Spiking the skyline for 430km along the Franco-Spanish border, the snow-dusted Pyrenees offer a glimpse of France’s wilder side. This serrated chain of peaks contains some of the country's most pristine landscapes and rarest wildlife, including endangered species such as the griffon vulture, izard (a type of mountain goat) and brown bear. Since 1967, 457 sq km has been protected as the Parc National des Pyrénées, ensuring its valleys, tarns and mountain pastures are preserved for future generations.
Rural and deeply traditional, the Pyrenees’ wild landscapes now provide a paradise for skiers, climbers, hikers and bikers. But there’s more to the mountains than just outdoor thrills: there are alpine villages to wander, hilltop castles to admire and ancient caves to investigate. They might not be on quite the same scale as the Alps, but the Pyrenees are every bit as stunning. Strap on your boots – it’s time to explore.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Pyrenees.
If the Pyrenees has a mustn’t-miss view, it’s the one from the Pic du Midi de Bigorre (2877m). Once accessible only to mountaineers, since 1878 the Pic du Midi has been home to an important observatory, and on a clear day the sky-top mountain views are out of this world. A cable car climbs to the summit from the nearby ski resort of La Mongie (1800m). Early morning and late evenings generally get the clearest skies and smallest crowds.
Around 12km south of Lourdes, off the D821 near Argelès-Gazost, this fantastic animal park is home to many species that were once commonly sighted across the Pyrenees. The animals live on special ‘islands’ designed to mirror their natural habitat: marmots, chamoix and ibex inhabit rocky hills; beavers and giant otters dart along wooded waterways; and brown bears lord it over their own boulder-strewn mountain kingdom.
Most people know about the prehistoric artworks of the Dordogne, but far fewer realise that ancient painters left their mark in caves all across the Pyrenees. Halfway up a mountainside about 12km south of Foix, the Grotte de Niaux is the most impressive, with a fabulous gallery of bison, horses and ibex adorning a vast subterranean chamber called the Salon Noir. There’s also one tiny depiction of a weasel – the only cave painting of the animal yet found.
The spiritual centre of Lourdes is the subterranean grotto where Bernadette Soubirous is believed to have experienced her visions in 1858. From the Porte St-Michel, a broad boulevard sweeps towards the gilded spires of the Basilique du Rosaire and the Basilique Supérieure. Underneath is the fabled Grotte de Massabielle, where people queue for hours to enter and take a blessed dip in the cave’s icy-cold baths, while other pilgrims content themselves by lighting candles of remembrance outside.
Twenty-five kilometres northwest of Foix, near Le Mas d’Azil, this rock shelter is famous for its rich finds of prehistoric tools. Visits are by guided tour, which take you through underground galleries and describe the lives of those who lived here as well as some of the artefacts found here by archaeologists over the years. Note that you won't see any original paintings here.
Deep beneath the village of Labouiche, 6km northwest of Foix, flows Europe’s longest navigable underground river. Discovered in 1908 by a local doctor, it’s been open to the public since 1938. Barge trips lasting 75 minutes run for about 1.5km along its underground course, with guides pulling the boats along by ropes attached to the ceiling, and walkways entering more caverns and eerie chambers.
Originally the residence of the monarchs of Navarre, Pau’s castle was transformed into a Renaissance château amid lavish gardens by Marguerite d’Angoulême in the 16th century. Marguerite’s grandson, Henri de Navarre (the future Henri IV), was born here – cradled, so the story goes, in an upturned tortoise shell (still on display in one of the museum’s rooms).
For the full Monty Python medieval vibe, tackle the steep 20-minute climb to the ruins of this hilltop fortress, 32km east of Foix (and don't forget to bring your own water). It’s the westernmost of the string of Cathar castles stretching across into Languedoc; the original castle was razed to rubble after the siege, and the present-day ruins largely date from the 17th century.
This townhouse is the birthplace of one of Napoléon’s favourite generals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (nicknamed ‘Sergent belle-jambe’, on account of his shapely legs). Now a museum, the house explores the strange story of how Bernadotte came to be crowned king of Sweden and Norway in 1810, when the Swedish parliament reckoned that the only way out of the country’s dynastic and political crisis was to stick a foreigner on the throne.