It is not always easy to choose a ski resort for the busiest week of the season – February Half Term. I was seriously worried that I had messed up. Not only had I chosen quite a small ski resort in the Pyrenees with only one main access point – a gondola – but also a resort whose closest city – Toulouse – was on the same February holiday period.
I’d envisioned long queues in the morning and packed terraces at lunchtime. As it turned out the worst queue was off the mountain, but I’ll come back to that!
Toulouse is just 1.5hrs from the town of Ax les Thermes in the French Pyrenees. Locals commute to Ax by train as the station is in the town centre, and over 800 people each weekend day arrive this way. However, we wanted to have the flexibility of a car so had rented a vehicle for our stay.
In an endeavour to be first in the lift queue, we breakfasted early only to be told by one of the hotel staff that all the lifts were shut due to high winds.
I’d heard of Ascou, a smaller local ski area reported to be open, but with fears of that being packed, on recommendation of the Tourist Office, we headed for the Col du Chioula for some cross-country skiing.
CROSS-COUNTRY IN COL DU CHIOULA
Tickets purchased and kit rented we spent a few minutes on the flat area getting to grips with the little, lightweight narrow skis and the soft boots. It’s over 15 years since I last tried cross-country skiing in Kimberley, BC and I had forgotten everything.
The front of the cross-country ski boots simply clip in to a toe piece on the ski. Our little group of seven (four children) were keen to get moving up the ‘green trail’. Following narrow cross-country tracks in the snow, we made good progress uphill, your heel lifts and helps to push and glide the skis along. Slightly longer ski poles with angled baskets are helpful for keeping the uphill momentum.
The downhill sections proved trickier for me, cue laughter from everyone, a lot of tumbles from me and a close encounter with a friend who decided he should fall over rather than be pushed.
After lunch I was persuaded to try again and this time we all conquered the longer ‘blue trail’. Opening up stunning panoramas across the Pyrenees, we headed up to 1600m. We felt so lucky to have had bad weather to give us all this experience. The children loved it; my youngest, just 8 years old, needed a bit of a ‘tow’ up the longer, uphill sections, but the downhill they mastered much more quickly than I did.
SECRET HOT SPRINGS
Day 2 and 90mph winds still blowing, we decided to find the ‘secret hot springs’, which a friend had told me about. Not promoted by the region, they are tucked away on the GR10, the main hiking route that spans the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
After a 15-minute uphill hike we found them. All prepared with swimming costumes under our ski clothes, it didn’t take us long to submerge ourselves in the toasty sulphuric water. It was warm, not super-hot, and quite smelly (!) but on extracting ourselves suddenly the water felt a whole lot hotter! There are three small pools literally on the side of the mountain – an incredible experience to find them and one we will remember forever.
AX 3 DOMAINES
Finally we made it up to Ax. Overnight the winds had dropped leaving a drizzly morning that we knew was forecast to clear. There were no queues, so we hopped straight on the access gondola up to Bonascre – one of the three main areas of Ax 3 Domaines. From Bonascre we took the high-speed six chair ‘Lievre Blanc’, and then the ‘Tute’ six-man, and were treated to about half a foot of fresh snow. The early birds definitely catch the powder – although we managed to find fresh tracks across the whole area all day, and even on our second day there was still fresh snow to be found through the trees.
The ski area was busy, as expected, with a couple of bottlenecks at the Rebenty chair and the two-man ‘Savis’. With 25 million+ euros being invested in the next three years though, these queues will ease with the replacement of these slower chairs and with it the creation of several new runs. We discovered restaurant ‘Le Louzat’ – a fabulous spot for lunch tucked away in the woods, arriving early to get a table on the terrace.
ROAD TRIP TO ASCOU
We decided to head up to Ascou for our last ski day on the recommendation of a local friend. She said it is a special place, quiet and with runs through the forest. She was right. Just a twenty-minute drive from Ax – les -Thermes, Ascou-Pailheres sits just off the road up to the Col du Pailheres (closed in winter). There are only 15km of slopes and seven lifts, but for a day we loved it. The beginners’ area was very busy but on the higher draglifts we had the slopes almost to ourselves, not bad for the busiest week of the season!
