The healing properties of the hot waters of the Pyrenees have been known since Roman times. It is common knowledge that the balnea were a very important element in Roman society, one of the centres of social life and, possibly, one of the most defining features of their civilization. That’s the reason they settled, whenever it was possible, around natural thermal springs. And in this regard, the Pyrenees are certainly rich, in number of springs as well as in the quality of their waters. Julius Cesar mentioned the area in his Commentaries on the Gallic War. Three regions of the French Pyrenees alone – Ariège, Hautes Pyrènèes and Haute Garonne –make for almost half the thermal activity in the whole country.
When we talk about thermal centres, the image coming to our heads recall those establishments of old, with long term cures, elegant ladies strolling under their umbrellas and aristocrats languidly taking the waters. Even though royalty already approached the hot springs in the area as early as the 18thC, it was during the 19thC that health tourism flourished in the French Pyrenees. In 1840, the poet Lamartine came to treat his rheumatism; Delacroix, his tuberculosis. They were not alone: that year 3000 visitors stopped by Cauterets and 8000 by Banhèras de Bigòrra. They all came to take the waters, in treatments ranging from a sip after fasting to a complete immersion. Doctors prescribed water, purges, bleedings and diets. That alone already attracted the sick and the ailing, but then, to top it all the miracles of Lourdes in 1858 would turn the Pyrenees into a pilgrimage centre for the whole world in search of the miraculous cure.
But truly, soon the cure became the excuse and the thermal centres became trendy – a new train network put them within reach adding to their popularity. People did not only come here to take the waters, they came to socialize, to build networks, to close business deals and to marry their daughters. The stays in the thermal centres favoured the flourishing of romantic feelings –the more convenient to their families’ interests, the best. George Sand fell in love in Cauterets when she was 21.
That was in another era, of course, another world now relegated to the screen and literature.
The Pyrenean spas today are not meant neither for the sick nor the elitist bourgeois society but for those who simply want to relax and take advantage of the benefits of natural hot waters. We find new modern facilities, well equipped with whirlpools, pools, hammams, relax areas, steam baths – far gone are the hoses and the individual bathtubs. Times have changed but the springs discovered by the Romans thousands of years ago are still flowing.
To float inside a 40 degrees outdoors pool under the snow is a wonderful feeling, a privilege within anyone’s reach.
I invite you to tour these spas with us. We are starting in Ariège, and crossing the Haute Garonne to reach the Haute Pyrenees. Prepare you bathing suit, we are going to get soaked. And also, forget dieting, let’s explore the exquisite local cuisine.
Our trip starts under a snowstorm that forces us to stop at Puymorents and put the snow chains on our wheels to reach Acs / Ax-les-Thermes. It’s February and it seems like we’ve chosen the coldest week in winter – perfect to plunge in hot water.
We have lunch at Le Chalet, a hotel and restaurant in Ax run by Magalie and Frédéric Debèves, as we watch the snow gently fall over the Oriège river. Frédéric always uses fresh local produce to create seasonable recipes, a great introduction to the Ariège gastronomy.
Les Bains de Couloubret
The thermal springs in Acs are the hottest in the Pyrenees. They flow at 77º. Rich in sulphur, they are good for those suffering from rheumatic and respiratory diseases. This is one of the few French spas open all year round.
The Couloubret baths are designed as a homage to the Roman legacy. In their various pools the water is kept between 33 and 38º. At the ground floor, under a big glass dome, we find the central pool of 200m, surrounded by red columns and 4 side chambers equipped with whirlpools, goosenecks, jets and geysers. We also find some Roman baths with their frigidarium, caldarium and vaporarium, some Norse saunas and a quiet oriental area.
But our favourite are the outdoors pools. It hasn’t stopped snowing since we got here and enjoying the hot water under the snow is wonderful. There are two outdoor levels: the pool on the ground floor, an amphitheatre equipped with jets, goosenecks and such, and the panoramic pool upstairs, also equipped – there is also a solarium which today nobody is using for obvious reasons.
The entrance fee (18,50€ for two hours for adults) grants you the use of all pools. You can also book treatments aside.
We sleep in Tarascon, at La Manoir d’Agnes, an elegant 19th C chateaux built by a bourgeois Ariège family. It is an English Style manor renewed 10 years ago into a charming 3 star hotel with 15 comfortable rooms with big windows and a full updated bath. You won’t find big luxuries here but lots of character and peace, with a living room which will make you feel at home.
