FRENCH FRIDAYS – SNOWFLAKES AND SUNSHINE ON THE PIC DU MIDI
The drive to the Pic du Midi feels closed-in and intimate. Roads carve and sweep through tight turns and tiny villages and drivers must take care – to avoid ice skids in winter and dethroning cyclists in summer. Take the cable car from La Mongie, however, and the immense scope of the Hautes Pyrénées becomes clear, from a dizzying, swaying height.
The aim of this unsteady ascent, is the observatory at the 2877 metre summit. For years, this greyish dome claimed the record of Europe’s highest stargazing site, in the days before the Hubble Space Telescope made mountain peaks the grandads of astronomy. The notion that the Pic du Midi is the highest peak in the Pyrenees have also crumbled with modern science, but the complex has invented a new role for itself as one of France’s weather stations.
As a fan of climbing mountains, my excitement at learning that the Pic could be conquered turned to frustration when my recent foot operation stopped me. Hence the cable car, a beast frequently forced to close due to bad weather – as indeed it did when I returned to snowboard in winter. For those who are interested, a black run leads down from the summit…
Gentle walking tracks criss-cross the lower slopes, but prepare to feel inadequate (or sensible) as intense-looking cyclists heave and strain and scrape their way alongside you to the Col du Tourmalet. At 2115 metres, this is the highest pass in the High Pyrenees and the Tour de France has sweated past it more times than any other mountain since 1920. A silver cycling statue of the first man over the pass, Octave Lapize, hovers on the skyline. His mouth droops open somewhere between exhaustion and ecstasy, an expressions mirrored in the faces of today’s cyclists who queue to have their photograph taken beside him.
For those who prefer to have their feet firmly on the ground, take a break at the café opposite, and enjoy the view.
PRACTICALITIES Ticket prices on the cable car are high (25 – 30 Euros). There is a café and telescopes for children at the top. The ski resort is picturesque but several flat runs link the resort together – fine for skiers, a hard slog for boarders.
Driving from Toulouse to La Mongie takes around two hours, with plenty of interesting sites along the way. Car sick passengers beware.
Pic du Midi Official Site – http://www.picdumidi.com/