Walking around France

The region

  • The western Pyrenees are mainly granitic. In the centre and the east there are many more layers of limestone.
  • The highest peaks are more accessible than in the Alps, the contours of the mountains seem softer and the tree cover is denser lower down.
  • Rainfall is higher than average for France and thunderstorms are not uncommon. The resultant moisture supports a wide variety of plants.
  • Until fifty years ago there were wild animals -bears, wolves, even lynx. Recently these species have been re-introduced.
  • In the past high society from across Europe came to Pyrenean spa towns like Cauterets and Bagneres-de-Luchon to be seen as well as to take a cure.
  • The softer hills and valleys of the Ariege and the Aude are quite different from the mountains and passes of the High Pyrenees. There is a lot more fragile limestone with dramatic gorges.
  • The upper reaches of the Ariege are more remote than the great peaks because less frequently visited even today.
  • A high proportion of the houses are second homes. The region has suffered acute rural depopulation, only reversed by an influx of city dwellers in the last thirty years. The Ariege is a department with one of the lowest population densities in France.
  • The word Cathar appears on road signs and tourist marketing literature all over the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees. Heretics who rejected the teachings of the church, they were defeated in the thirteenth century by armies from the North backed by the King and supported by the Pope. It took another hundred years for the Inquisition to eliminate the heresy throughout the region
  • The so called Cathar castles – Roquefixade,Montsegur, Puylaurens, Peyrepertuse, Queribus, Villerouge Termenes – were more important as frontier fortresses taken over by the Kings of France. The remains of the Cathar village of Montaillou, described by a number of historians, have not been preserved.
Back to top

Diary extracts

The Col de Madamete
“It took just under one and a half hours to reach the top over a series of moraines, each one acting as a dam for yet another sheet of water which mirrored the ice blue sky, the green pastures or the grey rocks. At one point I looked across a lake at another knife edge ridge of crumbling rock with cloud boiling up from an invisible valley below. The pale blue trumpets of gentians pushed up through tufts of rough grass in vibrant clusters. Snow had collected in the hollows and I had to step over a few plaques with care. Scarves of ice covered the glassy surface of the last lake before the col. Suddenly I arrived on the rocky base of a scree lined funnel through the ridge. This was the Col de Madamete at 2509 metres. The panorama was breathtaking - a view of mountain peaks covered in snow and yet more lakes in the next valley.”

The Lacs de Bastan
“Cedric, a tall slim young man with his hair swept back in a pony tail, swung baby Noe on his knee. Stephanie, pretty and petite, was cooking supper for thirty five people in a kitchen no larger than a postage stamp. This small nuclear family lived in a hut up the hill with a donkey and a pig for company. The donkey carried supplies from below. The pig’s job was to eat as many food scraps as possible. This was a very environmentally conscious refuge. Guests were expected to take their refuse away with them. A shack concealed the long drop loo. The shower perched precariously on a pallet suspended over some rocks. A solar panel heated the water and we were asked not to use soap. Heated is perhaps an exaggeration as I found out when I took the plunge at 6am the following morning. It was like an electric shock! Inside the accommodation was not for those worried about their agility. To reach our bunks we had to climb a vertical plank with holes for hands and feet. It reminded me of humiliation in the school gym.”

“After dinner I sat staring down at the lakes with their small islands covered in sculpted boulders and small pine trees. The sound of a gamelan of sheep’s bells echoed off the lichen covered rocks. In the background the mountain peaks and their couloirs full of snow sunk into shade. Clouds rested on the peaks in Spain far to the south while the last rays of the orange sun disappeared in the west. Everything was utterly still.”

