How on earth we pack everything into our France travel guide is beyond me however, pack it all in we do and if you’re looking for what we rate & what we don’t as well as Responsible Travel’s best & worst high and low lights then read on to discover France like a local, cuisses de grenouilles and all.
Walking holidays in the French Pyrenees
They may not be as classically beautiful as the Alps, but the French Pyrenees have a rough-hewn charm to them that is equally attractive. This is exceptional territory for walking, where you can tiptoe out of your comfort zone or take a flying leap, depending on your level of ability and fitness. There are classic point-to-point treks such as the Grande Randonnée 10 where you’ll be faced with challenging ascents, and overnight in mountain refuges. Then there are destinations including Barèges and the Vallespir Valley that abound with easygoing circular routes ideal for those that prefer to potter along at their own pace, drinking in the scenery at lower altitudes. Summer into autumn is the best time for walking in the French Pyrenees, but late spring, when the snow is melting quickly and the wild flowers are out, can also be sublime.
Where to walk in the French Pyrenees
In the middle of the range, Barèges must rank as one of the best places for walking in the French Pyrenees. Not only is it located on the edge of the Pyrenees National Park, where much of the most distinctive scenery is to be found such as the Cirque de Gavarnie, but it also lies directly on the GR 10 route, one of the classic French long distance walking trails. At an altitude of 1,250m, Barèges is also a perfect destination for snow shoeing in winter.
Closer to the Mediterranean coast, Bolquère is another picturesque mountain retreat that serves well in either summer or winter. There are at least 30 hiking trails and six snow shoeing trails in the close vicinity. The village itself has bags of charm, with a handsome stone church, wooden chalets and of course staggering views. Expect to see road signs in Catalan as well as French, since you’re so close to the border, which also means an interesting blend of cuisine. On days off, you can take the famous ‘Yellow Train’ for a picturesque journey down to the thermal baths of St. Thomas.
The mountains around the Vallespir Valley may not have the grandeur of those closer to the centre, but this region does fall on the sunniest and lowest stretch of the French Pyrenees as they descend to the Mediterranean. This is a perfect place for relaxing family holidays, where you want shorter, gentler routes. There’s also much in the way of culture in a valley which was a favourite of many well known painters. Explore the tunnels and caves of the Fool’s Gorge near Arles-sur-Tech, which has a beautiful old abbey, and visit Ceret in late May for the cherry festival and an excellent modern art museum.
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Types of walking holiday in the French Pyrenees
For those that relish their independence, but still like to have a safety net, self guided walking tours are the ideal solution. Routes are carefully designed by experts that live in the region, and you’ll be supplied with detailed maps and comprehensive route maps to give you interesting background notes on the areas you’re walking in. 24-hour support is available should you need it, and if you’re walking point-to-point you’ll only need to carry a small daypack, with luggage transported for you between hotels.
Small group walking holidays are a highly sought after option in the French Pyrenees which is, after all, nowhere near as explored as other more famous destinations. You’ll be matched with walkers of similar abilities, and be amazed at how quickly you gel. These trips are led by local guides, so you’ve no need to worry about plotting the route and can simply enjoy the views. Both small group and self guided walking trips can be adapted to suit more experienced walkers looking for challenging routes over steeper ascents, but these are not generally available after early autumn due to snowfall.
The other aspect you’ll need to consider is whether you want a centre based trip, where you follow day-long routes and return to the same accommodation every afternoon (perfect in locations such as Barèges) or whether you opt for point-to-point walking instead. In this case you’ll usually stay in a different place every night, sometimes hotels, or far more basic mountain huts.
If you plan a winter walking holiday in the French Pyrenees then the chances are you will be snow shoeing. The best terrain for this tends to be predominantly in the middle of the range, where the mountains are higher. Snow shoeing requires a little more effort than regular hiking, as you can imagine, but with a reasonable level of fitness you’ll soon get the hang of it. All equipment and instruction is provided, and there are plenty of beautiful trails to follow.
When to walk in the French Pyrenees
You can walk all year round in the French Pyrenees, though many routes at higher elevations are closed off due to heavy snow in the winter. Small group trips operate mainly in the summer between July and September, but if you opt for a tailor made or self guided trip, these can often be taken at any time and allow you to travel off peak. While summer is no doubt the most popular time to walk in the French Pyrenees in terms of weather, the mountain scenery is stunning in late spring and early autumn, and these months are well worth considering. Early spring can be quite rainy, especially at the Basque end of the Pyrenees in the west.
More about French Pyrenees
The French Pyrenees run for almost 500km from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean, with the highest peaks in the middle.
Far less developed than their better known Alpine cousins over on the other side of the country, these mountains are exceptional territory for activity holidays.
Stretching from the Bay of Biscay to the Med, the GR10 trail in the Pyrenees is one of France’s greatest treks.