

Cycling fans aren’t the only graffiti artists to stalk the Pyrenees. On highways throughout the mountains, shepherds and cheesemakers have spray-painted NON AUX OURS. French for “No to the bears,” this expresses the common sentiment of locals who opposed the reintroduction, beginning in the late 1990s, of brown bears to the Pyrenees. While conservationists cheered this project, in which tranquilized animals were relocated from Slovenia, the livestock community protested: Their forefathers, after all, had worked hard to shoot the last brown bear. As many as two-dozen bears now roam the Pyrenees.

For campers, the Pyrenees are a lush and wonderful playground. Wild camping is popular among bike tourists—even standard—if not technically legal in France. Designated campsites can also be found with ease throughout the mountains, usually for 10 to 12 Euros a head.

Travelers inclined toward beds, sheets, and pillows will find accommodations just as easily. Towns of interest include Lourdes, whose cathedral and allegedly miraculous spring draw pilgrims from around the world. Surrounded by soaring ridges that you’ll need to crane your neck to see properly, Luz-St-Saveur is walking distance from thermal hot springs. Gavarnie stands several miles from the Pyrenees’ crowning jewel, the Cirque de Gavarnie, a stadiumlike valley surrounded by cliffs, just a rifle shot from the Spanish border.

No matter how far into the high country you go, espresso machines, bakeries, and markets are rarely far away. Most villages boast weekly farmers’ markets, where locals offer vegetables, eggs, olives, cherries, and such local cheeses as Cathare, made with goats’ milk, and Bethmale, made with cows’ milk. Winemakers also sell bottles here, and a half-hour walkabout at most markets should produce plenty of goodies for the afternoon’s picnic.

If you stay for a considerable time in the Pyrenees, you might become very familiar with the sound of the red deer. You might even see these animals—at midday, as small herds of them graze far off the highway, or by night as they stride past your tent, as big as ponies, in the moonlight. Their voices, although so ridiculous and perhaps panic-inducing for newcomers, after a while might become to your ears as benign as the hooting of owls, and as ordinary as the church bells that coax forth each dawn.

 

Resources

Campsite Airotel Pyrénées: Esquieze-Sere 46, Avenue de Barége, 05-62-92-89-18, Contact@Airotel-Pyrenees.com, www.Airotel-Pyrenees.com/Campsite-France-Pyrenees.html.

Eastern Pyrenees Tourist Board: 2 Boulevard des Pyrénées, Perpignan, 04-68-51-52-53, Info@Cdt-66.com, www.Tourisme-PyreneesOrientales.com/en.

Lourdes Office of Tourism: Place Peyramale, Lourdes, 05-62-42-77-40, Info@Lourdes-InfoTourisme.com, www.Lourdes-InfoTourisme.com/web/EN/?langRedir=1.

Vélo Peloton Pyrénées Cycling Lodge: 6 Rue de Castillou, Saint Savin, 09-83-32-25-14, Paddy@VeloPeloton.com, www.PyreneesCyclingLodge.com.
 

Published online on Sept. 20, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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