The Pyrenees form a natural frontier between France and Spain, stretching west from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean in the east. Traditionally, these spectacular mountains have been both a refuge and an escape route - most recently for WWII resistance fighters. As one of Europe’s last wildernesses, they offer the visitor a range of wonderful leisure pursuits like hiking, camping, fishing, climbing and winter skiing.
However, the Pyrenees National Park was created in 1967 to protect part of the spectacular mountain landscape of the high Pyrenees from the damaging effects of modern tourism. Hunting, dogs and vehicles are banned, leaving the wonderful landscape to all manner of endangered species including griffon vultures, ermines, isard (similar to Alpine chamois) and eagle owls. The native Pyrenean brown bear, which some believe is now extinct, is the subject of a controversial re-introduction programme.
Transport links from foothill towns are mainly north-south along valleys. Part of the GR10 long distance walking trail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean includes the length of the park. Hikers in June and July will be treated to a magnificent array of wild flowers such as white aspodels, purple Pyrenean irises and giant yellow gentians. Look out too for rare butterflies including the Garvarnie Blue.
Information centres - maisons du parc - give details on a variety of walks, fauna and flora, and warden controlled refuges inside the park. Remember to dress sensibly and check on weather conditions before setting out.
The Canal du Midi crosses the north of Haute-Garonne, linking the Mediterranean with the Atlantic and fed by water from the Montagne Noire (black mountains). It makes a wonderful venue for a leisurely canal boat cruise or for short canal trips. This 240km feat of engineering - it has 99 locks and 130 bridges - stretching from Herault’s Bassin de Thau to Toulouse where it connects with the River Garonne, is now a World Heritage Site and was already known as the ‘Wonder of Europe’ by the end of the seventeenth century.
In 1666, tax inspector Pierre-Paul Riquet, persuaded Louis XIV to let him begin work on his dream waterway which 14 years later brought trading prosperity along its route until the coming of the railways. In the twenty-first century, commercial traffic has given way to holiday craft slipping quietly past green tree-lined banks sunny with yellow irises in spring with towpaths making excellent walking and cycling trails. Cruises are popular on both the Canal and the River Garonne. A cruise from Renneville in the east to Seuil de Naurouze, on the border with Aude, includes a stop at Port Lauragais to visit an exhibition about the canal (meals onboard are available). Tel: Surcouf on (00 33) 6 75 28 60 83 for a provisional booking. Boats can be hired from Navicanal, Toulouse, tel: (00 33) 6 75 28 60 83. See www.toulouse-croisieres.com for guided cruises and boat hire. No navigation licences are needed on the Canal du Midi.