One of the main features of the Pyrenees mountains is that they form a natural border between France and Spain. There is a French proverb saying: “Vérité en deçà des Pyrénées. Erreur au-delà” (Truth from this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side). It is a proverb from Blaise Pascal, a famous French philosopher from the 17th century and is not an insult to our Spanish friends but it means that what is true for somebody can be false for someone else.
The Pyrenees mountains form one of the seven mountain ranges of France alongside the Alps, the Vosges, the Jura, the Massif Central, the Armorican Massif and the Corsican Massif. As its eastern alpine cousin the Pyrenees are well known for their sharp peaks. The Massif is also famous for its diversity, especially in terms of landscape.
The Pyrenees Mountain range is a vast chain separating France from Spain. It runs from the Atlantic coast in the Bay of Biscay to the Gulf of Lion on the Mediterranean coast, for a distance of 430 kilometres. The Pyrenees Mountains take in three different administrative regions (from West to East): Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon. The Pyrenees can be divided into three regions: the Pyrénées Atlantiques (Atlantic side) taking in the Basque country; the Pyrénées Centrales (central area) which has no roads leading to Spain except for that crossing the col of Puymorens; and the Pyrénées Orientales (Mediterranean side) where the range falls into the sea south of Perpignan. In total, the Pyrenees cover an area of 19 000 km². The range includes 129 main and 83 secondary summits, all of them higher than 3,000 metres. The Pyrenees’ highest summit is the Aneto Peak (3,404 m) which forms the southernmost section of the Madaleta massif. These summits are mainly located to the centre of the range. In fact, both on their western and the eastern ends, the mountains become hills when they meet the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
One of the most important and ancient roles of the Pyrenees is that they serve as a natural border between two countries: Spain and France. A third country is located in the mountain range: the little Principality of Andorra which is one of the accesses to Spain, via Le Pas de la Case. Other road links to Spain are through the Puymorens pass (Col de Puymorens, Pyrénées-Orientales), the Bielsa tunnel (tunnel de Bielsa, Hautes-Pyrénées) and the Somport tunnel (tunnel du Somport, Pyrénées-Atantiques). These roads are highly frequented, especially the tunnels, as they are the fastest and easiest ways to Spain. The surrounding villages have always been busy and ideal for business. Many shops are found on the borders, at the entrances to tunnels and at the foot of the famous mountains. Enjoying a location with a lot of traffic, they attract crowds of tourists with their cheap prices for different items, especially alcohol and cigarettes.
Moreover, the Pyrenees host many well known towns. Located 60 km away from the first hills of the Pyrenees, the largest and most famous town in the area is Toulouse, capital city of the Midi-Pyrénées region, known all around the world for its gastronomy and its dynamic culture and home to many companies, in particular Airbus. There are not many large towns found in the range itself but a multitude of small ones. Amongst them there is Lourdes, a pilgrimage site for Catholics, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in a cave 18 times between February and July 1858. In addition, what contributes to the reputation of the Pyrenees are the tiny villages between the mountains, in the valleys or along the roads leading to the high pastures.
Finally, the Pyrenees contain several National Parks and nature reserves. The largest and most famous is the Pyrenees National Park, created in 1967 and located on the French side of the massif around Cirque de Gavarnie. The Neouvielle Reserve (Réserve naturelle du Néouvielle) is France’s third oldest reserve and well known for its lakes and its microclimate. As a mountain range, the Pyrenees display a rich and diverse landscape made up of snow-capped mountain peaks, deep green valleys and coastal undulating hills.
As a consequence of the Pyrenees being a very long mountain range, the climate is not the same everywhere. On the western side of the range, the proximity to the Bay of Biscay (Golfe de Gascogne) is significant in understanding the influence of the oceanic climate in this region. On the other hand, on the eastern side of the massif the climate is more Mediterranean due to the wind coming from the Mediterranean Sea which accumulates the heat of the Iberia peninsula before hitting the summits. This explains why there is more rain on the western side, near the Basque region (150 to 250 cm per year), than on the eastern side.
