Pau, Béarn and the Pyrenees
The Béarn, in the southwest corner of the Hexagon, is one of those French regions, like Gascony or the Dordogne, whose name has no official status but is so well established and beloved that it refuses to go away. Until the Middle Ages Béarn was a large and independent kingdom straddling both sides of the Pyrenees and including Navarre in Spain. Now it forms part of the Pyrenees Atlantique department, along with the Basque country, two independent-minded regions whose boundaries were deliberately redrawn after the Revolution to erode their autonomy. Béarn encompasses both valleys and mountains, extending to the Pyrenean frontier with Spain. The Béarnais divide firmly into valley people or mountain people, but they all love the Pyrenees, even if the valley folk only look at the view from a distance.
It is this distant view of the mountains that gives the Béarn its particular identity, and the foothills are liberally dotted with charming small chateaux with terraces offering splendid views to accompany a glass of the delicious sweet Jurancon wine which is a favourite aperitif.
For the more intrepid the mountains are wonderful, heaven for hikers and climbers of course; t he GR10, one of France’s most famous footpaths, crosses the entire range from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. The Pyrenees National Park includes some of the most spectacular scenery in the Pyrenees, high clear mountain lakes, huge waterfalls, and challenging mountain peaks, along with one of France’s most popular tourist attractions, the Cirque de Gavarnie, a vast glacial amphitheatre with the longest waterfall in Europe. Many of these sights are accessible in a day trip. Best of all, there are mountain railways and cable cars which make even some of the highest peaks accessible to almost everyone.
First though enjoy the view from the gentle foothills of Béarn, and in particular its capital, Pau, the perfect place to start a visit to the Pyrenees. The best view is from the Boulevard des Pyrenees which runs along a ridge from east to west facing the mountains to the south. On a clear day you can see 83 peaks in a glorious panorama, stretching across the horizon for 60 miles or so, from the western Pic du Midi d’Ossau, looking like an upturned whale’s head, as far as the Pic du Midi to the east. An orientation table points out the peaks. Until very recently it was impossible to find a hotel with a view -all the splendid old hotels on the Boulevard had been turned into apartments – but now there are two new hotels which offer views of the mountains; the Hôtel du Parc Beaumont on the Boulevard des Pyrenees, and the Hôtel Villa Navarre, (address to come).
The Pyrenees at this point are only about 20 miles away and there is nothing in the broad valley between to interrupt the view of the range of shimmering peaks. The Gave de Pau (Gave is the Béarnais for river) which has tumbled and roared down from the cold glaciers of Gavarnie, snakes gracefully across the plain.
Once the historic capital of the Béarn district, and today departmental capital of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques, Pau is most famous for its gentle climate, especially an almost complete lack of wind- which led the Wright Brothers to select Pau for their first flying school in 1909.
But there is a downside to the mild climate; in Pau they say, “If you can see the mountains it is about to rain. If you can’t it is because it is raining.” It does rains a lot, but like everything else in this sweet region, it is gentle rain. I recall in Pau one day following an elderly man with beret, baguette and umbrella trudging up a steep street of the old town in the pouring rain. Singing.
The British have never been able to keep away, and only relinquished their claim after the Hundred Years War in the mid 15 th century. They returned in the 19 th century, attracted primarily by the climate, which was particularly recommended for tuberculosis. They were also seduced by the fashionably romantic image of the Pyrenees, its sublime landscapes, snowy peaks, Arcadian valleys and mysterious caves.
Pau still calls itself proudly, “ville anglaise” and I was given a whistle stop tour of the town by Paul Mirat, director of communications for the mairie of Pau, who spoke excellent English. He explained that his family had always had a close connection the local British population, “My great grand father was a horse breeder. He taught himself English because there were so many Brits around. Then he opened up a big shop in the centre of Pau, A la Ville de Londres, selling furniture, carpets, all brought from England.”
