I chose the camping spot at Tournay as it was within an hour or so of various areas I wanted us to explore. I really wanted to take the cable car to the Observatory at the top of the Pic du Midi (Mike wasn’t very enthused). I wanted to tour the Pyrenees and the mountain villages. I wanted to hike the Cirque du Gavarnie and I wanted to tour Lourdes, both the religious Sanctuary and the town itself. We spent 9 days in this campground and some of my plans worked and some didn’t.
The weather was often overcast but we did have a few beautiful days. Near the end of our 9 days at Tournay, the weather was predicted to be gorgeous, even in the mountains, so Mike and I headed out on a 90 minute drive into the Pyrenees to the village of Gavarnie. This is the starting point for a hike into the Cirque de Gavarnie.
According to the internet a cirque is basically an amphitheatre-like valley formed by glacial erosion. Fifty million years ago, river and glacial erosion carved out a series of natural cirques of rare perfection in the Pyrenees. Gavarnie is the most famous and is said to be the most spectacular. It is surrounded by sixteen peaks over 3,000 meters and home to the highest waterfall in Europe (413m of free fall) which we were heading out to see. The Cirque de Gavarnie is an extraordinary wall 1700 m high and 14 km in circumference.
Thanks to me forgetting things and looking for washrooms, even before setting out on the hike Mike and I had walked through this town multiple times. The hike to a hiker’s hotel is about 7 km and can be extended with different routes. At the hotel, if you are young and still have the energy you can do another 3 km loop with more climbing, that will take you to the base of the waterfall. Mike and I finally started out of town on the hike. About 1 km into the “easy” section I decided that I wasn’t going to complete the walk. It wasn’t that the walk was extremely difficult, it just had quite a bit of uphill combined with ankle twisting paths. Mike and I hiked and walked uphill a lot more often prior to our e-bikes. I knew that if I continued, my muscles and I were going to regret this for the next week. I have done that before and it really wasn’t worth it. The picture at the top was taken at the spot where Mike and I split company. He continued on the hike while I went back to town for crêpes 😊. That said, while I didn’t do the energetic, muscle hurting climb, I did walk almost 12,000 steps that day, it was just largely on level ground.
This was the first day that I had been in a t-shirt walking outside this year. Two days later the area was predicted to have a 43 cm or 17 inches snowfall. It turned out that the main waterfall was not visible at this time of year as it was underneath all the snow. Mike said that he did see other waterfalls. One nice one was below him which he said afforded him a great view.
Here is a video that I just found on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_G-oZUPTMZE. The first 2 ½ minutes is the hike that Mike took plus the extra leg to the waterfall. The end is a different hike.
My big disappointment was our attempts to go to the top of the Pic du Midi (2,877m or 9,439 ft) which was in a different portion of the Pyrenees. At the top is a large observatory, a planetarium, terraces and something called a Pontoon in the Sky. The Pontoon is a large platform that goes out well over the edge of the mountain. The views are said to be stupendous. The first time we made the one hour drive to the base where the 15 minute cable car departs from, it turned out that everything was closed due to high winds. Apparently, if I read French and knew where to look, I could have found this information online and we could have done something else that day. A few days later, knowing that the cable car was running, we returned. We went to buy our tickets and found out that they were over $60 Cdn per person (45€ each). I thought that was extortion but Mike convinced me that we were here and needed to go through with it, even though he wasn’t very keen. We could see that clouds had come in. We thought that we would be viewing the other mountains from above the clouds which wasn’t the best, but it would still be a very nice sight. Luckily Mike asked the ticket agent about the weather at the top. The agent showed us a live cam of the weather at the top. You couldn’t see a thing for the clouds! If I had paid $125 and stepped off into basically solid fog, I would have been really upset. Mike thought that we might try a third time, but when we left Tournay the weather was predicted to be rainy and overcast for four days and we weren’t going to wait it out. Luckily the drive through the mountains each time we went to and from Pic du Midi was lovely. We stopped in at one fortified or walled village, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, that you see from miles away on the top of a hill.
