The summit of the Pic du Midi would not be out of place in a sci-fi movie: with griffon vultures rising from the valley below to check out the potential pickings among the visitors, this fortified complex, crammed with metal domes, sprawls across the top of a precipitous peak, often high above the clouds. At an altitude of 2,877 meters (9,349 feet), the sweeping view of the surrounding mountains is rivalled only by the site's magnificently dark night sky.
From below it looks like an unappetising fortress on a frozen planet. Perched on a mountain peak, bristling with mysterious domes and towers, it gazes down imperiously on a world of ice and snow. Its occasional residents spend more time looking up than down, however, because the complex on the Pic du Midi is an astronomical observatory, from which NASA scientists mapped the surface of the moon for the Apollo landings.
It is also open to the public, which makes it the high point of a winter sports holiday in the tangle of rugged mountains between France and Spain. Only 19 guests can be accommodated overnight, with stargazing, conducted tours of the telescopes, and gourmet dining on the menu. The observatory is also home to the highest museum in Europe, one that will guide you through the history of Pic du Midi and over a century of scientific research and technological progress.
High winds – recorded at up to 180mph – can isolate the facility for days, but on clear nights from this stellar eyrie you can see the glow of lights from Biarritz to Barcelona.
In years gone by it was possible to drive a dusty road from the Col du Tourmalet to a large parking area below the summit, from where a steep path led upwards into this weird and fascinating landscape. Now that is no longer possible, and visitors must take a cable car from the nearby village of La Mongie, although you can still walk up from the Col du Tourmalet; wear something warm.