Spain Guide

France Guide


Pyrenees France

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The Pyrénées are divided into west, central and eastern areas, all distinct in appearance and atmosphere. The west is the Basque Country; the craggy centre has the most beautiful peaks and lots of snow; the east is more arid, with Catalan and Mediterranean influences. The beaches on both the Basque side and in Rousillon are very popular. Nontheless, the Pyrénées are less developed than the Alps, and there are many things to do and see.

Pau airport information

The central Pyrenees have the highest mountains (up to 3000m) and the Parc Nationale des Pyrénnées Occidentales (see page on Walking in the Pyrénnées). There are also some fields full of flowers in the area around Barèges, ideal for having a picnic but DO remember to take your rubbish home with you in order to preserve the area's natural beauty. There are plenty of sheep in the Pyrenees as well as walkers, and in the local shops you will notice hard and soft varieties of fromage de brebis (sheep's milk cheese). Such is there importance that in the basque language, the word for rich (aberats) roughly translates as 'owner of great flocks'.

Towns tend to be the last item on the list of things to see in the Pyrenees, but there are a few worthy of note. The west Pyrenees are covered in the Basque Country section, with guides to Biarritz and Bayonne. In the central Pyrenees, Pau is home to the first 18 hole golf course to be built on continental Europe, in 1860. Peculiarly English activities such as polo and cricket are popular, owing to the influx of English tourists in the 19th century who came to 'take the air'. Lourdes, the most famous of the Pyrenean towns, is a kitsch tourist trap, thanks to a young girl's sightings of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Moving east, the terrain becomes more Mediterranean in appearance with broom and thyme growing in the drier soil. There are even vineyards on the lower eastern slopes. The town of Niaux is known as a starting off point for the local 10,000 year old prehistoric caves in the Ariège valley. Mirepoix is a great example of a 13th century bastide (fortified town), with a lovely market place, and the carved rafters of the council house are superb. Right on the east coast is Perpignan, a good base for discovering the Côte Vermeille (vermillion coast) that covers the last few kilometres south to Spain. The seaside villages are overrun with tourists, but Collioure in particular remains an attractive place to visit.

The eastern area of the Pyrenees is distinctly Catalan in feel and it was only incorporated into France in 1659. Although there is no real separationist movement nowadays, the Catalan language and culture, especially the many colourful festivals, are widespread and very much a part of the area's interest.