The Pyrenees (Les Pyrénées) is one of the seven great mountain ranges of France. They mark the division between France and Spain and stretch from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coasts in the south of France, with tiny Andorra lying in the middle of the mountains. The range is 430 km (270 miles) long with its widest point of 129 km (80 miles). The highest point is Aneto Peak at 3,404 meters (11,169 ft) in the Maladeta (‘Accursed’) central Pyrenees massif, while there are many other peaks over 3,000 meters (8,842 ft).
The Pyrenees are impressive, with snow on their tops most of the year. But most interesting is the two very different cultures that they span. Near the coastal resort of Biarritz on the Atlantic coast, the area is Basque speaking while in the eastern Mediterranean you'll feel you are in Catalonia in both language and culture. The center of the Pyrenees has the Parc National des Pyrénées, a paradise for walkers with its varied flora and fauna. For the serious walker, the GR 10 runs along the whole mountain range from coast to coast.
To the north east, the area is known as Cathar country. It’s a lovely stretch with its ruined medieval fortresses stretching between Quillan and Perpignan and history comes alive in the ruins of Puilaurens, Queribus, and Peyrepertuse. The heretic Cathars sought a quiet, peaceful but alternative religion and had turned away from the wealth and corruption of the established church. The challenge to the establishment was too much and the mighty Catholic church retaliated with extreme brutality during the crusades known as the Albigensian crusades after the Cathar stronghold of Albi.
The movement was finally crushed after the fall of Montségur, the site of the Cathar’s last stand, in 1244.
- 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. It has museums, including the Biarritz Aquarium, one of Europe's great aquarium collections, a port, lovely streets to wander through, and a lively restaurant and night life.
- Bayonne, 5 km (3 miles) from the Atlantic sea, is the most important city in the Pays Basque. Located where the Rivers Ardour and Nive meet, the city has a real Spanish flavor to it. The Musée Basque gives you some insight into the Basque past 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, a cathedral and botanic garden.
- St-Jean-de-Luz is an attractive resort 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.
- Pau, an important city in the 15th and 16th centuries as the capital of French Navarre, lies in the central Pyrenees. It’s a particularly English city which comes as a surprise to first-time visitors. The English discovered Pau in the 19th century, believing the city to be a place for healthy living. Never mind the fact that Pau had no special restorative qualities, the English had discovered the place and never looked back. They brought their particular Englishness to the city: Fox hunting and horse-racing as well as cricket. It’s an attractive city with a château museum, attractive walks, and the nearby grotto of Béharram with its stalactites and stalagmites.
- Lourdes is known for the millions of Catholic pilgrims who come here each year. It has an extraordinary Basilique du Rosaire et de l’immaculate Conception, built between 1871 and 1883, and a spectacular château that once stood as a defender of the central Pyrennean valleys and passes. Learn more about Lourdes in this article.
- Perpignan on the Mediterranean coast is an important Catalan city which retains a separatist feel with its distinct 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.
- Go surfing in the Atlantic at Biarritz. The best beaches are the Grande Plage, followed by Plage Marbella and Plage de la Côte des Basques.
- Visit the castle of Montségur, where the heretic Cathars held out against their Catholic persecutors in the 13th century.
- Get up to the Pic du Midi. Looking down on the world from the pure air of Pic de Midi de Bigorre at 2,877 meters (9,438 ft). From the ski resort of La Mongie, take the 15-minute ride in a cable car to the Pic where you can see 300 km (186 miles) of Pyrenees summits between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. If possible, book a ‘Starry Night’ for magnificent views of the stars; you can also book to stay the whole night here.
- Walk through the Parc National des Pyrénées. Created in 1967 to protect the Pyrenees from tourist developments of ski resorts, car parks, accommodation, and more, it’s a great natural habitat for wildlife. It contains part of the GR10 which runs the 700 km (434 miles) long trail from Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean to Hendaye-Plage on the Atlantic.