Pedal-powering through the Pyrenees

The peaks are just as steep, but prices are about half compared with those in the Alps

Mountain high: spectacular sights in the  Pyrenees

Mountain high: spectacular sights in the Pyrenees

 

Awaking to your first fluorescent morning in the Pyrenees to the sinking terror that you may have missed your sole chance to ascend the Col du Tourmalet because you’ve slept it out, isn’t something I’d recommend. Investing in an alarm clock beforehand is. No, take it from me, sure it will not be grand.

Rising at 9.30 isn’t an auspicious start if you intend tackling a world-famous, 2115m-high Tour de France climb in the summer heat. Having prepared assiduously in the weeks before leaving (i.e. once a week up and down all 170 metres of Howth Head . . . on my brother-in-law’s creaking mountain bike . . . while listening to archive documentaries on McCarthyism), I almost persuaded myself that the roadbike I had hired, whose purchase price would be more than four times that of my car back home, would effortlessly offset the 34 degrees heat from the Tourmalet’s launch from the valley-floor village of Luz St Sauveur.

But the temperatures do mercifully drop about a degree for each 100m to the top, while the words of encouragement painted across the tarmac helps spur you on.

While I couldn’t find my own name – or even remember it – there was no shortage of those of cycling’s greatest that had stomached the ascent before me. What other internationally renown sports event allows its fans to reproduce it, needle-free, in the exact location and in their own time?

Fortunately, I have the wonderful Rob Williamson to guide me to the top of the Tourmalet and, days later, the 1720m-high Luz Ardiden.

A former racing cyclist from Yorkshire, Rob and wife Rachel run Pyrenees Cycling, based in the thermal village of Barèges.

Since 2005, they have provided bespoke road cycling and mountain bike holidays in the French Pyrenees, tailor-made for the day-tripping dabbler like myself (“bike-curious,” I prefer to put it) and the earnest MAMIL (“middle-aged man in lycra”) hoping to knock-off the classic cols (i.e. mountain passes) of European race cycling, in what must be some of the most dramatic cycling routes on the planet.

Peak and mix

Many assume the Pyrenees to be mere foothills in comparison to the Alps. But there are, in fact, dozens of simmering 3000m-plus peaks along a near-500km-long range from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean.

And, once here, your wallet too will be grateful it’s not the Alps. As a broad brushstroke, Pyrenean prices are about half that offered in the Alps, from outdoor/adventure activities to accommodation and meals.

You will have no trouble finding a very decent three-course meal in these villages for €15, where you may partake of the famous regional lamb (organic and free-ranging across these mountains), dry-cured sausages (made from Porc noir de Bigorre – a rare, highly prized Pyrenean hog teetering on extinction by the 1980s) or garbure (a thick soup of ham hock, potato, white bean, cabbage and other vegetables).

It’s a region where the trickle of terracotta roof tiles cede to slate, as the range lifts from the plain. And there the magic begins. Villages are perched like stalled chess pieces, anchored to their square by fortified churches, strengthened to see-off medieval Aragonese raids from across the Spanish border, while evading the avalanche-prone spaces about them.

We’re in Le Pays Toy – literally, the valley of the small people. Understood to have occupied many of their existing villages for at least the last 10,000 years, the Toys are a small, tough, resilient and independent mountain people, not easily wooed or wowed.

It’s said when the statue of St Sebastian, the patron saint of the local Betpouey village, was installed in their church, the natives were not suitably convinced of his martyrdom until he had not just a couple, but more than a dozen arrows plunging though his flesh.

It was to the healing waters of Barèges that Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s famed mistress, brought her crippled son to get “the cure”, putting the tiny village on the French royal radar.

A couple of centuries later, Napoleon III stationed his troops for some R&R by its famous thermal waters (“they’re great for healing sore limbs, and gunshot wounds,” I was advised in the bistrot) and word has spread ever since.

Flower power

There is so much beneath the surface of these mountains that would otherwise go untold without a good mountain guide. In France, that isn’t just someone to steer you safely up and down a crag, but an enlightening portal to the local history, culture, geology, ethnology, folklore, flora and fauna, weaving anecdote with all-too-sobering fact. I had Robert Mason of Mountainbug, and would suggest you look no further.

