In my many trips to southwestern France, the Pyrenees have always been a highlight, standing out distinctly in my memory above many other places and experiences. Whenever my host family asks what I’d like to do, my answer is always the same. “The mountains!” I reply. The Pyrenees Mountains to be more specific.
Gorgeous views of peaks and valleys, a relaxed atmosphere caused by the abundance of locals living a simpler and more relaxed life, and a never-ending list of new things to do have made it one of my favorite places to explore and is just one reason I’ve fallen in love with the country. While boasting the typical mountain activities like hiking, skiing and white water rafting, the Pyrenees are also filled with a number of local surprises that make it a truly unique place.
Throughout it all, the Pyrenees maintain an undeniable personality and exude something that can only be described as French charm. Here are five original ways to spend a day exploring the Pyrenees:
1. Meet a Local Producer (And Eat Their Product)
The producers in the Pyrenees epitomize the words “local” and “fresh.” Be prepared to try natural foods straight from the source. My three favorite local products are cheese, honey and a very special cake.
Cheese: Bells form the soundtrack of any excursion in the Pyrenees. They ring away as goats and cows and sheep make their way through the mountains. Follow one of the herds long enough or keep an eye out for the “Route du fromage” signs and you will find a cheese producer. Don’t be shy; the shepherds are very kind and love to share their product and maybe even some knowledge of the production or the area. Buy some baguettes on your way to the mountains and indulge in some of the freshest cheese you can find.
Honey: Dotting the hills of the Pyrenees are also a number of honey producers, or mielleries in French. Some have stands on the side of the road selling jars of all sizes of their fresh honey. Others offer tastings of their many varieties of honey, ranging from super sweet to grainy. Sometimes you can even find a small museum offering videos on the honey process and a look at some bees.
Gateau a la broche: The only way I can describe this creation in English is as a barbecue cake. The bakers pour layers of batter on a rotating spit over a fire to create one of the most unique desserts I’ve ever seen. Long and thickest in the middle with more slender ends, this dessert has doughy spikes covering its exterior and is surprisingly sweet and soft.
2. Explore a Hidden City
Nestled throughout the mountains are many small cities housing hotels, restaurants and of course bakeries. Some are ski towns in the winter, others exist just as small communities teeming with local culture.
Imagine ten blocks of your typical city smashed down into a small circle or square and plopped in the middle of the mountains. Everything you could wish for in any city is present: church, town hall, butcher.
There is something incredibly romantic about a city in the middle of the mountains. Wander the streets, drink an espresso in a café or enter a local shop. Take a day to appreciate all the comforts of a city or town with the unique ability to walk less than 15 minutes and be surrounded by nature atop a mountain.
3. Go to the Zoo
The Pyrenees are home to a variety of wildlife. While it can be hard to see many of them in the wild, you can see and interact with all kinds of animals in the Midi-Pyrenees Zoo. Unlike many zoos, it sits halfway up a mountain. Its prime location offers gorgeous views of a valley and the surrounding mountains.
You can see everything from wolves to pigs here. One of this area’s most famous inhabitants are the Pyrenees marmottes (pictured above) which are famous for their whistle. Not only can you see these animals here, but you can also enter their yard and feed them by hand.
The engaging, furry animals are enthusiastic about their vegetables and will happily grab at your clothes as you attempt to feed six at once. They may even crawl onto your lap as they did to me.
4. Have Lunch in a Cloud
As you wind your way through the Pyrenees, you will begin to meet the clouds. In early mornings the Pyrenees are shrouded in mist, leaving you wondering whether you’re in the mountains or if you’ve walked into a dream. Throughout the day, clouds will dive down to flirt with the earth. If you’re lucky you can jump in the middle of their love affair.
French cafes sit atop popular peaks waiting to serve you sweet and savory crepes, duck breast and espresso. You can seat yourself on a patio to enjoy your French meal in the midst of the clouds. As water droplets begin to condense on your hair you will have truly entered an “elevated” world.
5. Follow the Tour de France Route
If you spend any amount of time in the Pyrenees, you will see cyclists clad in spandex struggling to pedal through incline after incline. Containing a significant portion of the Tour de France, the Pyrenees is a mecca for cycling enthusiasts to watch, cycle or just appreciate the pavement where the world’s best cyclists make history once a year.
During the annual event, you can line the streets among locals and hard-core fans to watch the world’s most anticipated cycling event. The rest of the year you can follow the route at your own pace by car, stopping to appreciate the landmark spots of the cyclists. And if you’re in shape or very brave you can attempt some of the climbs yourself.
About the author
Morgan Noll is a student and travel blogger on leave from university on her first solo round the world trip. On a trip to France at the age of 14 she realized the power of travel to change the way you view the world and has lived to travel ever since. You can keep up with her travel journey on Mapped by Morgan or follow along on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.