Ski Holidays and Winter Fun in the Pyrénées
Originally posted on & updated on 30th January, 2024
Thank you, Beth, for your New Year wishes and your latest contribution, this time all about ski fun and winter activities in the Pyrénées in glorious southwest France.
“Bonne Année! I hope you’ve enjoyed suitably overindulgent festive celebrations. Here in our sleepy southwest backwater, January has followed its usual pattern. Shutters of cosy homes are barely ajar. Smoke spiralling from chimneys and chickens scratting in gardens are often the only signs of life. On a calm day in the village, you might catch a whiff of brewing cassoulet in the chilly air. There are folks about, but it’s that quiet time in the farming calendar when everyone grabs a well-earned break.
Some people potter about, catching up on jobs around la maison, but not all. Others have vacances à la neige on their minds. And why not? The Tarn-et-Garonne is blessed with its proximity to the Pyrénées.
A favourite destination is the department, Hautes-Pyrénées, in our region of Occitanie. With 443 kilometres of slopes, resorts served by at least 130 ski lifts, and restaurants offering much-needed sustenance, this is not just a skiers’ and snowboarders’ paradise. It holds a similar appeal to those who enjoy getting in touch with nature at a slower pace.
Endless bespoke trails through forests, alongside lakes and on mountain passes are prepared for cross-country skiers (ski nordique) and snowshoe (raquette) users. Snowshoeing, in particular, enjoyed an upsurge in popularity after Covid. It’s a great way to burn off calories while topping up on vitamin D.
Choosing your Stay in the Pyrénées
Deciding where to stay is usually easy for our French pals, but there is a proviso. It must be self-catering. Fortunately, these mountains have oodles of choices, ranging from apartment and gîte rentals to campsites with wooden lodges. And, of course, the diehard motorhome enthusiasts think nothing of packing up and making the journey, even in winter. It’s a thing here in France.
Our friends recently returned from their hols in the Grand Tourmalet area, and it sounded fantastic. The resort links to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, a famous Dark Sky Reserve, and one of the stars in the Midi-Pyrénées. At its summit, panning east to west, the views from Catalonia to the Basque country across more than 300 kilometres of mountains are breathtaking. It’s a similar scenario in the north. Here, the entire southwest plain to the foothills of the Massif Central is visible. And below?
The Pic du Midi is high. Very high and you can see it from miles. It’s one of those special places where a sea of fluffy clouds often billows beneath the viewing platforms. Just imagine. Mind you, it’s a long way down from le Pic. For those preferring to take the easiest route, a free shuttle service travels ten kilometres back to the slopes’ start points.
Respect Le Tourmalet
The Grand Tourmalet is home to two other natural phenomena. Here, you’ll find le Col du Tourmalet, one of the highest paved mountain passes in the French Pyrénées. Perfect for a cycle ride? This ridiculously challenging route is one of the infamous climbs on the Tour de France. It has been included more times than any other pass since the Pyrénées stages were incorporated. The very thought of tackling those punishing ascents and descents is eye-watering. Close by is a UNESCO site recognised for its extraordinary geological significance. The glacial Cirque de Gavarnie is a natural amphitheatre guarded by craggy peaks and one of the largest waterfalls in Europe. The spectacle is as seducing as it is mind-blowing.
Winter Advice for Travellers
With so much to offer, I’m not surprised our friends are such fans of the Hautes-Pyrénées. I asked if they had advice to offer anyone considering a visit during the winter. Here’s what they said.
- If you’re driving, check the Mountain Law 2021, introduced to improve road traffic and user safety in mountainous regions (currently, 34 departments impose this rule). During a specific period (currently from November 1 2023, to March 31, 2024), it is mandatory to equip your vehicle with winter tyres, snow chains, or socks.
- If you’re skiers/snowboarders, look for the ‘Carte No Souci’ smart card. The card gives skiers access to a host of Pyrénées slopes via an electronic toll system. You pay a fixed fee (currently €40 per year). After that, it calculates the cheapest rate for your skiing and gives discounts plus insurance. If adults ski with children, the party skis at the kids’ prices. Bargain! Charges for the days you ski are taken from your bank account the following month.
- They suggest you look at the NPY website if you’re researching different areas. It’s a great source of information, and winter activity bookings can be made online.
- As you’d expect, the mountain restaurants are generally high quality. Double-check opening times because some may close mid-week/during term time. And on that point, when possible, our friends take ski breaks during term time. And, niftily, they’ll often ski during the lunch period. Why? As we all know, the French are dedicated diners. Slopes are always quieter between midday and 2 pm.
- Look closely at the prices if you fancy a treat, e.g. a dog sledge, horse sleigh, or snowmobile ride. Our friends were about to book snowmobiles, thinking the quote was for the family of six. Nope, it was for a single person. They’re still pondering that one!
So back home, if the folks in our community aren’t napping in front of their log fires or feasting on bowls of hearty cassoulet, they’re likely to be communing with nature somewhere in those mountains. And you know what? I think that’s a fine idea.”
I fondly remember the Pyrénées mountain range from childhood in Tarbes. Every morning, the white peaks, especially the Pic-du-Midi, were the first sight I saw after opening the old French shutters. Over the years, we have visited villages, bridges, forgotten Cathar churches, huge waterfalls, clean water lakes, plateaux and cirques. Of course, we have also visited the Col de Tourmalet to watch riders tackle this classic climb of the world’s hardest race, Le Tour de France, with our beloved Tonton Marcel, a dedicated cycling enthusiast. We were fortunate enough to enjoy winter activities at the ski resorts of La Mongie, Saint Lary-Soulan, and Super-Bagneres, and plenty of kayak and trekking fun in the summer months.
As a child, I vividly recall attempting to hop onto the “tire-fesses”, only to be repeatedly hit on the back of my head after falling in the snow, happy days. In history class, we learned about Roland’s Breach, which Charlemagne’s nephew opened. He attempted to destroy his sword by hitting the rock after a battle. Merci Beth, for bringing back so many memories of this stunning area of France. We are eagerly anticipating exciting news from you this spring.