‘Nature’s Coliseum’: Exploring the Cirque de Gavarnie, Pyrenees Mountains

July 05, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Cirque de GavarnieCirque de GavarnieFrom the popular 'Dung Route', the main tourist route, this formidable scene of the Cirque de Gavarnie becomes visible

A Five Star View

The modest two-starred Hôtel des Cimes in Gavarnie is a world away from the flea-ridden Pyrenean hostelries described by Hilaire Belloc who travelled through the region at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s most certainly not The Ritz, but our first floor ensuite room has a five star view up the valley to the Cirque de Gavarnie, a vast glacial bowl gouged out of the Pyrenees Mountains. Probably the most famous corrie in the world, this 1,400m high and 890m wide wonder described by the novelist Victor Hugo as ‘nature’s coliseum’, lies within the Pyrénées-Mont Perdu UNESCO World Heritage Site which straddles France and Spain.

The early-July scenery is a true salve for the soul. Woodland sweeps up to the yawning ice and snow frosted corrie with its wedding-veil waterfalls. In the distance I can hear the roar of a river carrying away the snowmelt. Flower-scented meadows that look as if they have been lifted straight from the pages of a fairy story are dotted with crème caramel coloured cows dining on a salade verte so green as to be unbelievable. The melodic clanking of their bells is carried on the wind drifting languidly across the landscape. A chattering alpine swift chasing insects darts across the sky like a tossed away scythe in a mesmerising dance of life and death. If it wasn’t for the tacky souvenir shops, this place would be a paradise.

The sun slips down behind the nearby mountains plunging the Cirque into shadow, and the horses that ply the route up to it are being led away by their keeper for the night just as the village church bell gently tolls for evening prayers. Tomorrow we plan to climb into the mountains above ‘nature’s coliseum’, but thunderstorms are forecast for the area and with an abundance of caution we have revised our plans for a four day wild camping trek across the mountains.


Beers Beneath La Brèche

The Brèche de Roland (Roland’s Breach) at an elevation of 2,804m marks the Franco-Spanish border, and ascending to this point is undoubtedly one of the finest climbs in the Pyrenees. From the car park at the Col de Tentes (2,208m) we stroll along an ancient mountain track fringed with electric mauve thistles that rises gently above the Vallée des Pouey D’Aspé to the Puerto de Bujaruelo. Here we feast our eyes on a dragon’s back of snow-capped mountains sweeping up from the verdant Valle de Ordesa. This green and pleasant land is Spain, and we fill our lungs with the warm air wafting upwards which is scented with the unmistakable aroma of wild mountain thyme. Tiny butterflies float from one flower head to another and a chorus of insects drone the lazy song of summer. The percussive sound of fallen rock alerts us to the presence of a marmot busily foraging amid a grassy swathe misty-blue with gentian flowers. It lets out a loud whistle when we approach too close and darts away into a chaotic tumble of rock.


Foraging marmotForaging marmot near the Franco-Spanish border

We then thread our way up a steep rocky path on the shoulder of a mountain on the opposite side of the Vallée des Pouey D’Aspé towards the first of several patches of dirty snow which bear the scars of countless feet. The summer breeze carries the musical clank of sheep bells, the whisper of dried grass, the distant cry of a vulture and the hiss of water cascading over rock. We cross tumbling streams swollen with snow melt, cellophane-clear water as cold as ice, and scramble up a rocky ridge which leads into another ravine with a noisy waterfall bouncing down the mountainside. The ground ahead is steep and uncharacteristically snow-choked for the time of year and we stop to don our crampons. The track passes very close to the waterfall and is treacherous; chains that would help upward traction lie buried under feet of snow and the hot sun gives it the consistency of caster sugar. In places verglas smears naked rock and the diamond dazzling treachery of slushy snow on ice makes progress difficult. We can hear water gurgling beneath our boots and in places have to carefully negotiate rivulets fleeing through melted runnels in the compacted snow.