Everywhere there are poignant reminders of the British presence, fading grand villas in streets with names like rue Buckingham, rue des Anglais, avenue Norman Prince, avenue Ridgeway and rue Alexander Taylor, and crumbling neglected tombs in the cemeteries of Pau and Billères, west of the centre. We had lunch at the Golf Club, the first in Europe, laid out by the British in 1856, a black and white timbered mock Tudor building modelled on the one in Calcutta, itself modelled on the original Golf Club of St Andrews Scotland.
Fox hunting also remains a popular local pursuit (especially with M.Mirat) The hunt, which developed from Wellington’s first forays, was one of the most popular sports in 19 th century Pau, and the runs were named nostalgically; Old England, the Hill District, the Home Circuit, and even Haut and Bas Leicestershire. “If hunting is banned in England, you could invite Prince Charles to Pau.” I suggested.
You can still attend services at the Anglican church, St Andrews, on rue O’Quin, a classic 19 th century neo-gothic stone building with stained glass windows, oddly reminiscent of an English parish church. Here I was astonished to find a small English colony still singing “All People that on earth do dwell”, and arranging flower rotas. The service was led by the chaplain, Rev Richard Eyre, who used to be Dean of Exeter Cathedral. The service sheet was printed in French and English, and I noted that God was addressed as “tu”. To learn more about the English in Pau, visit Villa Lawrence in its handsome park at the northern end of rue Montpensier; here the Cercle Anglais still meet (though most of the members are French) and there is an exhibition devoted to Pau; ville anglaise. (Check with tourist office for opening times.)
The old town of Pau clustered around the chateau is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets and half timbered houses with a few streets which could easily be a smart Paris arrondissement, with elegant shoe shops, truffle and foie gras emporiums and window displays of chocolates. Place Royale in the middle of the Boulevard des Pyrenees is a classical 18 th century square shaded by platanes surrounding a statue of their beloved Henri VI. The Place is overlooked by the mairie of Pau, a grand building, originally built as a theatre, and presided over by mayor, Andre Labarrère, a socialist who has held power in Pau for thirty years in a thoroughly patrician manner. He has also been openly homosexual all that time, perhaps one reason why Pau has a substantial gay community.
To get the full flavour of Pau, go to cafe Bouzoum on rue Henri IV, where once English ladies, Parisian beauties and Russian countesses met for afternoon tea and gossiped behind their fans. And don’t miss the free funiculaire, first put in service in 1904 to connect the boulevard and the railway station below and recently opened again.
To the west the old town is dominated by the chateau, a great 14th century keep of red brick towering over the river below. In the 16th century the chateau was transformed into a Renaissance palace, with finely carved doorways, windows and archways, a suitable place for the birth of Henri of Navarre, who ascended to the throne of France as Henri IV in 1589 and thus united the Béarn region with the rest of France. You can tour the state rooms of the chateau, which are most memorable for the fine Gobelins tapestries, the 16th century kitchens and a giant turtle shell, which was used as the infant Henri’s cradle. At the other end of the Boulevard is the Parc Beaumont, a grand villa and casino in a magnificent park, recently restored by, with the glass atrium of the winter garden full of palms again.
The Musée des Beaux Arts is well worth visiting, for a good collection which includes El Greco, Rubens and Degas and in particular a section full of paintings of the Pyrenees.
Around Pau the Béarn is a rich agricultural region of rolling hills and wooded valleys, a bit like the Cotswolds with chateaux. It is well watered by the rivers which flow down from the Pyrenees.
Farmhouses are often built of galets, river stones, or colombage, timber construction, with stone floors and fine woodwork of oak or chestnut. Typically they have two rooms each side of a wide staircase, two bedrooms and an attic above, with an adjacent barns forming an L-shaped building around a courtyard.
To the north of Pau is the area known as Vic-Bilh, “the old country” a maze of valleys and rivers and very little else. It has wine though, the AOC Madiran, and in Madiran itself there are several caves you can visit, and also the remnants of the abbey church where you can see the crypt and carved capitals.
