High on our list of places to visit when we first moved to France in 2014 was the Pyrénées. On a clear day, one could see the snow-capped peaks from Toulouse, beckoning to those who wanted to escape city life. And so, on the first vacation for the kids, that’s what we did.
Amid the frenzied weeks of settling in and getting the kids enrolled in schools, we were shocked to discover the details of the vacances scolaire. It seemed they had just barely started classes in September, and now loomed a two-week break at the end of October, known as Toussaint. (All Saints). There are two-week breaks for Christmas, another in late February, and again in April. The bulk of tourists in France are the French themselves thanks to such vacation periods, and so we were suddenly confronted with two weeks of nothing planned.
The Pyrénées were an obvious choice, with the foothills just 45 minutes south of Toulouse. Looking back, I’m amazed with our limited language skills and knowledge of the region we were able to organize a week in the mountains, including renting a car, finding a rental house, and packing for the trip when so much of our stuff was still in boxes.
The first challenge was figuring out where to go along a range of mountains that spanned the French-Spanish border from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. On the French side, the Pyrénées are essentially divided into a series of main valleys, parallel to each other and running diagonally from the foothills to the peaks. A trip to the Pyrénées essentially means picking which valley you want to visit. Though you can move between valleys once you’re up in the mountains, the routes are often long and circuitous.
But which valley? Searching madly online, it was difficult to really understand the differences, and to satisfy our desire to visit the “best” one, whatever that may mean. Eventually, it came down to chance. We found a reasonably priced rental house in the Vallée du Louron in the Hautes Pyrénées Departement for the week. And so off we went.
The great wide open
Skipping along the A64 highway that runs from Toulouse along the base of the Pyrénées, we exited at the city of Lannemezan to turn south into the mountains. We zipped by gas stations, McDonald’s, chain stores, strip malls, a generic two-star hotels. The outskirts of Lannemezan present are an everyplace sensibility, a sameness that seems to exist at just about any town of any reasonable size. Driving just past the city, the homogeneity slipped away quickly, leaving us in a sparse rural setting where it was hard to find any vestiges of modernity apart from the road signs and a very occasional stop light.
The D929 route from Lannemezan snaked gradually uphill, following closely La Nesté river that was flowing the opposite direction. It took a few minutes to fully appreciate the shock of leaving behind the enclosed life in the city center for this spacious feeling, an openness that could be felt and seen even from the confines of our rental car. We whipped past an occasional stone cottage, often in a semi-state of disrepair that made it unclear whether it was still functional or occupied. And secretly, we wondered how much such a place might cost to buy and fix up.
As the mountains continued to arc ever higher on both sides of the road, we eventually reached the village of Arreau, the roaring metropolis of this Pyrénées region with a population of about 777. The town dates at least to the 18th century, and its architecture is a mashup of various periods but together create a collage of antiquity that demands to be photographed by fresh-off-the-boat Americans like us.
Arreau is also the crossroads between two valleys: Louron and Aure. We turned left to reach the official beginning of Louron, and from there a 20-minute drive took us further into the valley as it widened, and afforded even more dramatic views of the surrounding peaks, jagged stone at the top and draped in trees who leaves were turning to Fall colors just for our convenience.
We were still new enough in France that the sight of the village of Mont, which seemed to be carved directly into the side of mountain, left us full of wonder and craning our necks as we passed.
Eventually we pulled into the driveway of our rental house, located in the tiny village of Loudenvielle, which was perfectly serviceable with 2 bedrooms, a decent heater, and not terrible views.
Loudenvielle and Vallée du Louron
After checking in and dropping our bags, we had to confront the most fathomless of all questions: Now what?
Just getting here seemed Herculean. But the reality was that we still didn’t know a thing about our surroundings. A trip to the nearest tourist office was in order. We piled back into the car and drove further up to the valley’s main town of Loudenvielle (not to be confused with Loudenvielle where we were staying). With 286 residents, Loudenvielle is the hub of the Vallée du Louron, far outstripping most of the villages that dote the hillsides with populations at best in the double digits.
Loudenvielle has never been in danger of being named one of France’s most beautiful villages. While it does have its share of stone rural cottages, these are mixed in with its more serviceable and modern buildings like hotels, a strip mall in the city center, and various sports rental shops for hiking, biking, skiing, paragliding, and other seasonal adventure sports. Practical is the word that perhaps best captures the town’s personality.
Part of its sporting appeal is the adjacent Lac de Genos-Loudenvielle. One can walk around it, fish, or rent various boats. Later in the week we rented canoes and spent a sunny afternoon gliding around the water, marveling at more daring tourists leaping off the peaks above to paraglide.
But to start, were particularly interested in hiking. Two months into our new lives, our French was still hopeless. A visit to the tourist office for information about hikes left us befuddled as to whether we wanted to ask about balades or randonées or excursions. If there was a distinction, it escaped us. And the Pyrénées is still one of those places in France where you can’t count on a fluent English speaker at the tourist office to bail you out. They are more likely to speak Spanish given the proximity to the border and the flux of visitors from the South.
Still, we managed to leave with just enough maps and brochures and half-understood advice to try and muddle our way to a nearby trail. Though I can’t imagine what we did to deserve it, luck was with us.
Into the mountains
Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the flatlands of Kansas, but the mountains have always held a deeply romantic appeal. Whether it’s skiing in the Rockies or Lake Tahoe, hiking the Smoky Mountains, or my personal favorite, the Scottish Highlands, looking down on the world from a perch high in the mountains feels terribly emotional. The Pyrénées are shorter than the Rockies and Alps but stretch much higher than the Highlands and Appalachian Mountains. But height isn’t everything. I’m not sure I’m ready to put them ahead of the Highlands, by the Pyrénées very quickly earned a spot near the top of my personal preferences list.