Above the waterfall is a large glacial bowl where the snow has drifted many metres deep. Great layers of sedimentary rock have been upended in the sheer cliffs that erupt through the blanket of whiteness like the bones of the Earth picked bare. The sun is high and commanding a sky which bears no menace, but the heat saps our energy. A steep climb out of the bowl brings us to a rocky ridge where we finally catch sight of the Refuge des Sarradets (2,587m) which is named after the col located below it. Currently undergoing renovation, a large crane hovers over the stone built chalet-style building which is perched on an outcrop of rock commanding jaw-dropping views.

The Refuge des Sarradets (2,587m) The Refuge des Sarradets (2,587m) perched on an outcrop of rock below the dramatic Brèche de Roland

Below we can see the top of the vast Cirque de Gavarnie, the layers of rock surrounding it squeezed and contorted into swirls and whorls as if modelled in plasticine. Waterfalls resembling curtains of white silk tumble over its side, and snowcovered scree slopes above it sweep up to a monumental wall of rock that soars into the sky, broken only by the Brèche de Roland, a dramatic gap-toothed void in the corrie’s rocky smile. A steep and at times slippery descent from the ridge over loose snow brings us to the refuge. We find a shady spot on the balcony facing the corrie and fire up our stove for lunch, eyed all the while by a couple of cheeky alpine choughs. Above the Pic de Sarradets we catch sight of a sole lammergeyer gracefully circling on the thermals.

The Col de Sarradets The contorted sedimentary rock above the Cirque de Gavarnie as seen from above the Col de Sarradets

Lunch complete, we climb a steep switchback snowcovered track towards the Brèche de Roland, stopping briefly to plunge a couple of local craft beers into the snow to chill. The sun beats down relentlessly from an azure blue sky, broken only by some cloud boiling up beyond the Brèche, which would have been the gateway to Spain for us on our now abandoned four day trek. Yet the storm that is forecast seems an absurdity on a day such as this, and we wonder whether we should have thrown caution to the wind and done the trek after all. From the towering 100m high void in the cliffs, we feast our eyes on the verdant Valle de Ordesa shimmering in the blue haze of a hot afternoon. According to Medieval legend ‘Roland’s Breach’ was cut by Count Roland with his sword Durendal in an attempt to destroy it after his defeat during the epic late-eighth century Battle of Roncevaux Pass. After savouring our much-awaited cool beers below the remnants of the Glacier de la Brèche, which like many European glaciers has all but vanished, we head back down to the Col de Tentes.

The Brèche de RolandThe Brèche de Roland above the Cirque de Gavarnie is the gateway to Spain's Valle de Ordesa

Back in Gavarnie, the moonless night sky is juniper-purple and the bejewelled arch of the Milky Way soars across the heavens as we leave Les Cascades restaurant. Despite the fact that a fine four course French meal is a far better deal than a packet of freeze dried food, we curse the fact that we are not sat in our tent high in the mountains on such a still and perfect night.


‘Dung-Ho’ to the Cirque…

The next day dawns hot and sunny with scarcely a cloud in the sky. But with the inclement weather forecast still lurking in the back of our minds, we opt to take the main tourist route up to the Cirque de Gavarnie. We join a throng of other walkers heading up the aptly nicknamed ‘Dung Route’ which follows the rushing chalky-turquoise waters of the Gave de Gavarnie, our nostrils constantly assaulted by odeur de cheval! The three and a half kilometre route crosses an ancient stone bridge and passes pretty meadows starred with thousands of colourful flowers before it climbs gently, threading its way through mixed woodland which offers some reprieve from the relentless heat of the sun. We emerge blinking in the fierce sunlight from this woodland to a wondrous view of a riparian scene fit to grace the lid of any biscuit tin. The Gave de Gavarnie flows languidly through the broad gravel-strewn bottom of the valley. In places it has braided, its turquoise channels meandering round small islands studded with trees. Ahead the view is dominated by the massive corrie that looms behind the interlocking spurs of the surrounding mountains which sweep down dramatically to the valley floor. One can’t help but feel humbled and insignificant set amid the enormity and grandeur of this landscape.

