A portrait of pastoral life in France's Central Pyrenees

A week in the Central Pyrenees, tucked in the south west corner of France’s Occitania region, reveals a pastoral life little changed in centuries. Here, among medieval market towns and lush valleys, the past’s thread snakes its way through the present.

By Adrian Phillips
photographs by Markel Redondo
Published 18 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 18 Jan 2021, 15:41 GMT
Génos-Loudenvielle Lake in the Louron Valley.

Génos-Loudenvielle Lake in the Louron Valley.

Photograph by Markel Redondo

Goiat is a bear — a big bear, weighing 250kg at least — and he’s close by. He’s also hungry.

The day after tomorrow, news will break that he’s attacked and killed two sheep on the forested ridge to our right. He’s probably lifting his snout in our direction at this very moment, sniffing the air with a nose seven times more sensitive than a bloodhound’s. Yes, he’ll be aware of us. But we know none of this. We’re just walking a mountain path in southwest France on our way to meet a shepherd.

The pitted track writhes up Montagne d’Areng from the tiny village of Jézeau, and it’s not hard to imagine bears among the pine trees of this lonely woodland in the Pyrenees. “This is a very pure forest,” says Éric, our guide, who lives in Jézeau. “Some of the trees are 300 years old.” “The sounds are lovely,” adds Penny, my walking companion. As we move over mossy banks and across clearings edged with bracken, I tune in to the lazy summer buzz from hidden bees’ nests, the rattle of the grasshoppers and the wing beats of a black woodpecker as it breaks from a dead tree.

“There are just 50 bears in the French Pyrenees,” Penny says. “The word is that a large one called Goiat has been somewhere in this region for the past week or so — it’s exciting!” Penny’s heart has been stitched into the fabric of this place since she moved here from the Lake District 13 years ago. She arranges low-impact tours that take visitors beyond the thrills and spills of the ski resorts, introducing them to nature and the pleasures of the pastoral life.

The Pyrenees glimpsed through the forest near Pont du Prat, Loudenvielle.

Photograph by Markel Redondo

One such pleasure is known as transhumance, a time-honoured tradition at the start of each summer when the farmers’ animals are driven up this pass from the foothills — cattle, sheep, goats, even native Pyrenean horses — on a migration to their mountain pastures. “All the locals take part,” Penny tells me, “and there’s a real festival atmosphere.” “We drink a lot of wine!” Éric declares with relish.

That was several months ago, and few people have walked the track since. It’s left to the shepherds now. We turn a corner, and ahead is a stone shelter, set like a toy in a rolling landscape of yellowing grassland. Nicolas has spotted us from a distance and is picking his way down a steep slope. He’s been checking on his ewes (perhaps the very ewes that will soon fall prey to Goiat). “This is the hottest year I have seen,” he says, shaking his head. ‘The sheep must go high to find good grass, but some of them are pregnant and they lose their lambs in the strain of getting up there.”

Nicolas isn’t what you’d expect of a shepherd, in his snowboarder sunglasses and a Rip Curl T-shirt. But his two sheepdogs give him away, each slumping into a patch of shade. They’re collies, but many other shepherds here prefer a muscular Pyrenean breed called the patou. “Those dogs have a bark to put the fear of god into you,” says Penny. In years past, every French mountain shepherd had a patou, but in the 19th century, with wolves and bears becoming increasingly scarce, shepherds no longer required such fierce dogs to guard their flocks. Now the apex predators are back, the patous are back, too.

A Bazadaise cow, a popular breed in the Pyrenees.

Photograph by Markel Redondo

“Hunters shot brown bears until quite recently,” Penny explains. “As late as the 1980s, cubs were taken to be trained as dancing bears at fairs or in bars.” There are no pure-bred Pyrenean bears left. However, since 1996 a reintroduction programme has brought bears like Goiat from Slovenia, and the population is growing in the central Pyrenees.

“Wolves are coming too, spreading from Spain and Italy,” says Éric. “Bears might take one or two sheep, but wolves will kill sheep after sheep after sheep.” Whole flocks have fallen off cliffs as they run from predators in panic, and tensions are growing between those who want to see such magnificent species restored to the mountains and those who graze animals there. Penny works with a local organisation that teaches farmers how to better protect their animals at night using dogs and electric fences. It’s a familiar tale in the 21st century: the challenge of getting nature and man to coexist harmoniously.

Nicolas busies himself preparing a typical lunch of the mountains, laying the spread on a stack of old pallets to form a makeshift table outside his hut. He talks little. The hut itself is tiny, its bare-stone walls concealing a pair of rooms easily filled with his few pots and pans, gas stove and mattress. There’s no electricity or running water, not much of the 21st century. For a moment, I wonder at a young man’s choice to spend solitary months on the mountainside, but as we tuck into crusty bread and ruby-red slices of duck while the sun shines over the valley, it all makes better sense.

As we mop up the last morsels, the tinny clunking of cowbells reaches our ears, faint at first, but growing louder as dozens of cream-coloured cows emerge along the track. “Only the ‘queen’ cow wears a bell,” Éric says. “When the shepherd finds the queen, he knows the rest of the herd is there too.” There are four or five queens here; several herds have joined forces. They form a huddle a few metres away, chewing and staring at us while we chew and stare back at them.

