The Pyrenees, which separate France from Spain, extend for a distance of some 450km/280mi between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Roughly a third of their area lies within France, with the French-Spanish frontier generally following the crest of the range. With peaks rising to over 3,000 m/9,800ft, the Pyrenees fall little short of the Alps in grandeur.
Geologically the Pyrenees, extending over an area 450km/280mi long by about 100km/60mi across, are a relatively young range of folded mountains consisting of schists (interrupted by gneiss and granite) and limestones, with a summit ridge of fairly uniform height and high-altitude passes. The summit regions show the effects of glacier action in their trough-shaped valleys and cirques, the best known of which is the Cirque de Gavarnie, and still have areas of névé and small glaciers, since the snow line on the north side is only just under 3,000 m/9,800ft. In contrast to the dry and therefore relatively bare slopes on the Spanish side, the French slopes support extensive forests (beech, oak and chestnut), increasing towards the west.
Geographically the range is divided by two deeper passes into the Western, Central and Eastern Pyrenees. The Western Pyrenees are hills of medium height with great expanses of fine deciduous forest and mountain pastures and wide valleys suitable for agriculture. From the Atlantic they rise through the Basque country, with the pass of Roncesvalles (1,207 m/ 3,960ft), to the Col de Somport (1,631 m/5,351ft) and reach a height of 2,504 m/8,216ft in the Pic d'Anie. From the Col de Somport to the Col de Puymorens (1,915 m/6,283ft) extend the Central Pyrenees, which on the Spanish side rise to 3,404 m/11,169ft in the Maledetta group (Pico de Aneto). The Eastern Pyrenees descend gradually from the Col de Puymorens and Col de Perche (1,610 m/5,282ft) towards the Mediterranean coast, divided by the longitudinal valley of the Tech into a northern range reaching its highest point in Le Canigou (2,785 m/9,138ft) and a southern range with Puigmal (2,912 m/9554ft), in Spanish territory, as its highest peak.
The Pyrenees extends over a number of different climatic zones. In the west is the lush green Basque country, in the east the pinewoods and scrub forests of the Mediterranean with its generally drier climate, in the north is a region of mixed forest, hills and plains, and in the middle are the rugged high peaks. Characteristic of the Pyrenees are its numerous lakes, waterfalls, gorges and hot and mineral springs. In the high-altitude National Park of the Pyrenees rare plants grow and endangered species of animals live in peace.
Though still attracting relatively few foreign tourists, the Pyrenees have much to offer the visitor - the magnificence of their mountains and valleys, the beautiful footpaths and long-distance trails, the hills to be climbed and the rock faces to be scaled, the endless scope for water sports of all kinds on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and the numerous rivers and lakes, the many holiday resorts with their facilities for sport (golf, tennis, etc.) and entertainment and, in season, for winter sports.
An ideal way of discovering the attractions of the Pyrenees is to follow the Route des Pyrénées, which runs for over 700km/435mi from Argelès-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast to St Jean de Luz on the Atlantic, with plenty of opportunities for side trips.
The best time of year for a visit to the Pyrenees is from about the middle of May, since earlier in the year, depending on snow conditions, the highest passes, in particular the Col d'Aubisque (1,710 m/5,611ft) and the Col du Tourmalet (2,115 m/6,939ft), may be closed.
Although there are no large cities in the Pyrenees, there are a number of considerable towns like Pau, Lourdes and the industrial town of Tarbes. There are also numerous holiday resorts, a variety of spas and a number of winter sports resorts.
Evidence of prehistoric settlement in the Pyrenees was provided by the caves at Aurignac (22km/14mi from St-Gaudens), which gave its name to the Aurignacian culture. In historical times the region was occupied by Ligurians and later (sixth C. onwards) by Iberians. Between 60 and 50 B.C. it was conquered by the Romans. An Iberian tribe advanced through the Pyrenees and settled in Gascony, but the Basques remained in the western Pyrenees and have preserved to this day their cultural independence and their language, on both the French and the Spanish sides of the mountains. The French Basque country lies in the western part of the département of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, with Bayonne as the principal town. The eastern part of the département, also predominantly occupied by Basques, was the old Merovingian County of Béarn, which came under the control of Gascony in the seventh C., was united with Foix and Navarre (now Spanish) in 1290 and was incorporated in France in 1589.
