Every year in February, television and broadcasting professionals meet in Luchon to celebrate their profession and deliver awards to the best productions. The Golden Pyrenees is the most prestigious award handed to the programme chosen by a jury of professionals. Awards also go for the best acting performance, for revelations, best script and best series. The festival, created in 1999 and whose jury was chaired last year by film director Claude Chabrol also introduces the best of the production to come. The festival is headed by respected director and journalist Serge Moati. Being in Luchon, the festival never neglects the arts of the table and many a contract have been signed or discussed on a ski slope. Every year, the focus is put on the television of a foreign country.
Pyreneism was launched in the late 19th century by Pyrenees enthusiasts, who saw it as the local equivalent of alpinism. Their idea was not only to climb, explore and conquer new summits but also to celebrate the romanticism of their mountains. The word Pyreneist first appeared in 1898 in the writings of Henri Beraldi at the times when celebrities of arts and literature like Lamartine, Heredia or Maupassant flocked in Luchon and other spas in the Pyrenees. Beradli spent a lot of time in Luchon and was a seasoned trekker who said he had climbed up the Port de Venasque several times. His masterpiece, 100 years in the Pyrenees, comprising seven volumes, collected all the texts written about the Pyrenees up to his time. Before Beraldi, others like Ramond de Carbonnieres were probably pyreneists even if they did not use the word. Closer to Bagneres de Bigorre than to Luchon, Ramond was the first to reach the top of the Mont Perdu and named several Pyrenean summits. His most famous emulators were Emilien Frossard, Charles Packe or Henry Russell, who also inaugurated several mountains. Octave Lapize, the first to reach the top of the Tourmalet on a bike in 1911 was a pyreneist of sorts.
A look at the roll of honour of Luchon stage finishes implies that it is always good to win here: Octave Lapize, Firmin Lambot, Ottavio Bottecchia, Nicolas Frantz, Antonin Magne, Sylvere Maes, Jean Robic, Hugo Koblet, Federico Bahamontes, Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocana all won in Luchon before winning the Tour. Yet there were exceptions. In 1983, thanks to his exceptional performance in the Pyrenees, Frenchman Pascal Simon was convinced he had seen the worst. “I’ve made a big step towards final victory,” he said in Luchon. Famous last words… The next day, the 1982 Tour de l’Avenir winner crashed near Lannemezan. His collarbone broken, Simon spent five days in hell, the yellow jersey on his back. It hurt so much that the Frenchman suffered intense pain when putting the leader’s jersey on while his team-mate Frederic Brun was in charge of feeding him during stages. Pascal Simon went as far as he could but was forced to call it quits in the stage leading to L’Alpe d’Huez. He never had a second chance. His 7th place in1984 was his best in 11 participations. Since the first Tour stay in the Pyrenees in 1910, Luchon has been on the road-book 50 times, serving as a base-camp before tackling the Peyresourde pass on one hand or the Portillon on the other. The last stage winner here was Italian Rodolfo Massi in 1998. For the last quarter of a century, Luchon has mostly held stage starts – five times out of six since 1986. This stage is the 7th Luchon – Pau since WW2 and the classic course has seen victories by Jean Robic, Federico Bahamontes or Bernard Hinault.
|Roman period||A legionnaire from the Pompey army discovered the virtues of Luchon’s water. In 25 BC, Emperor Tiberius Claudius developed the baths, which were deemed the best in the world after Naples.|
|Middles Ages||A border town, remote from the world’s quarrels, Luchon lived on a local form of Christianity that never ruled out good food or womanising.|
|1200||Knights Templar established a house in Luchon to host pilgrims on this alternative St James Way.|
|1759||The intendent of Gascony, Baron Antoine Megret d’Etigny reorganised Luchon and developed the spa.|
|1763||The Duke of Richelieu came to Luchon to take waters. He returned a year after with most of the Royal Court. The Luchon Thermal Baths were on their way to success.|
|1854||Empress Eugenie launched the trend for hydrotherapy. The jet set of the time rushed to Luchon.|
|1880||Building of the casino.|
|1911||The Super-Bagneres ski resort is created.|
Luchon’s main avenue is exceptional by its long line of remarkable buildings reflecting diverse inspirations: 18th century neo-classicism, neo-gothic, Victorian style, Swiss or Russian chalets, Art-Deco houses can all be found here side by side. The huge Vaporarium, typical of the 1960s, is among the most surprising features of the alleys.