“I’m an old man,” middle-aged Éric announces, out of the blue. “Pyrenees people are the oldest in Europe,” he goes on to explain, proudly, telling me that his ancestors came from the Iberian Peninsula at a time when much of the rest of the continent was covered in ice. I understand why his mind has turned to the past; the modern day doesn’t have much of a hold on this moment in the mountains. He breaks into song, a long-ago song about the Pyrenees and its people. Nicolas joins in and the cows look on. Somewhere, Goiat is listening.

The picturesque town of Arreau on market day.

Photograph by Markel Redondo

Happy days

In the days that follow, I become more and more conscious of the past ghosting into the present. Driving winding roads, through trees turned autumnal by this deathly dry summer, I chance upon an abandoned cottage with an empty doorway and windows gaping black. An old mill stands in the middle of a cut cornfield, its roof splintered and falling in. On a wildlife walk with Éric through a valley at Piau-Engaly, marmots whistle warnings and griffon vultures circle overhead, but it’s a disused shepherd’s hut that holds my imagination. Overgrown with nettles, it’s been here for two centuries, built tight against a looming boulder to protect it from avalanches.

Such decaying buildings appear fleetingly, thrown up by the landscape before being swallowed once more, but each time they do I find myself strangely sensitive to the lives that have been lived inside — the meals eaten, the arguments held, the families raised, the problems pondered. I can only half-grasp these imagined memories, as though viewing photographs in dim light.

But there’s no looking backwards during my morning with Happy — when you’re harnessed to a 45kg dog it’s very much full speed ahead. Keen to see more of the countryside, I’ve come to Base Nordique Sherpa in Peyragudes, a husky training centre that offers walking tours through the forest. “To say hello to your dog, put your hand under its muzzle and then make hugs,” advises Elodie, who has charge of the 37 huskies, each with its own wooden kennel beside a stream. “Be careful with the big ones, though — when they make hugs they can knock you over,” she warns. Happy is certainly a big one; she’s a white-furred Greenland husky, a breed that’s loyal and hard-working, but rather more foolish than the sleeker Siberian huskies that are also kept here.

My first job is to put Happy into her harness, which isn’t as easy as Elodie has made it appear during her demonstration. Happy seems happiest snoozing in the sun outside her kennel, and it requires quite some tugging on her collar to convince her to sit up straight. Once roused, she takes great pleasure in the whole harness-applying game, joyously lapping at my face whenever I bend down to place one of the loops over her head. When her head is finally through a loop and I’ve managed to coax her front paws through two other loops, I discover her head is through a paw loop and one paw through the head loop, and so the whole jolly, face-licking charade begins again.

Sheep and the Chapelle des Templiers in the background, near Piau-Engaly.

Photograph by Markel Redondo

Eventually, the harness is in place, attached with a rope to a thick belt around my waist, and Happy and I join the back of the queue of eight dogs and eight tourist walkers. Elodie paces back and forth along the line, like a sergeant major on the parade ground. “When we walk, keep the rope tight between you and your dog. Remember, the dogs are strong. Lean backwards or you might go flying like Superman.” Happy is sprawled on the ground dozing again; I can’t imagine a dog less likely to pull me off my feet.

And then, with a chorus of excited yelps and howls, the dogs ahead of us are on the move, and Happy is up and after them. Her head drops low and her rear legs scrabble for purchase as she strains to shift my dead weight, but she’s quickly into her stride and I’m tripping and skidding as she drags me forward. “Happy, stop!” I command desperately as I try to compose myself, but she pretends not to hear, battling so hard to gain ground on the pair in front that her panting sounds almost asthmatic.

I’m a human ragdoll in her wake until, in a show of remarkable fickleness, the whole pursuit is abruptly forgotten as Happy becomes absorbed in locating the source of some smell or other in a bush at the side of the track. I catch my breath while she buries her head deep in the foliage, and tug vainly on the rope in an attempt to bring her back to the task in hand. Finally, and entirely in her own time, she satisfies herself that all is well in the bush, and takes off frantically after the others once more. “Happy, stop…!”

Gradually, I gain better control of Happy’s movements, and we settle into our walk. Having a powerful dog attached to your waist is rather like having the benefit of a motor on an electric bike, making any inclines a breeze. We walk for two hours, following a circular route on a dappled path that gently rises and falls through the woods. On a distant hill, three deer are silhouetted against the sky. It’s another hot day, and the dogs take turns to drink and cool themselves in a stream that crosses the path. But this is easy work for them.

“In winter, they run this route in the snow, pulling sleds weighing 200kg,” Elodie tells me. “Sometimes they drag supplies up to people in the mountains. This walk is a holiday for them.” Like the patous and the collies, these are working dogs, fixtures of a pastoral life in the mountains. Part of a barking, frenzied way of life, it’s a tradition maintained, a link to the region’s past — albeit reshaped for its modern-day visitors.

The medieval town of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, dominated by its cathedral.

