We left the beautiful little village of St Bertrand de Comminges with its grand cathedral on top of a small hill, and set our sites on the next stop on our day trip, the Pont d’Espagne and Lake Gaube.
We couldn’t wait to get into nature as we’d been in cities, towns and small villages for as long as we could remember, and it was about time we left all that behind us and went exploring some of the Midi-Pyrenees’ finest national parks.
The drive to Cauterets via Lourdes
The one hour and 45 minute journey was pleasant enough, and we drove through the famous religious town of Lourdes. As the story goes the Virgin Mary appeared before a young local girl in 1858 no less than 18 times, so now Catholics the world over descend on this small town of just 15,000 every day. In fact, 5 million people visit Lourdes every year, with the town boasting more hotels per square kilometre than any other city in France, except Paris. Unfortunately the main street is lined with souvenir shops selling some of the cheapest, tackiest religious trinkets you can imagine. Given Catholic pilgrimages and cheap souvenirs aren’t our thing, we didn’t bother stopping to see what all the fuss is about.
Not happy we didn’t stay a night or two in Cauterets
The last town before we hit our destination is called Cauterets, and it is simply stunning. I wished we could have stayed a couple of nights here just to explore the town and surrounding area, but because we are housesitting we have to stay in the house each night. We didn’t even get a photo of the town because it was dark when we left the national park. Devastated! I would absolutely love to go back, but we’re about to move north into our new housesitting assignment so unfortunately we’re going to miss out. It’s disappointing, but I encourage anyone remotely in the area to consider making Cauterets a stop on your journey. It’s a small, lively little mountain village famous for its thermal baths, ski resorts and delicious ‘Berlingot’ sweets. It’s also the gateway to the Pyrenees National Park, our final destination.
Oh no, why aren’t the cable cars moving!
We parked our Chevrolet Spark hire car in the car park and walked up to the entrance. At this point there is a tourist office and a chair lift to the first drop off point, where you swap chair lifts and head to the end of the vertical climb before a final 15 minute hike into Lake Gaube. However, on this particular day the chair lifts were out of service, and we were pretty disappointed to say the least. It didn’t mention this on the Midi-Pyrenees website, so I was a little miffed. We walked to the hugely disappointing Pont d’Espagne for a look, and while it’s a nice enough bridge, it’s hardly worth driving hours to see. Sure there’s a raging river running below which is quite the sight, but the bridge itself is nothing special. The orange plastic temporary fencing that lined either side didn’t help the aesthetics either, and given there was no restoration work going on it was totally useless and unnecessary.
The decision to head into the wild
We made our way back to the point where we could either head to the car park and leave, or turn right and hike into Lake Gaube. It was about 4pm and we had Jack with us obviously, so it was a tough decision. The track is rough, and not easy for a two-year-old to negotiate, but we figured we were never going to come back again so we gave it a shot. The signpost suggested the trip would take an hour, but if I know anything about hiking and signage, the timing advised is always for 80-year-old grannies with zimmer frames, and not reasonably fit people any younger than that. So off we went.
Jack started out on foot and to say he was making slow progress going up the hill would be an understatement. I seriously thought one of those 80-year-old grannies would overtake us at any moment! So within a few minutes of our trek I ended up carrying Jack. This was going to be a hell of a workout, so to make it slightly easier I put him up on my shoulders. He wanted to get down on one or two occasions, and Sarah had a turn for a few minutes, but in the end it took us around 50 minutes to hike into Lake Gaube. Not bad going we thought given Jack’s desire to pick up every loose rock when he’s walking, then act like a ship’s anchor when he’s sitting on my shoulders!
The scenery is very picturesque
The walk was very pretty with a lovely river running through the valley and waterfalls dotted all over the place. Apparently in the 1950’s Cauterets refused the use of it’s valley lakes for hydro-electric power, so the water flows freely and can be seen from many vantage points within the national park. On the way back down we even saw a wild deer peacefully chewing on some vegetation, not bothered by our presence at all. Lake Gaube itself is very pretty without being spectacular, but it’s the surrounding mountains that really make this place special. We could see the first snow of the cold season on Vignemale in the distance, the highest mountain in the Pyrenees at 3,298 metres, and it really was a picture perfect scene. We drank from the lake and it was the purest water I’d ever tasted. It was bloody freezing, but Jack and I both dipped our hands in and scooped some water into our mouths, and filled our water bottle up for the descent back to the car park.
Make sure the Pyrenees National Park is on your hit list
There are plenty of walks you can do in the region as well as other activities such as meditation, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and tobogganing among others. The Pyrenees National Park is the oldest of France’s national parks, established in 1967, and extends for more than 100km east to west. As mentioned, the nearby town of Cauterets is just magical and worth couple of nights stay in the region alone. In my opinion, anyone in the area who has the time and doesn’t stay here is missing out big time. Do yourself a favour and book a hotel room in Cauterets.