West of Pau on the south bank of the river are the vineyards of Jurancon, one of the few wines of the Pyrenees, and you can follow a wine route signposted through the vineyards. The golden sweet AOC Jurancon is excellent with foie gras or dessert, and there is also a fragrant dry Jurancon Sec.
On the outskirts of Pau is Lescar, once the most important Roman city in the region. The cathedral which was begun in 1141 was severely damaged by the Protestants in the Wars of Religion but still guards some of its treasures, notably some wonderful stone carvings, several recycled Roman columns and a magnificent mosaic, part of the original church decoration and featuring mythical hunting scenes.
Further west along the Gave de Pau is Orthez, once capital of Béarn, now a sleepy little town most famous for its medieval fortified bridge, and some fine old buildings including the Maison de Jeanne d’Albret, a restored 15 th century mansion with a courtyard and pigeonnier. In the Protestant cemetery is the tomb of the Earl of Selkirk, philanthropist and pioneer, who bought lands in Canada to settle poverty stricken emigrants from Northern Scotland and Ireland, now best known as the founder of the State of Manitoba. He was one of the first of the British to come to Pau for his health. Unfortunately he died anyway, and since there was no Protestant cemetery in Pau, he was buried in Orthez. Subsequent invalids were not dissuaded however.
One of the prettiest towns here is Salies-de-Béarn, the salt town, once a major source of salt drawn from an underground source; the Musée du Sel will explain all you could ever want to know. More recently the town was a fashionable spa, complete with casino, bath-house, bandstand and grand hotels all set in a splendid park. Check out the Hotel du Parc for its beautiful galleried atrium. The spa still attracts plenty of curistes, convinced of the benefit of the waters for arthritis and gynaecological problems.
A few miles further south is Sauveterre-de-Béarn, a lovely town with fine river views of the Gave d’Oloron, and the remains of a fortified bridge. It is best known today for the annual world salmon-fishing championships that are held here.
Heading east again along the D936 a short detour will bring you to Navarrenx, a complete fortified village built by an Italian architect a century before Vauban’s famous citadels. It’s fearsome ramparts and turreted portals withstood several sieges, and the little restored town can now be enjoyed by more peaceful visitors. There is an enjoyable stroll right around the ramparts. Navarrenx also makes a good place to set off canoeing or rafting on the gave de Pau. A little further along the D936 is a more sombre site; Gurs, location of one of World War II’s notorious French concentration camps, which accommodated undesirables from fleeing Spanish Republicans to anti-fascist German refugees. Neglected and unacknowledged until recently, it is now being restored as a memorial.
Oloron-Ste-Marie is a little market town at the junction of the Ossau and Aspe valleys. It is distinguished by its two churches; Eglise Sainte-Marie with its magnificent Romanesque doorway of carved marble, and on the other side of the river Eglise Sainte-Croix with its 13th century Spanish stonework.
Tarbes east of Pau, is an important agricultural town, but rather dull, except on market day (Thursday) when there is a huge farmer’s market on the place de Marcadieu. There is a fine park, the Massey Gardens in the middle of town, within which is the Musée Massey, devoted mainly to the history of the Hussars. Another military sight is the house where World War I commander, Maréchal Foch, was born, which has an exhibition of photos, medals and memorabilia.
Southeast of Pau you can follow the Gave de Pau, (its fast flowing waters are very popular for canoeing and kayaking) which will eventually bring you to Lourdes. The little village of Nay along the way is famous for beret making and a visit to its museum provides an intriguing insight into the process, and a chance to buy a typical traditional beret. Countrymen still find them the best protection against the weather, pulled over the eyes to protect against rain and sun. Just off the D937 are the caves of Betharram, where you can take a little train to view the stalactites or a boat across an underground lake.