Photograph by Markel Redondo

Past and present

My week in the Pyrenees is full of living traditions preserved, the past’s thread snaking its way through the everyday present. On Thursday morning, in the medieval town of Arreau, stalls are set beneath the colonnades of the covered market, as they have been for centuries. Traders cry their wares: jams made from myrtle berries, tomatoes as red as cricket balls, truckles of sheep’s cheese and Noir de Bigorre pork sausages. I taste wine from little cups as the producer swats at circling wasps. Elsewhere, a man spoons batter over a spit, making the classic gâteau à la broche, or tree cake, over an open fire. The recipe is said to have been brought back by Napoleon from one of his campaigns. Nearby, the River Neste bubbles tirelessly beneath a stone bridge.

At La Barthe de Neste, I visit a pair of chocolatiers, Marie and her brother Bernardino, at their shop, Les Flocons Pyrénéens. The shelves heave with slabs of chocolate and piles of bonbons — all handmade by Bernardino in the laboratory-like kitchen next door. I watch him heating, pouring and folding as he works on his creations. His speciality is the flocon, a praline-centred chocolate based on a recipe dating to the 1800s. But Bernardino taps into the spirit of our own times too. “Our bestseller is the Chocolat Virus,” says Marie, handing me a chocolate ball dotted with strawberry and raspberry icing that apparently looks like a coronavirus cell under a microscope.

In the foothills 12 miles to the east, I explore the town of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, its 16th-century buildings displaying magnificent half-timbering and herringbone brickwork. Its imposing cathedral contains the remains of its builder, St Bertrand, as well as an incongruous stuffed crocodile, which has dangled from a wall here for as long as anyone can remember.

Today, walkers following the route to Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain, tread in the footsteps of generations of pilgrims, an ever-growing plumb-line of people descending through the ages.

A husky from Base Nordique Sherpa.

Photograph by Markel Redondo

But it’s close by, at the Caves of Gargas, where mankind’s line drops deepest. A guide leads me through a hillside entrance into low-lit chambers with stalactites that seem more soft than solid, bulging like jellyfish or cascading to the floor in great pleats like gathered curtains. These caves were discovered in 1906 but had been occupied from prehistory up to the Middle Ages.

My guide points his torch at a wall, and from the gloom emerge the outlines of dozens of hands, stencilled in reds and blacks. “These were made 27,000 years ago,” he whispers. “The cave people placed their hands on the rock and sprayed pigment around them by blowing it from their mouths.” The handprints are all sizes, the marks of men, women and children. Many have stunted or missing fingers, and some researchers conclude they were lost through leprosy or ritual amputation. But I prefer to imagine the hands weren’t damaged at all, that instead the fingers were deliberately bent to create unique identifiers — that this is a wall of signatures, of names calling through the mists of time.

On my last day, I trek an upland trail through the Louron Valley to see the Cascade de Pouy Millas. Penny had said it was a special, peaceful spot. At Pont du Prat, I join a forest path; underfoot, pine needles cushion my steps, while bunches of rowan berries hang above. After half an hour, the trees give way to a smooth rock ledge rock jutting over the edge of the gorge. I inch out, testing each step, and there’s the waterfall to my right. It burnishes the cliff face the glossiest of blacks, and brings out seams of orange.

Moving back from the edge, I notice a series of huge, flattened boulders a few metres further along the trail that can take me higher still. Erosion has scored them with lines and crosses, so ordered and perfect they seem fashioned by a skilled hand. I clamber to the top using crevices as handholds, and straighten to admire the waterfall. And then I see the back of a man’s head. He’s standing at the foot of the boulders, staring into a pool beside the rushing head of the waterfall. He doesn’t notice me. I watch for a while before moving silently away, leaving him to cast his thoughts into the water, adding them to the thoughts of all the others who’ve ever stumbled upon this hidden place.

Walking with huskies from Base Nordique Sherpa in Peyradgudes.

Photograph by Markel Redondo

Getting there & around

Airlines including British Airways and EasyJet fly from London to Toulouse, from where it’s a 2h drive into the French Pyrenees. EasyJet also flies from Gatwick to Bordeaux (followed by a three-hour drive) and from Bristol to Biarritz (followed by a 2h drive). Average flight time: 1h40m.

Alternatively, take a cross-Channel ferry and drive through France with a stop-over en route. DFDS offers regular crossings to Calais from Dover. Brittany Ferries also runs overnight sailings from Plymouth and Portsmouth to Bilbao, from where it’s a four-hour drive.

Another option is to take the Eurostar to Paris and then an onwards sleeper train to Toulouse, where car hire is available.

When to go

The experiences outlined are available from mid-June to the end of September. Temperatures regularly reach the mid-30Cs in the summer months, although it can be considerably cooler in the mountains.

Places mentioned

Explore France

How to do it

Adventure Creators’ tailor-made Heart of the Pyrenees Experience costs from €545 (£492) per person for seven nights. The bespoke itinerary features immersive experiences, and accommodation. Options include self-catering, guest houses and the new family-friendly, four-star Mercure Peyragudes Loudenvielle. Excludes travel. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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