The Observer, Sunday July 6 2008
Sneak a peak
You don’t have to be a mountaineer to enjoy Europe’s spectacular summits. Rosemary Bailey offers a cheat’s guide to the Pyrenees
Alfred, Lord Tennyson once joked to William Wordsworth that hot-air balloons ought to be available at the foot of every tall mountain so that no one need climb them. Wordsworth was not amused, but it struck me as a good idea. Most guides to the Pyrenees today are aimed at walkers and climbers, and quite right too. But what of those, such as myself, who adore mountains, but are not very good at climbing them?
It is hard these days to find four sturdy peasant porters to carry you up in a sedan chair, a means of ascent favoured by lazier visitors to the Pyrenees in the 19th century, the heyday of romantic tourism. While researching a book about the great 19th century explorer, Count Henry Russell-Killough, I utilised any mechanical means possible – funicular railways, cable cars and ski lifts – to follow in his footsteps and enjoy the celestial views. I wouldn’t say no to a hot-air balloon.
The most thrilling experience was the Pic du Midi and its mountaintop observatory. It is right in the middle of the Pyrenees, and at 2,877 metres stands aloof from the rest of the chain, and was thus long thought to be the highest peak of all. It was one of the great challenges for the tourists of the 19th century, celebrated by poets such as Tennyson and the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who said the ascent of the Pic du Midi had changed his life: ‘It was the first time I found myself in the presence of such grand mountains. I received a profound impression which has affected me all my life … ‘
The construction of the observatory, the domes of which are clearly visible on the summit, was a staggering achievement in 1880. Most of the building material and equipment had to be hauled up on the backs of porters and mules. For a long time it was the highest observatory in Europe, and even now is only exceeded by three others, one in the Sierra Nevada in Spain, and two in the Canaries.
Happily it is still functioning. It was threatened with closure in 1983, a victim of scientific progress and the development of satellite observation, but relaunched itself with a new role. It is still a meteorological station, supplying Meteo France with data, and a stellar observatory, but now also offers a museum devoted to the stars and the study of the sun. Best of all, it offers an unrivalled experience of a mountain summit for those who can’t manage a demanding climb.
Today it can be reached in 15 minutes from the ski station of La Mongie at 1,800m, in two télécabines (cable cars) which swing dramatically up the lower ridges, straining up the final slope; buffeted by winds sometimes so fierce they prevent the cable cars from ascending. The observatory and star museum are flanked by a huge terrace offering knock-out views of snowy peaks, like forked icing on a giant cake. On a clear day you can see from Mont Valier in the Ariège to the Pic du Midi d’Ossau in the Pyrenees Atlantiques, and sometimes as far as the Atlantic itself, a distance of nearly 160km.
Accommodation previously reserved for the observatory staff is now open to the public, so you can even stay overnight and watch the sun set and rise on the most sublime view of the Pyrenees (it would make a fine honeymoon destination). But it can be bitingly cold up there, and when I spent the night in late October there was already about 20cm of snow. Often during the winter there can be as much as three metres of snow on the terraces, making it impossible to go outside – they have to poke holes through the snow outside the windows to see anything at all. In the museum are photos of the hermetic existence of the early days, when the scientific team could be isolated for months.
It was snowing and overcast when I arrived but I was lucky – the clouds cleared just in time for sunset and I joined all the sun-worshipping staff to watch for a full 20 minutes as the sky reddened to ruby and gold, yellow and green, wisps of black clouds rising like smoke beyond the vanishing white summits. It was truly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.
We ate rustic local food in the restaurant, Gascon garbure soup with cabbage and bacon, mushroom omelette and apple tart, and then most of the team went on the night shift, observing moon and stars from a range of telescopes.
I had a simple, well-equipped room, with shower water pumped up from the cold depths of the Lac d’Oncet below, but spent most of the night in anticipation of the sunrise, to be rewarded with an experience to rival that of Count Russell himself. A line of pure gold threaded with purple and jade lit the eastern horizon and heralded the sun. It was, in Russell’s words, ‘a morning to give the saints nostalgia for the earth’.
Rosemary Bailey travelled to France with Rail Europe (08448 484070; raileurope.co.uk) which has returns from London St Pancras to Lourdes via Paris from £109. The Pic du Midi observatory (picdumidi.com) is open all year, but closed Tuesdays out of season. Single rooms cost €199, doubles €299. A cable car leaves every 15 minutes from La Mongie, which can be reached by bus from Argelès-Gazost, Lourdes or Bagnères-de-Bigorre. Check the weather before leaving on 0825 00 2877 (from France only).
‘The Man who Married a Mountain’ is Rosemary Bailey’s book about Count Henry Russell (available from rosemarybailey.com). Her new book, ‘Love and War in the Pyrenees’, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£16.99). To order a copy for £15.99 with free UK p&p go to observer.co.uk/bookshop