Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
Enjoying what you're reading?
Subscribe via Email and never miss anything on Frog Mom!
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 Brèche 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 European summer with striking scenery all around.
Access to these beauty spots 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, refuge culture 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 (born in 1940), my husband, myself and my two girls (14 and 16).
Since 2012, we’ve paired an adventure each year with different parts of the Pyrenees, both on the French and the Spanish side.
As you can see, we can’t get enough of the Pyrenees and here are a few tips so you can discover these mountains too.
There are 775 huts and shelters in the Pyrenees, many of them on or near the GR10 or GR11 long distance hiking trails.
If you know exactly where you are going, the no-thrills table updated regularly by the AGREPY (association of Pyrenean refuge wardens) 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.
Some refuge websites are worthy of Outside Magazine, such as Refuge de Venasque, whose website 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). Refuge de l’Etang d’Airaing has a dedicated “Producers” tab that shows how much they value local quality ingredients.
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?
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. 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 dorms. 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 – food and drinks need to be helicoptered in or brought on donkey back.
Payment. With non-French visitors, some guardians don’t even ask for a deposit because you may not be able to mail cheques but fortunately, online payment makes everything easier. When you’re booked in, refuge hosts open a tab for you at the reception and you settle in cash when you check out. Very few refuges accept online payment at the end of a stay.
Some Spanish regions are far better organized and centralize bookings for their geographical region. These websites are available in Spanish, with some other language options as you navigate.
We stayed at three refugios in the Posets Natural Park (Aragon) a few years back. 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 Refugio Angel Orus) and helpful wardens. My father needed new hiking boots on our 3rd day and the warden 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 hiking boot options.
Based on my limited experience, dinners in French refuges has been better than in Spanish refuges but then, only at Spanish refuges have we had vegetarian and vegan options which was a real treat. Dinner is always
Note that quantities are very generous for European standards and you can always ask for seconds of soup or mains in case you’re still hungry.
Spanish breakfasts are definitely better than French breakfasts as they offer savory options (pan con tomato, sometimes cheese or cured meats), something which sits better with some stomachs.
Wine is generally better on the French side but in 2019, we had the worst French wine ever in the Pyrenees National Park so I guess it depends on how wine-savvy refuge wardens are.
Pack-up lunches are equally uninspiring in France and in Spain and sadly result in a lot of plastic trash, which is why we tend to pack our lunches for the whole duration of the trip.
Last but not least, meal time! Spanish meals are served slightly later than French meals (7.30 or 8pm instead of 7pm). With kids, that’s something to consider.
All set? Now plan! And please, do not hesitate to ask if you have any questions.