THE BLAZING AUTUMN COLOURS OF THE FRENCH PYRENEES

by Ian 

5 November 2016

Glorious weather, hardly any people and autumnal scenery to die for - just three reasons to visit the French Pyrenees in October

by Ian 

5 November 2016

Noted for its skiing and summer hiking trails, the Pyrenees mountain range acts as a natural border between the far south-west of France and Northern Spain. It’s generally lower-altitude than the Alps. And doesn’t have some of the latter’s big name attractions, such as Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. But it’s no-less-beautiful and comes with the added bonus of less traffic and smaller crowds.

So, blessed with late-October deep-blue skies and temperatures in the low 20s, it was an easy choice for a couple of days hiking after we’d finished our latest house-sitting assignment near to Pau.

The last time we were in the mountains was back in May when we were mesmerised by the barren, cold desert landscapes of Northern India. What a contrast it would be this time. The blue skies and snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees provided the perfect contrast for spectacular displays of colour as the autumn leaves paraded their full gamut of reds, oranges, browns, yellows and greens. Just breathtaking.

Autumn colours at the Pont d’Espagna

The Cirque de Gavarnie

Close to the Spanish border, the town of Gavarnie is just an hour’s drive south of Lourdes. It’s the sort of relatively low-key place which becomes a hive of activity during the peak summer and winter tourist seasons. And it’s big draw is its proximity to the imposing glacial amphitheatre of the Cirque de Gavarnie.

Just an hour and a half by foot from the main car park, it’s a largely comfortable hike, passing through green pasture and forests of conifer and beech. Of course, it should have been straightforward enough for us. But, aided by English-translation-free signposting, we managed to take a wrong turn and our 90-minute hike turned into a three-hour one. But when the scenery is this sublime, who cares!

And our “wrong turn” took us on a route that was more spectacular than we could have imagined.

En route, we passed hillsides of extravagantly coloured trees, leading down to fields of grazing horses. But this was just a taster for what was on offer after we’d edged our way up through the wood.

From our vantage point at the top of the wood, we looked down on a landscape that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a key Lord of the Rings battle scene. With the Cirque’s massive wall of rock ahead of us we gazed down on a huge bowl of green pasture and beech forest, flanked on either side by trees displaying an impossible variety of colour. In fact, it seemed the only colours not on offer were grey, dark grey and black.

Far to our left, we could see walkers on the main route to Gavarnie Waterfall and we couldn’t help but wonder if they were missing out on possibly the best sight in the whole area. We wandered down to the bowl for a closer look and, as we gazed up it was as if we’d stumbled upon a landscape masterpiece that had suddenly come to life.

One of those moments where we had to remember that standing around with our mouths wide open is not a good look…

Epic scenery. Amazing colours

And then it was time to dive in.

We walked up to the forest and were confronted with another decision on where our route would take us. Up to the Bellevue Plateau or onwards to the Cirque de Gavarnie?  The former looked like a two-hour return hike to a flat ridge we could see towering above us. So onwards we went through the forest instead.

This time we were able to experience the autumn colours from “the inside-out”. The distinct colours we’d observed from a distance were now replaced by a sun-drenched mishmash of yellows, oranges and browns. It was like walking through a dreamland imagined by a Disney animator. In fact, the only thing missing was the sight of a white unicorn dancing on its hind legs.

We continued for another hour or so, sure we’d end up at the Cirque de Gavarnie at some point. But, we inevitably reached the point where the bottle of red wine in my backpack could not be concealed any longer. Cue the breaking of bread, the spreading of cheese and the raising of two glasses to our sublime surroundings.

It’s at this point I’ll confess that we thought we’d now “done” the Cirque de Gavarnie. We’d had the colossal horseshoe of vertical rock in our sights as we’d made our way through the forest. And, naively we thought that was just about it. Wonderful scenery but a bit of an anticlimax in terms of the actual destination.

It was only when we continued post-lunch on to the main pathway back to the car park that we noticed pockets of walkers headed in the opposite direction. On closer inspection, it looked like there was a pathway leading right up to the rock face itself. This was the main route to the Cirque that we’d missed right at the beginning!

So, after a cursory hand-on-hips glance at each other, we turned around and headed back up the pathway. Only this time things got steeper. A lot steeper. Especially after a bottle of wine.

Nevertheless, consummate professionals that we are, the summit was reached with just a sprinkling of swear words between us.

And then we realised what the fuss was all about.

Incredibly, the landscape was totally different to the multi-coloured extravaganza we’d seen thus far. Gone were the trees. Gone were the colours. And in their place was an almost greyscale world of rock, powdery snow and waterfalls.

Gavarnie Falls

Pride of place was reserved for Gavarnie Falls – at 422 meters, the highest waterfall in mainland France. In fact, it was almost New Zealand-esque in its size. And, from the viewpoint, I could make out some people standing right beneath it. So I told Nicky I’d make the 15-minute-or-so trip over there, take a few photos and be back in time for a leisurely 90-minute walk back to the car park. What I hadn’t accounted for was the pebble-heavy, energy-sapping trudge that usually accompanies a close-up with such a marvel of nature.

The 422-metre drop of Gavarnie Falls

A full hour-and-a-half later, I returned to the ever-patient Nicky and we began our journey back to Gavarnie. As always, the steepness of the descent was as much a strain on the knee joints as the climb up. But, we were relieved that we’d actually made it to the Cirque, albeit via a roundabout route. And what a route!

After the steepness subsided we hit the level pathway, which meandered its way through the opposite side of the valley to the one we’d arrived in. Any other walkers we passed were either French or Spanish (which is not surprising, considering its proximity to the border).

Which made us think that this is an area that may be under-appreciated as far as wider tourists are concerned. Especially at this time of the year when it’s surely at its best.

And finally, as we approached our car in Gavarnie, we almost forgot to look behind us once more at what we were leaving behind.

Somehow, I think we’ll be seeing it again sometime soon.

Looking back to the Cirque de Gavarnie (on the far right) en route to the car park

Our thanks to Nick and Maggie, for whom we were house sitting in the nearby department of Gers.  They very kindly offered to have us for a further two nights after they returned from their break so we could explore the Pyrenees mountains and experience the wonders of Cirque de Gavarnie and its surrounding area.

What did you think? Have you been to the Pyrenees? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting there in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.

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Glorious weather, hardly any people and autumnal scenery to die for - just three reasons to visit the French Pyrenees in October
Glorious weather, hardly any people and autumnal scenery to die for - just three reasons to visit the French Pyrenees in October

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THANKS FOR READING!

Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.

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