Summers are cooler in the west but winters are colder in the east. This difference had an impact on the human occupation of the massif and more importantly on the landscapes. The French side of the Pyrenees is entirely covered with forests, green valleys and ice valleys like the Ossau Valley. In contrast, the landscapes on the Spanish side and eastern part of the massif really look Mediterranean, even arid sometimes. The low rainfall combined with the warm and non-humid wind blowing from Spain have encouraged the presence of scrubland and pine trees.
These differences in climate also have an impact on the fauna and the flora of the Pyrenees where a huge diversity of trees, plants and animals can be found, depending on the altitude.
Fauna and flora
The flora of the Pyrenees is dense and rich; it includes approximately 4,500 species, of which 150 only grow in this region of France (endemic species). Amongst them, we find the Pyrenean saxifrage, the Columbine (Ancolie des Pyrénées), the Iris of the Pyrenees and the blue thistle (Chardon bleu des Pyrénées). The influence of the Mediterranean Sea and the hot winds coming from Spain also play an important part, with completely different flora on the eastern side of the massif, mainly composed of scrubland and shrubs rather than large green pastures and forests. The most commonly found trees in the Pyrenees are pine, fir, beech and oak trees.
There is also great diversity in the fauna found in the Pyrenees. The best known animal found there is the brown bear, hunted almost to extinction. Since 1996, various associations have tried to enhance the species by reintroducing some bears to the region. This has often created conflict between the Association for the Protection of Bears and local shepherds. Another emblematic animal in the Pyrenees is the marmot and if visitors are patient and stay quiet, they might see their little heads looking over the rocks. The Pyrenees shelter many other mammals such as wolves, wild boars, red deer, wildcats, mouflons, squirrels, lynx and lizards, as well as raptors, especially royal eagles and eagle-owls.
The Pyrenees region is a land of contrast and this becomes apparent when it comes to human occupation. Human activities throughout the Pyrenees are closely linked to climatic features.
Thus on the eastern side, close to the Mediterranean Sea, the hot temperatures, sunshine and the softer slopes allow for the production of wine. The most famous vineyards are located around Banyuls-sur-Mer, close to the border with Spain. The Banyuls is an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée – a quality label) produced in the south-east corner of the Pyrenees range, in the area known as “Côte Vermeille” around the four cities of Collioure, Port-Vendres, Banyuls-sur-Mer and Cerbère. This wine is mainly a dessert wine and goes perfectly with chocolate. The Côte Vermeille, with its tiny, beautiful and welcoming towns on the Mediterranean, is worth a visit.
On the other side of the Pyrenees in the Basque region, where the climate is more humid, the main occupation is farming in the vast meadows at the foot of the mountains or in the high pastures for the herdsmen. The Basque country also enjoys a well developed tourism sector, thanks to its reputation for quiet and peaceful towns as well as the proximity to both the Atlantic and the high mountains. In the Central area, the occupations are often dual for farmers and herdsman who tend their farms during spring and summer and when winter and the snow come, these herdsmen or farmers become ski instructors in different ski resorts.
In addition, there are many interesting villages, one after the other, in the valleys or nestled in the mountains. These villages are also tourist attractions as they are the centre for many handmade traditions. Each village has its specialty and it is often a pleasure to just walk around and enjoy admiring old houses, listening to the sound of rivers or tasting delicious regional products. Tourism remains the main occupation of the massif. The economy is closely linked to the seasons and tourism. The people of the Pyrenees live with the rhythm of the winter and the summer seasons.
During winter, the main attractions are winter sports (ski, snowshoeing, etc…) and the different resorts are always fully booked. In summer, the scene is rather different. The Pyrenees becomes a completely different region: quieter and more peaceful since it does not rank amongst the more popular summer destinations such as the sunshine coasts of the French Riviera (Côte d’Azur). Nonetheless, the Pyrenees during summer are a “must see” if you go to France at this time of the year. It is the best time to enjoy their natural beauty and the diversity of species. Most of the time, days are very warm and when the sun shines, the temperatures can easily reach above 25 degrees Celsius which is ideal for hiking.
