You could say that my love of the French Pyrenees started the wrong way round. As a professional skier, it stands to reason that my first visit to a mountain range should be in winter with snow-covered slopes.
But it was summer cycling that first brought me to this part of the world, racing in the Etape du Tour, when thousands of amateur cyclists take on a stage of the Tour de France. I fell for the natural beauty of the mountains while attempting famous climbs like the Hautacam, the Col du Peyresourde and the Col du Tourmalet, the highest paved pass in the French Pyrenees at 2,115m. The question is, would the area have the same appeal in winter?
Last March I travelled to two resorts with my family – wife Sarah, and son and daughter Lottie and Louis – to find out.
The Pyrenees look different to the Alps, with lower-altitude peaks and intimate valleys. Their southern latitude means the flora and fauna differ too, with beech and oak trees mixed in the pine and fir. Sheep outnumber cows here, although they can occasionally fall prey to the growing bear population.
There is an unspoilt French rustic charm too, which we noticed as we drove into the foothills from Toulouse airport, on our way to our first stop: the slopes of Grand Tourmalet. At 120km this is the largest ski area in the French Pyrenees, a two-hour drive from Toulouse. It’s shared by the contrasting resort villages of purpose-built La Mongie and more authentic Barèges, and straddled by the Tourmalet pass, which thanks to its altitude is closed to cars in winter. The jewel in the crown of the ski area is the Pic du Midi de Bigorre observatory, set at 2,877m.
Our base was La Mongie, which comprises a few tired-looking buildings and a giant 1970s apartment block, whose jagged roof line was allegedly designed to match the imposing mountain skyline. That said, La Mongie is set higher than Barèges and convenient for the slopes, and we stayed in the more recently built, chalet-style Résidence Mer et Golf Tourmalet, which has a brilliant ski-in/ski-out location.
The slopes on the La Mongie side are above the tree-line, meaning the runs are mostly wide-open red pistes with some blues. But on our first day we headed towards the tree-lined pistes on the Barèges side, looking for some easier runs for Sarah, nervous of an old ankle injury, to warm up on.
The atmosphere was relaxed, polite and friendly in the sunshine, which made me feel like we had gone back to a time when skiing was less hectic. No speed demons or fashionistas here. Stopping for lunch was more affordable too – Chez Louisette is a fantastic rustic restaurant serving a Pyrenean version of a tartiflette with salad for a good-value €14.
The ski area does have challenges, though. We found the steeper north-facing black runs and an unpisted freeride section off the Pourteilh chairlift, were great fun later in the day once the spring snow had softened. And all the time, towering above us were the silver domes of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre observatory – the launchpad for off-piste routes.
Originally constructed in 1878, the still-operating observatory was used to photograph the moon, to help NASA prepare for the first Apollo missions. Taking the cable car up here isn’t included on the lift pass, but if the weather is good it’s worth the extra cost, even if just for the views and to enjoy the James Bond feel of the place. There’s a spectacular viewing walkway called the Pontoon in the Sky and a gourmet restaurant serving traditional dishes and delicious three-course lunches.
Another option is to pre-book a room for the night and check out the stars. Or, of course, to ski the off-piste descents, which include numerous steep and challenging couloirs as well as easier runs.
Lottie and I chose the latter, in the company of a local guide, Claude Etchelecou. While the snow conditions were poor for our visit, we braved a steep, icy strip with cliffs below, usually one of the easier off-piste descents. Luckily, after the first five minutes the terrain opened up, the snow softened and we were able to make some fun turns. Time it right and the off-piste possibilities here would be immense.
After that adventure, après ski called. In Grand Tourmalet it’s more family orientated than in big-name French or Austrian resorts like Val d’Isère and St Anton, with families sledging on the nursery slopes and no pumping out euro-pop. Yes, there were outside bars, but nobody dancing on the tables in ski boots. We spurned both bars and sledges in favour of a snowmobile tour to the top of the Tourmalet pass, where we were rewarded with a stunning sunset.
Our next destination was Saint Lary Soulan, a 50km drive from La Mongie, but we made a detour to one of the many spas the Pyrenees is famous for, which include the miraculous waters of Lourdes. From the outside, Aquensis Spa in Bagnères de Bigorre looks like a traditional 19th-century building, but inside a swimming pool is revealed under a cathedral-like atrium with a glass ceiling, which lights the pool area below with an ambient, shimmering glow. Pool power-jets, steam rooms and rooftop saunas combined to quickly relieve ski-induced muscle stiffness before we headed on to St Lary.
A traditional valley town with an old church, town hall and marketplace, St Lary’s 100km of slopes are less extensive than those of the Grand Tourmalet, but are varied and even quieter. After a main beginner area at the top of a gondola from town, the rest of the ski area spreads out to the Espiaube sector, where a steep off-piste freeride arena caught my eye. It hosts a leg of the globe-trotting Freeride World Tour event and is where ace snowboarder Xavier de le Rue honed his skills as a child.
Eating on the mountain was one of the most enjoyable parts of our Pyrenees trip; the restaurants served free drinking water, didn’t charge to use the toilets, and their super-friendly staff even responded to my schoolboy French politely instead of replying in English, as often happens to me in the Alps.
In St Lary we stopped at Les 3 Guides, with a sun terrace and chilled music playing, bringing echoes of France’s Folie Douce franchise but minus the pomp and expense. It serves massive portions – the côte de boeuf that Louis and I ordered to share could have fed all four of us. Which meant, sadly, we were too full for the delicious-looking puddings.
The final ski destination on our Pyrenees tour was a day trip to Peyragudes, a 45-minute drive from St Lary, so named because it’s accessed from the villages of Peyresourde and Les Agudes. While the lower slopes were busy with holidaying French schoolchildren learning to ski, the slopes became less busy the higher into the area we went.
In true French style everything had quietened down at lunchtime, and then a fresh dusting of new snow on the Pene Nere black piste had us whooping over the best run of the trip. On the other hand, the 007 piste back to the resort was the easiest and most gentle of blue runs; it turned out the piste was named after the airstrip used in Tomorrow Never Dies.
On the way back to St Lary, we couldn’t resist another spa. The Balnéa in Loudenvielle has a series of outdoor pools that get hotter and hotter by turn, and it was blissful to look up at the mountains we had skied all day as we slowly progressed through them.
The Alps certainly have more extensive ski areas, but for me the Pyrenees win on friendliness, value for money and, above all, gastronomy. Before driving back to Toulouse on our last day, we collected the ingredients for a picnic from the market and stopped enroute at the top of the Col d’Aspin.
Parked up on the grass with fresh bread, sheep’s cheese, slices of saucisson de sanglier (wild boar), confit duck and marinated olives, we ate great-value delicious food with an everlasting mountain view and felt utterly relaxed. Oh, how very Pyrenees.
How to do it
Graham and his family travelled with Pyrenees Holiday. An apartment sleeping four in Residence Mer et Golf Tourmalet in La Mongie costs from €1,370 per week; a similar apartment, Résidence les Arches in Saint Lary Soulan, costs from €950. Phone 0033 5 62 56 70 00 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for details. For more information about visiting the French Pyrenees including all the ski resorts, visit lespyrenees.net.