Prefecture : Toulouse
Population : 1,203,000
WebSite : www.haute-garonne.fr
With Toulouse as its prefecture, the Haute-Garonne department is by far the biggest in the Midi-Pyrenees region with 1.2 million inhabitants. The Garonne rivers runs through it over 200 kilometres. Urban in Toulouse, authentic in the surrounding countryside, it is also a mountainous department with four ski resorts (Luchon-Superbagneres, Peyragudes, le Mourtis and Bourg d’Oueil) and high summits at the Spanish border. This explains why tourism is such an important activity, employing more than 10,000 people. Foie gras, magret and of course cassoulet, with its Toulouse sausage, are the best known local specialities. The air and space industry is the department’s main employer.
Prefecture : Tarbes
Population : 235,000
WebSite : www.cg65.fr/
Hautes Pyrenees has a population of 220,000, split between the three distinct sectors which form the department, mountains, valleys and plains. In the south, the Pyrenees is a natural barrier marking the Spanish border – 35 peaks reach 3,000 metres or more. Tourism is the main activity, especially thanks to Lourdes, the world’s second pilgrimage centre, and the Gavarnie Circus, a World Heritage site. Another important site is the Pic du Midi, which can be reached by a lift leading to the 600 m2 panoramic terraces revealing a breathtaking view on the summits. Ski resorts are plenty – 12 in all including Luz-Ardiden, Hautacam and St Lary, familiar to Tour aficionados. Hydrotherapy is also a tradition in Argeles-Gazost, Bareges-Barzun or Beaucens. An ideal Pyrenean meal always starts with a garbure, a soup made of beans, ham bone, bits of duck and goose confit, cabbage, carrots, turnip, onion and garlic
A turning point in the St James Way, Arreau was an important drapery centre until the French Revolution. The 12th century Notre Dame church was used for the defence of the village and even included a fencing room. The St Exupere chapel, with elements from the 11th to 16th century, was named after a 4th century Arreau-born farmer, who became Toulouse bishop and died in 418. His sanctuary was first built on the spot where the chapel now stands. The Nestes Castle (15th to 18th century) is a summary of 10 centuries of history in the Aure valley. Used to protect the nearby St Exupere sanctuary, it was restored in 1989 and its museum holds an intriguing exhibition on the “cagots”, the French equivalent of the untouchables in the Middle Ages.
Halfway up the Tourmalet pass, La Mongie is a hotspot for cycling and alpine skiing alike. Frequently crossed by the Tour, the resort also held alpine skiing World Cup races in 1985. At the foot of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, La Mongie forms with Bareges the most important skiing domain in the French Pyrenees with 69 pistes and 42 lifts.
The village was named after monks who lived there in the Middle Ages. In the beginning of the 20th century, when the Tour rode through here for the first time, only a few shepherd houses existed. Skiing made a discreet start in 1920 but really took off in 1945 when the first lift was installed thanks to Pierre Lamy de la Chapelle, the resort founder. The domain is spread from 1,400 metres to 2,500 metres with La Mongie on the East side and Bareges on the West side. The link between the two resorts became effective in 1973.
La Mongie held three Tour stages and crowned three great winners: Bernard Thevenet (1970), Lance Armstrong (2002) and Ivan Basso (2004).