Skiing during winter
The Pyrenees Mountains are, above all, known for their… mountains. Therefore it is one of the favourite spots for French and Spanish tourists seeking winter entertainment and the joy of skiing. The Pyrenees do not have the dimension of the Alps Mountains and ski resorts are often smaller there than in the Alps. Nonetheless, this is one of their best strengths as many family friendly resorts can be found, ideal for beginners and children. One such resort is Val Louron which is well known for its conviviality, its beginners’ ski trails and its reasonable prices. This kind of ski resort is far from the crowded ones in the Alps, where you can take in some fresh air and enjoy skiing without a bunch of crazy skiers around you!
Otherwise, if you are a schussboomer or if you enjoy big resorts, go to Grand Tourmalet-Barèges-La Mongie, the Pyrenees’ most famous resort, with the largest ski area: 70 ski trails and an output of 42,000 skiers per hour! Click here for further details. The other ski resorts are basically in between these two extremes and offer a rich variety of ski trails which beginners and good skiers can enjoy.
For those who are not looking for skiing, other activities can be found such as snowshoeing, discovering the area on a sled pulled by dogs or simply walking around in the small mountains’ villages to enjoy a hot beverage or a local dish.
The Pyrenees have a total of 38 ski resorts, concentrated in the middle part of the massif, where the highest summits are found. The 38 ski resorts are located in the territories of 6 départements: Pyrénées-Atlantiques (6), Haute-Garonne (3), Aude (1), Hautes-Pyrénées (11), Ariège (9) and Pyrénées-Orientales (8). These ski resorts are essential for the economy of the region, attracting many tourists during the winter season which runs from Christmas to the Easter French school holiday period.
Hiking during summer
The Pyrenees are also beautiful during summer and as they are located in the south of France, the temperatures are often high compared to other massif such as in the Vosges. Even at the top of the mountain, some days can be really warm, with temperatures around 20 degrees celsius at noon. These weather conditions are perfect to enjoy hiking. The Pyrenees offer a range of walks, from easy to difficult, all of which offer amazing views. For those who have the chance to visit the massif during summer and winter, the contrast is striking: the Pyrenees are reborn and the melting snow provides water to the vegetation which gives the deep green colour to the mountains’ pastures and trees.
For the more courageous, well trained and experienced hikers, you will enjoy crossing the whole range from East to West along approximately 870 km. This traverse is called the GR10 (Grande Randonnée) and links the Atlantic Ocean at Hendaye to the Mediterranean Sea at Banuyls-sur-Mer. The hiking trail criss-crosses the mountains at a medium altitude. There is also the opportunity to follow the HRP (Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne – High Pyrenean Hike) which has the highest summits along the Franco-Spanish border.
For people who are not really into hiking, the Pyrenees also offer activities such as paragliding, caving, rafting, tree climbing, etc…
The Pyrenees display a strong culinary identity with a wide array of delicious local culinary specialities. Some products and dishes are influenced by the close proximity of the Basque Country and of Catalonia like the bouillinade (fish stew flavoured with dry Banyuls wine), piballes (baby eels), or marmite (grilled cod in a spicy mussel-and-scallop sauce). Indeed, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea provide fish and seafood which are a strong feature in the local cuisine.
Some mountain dishes include the Bigorre Black Pig, AOC Lamb of Barèges-Gavarnie and cured meats have always enjoyed a high status in the Pyrenees: salamis made from pork or duck and not forgetting the famous Bayonne Ham (Jambon de Bayonne). Cheeses from the Pyrenees are mainly produced from goat (chèvre) and ewe (brebis) milks. There are several cheeses produced in the Pyrenees, most of them named after their place of origin: the Pyrenean Tomme with its distinctive thin black skin cover, the Basque pressed cheese of Ineguy, Ossau-Iraty and the cheese of Laguiole, produced according to ancestral methods in the Aubrac area.
Bayonne in the Basque Country has gained recognition for its chocolate industry. Confiseries and chocolateries in Bayonne and in the surrounding region have sold high-quality chocolate for centuries. The city is particularly proud of its hot chocolate but the beautiful little boutiques offer chocolate in a wide choice of forms, from ice-cream to caramels to bars.
