The landscape in the Pyrenees is quite different to that of the Alps. Lower and not as expansive, the Pyrenees has no lakes as great as those in the Alps, such as Lucerne Leman and Maggiore.
The landscape of the Pyrenees is dominated instead by a large number of spectacular mountain torrents (called “gaves”), which often give way to breathtaking waterfalls.
The highest of those waterfalls is deep in the heart of the Pyrenees National Park – the Grande Cascade de Gavarnie. At 423m, the Grande Cascade de Gavarnie is the highest waterfall in France and one of the highest in Europe. The Gavarnie waterfall is fed by melting snow and a small glacier. It forms the head of the Gave de Gavarnie, which becomes the Gave de Pau. This 180km river descends to Pau (the capital town of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques department located in the foothills of the western Pyrenees) and beyond.
The Cirque de Gavarnie is one of three limestone semi-circular precipitous cliffs, which form an immense scalloped wall along the border between Spain and France around the 3,352m Monte Perdu.
View Limestone Cirques of the Pyrenees in a larger map
These impressive glacial rock formations have become popular walking, trekking and camping expeditions for all ages and abilities. With a few restaurants and refuges dotted around the area, the Cirques of Gavarnie, Estaube and Troumouse may not be lifeless but they certainly remain unspoilt.
In 1997, the area was made a UNESCO world heritage site to preserve its semi-wild and unique landscape, not least because the pastoral hills beneath the cirques “reflect an agricultural way of life that was once widespread in the upland regions of Europe but now survives only in this part of the Pyrénées”. Unesco believes the villages, farms, fields, upland pastures and mountain roads provide “exceptional insights into past European society”.
The route up to the 1,700m Cirque de Gavarnie is well-trodden by enthusiastic walking groups eager to find a just reward for their trekking efforts. Finding the route up is as simple as following the crowds in peak season. The summer months are the busiest around the Cirque de Gavarnie but also the most enjoyable; with blazing sunshine to enjoy and the possibility of theatrical thunderstorms resounding around the walls of the Cirques.
Punctuating the Cirque de Gavernie is a 40-metre-wide, 100-metre-high natural gap in the steep cliffs of the amphitheatre. Known as La Breche de Roland or la Brecha de Roldan depending on whether you emerge from the Gaellic or Iberian side of the Pyrenees. At an altitude of 2,804m, this ‘gateway’ between France and Spain adds an impressive feature to an already outstanding area of natural beauty.
Humans have settled around Gavarnie since the Palaeolithic era (40,000-10,000 BC. Sites such as the Anisclo and Escuain caves, the Gavarnie stone circles and the Tella dolmen provide evidence of human activity. Permanent settlements arose around the Middle Ages and the massif has played a strategic role in communication between Spanish and French communities around Mont Perdu and Gavarnie.
Several thousand years of human activity has changed the natural environment around Gavarnie. Many large predators and carnivores have been eradicated or greatly reduced in number. More recently, some of those species (such as the marmot) have been reintroduced.
The original forest has been removed by cutting or burning although it is now recovering. There has been extensive livestock grazing although this is no longer permitted in the Ordessa National Park. However, the centuries-old system of moving herds from higher to lower pastures through the seasons (transhumance) does continue within the area, with frequent movement of herds across the French-Spanish border.
One of these historic routes connecting the two sides was a branch of the original route of Santiago de Compostela.