16 September 2014
The Pyrenees are the natural border between Spain and France and stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, covering a distance of 491km.
You could say that this region is a world of its own, as almost every valley has a unique culture, cuisine, landscape and even language.
The mountains are mainly visited by people who look for an active vacation.
What to do?
There are many things to do in the Pyrenees. It's a great place to run away from the daily stress and clear your head when you hike through the mountains or you can get yourself an adrenaline shot by paragliding near the rock formations.
Let's start in the winter season. The steep slopes of the mountains turn each winter into perfect ski slopes. The season starts mid-December and ends mid-April. I can suggest to go around February, because then the days are starting to get longer again and there's still a lot of snow.
There are many ski resorts on the French side of the mountains, but the ones on the Spanish side and in the micro state of Andorra are also worth a try.
No lack of snow over here, these mountains receive precipitation from all wind directions. If the wind transports huge cloud formations from the South, you can aspect fresh snow on the Spanish side, wind from the North West will result in snow on the French mountain slopes.
The true beauty of the mountains, however, reveals when the snow starts to melt. Green fields are starting to appear at the base of the mountains, animals start to awake from their winter sleep, and rivers start to swell as they are fed with the molten snow.
As the summer is getting closer, all outdoor activities start to revive again.
Rafting and canyoning
The early Summer opens the rafting and canyoning season. There is plenty of water during this time of the year, but temperatures are still quite cold. Rumour has it that the water on the Spanish side is always warmer. During Autumn, streams are the least cold, so this is also a very popular season for rafting and canyoning.
If you can stand the cold and you would like to get very wet you must try to abseil down one of the waterfalls, an activity which is offered by most outdoor activity centers.
There are more than 40 take-off places for both beginners and experts. Try the intense adventure of paragliding and experience the freedom of a hawk while you float between the snowy white mountain tops. You can go for a one time flight together with an instructor or follow lessons so that you can experience total freedom on your own.
The mountain bike possibilities in the Pyrenees are almost as enormous as the mountains itself. The trails run through forests, wide stone tracks, technical rock climbs, dirt tracks with random rock gardens, ...
Many trails have clear sign posts, so you can't get lost. Color codes are as following: Green for easy tracks, followed by blue and red, while black tracks are very difficult. Most routes are quite technical, so be sure that you have good bike handling skills and good fitness, power and endurance. If you don't feel like dragging your bike uphill, you can always travel to the Superbagneres near Luchon. A cable lift will take you and your bike up to an altitude of 1200m so you can begin your ride from the top of the mountain.
We covered most action sports that need some kind of transportation. But what about using nothing else but your feet?
Hiking is the most popular sport in the Pyrenees and there are 3 main trails that are worth trying out. These 3 trails run from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The best time to hike these is between July and mid-September. Be sure that you prepare well for the conditions along the way. A sudden thunderstorm is no exception and it can still snow in August.
The GR11 runs on the Spanish side and provides you with lots of sun during the day. Streams can sometimes run dry and the red and white markings aren't always clearly visible. Local volunteers maintain the trail and make sure that the markings don't fade, but in some regions there hasn't been any maintenance over the last 30 years.
The GR10 runs on the French side and during the day temperatures are slightly lower. The sun sets faster compared to the GR11 trail because sunlight is blocked by the mountains early in the evening. This side of the Pyrenees is traditionally greener and you won't have any trouble to find water along the way (always filter the water, even if it looks like freshly molten glacier water!). The Red and white markings are well maintained but they are sometimes "creatively" placed. There are many refuges along the way to stay during the night or to grab a steaming hot meal.
(A specific report about the GR10 can be found here: LINK)
The HRP runs mostly on the border between Spain and France. The way marks are of good quality but never forget to bring an altimeter and a compass. The mist can appear quickly and orientation can be difficult when crossing glaciers, snowfields or an endless boulder field. Plenty of refuges are scattered along the way where you can find a bed or a place to pitch your tent.
Where to go?
There are many hot spots in the Pyrenees and based on your interests our planned activities, you will end up in different locations.
If you are looking for a sunny stay at the beach during summer, then you should go near Banyuls-sur-Mer; if you want to go skiing during winter, you better head towards Bagneres de Luchon.
There are plenty of ancient castles from the Cathares to visit and completely restored villages like Villefranche-de-Conflent bring you back to the rebellious middle ages.
The extraordinary mountain range of the Pyrenees provides you with the most stunning views. No matter which side of the border you are on.
If possible, try to hike through the meadows, find your way through one of the pine forests, fight the rocky slopes and climb on top of the snowy mountains.
Try to stay in a refuge for a night, enjoy a hearty meal and cuddle up at the cozy fire place. Only then you can experience the differences in the vegetation and climate and see the true beauty of these majestic mountains.