My first trip to the Pyrenees mountains was in 2007. I returned there backpacking in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. This summer I might go there for the seventh time. I’m considering a series of books, with photographs and notes from all my trips, and it seems I know something about the Pyrenees. Here’s a few notes about travel and towns.
There are various ways of getting to the Pyrenees. I can only talk about flights to Lourdes and Toulouse, both of which are convenient from Manchester. The Lourdes flight used to be available with BMI but is now only available with a local agent, Mancunia Travel, who run pilgrim trips but offer independent seats if available which they often are. A few years ago I arrived at Manchester airport with my rucksack and negotiated a bargain price. It wasn’t quite as risky as that appears because I’d had a chat with them two or three days previously. I knew there were a large number of empty seats and made them an offer. They were nice people. Cheery at the airport, helpful on the phone, and they gave me a lift into Lourdes on their coach.
Lourdes is a better option than Toulouse because it’s in the foot hills of the mountains. You have to pass through Lourdes if you don’t arrive there. It’s a large town where you can buy gas and methylated spirits for camping, which in French is called alcool de bruler. There’s a hardware shop about thirty minutes from the station supplying both. Last year, and previously, I bought a litre of meths from a general store which is ten minutes from the station at Toulouse. Leave the station, keep walking down the street directly opposite, and you’ll see it on the right. There’s a similar shop on the left side of the street which does not stock alcool de bruler. I bought it with five minutes to spare before catching my train. This is the view from the station, towards the street you need to take:
Bus connections from the airports to town, Lourdes and Toulouse, take about twenty minutes. You need access to the French railway, the SNCF, to get to the mountains. The train goes to Oloron Saint Marie where you can get a bus to Etsaut or the foot of the road which leads up to Lescun. I’ve hitched around the Pyrenees quite extensively and recommend it as a pleasant, free, and convenient method of local travel. You have a fun conversation and say a cheery goodbye with holiday smiles. There’s a bus service from Lourdes to Cauterets with links to Luz Saint Sauveur and Gavarnie. There is no hotel at Etsaut; at least one of the guide books needs updating. There’s a cramped hostel, another up the hillside in Borce, and you may be given permission to pitch a tent in a field (I was) or find a suitably hidden place to wild camp (I didn’t).
I slept once at Lourdes. If you have to, I recommend a hotel some distance from the station: big decibel trains thunder along the track every few hours. I’ve stayed at three different hotels in Toulouse. There are plenty of options near to the station, and not much to choose between them. There are further travel options such as sleeper trains to Paris and a train connection, or a flight to Barcelona which is then convenient for the Catalan Pyrenees. I can’t speak of those choices, or of flights from other airports, but the flight time is around two and a half hours.
I’m not really a town kind of chap. I’ve eaten in a restaurant only a few times. Once at Gavarnie, at a pizza parlour at Bareges and Luchon, and a tapas snack bar at Vielha. I don’t like the ritual of sitting at a table, making an order, waiting, eating, waiting again for the bill, and struggling to make them understand a vegetarian diet. If there’s a small food shop I will buy a tin of lentils, cheese, bread, fruit and salad, and eat outside or in a hotel room. Camp site food bars are pleasant such as you find at Camping Banos in the Esera valley, and at Bujaruelo. I’ve stayed twice at both places, and like both areas very much. The Gavarnie restaurant was annoyingly expensive: the same price I was paying for refuge meals using supplies carried in by donkey or lowered from a helicopter.
Towns and villages pass me by, as transitory stages for supplies and rest. However they are usually quite pleasant. Lescun is a lovely mountain village in a superlative setting. I stayed there at a hostel in 2007 which was unfortunately not a good trip: it was autumn, grey, and very rainy. There’s a hotel and restaurant at the little square, and in 2009 there was another smaller place down the hill which was less expensive and had a little veranda with a good view. The shop at Lescun is basic but adequate. The camp site, twenty minutes downhill, is a lovely place with a smaller shop. You could have a delightful holiday staying there a week. There are a few local walks, notably to Pic d’Anie, and with a car you could have day excursions elsewhere. I know nothing about car hire but it’s presumably straightforward.