Above Bagneres-de-Luchon
“From a peak at 1888 meters I had a clear view north out onto the plain, and west to the Pic du Midi, with its distinctive observatory, and Vignemale, a snowy hummock of black granite. All around me was a rocky moor land, grazing country with clumps of heather and wild rhododendrons. The track swung right up a slope and there I was astride the Spanish frontier. A path marked by frontier stones followed a ridge covered with shale and tufts of grass. Two giant gypaetes (vultures) hovered over me, searching for prey. The tips of their massive wings turned up towards the heavens as they glided smoothly in perfect circles.”

The Ariege and the Aude
“I traversed a homely landscape of wooded hills, pastures for sheep and cattle, and apple orchards. The music of streams was gentle, quite different from the sound of rushing torrents in the mountains. A much greater variety of trees and shrubs grew in the forests – hornbeams, dogwoods and wild cotoneasters to add to the everlasting conifers. Some of the secluded valleys provided a warm microclimate which encouraged banana plants and bougainvilleas to flourish. In one village the gardens could have belonged to an English cottage. Wisterias grew around the eaves, daisies had gone to seed in the beds and roses covered the pergola. I wandered between high grassy banks dotted with brambles, ferns and wild flowers. Perhaps the English like the Ariege so much because it reminds them of Devon or Somerset.”

“Massive walls of limestone clothed in trees and bushes converged on a point a mile distant. I was walking into the jaws of a nutcracker as the sides of the gorge soared above me. This was the entrance to the Gorges de la Frau, an apt corruption of Gorges de I'Effroi, gorges of fright. The sign on the side warned - Dangerous Path, Avalanche Risk in Bad Weather. The sun disappeared as I entered the narrow funnel of the gorge. I had to crane my neck to scan the eight hundred foot walls of rock above. A few stones clattered down without warning. Fortunately they were no bigger than a pebble. I was lucky that the course of the river alongside the path was dry. After heavy rain this gorge would have been very dangerous with no means of escape from a flood.”

“When my father was a boy there were about twelve hundred inhabitants in the village and when I was a young man around six hundred. Now there are only forty permanent residents throughout the year.” “It used to be a very poor, “he said pointing to the deserted terraces on the hillsides above as evidence of his forebears’ desperation to ring something from the thin soil. The winter diet before 1940 was monotonous and consisted mainly of potatoes. There was no electric light, only paraffin lamps. The village joke was that the crows flew past on their backs, as they knew there was no point in looking for something to eat!”

“The approach to Peyrepertuse is truly awesome. A slope covered in the garrigue rose a thousand feet to my left. The curtain wall grew out of the rock at the top of the cliff, the same colour as its surroundings. To an attacker this fortress would have looked impregnable. I looked down through the bushes on the village of Rouffiac as if hovering in a helicopter. The fortress complex occupied the entire plateau on top of the mountain. It was shaped like a dagger with a large grip and a short blade. A dramatic open staircase led to a large keep. Here an observation platform afforded a spectacular bird’s eye view of the lower complex, which seemed to hover in the air over the valley floor fifteen hundred feet below. The Pyrenees rippled away on the horizon. This felt like border country.”

Back to top

The Walk

The GR10 is a continuous trail across the French side of the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. I decided to include a section of it in my round France expedition and reached it via the GR101 from Lourdes.

Thereafter I followed the direct route along the GR10 via Cauterets, Luz St. Sauveur, Bareges, the Col de Madamete, Vieille Aure, as far as the Cabanes de Courraus after Bagneres-de-Luchon.

Then I took a series of local footpaths passing through St. Beat on the Garonne, Moncaup, Aspet, St. Girons, Massat to Foix. After Foix I followed the GR107 to Prades and Camurac, cut across country on local paths to Axat on the R. Aude and joined the GRP Sentier des Cathares. I followed this trail to the coast with slight local variations. Horizontal distances are not a very useful measure of a journey in the Pyrenees. The walk from Lourdes along the GR10 took twelve days walking seven hours a day. On average I climbed 2700 feet a day and in total covered approximately 160 miles. From the upper Garonne to the end of the Cathar trail is a distance of approximately 200 miles.