The runs cut through the forest and feel a little like some of the smaller Canadian resorts I have skied in. Lots of small off-piste sections you can cut through and just one base café but with excellent coffee. The terrace overlooks the beginner ski area and we enjoyed a peaceful coffee in the sunshine while the children skied the beginner button lifts and little Fun Park.
DISCOVERING THE REGION
We all loved discovering this area of the French Pyrenees and having a car rental meant we could explore Chioula and Ascou as well as skiing the main ski area at Ax 3 Domaines. We tried to get in to the recreational spa after skiing – Les Bains du Couloubret, but this was where the real queues were.
After a 30-minute wait and no progress we decided to stick with the natural foot spa in the centre of the town. Each evening this becomes a focal point for people to sit and chat – we all loved it, the naturally occurring sulphuric water coming out at 77 degrees.
The town of Ax originated in approx. 800AD with the old hospital and foot spa alongside dating back to the 1200s. Spa tourism thrived during the 19th Century. Ax-les-Thermes is a town full of history with its narrow old streets to discover and quaint bars and restaurants.
More and more people are heading high in the summer. PlanetSKI reports from the French Pyrenees.
The French Pyreness is a region of extreme contrasts – from high peaks to lush valleys.
There is wonderful cuisine and fascinating culture.
Adrenalin action sports to gentle family activities.
PlanetSKI reporter, Vanessa Fisher, has been enjoying the area with her young family.
I visited last summer to see some of the extremities of the region and reported on it here for PlanetSKI. I fell in love with the Pyrenees in the summer months and was keen to see some more of this contrasting region.
Down in the foothills is a sleepy little village called Madiran.
Wine aficionados may recognise the name from the rich red wine which carries its name.
Madiran wine, is one of the most well-known red wines from this part of France.
The Brumont family being one of the biggest growers and exporters of this wine.
The vineyards grow on the south facing slopes of this little corner of the Hautes-Pyreenees.
What isn’t little is the Chateau which sits amongst the vineyards – Chateau Montus.
When I visited it was about to host a huge wedding party.
The converted outbuildings were decked out with linen and flowers but we managed a quick peek in to another of the vast buildings which houses the enormous metal cylinders where the wine is produced and stored.
I’m not a huge wine fan (unless it’s fizzy) but the beautiful old chateau sitting with its panoramic views across the valleys was quite the setting for a wedding reception.
The lady on reception went down to the cellar to dig out a couple of bottles of 2010 Montus, an excellent year for this wine…apparently.
My dad loved it!
On the other side of the region, heading down towards the Med and nestling up against the Haute-Garonne department is the Barousse Forest.
With our wine stash we were in search of some new treehouses that have been built up in the woods.
This is where Sat Navs struggle, small mountainside roads, where they get confused with the switch-back roads and tiny paths and tracks.
After a couple of interesting routes, we drove into another tiny village, Cazarihl.
Just off the ‘main road’ through the village are Les Cabanes de Pyrenes.
A local couple have invested in a small section of the forest and built three bespoke treehouses, one sleeping two, one sleeping four and a larger treehouse sleeping seven.
That was to be our home for the night.
As a family overnight treat it was absolutely idyllic; giant wooden games are scattered through the surrounding woodland, and if you want to hike, the owners are clearing an ancient path which runs north from the treehouses up into the woods beyond.
Each treehouse has a different entrance, the duo with its circular stairway and a ladder across to a seating area ‘a deux’.
Ours had an easier wooden staircase, safe for the children, a lovely outside balcony and fun swinging chairs underneath.
Inside was spacious, with a double raised bed, two sets of bunks and a small single under the double.
Small details such as the intricate carving around the windows and the lovely bed linen makes an overnight in these treehouses seem luxurious.
The naturally heated hamman (like a small Jacuzzi) was fired up for us to relax in and for dinner we ate in the on-site Kota grill.
You can cook local meat over the fire in the centre of the little hexagonal building and the owners prepare potatoes and salad plus homemade tart and breads and dried meats to accompany.