The Tour de France often includes this part of the Pyrenees and everyone is very proud of it. You will see statues and pictures in many places referencing the bike race. The picture shown here was taken at a rest stop at the side of the highway. We saw a statue to someone who had a major problem during the race and a garden to all the winners. Tour de France seemed to be everywhere. We often passed very fit looking cyclists peddling on the steep grades up the mountain roads, and on one occasion followed one travelling at more than 60 km per hour down a winding mountain road.
In addition to outdoors and nature we did visit the city of Pau. I found it interesting how hard they work to maintain their heritage.
France has a larger selection of meats in standard restaurants. It isn’t like you won’t find all of them in Canada, it is just that our average restaurant seems to sell pork, chicken and beef. Here duck, lamb, wild boar and other meats are much more common even in fast food kiosks. We have had lunches in some very nice restaurants. One that didn’t thrill me had stuffed wild animals surrounding the dining room. Mike thought that it was a good thing that he was hungry or he might have been put off his meal. I guess I wasn’t quite hungry enough.
They also use colours more than we do at home. Cars are not all silver, white or black with the occasional red which I swear is 80% of the cars in Canada. They have all sorts of bright colours including many orange cars. Many of the houses are neutral colours like ours at home but you will also see purple and orange and blue and other colours frequently.
We met one British couple that were looking to buy an 18th century farm house with a bit of land so they could build a small, possibly 10 vehicle, campground on it. Permits to modify or update a 200 year old farmhouses are required for every step in the process, even including painting the shutters. This looked like it would be a major project to us. This couple planned on installing a pool and all the facilities required for a proper campground like a toilet, shower, laundry building, a common room, electricity, water and sewage dump for the campers etc. I have no idea how a maximum of 10 campers in season could ever break even with this type of expenditure, even it you didn’t need to make a lot in early retirement. Best of luck to them.
We decided to visit Lourdes over two days. Day 1 was to visit the town and the second day was to visit the Lourdes Sanctuary. On our first visit we rode a little tourist train through town to get oriented. We toured a Chateux Fort Museum on top of a hill that luckily had an elevator from ground level to the chateau level. The picture of the Lourdes Sanctuary above was taken from the fort.
Lourdes is the most visited pilgrimage shrine in the Christian world. In pre-Covid times five to six million pilgrims visited each year or about 20,000 per day. Lourdes is the town with the second largest number of hotels next to Paris in all of France. This in a city with a slowly declining population of only about 13,000 people. It just so happened that we were going to be in the Lourdes area over Easter which concerned me. Not only was it a major religious holiday but it was also the beginning of the week long school holiday. I was very concerned about crowds. I am sorry to say, for Lourdes sake, that wasn’t a problem. The town and Sanctuary weren’t deserted but they certainly weren’t crowded either.
For those that don’t know the story, here is a very short recap of how Lourdes came to be. In 1858 Bernadette, an uneducated and impoverished 14-year-old, saw a series of 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the grotto. Told by “the lady” to drink and bathe from a spring, Bernadette dug in the dirt until water gushed forth. This spring was said to have healing powers, and soon drew the sick and the suffering. Today, reports of miracles of our Lady of Lourdes are thoroughly examined and evidence indicates that there are many cases of verifiable healings at the grotto. The last one that I read about was in 2008 I believe.
The huge decline in tourists due to the pandemic forced the Sanctuary to see where they could use technology. The world’s first virtual pilgrimage took place in July 2020. It was broadcast in 10 languages. “Lourdes United” drew 80 million viewers – WOW!
The picture here is actually of three basilicas or churches built on top of each other, together known as the Basilica. There is the Lower Basilica, the Crypt Basilica and the Upper Basilica. The oldest is the one in the middle – that must have been difficult! I thought that the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec was interesting with its Blue Chapel below the main Basilica.
The Upper Basilica, also known as the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, has some phenomenal mosaic pictures that Mike estimates are each 20-30 feet high.
3 weeks ago we visited a campground in Toulouse and told them that we would be there in two days. We are just a little late 😊. I am very glad that we detoured into Basque Country and the Pyrenees and surrounding towns. It was a lovely three weeks and we are very lucky not to be on any set timetable. It has also been almost three weeks since we rode our bikes and based on weather we may still have to wait a few days. We plan on continuing our cycling along the canal route from our campground in Toulouse. It is much easier than uphill walking.