We dine in the hotel restaurant, La Table d’Agnes, run by chef Jean Cazorla, who offers a seasonable cooking of generous and delicate dishes made with local produce.
Here we can taste the exquisite scallop ravioli, foie, sirloin with boletus or honey glazed duck, among other dishes.
The Louron Valley
The morning takes us toward the idyllic Louron Valley, with its small villages surrounded by towering peaks. The white landscape is a postcard. Located at the heart of the Pyrenees, halfway between Haute Garone and Haute Pyrenees, this valley and its 15 villages have been able to maintain a true Pyrenean essence in spite of the inevitable changes necessary to adapt to modern times.
Up to the 70s, agriculture and farming had been the main economic activities of the valley, but they were not enough anymore. To avoid the loss of population and the abandonment of the villages they decided to boost tourism, with various projects.
The Génos-Loudenvielle lake was created at the centre of the valley and two ski stations were opened: Peyragudes (which served as the location for some scenes of the James Bond franchise film “Tomorrow Never Dies”) and Val Louron. At the same time touristic infrastructure was developed – accommodation and restaurants- but in a harmonious manner, for which the valley received the award of Cities and Countries of Art and History by the Ministry of Culture.
On top of it, the historic isolation of the valley allowed for the preservation of the paintings on the Medieval Roman Churches, which were spared the destruction brought by the Religion Wars and the French Revolution elsewhere.
Loudenvielle is the main village, where we find the shops and services. Here we also find Balnéa, a spa opened in the year 2000.
With 4000m2, from the very start Balnéa became the main thermal complex of the French Pyrenees. Its location, in the heart of the valley, by the lake and surrounded by mountains, is well chosen. It collects water at 33º from the Saoussas spring, 600m underground and rich in trace minerals.
It is a modern and contemporary centre, updated with all comforts and aimed at people who combine outdoor activities – hiking or snow sports- with relax. Plunging into the 38 degrees outdoor pool with a view of the mountains is a wonderful way to end our day after a hike around the beautiful valley. There are two indoor pools – the Amerindian and the Roman baths- and two outdoor – the Japanese and the Inca baths.
The Amerindian and the Inca baths are connected by a tunnel. They are equipped with whirlpools and waterfalls and kids are allowed from the age of 9 months, so they are perfect to enjoy with the family.
The other two are restricted to +12. The Roman baths, under a glass dome, with a big waterfall and a central pool with bubbles. Inside a wooden dome we find a music bath and the caldarium (36 °) frigidarium (18 °) and tepidarium (33 °). There is also a hammam. The wonderful outdoor Japanese baths offer three panoramic pools 33 to 40º connected amid a zen garden – which is sublime when covered in snow. You can feel like one of those Japanese macaques at Jigokudani. The views toward the magnificent mountains surrounding the valley are breathtaking.
The Tibetan space, on the top floor above the Roman baths, is reserved for treatments (restricted to 16+).
Saint Lary (Sent Lari e Sola)
This village in the Hautes Pyrènèes, with around 1000 people, is located at 830m height in the middle of the Aure Valley. It is dominated by the ski station, accessed by the Pic Lumière and the Vignec cable cars.
In spite of the accommodations built for skiers, Sent Lari have kept the essence of a village, with stone and wood facades and structures no higher than 3 floors.
We check in at the Mercure, a 4* hotel with 65 rooms, 50m from the cable car. We head for its spa, the Sensoria Nuxe, fed by natural hot springs, although today we are going for a massage. The Sensoria offers several customized treatments and you can access it directly from the hotel – leaving your room in your robe and waiting your turn while sipping tea and relaxing in a deck chair.
After the massage, we dine at La Grange, a local restaurant with a mountain feel – fireplace, stone walls, vintage décor, chequered tablecloth. It is another example of local seasonal gastronomy with simple home recipes, no fuss. Chef Nicolas Audiban offers true Pyrenees dishes adding his personal touch, playing with textures and local favours. Here we can try, for example, a garbure – the traditional soup with meat and vegetables -, local sweet water fish or Bigorra black pork stew. By the end of dinner one of my travel companions is seriously considering marrying the chef.