Take the mountain flowers alone. There are more than 2,500 varieties here, more than a 1,000 of which are endemic.

The flower of the Pyrenean Buttercup, for example, emerges exactly two days after the snows have melted, only for it to survive 48 hours at most, when its wilts and disappears for another year. What is it about the higher the mountain, the smaller the flower? How is it that such dainty-looking, miniature flowers can thrive at such punishing heights? But, like the Toy, I guess their size belies their innate strength and resolve.

From late May to early October, Mountainbug offers bespoke guided trekking and multiactivity adventure holidays to suit most fitness levels. Up high in the Pyrenees, temperatures rarely exceed the mid-20s, even at the height of summer.

1.3 Eiffel Towers high

We trekked through paths of beech, silver birch and wild cherry, to lift through an aromatic treeline of Pin à crochet (mountain pine) to about 1,800m, where silky meadows tremble beneath the snow-topped towering mount of the Spanish border. Isard (Pyrenean chamois) and marmots abound, with griffon vultures silently circling high-up above, like beaked spy planes. Between eagles and vultures, Pyrenean raptors are a massive draw for the nature lover.

The Cirque de Gavarnie is simply stunning; a massive horseshoe-shaped, amphitheatre-like valley with rock walls that shoot straight up 1,500m in places, down which meltwater rushes. The highest free-hanging waterfall in mainland France, the “Grande Cascade”, drops some 422 metres, or 1.3 Eiffel Towers (the standard measurement of height in the Fifth Republic) to the snow-splattered cirque floor.

We finished the route by following back a small stretch of the Camino de Santiago before rising the next day to scale the epic 2,141m Pic de Viscos, from whose pyramidal peak the valley floor unfurls a mile below.

On your bike

Between May and October, Pyrenees Cycling (pyreneescycling.com) offers a range of tempting tour packages, ranging from €500-€1200 per person per week half board, based at Les Sorbiers, a traditional mountain pension in Barèges, halfway along the Col du Tourmalet. The owners, Rob and Rachel, are classically trained French chefs who serve up superb three-course dinners each evening for guests.

An excellent range of bikes, at reasonable prices, can be rented from Tourmalet bikes (tourmalet-bikes.com) in Luz St Sauveur: a 10-minute downhill drive from Barèges and the official start of the Col du Tourmalet.

During the ski season (late November to mid-April), Les Sorbiers hosts skiers/snowboarders and can arrange all ski hire, lessons and lift passes for the Barèges-La Mongie ski resort – the largest in the French Pyrenees. Less than 10 minutes from the village, Barèges-La Mongie sports more than 120km of pisted runs from 1,400m to 2,877m.

From May to October, Mountainbug (mountainbug.com) offers a plethora of professionally guided, week-long trekking and multiactivity packages for between £700 and £950 (€795-€1,080). During the snow season, it can also provide customised skiing, snowboarding, snow-shoeing and ski touring holidays, based from catered accommodation in its “Les Cailloux” ski chalet in Barèges.

Don’t ignore the TLC

After a hard day in the saddle, treat yourself at the Cieléo thermal spa (cieleo-bareges.com ) in Barèges. For as little as €10, you can have an hour-long stately soak, whereas massage treatments range from €35-€75. Similarly, Les Thermes de Luz St Sauveur (luzea.fr ) offers a comparable range of services, only set among stately neo-classical architecture.

Getting there

Aer Lingus fly Dublin-Toulouse return (direct) from about €140 return. Air France fly Dublin-Pau return (via Paris) from about €220, and Dublin-Lourdes (via Paris) from about €400 return for a 7 or 8 hour journey (or from about €250, over 17-18 hours each way, via London and Paris on multiple airlines). Barèges is about 2.5 hours from Toulouse airport, 1.5 hours from Pau and about 45 minutes from Lourdes.

Jamie Ball was as a guest of Occitania/Pyrenees-Mediterranean Tourist Board (tourism-occitania.co.uk) and Hautes-Pyrénées Tourist Board (tourisme-hautes-pyrenees.com).

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