If you love hiking the mountains of Europe and are tired of the Alps -- the crowds, the commerce, the gondolas alive with tourists gliding to every summit -- try the High Pyre'ne'es.
It's peaceful there, and stunningly beautiful. There are pockets of commercialism, to be sure, especially in the towns of Gavarnie and Cauterets. It's an easy matter to escape the crowds, though -- just head for the hills. And don't look for scads of mechanical contraptions to whisk you to the peaks: Shank's mare is the preferred substitute.
Recently, a friend and I spent two weeks in southern France roaming these delightful mountains, and we loved almost every minute of it. We were based in Luz-St.-Sauveur, a diminutive mountain town built upon a sunny terrace upstream from the gorge of the Gave de Pau, and made day hikes of up to 15 miles into the mountains.
Stretching about 250 miles from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean -- a Great Divide separating France from Spain -- the Pyre'ne'es are Western Europe's second largest mountain chain. Though a shade lower than the Alps, the Pyre'ne'es provide just as varied a terrain, from the thickly forested Basque country in the west, well-watered by Atlantic storms, to the parched and naked foothills bordering the subtropical Mediterranean.
And all along the range, there are deep lateral valleys that have been peopled for a recorded 80,000 years, starting with prehistoric cave-dwellers and hit by wave after wave of immigrants: Iberians, Celts, Romans, Visigoths and Saracens. All have left their marks on the snug, ancient villages that huddle below the peaks.
If you are a walker -- or merely crave to be among the high mountains -- the best bet for a stimulating vacation is on the French side of the range and, in particular, the region known as Haute-Pyre'ne'es -- about midpoint along the chain, where the mountains are highest and where the snow, in summer, lingers longest.
The crags are more majestic on these northern slopes and the snowfall is greater. Here you will find a true Alpine glacier (on the Vignemale, the French Pyre'ne'es' highest peak at 10,820 feet) and the three great glacial amphitheaters, or cirques -- of Gavarnie, Estaube' and Troumouse -- that are the most spectacular features of the range.
Here, too, are hundreds of shimmering, ice-blue mountain tarns -- as crystal-clear as any tropical lagoon -- that nestle below the highest slopes: a glorious facet of these mountains lacking in the loftier Alps.
If this were not enough, the area also contains the Parc National des Pyre'ne'es, France's fourth largest (112,943 acres), a protected paradise of wildflowers, birds and animals. The park abuts Spain's smaller Parque Nacional de Ordesa, and the two reserves shield a wide variety of threatened species -- lynx, golden eagle, Egyptian vulture among them -- as well as wild boar, the ubiquitous marmot and the more easily spotted ibard, the graceful Pyrenean version of the chamois.
There are 4,000 ibards in the park, and this skittish antelope may often be seem clambering among the rocks -- or so the guidebooks say. Alas, in our two-week stay we saw none, although we did sight marmots and -- a rare privilege -- three lammergeier vultures, with their eight-foot wingspans, circling godlike overhead.
What we didn't sight, thank heaven, was an overabundance of humans.
Why choose Luz? Actually, the town was chosen for us by the hiking organization that we joined for a midsummer fortnight of day hikes and comradeship. But it was well chosen: Even on our own, we both agreed that Luz would have had the edge over its High Pyre'ne'es rivals -- the neighboring centers of Cauterets and Bagne`res-de-Luchon -- as a hiking base.
For the French, Luz has one instant focus of recognition: Every July, cyclists on the televised Tour de France streak down its tiny main street. But for us hikers, the best thing about Luz is its proximity to the best of the peaks.
The town is situated at the confluence of two streams that both head up to great hiking country, including the Gavarnie cirque, the observatory-topped, 9,420-foot Pic du Midi de Bigorre and the national park, with 220 miles of marked trails. Luz not only is close to the park, but houses one of its information centers, which stages film and slide shows and guided excursions into the mountains.
For the more ambitious, the town also boasts a regular program of guided climbs at varying stages of difficulty and at prices -- around $25 to $35 -- well within most budgets.
And Luz has a certain charm. While no architectural gem -- its chief claim to fame is a forbidding Romanesque church fortified by the Knights Templar in the 12th century -- the town has a pleasantly franc ais ambiance: sidewalk cafe's, cozy bars, hordes of children romping at play, dogs everywhere. We found a delightful neighborhood cafe' for posthike beers and postdinner cognacs, sharing life with the friendly locals, small fry scampering around our feet as we sipped our drinks.
As for accommodations, gone are the days of the "fleas that tease in the High Pyre'ne'es" that Hilaire Belloc wrote about back in the early 1900s. Belloc's itchy inns no longer exist, and Luz sports three two-star hotels and plenty of perfectly adequate cheaper hostelries where bugs no longer bite. We stayed at the Londres, a quaint hotel and, at more than 100 years old, one of the village's most established.
Of course, we were anxious to see the colossal Gavarnie cirque, and it certainly is extraordinary -- but we came away with mixed feelings: the splendor of the scenery tempered by the tawdriness of the town. The village is a cross between Atlantic City-in-the-Pyre'ne'es and the Wild West. There are dozens of junk shops, and the streets are crowded with hundreds of tethered mules and horses (awaiting their tourist riders) that look straight out of Dodge City. The village square is jammed with tour buses. Along the trail to the cirque, troop after troop of nervous riders clutch their reins. The hot sun brings out the stench of horse manure on the path and you have to be careful where you put your feet ...
