Another little city at the feet of the mountains offers good starting points to many tours in the mountains: Luz St Sauveur.
Luz is a small village, with no particular charm, big grey houses, a number of hotels, souvenir shops. . . and excellent butcher shops where you can buy very good dry sausages for the picnic during the hike or for the trek. Luz is also a famous biking place for the pass climbing addicts, as it is not far from the Tourmalet, the highest road pass of the Pyrénées.
I wrote about the Templar church, have also a visit inside, there are a few baroque statues. And Luz is the “capital city” of “Pays Toy”.
A few hikes from Luz on the website
Cauterets is a very good starting point for hikes in the mountains, but also, if you do not like to walk a lot, or have small children with you, there are possibilities to go quite high in the mountains and visit Lac de Gaube (Gaube Lake) or the Cirque du Lys.
You can drive up the Pont d’Espagne (5 km), park your car on the very big parking ground, and from there you have three possibilities to get further in the mountains:
- Walk the trail to Lac de Gaube from there (1.5 hour); this is already described in a previous tip.
- Go through the entrance of the “Maison du Parc” information centre, walk 500 m (signs!) and take the chair lift (5 Euros, one way) which gets you at 15 mn horizontal walk from the shores of the Lac de Gaube; many families do this, as they can spend more time for walking around, have a picnic sitting on the grass, pick a few blueberries. . . . or just enjoy a siesta in the grass.
- At Pont d’Espagne is also a cable cart which takes you to the skiing grounds (in winter; in summer many people like to visit the mountains there); I never took it. It starts just at the information centre, next to the parking.
- From the village of Cauterets, you can take the cable cart to the Cirque du Lys skiing grounds; this one too operates in summer. There are many trails on the meadows, and also lots of . . . . pylons. . . .
So you understand Cauterets is not in the Parc National and from the above, only Lac de Gaube is in the Parc.
Picture 1: Lac de Gaube
Picture 2: leaving Cauterets in the cable cart (winter)
Picture 3: above Pont d’Espagne and the parking in the chair lift.
Picture 4: Cirque du Lys (Winter) ; view to the west (Pic de Cambales)
Picture 5: lying in the grass near Lac de Gaube.
The Pyrénées have a quite long history and telling this in a short tip is not exactly serious and not the purpose of VT-pages! But, when we walk in nature, we love to look at the landscapes, as well as at flowers, trees, big or little animals, lakes. . . . . ; we make sort of Natural History when we observe beauties of Nature, and when we look at landscapes, cliffs, strange shapes and marks on rocks, colours, we do a bit of geology, and think about the planet on which we live.
We can, like the geologist go back in time and look with “oriented eyes” at the valleys, and look at their shape; on the main picture is Vallée d’Ossoue, and 10.000 years ago was occupied by a glacier, in the last glacial age, as the flat bottom of this U shaped valley tells; later work of erosion obscured a bit the general shape, but on “picture 2, you can see the grooves made by the moving ice of the glacier (in fact it is the blocks, pebbles, which, trailed at the bottom of the 200-300 m thick ice sheet which make that sort of linear engravings); if you have a close look, you may even see that the fractures on the rock are offsetting the lines, meaning the fractures were active after the lines have been drawn. . . The Pyrénées are still moving and growing. . . .
Walking in the Pyrénées, we walk on an old ocean, on the bottom of which sediments have been deposited during million years; the ocean (Téthys) has been closed in this area, its bottom disappearing under Europe, and the sediments, scrapped off and uplifted, making the mountains; during this process, the sediments are strongly folded, and analysis of the folds (like the one on picture 3) can even reveal how and when Africa pushed Spain northward, closing the Pyrénéan branch of Téthys, 40 million years ago.