Lourdes is best known as one of the great religious shrines of Europe. It is a dramatic sight, with castle, churches and crosses theatrically positioned against the mountains. You are greeted by signs for la Grotte de Bernadette, promises of miracles and hotels offering peace and sanctuary in neon lights. Almost five million people a year flock to Lourdes, and there are more hotels than anywhere else in France apart from Paris. The pilgrims come seeking miracle cures for sickness and disability, many making trips of a lifetime -indeed for some it is the only place they ever go. And Lourdes does not disappoint them, though it might horrify anyone else, with its souvenir shops stuffed with Bernadette snow globes, medallions, rosaries, crucifixes and Lourdes holy water in every conceivable container, from large plastic jerry cans to tiny pendants, and cafes with menus in 7 or 8 languages.
It began with a 14-year-old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who saw a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Divine instructions, and encouragement from the Catholic church, led her to discover the spring at Grotte de Massabielle. Ever since she was sanctified in 1862 pilgrims have come to the tiny little cave to fill their bottles with miracle waters and abandon their crutches, or to visit the humble little house in rue des Petits-Fossés where she lived with her family. The original Basilica du Rosaire with its glittering golden dome, built in honour of Bernadette has been supplemented by a vast underground church, Basilica Saint Pius X, which will hold 20,000 people, and there are nightly torchlight processions of thousands of pilgrims.
The sanctuary itself however, the rocky grotto by the river where Bernadette saw her visions, is as humble as the Basilica is grand. I was amazed by how serene it was, people in prayer by a peaceful river, with just the sound of birdsong as a long line of supplicants kissed the rock and lit candles.
There is also an older Lourdes, clustered round the castle, where there is an excellent museum devoted to the Pyrenees. Within its stone walls is a huge assemblage of costumes, tools and furniture, precious evidence of centuries of local life from kitchen bowls to cow bells, shepherd’s knives to woollen shawls. There is also a small collection of memorabilia from the early Pyrenean mountaineers, a few portraits and busts, compasses, water gourds and several well worn alpenstocks.
For those who want a foretaste of the mountains there is a funicular railway to the top of the nearby Pic de Gers, and caves to explore when you get there. Before I left Lourdes I asked the hotel receptionist, a young man with a crew cut and gold earring above his white shirt and black bow-tie, what he thought of the efficacy of the water of Lourdes. He grinned at me, and said he knew nothing about it, but then added, “In the World Cup 2002 the Italian team manager scattered Lourdes water on the pitch at a desperate moment– and they scored a goal!”
Head for the hills : The High Pyrenees
The high Pyrenees offer the solitude of remote mountain peaks, lush, gentle valleys and rushing waterfalls. In spring and summer the hillsides are abundant with flowers, and in winter a deep coverlet of snow offers a splendid variety of skiing. A good time to visit is the arrière-saison, the golden days of autumn, when trees are heavy with fruit, the rivers swirl with fallen leaves and the air is fragrant with woodsmoke.
The Pyrenees National Park, a protected zone of about 2500 square kilometres stretching for about 100km along the frontier with Spain, was established in 1967 to protect the wildlife, flowers and animals, many of which are found nowhere else in Europe. The Park is strictly controlled and carefully husbanded and there is no permanent human habitation in the central zone. No hunting or flower picking is allowed, and camping only permitted within an hours walk of the road,(and you must be off by sunrise.)
There are izards (the Pyrenean antelope, which is the symbol of the park) ibex, even (a few) Pyrenean brown bears; other rare species include the ptarmigan, or snow partridge and the marmot. The most magnificent birds can be seen circling in the sky; vultures, griffons and the lammergeyer. The Pyrenees is home to over 400 species of flowers, 150 of which are to be found nowhere else; look out for purple valerian, ramonda, saxifrage, lilies, tiny purple crocuses and pink androsace. Visit the Maisons du Parc for information on walks, wild life and flowers.
The pleasures of nature are well supported by elegant spa towns, rustic hotels and ancient monasteries and tiny chapels which bear witness to the many centuries of human habitation, from simple shepherds to the romantic poets who found inspiration in the sublime beauty of these mountains.
