Two paths in the Pyrenees

How (not) to ask for hiking advice in the beautiful region around Cauterets, southern France (warning: this post contains grumpiness).

The more you travel, the more you learn about travelling. In Cauterets in the French Pyrenees we made a silly mistake, a mistake that we have now learned from and won’t be making again.

We asked a local family: “What hike should we do with our kids?

Now, hang on a minute… isn’t that good? Getting insightful tourist recommendations from locals is what savvy independent travellers do, right?

Well, no. Close, but not quite. Remove the word “tourist” from the previous statement and try again. What we should have asked the locals was: “What hike would you do with your kids?

The difference may seem trivial but it is actually quite profound and in this instance led us, quite literally, up two entirely different paths.


By asking “what hike should we do with our kids?” we inadvertently signalled that we were unknowledgable about the local area (sadly, true in this case) and that we just wanted to “see the sights”, take some photos and move on (not true). Based on what the locals knew about us and what we asked for, they – quite understandably – advised us to make the hike from the Pont d’Espagne to the Lac de Gaube. Just like everyone else visiting Cauterets.

Now, before I go any further, I’d just like to make something absolutely clear: this was, indeed, a beautiful hike between two wonderful natural attractions – the gushing waterfalls of the Pont d’Espagne and a magnificent glacial lake.

But it’s not what we wanted.

FullSizeRender 3Coming from the relatively low-lying and densely populated Luxembourg, we wanted our kids to experience the Pyrenean mountains, not merely to see something photogenic in the presence of crowds of tourists. We wanted pristine wilderness, a sense of space and solitude, an opportunity for our children to appreciate uninterrupted grandiose nature with all its wondrous sights, sounds and smells.

We did not want to be greeted by a car park of Disneyland-esque proportions, we did not want opening hours, we did not want a bombastic visitor centre filling our entire field of view, we did not want a long list of rules and regulations… and we definitely did not want to see the sign that all dog owners dread:

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Translation: “Dogs prohibited (even on lead)”

This is absurd. They asphalt over an area the size of Luxembourg for parking facilities to attract coach-loads of noisy, path-eroding, litter-spewing humans to a site of outstanding natural beauty… and then ban dogs for “the protection of the flora and fauna”??? Having invested time preparing for and getting to the Pont d’Espagne (not to mention the €6 parking fee), we were not in the mood for irony-heavy regulations, so we decided to ignore the signs and hiked up to the lake anyway. Oonagh the border collie attracted several dirty looks from snooty day-trippers along the way, but she didn’t seem to let it bother her*.

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Look at her, sitting there, destroying this beautiful natural environment!!

Rant over: the Lac de Gaube is – undeniably – supremely beautiful; a smooth carpet of blue-green extending towards the massive snowy bulk of Vignemale mountain, the highest in the French Pyrenees. After a hot and sweaty hike up, it was the most natural thing in the world to remove our socks and shoes and take a paddle in the crystal-clear water. However, no sooner had we done so that we observed that no-one else – not one of the several hundred people milling around the lake – was doing the same. Was this forbidden too? Probably. But we didn’t care – rebellion felt great by this stage of the day.

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A rebellious tourist

Wounded by our Pont d’Espagne experience, we went back to the local family and, in carefully worded French, asked what hike they like to do with their kids. With understanding in their eyes (and was that a hint of remorse?), they told us that they like to hike in the valley of the Gave de Lutour, starting near the “La Fruitière” refuge / hotel.


Well, the contrast could not have been greater. Parking Daisy the bus at the edge of the forest a kilometre or so before La Fruitière, we packed our rucksacks with enough provisions for a whole day, crossed a rickety old bridge, and set off up the valley.

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Our hike in the Vallée de Lutour was perfect and dimensionless: I have genuinely no idea how long we spent there, nor how far we walked; it doesn’t matter anyway because we had finally found what we had come to the Pyrenees for.

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No herds of tourists here, just herds of cattle!.

In a theatre of towering mountains, the kids were free to act as… kids; free to run, explore and dream. The dog – according to a sign near the refuge – was “tolerated”, which seems to be as good as it gets in this part of the world.

The kids wandered through herds of bell-clanging cattle, picnicked by the stream, invested time in closely observing a colony of ants at work, and climbed every boulder along the way. We didn’t see any sights comparable to the Pont d´Espagne / Lac de Gaube, but the experience that we had in the Vallée de Lutour was much, much richer.