To the east of the Basque country, in Gascony, is the territory of the old County of Bigorre, occupied in antiquity by a Celtic tribe, the Bigerriones, whose chief town was Bigorra or Turba (Tarbes). Bigorre remained independent from the ninth to the end of the 13th C., when it passed to the Counts of Foix. In 1607, along with the rest of Foix, it became French. It now forms the département of Hautes-Pyrénées (chief town Tarbes).
Farther east again is the former County of Foix, originally a fief of the Counts of Toulouse, which passed by inheritance to Henry IV of France in the 16th C. and now forms the département of Ariège (chief town Foix). At the eastern end of the Pyrenees, between them and the Monts Corbières, is the former County of Roussillon, which belonged to Spain from the 12th to the 17th C. and still has Catalan as its language in addition to French. It is now the département of Pyrénées-Orientales, with Perpignan as its chief town.The Pyrenees region includes four appellations: Jurançon and Béarn, Côtes de St-Mont, Irouléguy, Béarn and Madian and Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh.A tour of this region should take in the following towns: Bellocq, Geaune, Oloron-Ste-Marie, Orhtez, Pau, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Salies-de-Béarn.The Maison du Vin in Monein in the Jurançon district will provide information châteaux and cooperatives. This is also the site of the excellent exhibition "Vins et Fruits" on the first Sunday of August.Festivals also take place in Madiran in mid-August and in Aire-sur-l'Adour in mid-December.
St Bertrand de Comminges
On a hill above the Garonne lies St-Bertrand-de-Comminges (alt. 446 m/1,465ft; pop. 248), a half deserted village with an interesting past. It was the site of the Roman town of Lugdunum Convenarum, which at one time had a population of 60,000 and was the place of banishment of Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias, who feature in the story of Christ's Passion.
Excavations have brought to light the forum, a temple, baths, a theater, an amphitheater and many other buildings. The Galerie du Trophée, housed in a former Benedictine abbey, displays statues of the first and second century A.D. The Romanesque church of Notre-Dame, begun in 1120, was completed in Gothic style in 1350; it has 16th C. choir-stalls and a fine organ (restored). In the little Romanesque cloister (on right) is a famous pillar with figures of the four Evangelists.
The Musée de Comminges contains Gallo-Roman antiquities.
In the neighboring village of Valcabrère is the little church of St-Just-et-St-Pasteur (11th-12th C.).
Nearby are the Grottes de Gargas, with prehistoric rock paintings and hand impressions.
Font Romeu, France
Mas d'Azil Cave
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Montauban (pop. 52,600), chief town of the département of Tarn-et-Garonne, is beautifully situated on the river Tarn. It was a Protestant stronghold during the 16th C. wars of religion. From the fortified bridge (1304-1348) there is a good view of the town.
Other features of interest are the arcaded Place Nationale (18th C.), the church of St-Jacques (14th-15th C.), with a fine Gothic tower, and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame (1732), which contains a painting by Ingres, "Louis XIII's Vow".
Tarascon sur Ariege, France
La Vache Prehistoric Cave
Bedeilhac Prehistoric Cave
Ariège - Niaux Cave
Bagneres de Bigorre, France
This spa in the Adour valley (alt. 550 m/1,805ft; pop. 8,048) has a picturesque old town, with the 15th C. Tour des Jacobins and remains of the cloister of St-Jean and the church of St-Vincent (15th-16th C.). In and around the extensive spa gardens are the thermal springs and the Musée Salies (natural history, Flemish and French paintings, drawings, ceramics).
Aste - Médous Cave
St Matin-du-Canigou, Casteil, France
Foix (alt. 400 m/1,300ft; pop. 9,708), once capital of the old County of Foix, was independent from 1001 to 1290, when it passed under the control of Béarn. Of its formidable castle, on a crag above the town, there remain three imposing towers; the free-standing round tower now houses the Musée de l'Ariège. The former monastic church of St-Volusien (12th and 15th C.) has a beautiful choir, fine choir-stalls (15th C.) and an unfinished square tower. Nearby are a number of old half-timbered houses and the curious Goose Fountain.
There are many Romanesque churches of the 11th and 12th centuries in the surrounding area, including Bénac, Loubens, Mercus, St-Jean-de-Verges, Serres-sur-Arget and Vernajoul.
Foix Cedex - Labouiche Underground River
At the foot of Le Canigou, in the valley of the Têt, is the little town of Prades (alt. 350m/1,150ft; pop. 6,000), where the famous cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973) lived in exile. The Gothic church of St-Pierre has a Romanesque tower and contains a fine 17th C. reredos by a Catalan artist.