From Pau or Tarbes several routes will take you into the High Pyrenees. Head southwest of Pau to the Aspe valley, along the N134, a route of passage from France to Spain for millennia; for Roman legionaries, pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella, traders and smugglers, shepherds with their flocks, and later for the armies of Spanish, French and British who surged back and forth over the Pyrenees. This peaceful valley was the centre of controversy for several years over the opening of the road tunnel through the Col de Somport at its head and the increased traffic this would inevitably attract. Though the tunnel finally opened in 2003 access roads remain unfinished and the small villages along the valley suffer a constant invasion of trucks heading for Spain.
High above the valley is the little village of Lescun and the great cirque de Lescun, a dramatic amphitheatre of peaks including the 2482 metre Pic d’Anie. Etsaut, half way up the valley, is a good place to stop to visit the Maison du Parc for information about the National park and the valley. And you can also find a fine lunch at the Hotel des Pyrenees, a small old fashioned hotel on the riverbank, where we enjoyed a classic Bearnais meal of garbure, a soup of cabbage and bacon, and fresh river trout.
The valley narrows to a dramatic gorge dominated by the fort of Portalet, a grim granite fortress where the Vichy leader, Marshal Petain was imprisoned at the end of the war. There are plans to open it to visitors in the future.
Parallel to the Aspe valley is valle d’Ossau dominated by the mighty Pic du Midi d’Ossau. You can cross between the two via the Col de Marie-Blanque and head south to Eaux-Chaudes, a classic old spa town. Further south up the valley d’Ossau is Gabas, the last village before the Spanish border, an important centre of cheese production- the excellent brebis, made of sheep’s milk, which is served everywhere in the Pyrenees, sometimes accompanied by dark cherry jam, a delicious contrast. There is a route du fromage you can follow through the Béarn with locations where you can sample and buy cheese – ask for details form local tourist offices.
South east of Gabas is Artouste-Fabrèges where you take a cable car up to the Train Touristique du Lac d’Artouste, a little narrow gauge train with open carriages, which will take you on a splendid journey through the mountains. It was originally constructed in the 1920s to transport workers building the dam at Lac d’Artouste and then converted with admirable enterprise, into a tourist train in the 1930s. It is popular so book ahead and allow time for a short walk to the lake.
Laruns is the beginning of the Route des Pyrenees, a spectacular road which winds through the high mountains and was originally designed for the Empress Eugenie to get to all the spas. It makes hair raising driving even now, and I drove it once over the 1709 metre Col d’Aubisque on an October day and found myself enveloped by thick cloud, so be sure to check the weather.
Heading out of Pau to the east you can follow the Gave de Pau into the mountains via Lourdes and Argeles-Gazost. Each side of the valley is dotted with tiny villages, and St Savin in particular is worth investigating. Here you can see part of the 12th century monastery which once controlled the entire valley; a lovely 12th century Romanesque abbey church remains, and a chapter house with carved capitals so old they may have been taken from a Roman villa. On the opposite side of the valley are the ruins of Beaucens castle, now used as a sanctuary for birds of prey, vultures, falcons, buzzards and eagles.
From Pierrefitte-Nestalas you have a choice, either valley will lead you to treasure. Head first for Cauterets, through a deep wooded gorge along a road which snakes around the mountain side hundreds of feet above the river.
It finally opens out into a green gentle valley, the little town nestling in the lee of a thickly wooded massif. Cauterets is a grand old spa town of sulphurous vapours, colonnaded mansions and wrought iron balconies. It is an excellent base for skiing or walking, and was once one of the most fashionable spas in Europe, a favourite with romantic poets and writers like George Sand, Tennyson and Victor Hugo. The history is recounted in the Musée 1900, once the sumptuous Hotel d’Angleterre, which displays tableaux of models wearing period gowns of satin and silk, bonnets and feathers, men in immaculate evening suits, and a wealth of information about the heyday of Cauterets.