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Moral of the story? Be careful in what you ask for, because you might just get it…

Daisy the bus visited Cauterets in July 2016

© 2016 Jonathan Orr

* Disclosure: We later learned from our campsite owners that dogs are, in practice, allowed on one path up to the Lac de Gaube (the path that we used, by chance), as long as they are kept on a leash. We did not see any sign or notice indicating this during the walk itself but sincerely hope – for common sense’s sake –  that this is true.

I’m linking this post to a few travel blog “link-ups”, all of which are full of interesting tales from the road. Please go check them out:

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Author: daisythebus

Father-of-four based in Luxembourg. I write about "off the beaten track" travel adventures with my family. Expect to read about nature, outdoor activities, the arts, authenticity, and alternative ways of discovering the world around us.

42 thoughts on “Two paths in the Pyrenees”

  1. I love how you lost track of time on your second hike, it’s great when it happens, isn’t it? Why dogs are banned on such a tourist hot spot boggles the mind. There are a few places in Ireland too where dogs are only tolerated on a leash, and I assume it is meant to protect the grazing sheep as much as the wildlife. There is a bird reserve near us in Wicklow where dogs are (understandably) banned altogether.

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  2. Ah this made me mad and laugh in equal measure. I completely get where you’re coming from and I probably would have made a similar subtle mistake. The irony of tarmacing an area that big and then not allow dogs to protect the local landscape is simple mind boggling! However,the hike that you wanted in the first place looks awesome. Great photos and post. Thanks for joining us, I hope you can again tomorrow. #adventurecalling

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  3. I do love this story, although I can imagine how disappointed you were with the first choice of path. I know the feeling, this idea that everything for families and children has to be easy and somehow contrived. I’ve lost count of the times we just headed out and hoped for the best, even if we occasionally ended up carrying the pushchair part of the way. Another great post, thank you for supporting #AdventureCalling again

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  4. Super insightful post for someone like me who live and works here as a mountain guide. I understand the day one experience. I often La Fruitière overcrowded too though. I sure, judging by the way you go about things, you had a great trip over all. It’s always hard to combine being a tourist and not wanting to BE a tourist. Enjoy your future travels.

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    1. Thanks for the great comment. I can imagine La Fruitière becoming crowded too, but nothing like the Pont d’Espagne (I guess). We visited on a weekday morning and basically had the place to ourselves; the Pyrenees as we had always imagined it to be. Off to the Alps next month – hope to find a hidden gem or two there as well! Greetings from Luxembourg.

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  5. That second walk looked stunning – what a beautiful place to take the kids for a walk. Over the years we’ve had some great tips from people about where they walk & as a result have found some lovely places off-the-beaten-track too – certainly a cheaper option than following the crowd! #AllAboutFrance

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  6. Ah yes, the dreaded tourist route. Coming from New Zealand, where we have plenty of tourists but don’t feel the need to turn every tourist attraction into a gimmicky spectacle of tacky souvenirs and kids rides (sorry, rant of my own there!), I struggle with seeing this – especially at places of such natural beauty! Anyway, great post and I’ll keep this in mind next time I ask for advice about where to visit. Love that Oonagh is a rule-breaker 😉 #AllAboutFrance

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  7. I can totally relate to this . Being on the side of the “local” we are always offering advice to our gite guests about things to do and see here in our beautiful part of France and I always give them several choices. I always suggest things we like to do and things that kind of need to be seen even if they are very busy. It’s disappointing how many people choose the latter I must say and I always find we get on better with the guests who choose the former option. My husband talks about the Pont d’Espagne, from many years ago (probably 30 or so) so it sounds as though he might well be disappointed if he goes back. Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance again

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    1. Thanks. The Pont d’Espagne is still beautiful and hopefully he wouldn’t be too disappointed, but like I said, it just wasn’t what we wanted or – crucially – what we expected. I think that if you go there accepting the fact that you’re going to share it with the tourist masses then you’ll be just fine. Despite the “Disneyland-esque” car park, it is not quite Disneyland. Yet… 🙂 Thanks again for the brilliant #AllAboutFrance link-up. Some evening very soon I’m going to sit down with a cup of hot tea and read most if not all of the posts.

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  8. What a beautiful new hike I’ve discovered, thanks to you! Sounds like you had some fun & rebellion, despite the fact that there were some snooty looks! Who cares what everyone else thinks as long as you’re not being obnoxious or destroying something! #AllAboutFrance

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  9. We’re Pyrenees fans too – we go every year and also seek the lesser known routes. If you take the valley to the right of the ‘tourist route’ you will find a much quieter valley with a lake at the top. Last summer we were at La Fruitière and loved it too – despite my daughter being charged by a horned cow… What I love there is the silence (when you get higher than the pastures of buzzing bees). Did you see any marmots there?