After more wine, sleep comes easily, no noise, just the sounds from the woods and pitch black all around.
Gentle fairy lights inside enough to keep the children’s fears at bay!
In the morning, after hauling a wicker basket full of fresh croissants, hot coffee and chocolate up and over the balcony and devoured around the little central table, we moved back down to the valley to discover some ancient caves and hand prints.
The Grottes de Gargas caves take you way underground where, with a guide, you follow the routes through the limestone tunnels and discover a series of 27,000 year old hand prints and animal carvings.
Our guide spoke in French but quickly translated in to English.
Once again we were late for our set tour but luckily managed to tack on to the back of the tour which had only just begun – booking in advance is essential.
Onwards up the valley still at the very edge of the Hautes-Pyrenees and then crossing the high pass at Col du Peysourade brought us down in to the Louron Valley.
It is the new Pyrenees Road Trip. It takes you over many of the famous Tour de France ‘cols’ zigzaging between France and Spain, and to some of the most beautiful sites of the Pyrenees.
A Road Book accompanies you on this trip. It is free and full of practical advice, with lots of good addresses for accommodation, full of information on the best sites to visit, the places for outdoor activities, the spa centres, the best restaurants… It is not just another tourist guide, only the best sites recommended by clients are included. It is set out as a daily diary and has ideas for easy walks, unusual places to visit, and is full of interesting stories. Its valuable information makes it the perfect guide for a great adventure.
It is something that should be done at least once in a lifetime, whether integrally or for just a few days.
The itinerary can be done in 3, 5 or 8 days, you can choose your own rhythm. All logistics are taken care of by the Hautes-Pyrenees Holiday Boutique, the specialist in made to measure holidays: 3 and 4 star accommodation with breakfast included, pass for access to the Grand Sites, entry to the spa centres…
On the basis of two sharing it only costs €494 per person for 8 days, €335 for 5 days and €260 for 3 days (transport not included).
2 COUNTRIES (France and Spain),
1 WORLD HERITAGE SITE,
4 GRANDS SITES of the Midi Pyrenees: Pic du Midi, Cauterets-Pont d’Espagne, Gavarnie and Lourdes…
THE NEOUVIELLE RESERVE – NEW For Summer 2016 Five Linked Refuges
The richness of the flora and fauna, together with the many lakes and sublime scenery, have made the Néouvielle Reserve a subject for detailed study and attention.
Created in 1936, the Néouvielle Nature Reserve is one of the earliest established in France. The area covers 2,300 hectares with more than 70 lakes (Aubert, Aumar, Orédon, Cap de Long, Laquettes) and pools in which more than 570 species of algae have been identified. The area is covered with Pins à Crochets (a dwarf mountain pine), the tree growing at the highest altitudes in Europe. This famous range is bordered by the massive limestone walls of Barroude and the Pic Néouvielle at more than 3000m.
A paradise for walkers, there are many possible circuits and the grand tour of the Néouvielle can be done staying in the 5 refuges, newly linked for summer 2016.
PARC ANIMALIER DES PYRENEES – Up Close and Personal!
The Pyrenees Animal Park, ranked among the top in France , opens a new hut sleeping two adults – with windows overlooking the Bear Park.
Having successfully created the trapper’s cabin within close proximity to the wolves, this new hut will get visitors close to the bears. (closed peak months of summer July and August) www.parc-animalier-pyrenees.com
ON YOUR BIKE!