From Cauterets a 6 mile walk (or, ahem, bus) takes you past cascading waterfalls to the Pont d’Espagne, where three waterfalls converge magnificently. The path continues up to Lac de Gaube at 6000 feet, or you can cheat as I did with a telesiege which swings you right up the mountain side. The high mountains peaks are astonishing as is the lake itself, set in a gothic, barren landscape dominated by the 10,820 feet peak of Vignemale. It is the highest of all peaks in the French Pyrenees and famous for the passion it inspired in the 19 th century mountaineer, Count Henry Russell who climbed it 33 times, once spending the night buried in stones on the summit, and carved out caves there in order to commune with his beloved mountain more effectively. You can continue from the Lac to climb the mountain (there are refuges at Oulettes and Baysellance and you will need to be properly equipped) or you can contemplate it over lunch beside the lake. The trout are especially recommended.
After returning to Pierrefitte-Nestalas from Cauterets head up the Gorge de Luz to Luz-Saint-Sauveur, once an important frontier post, and a pleasant place to pause on the way; make sure you see its ramparts and 12th century fortified church. We ate a traditional French lunch at the Hotel de Londres on the riverside, which seemed to have changed little since the 19 th century. Try the local mouton of Barèges-Gavarnie if it is on the menu, the first in France to be awarded an AOC (appellation contrôlée) classification.
After Luz take the D921 to Gavarnie, the most amazing site in the Pyrenees. (Now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) It is a dramatic road, first crossing the Pont Napoleon, which was decreed by Napoleon III and opened in 1864. It crosses the torrent of the Gave in a single magnificent arch at a height of 66 metres. On my first journey to Gavarnie along this narrow rocky gorge I rather regretted stopping to read a marble plaque on the side of the road, describing an accident in 1923 in which 21 Dutch tourists and their French driver plunged to their death into the boiling torrent below. The locals still call it the Dutch Leap.
Further along the twisting mountainous road is the gloomy Chaos de Coumely, a deep harsh gorge, with the river pounding through it, scattered with a confusion of huge rocks which look as if they had just rolled down the mountain side. Finally you glimpse the rim of peaks that heralds Gavarnie. To the west there is a brief glimpse of the Massif de Vignemale, and at the entrance is a statue to Count Henry Russell, always known as “the spirit of Gavarnie” his starting point for the Vignemale.
Gavarnie lies at the foot of a mountainous barrier which creates the great cul de sac of the cirque. It is a vast amphitheatre, gouged out by a glacier, with giant steps of limestone capped with snow and ice, above which tower five snow clad mountains. The arena below is heaped with rubble brought down by the cascades which pour over the walls. The great waterfall, still the most popular sight in the Pyrenees, is the longest in Europe, and drops an astonishing 423metres ( the falls at Niagara are 47 metres) In spring, fed by melting glacier waters it falls in one tremendous chute, and in winter freezes into columns of ice. A tribute to the cirque of Gavarnie was de rigueur for any self-respecting Romantic. Victor Hugo called it “the colosseum of nature.”
Gavarnie has always been the key place for connoisseurs of the Pyrenees, for tourists one of the finest sights and for mountaineers the closest they could get to the heights. At 1375 metres above sea level it is still the most remote and highest village in the chain, with only about 150 permanent inhabitants. 500,000 visitors a year make quite an impact.
This can be a problem however if you visit in high season when the narrow road becomes clogged by tourist buses form Lourdes. The best thing is to go counter to the prevailing traffic and head up there later in the day when everyone else is returning. Spend the night or more so you can really appreciate this lovely place in peace. There are several hotels both grand and modest. The Hotel de Marbore, has a roaring log fire, walls full of prints and photos of mountains and mountaineers, good views and can even produce a good cup of tea. The Hotel du Compostella just next to the church is smaller but still has views of the cirque and friendly proprietors who can advise on walks.
