Saturday, 7 August 2021

Trip Report: A week in Cauterets, Haute Pyrénées.

A Residence in Cauterets, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Our apartment is directly above the restaurant umbrellas.


Cauterets is a small town at the end of a valley in the Pyrenees mountains, south of Lourdes and close to the Spanish border. It is 950 metres above sea level and came to fame in France initially as a destination for wealthy 19C 'curistes' who came to enjoy the thermal spas. These are nearly all gone now, and snow sports have taken over in the winter, with hiking, climbing and cycling in the summer. Cauterets has the most reliable snow in France, but is almost unknown as a ski resort outside of France. But it is also an absolute gem of a summer destination if you like hiking in the mountains, as we do.

Port de Boucharo, with Spain in the background. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Selfie with Spain in the background on a mountain pass at 2000+ metres (Port de Boucharo on the Col de Tentes).


Accommodation prices in the summer are about 20% less than winter. One of the things we liked about Cauterets is that it is a picturesque 19C town, not a monstrosity of a mid-20C concrete ski resort. Access to the mountains is immediate -- they are right there on the edge of town. You can walk, or catch the cable car from the centre of town, transferring to a chairlift to take you right to the top (€15/person return including the chairlift). You can also take a bus to Pont d'Espagne, then a cable car and chairlift to Lac du Gaube.

Vallee de Pouey Aspe, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Looking down the valley of Pouey Aspé from the Col de Tentes.


Our advice would be to rent an apartment in the old centre of town so you are within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants. There are dozens of apartments, in 19C 'residences'. Ours was in a building belonging to a mountain guide called Jean-Louis Lechene, who lived on the top floor. It was of modest size, but a well designed blend of modern conveniences and vintage charm. WIFI was adequate, there was a shared laundry room, and we could have borrowed hiking poles if we wished. We booked it through the tourist office, but once there dealt with a  concierge service. Payment arrangements were that we paid a deposit online, then the balance by cheque directly to the owner. We also had to write cheques for €800 in case we damaged anything and another €150 against the possibility the apartment would need deep cleaning after we left. Neither the owner nor the concierge spoke English. We were able to comply with these slightly complicated arrangements because we live in France already, but there must be way for people without French bank accounts to book - there were many other European visitors in town.

Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, Col de Tentes, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A Griffon Vulture cruising by at 2000m.


The most popular walk is to Lac d'Ilhéou, with the possibility of having a simple lunch at the refuge at the lake. We walked down from the top of the ski lift to the lake, then on to Cauterets, for a total of 12km. If you chose this route, stay on the road, don't follow the GR10 (walking path) as we did - the walking route heads across shale scree, and is particularly scary. Or walk up to Lac du Gaube, have lunch in the quite good restaurant up there and then chairlift and bus down (you can do the reverse as we did too).

Alpine Marmot Marmota marmota, Col de Tentes, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A marmot, about 1500 metres.


Prices in restaurants in Cauterets itself are extremely reasonable and the food good. Up on the mountains, the menus are a bit more limited (especially at Ilhéou, where it's just omelette and salad) but still delicious, and not expensive. Budget €20 - €30 per person including a drink each. Many of the restaurants offer quick 'snack' type food -- crepes, burgers, pizza, raclette and fondue -- probably because hikers and skiers can turn up at any time wanting something to eat. But you can also get good 'salades composées' featuring local specialities such as goat or sheep cheese and smoked duck breast. All the restaurants offering more complete meals will have local lamb on the menu, which is a real treat (we had slow roasted lamb shoulder at the Brasserie de Bigorre).

The Pont d'Espagne, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The bridge and waterfall at Pont d'Espagne.


Our aim was to do several challenging but not killer mountain walks. We are in our early sixties, used to walking in the Loire Valley, and interested in photography, wild life and wild flowers. We chose to take the cable car and chairlift up and walk down for our two longest and hardest walks, both about 12 km downhill. We were lucky with the weather, as we never experienced bad weather out on the mountains, but it was extremely hot (30C+ even at 2000 m) on one day. You do need to be prepared, with enough water, and a change of clothing in case of cold or wet weather catching you out.

Lunch at Lac du Gaube, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Lunch at Lac du Gaube, with glacier in the background.


We were thrilled to see marmots and vultures very easily, and to see a rare alpine butterfly, the Apollo, as well as many lovely endemic wild flowers. The vultures particularly put on a wonderful aerial show, and the marmots are adorable. There are also cattle, horses and sheep out on the mountain pastures and their bells are one of the iconic sounds of the area.

Cauterets, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Looking down on Cauterets.


We would highly recommend Cauterets as a summer destination. It is not too crowded compared to the better known Luz Saint Saveur and Gavarnie, in the next valley, which were absolutely heaving. We have several friends who have stayed in Cauterets in the winter and loved it too. I think it has a lot to offer as a multigenerational family holiday for active people, as well couples our age and younger. We heard English spoken just twice while we were there, and most of the tourists were French, with quite a few Spanish and German, Dutch and Belgian.

Walking the GR10, Cauterets, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Walking in the beech forest above Cauterets.



Walking path, Cauterets, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Me on the path in the forest, one of the easy walks we did.

Memorial to Prosper Demontzey, Cauterets, Haute Pyrenees, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A memorial to Prosper Demontzey, a forestry and hydro engineer who realised in the mid-19C that the mountains natural resources were being over exploited. He developed a plan to reforest and build terracing to prevent devastating landslides, and is an early environmentalist hero.

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