The Pyrenean dessert of excellence is arguably the “Gâteau à la Broche”. This very popular party dessert is made with a pastry close to waffles, poured slowly on a spit over a chimney fire.
Other local desserts include macarons from Saint-Jean-de-Luz, touron (marzipan garnished with pistachio nuts), tourtière (puff pastry flavoured with rum or plums soaked in Armagnac), rosquillas (Catalan almond cake), and bunyetess (custard doughnuts).
Cirque of Gavarnie and Roland’s Breach (Cirque de Gavarnie et Brèche de Roland)
Roland’s Breach is found in the cirque of Gavarnie, Glacial-erosion cirque which offers a nice panorama to the snow-topped mountain peaks, both in summer and winter. The Breach was named after Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew. Legend has it he was attacked by surprise at the pass of Ronceveaux. When about to die, he tried to break his sword Durandal, creating a breach 40 metres wide and 100 metres high…! Nowadays, the breach is a famous place where you can see the contrast between the French part of the Pyrenees (green and a bit humid) and the Spanish part (arid and with no vegetation). In fact the Breach is located right on the border between the two countries.
You will need to walk for up to five hours (there and back) from the “col des tentes” to the breach. Even though it is worth the walk, you need to be careful as it is not an easy hike. Do not forget to check the weather forecast before planning a trip and do not leave too late as storms can be dangerous at this high altitude.
Aure Valley (Vallée d’Aure)
The Aure Valley is located in the département of Hautes-Pyrénées, at the heart of the massif. This valley has always been very important as it has always been a preferred way to cross the natural border to enter Spain. Today this is possible via the Bielsa tunnel. In addition, the valley is one of the places most frequented by tourists in the Pyrenees thanks to its variety of activities. In fact, there you will find two famous ski resorts: Saint-Lary and Piau-Engaly and during summer, there are many activities such as tree climbing and also nice hikes to do in the Rioumajou Valley or in the Néouvielle Park.
The valley is also well known thanks to its main villages where there is always something to discover, a handcraftsman’s store or a very good restaurant (The House of Cassoulet in Saint Lary) and do not forget to taste the local spit cake (Gâteau à la Broche). At Arreau, the village at the entrance to the valley, it is possible to attend a “Gâteau à la Broche” cooking workshop. Each year, the Brotherhood of the cake runs the Festival of the Gâteau à la Broche in the medieval town.
Néouvielle National Reserve (Réserve Naturelle Nationale du Néouvielle)
The stunning National Park of Néouvielle is located in the Aure Valley, half an hour’s drive from Saint Lary (D929). The major attractions of Néouvielle are the three lakes (Orédon, Aubert and Cap Long), all of them connected to each other via smaller lakes (laquettes). The hiking here is beautiful, sometimes difficult because it gets steep, but so refreshing as you always walk under the fir trees. Néouvielle is a quiet place where you can enjoy the beauty of the landscape, the reflections of the white summits of the mountains against the cold azure of the lakes. This place is definitely worth a stop!
Louron Valley (Vallée du Louron)
The Louron Valley is located in the same area as the Aure Valley except that you turn left after the little village of Arreau instead of going straight on. The two valleys are connected via the Azet Pass but it is quicker to drive to Arreau if you want to reach Loudenvielle, the main village of the Louron valley, from Saint-Lary. This valley is also very popular, in particular due to its huge lake, the lake of Génos-Loudenvielle, named after the two villages nearby. In winter, it is a pleasure to walk around the lake, frozen at some points while during summer one can enjoy different activities such as climbing tree trails, paragliding lessons or just lying in the grass near the lake and enjoying an open-air picnic.
During winter this valley and Loudenvielle are a central location as there are two main ski resorts located nearby: Val Louron (righ trom Loudenvielle) a small and family oriented resort and Peyragudes (to the left) a big and well-known ski resort. In addition, Loudenvielle and Génos are always busy as they are the main villages in this area; they include different shops and handcraftsmen’s stores. Plus, there is a popular and brand new balneotherapy: la Balnéa.
