Active holidays in the French Pyrenees – a well kept secret
Imagine a mountain chain that begins and ends at the sea. It has areas of remote beauty, a lake district, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and culture-rich villages. Bears roam, eagles and vultures fly, and the spring wild-flowers will take your breath away. This is the French Pyrenees.
Every year, visitors join the locals to enjoy a range of outdoor activities: skiing, walking, trekking, paragliding, caving, cycling, canyoning.
Incredibly, few English speaking visitors make their way to the Pyrenees. The region is still unspoilt, prices are reasonable, and the local dialects and languages (French, Occitane, and various patois) are dominant all year round. It is a haven for people wanting active holidays without the over-crowded, tourist hot-spot feeling.
Below are the most popular Pyrenean activities and some advice on how to choose one that’s right for you.
On your feet
: Skiing, snowboarding, hiking, trekking, walking.
In Winter, the Pyrenees offers miles of on-piste skiing and enviable off-piste, ski-touring and snow-shoeing opportunities. The Grand Tourmalet ski domain, is the largest resort in the Pyrenees, with prices about a third cheaper than the Alps.
Once spring arrives, don your walking shoes. From gentle meanders through sun-drenched villages to nail-biting edges and towering peaks, you can walk for an hour, a day, weeks, or months.
: Cycling, biking.
As the snow disappears, the wheels appear. Road cyclists trace famous Tour De France routes, while mountain bikers take to the adrenalin raising downhill courses.
Known for its favourable thermals, paragliding in the Pyrenees means you can soar like a bird for over an hour.
: rafting, kayaking, canyoning, other river-based activities.
You can gently float on your back admiring the view, paddle in a kayak, experience the thrills of rafting, or canyon down the river, following its course using a combination of swimming, climbing, abseiling and jumping.
Enjoy a picnic lunch deep in the mountains, seeing hidden caverns and scenery. The Pyrenees are as spectacular underground as they are overground.
On four legs
A firm family favourite, horse riding treks last from 1 hour to days.
: Rock-climbing, Via Ferrata routes
Scale those mountain flanks, either using rock-climbing techniques or the Via Ferrata (Iron Road) routes, where you use rungs and cables to cling to the soaring cliffsides.
These are the most popular summer and winter Pyrenean activities. There are many more and, of course, when you want to rest your tired muscles, head to one of the many thermal mountain villages, like Barèges, and soak your tiredness away in the local spa.
Choosing the right active holiday
With so much on offer, it can be difficult to decide what’s right for you. Here are our top tips:
1. Be honest with yourself
Be objective about how much you want to do while away and how much you can do. Then research what each activity holiday involves, contacting the activity or holiday companies if you need more information. Discovering you aren’t as fit as you thought or that you actually want to spend time just relaxing can lead to a disappointing activity holiday but the other risk, underestimating your ability and motivation, can also create disappointment.
2. Find out the abilities and wishes of other people in your party
It can be hard to find someone with the same fitness level and ability as yourself. If you want to go with a particular group of friends or family, then a multi-activity holiday could be ideal, or if it’s one particular activity you’ve set your heart on (eg the HRP, High Pyrenean Route, peak to peak trek) then find a company that has other people doing the same activity at the same level.
3. Check it’s the right time of year for your chosen activity
Spring walking in the Pyrenees to see those flower-filled meadows, doesn’t begin until the end of May and lasts until early July. River activities for families are better in August, when the icy cold melt water has warmed up.
4. When there – stay open minded.
The weather is uncontrollable. It’s wise to be prepared to change your plans and flex around the mountain weather. Want to hike round the Cirque du Gavarnie but it’s raining in that valley? Look at the weather near the Pont D’Espagne, a few valleys along, as it may be perfect walking weather there.
5. Take the right kit.
If you book with a holiday company, they should have recommended kit lists. Follow them.
6. Have the right insurance
Check your insurance covers all of your activities and look at the small print to see what it excludes. If you’re a European citizen, get an up-to-date EHIC card, for free French Health Care.
7. Are your guides qualified and what language will they be guiding in?
A reputable activity company will clearly state their qualifications and provide links to their regulating body.
The French Pyrenees are an amazing, unspoilt, undiscovered, part of the world. Whatever it is that draws you there, we hope you enjoy it.
For more information on activity holidays in the Pyrenees visit www.moutainbug.com
Written by Kara@mountainbug.com
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