Tucked away at the southern end of a long and sinuous valley, the village of Gavarnie serves primarily to cater for tourists who come to view the stunning spectacle of the mountain wall that rears dramatically above it. This is no ordinary mountain wall; this is the frontier with Spain, and if you can get up to the Col du Boucharro you can just step across an invisible boundary line into another country...actually, you can drive most of the way, and a fabulous drive it is, too.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Cirque de Gavarnie and two similar cirques on the north face of the Pyrenees are adjudged, along with the mountain landscapes of Spain around Mont Perdu (Monte Perdido, the highest of the Pyrenees), to be worthy of World Heritage status.
What is so charismatic about this place is that it sets the pulse racing, even among those who would never dream of setting foot on a mountain. All around is a predominantly pastoral landscape, reflecting an agricultural way of life that was once widespread in the upland regions of Europe, but now survives only in this part of the Pyrenees. Transhumance was widely practised here until recent times, a custom that sent the man of the household off into the mountains in spring with his sheep and a dog or two, often the huge Pyrenean Mountain dog, to spend the summer months in the high pastures; not returning until September with a mountain of freshly made sheep’s cheese. Now few follow in those ancient shepherding footsteps.
The landscape here is so dramatic that it provoked George Sand, the author and romantically linked associate of Frédéric Chopin, to depict the section from Luz St Sauveur to Gavarnie as ‘primeval chaos’; Victor Hugo was not to be outdone, and described the track through the Chaos de Coumély as ‘black and hideous’. Of course, it is neither of those, just a fabulous bit of driving for everyone except the driver, although avalanches of snow often completely blocked the road for a few days. Such occurrences are to be expected, and underline the importance to seek advice from the tourist offices on weather trends and the stability of snow; you may not be going above the snowline, but if the conditions are just so, the snow will come to you.
'...primeval chaos...black and hideous'
At the height of summer, when the tourists flock in, Gavarnie, essentially a one-street town, seems to lose some of its rustic innocence and become more mercenary, making money while the tourists shine. But this period of mass invasion is short-lived, and then Gavarnie resumes its more affable persona, an all-season mountaineers’ centre and winter ski resort, but without the skiing paraphernalia that bedraggles places like Tourmalet, La Mongie and Gourette.
The great central river, the Gave de Gavarnie, is borne from the mountain snows and the Grande Cascade, a torrent of turbulent turquoise bullying its way through the rocks as it has done for thousands of years.
The mountains that form the cirque are the domain of the experienced alpinistes, but for a grandstand view, take the road on the right as you enter Gavarnie village, and follow its serpentine trail towards the Col du Boucharro. It is no longer possible to drive all the way to the col, but from a large, upper car park, with an amazing view of Le Taillon, it is possible to make an easy ascent of a much smaller peak, the Pic du Tentes, by an obvious path.