And yet. And yet. Once off the main trail, all is serene. And the headwall facing the hiker is truly staggering: 5,000 feet of sheer precipices, snowfields and plunging waterfalls, including the Grande Cascade, which drops 1,450 feet, the highest in Europe. In no time, you are out of the tourist hellhole with only the cows and wildflowers for company.
During our stay in Luz, we hiked twice in the Gavarnie area, both times a delight: the first, a comparatively short foray as far as the so-called Cabane des Soldats, close to the Spanish border but without a soldier in sight and really a shepherd's haven; and second, a much longer 15-miler, over the Hourquette d'Alans, an airy pass that leads into the savage and remote Cirque d'Estaube'.
Atop the Hourquette, a young French couple told us over a sandwich lunch that they had tramped for eight days along the Grande Randonne'e 10, a trans-Pyre'ne'an trail that traverses the entire range, and had barely seen a soul until they reached the Gavarnie valley. Often, they stayed overnight in mountain huts operated by the French Alpine Club -- there are 24 refuges in the national park and many outside of it. Some of them serve hot meals as well as providing bunk-style lodging.
Luz offers many other excellent hiking opportunities, some of which we followed under the tour operator's aegis, some on our own. French maps, issued by the Institute Geographique National, are among the finest in the world, and the trails, ostensibly, are easy to follow. But some warnings for the unwary: The trails immediately surrounding Luz, for the most part, are inadequately blazed. In some places, they are so overgrown below tree line that unpleasant bushwhacking sometimes is needed through stinging nettles and a particularly scratchy variety of briar. Beware, if you are wearing shorts! A knowledge of U.S.-taught French isn't necessarily helpful in this Spanish border territory where the patois is difficult to follow and the local newspaper, La Nouvelle Republique des Pyre'ne'es, actually prints translations of local idioms. Remember soum for sommet (summit); hourquette for col (pass); seilh for glacier; viella for village. All the villages around Luz -- with bizarre names like Grust, Sazos, Vizos, Saligoshave a foreign derivation, some of it Spanish, some Arabic and even Celtic. An automobile, while certainly not indispensable, is a useful appendage to a Pyrenean hiking holiday, and you can rent one through the tourist office in Luz. A rudimentary bus service chugs along these valleys, but it is nothing like the hourly "Post Bus" you find in the Alps. On the other hand, we successfully hitchhiked on occasions. And any tour organization will, of course, provide its own transportation to trailheads.
In any case, most of these are manageable problems. And compared with similar American mountain areas, the Pyre'ne'es are awash with civilized services.
America's pristine wilderness is incomparable, of course. But face it, it's also fun after a rugged hike to indulge in a hot shower, a gourmet three-course meal, fine wines and an after-dinner liqueur. All this is readily available in the High Pyre'ne'es, where a hiker's life is a happy compromise between the backpacking austerity of America's wild country and the commercialized resorts of the European Alps.
Richarzd Wightman, a former reporter for Fairchild Publications, is a Washington writer.
WAYS & MEANS
There are a number of tour operators that sponsor hiking holidays throughout Europe, among them:
Holiday Fellowship, the London-based hiking organization through which we booked our trip. Participants are based in mountain towns and take day hikes into the mountains. This summer the group has scheduled four holidays based in Luz-St.-Sauveur. Prices for the 14-day excursions start at about $825 per person and include air fare from Britain to the South of France, ground transportation to Luz, hotel accommodations and two meals a day. Transportation to trailheads is extra. HF Holidays Ltd., 142-144 Great North Way, London NW4 1EG, England.
R amblers, another British organization, sponsors similar European trips, and its prices are comparable. Ramblers Holidays Ltd., Box 43, Welwyn, Garden City AL8 6PQ, England.
Directions Unlimited also operates hotel-based hiking tours in Europe, including four trips to the Pyre'ne'es this summer. Unlike the Holiday Fellowship tours, hikers are not based in one hotel but travel from town to town by bus. The nine-day Pyre'ne'es tour costs $989 per person (based on double occupancy) and includes hotel accommodations, most meals, ground transportation, excursion sightseeing fees and guides. Air fare is not included. Directions Unlimited, 344 Main St., Mt. Kisco, N.Y. 10549, (800) 533-5343.
GETTING THERE: Visas are now required for Americans traveling to France. Air France flies five days a week nonstop to Paris, where you transfer to Air Inter for the flight to Tarbes-Lourdes International Airport, the nearest to Luz. The APEX round-trip fare, which must be booked 21 days in advance, is $985. (The fare is less if you book the Paris-Tarbes leg separately -- $265 round trip -- and seek out a less expensive charter flight from Washington to Paris.) Luz is an hour's bus ride from Tarbes-Lourdes, and there are six buses a day through the summer.
GETTING AROUND: Buses are available in Luz to take you to the trailheads, and car rentals can be arranged through the Luz tourist office.
WHERE TO STAY: Luz has several comfortable hotels, including the Londres, Montaigu and Touristic; rates at all three are about $40 to $50 a day double. There are also a number of less expensive hotels, and many private homes rent rooms.
INFORMATION: For more information on hiking in the Pyre'ne'es, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, (212) 757-1125. Or once you're in France, information is available from Maison des Pyre'ne'es, at 15 Rue Saint-Augustin in Paris, or the tourist office in Luz-St.-Sauveur.