We took two main hikes on this trip, a short one and then another that was almost a full day. The first began just 15 miles south of Loudenvielle, at a juncture called Pont du Prat. The bridge in this case is just a little cobblestone crossing over La Neste. From there, we wandered beyond a hydraulic electric plant to the trail head and then began a gentle ascent.
In theory, we could have hiked about 5 hours and reached Le lac de Pouchergue, but we weren’t feeling quite that adventurous. Instead, we opted to hike up and back for about 3 hours. It was enough to be surrounded by trees whose leaves had turned vibrant shades of red and orange. The Pyrénées’ mix of pine, fir, beech and oak trees made for spectacular displays in late October. Back when we lived in North Carolina, driving out the Smoky Mountains to see the Fall leaves turning was a regular ritual that we would miss greatly after moving to California. This hike left us bursting with a mix of nostalgia and discovery, amplified by the views back north through the valley of the surrounding peaks.
Our second hike ran along the east side of Loudenvielle, from the town of Germ to Mont. After an initial climb of about 30 minutes, the path was more or less level as is took us along the side of the mountains. Along the way, we passed one of the giant crosses that can still be found at the entrance to many mountain towns.
The gentle path also gave us direct views of the open valley below, both north and south, along with a dramatic view of Mont as we approached. Armed with some dried sausage, ham, baguette, fruit, and some various other snacks, we stopped to picnic along the way and bask in the solitude.
The only thing that seemed to be missing was other people. Passing through both towns, we can’t have seen more than one or two other families. Granted, this was peak vacation time. But it’s also a sad indicator that the number of full-time residents in the hills continues to dwindle as France’s rural economy struggles. This wasn’t obvious at the time, but that tranquility that engulfed us had a much sadder edge to it.
As selfish city dwellers, we were just thankful for the sense of space and the peacefulness that we experienced.
A geo-thermal hotspot
The Pyrénées is one of France’s largest geothermal areas, with more than 30 thermal bath stations. And other bit of good fortune for us. Back in California, we were frequent visitors to various hot springs north of the Bay Area. So, we were eager and hopeful to explore France’s offerings in this regard.
Loudenvielle turned out to have the perfect starting point. Just between the town and the lake is one of the region’s most renowned thermal stations: Balnea.
On a late afternoon, we stepped inside and began our education on French hot springs. The first thing we learned was that we menfolk would be required to purchase speedo-like bathing suits. This turns out not to be uncommon in all French pools, where they remain convinced such snugly fitting trunks are far more sanitary. We purchased 2 for me and our son and counted our blessings that we would not be required to wear bathing caps as well for the 2-hour duration.
After changing, we stepped into the wonderland of baths. There were four main baths, each with its own theme that in its way tries to harken toward a feeling of exotic luxury through the use of semi-representative décor.
First up was the “Amérindien” bath. This turns out to be built to resemble a Native American “earth lodge,” including using Douglas fir for the columns and totems inside. One can swim just outside to the second bath, the “Inca Baths,” complete with a temple, totems, bamboo, and statuettes. The French not yet received the political correctness memo concerning Native Americans.
The next stop is the far less culturally insensitive “Roman” bath with large columns and fake rocky textures and tiles. And beyond that, there is the outside “Japanese” bath. It wasn’t quite clear what made the last one Japanese in nature. It consisted of a labyrinth of waterways that one could follow toward water of increasing temperature.
As we moved through each one, we encountered various forms of fountains and jets and it was all quite pleasant. But it had one major shortcoming: The water temperature. On average, the water temperature was around 33 degrees Celsius (91 F). In California, we were accustomed to water between 38 degrees to 40 degrees (and one spot with a 43-degree pool.) This lower water temperature turns out to be the norm for thermal stations in France, and it always leaves us just a touch disappointed. It’s not uncomfortable, but water that’s below body temperature isn’t quite our idea of “thermal”. Still, Balnea did offer one exception. Swim far enough into the Japanese bath, and the water reaches close to 40 degrees. After splashing around, we eventually parked ourselves in this section, leaned back, and gazed around at the mountain panorama.
This trip wasn’t a big culinary adventure. We were still trying to economize as much as possible as we set ourselves up in France. Eating often consisted of grabbing sandwiches at a boulangerie or making food back at the house that we bought at Carrefour. But towards the end of the trip, we decided to leave the kids at the house and go out for a drink in Loudenvielle.
The choices were limited to the only bar we could find, Chez Rogé. The building was stone, with wooden shutters and a little terrace that likely would have been cozy during warmer times of year. We ducked inside and found a modest wooden bar with several tools, and a large fireplace where a metal woodstove had been inserted below a mounted deer’s head.
But perhaps the most important feature of the bar were the people inside. There were perhaps just a dozen or so, but this was the most formidable gathering of humanity we had seen during the week. At the bar, older men were hunched over small glasses drinking their cloudy Pastis. Several were wearing berets, which may have become a symbol of France but has its origins in the Pyrénées.
We ordered two glasses of wine and went to sit in a corner table. We sat and watched as other local families tumbled in, some with their kids in tow. There were board games of various kinds scattered around the bar to keep children amused while the parents drank and socialized.
In the end, it was just a brief glimpse of local life. We were still too timid with our French to join in any random conversations. But as we left, it was reassuring to know that this region wasn’t just a playground for tourists like us. There was still a community of people who called this region home. Having fallen under the region’s spell, hopefully we’d see more of this in the subsequent visits that were sure to come.