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    1. Hi, it’s great that you were there too! We weren’t entirely comfortable walking through the cows either (those horns were, admittedly, rather pointy…) but of course it just added to the experience! No marmots unfortunately… next time hopefully. Thanks for reading!

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  10. I agree! A hike in the mountains where no one else is around you and where you can enjoy the scenery in peace is so much better than any viewpoint where tourists are fighting for the best selfie spot 😉

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  11. Sorry about the misunderstanding with your friends, but at least you got to see two breathtakingly beautiful places! It seemslike the second hike was just what you guys were looking for, so guess second time’s the charm in this story. Your kids (and dog) look like that had a wonderful time and the Pyrenees look stunning!!

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  12. The lake does look beautiful and Oonagh looks happy relaxing there but I understand what you mean when you write you had a better experience on the less tourist-traversed hiking route.

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  13. It’s interesting the different experiences you got with just a slightly different question – I can understand why they would direct people to such a beautiful lake but the quiet second walk sounds so much more enjoyable. Glad you had chance for a second attempt! #farawayfiles

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  14. A really good point well made. We usually prefer to take the road well travelled too. Thank goodness you were staying long enough to be able to do both hikes, both experiences. Thanks for linking up with #FarawayFiles

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    1. Thanks Clare. In fact, we only had three days in the Pyrenees (usually we like to spend longer in a place, especially if we haven’t been there before). We went to Lac de Gaube on day one, and day two was a complete washout with (amazing!) thunderstorms. So day three was our “last chance”, but we really hit the jackpot with the Vallée du Lutour.

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  15. Persistence always pays off in the end! When you think about it, it’s the obvious question to ask “What would you do?” but I never have. Thanks for the prompt and the hike was definitely worth the wait. Thanks again for joining us on #FarawayFiles

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    1. On balance, I guess the ideal scenario is to get both viewpoints from the locals, i.e. (1) their view on what they THINK we (as tourists) would like to see, and (2) what they like to see / do themselves. We’ll certainly be trying to get both of these when we ask for local advice in our future travels.

      It’s a pleasure to join #FarawayFiles – there are some wonderfully interesting and inspiring stories here. Thanks for hosting!

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    1. The Lac de Gaube is, admittedly, very beautiful. However, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s famous verdict on the Giant’s Causeway, it is definitely worth seeing… but not worth going to see. I vastly preferred the Vallée du Lutour (the second path).

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  16. I don’t blame you – I usually walk or drive away from places that have all this rigmarole…. I wanted to visit an amazing place of natural beauty here, The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. So we drove up behind a queue of coaches into one of those Disneyland-esque car parks and a ticket attendant ran to the window of the car. to explain the system….we had to wait for a ‘time slot’ and then take a mini-bus to the attraction with the other tourists…. So we turned round and drove away. All of that military organisation to see a natural piece of coastline? I hate that stuff! We’ll go back at 8am in the morning maybe when there’s no one there. But anyway the hike from the Pont d’Espagne to the Lac de Gaube does look gorgeous! Great post

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    1. Thanks. This is an uncannily relevant comment: my 11-year old son’s first observation upon arriving at the Pont d’Espagne car park was “But Daddy, it looks just like the Giant’s Causeway!”. Judging by the tears welling in his eyes at the time, he did not mean this in a positive way: his expectations of what he would see at the Pont d’Espagne were so painfully different from the reality that he faced.

      I used to love the Giant’s Causeway when I was little (I am originally from Northern Ireland) but am increasingly disillusioned every time I return. Note that you do NOT need to take the minibus, despite what anyone tells you. In fact, just like the Pont d’Espagne / Lac de Gaube, pedestrian access to the site itself is FREE; the payment requested by the parking attendants is for the car park and “Visitor Experience” (sigh…). Going early is a very good idea (the coach tourists are still at their buffet breakfasts at 8am) but if it is already uncomfortably busy, you can avoid some of the crowds by taking the (longer but beautiful) path along the top of the cliffs (keep right instead of left). I really hope you enjoy it; it is a very special site.

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      1. No way that’s so funny that he said that!!! I had no idea about the path, thanks for that heads up. The parking attendants were so insistent that there seemed to be no choice. That’s really good to know (I deffo want to go back in Spring).

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