And we can go way further back in time, look at this conglomerate on picture 4; this conglomerate has been deposited 280 million years ago, in Permian time; it is the result of the erosion of a huge mountain chain which just had formed at the end of the Primary Era, the Hercynian (or Variscan) mountains ; the blocks in the conglomerate tell what sort of rocks constituted the Hercynian mountain in the area, and the colour of the matrix, due to manganese and iron oxides tells a lot about the hot and dry climate which prevailed at that time when the Pangea continent assembled, the composition of the atmosphere, before it broke up separating Gondwana to the south, from Eurasia to the north.
And further back in time. . . . here (pictue 5) are Cambrian (500 million years) sandstones and shales, in thin layers in which a thin volcanic dyke has been injected. Geologists look at the planet from satellite image scale to electronic microscope scale and write the story of the wandering continents, tell about the past climate, show the planet has a past, and a future (?). We are just dust grains on the planet.
The hiking trails are sometimes very crowded, and traffic jams are not unusual, specially during bad weather. I met one day these trail-users on my way back from Pombie hut and Col de Suzon; they did not dare to cross the little river which had grown with the rain and were patiently waiting they could cross the river. . . . . Patient and apparently disciplined! I crossed the river, as my legs are longer but was then stuck in the traffic! It took long to cross all these four legged hikers going to who knows what sort of meeting!
I wrote about the contribution of these hikers to the wonderful local cheese, they also go once a year to the “hair dresser” and the harvest of the hair cutting session can be found in some shops of the valley and you can buy wool blankets or knitted ware made of Pyrénéan wool! The local berets are made with that wool, too! An old VT-page about the beret tells a bit more.
Cheese in the things do do? Yes, of course, I mean “eat cheese”, the wonderful Pyrénéan sheep cheese! I use a computer , I am happy with and do not know how it works, so am I with the cheese, I know very few about cheese making, but appreciate it a lot!
The western Pyrénéan cheese has a label (appellation contrôlée, like the great French wines) and it deserves it!
One of the best ways to enjoy that cheese is to eat it, cut in thin slices with rye bread and black cherries jam, a very sweet jam, and drink a Irouleguy (a basque tannat wine) or a Madiran (a Bearnese tannat wine); their strong and a bit acid “attack” in the mouth, their strong perfume fits incredibly well with the flowery taste of that cheese! You find this cheese on the local markets, in the shops in the villages, it is not cheap (I even would recommend to buy the most expensive in many cases, many sellers or shops let you taste a little piece), but what is price for a wonder of nature and human collaboration? Enjoy!
We have seen lots of little churches in our village tour; a last one? OK!
We are now in Luz St Sauveur; I adapt Victor Hugo: “Charming old city (. . .) ideally located in a deep triangular valley. When the smugglers, coming from Aragon, catching sight of the bright light over the valley at the end of the dark deep gorge where they were walking, like the end of a tunnel, they sped up to find this big village enlightened by the sun. . . This village, they called it: ” light” (Luz). . . . ”
The templar church of Luz, is built like a fortress; it has been built in the 12th century and a big wall with crenels surrounds it; behind the walls is nowadays only lawn, with tombstones (picture 2) of the former knights and “military priest”, where time has made its work, and it is not possible to read the inscriptions on the stones. Saints and lions (picture 3) decorate the arch at the entrance under the square tower. You can have a walk on the ramparts and have a look at the coloured houses of the village (picture 4).
Ah! Enough with churches, lets have a warm chocolate in that “anticlerical” café (picture 5), on the square just in front of the church; I did not notice the name, but I liked to visit El Che, and drink a warm chocolate after this a bit “churchy” day!
So, not only high trails in the Pyrénées, but also the paths the locals used walking quite recently in every day life; now, the car has also made his way in the valleys. . . . .
The website here presents some general activities around Luz, hiking, paragliding. . . treks with horse or donkey, also home stays, hotels. . etc. . .
