Walk This Way in the Pyrenees

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My eventual destination - Grand Cascade

My eventual destination – Grand Cascade

Most people who come to this part of France are making the pilgrimage to Lourdes in the hope of some sort of miracle. As I look down on the town from the 940m Pic du Jer, the storm crowds are gathering and I realise I have to get a move on if I’m not going to get wet. Unlike the millions of Catholics who congregate here every year, I’m just passing through, wending my way through the high valleys of the Pyrenees. These mountains are a natural border separating France and Spain, rising to over 3000m but I won’t be going to the top. I’ve been lured by the promise of good food and wine and, even better, my baggage is being transported between hotels.

I’ve flown into the pleasant city of Toulouse, and tasted duck in all shapes and sizes before taking a two hour train ride to Tarbes, then 45 minutes in a taxi to Lesponne. I wake to a bright sunny day and set out on my first walk. It’s a fairly easy climb up to Lac d’Ourrec at almost 1700m and then it’s more or less back down the same way. By the lake there are stunning views of the mountains and on my way down I get a tantalising glimpse of the Pic du Midi, through the trees.

Next day I take a taxi to the cable car station just outside Lourdes and enjoy the view before taking a reasonably leisurely downhill walk across the valleys to the attractive spa town of Argeles-Gazost, complete with an English Park and a casino. In fact, the mineral-rich waters attracted the first tourists to the Pyrenees and for years the French government funded the treatments and even allowed licensed gambling.

Saint-Savin Abbey Church

Saint-Savin Abbey Church

Argeles-Gazost has a famous Tuesday market, but it’s distinctly soggy this morning as the rain has set in and it’s not worth lingering. Clad head to toe in my weatherproofs, I climb into the mist, wondering whether I might be better off spending my day at the gaming tables, but the rain clears at the village of Saint-Savin. This once had a thriving monastery, but these days only the 12th century Abbey church remains. It’s still enough to attract pilgrims, though, and I spot a busload, obviously on a side trip from Lourdes. The village itself is delightfully medieval, centred around a square with half-timbered houses, and there’s an attractive café where I stop to revive my spirits.

Overnight the weather worsens and morning dawns dark, with low cloud hugging the mountains. I take a trail from Soulom, hugging the hillside, once the only way along the valley and it passes the attractive small villages of Viscos and Sazos, looming out of the mist. I arrive at Luz-Saint Saveur just after lunch and have time to explore. There’s a fortified church, a ruined castle on a hill and of course a spa in the twinned village of Saint Saveur. Napoléon III stayed here for 23 days in 1859 with his empress Eugenie and she supposedly conceived her only son during her holiday. Her husband ordered the construction of the Pont Napoleon to link the two villages, and was an essential part of the road construction to Gavernie which is tomorrow’s destination.

Cirque de Gavernie

Cirque de Gavernie

I take the bus in the rain, passing Napoleon’s bridge and, within an hour, I’m in Gavernie. The mist is low and it’s raining but I have no choice, as this is meant to be the highlight of my trip and this is my last day. It’s a hard slog uphill through the forest and I’m meant to get magnificent views of the Cirque de Gavarnie but visibility is zero. I’m told that it’s an incredible wall of rock 1700m high, 14km in circumference, forming a natural amphitheatre and justly deserving its UNESCO World Heritage status.

When he came here in the 1840’s the celebrated French writer Victor Hugo was inspired to write a long epic poem where he described it as a “Coliseum of Nature”. The title of this masterpiece is “Dieu” or God and I’m hoping that the Almighty may intervene for me. I trudge upwards over scree, not even sure what I’m aiming for, but suddenly the mist begins to lift and I catch sight of the bottom of the cliff with a torrent of water rushing out. Apparently this is the foot of the Grande Cascade, with a vertical drop of 422m, making it the highest in Europe. As I approach, the cloud clears completely and I get a full view of this immense natural wonder. It seems that miracles in this part of the Pyrenees are not just limited to the town of Lourdes.

For more information about Midi-Pyrénées, click here

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