Hautes-Pyrénées is a department in the southwest of France. The region is roughly divided into two, with plains to the north around the capital of Tarbes and mountains in the south. It borders Spain, the two countries separated by the natural barrier of the Pyrenees. Straddling the border stands Mont Perdu, the third highest mountain in the Pyrenees and the highest limestone mountain in Europe.
Haute-Pyrénées is the home of the hugely popular pilgrimage town of Lourdes, as well as the expansive natural beauty of the Pyrenees National Park.
Hautes-Pyrénées came into existence during the French Revolution of 1789-1799. Before this, the independent county of Bigorre covered roughly the same geographical area as the present department.
Occupied since the 6th century BC by the Bigerri people, the region was conquered by the Romans in 56 BC and became a Roman province. In the Christian era, Bigorre was taken by the Visigoths and then the Franks, falling under the control of the Dukes of Gascony in the 9th century. It was made an independent county in 1097 and retained this status for centuries, even throughout the English occupation of the area in the 14th century.
In 1790 Bigorre was combined with the small, neighbouring province of Quatre-Vallées and became a department, rather than being subordinated to the nearby Béarn as had originally been intended.
Although the mountains can be cold, with snow in the winter, lower down in the plains the weather is warmer with long, hot summers. In the evenings, temperatures can plummet, even after a warm day.
Average temperature in Haute-Pyrénées (Lourdes):
The city of Lourdes lies in the foothills to the southwest of Hautes-Pyrénées. Although Tarbes is the préfecture (capital) of the department, with administrative responsibility and a population of 110,000, Lourdes is now far more important. Despite a population of only 17,000, it receives over 5 million pilgrims and tourists per year.
The origins of this status date back to February 1858, when a 14-year-old peasant girl called Bernadette Soubirous was gathering firewood near a cave about a mile outside the town. She saw a vision of a woman who encouraged her to pray. Over the course of the next five months, the woman appeared to her a total of 18 times, later identifying herself as the Virgin Mary. Bernadette also discovered a spring by the cave, which was soon reported to have healing properties. Although the townspeople were initially divided as to whether Bernadette was telling the truth or not, many did believe her and followed her to the cave every day. A basilica was built on the site in 1862 and the Roman Catholic Church later investigated her claims.
After Bernadette's death, her body was exhumed on 3 separate occasions early in the 20th century and found to be 'incorrupt' – undecomposed. This was a major factor in her canonisation as a saint, which happened in 1933. She is now the patron saint of poverty and sick people and of Lourdes.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes (or 'Domain' as it is known) is now a 52-hectare complex of buildings, with 22 different places of worship. Amongst these is the Grotto of Massabielle, the site of the apparitions, where pilgrims can bathe in the waters of the spring. Pilgrimages usually occur between March and October. In 2008, Lourdes will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a Jubilee Year programme (8th December 2007 – 8th December 2008).
Vineyards have been cultivated in the Pyrenees area for millennia. Most of the wines are made from grapes that are grown nowhere else, giving them distinctive and unusual characteristics. Reds and whites are both produced, with a few rosés. Amongst the best are Pacherenc, Jurançon, and Irouléguy. Haute-Pyrenees is particularly famous for the strong, red Madiran. Local wines are still relatively cheap.
The skiing season starts in December (snow permitting) with downhill and cross-country skiing at a number of resorts. There are runs suitable for all levels. Peyragudes offers 55km of pistes from 1600-2400m and has a snowboarding park. It also served as the film setting for the arms bazaar on the Russian border in the Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. Other resorts include Saint-Lary and Piau Engaly, La Mongie, Cauterets and Luz Ardiden.
The Pyrenees National Park is a large area of land (around 500 square km) by the Spanish border. A great proportion of this is virtually uninhabited. As the land is protected, it is an unspoiled environment with incredible scenery and wildlife – deer, wild boar, marmots and even a small number of brown bears can be found there. There are many different types of birds of prey that can be seen circling overhead.
The Pyrenees are, on average, lower than the Alps. However, there are still several peaks over 3000 metres, offering everything from a gentle stroll through the beautiful scenery to routes suitable only for seasoned climbers. Routes are generally well marked and many are suitable for children. For longer and more challenging trips, a number of refuges scattered through the mountains provide overnight shelter. Guides and mountain leaders are available for hire.
There are a number of 18-hole golf courses in the area, often with stunning views of the Pyrenees. See here for a list of locations and contact details.
The usual outdoor activities of cycling and mountain biking, rock climbing, hang-gliding and horse riding are all available.
Food and drink
The region is famed for providing France with some of its best loved foods: Roquefort, Armagnac brandy and wild mushroom omelette, to name a few. Foie gras, goose dishes and other patés are made in the plains. Cassoulet, a meat and white bean stew, is also a local speciality.
Ease of access
Toulouse Airport in the Midi-Pyrénées region is served by British Airways and several budget airlines from a number of UK airports – Birmingham, Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow, Leeds and Manchester. Toulouse is around 80 miles from Lourdes, or 70 from Tarbes.
Pau, in the neighbouring department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, is accessible from Stansted.
Value for money
Frequented by millions of tourists and pilgrims, Lourdes can be quite expensive. By and large, though, the department is less urban and commercialised and therefore cheaper than much of the rest of the country.
Hautes-Pyrénées remains one of the most unspoilt areas of rural France. The National Park offers a vast range of outdoor activities and unrivalled scenery and wildlife. In the foothills of the Pyrenees lies the pilgrimage town of Lourdes.