I never realized we lived three hours from one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. That is until we decided to pack up our bags and head to the Pyrénées for a weekend of tasty food, waterfalls, bells, and hiking. Oh, and we threw in a little pilgrimage to Lourdes for good measure.
In various geography classes, I’d become familiar with the Pyrénées, but I had always thought it was a small range and mostly just a way to serve as a border between France and Spain. It wasn’t until we moved to Toulouse that I started to hear (from locals) how much they enjoy canyoning, hiking, and camping in the Pyrénées. I’ve been in the Rockies, the Appalachian Mountains, the Alps, the Sierras, and they’re all incredibly beautiful and lovely (and well-known) in their own way. But I never considered the Pyrénées to be in the same class (I mean, we have a 1,000 page travel guide for France, but there’s no mention of where to go or what to do in the Pyrénées). Let me just say, boy was I wrong. The Pyrénées are stunning, majestic, and quite possibly France’s best kept secret. And if I’m being honest, I can see why they’d want to keep it a secret.
So, finding a good spot to hike took a little more investigating, where I found myself on a French hiking hobbyist website where the Cirque de Gavarnie was recommended, as it had a number of trails that ranged in difficulty from easy to average to difficult. After reviewing the distance from Toulouse and looking at some photos, I was convinced it’d be perfect and we started to plan our quick weekend as well as invite some friends (Bill & Alice) along with us.
The drive from Toulouse to Gavarnie is surprisingly swift and quick (about 3 hours or so), and we arrived around lunchtime, where we fueled up at Bar Restaurant Claire Montagne, which we’d 100 percent recommend (amazing view, good food, and prompt service). After lunch, we consulted our map and decided to start our hike toward the Cirque de Gavarnie.
The weatherman predicted clouds and rain, but Lady Luck was on our side and the clouds parted and we had a beautiful afternoon ahead of us with blue skies up above, the sun on our shoulders, and the sounds of waterfalls and streams filling our ears.
We had decided on the 3 hour hike, which was listed as “Relatively Easy” in the map we picked up from the tourism office. It would have us approaching the cirque via the Bellevue Plateau. Early on we came to a set of trees with purple rope around them (the way we were supposed to go) so we took the other road (in hindsight, we think we were on the donkey trail). Regardless, I think the photos below are of us at the Bellevue Plateau, though maybe not.
The waterfall you see in the distance is the Gavarnie Falls waterfall. While that is the largest waterfall we saw (it’s also the second highest in Europe at 422 meters/1,385 ft), I’ll wager we saw somewhere between 50 and 100 waterfalls throughout our hike, all which were flowing quite freely.
Hiking onward, we came to a small footbridge with another waterfall (below, top left). We’d worked up quite a sweat, and the mist from this one felt like the most amazing natural air-conditioning. From this point we found ourselves hiking through more forest/rainforest/jungle conditions until we found the second bridge (below, top right and bottom). What’s interesting to note here is the color of the water. It was so intensely clear. You could easily see all the way to the bottom.
From that stream we hiked up the mountainside into more jungle/humid climate. Though we were in the shade, it seemed hotter than anywhere else on the trail. At the end of it we found ourselves joining up with the main trail, close to the Hotellerie du Cirque. That’s where we had our second truly amazing view of the Grande Cascade waterfall (below).
Jim, Bill, and I had decided to make the trek out to the base of the waterfall. The map said it was an additional hour and a necessity to wear “comfortable/good shoes.” That, my friends, is the understatement of the century. If you make the trip out to the waterfall, be prepared for LOTs of rocks/stones, as well as crossing a couple of streams with rather jagged rocks (I was better at the traverse on the way back). Probably one of the best parts about being here was our first sheep sightings (second photo below). Now the sheeps’ bells were carried in the wind with the sound of the falling water in the distance. Talk about zen feelings.