Banyuls-sur-Mer and its vineyards
Banyuls-sur-Mer is located on the eastern side of the Pyrenees and is famous as it is the name of a French Wine AOC (label of quality) as the area of production spreads around the city. This red wine is very famous and goes perfectly with chocolate dessert.
There is a museum which tells the story of the vineyards and you can even taste the wine at the end of the guided tour! Apart from the city of Banyuls, there are several things to discover in the local area from the main, very touristy and often crowded city of Argelès-sur-Mer to the smaller towns and villages on the hillside, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Among them is Collioure, located 20 minutes from Banyuls-sur Mer and 15 minutes from Argelès-sur-Mer.
This stunning little town is famous for its ancient tower and its interesting monuments. Other places also worth a visit include Port-Vendres, a small harbour close to Collioure. Further to the South is Cerbère, the last town before Spain, a busy place due to the fact that all the trains for Barcelona and Spain have to stop there as the railway widths are not the same on both sides of the Pyrenees.
Another advantage of this region is its proximity to sunny Spain and the stunning city of Barcelona!
La Route des Cols (The Route of the Passes)
The Pyrenees are a paradise for cyclists, especially the fans of the “Grande Boucle”, the Tour de France. Every year in July, the most famous cycling competition passes through the Pyrenees and often the leaders battle for victory here. If you follow the “Route des Cols”, you will discover, among the 34 cols, the most famous names of the Tour de France : Tourmalet, Aspin, Aubisque, Plateau de Beille, Port de Balès, Peyresourde, etc. The road crosses the massif from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. All along your trip, you will enjoy beautiful landscapes and many vantage points overlooking the valleys.
Nonetheless, check out the weather and the traffic conditions before leaving. In the winter season, many mountain passes are closed due to the snow.
More details about la route des cols here.
Situated in the Eastern Pyrenees above the town of Perpignan, Mount Canigou is the emblematic mountain of Spanish and French Catalonia, just as Mount Ventoux is for Provence. At the foot of the peak stands impressive monasteries such as Prieuré de Serrabona, Saint-Michel-de-Cuixà and Saint-Martin-du-Canigou. Considered as the sacred mountain of Catalonia, Mount Canigou rises to 2,784 metres above the Tech and Têt valleys.
The summit is accessible only by walking and on a fine day, the panoramic view from there is breathtaking, reaching to the snowy peaks of the Central Pyrenees and to the Mediterranean Sea.
How to get there
As the Pyrenees extend over 430 km, there are many ways to access the massif. Some cities provide an entrance door to the Pyrenees: Bayonne, Pau, Tarbes, Lourdes, Lannemezan, Saint-Gaudens, Foix, Limoux and Perpignan.
Reach the western part of the massif within 7 hours either by train (with a connection in Bordeaux) or by car via the A10 motorway. You can also fly from Paris straight to the Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne airport and then rent a car from there.
To go to the central part of the Mountain range, you can fly from Paris to Lourdes-Tarbes Airport (1h25) and then take a train (to Lannemezan) or rent a car from there. You can drive from Paris, in the direction of Toulouse (A20 motorway) and you will reach the foot of the mountains within 7 hours. It will take you the same time to travel by train (connection in Toulouse or Tarbes).
To go to the Mediterranean part of the Pyrenees, you can fly from Paris to Perpignan (1h20) and rent a car to explore the beautiful towns of the Côte Vermeille. You can also drive to Banyuls-sur-Mer within 8 hours (A71 and A75 motorways) or take a train to Banyuls, from Paris-Gare de Lyon (6h30 with a connection in Perpignan).
The Pyrenees are not that close to Paris but as there are a number of airports located in the area, it is still easily accessible. Even by train or by car, it takes no more than 8 hours. Also, the Pyrenees offer the unique opportunity to switch between France and Spain as Barcelona is located only 3 hours drive from Banuyls-sur-Mer and San Sebastian is only half an hour from Hendaye.
Visit the Tourist Board of the Pyrenees for more info.