The route now descends to greet the gravelly valley bottom before climbing steeply towards the Cirque. Sweaty red-faced walkers lean heavily on large wooden staffs in the stifling humidity, while the indolent clatter by on horses hired at Gavarnie. After about an hour we arrive at L'Hôtellerie du Cirque. This nineteenth century building, dwarfed by the vast glacial amphitheatre beyond, is somewhat faded in its majesty and now only functions as a restaurant in the high season. But what a view it commands! Weeping waterfalls topple from atop a semi-circle of vertical cliffs gleaming with snow and ice below a cerulean blue sky streaked with angel-white cloud. Here France’s highest waterfall plunges 422m in a display of misty majesty. We grab a shady table on the restaurant’s terrace, glad to avail ourselves of ice cool beer and a platter of delicious local meats and cheeses. A veritable honey pot, this site attracts about a million tourists every year. It’s not hard to see why - it’s a sight to send poets and artists into raptures.

The Cirque de GavarnieThe Cirque de Gavarnie as seen from the L'Hôtellerie du Cirque

Too many beers later, we begin the climb up into the Cirque. Most people don’t venture much farther than L'Hôtellerie, and after half an hour we find ourselves quite alone to commune with the majesty of the glacial landscape. The rocky ground is flecked with meadow flowers and the passage of our feet kicks up the heady aroma of wild thyme. The towering cliffs, their strata laid bare like a layer cake, appear to be bearing down on us, while soft white clouds sail above their snow-streaked heights. The only sound is the constant roar of the waterfalls, the clanking of sheep bells and the periodic chirping of crickets. We might have been the only two people left in the world, so deep is our sense of solitude.


At the Mercy of the Elements

But the sky is changing. The flour-white pillows of cloud rapidly mutate into something dark and vengeful, boiling masses coiling and writhing in shades of battleship-grey and tar-black that swallow the sun. We quickly turn tail towards L'Hôtellerie where the waiters are hurriedly packing away the terrace umbrellas. A faint acrid whiff of chlorine sends us fleeing past it in a tide of other walkers hoping to reach Gavarnie before the storm breaks. Our efforts are in vain. As we stop to don our waterproof jackets, the wind begins to gust, rising to a frenzy as a mighty thunderclap rends the air and ricochets round the valley.

The Cirque de GavarnieThe 422m waterfall at the head of the Cirque de Gavarnie

All at once the thrumming clouds begin to spit out hailstones and torrential rain. Large puddles appear almost instantaneously and connect rapidly to form a swirling mass of water which floods the gravel track now dancing with spray. The hailstones are huge and send people shrieking for cover under a canopy of pine trees close to the track. Tall and upright, they line up around us like silent sentinels as lightning luridly illuminates their blackened trunks and the earth seems to shudder with each clap of thunder. Leery of sheltering under a group of isolated trees, we decide to seek somewhere more suitable to ride out the storm. Through buckshot rain and hailstones that deliver a vicious sting with every strike, we brave the unending downpour through ankle deep water past battered meadows reeking with petrichor, and eventually arrive back at our hotel soaked to the gussets.

Summer storm clouds over the Cirque de GavarnieSudden storms can strike the Pyrenees Mountains during summer

The next morning dawns still and damp. A watery sun is shining feebly through columns of slowly moving mist, casting weak lances of light across wind-beaten meadows where steam is rising steadily from the grass. The vaporous tendrils drift upwards to join a bank of thickening grey cloud lying angrily atop the Cirque. The atmosphere is pregnant with rain. A distant rumble of thunder confirms that the forecast was accurate after all and that we had made the right call to abandon our four day trek. The weather has set in and our walking in the Pyrenees is unfortunately over.


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