The Pyrenees: Planning Your Trip

A stunning green valley in the Pyrenees Mountain Range in France

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The Pyrenees form a natural border between France and Spain, respectively known as Les Pyrénées and Los Pireneos in each country. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, this international mountain range is snowcapped for most of the year and home to some of the most renowned ski resorts in both France and Spain, but activities here aren't limited to just winter sports. Some of Europe's most picturesque hiking trails can be found in these slopes, peppered with small villages that are made up of different cultures, speak different languages, and serve their own unique gastronomies.

While the cultures all begin to mesh around the border, this guide focuses on the French side of the Pyrenees, covering towns from Biarritz on the Atlantic side all the way to Perpignan on the east coast.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The Pyrenees is an all-season destination, so the best time to visit depends on what you're looking to do. Summer is one of the busiest times, but comfortably warm mountain temperatures are great for hiking. The warm weather lasts through fall but with far fewer crowds. The ski resorts open their doors in winter and early spring, while late spring is when the wildflowers come into bloom and bring pops of color to the already breathtaking landscape. In November, most local places close down because it's the slowest month for tourism, so think twice before going in November.
  • Language: The Pyrenees straddles three different countries and multiple cultures, so the language spoken shifts based on where you are, but the main languages are French, Spanish, Catalan, and Basque. You can expect most people on the French side to speak French and on the Spanish side to speak Spanish, but in Andorra the main language is Catalan. On the eastern side of the Pyrenees, many locals in France and Spain also speak Catalan, while on the western side of the Pyrenees is French Basque Country. In small villages around the Pyrenees, you'll also find locals who speak Aragonese and Occitan.
  • Currency: The currency used all around the Pyrenees, regardless if you're in France, Spain, or Andorra, is the euro.
  • Getting Around: The Pyrenees stretches across a huge area of 310 miles from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea, and traveling from place to place is best done in your own vehicle. During the winter, many of the ski resorts arrange transportation from the nearest big cities so travelers can get to the mountains.
  • Travel Tip: Most travelers who want a European mountain adventure go directly to the Alps, but the Pyrenees are an under-the-radar option with amazing landscapes, fascinating villages, and at a fraction of the price of the Alps.

Things to Do

What you do primarily depends on what time of year you're visiting, with winter sports dominating in the colder months and hiking through the mountains when it's warm. But you're hardly limited to just skiing or hiking in this rich region. You also have beaches on either end of the mountain range, whether you want the turquoise Mediterranean water on the east or the surfing waves on the west. You can also explore centuries of history in the medieval towns and villages that are scattered around the region, where residents still live a bucolic alpine lifestyle.

  • Surf the Atlantic at Biarritz. Biarritz is the main city of the French Basque Country and a destination for surfers. The best beaches are the Grande Plage, followed by Plage Marbella and Plage de la Côte des Basques.
  • Visit the castle of Montségur. The Cathars who once lived in this area disavowed the Catholic Church in favor of a more simplistic and humble lifestyle. Considered heretics by the church, the last Cathars held out against Catholic persecutors in the 13th century in this castle before eventually surrendering.
  • Summit the Pic du Midi. Look down on the world from the pure air of Pic de Midi de Bigorre at 9,438 feet (2,877 meters). From the ski resort of La Mongie, take the 15-minute ride in a cable car to the summit, where you can see 186 miles (300 kilometers) of Pyrenees summits between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. For a real treat, book the nighttime experience to see the sunset, stargaze from the summit, spend the night, and wake up for sunrise from the mountain peak.
  • Hike the Parc National des Pyrénées: Created in 1967 to protect the Pyrenees from tourist developments of ski resorts, car parks, accommodation, and more, this National Park is a great natural habitat for wildlife. It contains part of the GR10 hiking route which runs for 434 miles (700 kilometers) through the Pyrenees from coast to coast.

What to Eat and Drink

As you travel across the different cultural regions of the Pyrenees, you'll see how the local cuisine changes with it, from the seafood stews typical of Catalonia to the traditional Basque pintxos you'll find on the Atlantic side. Within the mountain villages of the French Pyrenees, however, there are a few staple dishes you're likely to encounter. Warm and hearty casserole dishes are often made with local fowl and in-season produce (sometimes still carried up to the higher elevation towns by donkey or horse).

Magret de canard is perhaps the most classic Pyrenean dish, made up of seared duck breast and a prime example of haute cuisine. Another typical dish in the area is aligot, which is essentially a cheesy mashed potato dish with garlic and yes, it is just as delicious as it sounds.

Small and family-run hotels or bed and breakfasts, especially those with a focus on local agriculture, often make their own liquors, spirits, and cordials using berries and other fruits. Since each family produces their own, the types and flavors of each drink are as diverse as the people who make them.

