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Geography of the Languedoc:   Mountains:    the Pyrenees ( The Name in Occitan. Click here to find out more about occitan.  Pirenèus,  The Name in Catalan Pirineus,  The Name in French Pyrénées)

The Pyrenees mountains form chain across south-western Europe.  

This chain stretches from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic Ocean.  It forms a natural barrier between the Iberian Peninsular and the rest of Europe, providing a convenient border between sovereign states.  The chain also creates a climatic divide. Northern slopes receive abundant rainfall while the southern slopes have a steppe-like climate.

The chain extends in an almost straight line 270 miles (435 km) from the Bay of Biscay on the west to the Mediterranean Sea on the east. Its maximum width is c.80 miles (130 km).  The Pyrenees were formed during the Tertiary period.  Exposed crystalline rock is found in the uplands.  The lower slopes are composed of folded limestone.  Glaciated in the past, the Pyrenees do not host any glaciers now.  The permanent snowline sits at an elevation of around 6,000 ft (1,830 m).

It has provided a place of refuge for centuries - the Basque peoples speaking a non-Indo-European language created a kingdom (Navarre) to the west. To the east the Pyrenees provided a place of refuge to the Cathars in the Middle Ages. The Château of Montségur ( The Name in Occitan. Click here to find out more about occitan. Montsegùr) lies in the foothills on what is now the French side. Much later the same escape routes used by the Cathars were used again, first by Spanish refugees fleeing northward during the Spanish Civil War, then a few years later by allies and members of the maquies escaping southwards.

Notable peaks include The Pico de Aneto, Spain (the highest peak at 11,168 ft/3,404 m), Pic de Vignemale and the Pic du Midi d'Ossau (France) and Monte Perdido (Spain).  The Cantabrian Mountaints are a western extension of the Pyrenees.  The French Pyrenees are steeper than the southern slopes on the Spanish side.  On the French side torrents, called gaves, fall in cascades.  There are also natural amphitheatres or circs (French cirques), notably the famous Cirque de Gavarnie.  The more important rivers (the Garonne, the Aude, and the Adour) run north into France. Spanish rivers rising in the Pyrenees include the Aragón, the Cinca, and the Segre.

The border between France and Spain runs roughly East-west through the Pyrenees, though this was not the case before the Treaty of the Pyrenees.  The present border, unchanged since the 1659 treaty, generally follows the watershed.  The principality of Andorra lies among the peaks, between the two countries.  Six French departments and six Spanish provinces extend into the Pyrenees area.  Important cities include Perpignan, Bayonne, and Orthez in France and Girona, Huesca, Pamplona, and Irún in Spain.

La Chateau des Pyrenees
La Chateau des Pyrenees Art Print
Magritte, Rene


Early humans lived here, as evidenced by the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira and Aurignac.

The Pyrenees are rich in timber and in pastures, and the streams are harnessed by hydroelectric power stations.  Bauxite, talc, and zinc are mined there. A number of roads cross the Pyrenees. Apart from those along the low coastal strips, three of the main ones use tunnels while four thread through high passes, becoming snowbound in winter and spring.  

Brume su les Pyrenees
Brume su les Pyrenees Art Print


Most mountain passes are high and difficult, but that never stopped them being crossed by invading armies and by medieval pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.  Some of these passes, notably The Col de Perthus (used by the Romans) and Roncesvalles (featuring in the Roland legend), are famous.  The chief rail lines connecting Spain and France skirt the Pyrenees along both coasts, though two others cross the Pyrenees.

The Catalan Pyrenees rise to the peaks of Canigou (2785m) and Carlit (2921m). From Canigou, you will get a panoramic view over the mountains and Mediterranean Sea. Spectacular rivers, streams and waterfalls plunge from high peaks. This region is home to brown bears, wolves, long horned sheep, izards and ibex. The mountain range appeals to climbers, skiers, walkers and anyone who enjoys nature. The lower landscape is dotted with picturesque villages, clinging to the sides of gorges beside cascading streams.

Pyrenees Mountains Near the Border of France and Spain, France
Pyrenees Mountains Near the Border of France and Spain, France Photographic Print
Daffey, Mark

Houses generally cluster around Romanesque churches. In winter, 12 mountain resorts offer downhill and cross-country skiing, ski-boarding or monoskiing. You can go snowshoeing or sledging with dogs in the mountain forests. Fast-flowing mountain waters are suitable for kayaking and white water rafting, and there are the natural hot springs, where you can soak in outdoor thermal baths at temperatures near 35 degrees Centigrade.


Formation of Pyrenees

The Pyrenean mountain range was formed between 80 and 20 million years ago as a result of the Iberian landmass (what is now Spain and Portugal) colliding with the much larger Eurasian landmass in the region of what is now southwestern France. This collision occurred as a result of plate tectonic movements - relative movements of the interlocking sections, or plates, of which Earth's outer layer is composed.

