Where: The Pyrenees

Forming a natural border between France and Spain the Pyrenees stretch for 490kms between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.  A mountain range of huge diversity, the Pyrenees have always been a ‘frontier’ region, and this feeling persists today.

MAP

Click on the map to see exactly where we are, and where Luz St Sauveur is in the Pyrenees.  We are 1/2 hour by car (55 mins by bus) from Lourdes, 1 1/2 hours from Pau and about 2 1/2-3 hours by car or train from Toulouse and the same from Biarritz. A more detailed map of the Vallée des Gaves, between Lourdes and Gavarnie can be viewed here (Vallées des Gaves Map).map of the Pyrenees

TOURISM

From Charles Packe’s 1862 guide to the Pyrenees, quoted in Simon Calder and Mick Webb’s Backpacks, Boots and Baguettes – Walking in the Pyrenees:

“How it comes to pass that so many Englishmen and Englishwomen cross the Channel every summer for the sake of a holiday tour of a month or six weeks among the Alps of Switzerland, while so very few in proportion think it worth their while to pay a visit to the Pyrenees, that magnificent mountain barrier that separates France and Spain, has always been to me a matter of astonishment; and I can only account for it on the principal that my countrymen like a flock of sheep, love to go ‘non qua eundum est, sed qua est iter’ (not where they ought to go but where the road goes).”

It is surprising that in 150 years not much has changed really, other than perhaps swapping the Swiss Alps for the French Alps.  As they say in the preface to Backpacks, Boots and Baguettes :

“The wall of mountains that divides France from Spain is more than just a majestic range rich in flora, fauna and history – it is also wonderfully accessible, with something to suit most walkers… (it) contains terrain as gentle or as challenging as you could wish. You can climb every mountain, or none at all… Most sensible travellers will want to take time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, the wildlife and the complex mix of cultures that thrive in the Pyrenees.”

Hopefully a tour around our website will introduce you to some of the wonders of the Pyrenees – you’ll have to come and discover the rest yourself.

GEOLOGY

Who would think, when looking at the summits around Luz, that they were under the ocean 300 million years ago?  In the mountains we are confronted with the enormity of the effort required to understand a world where the fossil of a shell fish is found at the top of a mountain.  What on earth could possibly have led to such an occurrence?  The mystery of tectonic plate movement remained well hidden until 50-100 years ago but we now know that the forces of super-continental collisions are what cause mountains to rise from the sea.  The first Pyrenean mountain chain rose to over 6000m. Erosion over the years broke these summits down to almost nothing and allowed a 2nd sea to flood in. Then 50 million years ago our present Pyrenees were formed by the « Pyreneo-Alpin » folding when the Iberian tectonic plate collided with the Eurasian plate. The nature of the rock we will see as we traverse is therefore most often of the first formation if it is granite or volcanic rock (which has been pushed up through the ” new” limestone rock) and most often from the latest folding where it is limestone, formed by sedimentary layers building up under the sea for millions of years before the tectonic plates caused the folding. The glacial period (the Pleistocene) that formed the U shaped valleys of the Pyrenees as they appear to us today began only 2.5 million years ago, firstly with glacial cycles lasting 40 K years and, since 700 K years ago, lasting 100 K yrs.  There have been around 80 glacial cycles in this time, sufficient for the ice to grind the Pyrenees into the shape we know them today.

FLORA & FAUNA

Home to numerous endemic species of both flora and fauna, the Pyrenees are visited from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the rare “ramondia” or spectacular soaring lamergeiere (bearded vulture). If you choose the right time of the year (June, July, early August), you will see a huge variety of vegetation here in the Pyrenees. From orchids to iris, rhododendron and lilies, a pallet of coloured beauty surrounds us at each step. There is a multitude of fauna roaming the mountains be it birdlife flying overhead, fish, amphibian swimming the icy streams and lakes, mammals grazing the hillside or reptiles sunning on a rockslab! Although wildlife is not always easy to site, as they are…..wild(!), we are often lucky enough to observe the griffon and bearded vulture as well as various other raptor, isard grazing or racing across surprisingly steep slopes, marmot whistling and playing as they feed, possibly the agile ermine, the brightly-coloured salamander. We are unlikely to see the rare and unique desman (a small amphibian with an extremely long snout), the graceful and playful otter, the controversial brown bear….though these, and many others, do exist in our mountains.

Flora and fauna have to adapt to the rigours of high mountain climate where there are huge differences in temperatures, higher winds, snow, strong sun…..in order to survive. They do this in fascinating ways and it is again a reminder of the force of nature which surrounds us to observe these adaptations. Plants, for example are often ” dwarf” with smaller or duvet leaves which reduce evaporation and the chance of being blown down by high winds. Plants often have a lot more underground root system than what we see above the ground. Flowers, the beautiful spring gentiane, for example are very often of vivid colours, and very often bright blue at altitude as these colours attract most insects for fertilisation. The “euprocte”, a small endemic amphibian is a surprising example of an animal who adapts his life-span to the altitude at which he lives; at 1000m he becomes an adult at 4 years but at 2500m, only becomes adult at 6 years!

THE PYRENEES NATIONAL PARK

The National Park “Parc National des Pyrenees” was created in 1967 to become one of the 6 national parks in France. The main objectives of the Park are to protect the flora, fauna and environment, to educate people as to the importance of the mountains and nature and to rejuvinate and revive rural mountain life. All of the territory of the Park is uninhabited on a permanent basis and is situated above 1100m. We are in the Park for all of the “HRP1” trek and go between this park and the “Parc National d’Ordesa” on the Spanish side for the “HRP2” and the “Tour of Mont Perdu“.

MONT PERDU & ORDESA CANYON NATIONAL PARK

The Ordesa Canyon has been a part of the “Parc National du Mont Perdu et du Canyon d’Ordesa” since 1918. You will certainly understand why when you are in the heart of this spectacular natural phenomenon, often compared to the Grand Canyon. Years of erosion have caused the porous limestone rock to erode in fascinating ways forming an extremely deep canyon, caves, ledges and karstic formations which we will discover as we walk. The Mont Perdu at 3335m is the highest limestone summit in Europe and its waters lead down to the “Rio Arazas” in the Ordesa Canyon where, at 2080m, it disappears mysteriously in the deep gorge of Saoso to reappear further down.

THERMALISM

Thermalism has been an important part of the economy of the Pyrenean mountain valleys since the early 1800’s when the French and English aristocracy came to “take the waters”.  Many studies have been done which support the beneficial effects of these waters (particularly for middle ear infections, childhood asthma, sinisitus and chronic bronchitis). Even if the waters had been used since Roman times for health and leisure purposes, it wasn’t until the 19th C that this practice developed more formally and proper thermal resorts were constructed. The geology of the Pyrenees means that these thermal resorts are now also winter ski resorts, something which cannot exist in the French Alps because the thermal resorts are much lower.  Barèges, at 1250m, is the highest thermal resort in France and at the foot of the largest ski domain (Domain du Tourmalet) in the French Pyrenees.

HYDRO-ELECTRICITY

Hydro-electricity is another very important part of the economy of these mountain valleys.  The largest hydro power plant in the Pyrenees is between Luz and Gavarnie at Pragnère, which is fed by the huge Cap Long reservoir, part of the Neovielle Reserve. The dams and pipelines were all built in the 1950s when it was necessary to re-build the economy after the war. Hydro-electricity supplies 11% of the electricity in France, quite an impressive number, with nuclear supplying the remaining 89%.  All Luz’s electricity, and therefore that of Hotel Les Templiers, is produced by its own hydro power plant on the Lys river at Villenave.

(c) Original artwork by Mandy Latchford.