With 75 climbs, the Tourmalet is the most frequently visited pass on the Tour de France but it is also, at 1,115 metres high, one of the race summits with the 4th highest stage finish in 1974 (victory by Jean-Pierre Danguillaume). Well known by shepherds, pilgrims or merchants, the pass means “bad detour” and it earned a bit of fame in 1675 when King Louis XIV’s mistress Madame de Maintenon went up it in a Sedan chair. The road between Luz and Bareges being flooded, the marquise and the Duke of Maine, the king’s son, were forced to travel across the mountain. Madame de Maintenon was the one who called the spa town where she spent the summer Bareges as it was called Bourg des Bains at the time. The road was widened under Napoleon III and became the Thermal Road in 1864. The Tour de France finally made the Tourmalet’s reputation. Climbed for the first time in 1910, it crowned Octave Lapize and then all the legends of the sport. From Ste Marie de Campan, the climb is 16.3-kms long with a percentage of 7.2 pc. At the top, a plaque pays homage to former Tour director Jacques Goddet. It was joined in 2010 by a plaque to honour Octave Lapize.
Writer, producer, journalist and Tour lover Jacques Chancel owns the 18th century Miramont castle overlooking the village. On the hill also stands the Notre Dame de Pietat chapel, mentioned for the first time in 1493. It was widely restored in the 18th century.
The capital of Lavedan, at the confluence of the Pau and Azun gaves (rivers) is a lovely little town with steep and narrow roads. First called Ourout, it then became Argeles and added Gazost to its name to outpoint the presence on its soil of thermal waters. Argeles is a climatic and thermal centre recommended for ear, nose and throat affections and phlebitis.
The town gave birth to a number of celebrities. Rene Billieres was a former Education and sports minister while Clement Dupont was only the second French rugby union international to beat all four British nations before WW2.
It was also the start of a Tour de France stage in 1996: the stage winner in Pamplona was Laurent Dufaux.
Prefecture : Pau
Population : 643,000
WebSite : www.cg64.fr/
Between the Gascony Gulf and the Pyrenees, Pyrenees Atlantiques is the 10th biggest department in France. In the south, the Pyrenees stand as high as the eye can see while the North is covered in valleys. Pyrenean rivers – the “gaves” – shape narrow valleys through the mountains which widen into large plains. The Bearn province was extremely wealthy up to the Revolution and declined in the 19th century. The discovery of natural gas in Lacq created a new petrochemical industry while thermal waters and good wines have been known for a very long time.
The town waters owe their reputation to several Bearn knights who were cured from arquebus wounds received at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 when they were treated in Eaux-Bonnes. Works by Theophile de Bordeau in the 18th century developed the site, which became the favourite thermal town of empress Eugenie in the mid-19the century. The town’s casino was installed in 1873 in a beautiful old castle.
Bielle is the capital of the Ossau valley, which goes from the Spanish border to Pau over 35 km. A land of pastures and tradition, the valley is known for its gave (river) and its Laruns cheese. With time, thermal towns and ski resorts like Artouste-Fabreges and Gourette have attracted tourists to the area.
On the lands of the villages of Bielle, Aste-Beon, Bilheres and Castet was created in 1974 a natural reserve for the preservation of Griffon vultures. Two spots covering nearly 200 acres on a cliff at 1,000 metres are reserved for the reproduction of the birds, who need plenty of food and calm.
The 400th anniversary of Henri IV’s assassination has been the theme of a night show held in the castle every Saturday since the beginning of the year. The castle is floodlit for the occasion. From March to June, an exhibition was held in the castle’s national museum while a concert “Ball at the Henri IV court”, was given in July. In August, an equestrian show is organised in the castle’s park.