Cauterets is a large place which is busy at certain times. The town organises festivals and a few years ago there was a race in the mountains which reminded me of the Three Peaks Challenge in Britain. There are plenty of shops for food, a few outdoor stores, tourist bookshops and gift shops. I nearly ate at a Cauterets restaurant, sitting and waiting for the waiter, but after five minutes decided otherwise. I bought a baguette, avocado pear and smoked tofu, and had an outdoor meal as I walked back to Refuge Wallon where I was camping and sleeping. There’s a wholefood shop where you can buy tofu and two or three bakeries where you can buy tasty Danish pastries. Cauterets is another good base if you want domestic or hotel comforts. You can drive, hitch, or take an infrequent bus up to Pont d’Espagne for day trip walks. There are two camp sites at Cauterets, one of them quite far from town and beside a road, the other quieter and nearer. I started and finished one of my trips at Cauterets.
Gavarnie is commonly described as unpleasant and commercial. The tourist shops – souvenir hats, towels, ornaments, mugs, tee shirts – don’t bother me too much because my expectations for a town are not especially high. I don’t go the Pyrenees to enjoy towns. If you do, I recommend you avoid Gavarnie. I had a bad experience there which I think is characteristic. I wanted to buy half a baguette, which a shop madame offered, and found I didn’t have quite enough money. She became nasty: her manner such that I was a ruffian, a lowlife, a hippy, a foreigner, I don’t know what. When a kindly chap placed the necessary few coins onto the counter she refused to accept them. The tiny little shop was, for her, like Harrods in London, full of social pretension where a rucksack doesn’t fit: and I wasn’t even wearing it. There’s one camp site at Gavarnie where I’ve stayed on three occasions. I liked it initially, but it can get very busy and it’s near the road where tourist donkeys take people to the famous cirque and back to town. The facilities are good.
Parzan is a strange place. It straddles a big road with houses up the hillside and shops, restaurants and a petrol station opposite. It doesn’t feel like a place where you want to rest and you wonder why people live there. The shop is quite good and there’s a guest house which I prefer to the roadside hotel and restaurant. I’ve stayed there three times, always in the same room, with the same smiling incomprehensible Spanish from the pleasant elderly chap who owns it. There’s a kitchen too, so you can cook food from the shop and relax. If you walk the HRP, Parzan is a necessary stopping place. Last year I mostly walked the GR11 but spent a night at Parzan – same room, same guest house, same food from the shop – before hiking to Viados the next day. Here’s the view from the kitchen. It gets very busy here:
Last year I liked Sallent de Gallego in Spain. It’s an old town with stone wall buildings and a traditional, mostly unspoilt atmosphere. There are a few large hotels but you will likely be told they are full when you know they are not. I found it a peculiar experience being treated like that, but you can easily avoid it. I found a basic, cheaper, and perfectly acceptable guest house in the older part of town. Bareges in France is pleasant, with a delightful little guest house and friendly madame who cooks you breakfast. I liked Salardu, which you can reach on foot or with a bus from Vielha. The shop there is alarmingly limited, but the bus to Vielha makes that less important. Pau is another nice town, where I spent a hotel night in 2009. I understand you can eat well there, but not if you’re vegetarian. I spent thirty minutes walking around looking at menus and there was nothing suitable. I liked Luz Saint Sauveur, where there’s a convenient but strangely located camp site in the heart of the town. From there a bus takes you to Gavarnie or back to Lourdes.
I spent a night at Luchon in 2013. You can hitch there across the border to Spain, and back the other way; I’ve done both. Luchon is well served with a bus and train service and is quite pleasant, although I was less charmed by the place last year. My hotel was at the top of the town near gardens and a glass walled spa. The next day I noted hotels at the other end of town, nearer the station, which I think are probably better. Luchon can be relatively busy. In the evening I wanted a pizza but there were no seats. There was a take away pizza place however, not far away, and I was quite happy, possibly happier, sitting and eating on a bench. For vegetarians, pizza is a good option.