The Porc Noir de Bigorre is an autochthonous pig of the Central Pyrenees, distinguishable for its black skin and his horizontal ears, which lives free-range in Haute Pyrenees, Gers and Haute Garona, grazing in small herds in meadows and underbrush. It feed on grass, acorns, chestnuts and other resources available in its habitat. It was on the brink of extinction because its growth is very slow and not productive by the modern agricultural and industrial standards – which call for fast fattening. In 1981 there were only 34 sows and two males left. It was a group of local breeders who boosted its recovery and now it’s starting to pay off. The Noir de Bigorre produces a very good quality fat due to the concentration of fatty oleic and linoleic acids, very good to prevent cardiovascular diseases. These nutritional qualities are favoured by the rearing and feeding manner chosen by the Padouen collective, which is in charge of perpetuating the history and reproduction of the Black Pig of Bigorra under the commitment of breeders for a natural rearing, which respects the animal and allows it to grow at its own rhythm, at least for 12 months, and guarantees a healthy feeding with non GMO cereal, herbs, fruits, acorns and chestnuts.
Pic du Midi, the lighthouse of the Pyrenees
See the monstrous knot of shadow and azure, its peak a roof without fog and without veil, where no bird can land other than the star.
That’s how Victor Hugo described the Pic du Midi, the highest summit of the French Pyrenees, a mighty rocky outcrop where scientists and astronomers can feel a little closer to the universe.
The climb up to Pic du Midi from La Mongie in the cable car (which ascends a height of 1077 metres) is a breathtaking trip any time of the year. In winter, you will come across the skiers who plunge down from the summit or from the Pic de Taoulet (the intermediate stop). From the top, on a clear and luminous day like the one we are lucky to get, the views are priceless. The snow caped peaks of the Pyrenees in all their splendour spread at our feet. Literally, if we walk over the Ponton dans le Ciel, a 12m long footbridge with a glass floor that sprouts from the 760m2 terrace.
The 2877m of the Pic de Miedia de Bigòrra (its Occitan name) make it a privileged viewpoint above the big mountain range and the purity of the air and the lack of light pollution make it an ideal vantage point to look up toward the sky and the stars. That’s the reason why in the 18thC François de Plantade, Monge and D’Arcet came here to analyse the atmosphere and to look at the stars. The building of the observatory would finally start in 1870 and would take 12 years in very extreme conditions, as you can imagine. Today we find 5 telescopes, including a 106cm one build by the NASA to take pictures of the moon in preparation for the Apollo missions, the Jean Rösch telescope to study the surface of the sun, and a coronagraph to study the sun corona.
Open to the public in 2000, it’s been declared Grand Site de France and International Dark Sky Reserve. The area built covers 10.000m2 in six levels, with 5km of corridors. We find the highest planetary in Europe, at the heart of the Baillaud dome, where we can see a film on the building of the observatory and try to unveil the secrets of the universe. There is also a museum, renovated in 2018, and we have the option of taking a virtual visit with a tablet, the HistoPad, following the steps of the first scientists– to see how they lived. It is an interactive stroll that allows us to manipulate the instruments as we explore the place and try to find the coronagraph invented by Bernard Lyot.
At the platform we also find a couple of meeting rooms with a view that takes your breath away – I must admit I would not be able to focus – and some bedrooms for anybody willing to spend a magical night reaching for the stars (the waiting list is more than a year long, because there’s only room for 27 people).
We have lunch at the panoramic restaurant of chef Marc Berger, who have created a menu with quality dishes made with local produce, including the Porc Noir or the Lau-Balagnas trout, with the added difficulty of height. It’s not a joke, at 2800m water boils at 92º and complicates the cooking of food, which also dries faster due to lack of oxygen. To top it all, the kitchen is electric. And despite all this, the quality of the menu in Pic du Midi is excellent.
There are several “du Midi” peaks in France (Bigorre, d’Assau, l’Aguille…). They were the geographical reference point for farmers who returned home at noon after working in the fields.
Bagnères de Bigorre /Banheras de Bigorra.
The name banheras (meaning bath tubes) gives us a hint of the thermal activity in the area. The waters, extracted 200m underground at 50º are rich in calcium, sulphate and magnesium – with analgesic, antispasmodic and relaxing properties. The romans named it Vicus Aquensis, the city of waters, and that is precisely the name of the establishment we head to, Aquensis.
This spa centres around a big wooden hall with a glass roof, which reminds us of a Viking hall even though it actually mirrors a forest, with the trees as columns and the branches as beams. Inside this space we find the big pool – with fun whirlpools that drag you in circles, waterfalls and jets spread around. Next to this hall we find the relax pool, with whirlpools and subaquatic music that you can hear when you submerge your head. If you let yourself float, enjoying the music, you’ll feel peaceful and calm. Truly relaxing. On the same level we find the hammam, and I must say it is our favourite among all the spas we visit in this trip. At the entrance hall, we can pour ourselves some tea before treading into the fog of this Arab style bath to reach the small pool at the end. We can choose to lie on the hot tiles or sit on the warm pool. There are also personal cabins to shower.
