3rd stop: Gavarnie
90 kilometers/ 56 miles from Pau
49 kilometers/ 30 miles from Lourdes
Cyclists train on these same cols (passes) that the Tour de France uses, as well as routes that are dedicated to cyclists (the Laurent Fignon route from Barèges up to Tourmalet; the Greenway of the Gave from Lourdes to Pierrefitte). An app is available for timing (www.timtoo.fr) and timing chips can be obtained from most tourist offices. Tourist offices will also give certificates to cyclists after their climbs and stamp their Passeport Vélo books used to record climbs of the four cols (Tourmalet, Luz Ardiden, Soulor-Aubisque and Hautacam). The books can be exchanged for bronze, silver or gold Brevet Cycliste Hautes-Pyrénées qualifications.
The Gavarnie-Gèdre ski station, one of six in the Gave Valley, is here overlooking Cirque de Gavarnie. In addition to the spectacular vista, it also has the longest green slope in Europe, which starts right from the top of the resort.
La Brèche de Roland
This hotel has undergone a few transformations, but three centuries later the property is still with the same family and the original house remains. The first expansion was done by Philippe Pujo’s grandfather in 1950; what was once the thick outer wall of the main house now divides the lobby from the lounge. The last renovation was done in 2011 by Philippe and his wife, Odile, although it looks like it was done just yesterday, with wooden floors, furniture and accents that warm the spotless rooms. After hiking in the Cirque, relax in the sauna and then take a drink on the terrace with a view of “La Brèche de Roland”, the big notch in the ever-snowy mountaintop after which the hotel is named. Watch cyclists in training pass by, or the Tour de France if you time it right. Philippe serves drinks in the lounge/bar that has a gentlemen’s club feel – it’s the old family room, which begins to fill with guests leading up to dinner time.
The Pujos allow a local rancher to use their land for grazing in exchange for some of his beef, lamb and veal for La Brèche’s kitchen. After a day of hiking or biking, a meal of regional specialties is just what you’ll need. Ask Odile for wine suggestions to go with your thinly-sliced Bigorre black pig ham with melon and sorbet starter, and a mutton stew from Baregeoise sheep with new potatoes main dish. Barèges-Gavarnie breed of sheep is unique even in the Gaves Valleys. A vanilla mascarpone mousse is the perfect final touch.
4th stop: Pic du Midi
Pic du Midi de Bigorre
34 kilometers/ 21 miles from Gèdre if the pass to Col du Tourmalet (D918) is open (the pass could be closed in June due to snow or for roadwork in the run up to the Tour de France)
87 kilometers/ 54 miles if the pass is closed forcing a return to Lourdes and up the other side (D935)
Another of the “Grand Sites” of Midi-Pyrénées, Pic du Midi is home to an astronomy research center at 2,877 meters (9,439 feet). It welcomes tourists for day visits and overnight visits that feel like one is closer to the stars than the earth, so cross your fingers for clear skies. A cable car brings guests up from La Mongie (call ahead – the cable car does not run if winds are over 70 kmph/ 43 mph). Those staying overnight are accommodated in former researchers’ quarters. Local cuisine is served in the restaurant before guests receive a lesson on the stars at the observatory. The adventure ends after breakfast the next morning when the cable car brings guests back down to the village.
Domaine de Ramonjuan Hôtel
If your overnight booking at Pic du Midi is cancelled due to the wind (as it was for me), you will be accommodated elsewhere, but don’t expect luxury. Three-star Domaine de Ramonjuan Hôtel (25 kilometers/ 15 miles from La Mongie) could be an alternative. The husband and wife owners acquired the resort in 2012 and do their utmost to give it a personal touch. With its proximity to mountains and rivers, with its own soccer field, tennis courts and outdoor pool, and with rooms in both the country house main building as well as modern apartments in outbuildings, Ramonjuan is popular among cyclists, hikers, groups and families traveling without pets (pets are not welcome). People come here to spend their time out of doors. They also come for good food after a day of outdoor activity. Hearty meals with ample portions “are made with cyclists’ energy needs in mind,” says Isabelle, the owner, but it’s not just about volume. Traditional cuisine is creatively presented with plates of cooked ewe cheese parcels over leafy greens and bacon, roast veal in wild mushrooms or roast beef with scalloped potatoes, and homemade raspberry cake or strawberry mousse. Ask Isabelle which Madiran wine to select.
