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The Pyrenean Way

What to do if you see a bear while keeping a weather eye on the Pyrenees mountains

A remote hamlet once abandoned, Lapege is a refuge for city dwellers.

A remote hamlet once abandoned, Lapege is a refuge for city dwellers.

Walking the Pyrenees mountain range, from seashore to ocean coast, is one long hike through an enchanting and wild environment.

At an average of seven hours a day, walking the high GR10 trail across the French Pyrenees takes about a month if you are physically fit.

Look out for a change in vegetation as you move from east to west. Plants associated with a Mediterranean climate give way to Atlantic types around the halfway mark.

Even though it’s at a lower altitude, the GR11 route on the Spanish side is steeper – and often hotter. Both trails wander back and forth across the border where your only passport is a good supply of water, rainproof gear and plenty of sunscreen.

Most hikers don’t have the time or energy to walk the entire stretch from coast to coast. Doing choice bits of the trail combined with village-hopping is the next best thing. Many villages have come back to life as holiday retreats after being depopulated when inhabitants abandoned their mountain way of life and moved to the towns and cities.

Alluring heights of the Haute-Pyrenees beckon the adventurer.Alluring heights of the Haute-Pyrenees beckon the adventurer.

A relatively easy walk for the inexperienced hiker can become challenging as the weather is prone to sudden and dramatic changes. Make sure to have a range of options to choose from depending on the forecast.

The helpful tourist office at Auzat (a good base in the Ariege park region) is a good place to start. If there is a chance of mist or storms they will recommend you drop your pet ambition to summit Montcalm (3,077m) and direct you toward some perfectly enjoyable trails within easier reach.

Hot weather in the morning can mean thunder and lightning in the afternoon. If you decide to go ahead with a mountain walk make an early start so that you are back down from the high pastures and slopes when electrical storms strike.

A good alternative on such a day is a forest trail between the villages of Orus and Lapege. Trekking poles may be useful for a slippery slope of rough cobbles near the waterfall.

A visit to the mountains, especially in spring, will treat you to the music of cascading water

A visit to the mountains, especially in spring, will treat you to the music of cascading water everywhere, a song of glacial melt. Temperatures are rising faster in mountainous regions, making them more vulnerable to climate change. Species such as the wild goat may face extinction if unable to move northward, or uphill when the going gets too warm.

French hikers on an easy climb to the Cascade d’Ars.French hikers on an easy climb to the Cascade d’Ars.

Poaching, disease and the inability to compete for food have already taken their toll on the French Pyreneean ibex (bouquetin). The last one was killed by a falling tree 17 years ago.

Spanish cousins of the mountain ibex have been reintroduced by France’s hunting and wildlife office. Yet the threat of climate warming remains as studies show they are producing fewer young in warm years. Can they adapt as their terrain changes?

You may also come across the Pyrenean chamois (isard) which was hunted to the brink of extinction but recovered after a major restoration effort. In areas outside the protected parks hunting still takes its toll.

One of the most contentious issues with wildlife in the Pyrenees circles around vultures. Ancient home of the grandiose bearded and griffon vultures, the mountains are also valued for their pastureland, as long as the traditional way of life continues.

Farmers complain of vultures swooping greedily around their animals when calving is underway in the high meadows. Conservationists counter that a vulture will only take dead meat. But even experts admit to vultures working up a frenzy over cow placenta as if it were the best foie gras.

As pastoral farming recedes, some mountainous areas have been slowly returning to semi-wilderness which is good news for bears. A shrinking population of brown bears has been bolstered by reintroductions from Slovakia.

Pyrenean chamois mosaic on a fountain wall near Galey.Pyrenean chamois mosaic on a fountain wall near Galey.

Farmers in the high Pyrenees protested that the bears were killing their sheep. Enter Patou, the shaggy white Pyrenean sheep dog.

It’s wise to give sheepdogs a wide berth as they are trained to defend their flock and could view your approach as an attack. Keep a good distance as you pass by, listening to that other mountain music, the soothing clinkle-clankle of cow-bells.

Don’t be put off by signs saying you are in bear territory on some mountain trails. You would be extremely lucky to see a bear. They like to keep out of sight but in case of an encounter follow park service advice and avoid eye contact which can be seen as a threat.

By nightfall, safely back in the village of Galey, you will be ready to sample the culinary fruits of the forest. A rich dish of daube du sanglier (wild boar stew) may fortify you for the next day’s hike.

Don’t miss the medieval town of Mirepoix on your way back to Toulouse airport.

Timber arches of a 13th century arcade frame the square at Mirepoix.Timber arches of a 13th century arcade frame the square at Mirepoix.

Chamois, a native European species of goat-antelope, cross a high mountain pasture on the Col de la Core trail. Photo: Philippe DurieuxChamois, a native European species of goat-antelope, cross a high mountain pasture on the Col de la Core trail. Photo: Philippe Durieux

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