View more details.



View more details.

Back to top

Maps and Guides

Topoguides published by FFRP - GR10 Pyrenees Centrales ref. 1091. Luz-Saint-Sauveur et ses environs a pied PR, ref.ST02.GR107 Sur les traces des Cathares ref. 1097. Rando Editions Le Sentier Cathare.

1;25,000 maps from the GR10 to Foix – 1848OT, 1847OT, 1947OT, 2047OT, 2047ET, 2147ET. Maps from Camurac – 2148ET, 2247OT, 2248ET, 2348ET, 2347OT, 2447OT.

Internet site : Steve Cracknell describes his walk along the GR10. See also his book If you only walk long enough available on

Back to top


In the period July to September I experienced generally good weather. However, the crests are sometimes covered in heavy cloud. It is therefore important to stick to the path and carry as a minimum a compass and a good set of maps. The Pyrenees are also prone to thunderstorms. Check weather conditions in advance if in doubt. It is not comfortable to be stuck on a ridge in a storm. Over roughly 2500m there can be still be snow lying in June and early July.

Back to top


It is worth reserving ahead on the GR10 in the busy season of July and August as refuges and gites d’etapes can get full. I list below places where I stayed which I can particularly recommend. I have not covered every stopping place on my route.

Gite Beau Soleil
M. Jean-Pierre Florence
Gite Beau Soleil
25 rue Marechal Joffre, 65110 Cauterets.
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 62 92 53 52 or (0)6 84 22 49 37

Auberge Les Bruyeres
Francoise et Jean-Daniel Fournou.
Grust 65120
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 62 92 83 03

Gite Oasis
Andrea et Phillippe Trey
2 passage de Toys
65120 Bareges
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 62 92 69 47 or (0)6 89 98 60 91
Fax 00 33 (0)5 62 92 65 17

Lacs de Bastan
Cedric et Stephanie
Refuge du Bastan
65 - Vielle-Aure
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 62 98 48 80

Hotel Aurelia
65170 Saint Lary Soulan-Vielle Aure
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 62 39 56 90
Fax 00 33 (0)5 62 39 43 75

Hotel des 2 Nations
5 rue Victor Hugo
31110 Bagneres de Luchon
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 61 79 01 71
Fax 00 33 (0)5 61 79 27 89

Gite d'Etape Le Bergerot
Veronique et Manuel Senra
Le Bergerot
31160 Moncaup
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 61 88 83 41 or (0)6 86 54 18 34.
Fax 00 33 (0)5 61 88 83 41

Mme. Caroline Zanzucchi
31160 Chein-Dessus, Nr. Arbas
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 67 55 20 33; 06 22 12 50 03

Number CH 0673

Hotel Eychenne
11 rue Peyrevidal 09000 Foix
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 61 65 00 04
Fax 00 33 (0)5 61 65 56 63

Relais des Trois Chateaux
Palot, 09300 Roquefixade
Tel. 00 33 (0)5 61 01 33 99
Fax 00 33 (0)5 61 01 73 73

Hotel Grau
11340 Espezel
Tel. 00 33 (0)4 68 20 30 14
Fax 00 33 (0)4 68 20 33 62

Hostellerie du Grand Duc
2 route de Boucheville 11140 Gincla
Tel. 00 33 (0)4 68 20 55 02
Fax 00 33 (0)4 68 20 61 22

La Giraudasse, Soulatge
Katia Somoza-Tiberghien
La Giraudasse, 2, place de la fontaine
11330 Soulatge
Tel. 00 33 (0)4 68 45 00 16
Fax 00 33 (0)4 68 45 05 40

Auberge du Vigneron Cucugnan
2, rue A. Mir, 11350 Cucugnan
Tel. 00 33 (0) 4 68 45 03 00
Fax 00 33 (0)4 68 45 03 08

Back to top


Click on the thumbnails below to see larger images with captions.

Back to top