A last little hike up, along the road and we enter Sazos, a rather “big” village, built on the slope of the mountain. On the main picture is the St Julien church, of the 17th century, closed when I visited with a camera, which is –unusual- not in the centre of the village, but at the entrance; walking up in the village we pass by this little fountain, with a sheep head providing for water (picture 2), see some local taking home a big sheep cheese (picture 3) and arrive at a group of old houses many of which are former small mills; a belvedere allows to have wide views over the Luz valley; and. . . do you have an idea of what is this little construction on picture 4? Yes, it is a pigsty! Even pigsties are renovated. . . why not after all? The water still flows under the former mills (picture 5). I would have liked to take you up to the village of Grust, but the sun get low on the horizon, and it is time to walk down to Luz before it gets cold. . . . .
This village has a website too http://www.pyreneesride.com/village-des-pyrenees-fr-Sazos.htm
We follow now the road, look from far at the village of Vizos, on the mountain slope, cross the Gave on a bridge and follow the left bank upstream and arrive at Sassis and discover. . . well, another Roman church! It is a 12th century building where a few of the modillions have been preserved, we can see some faces (picture 2). The old churches have also very often besides the gable tower, a smaller construction like an extension at the main entrance; these constructions are more recent, and I am not sure of their use; some say these were shelters for tramps, or shepherds when they passed in the valleys, coming from the plains, leading their hers to the alpine meadows in spring (or coming down before winter), during the transhumance. . . . I do not think, as the churches were open all time until 20-30 years ago. . .
We have a look at Sassis (third picture) when we now walk up a small trail (direct route) to the village of Sazos; on the trail side, the anemone begins flowering (picture 4) and arriving up a small hill, you may meet these sheep (picture5), which are used to see hikers passing by. . . .
This village has a website too: http://www.sassis-pyrenees.com/indexa.html
Here again, in Esquièze, a massive tower, a recent church (17th century), but the construction style is traditional, like the very old roman churches. There is a small cemetery you can enter through the small arch, and from there, you have a great view to the snow covered Pic Long massif, high in the National Park (picture 2). And here is the oldest construction of the area (picture 3), the little St John Baptist church of Sère which unfortunately was closed when I visited. The cheviot may have once been beautiful, but time has done its work (Picture 4); only traces of the decoration remains; the modilions are almost not decipherable. . . what did they represent? On picture 5, another view of the valley and the peaks in the background. This last little church is a classified historical monument. I will visit inside next time I walk by. . .
These villages have a website too: http://www.esquieze-sere.com/index.html
The church of Viella may be closed, but there are some old houses, to look at; feel the solitude, even in the village, before leaving for Esterre; the ruins of the fortress are dominating this little village (picture 2), close to Luz.
Just a wall and two towers are left of the Chateau Ste Marie which had been built by the count of Bigorre (Lourdes) in the 13th century, to have control on the valley; this fortress has been occupied by English troops during the “100 years war” between the English and French royal dynasties in the 14th-15th centuries, after the treaty of Bretigny; apparently nothing is left from that time. . . . just rural peace today (picture 3). A short visit around the old ramparts (picture 4), to enjoy the views of the mountains (did you notice, they are the same, but changing all time?). From there, we see our next destinations (looking far is a wonderful thing in mountains. . . ), the two villages of Esquièze and Sère; on the other side of the valley we already see Sazos, we will visit later (picture 5). There is a 12th century church in Esterre, with a famous wooden statue of the Madonna; try to visit her.
This village has a website too.
The landmark in Betpouey (like in many villages, in fact) is the church tower, here too, a gable bell tower (main picture); light and weather are changing very quickly, even in the lower valleys. . . .
This village of 130 residents has even a website (tourist info, home stays, hiking guides, info about skiing. . . ), look: here .
The old roman church has been renovated several times during history, and remarkable is the baroque altar of this little church dedicated to St Sebastian (picture 2); a walk in the little streets of the village quickly gets you on the way to Viella, and you always see the white mountains on the horizon during your hike (picture 3); I don’t know if it is a local custom, in fact, but people take advantage of the gifts of modern civilisation, or some inclination for drinking. . . . at least, they know a way to use empty bottles, to divide their gardens where their vegetables will grow (picture 4). . . . We resume our walk and soon arrive in the village of Viella, and again, a small roman church but a recent construction of the 18th century, where the tower, this time, is massive (the old churches have gable towers, the recent ones have massive towers), even bigger than the cheviot. (picture 5).