The Tour de France 2016 spends 2 days in the Hautes-Pyrenees this summer :
8 July 2016- 7th stage – L’Isle-Jourdain – Lac de Payolle 162 km
The Campilaro : 24 – 26 th July – 3 days, 370 km, 8500m of elevation, 5 cols and timed ascents and 30 km of ascent to Gavarnie – www.campilaro.com
The Haute Route of Pyrenees – 23-25th August – stages 4-6 travelling via Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Azet and over Col de Peyresourde – www.hauteroute.org/events/stages/pyrenees-2016
Marmotte Grandfondo Pyrenees – 28 th August – 25 years in the Alps, 7,000 participants and for the 1st time in the Pyrenees – 163 km, 5 600 m of elevation including both sides of the Col du Tourmalet via Barèges (2115m), Hourquette d’Ancizan (1564m), Col d’Aspin (1489m), and again Col du Tourmalet (2115m) via Ste Marie de Campan, arriving Luz Ardiden (1666m). http://marmotte.sportcommunication.info/
Alternatively take an electric bike to access any of these routes
Pyr’Epic -Mountain Bike Pic du Midi to Lourdes 3-4 September 2016
A 2-day MTB event taking in 120 km of trails from the top of the Pic du Midi via Cauterets to Lourdes. Two stages of 50 and 70 km with 8000 meters of vertical drop, and 4000 m of elevation gain .Easy access to the Pic du Midi cable car ( 2877 m); the cable car and chairlift Cauterets and the Funiculaire du Pic du Jer for the final descent to Lourdes. http://www.lourdesvtt.com/pyrepic-le-raid-vtt-all-mountain-by-lourdes-vtt/
NEW – 3D Hiking App
Available on Android, easy and fun, with map, compass , GPS, cameras. A new way to hike in freedom and security. www.faceausud.com (Cauterets, Gavarnie, Néouvielle, Pic du Midi)
The longest descent in Europe from the Pic du Midi by scooter
5th and 12th August at 04.00 pm : 2 hours of descent:15 km et 1800 m
Price : 95€ for adults – 85€ for teenager – maximum 10 places on each date. The price includes transfer from Argeles- Gazost or the Campan Valley, access to the top of the Pic du Midi cable car, equipment and snack on arrival descent. Scooter descents also available all summer at Hautacam. https://montnroll.com/la-descente-la-plus-haute-deurope/
Hike with a Huski !
With a belt around your waist allow the huski dog to gently pull you along on a hike or enjoy a quad bike ride pulled by a pack of Huskis. From 6 years – available at Argelès-Gazost, Barèges, Val d’Azun and Louron Valley – 30 mins, 35€/adult ; 25€/children (under 10yrs) – www.sherpa-chien-traineau.fr/Cani-rando
Historical Walk of Lourdes
Lourdes, the 2nd most visited city in France, and famous for its pilgrims has a fun ‘city beach’ for all this summer.
New – two 1 hr 30 themed walks discovering the history behind Lourdes from 1858 when before and after Bernadette’s apparitions and Lourdes in medieval times when it was known as ‘Lorda’.
Artitude – Modern art in a small village in the Hautes-Pyrenees
15 artists create a walk in Arras en Lavedan, a village of 500 inhabitants, near Argelès-Gazost on the theme of Saint Jacques de Compostela, a mixture of history, old artifacts and modern art accessible to all. LOCAL PRODUCTS
Black Pork of Pierre Sajous –
A new delicatessan open on the Lourdes-Gavarnie road. Specialising in the local Black Pork de Bigorre. Visit the factory, see the hams being salted and taste and buy products. Discover the different breeds of pig and their diet.
Cooking courses with one of the best Chefs of the Hautes-Pyrénées
Le Viscos is one of the best restaurants in the Hautes-Pyrenees with Jean -Pierre Saint-Martin and now his son, English speaking Alexis. They are passionate about serving the best products taking over 2.5 hours to produce their meals. Cooking courses 75 €/pers. 3 people maximum –
Thermal Spas –Eight spas in the region – Aquensis, Balnea, Bains du Rocher, Cieleo, l’Edenvik, Jardin des Bains, Luzea, Sensoria Rio -make the most of the region’s superb natural resources to create a unique range of spa and wellness products, harnessing the naturally warm and soothing waters.
To stay in one of the spa centres of the Hautes-Pyrenees is to discover an area which has more rivers, lakes, mountain torrents and waterfalls than almost all other regions. The air is pure, the climate soft. Spa clients re-charge the batteries with a true mountain style treatment : sunshine, superb scenery, authentic villages, a warm welcome, a traditional and comforting cuisine.