Where to Stay

Charming mountain villages are easy to find in the Pyrenees, so it's just a matter of taking your pick. Even the "big cities" around the Pyrenees are relatively small and still very enchanting, and make for great bases to explore the rural areas around them.

If you're visiting in the winter, the options within the actual Pyrenees Mountains are more limited to ski resorts since many of the mountain passes and roads are closed down. Cities closer to the coast, however, are reachable all year long.

Biarritz

Biarritz has a history of fluctuating fortunes. Napoléon III put the resort on the map after he regularly came here to party with kings and queens, aristocrats, and the wealthy in the mid 19th century and it remained the place to be until the 1950s. In the 1960s the Mediterranean and the Côte d’Azur took over as the place for the young to visit and Biarritz settled into a genteel decline. A decade later, it was rediscovered by the young from Paris and from the rest of the world as a great surfing destination and its character once again changed. Biarritz is a lively city, with the splendid Art Deco Casino Municipal, a reminder of its rakish past, taking pride of place on the Grande Plage beach. Visitors can also see the Biarritz Aquarium, wander around the lovely streets, and dine in the delicious Basque restaurants.

Bayonne

Three miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Bayonne is one of the most important cities in the French Basque Country along with Biarritz. Located where the Ardour and Nive rivers meet, the city has a real Spanish flavor to it. The Musée Basque gives tourists some insight into Basque history both on the land and at sea. Also worth seeing is the old quarter around the fortifications built by the great military engineer Vauban in the 17th century, the cathedral, and the botanical garden.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz

St-Jean-de-Luz is an attractive resort commune with a lovely sandy beach and an old town with half-timbered houses. Once a vital whaling and cod-fishing port, it is still the main place for landing anchovy and tuna. Also located in the French Basque Country, St-Jean-de-Luz is much smaller than Bayonne or Biarritz and still maintains the charm of a small fishing town. It's also just a couple of miles away from the Spanish border, making it easy to reach San Sebastian.

Pau

A famous French poet once said that the city of Pau has "the world's most beautiful view of the earth," and with the backdrop of the Pyrenees, there's no question as to why. Pau has been an important city in southern France since it was the capital of the Kingdom of Navarre in the 15th century. It’s an attractive city with a large university, so there's a young in this centuries-old town. Visitors can also see the château museum and the nearby cave grottos of Béharram with its stalactites and stalagmites.

Lourdes

Lourdes is most known for the cave where a young girl in the mid-19th century saw visions of the Virgin Mary, turning the small village into a tourist phenomenon practically overnight. The city is still visited by millions of religious tourists every year, but the natural beauty around Lourdes is reason enough to visit even if you aren't going as a pilgrim. Staying in Lourdes is convenient for travelers who want to visit anyway and it has many accommodation options, but it's also one of the most touristy options in the Pyrenees. If you're purely going for nature, then staying outside of Lourdes is a better option for disconnecting.

Foix

Foix is a small city that sits in the valley at the base of the Pyrenees, and the main site to see is the hilltop castle that dates back to the 12th century. You can easily reach hiking trails that traverse the neighboring regional park, so summer or early fall are the best times for visiting this natural area. Foix is very much off of the tourist route and is mostly visited by French travelers who want to explore the nearby mountains. For a truly authentic Pyrenean experience, Foix checks all of the boxes.

Perpignan

On the Mediterranean coast, Perpignan is an important Catalan city. Although people often associate Catalonia with Spain and Barcelona, the Catalan culture actually crosses the border into France as well, and Perpignan retains a strong Catalan identity through its culture, language, and cuisine. It has some remarkable buildings, including the Loge de Mer, built in 1397, and the museum of Casa Païral, the place to find out more about the local Catalan culture. Plus, the Mediterranean beaches are right next-door.

Getting There

Getting to the Pyrenees depends a lot on which part you plan to visit. For trips to the French side, you'll likely have to start in Paris and then either fly or take a train to somewhere closer (the closest international airport to the Pyrenees is in Toulouse). However, if you're planning to stay near the coastal regions, you may be better off starting your trip in Spain. To get to Biarritz, Bayonne, or Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the nearest airport is in San Sebastian, while a flight to Barcelona is the quickest way to get to Perpignan.

Money Saving Tips

  • Outside of the ski resorts, summer is the busiest season in the Pyrenees and tourists book up mountain getaways from June through August. If you can travel in September or October, you're still likely to get good weather and save a lot on accommodations.
  • To save money on food and still eat good, pick up some cured meats and fresh cheese in the local markets or—depending on where you are—right from the farm. With a baguette from the bakery, it's the perfect picnic to bring along on a hike.
  • For deals on accommodations, especially during ski season, try to plan your trip for the middle of the week instead of the weekends.
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