Two Finnish saunas, at 80º, allow us to sweat all toxins.
At the terrace we find two outdoor jacuzzis, around a pond which is actually the top of the glass dome of the main hall, covered in water. There are some deckchairs to rest overlooking the village (when the weather permits. It is not snowing today but is freezing all the same).
On the second floor, a mezzanine overlooking the main pool, we find the treatment rooms. Only people who have booked some treatment have access to this floor, guaranteeing privacy.
The Aqua Pass of 2h– including robe, shoes and towel, is 17,50€. They offer several family packages.
The water from the springs in Cauterets are rich in sulphur and sodium silicate, good for the treatment of respiratory and skin diseases and rheumatism, among other things.
Located at the foot of the cirque de Lys, Cauterets enjoyed a golden era of thermal centres. The César Baths (opened in 1843), the Grand Hôtel d’Angleterre and the Grand Hotel Continental were built during that Belle Epoque that left a great architectural legacy in the town. Famous visitors like George Sand, Chateaubriand or Victor Hugo, and not so famous then, like Bernadette Soubirous (before she met the Virgin Mary in Lourdes), nobles and even kings, they all came here looking for the healing properties of the hot waters.
And in the 20thC ski made its appearance. The Cauterets Ski Club was founded in 1907 and as early as 1910 the town hosted the national championship.
It is worth to take a stroll around town to admire its architecture. The old train station of 1901, listed as a historic monument, a reminder of the now gone railway Pierrefitte-Cauterets, abandoned in 1949 and recently transformed into a green cycling trail; the old gondola station built by the Eiffel team; the César Baths; Rue Richelieu and Rue de la Raillère, the historical backbone of the city; the Chalet Galitzine; the Boulevard Latapie-Flurin, with some iconic 19thC houses; the Angleterre Hotel, the Continental and the Casino Club, or the small iron-wrought covered market.
Only 7km away from Cauterets there is another Grand Site de France, Pont d’Espagne, which is part of the Pyrenees National Park, the oldest in France. It is located on the Jeret Valley, at the confluence of two mountain streams and three valleys, and features many waterfalls. It is the starting point of several hiking trails in summer. Two gondolas allow the visitors to climb effortlessly to Gaube lake, 1725 high, a mountain landscape at the foot of the Vignemale (reflected on the waters of the lake).
Reaching the O! Regent restaurant, at the corner not far from the hotel we are staying in, becomes an adventure as the streets are completely frozen and we risk breaking a leg at every slippery step. Again, local cuisine with a very diverse menu.
We sleep at the charming hotel Le Lion d’Or, located in an 1840 house at the centre of the village, and managed by the same family since 1913. With 18 rooms scattered around several floors the vintage furniture and decoration gives it a certain character. The paintings on the walls, the stairs, the wooden floors, the curtains… every single detail adds warmth to the place. Breakfast at the small dining room consists of homemade cakes, cheeses, cold meats, bread, bakery croissants – even yogurts are homemade.
The small Lys ski station, with 20 ski slopes (36km in total), at 1730 to 2450m height, can be accessed by the gondola straight from Cauterets. We go up to have lunch at the Cirque du Lys restaurant. Open in 2016 it answers to the trend of offering quality gastronomy (away from the cliché rubbish expensive food of ski stations). It can handle 600 settings – it sits 180 people – and offers dishes cooked at the central kitchen of the restaurant with local and ecological produce. Although the dynamics are very similar to those of a fast food place the food is certainly not: we can choose among bio beef stew with berries, a lamb tahin with saffron or a Gers duck burger. But the most unique feature in the restaurant is the wine. As an experiment they buried 1200 bottles of Bordeaux whites and reds 5 metres under the snow at 2400m height for 6 months. The result was a unique maturing system that allowed them to be drunk the following season.
Les bains du rocher
The Cauterets thermal waters, of sulphurous composition, flow at between 53 and 60ºC. At the Rocher baths, a 2500m2 complex, all pools are kept at 35-38 degrees. The indoors pool of 150m is equipped with whirlpools, jets and geysers, like the outdoors stainless steel pool of 200m.
On a second level we find the saunas and a relax room.
