Nestled in a narrow, breathtaking valley on the edge of the Parc National des Pyrenees Occidentales is tiny, friendly Cauterets (pop. 1,300). Cauterets’s hot sulfuric thermes have long been instruments of healing; for more info, contact Thermes de Cesar, av. Docteur Domer. (05 62 92 51 60. Open M-F 9am-12:30pm and 2-5pm.) Today, most visitors come to ski and hike. For hiking info and advice, head to Parc National des Pyrenees (see below). Skilys, rte. de Pierrefitte, on pi. de la Gare, rents bikes and skates. ( 05 62 92 52 10. Bikes ‚15.30 per day. Open in winter daily 8am-7:30pm; off-season 9am-7pm.)
SNCF buses run from pi. de la Gare to Lourdes (lhr. 6 per day, ‚6). The tourist office, on pi. Foch, has free maps of ski trails. (05 62 92 50 27; www.cauter-ets.com. Open July-Aug. daily 9:30am-12:30pm and l:30-7pm; Sept.-June reduced hours.) ISGite d’Etape UCJG , av. du Docteur Domer, has a great location and friendly staff. From the Parc National office, cross the street and turn left uphill on a footpath underneath the funicular depot. (05 62 92 52 95. Open June 15-Sept. 15. Dorms ‚8; camping and tent rental ‚6.50.) Postal Code: 65110.
DAYTRIP FROM CAUTERETS: THE PYRENEES. The striking Parc National des Pyrenees shelters thousands of endangered animals in its snow-capped mountains and lush valleys. Touch base with the friendly and helpful Parc National Office, Maison du Parc, pi. de la Gare, before braving the wilderness; they have tons of info on the park and the 15 trails beginning and ending in Cauterets. The trails in the park are designed for wide range of skill levels, from novice hiker to rugged outdoorsman. (05 62 92 62 97; www.parc-pyra-nees.com. Open June-Aug. daily 9:30am-noon and 3-7pm; Sept.-May M-Tu and F-Su 9:30am-12:30pm and 3-6pm, Th 3-6pm.) From Cauterets, the GR10 winds through Luz-St-Saveur, over the mountain, and then on to Gavarnie, another day’s hike up the valley; this is also known as the circuit de Gavarnie. One of the most spectacular trails follows the GR10 to the turquoise Lac de Gaube and then to the end of the glacial valley (2hr. past the lake) where you can spend the night at the Refuges Des Oulettes O, the first shelter past the lake. ( 05 62 92 62 97. Open June-Sept. ‚13.)
An immense region called Occitania once stretched from the Rhone Valley to the foothills of the Pyrenees. It was eventually integrated into the French kingdom, and its Cathar religion was severely persecuted by the Crown and Church. Their langue d’oc dialect of French faded, and in 1539, the northern langue d’oil became official. Latent nationalism lingers, however, in vibrant cities like Toulouse and Perpignan. Many locals speak Catalan, a relative of langue d’oc, and feel a stronger cultural connection with Barcelona than Paris.