Stretching for 270 miles between France and Spain, the ragged chain of peaks that form the Pyrenees makes up one of the last great areas of wilderness in southwest France. Divided by valleys, cloaked by pines and crested with snow for much of the year, the mountains harbour some of France’s rarest wildlife: marmots, eagles, griffon vultures, wild goats and some of Europe’s last remaining brown bears.
In winter, the Pyrenees offers excellent skiing, especially on the slopes around the elegant 19th-century ski resort of Cauterets, where funiculars buzz overhead and Belle Époque residences huddle at the base of the mountains. In spring, once the snow thaws, the mountain pastures explode with wildflowers and the trails open up to hikers, cyclists and horsetrekkers. In summer, the lofty Pyrenean passes provide some of the most punishing stages of the Tour de France. And in autumn, when the first bite of winter appears on the breeze, the mountain forests light up in a blaze of strawberry reds, fiery oranges and tawny golds.
To appreciate the real Pyrenees you need to get off the beaten track. Thousands of people clamber aboard the Pic du Midi cable car or trek to the Cirque de Gavarnie every year, but precious few take the time to explore the back-country trails, where accommodation is in tiny mountain refuges or tumbledown shepherds' huts, and the only sound comes from the tinkle of cowbells and the occasional thunder of melting snow tumbling from a distant ridge.
"The mountains are a special place," says Claude Quidarry, who has worked as a shepherd in the Pyrenees for 30 years. Every year he leads his herds up to the summer pastures around the remote amphitheatre of mountains known as the Cirque de Troumouse. "They are permanent and unchanging. In the mountains, the outside world feels a long way away."
Where to stay
Hôtel du Lion d'Or is an Alpine-style hotel crammed with Pyrenean character. The exterior is covered in shutters and window boxes, and inside, charming rooms are decorated in candy pinks, sunny yellows and duck-egg blues. Knick-knacks are dotted throughout the building, such as old gramophones and stuffed stags' heads, and the restaurant serves up hearty mountain cuisine in cosy surroundings (from £68).
Where to eat
Cauterets has several decent restaurants, including Le Sacca, known for its regionally inspired haute cuisine (three-course menus from £14.50; 9 bld latapie-Flurin), and homely En So de Bedau, specialising in rustic dishes such as garbure (a thick country broth), trout and Noir de Bigorre pork (mains from £11; 11 rue de la Raillère). Grocers in town sell sausages, cheeses and other picnic supplies.
Correction: A previous version of this article misnamed Lac de Gaube. This has been fixed.
The article 'Southwest France’s best for mountains: The Pyrenees' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.