Two rushing mountain torrents of the Marcadau and Gaube - known as gaves- meet in a tumultuous spray at the Pont d’Espagne in the Lutour Valley, 7km south of the thermal spa of Cauteret. Follow the tumbling waters 7km back up the valley by car to the bridge past a series of dramatic waterfalls, notably Lutour and Cerisey, or walk beside the stream on the ‘Chemin des Cascades’ trail which begins at La Raillere. Once at Pont d’Espagne (Spanish Bridge), it’s worth continuing on to explore the Marcadau and Gaube Valleys. The latter takes you either walking or by cable car (summer only) to Lake Gaube near Vignemale, the highest peak in the Pyrenean range (3,298m), with its north face in France and its southern aspect in Spain.
A magical must visit whilst in Hautes Pyrenees is the observatory on the Pic du Midi de Bigorre (2,877m) where you can sometimes believe yourself in an aeroplane above the clouds. It’s possible to walk to the summit from Col du Tourmalet. But climbing Pic du Midi for amazing panoramic views of the high peaks of the Pyrenees and south west plains is not a luxury reserved only for the fittest, as you can also drive to the ski station of La Mongie and, for a fee, take a 15 minute cable car ride to the top. Give a thought to the men and beasts with no such transport as they toiled to build the observatory in the 1880s, not to mention the many nineteenth century tourists - including philosophers and poets - who visited and took Pic du Midi to their hearts. As well as the observatory, which monitors pollution and the ozone layer, there’s a star museum, panoramic webcams, visitor centre, terraces and café. Open all year except Tuesdays out of season.
Up to 19 privileged guests can pay to spend a night on the summit and watch the sunrise. See www.picdumidi.com for details on this and more. Tel: (00 33) 8 25 00 28 77 to check weather conditions and take warm clothing - even in summer - as well as sunglasses and sun cream.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cirque de Gavarnie is a breathtaking natural amphitheatre, over 1,500m high, hewn from the rock by glacial freeze/thaw weathering. The near perfect semi-circle is actually a series of shelves topped by nine peaks rising to 3,000m in the east. The medieval epic poem of Chanson de Rowland claims the spectacular 40m gap in the rock face was carved by Charlemagne’s nephew Rowland with his indestructible sword Durandal which once belonged to Hector of Troy.
Cascading waterfalls include the highest in Europe - the 423m Grande Cascade de Gavarnie. In winter, the waters freeze into vertical sheets of blue ice and in summer they are used as a floodlit backdrop for dramatic shows. It’s best to visit early and late in the day or off season, as summer is a busy time with many tourists walking or riding by donkey from Gavarnie village on the 4km trip to the falls. There are the usual souvenir attractions in Gavarnie, close to the border and traditionally a last prayer stop for pilgrims on the Santiago de Compostela route before crossing into Spain.
More wild and desolate is the even larger 14km Cirque de Troumouse, sprinkled with small glacial lakes on its floor and reached by a steep toll road beyond the remote hamlet of Heas. You’ll find fewer tourists here especially in winter when the only access is on snowshoes or cross country skis.
The Spanish border forms part of the spectacular Pyrenees National Park which spreads across the departments of Pyrenees Atlantique and Hautes Pyrenees and includes some of the range’s highest peaks, such as Midi d’Ossau (2,884m). The park covers 45,000 hectares of marvellous sights and the largest part is in the department of Hautes Pyrenees.
Walk or ride by donkey to the breathtaking amphitheatre carved out of rock at Cirque de Gavarnie surrounded by cascading waterfalls, including the highest in Europe - the 423m Grande Cascade de Gavarnie.
Hunting is banned, making the park a sanctuary for vultures and golden eagles, isard (a type of alpine chamois), marmots and endangered brown bears. Rich with flora, the park also has over 200 lakes, dozens of valleys and 400km of sign-posted walking trails. (Remember the climate in the Pyrenees can be unpredictable and serious hikers should be well prepared). Each valley has a National Parks Centre, school groups are welcome and wardens often organise activities and themed outings.
Located on the northern border of the National Park, Neouvielle Nature Park takes its name from a group of glaciated mountains centred round the magnificent Neouvielle peak (3,091m). It was created in 1935 and is known for the wild splendour of its 70 glacial lakes such as lakes Aumar and Aubert, Cap Long and Oredon, which reflect the beauty of the surrounding snow-capped peaks in their icy waters.
The particular microclimate here supports a wide variety of unusual flora and fauna and though perhaps only a botanist could enthuse about the 22 varieties of sphagnum moss found in Neouvielle’s bogs, there are many other plants to see such as the dwarf mountain pine, and animals and birds as varied as midwife toads, capercaillie, isards and golden eagles to delight in. The park has car parking, a visitors centre at Oredon, way-marked trails and themed summer walks. Tel: (00 33) 5 62 39 50 81 St-Lary Tourist Office for more or ask at the National Park Visitor Centre in the town.