Gavarnie makes a splendid base for walking whether gentle wanders through the forest and up to the Cirque, or more demanding treks including the famous Brèche de Roland, where according to the classic poem, the hero tried to break his enchanted sword rather than relinquish it to the invading Moors, and instead hacked a crevasse 300 feet deep. You can see the Brèche, a huge gash in the cliffs of the Cirque de Gavarnie.
In Gavarnie don’t miss the little church, its graveyard of honoured mountaineers, and the 14 th century statue of Notre Dame du Bon Port, holding in her right hand a water gourd, symbol of the protection of travellers.
To get to the Cirque you must walk or ride by donkey or horse and then scramble across ice and snow bridges to the waterfall itself. Happily there is a restaurant just below, the Hotel de Cirque; the dining room has an authentic flavour with its old marble bar and stuffed bouquetin and isard on the walls. We lined up for a choice of hearty garbure soup of cabbage and bacon, local mouton, and bilberry tart.
From Luz Saint-Sauveur you can take another fine route via Barèges (which claims some of the best skiing in the Pyrenees) to the Col de Tourmalet, the highest pass in the mountains accessible by car and one of the most challenging passes for the Tour de France. From the other side at the ski station of La Mongie you can ascend to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre by cable car.
It is one of the most astonishing places I have ever visited, probably the best possible view of the Pyrenees, snowy peaks stretching to the horizon. There has been an observatory right on the Pic since the mid-nineteenth century and there is now a musée des etoiles devoted to the study of the stars, sun and moon. There is a restaurant and magnificent terrace from which to see the view.
You can return to the plain via the spa town of Bagnères de Bigorre, once almost as popular with the English as Pau for its gentle sheltered climate. Bagnères’ most famous resident was Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, chairman of the Chiefs of Staff under Churchill in World War II. He was born was there in 1883, the son of hunter and sportsman Sir Victor Brooke. Alan began life speaking French and Béarnais, and in 1940 a story appeared in the French regional press, of an English commander who could speak Bearnais; Alanbrooke had met a local regiment from the Pyrenees elsewhere in France, and had spoken to the soldiers in their own language, much to their delight.
You reach Bagnères via the lovely valley de Campan, a broad glacier valley with good grassland, pine and beech woods on the slopes, solid farmhouses with balconies and slate-roofs and churches with pointed spires. (and happily a petrol station.)
Bagnères is a delightful half way house for the Pyrenees, easy to get to but already a world away from the plain, with clear mountain views, sweet green valleys and pure air. Today it is a sleepy little place, but still retains a few vestiges of its glory days, here the elaborate glass and wrought iron canopy of a hotel; there an elaborately carved wooden balcony painted turquoise, set off by red geraniums; shaded loggias, and shutters of pink, pale blue and red. A bold sign under the gables of one building declares Hotel des Americains in Thirties lettering, though below it is nothing but the town urinal. You can still sit and stroll under the plane trees on place Coustou and visit the spa in its splendid neo-classical building. Next door is the Musee Saliès with a collection of mainly landscape paintings, in particular some beautiful watercolours by Blanche Odin, who visited Bagnères all her life until her death at 92 in 1957. Her delicate colours and acute eye capture the mountains and the landscape in all its guises, and are a wonderful reassurance that nothing essential has changed. Even for those who do not aspire to mountaineering and are happy to view the peaks from afar, the Pyrenees still offer all the delights that 19 th century visitors desired, a perfect combination of health and beauty.
Any serious walk takes time, so consider camping out or staying overnight in refuges, undoubtedly the best way to experience the mountains. Be sure you are always well equipped with good boots, water and maps. Public transport is erratic so a car is almost essential – the roads usually are very good, and well signposted, and although the hair pin bends over high mountain passes can be hair raising, they are rarely dangerous. Petrol stations are often few and far between however, and remember that once above a certain altitude many places will only be easily accessible from May to October. Some roads are closed completely in winter. ALWAYS CHECK THE WEATHER WHICH CAN CHANGE VERY QUICKLY.