Mini guide to the Pyrenees, France
The mountains of The Vallée de l’Ariège are home to some of the largest caverns in Europe, many of which are covered in prehistoric paintings. (Matt Munro)
Crested by snow for much of the year, this mountain range forms a natural frontier between France and Spain. Dotted with historic ski stations, isolated valleys and subterranean caves, the range includes the Parc National des Pyrénées, a haven for eagles, griffon vultures, brown bears and other wildlife.
Pau Castle was transformed into a Renaissance château amid lavish gardens in the 16th century. It’s now a national museum. Henri de Navarre – the future Henri IV – was born here and cradled, it is said, in an upturned tortoise shell, still on display here (musee-chateau-pau. fr; 9.30am-11.45am and 2pm-5pm; admission and tour £5).
It might not have the altitude of the Alpine ski stations, but in many respects Cauterets is a much more atmospheric place to hit the slopes. Hemmed in by snowy peaks, it is also a superb base for exploring the Pyrenees National Park (cauterets.com).
Deep under the limestone mountains of the Vallée de l’Ariège, many of Europe’s largest subterranean caverns are covered in prehistoric cave paintings. The best is the Cave of Niaux, where tours must be booked in advance (00 33 5 61 05 88 37; sesta.fr/grotte-de-niaux.html; tours £8).
Ossau Valley tracks the course of its namesake river for 37 miles from the 1,794m-high Col du Pourtalet pass to its confluence with the Gave d’Aspe river at Oloron-Sainte-Marie. The valley, known for its cheese, is where the annual Foire au Fromage (Cheese Fair) is held (valleedossau-tourisme.com; 1-2 October).
Take refuge from the crowds on the 94m-high pinnacle of the Pic du Jer. There are two routes: a three-hour walk or a five-minute ride on the funicular (picdujer.fr; avenue Francis Lagardère; 9.30am- 6pm; return ticket £8).
Eat and drink
Tucked away in a building dating back to 1609, La Michodière is worth a visit for its poissons sauvages (wild fish) (00 33 5 59 27 53 85; lamichodiere.fr; 34 Rue Pasteur, Pau; lunch and dinner Tue-Sun; set menus from £12).
Le Sacca offers classical French cooking. Trout, boar and game feature heavily, and although waistcoated waiters and starchy napkins are formal, it’s relaxed (00 33 5 62 92 50 02; asterides-sacca.com; Boulevard Latapie Flurin, Cauterets; lunch and dinner late Dec-Sep; set menus from £15).
Run by the lauded Ithurriage brothers, Au Fin Gourmet is the best place to eat in town. The food is quintessentially French, with dishes such as rack of lamb rubbed with mountain herbs (00 33 5 59 27 47 71; restaurantaufingourmet.com; 24 Avenue Gaston Lacoste, Pau; lunch and dinner Tue-Sat, lunch Sun; set menus from £24).
Ten miles south of Lourdes is Le Viscos. It mixes Basque, Breton and Pyrenean flavours and the house speciality, foie gras, comes as a chilled mousse or on a tartine (00 33 5 62 97 02 28; hotel-leviscos.com; 1 rue Lamarque, Saint-Savin; lunch and dinner; set menus from £24).
Hôtel des Remparts, set in an atmospheric cellar, has made a name for itself thanks to young chef Nicolas Coutand’s fine-dining menu, featuring fillet of red mullet with yellow courgette gazpacho (00 33 5 61 68 12 15; hotelremparts. com; 6 cours Louis Pons Tarde, Mirepoix; lunch and dinner; set menus from £25).
Tucked away in the mountains is Auberge Les Myrtilles. As you walk out of one of its eight wooden chalets and look down on the scenic Ariège countryside, it feels a little like stepping into the pages of Heidi (00 33 5 61 65 16 46; auberge-les-myrtilles.com; Col des Marrous; from £48).
Mountain views unfurl from every window at idyllic b&b Eth Berye Petit. This 18th-century farmhouse has a cosy lounge dominated by a huge fireplace, while an oak staircase leads up to three country-style rooms. The best is Era Galeria, with 19thcentury furniture, French windows and a private balcony (00 33 5 62 97 90 02; beryepetit.com; 15 route de Vielle, Beaucens; from £50).
Surrounded by private gardens, Château de Beauregard is an architectural extravagance. The rooms more than live up to the exterior promise: all different, elegantly furnished and full of quirky touches, such as bathrooms hidden in corner turrets (00 33 5 61 66 66 64; chateaubeauregard.net; ave de la Résistance, St-Girons; from £52).
At Maison des Consuls, each room is decorated to echo a local historic figure. Best is Dame Louise, with its four-poster bed and birds-eye view over the square, and the Suite de l’Astronome, with a terrace overlooking the town’s red-tiled rooftops (00 33 5 61 68 81 81; maisondesconsuls.com; 6 place du Maréchal Leclerc, Mirepoix; from £70).