Last stop: Saint-Lary-Soulan
46 kilometers/ 29 miles from Domaine de Ramonjuan Hôtel through the nature reserve park (D113)
47 kilometers/ 29 miles from La Mongie through the nature reserve park (D113)
115 kilometers/ 71 miles from Saint Lary back to Pau
On your way to Saint Lary, take the D113 detour through the romping and rolling hills of this nature reserve, whose Pic Hourquette d’Ancizan reaches about 1,500 metres (4,920 feet) and where wild donkeys, horses and other wildlife, and cyclists, campers and kite-flyers roam free among the fields, forest and winding road. When you’re finished in Saint Lary and are returning whence you came, take the Col d’Aspin (D918) just past Arreau for twisty roads and a beautiful vista from the lookout point at the peak.Saint-Lary is a ski town, small, compact and walkable, with the shops, restaurants and hotels one expects to find in a resort town. Be sure to try a gâteau à la broche, a Pyrenees specialty. Making this cake is an art. Flour, eggs, butter, rum and vanilla are poured, layer upon layer, over a form, which turns on a spit over an open flame for up to two hours. It looks like a pancake Christmas tree and tastes like heaven.
Outside of winter provides the opportunity to hike various nature trails, the easiest of which begins around the corner from the tourist office in the center of town. The RIO pool, spa and fitness center is a large complex open year round. Sensoria RIO is an aquatic play area for the family. Designed to look like a cave, faux rock walls and walkways divide the area into several little pools with timed waterfalls and bubble jets. A large window looking out onto the mountains provides light and space in this area that is fun for kids and the bigger ‘uns. Sensoria Spa offers facials, massages, peelings and body wraps, as well as two- or three-day-long wellness breaks and discovery packages. All include access to the thermal pool, sauna, hammam and Jacuzzi. After a winter day of skiing or summer day of hiking, a hydro massage and micro jet bath will soothe muscles and mind. The Tour de France comes through this town for three days in July, attracting more visitors than throughout the rest of the year.
Aínsa’s intact medieval town in Spain makes for a worthwhile day trip from Saint Lary. The narrow, switchback road (D929, D173) is a pretty drive with views of deep valleys among the mountains until it reaches the lengthy Aragnouet/Bielsa tunnel, which crosses from France into Spain. Continue on the A138 about 45 kilometers (28 miles) to the town of Aínsa. Overlooking the river and modern Aínsa is the old fortified town, strategically located on a steep hill. Its Plaza Mayor is where goods were once bought and sold. Today it is encircled by shops and restaurants under the arcades that used to provided shelter to merchants and their produce. Leading out of the plaza are long lines of storied residences that tower over slim streets. Potted trees set between doorways provide greenery and flowering pots sit on narrow balconies above. The gently curving streets slope downwards past ancient wooden doors to restaurants, the Romanesque church, crypt and cloister, tower, castle and keep.
Mercure SensOria Saint Lary
There is no better location for a hotel in Saint Lary than what Mercure Sensoria enjoys. It sits at the base of the ski lift and next to a ski equipment rental shop where you can store equipment if you brought your own, and where you can purchase ski lift passes. The hotel is a short, five-minute walk into the busy town center’s shops and restaurants, but you only have to walk to the end of the hall to get to the Sensoria pool and spa, which this hotel manages. Some of the best croissants in the Pyrenees are supplied to the hotel’s buffet breakfast (look for the least cooked) by a maître artisan.
Don’t be confused by their website – this La Grange restaurant is not in a hotel in Arreau, which is 10 kilometers (6 miles) away and owned by the same family. Saint Lary’s Le Grange is only a kilometer (½-mile) away from Mercure Sensoria hotel, in the opposite direction of downtown. Set back from the main road, gourmet Pyrenean cuisine is offered in a farmhouse-like setting inside, or on the terrace outside. Beautiful presentations come in sensible portions, and the chef makes delicious artwork from local, seasonal products. Carrot soup, spiced cod, grilled sausage, spinach timbale, matched with the right Madiran wine, you can’t go wrong.
For photo galleries of this outstanding road trip for foodies, click here.
This article was also published in German language at travelbar.de.