The department of Hautes Pyrenees, once part of the ancient province of Gascony, is a land of mountains, high pastures and winding roads where the old style upland agriculture is still practised. Sample the regional specialities of cassoulet and foie gras and the local red Madiran wine. The border with Spain forms part of the spectacular Pyrenees National Park including some of the highest peaks, such as Midi d’Ossau. The Park covers 45,000 hectares of marvellous sights. Walk or ride by donkey to the breathtaking amphitheatre carved out of rock at the 1,500m high Cirque de Gavarnie surrounded by cascading waterfalls including the highest in Europe - the 423m Grande Cascade de Gavarnie. This sanctuary for vultures and golden eagles, isard (related to the Alpine chamois), marmots and endangered brown bears, rich with flora, has hundreds of lakes and peaks with marked routes for serious walkers.
Outside the Park, visitors to Hautes Pyrennees are offered a wide range of leisure activities whatever the season, including mountain biking, climbing, hang gliding, canoeing and horse riding. Go skiing at resorts like Peyragudes, on the border with Haute Garonne, which also has a snowboarding park. Unwind at one of Hautes Pyrenees’ many natural spas such as Argeles-Gazost - used in films, the mountain setting is so beautiful. The waters at Bareges are reputed to be especially good for rheumatism. The most famous spring in Hautes Pyrenees, with reputed miraculous healing properties, was discovered 150 years ago in a cave near Lourdes where young Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary. Today, Lourdes is filled with magnificent churches and abbeys, but visitors should be aware that with millions of visitors each year, Lourdes is the world’s most popular place of Christian pilgrimage and has necessarily become commercialised.
To see another view, take the chair lift to the top of Pic du Jer for fabulous panoramas over Lourdes, Tarbes, Pau and the mountains. Tarbes itself has panoramic views of the Pyrenees. Known as the city of the horse, Napoleon I created a national stud here to breed the cavalry horse - cheval Tarbais. The town holds equestrian events and the modern hussars still parade for visitors.