Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Family vacations can be a breeze when someone else does the cooking, right? If your idea of bliss includes high mountains and remote glacial lakes, marmots in the hills and eagles overhead, car-free and wild nature, then you’ll love this. Imagine the following, with your kids in tow: no food or tent to carry; no meals to prep; great friendly company; gentle prices that don’t break the bank; and star-studded evening skies. Welcome to the world of high mountain refuges in the Pyrenees!
In this mountain range that separates France from Spain, you can hike to iconic mountains with your family and sleep on real mattresses after a home-cooked dinner with locally-sourced ingredients. From there, you’re at the trailhead of famous destinations like the Breche de Roland, the Pic Aneto, the Maladeta or the Monte Perdido. Most of the Pyrenees mountains are protected as national parks and/or UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If you love mountains and cherish your back, refuges are a rare opportunity to get a taste of French summer with striking scenery all around.
This is the type of view you get. Not bad, huh?
Not bad but you’ll have to earn it. Access to these glamping hotspots requires hiking on mountain trails, from an hour to several hours, from easy to challenging conditions. However once you lay down your backpack, you can revel in the fact that the hard part is done. Now comes your deeply unconnected vacation. A refuge means a shelter, and shelter you it will. Think sturdy wood beams and solid rock walls to withstand grand mountain weather. Cozy dining rooms. Large dorms or intimate dorms. Some refuges even offer summer entertainment such as live music, local storytelling, astronomy, or wildlife evenings!
In the Pyrenees, glamping has been a thing for more than a century. Victorians called it “Pyrenean tourism” and the first refuges were designed in the 1900s for hardy mountaineering types looking to break long expeditions. Nowadays, these guys still make a hefty portion of your table mates, but a more relaxed clientele has also emerged–families, couples, anybody looking to get away from it all and reconnect with the thrills of high mountains. I definitely belong in the second group, as our group usually includes 3 generations of my family–my father (75), my husband, myself and my two girls (10 and 11).
Since 2012, we’ve paired an adventure with each refuge. The first year, we did the Pic du Canigou and the Pic Carlit. The following year, we hit the iconic Breche de Roland to visit the last ice caves of the Pyrenees. Last year, we hit the Spanish side and the Posets natural park. This year, we’re testing a high mountain live music evening above a sea of clouds. Can’t tell you how excited I am, as the refuge is minutes away from a lake and I’ll be able to swim every day. Hurray for the crystal-clear post-hike swim!
Enough of the blabber. Here’s how you too can reach Pyrenees nirvana and earn your local cheese and wine.
Where are the refuges?
There are 775 huts and shelters in the Pyrenees, many of them on or near the GR10.
If you know exactly where you are going, the no-thrills table updated regularly by the AGREPY (association of Pyrenean refuge guardians) gives you all the details you need. You can find it here.
The other website that I use is Pyrenees Refuges et Cabanes (in French). It is a gold mine of raw data and features a great interactive map of the Pyrenees, showing lodging options by geographical areas. It’s nice to be able to navigate and find your adventures by referring to local summits or highlights.
Simply select a region and the map will zoom in, showing with blue spot marks the lodging options and where they are on the map. A little house icon indicates a refuge, most likely with B&B options if it is “guarded.” Nondescript blue marks refer to cabanes (in the UK, these would be bothies), simple shelters used by shepherds in the mountain but open to all.
Click on the blue marks and a new window will open with basic facts about the refuge or cabane: elevation, guardian, number of beds, opening season, website, suggested hikes. Keep scrolling down and you’ll find useful links with topo map numbers and websites. There’s even one or more thumbnail pictures of the refuge.
Unfortunately, that website doesn’t exist in English but it’s a good start. Each refuge’s website (site internet) will have a lot more details, including contact numbers and email to book your spots.
A FEW EXAMPLES
Some refuge websites are worthy of Outside Magazine, such as the Refuge de Venasque, which includes access, rates, itineraries, photos, useful links and contacts.
Most refuges are pretty big on sourcing all their cooking ingredients locally and work hand in hand with shepherds (for cheese), mills and wood ovens (for bread), wineries (for wine), or farmers (for produce). The Refuge de l’Etang d’Airaing has a dedicated “Producers” tab that shows how much they value local quality ingredients.
The Refuge Les Estagnous hosts a music and storytelling summer festival with refuge dances, mountain music and local characters who will show you how far removed from your routine you are. This is the French outback, folks! The festival is very popular so make sure you book far in advance.
These are but a few examples of what new generations of guardians are doing to keep the wonderful tradition of refuges alive and reach wider audiences. If pure mountaineering is not your thing, perhaps mountain + refuge dancing will be?
How to book?
On the French side, you need to call individually each refuge’s guardian. Using the above information, you should be able to find a phone number or email address.
Tell them your dates, the number of people (age of children if you’re bringing the kids – discounted rates), and whether you’ll stay for dinner (yes!). Usually, that’s all that’s needed. The refuges still rely on the old-fashioned trust system. They expect you to show up on the day of your booking and will prepare food in the kitchen accordingly. Your name will be on the tables and you’ll have designated beds in the rooms. It’s like staying with an extended family you’ve ever met. If you change your plans, please let them know. These are not hotels.
Payment. With non-French visitors, some guardians don’t even ask for a deposit because you may not be able to mail cheques. When you’re there, they’ll open a tab for you at the reception and you settle in cash when you check out.
Some Spanish regions are far better organized and syndicate bookings for their geographical region. The websites are available in Spanish, with some other language options as you navigate.
We’ve tried three refugios in the Posets Natural Park (Aragon) last year. Booking through the central website was a breeze, but I still called each refuge to check a few facts. On the spot, they were every bit as charming and cozy as the French refuges we’d tried so far. A bit nicer, in some respects. Nice beds, hot showers in all three (a true luxury), small dorms (we even had our private dorm with ensuite shower at the Refugio Angel Orus) and helpful guardians. My father needed new hiking boots on our 3rd day and the guardian hooked us up with a local taxi to find boots at the convenience store in the next village. Very cool of him and amazingly, the convenience store had 2 boot options!
My only gripe would be the food, as based on my experience, food in French refuges is better than in Spanish refuges. Unfortunately, my experience of the Spanish side is limited, but I’ve heard it from others too. Also, Spanish meals are served slightly later than French meals. With kids, that’s something to consider.
What can you expect?
All set? Now plan! And please, do not hesitate to ask if you have any questions.