7km/4.5mi away, in the Gorge de Castillane, is the spa of Molitg-les-Bains, which is recommended for the treatment of skin diseases and metabolic disorders.
3km/2mi south is the abbey of St-Michel-de-Cuxa, once the religious center of Roussillon. Its decline began with the French Revolution, and a hundred years later, in 1889, one of its two towers collapsed. The Metropolitan Museum of New York acquired numerous fragments of the building, which were incorporated in a reproduction now to be seen in New York's Cloisters Museum. Since then half of the cloister has been rebuilt from the surviving remains and fragments found in the area. The beautiful four-story tower is Romanesque, and pre-Romanesque work and 11th C. features can be detected in the church. The Pablo Casals Musical Festival is held here every year.
Chamber Music Festival
Bagnères de Luchon
This fashionable spa - Bagnères du Luchon - (alt. 630 m/2,065ft; pop. 2,900) is beautifully situated at the junction of the rivers Pique and One, under the highest Pyrenean peaks, with the winter sports resort of Superbagnères (1,800 m/5,900ft) 19km/ 12mi away. The springs were frequented in Roman times, and three Roman baths have been excavated. In the 17th C. the spa was made fashionable by Cardinal Richelieu, the springs having one of the highest sulfur contents and one of the highest degrees of radioactivity in the world. The Musée du Pays de Luchon is informative on local history. Near the town is the important Romanesque church of St-Aventin (11th C.), with two square towers and a doorway with figured capitals.
Luchon is a good base for an excursion to the Vallée du Lys.
Amélie les Bains
Amélie les Bains (alt. 243 m/797ft; pop. 3,644), in the valley of the Tech, is a popular spa, named after Louis-Philippe's queen. Its mineral springs were already being used in Roman times, and remains of Roman baths are to be seen in the modern spa establishment. The local festivals - the traditional masquerade on Shrove Tuesday and the blessing of the mules on June 25 - attract many visitors. Above Amélie lies the little Catalan town of Palalda. Parts of its church date from the 10th C.
Amélie les Bains is also a good base for a trip into the Mondony valley (8km/5mi southeast). The Roc de France near Montalba will prove a rewarding climb; it is 1,450 m/4,760ft high and the climb takes about three hours.
Amélie-les-Bains - International Folk Festival
Arles sur Tech
Oloron Ste Marie, France
Oloron Sainte Marie - Festival of the Pyrenees
Villefranche de Conflent, France
The old fortified town of Villefranche (alt. 435 m/1,425ft; pop. 600), once an important staging-point on the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela, lies at the junction of the rivers Cady and Têt. Above the town is a massive citadel which could be reached on an underground staircase. The fortifications were rebuilt by Vauban in the 17th C. Other features of interest are the church of St-Jacques (12th-13th C.), with a richly decorated interior, and some elegant old houses of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
South of Villefranche, at the foot of Le Canigou, is Corneilla, with the church of Notre Dame, which is thought to have been built in the early 11th C., and was later incorporated in a monastery. Over the doorway is a finely carved tympanum; the interior is richly decorated.
Cave of a Dozen Rooms
Grandes Canalettes Grotto
Maison du Maréchal Foch
Orthez (alt. 62 m/205ft; pop. 10,936), beautifully situated on the Gave de Pau, was capital of the County of Béarn from 1194 to 1460, and later became a Protestant stronghold with a Calvinist university. The Pont Vieux with its imposing tower dates from the 13th C. Other old buildings are the Tour Moncade (13th-14th C.), a relic of the castle of the Counts of Béarn, the Maison de Jeanne d'Albret (1500), the 14th C. Hôtel de la Lune, once the guest-house of the Counts of Foix, and many burghers' houses. The medieval church of St-Pierre, which was incorporated in the town's defenses, was restored after the wars of religion.
St Jean Pied de Port, France
The picturesque little town of St Jean Pied de Port (alt. 160 m/525ft; pop. 1,417), once a staging-point on the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela, lies on the river Nive under a 17th C. citadel. In the old upper town, still surrounded by 15th C. walls and entered through a gate under the tower of the church of Notre-Dame-du-Pont, are many 16th and 17th C. houses. From the Citadel, which was rebuilt by Vauban in 1688, there are wide views.
The nearby caves of Oxocelhaya and Isturits have prehistoric rock drawings as well as fine stalactites.
The Forêt d'Iraty is one of the finest in the Basque country.