Henri IV was murdered on May 14, 1610 by fanatic monk Ravaillac, as he was blocked in his carriage in rue de la Ferronnerie in Paris, in the Les Halles quarter. Ravaillac stepped on the footboard and stabbed the King to death. With the death of Henri IV, France lost a monarch who managed to be loved by all in spite of his Huguenot origins. His conversion in 1593 – “Paris is well worth a mass”, he said – and the Edict of Nantes, by which he gave back their rights and possessions to the Protestants, earned him the nickname of “good King Henri”. As for Ravaillac, he was violently and publicly tortured on the Place de Greve in Paris and his remains were dispersed. It was never clear who had ordered the killing.
Pau is proud of its past as a pioneering town for aviation. It was first a haven for aerostation thanks to the presence in town of James Gordon Bennett or Gaston and Albert Tissandier. In January 1909, Pau welcomed the famous Wright brothers, who inaugurated the first flying school in history. Soon, Louis Bleriot and air companies Voisin, Antoinette, Deperdussin, Morane Saulnier and Nieuport, followed. In 1912, the French army chose Pau as its base to form its future pilots. Pau’s air base trained more than 6,000 pilots, including celebrities like Guynemer, Roland Garros or Vedrines as well as the American volunteers of the La Fayette squadron. Pau’s aircraft history is now displayed in an exhibition in the Palais Beaumont. The Adour area remains an important centre for aircraft industry and several world-leading companies are based around Pau: Daher-Socata for turbine mono-engined aircraft, Dassault-Aviation for business jets, Messier-Dowty for undercarriages, and Turbomeca for helicopter turbines. These companies keep Pau up and flying
Pau welcomed the Tour de France 62 times, which makes it the race’s third favourite halt after Paris and Bordeaux. The winners list in town reads like a cycling Who’s Who. Since Alfredo Binda, who opened the ball in 1930, Robic, Coppi, Bahamontes, Gimondi, Hinault, Kelly, Delgado, Chiappucci or Pereiro raised their arms on the finish line. Binda’s inaugural victory deserves to be looked into as it was only one of two by the most gifted rider of the time, who won the next day in Luchon. Binda, who had thought about becoming French when he turned professional, took part in this 1930 Tour only, shunning the race for the rest of his career. An extremely powerful athlete, he was the first ever rider to stay on the saddle in the hardest climbs. Rene Vietto used to describe him this way: “You could put a glass of water on his head and he would climb the Tourmalet without losing a drop”. Three times world champion, winner of 41 Giro stages, Binda finally won the Tour four times… as Italy’s team director. His compatriots have since emulated Binda in Pau to the point that the last three winners here were Italians. Pau is also the town which saw the first stage victory by a Soviet rider when Dmitry Konyshev won in 1990. A number of active riders were born in Pau like Stpehane Auge, Mathieu Ladagnous or Herve Duclos-Lassalle.
|XIth century||Building of a castle to control the Gave (river) halfway between Lescar, the bishop see, and Morlaas, fief of the viscounts of Bearn.|
|1188||Gaston VI of Bearn gathered his cour majour in the castle called Pau since the beginning of the century.|
|XIIIth century||Gaston Febus fortifies and enlarges the castle.|
|1464||Pau becomes the fourth capital of Bearn after Lescar, Morlaas and Orthez.|
|1512||Pau becomes the capital of the kings of Navarre.|
|1589||Henri IV is crowned king of France.|
|1796||Pau becomes the prefecture of the Basses Pyrenees department.|
|1830||Pau becomes a favourite holiday destination for the British.|
|1909||Pau becomes one of the capitals of the aircraft industry.|
|1951||Discovery of gas in Lacq, which boosts the town’s economy.|
Built on a rocky ridge overlooking a ford on the Gave, the castle’s foundations date from the early Middle-Ages. But the present aspect of the castle owes much to Gaston Febus, viscount of Bearn in the 14th century. In the next, it became the residence of the viscounts of Bearn, who inherited the kingdom of Navarre. Henri IV was born here in 1553. Restored by King Louis-Philippe, the castle became a museum in 1926. Alongside the royal apartments, it is home to several collections devoted to King Henri and a great number of tapestries, making it the biggest tapestry museum in France outside Paris.