If you squint really hard, you can see Bill and Jim in the bottom left photos as we got closer and closer to the waterfall. I’m hoping they also help to provide a little bit of perspective with regards to just how large the Cirque is as well as the waterfall. As you can see, I was a bit behind them, but I made it up to the base (see bottom right photo), as well. Jim said he saw folks in ponchos underneath the waterfall, which seemed pretty cool, but I couldn’t imagine going up those last steep rocks to get there. Instead, I took off my backpack, opened up my nalgene and enjoyed the Seattle rainstorm-like mist on my back. It was incredibly rewarding and 200 percent refreshing.
The walk back from the waterfall to the Hotellerie du Cirque was tricky (and quite rocky), but I have to admit I was better at crossing the streams than before and had a bit of pep in my step, though nothing near the pep of Bill’s step (he was SO fast in getting back to the hotel). By the time Jim and I arrived he and Alice were already enjoying a glass of wine and beer. We were happy to sit down, enjoy a well-earned beer, and marvel at the perfect view (below left photo).
For the walk back to Gavarnie, we decided to take the main trail, which was far easier and mostly flat (vs our jungle hillside trek earlier) and afforded some gorgeous water views (below middle & right).
That evening we settled on dinner at Les Cascades. Bill had been wowing locals with his French the entire trip (it is pretty fantastic), but he really was impressive as he chatted with the waitstaff at Les Cascades. We enjoyed some fine dining (in our hiking best): Jim and Alice had trout & lamb, Bill had entrecôte, and I had duck and trout. If you’re in that spot, can’t recommend this gem enough. I think the highlight (and what I’ll definitely remember most) was the accompaniment Bill and Jim received with their coffee – a snickers bar the size of a tootsie roll. Oh the French.
The next morning we decided we’d meet up around 10am and hike around the Cirque de Troumouse, which had come recommended by one of Jim & Bill’s French coworkers. We hopped in the car and had about a 30 minute drive through Gédre and then onward to the parking in the cirque.
This was some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever experienced riding in a car. We were driving up, up, up through so many switchbacks with drops on one side and sheep on the other as we climbed higher and higher to the Cirque. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos as we were driving, as It was a little unsettling to even look out the window at the “drop” sides for too long without getting a tiny twinge of vertigo. All the more props to Jim for being the best next to scary cliff driver I know (master at Big Sur, the Road to Hana, and now the Cirque de Troumouse).
When we finally reached the parking lot, we were essentially in the basin of the largest cirque in all of Europe. The photos I took do not even come close to capturing the size and scope of this spot. It was HUGE and incredibly peaceful. Aside from us, there were maybe 15 other cars parked.
We had decided to take it easy today and just do the 1 hour hike from the parking lot, up to the Vierge de Troumouse (statue below). In the below photos it doesn’t look like we’re high up, but believe me we are. From the Vierge we trekked a little further up and sat on some rocks near a group of resting cattle and enjoyed the view with the clattering of cow bells in the distance. It was really beautiful.
Following our mini impromptu picnic, we made our way back down to the basin and then started our descent back down through the switchbacks. This time we saw MANY a cyclist on his/her way up to the basin (I cannot even imagine) and happened upon a couple of sheep scrums in the road. We didn’t even see that in Ireland.
On our drive down, Alice had mentioned Bernadette and the Christian pilgrimages to Lourdes. If you’re like me and did not grow up Catholic (and had never heard of this), here’s a little background about Bernadette, her visions, a magical spring, her sainthood, miracles, as well as the reasonings for a pilgrimages to Lourdes.
Due to the magical qualities of the spring water, there were filling stations all over the place (as well as spots to buy empty water bottles/gallons/etc.). But, what I thought was a little more interesting was the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes (all below).
It was an overcast day, but you can still see the incredibly interesting architecture (there are ramps that lead up on both sides) as well as stunning mosaics both inside an out. Should you find yourself in Lourdes, I’d recommend stopping by, as it’s quite beautiful.
All in all, I don’t think we could’ve asked for a better weekend trip or better travel partners. It was – most definitely – a weekend for the memory books!