Previously, around 150 million ago, the Iberian landmass was a mini-continent on its own, situated roughly to the west of France (rather than to the southwest as it is now) and surrounded by sea. Over the next 50 million years or so, new tectonic plate boundaries formed all around Iberia effectively turning it into a small tectonic plate, which means it could move relative to other plates, such as the Eurasian plate. The new plate boundaries that formed to the west, north and north-east of the Iberian mini-continent were of a type known as seafloor spreading ridges - regions where molten material welling up from Earth's interior is turned into oceanic crust and added to the edges of plates, forcing them apart (the formation of new oceanic crust at these ridges is the driving force for all plate movements).

The seafloor spreading ridge that formed to the west of Iberia was (and still is) part of an extended system of ridges that, for the past 140 million years, has had the effect of gradually widening the North Atlantic, pushing America away from Eurasia. The activity of the spreading ridge that formed to the northeast of Iberia, combined with the activity of the ridges to the north and west, forced Iberia into an anticlockwise rotational motion, with an overall movement to the southeast. At the same time, this motion opened up the Bay of Biscay, while a region of seafloor crust that had previously been situated to the east of Iberia was forced under the Eurasian plate.

Village of Lescun Near Route De Somport with Mountain Peaks in Distance, Midi-Pyrenees, France
Village of Lescun Near Route De Somport with Mountain Peaks in Distance, Midi-Pyrenees, France Photographic Print
Saks, Stephen

Around 75 million years ago, in its slow anticlockwise rotation, the southern extremity of Iberia collided with the African landmass to its south, stopping it moving any further in a southeasterly direction. Instead it was now forced in a northeasterly direction, colliding with the Eurasian landmass. As the two landmasses crumpled up against each other, the Pyrenees were formed. By around 20 million years ago, this process has completed, Iberia had become welded to and become part of the Eurasian plate, and the spreading ridge in the Bay of Biscay had ceased its activity. The present-day appearance of the Pyrenees is the result of erosion of the original mountain chain.


Find an hotel in the Pyrenees


How the Pyrenees got their name

HERAKLES TYPE FARNESE.  'Hercules Resting'. Herakles resting his arm on a pillar draped with his lion-skin cape.  Museum Collection: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France, S26.11. Catalogue Number: Louvre Br 652. Free-standing Hellenistic statuette in Bronze. Height: 0.42 metres. Roman copy or original Greek statuette. Date: Hellenistic or Imperial Roman between C3rd BC & C1st ADBebryx the king of Bébrices lived in the rolling wooded hills and valleys of the area we now call the Ariége; in the most beautiful palace ever built. Protected from intruders by a vast lake it had floors made of the finest polished pink marble, windows made of crystal and endless corridors that led to rooms with huge fire places and sumptuous wall hangings. From the entrance gate, a gigantic staircase lead to a hall lit by burning torches, so big it appeared to have no walls. It was here that Bebryx the Celtic warrior lord sat on a golden throne between two columns of pure white alabaster and ruled over his kingdom.

Bebryx and lived in a time when ancient gods walked amongst the Bébricess, shaping the lives of men and women for their own amusement or revenge. One spring morning a traveler climbed the staircase to the throne room. He was a tall and handsome man dressed as a warrior, man who well knew the consequences of displeasing the Gods. He was the Greek hero Herakles or as we usually call him, Hercules.

The goddess Hera, determined to make trouble for Hercules, had made him lose his mind. In a confused and angry state, he had killed his wife and children. When he recovered from his temporary madness he was shocked by what he had done. He prayed to Apollo for guidance, and the god's oracle told him he would have to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae, for twelve years as punishment for the murders. As part of his sentence, Hercules had to perform twelve Labours - feats so difficult that they seemed impossible.

Hercules had come to ask Bebrex for permission to travel through his kingdom en route to Erythia, an island between the modern countries of Spain and Libya, however at the time of Bebryx, it was considered to be the end of the world. In Erythia Hercules was to accomplish his tenth labor, capturing the cattle of the monster Geryon and taking them back to Eurystheus. Bebrex invited him to rest and recuperate before continuing his quest. Hercules accepted the King's offer and was entertained as an honored guest.

Bebrex had a beautiful daughter called Pyrene. She was courted by all the kings and lords of the surrounding lands. But she had no regard for her suitors and refused to marry any of them, to the rage of her father. Pyrene regarded Hercules with interest from behind her father’s throne. She was drawn to him because of his extraordinary strength and physical beauty. They walked together through the flower filled meadows, and became lovers. After Hercules had left for Erythia, Pyrene discovered that she was pregnant. Consumed by shame and unable to tell her father, she left the palace and ran into the woods where she was attacked by a wild bear. Hercules heard her screams echoing across the distance between them, and rushed to her aid, but he was too late to save her and she died in his arms.  A distraught Hercules carried her broken body back to her father's palace. The heartbroken Bebryx buried her body in front of his throne in a tomb made of molten rock. The grieving Hercules gathered all the rocks from the plain of Toulouse and piled them up to create a lasting monument to his beloved Pyrene so that the people of the region would never forget her name. That monument is the snow-capped mountain range that we know as the Pyrenees.