Within an afternoon you can visit 6-7 small villages, learn (a bit!) about local history, local architecture, pray in a number of churches, get acquainted with some local customs and. . . . look at beautiful mountain landscapes. Let us start from the small church of Sers, and then see Viey, Betpouey, Viella, Esterre, Esquièze, Sère, Sassis and Sazos; it is then time to walk down and have a warm chocolate in Luz St Sauveur. Don’t be afraid by the names, they help me writing the tips.
The lower Pyrénéan valleys are a bit austere, the houses are grey, the peasants not very talkative (but friendly at the end!), the winters are long. . . . . The traditional houses are built with rock blocks and covered by rather raw schist plates (not thin slate); the villages date back to the 10th-11th centuries, and there are few beautiful examples of Roman churches from the11th-12th centuries; Christianity was introduced quite late in the valleys, but once the people had been converted, they began to build some of the little jewels we discover in the villages.
The church of Sers dates back to the 12th century, and has been renovated recently; a typical small roman church, with a gable bell tower (picture1), but inside, only the general shape of the nave is original (picture2); most of the decoration is baroque; We walk through the village direction Viey, and leaving the village have a look at some old farmhouse (picture3) before walking on a small footpath where we meet the local sheep, with their black head (picture4); very soon, we arrive at Viey (picture 5).
The name of “Pays Toy” seemingly comes from old local language; Toy means small, or peasant, so it is the country of small peasants. . . . in town, (Lourdes, Tarbes) a Toy designates a lout. Pays Toy economic activity is essentially agriculture and tourism; luckily, industrial tourism did not find its way here, except may be in winter, as the ski resorts of the area are quite crowded.
Viey is a very quiet village, and you can walk on the little streets without being scared by traffic, as many cobble stone covered streets are too narrow for the cars. . . . The church was closed when I was there, and I only had a look at the gable style bell tower, and the houses of the village are so peaceful. . . old houses, may be abandoned, like this one, full of poesy, or inhabited houses, like on picture 3, with the entrance porch, the mansards . . . . calme. . . quietude is luxury. . . . Ah, after this visit, we go to the next village, walk past gardens, look at the mountains and the little villages on the slopes (picture4); we cross the little Bastan creek and walk up again to go to Betpouey.
In the mountains are the peaks, the meadows, the ice, the isards, but there are also beautiful little villages, and in some areas, it is a great pleasure to hike between some old villages, discover the little churches, admire their setting in the valleys, and meet or observe the locals. In the Luz St Sauveur area, called Pays Toy, many villages are very tourist friendly and many signs and boards display information about short hikes and even accommodation and general services; The main picture shows the small Claret Bastan Valley merging with the Gave de Gavarnie Valley at Luz St Sauveur; the snow capped mountains are the Ardiden Massif; this picture has been taken from a small shrine (picture 5) just above the village of Sers. In Sers, you will for example find boards showing the main features of the area, with names of the mountains and villages (picture 2), and a board with a hiking map, with a list of home stays (with phone number!), restaurants, the number of the local doctor, weather information, police, etc. . . . (picture 3); on picture 4 is the village of Sers seen from Betpouey, on the other side of the valley: the shrine of picture 5 is on the hill above, on the right. I visited Pays Toy on feet at the end of the winter, but in summer, when I drive through, going to the higher areas, it is all green!
. . . . . . I would fly above the mountains! Well, I love to walk slowly, too, feel the ground under my feet. But I must say I envy the choughs, carried by the wind, gliding over the passes, plunging into the valleys at high speed, watching my kingdom from a cliff. . . Well, a few pictures of that not well known bird which lives in the cliffs (and thin air).
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