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Le Cirque de Gavarnie: Hiking in the Pyrénées

The Cirque de Gavarnie is one of nature’s most unique and spectacular creations. Located in the department of Hautes-Pyrénées in the Pyrénées National Park [1], it forms France’s southern border with Spain. This cirque is described as a rocky cliff face or wall that forms a curved amphitheater. Numerous waterfalls tumble down the wall to create the rushing Gave River. The highest falls, la Grand Cascade de Gavarnie, has two tiers, plunges 1,385 feet and is the tallest in France.

We had a commanding view of the cirque from the Grand Hotel Vignemale [2], but the greatest pleasure comes from hiking the trail to the top, smelling the scents, listening to the sounds and marveling at the changing scenery. The trail ascends gradually and is a fairly easy, 1- or 1.5 hour hike one way. Donkeys and horses are available for hire if you prefer that mode of travel.

At the top, a casual restaurant awaits. It’s an ideal spot for a drink or meal as you gaze up at the mesmerizing cirque and try to count the myriad waterfalls in front of you. Or you can continue onward, following a rugged, rocky trail, to get a closer look at the base of the falls. This takes about 40 minutes, and you might get wet.

Gavarnie
Gavarnie by Guillaume Baviere/ Flickr

The convenient 3-star Grand Hotel Vignemale is a spacious lodge-like building set in an open field facing the cirque. Most rooms have balconies and overlook the corralled horses and donkeys for hire. Each evening we enjoyed comfortable seating by the inviting fire in the lobby fireplace. There is a large open room for petit déjeuner or beverages from the bar. The proprietor was helpful and informative, and we enjoyed numerous exchanges with her.

Even though the village is small with a population of 160, there are over a million visitors a year. There are many casual cafés, crêperies and restaurants within walking distance. Our hotel proprietor reserved us a special table at Restaurant les Cascades [3]. We had the cirque view and were served a delicious dinner composed of fresh local ingredients. The staff was friendly, attentive and well managed by a dynamic young couple, she is the hostess; he is the chef. At the end of the evening, the chef came to our table, and I couldn’t compliment him enough on the cumin spiced sauce that accompanied the trout. It was so good, I had asked the server to bring me an extra cupful.

Cirque de Gavarnie
Le Cirque de Gavarnie by Jacques Paysan/ Flickr

Gavarnie offers many gift shops for browsing, a small market for provisions and the tiny 12th century Notre Dame du Bon Port church, well worth a visit. There is plenty of parking available for those not spending the night. Best of all is the scenery, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Victor Hugo [4] dubbed Gavarnie “an impossibly and extraordinary object” and “a colosseum of nature”. This majestic gem awaits you.

For more information, visit the Gavarnie Tourism Office’s website [5].

Notre Dame de Bon Port
Notre Dame de Bon Port. Photo: Office de Tourisme de Gavarnie

Photo credits: Le Cirque de Gavarnie by Mathieu Legros [6]/ Flickr; Gavarnie by Guillaume Baviere [7]/ Flickr; Le Cirque de Gavarnie by Jacques Paysan [8]/Flickr

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