Luchon / Banhèras de Luishon
Bagnères de Luchon (2500 inhabitants), known as Luchon, has always been a thermal city. The first baths were built… guess by who? Yes, the Romans, who founded the city of Ilixion (Goddess of the Waters). “Balneum Lixonense post Neapolitense primum”, they said, “the baths at Luchon are the best after those in Napoli”.
After the fall of the Empire they were abandoned for centuries until in 1759 the Baron of Etigny, destined to Luchon, reopened them. The third duke of Richelieu would be the first famous visitor, and he would come back a while later with the court. The old balnea were reborn.
The popularity of the baths lured famous figures, like the empress Eugenia, Napoleon III, Gustav Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant or king Alfonso XIII of Spain, among others.
The arrival of the railway and the building of the casino at the end of the 19thC increased the popularity of Luchon among cosmopolitan tourists up to the 1920s. From those times a notable architecture remains. We can feel immediately the past splendour strolling down the Allées d’Étigny, the main avenue connecting to the baths, a cluster of bars and restaurants today.
The Luchon baths
There are 48 hot springs in Luchon, diverse in composition and temperature (ranging from 17 to 65 degrees), but especially rich in sodium sulphate. These sulphurous waters have scarring properties and are ideal to treat respiratory and rheumatic problems.
The first ever thermal station opened in the Pyrenees is located at Parc des Quinconces, a big square with huge Lebabon Cedars , sequoias, thujas, catalpas and flowers planted in the mid 19thC. They share the place with the Chambert building from 1848, erected on top of the original Roman baths, and the Imperial Pavilion, from 1954, which gives access to the swimming pool and the Vaporarium.
The most prominent feature that renders the Luchon baths unique in Europe is the natural Vaporarium (opened in 1929). This is a natural hammam created by the effect of hot water leaking from the rocks and emanating sulphur steam, which floods a 150 m tunnel, creating a sauna at 35-45ºC inside a cave. It is not advisable to spend more than 15 minutes inside and you must take off all jewellery and body ornaments – as sulphur steam is highly corrosive for metal. But on the other side, it is very good for your skin and the respiratory tract.
To compensate for the sweat, and after a shower, we relax at the main thermal pool.
Next to the pavilion we find the Chambert building, devoted to cures and medicinal treatments. Here we recall the image we invoked at the start of this piece, the 19thC spa, with individual bathtubs for treatments, healing rooms for respiratory conditions – like a gargling room- but completely updated.
They offer specific programs for all sorts of conditions, from fibromyalgia to rheumatism, arthrosis, with medical prescription. And chromotherapy or mud treatments. This is not the relax spa to enjoy after a hard day. It is the health spa to come heal. Although you can also get a series of aesthetic treatments and massages. The several taps at the central fountain in the atrium offer water from different springs, with their different properties.
We dine at Tute de l’Ours, at Allées d’Etigny, a restaurant with a mountain feel decor and a traditional menu.
We sleep at the Panoramic, a Gay Friendly 3 star hotel with 24 rooms located in front of the church of Our Lady of Assumption.
This is our last day of our Pyrenean route but before heading home we still have time for one last visit. We take a panoramic road that runs through the spectacular Lys Valley – nothing to do with the flower, actually the name comes from “la lit”, meaning avalanche. And with the heavy snowfall of these past days, it is better not to think about it.
The valley, hidden inside the Cabrioules mountains, narrows into a gorge ending in the Enfer waterfall, starting point of the climb to the Maupas peak (3109). We follow the twisting road up to 1800m to find Superbagnères, the oldest ski station in the Pyrenees (the second in France). The small zip train that connected it to Luchon when it was opened stopped working in 1966 after the road was built. From 1993 there is also a gondola climbing up from the city – that was actually our original idea to get there but the hotel owner convinced us to take the beautiful road. Great advice. It was really worth it.
It is a gorgeous sunny day and we have our lunch at the station, at the terrace of La Chapelle restaurant, located on an old 60s church – it has kept the monumental stone cross at the entrance as a reminder. The views of the valley are magnificent (opposite to whatever we are served which looks like the leftovers from making broth. I would be ashamed to serve that in a charitable lunch room). We distract ourselves from the “food” by watching a group of hang gliders as they plunge into the void a few metres from us.
Just time for a quick coffee before leaving. We have a 5+ hour drive to Barcelona ahead of us, crossing the border into the Aran valley via Col du Portillon. We find ourselves stuck due to a small avalanche on the road, and we need to wait for the snow removing vehicle to clean it. As I said at the beginning, heavy snowfall for the past few days – let’s hope for that every winter to come.