Highest summits

  • Monte PerdidoAneto (3,404 m)
  • Posets (3,375 m)
  • Monte Perdido (3,355 m)
  • Pic Maudit (3,350 m)
  • Cilindro de Marboré (3,328 m)
  • Pic de la Maladeta (3,308 m)
  • Vignemale (Pique Longue) (3,298 m)
  • Clot de la Hount (3,289 m)
  • Soum de Ramond (3,263 m)
  • Pic du Marboré (3,248 m)
  • Pic de Cerbillona (3,247 m)
  • Pic de Perdiguère (3,222 m)
  • Pic de Montferrat (3,220 m)
  • Pic Long (3,192 m)
  • Pic Schrader (Grand Batchimale) (3,177 m)
  • Pic de Campbieil (3,173 m)
  • Pic de la cascade orientale (3,161 m)
  • Pic Badet (3,160 m)
  • Pic du Balaïtous (3,144 m)
  • Pic du Taillon (3,144 m)
  • Pica d'Estats (3,143 m)
  • Punta del Sabre (3,136 m)
  • Pic de la Munia (3,134 m)
  • Pointe de Literole (3,132 m)
  • Pic des Gourgs Blancs (3,129 m)
  • Pic de Royo (3,121 m)
  • Pic des Crabioules (3,116 m)
  • Pic de Maupas (3,109 m)
  • Pic Lézat (3,107 m)
  • Pic de la cascade occidental (3,095 m)
  • Pic de Néouvielle (3,091 m)
  • Pic de Troumouse (3,085 m)
  • Pics d'Enfer (3,082 m)
  • Pic de Montcalm (3,077 m)
  • Grand pic d' Astazou (3,077 m)
  • Épaule du Marboré (3,073 m)
  • Pic du port de Sullo (3,072 m)
  • Pic des Spijeoles (3,066 m)
  • Pic de Quayrat (3,060 m)
  • Pic des Trois Conseillers (3,039 m)
  • Turon de Néouvielle (3,035 m)
  • Pic de Batoua (3,034 m)
  • Petit Vignemale (3,032 m)
  • Pic de Besiberri Sud (3,017 m)
  • Pic Ramougn (3,011 m)
  • Tour du Marboré (3,009 m)
  • Casque du Marboré (3,006 m)
  • Grande Fache (3,005 m)


Notable Summits below 3,000 meters

  • Pic du Midi d'OssauPic de Palas (2,974 m)
  • Pic de Comapedrosa (2,942 m) - highest point of Andorra
  • Pic Carlit (2,921 m)
  • Puigmal (2,913 m)
  • Collarada (2,886 m)
  • Pic du Midi d'Ossau (2,885 m)
  • Pic du Midi de Bigorre (2,876 m)
  • Mont Valier (2,838 m)
  • Petit Pic du Midi d'Ossau (2,812 m)
  • Pic du Canigou (2,786 m)
  • Pic d'Anie (2,504 m)
  • Pic de Madrès (2,469 m)
  • Grande Aiguille d'Ansabère (2,376 m)
  • Pic du Soularac (2,368 m)
  • Pic du Saint Barthélémy (2,348 m)
  • Pic des Trois Seigneurs (2,199 m)
  • Pic d'Orhy (2,017 m)
  • Pic de Pedraforca (2,498 m)
  • La Rhune (905 m)


Ski Resorts in the Pyrenees

  • Formigal, one of the major ski resorts Alp 2500 Arette
  • Astún
  • Artouste
  • Ax-les-Thermes
  • Baqueira-Beret
  • Bareges-La Mongie (Tourmalet)
  • Luz Ardiden
  • Bourg-d'Oueil
  • Cauterets
  • Candanchú
  • Cerler
  • Espot Esquí
  • Font-Romeu
  • Formigal
  • Gourette
  • Guzet-neige
  • Hautacam
  • La Pierre Saint Martin
  • Le Mourtis
  • Les Angles
  • Luchon-Superbagnères
  • Luz-Ardiden
  • Nistos cap nestes
  • Panticosa-Los Lagos
  • Pas de la Casa
  • Peyragudes
  • Piau-Engaly
  • Port-Ainé
  • Somport
  • Superbagnères
  • Tavascan
  • Vall de Núria
  • Vallnord
  • Vallter 2000

For more about the Pyrenees visit this site

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Languedoc Mountains: The Pyrenees