In a quiet glacial canyon in Les Pyrénées Parc National the tallest waterfall in Europe pounds onto the jumble of rocks at the base of Cirque de Gavarnie.
The Cirque de Gavarnie retains a few remnants of the glaciers that carved the sheer wall. The cirque wall is up to 1,500 meters (~4,900 feet) in height and 3,000 meters (almost two miles) wide. The small glaciers hang in the ledges high above the canyon floor and their melt water feeds the waterfall which is called la Grande Cascade. You can just see the top of the Cascade (white vertical line in the sun) in the distance in this photograph. This view only shows a small part of the eastern edge of the cirque. The stream is called Gave de Gavarnie.
When you are anywhere in the canyon the only things that you hear are the constant crashing of the water on the rocks and sheep bells. For generations sheep have grazed these high mountain pastures and they remain an integral part of the national park.
The small village of Gavarnie is a popular tourist destination and is a great base for mountain hiking. It is not too crowded in September and sometimes the weather can still be great. The close-cropped grasses make great picnicking grounds on the ridges on the sides of the canyon.
The Pyrénées are a rugged part of the Tour de France. These are some of the most difficult high mountain stages of the race. This year the tour starts on July 3 in Rotterdam. After punishing climbs in the Alps the riders will enter the Pyrénées late in the race at stage 14 on July 18. You can be sure that riders are scouting the stages now during June, since the stages change each year through an elaborate selection process.
One of the marquis climbs is the legendary Col du Tourmalet. It is in the heart of the Pyrénées and is near Gavarnie. If you were standing at this point looking at the stream you would just turn around and follow it down the valley to Gavarnie and then drive down through Gedre and turn east at Luz-Saint-Sauveur to reach Le Tourmalet in about a half hour. The roads are very narrow and windy, but it is only 30 km (~18 miles) to the base of the famous climb up Tourmalet. In a perverted twist this year the riders will climb Tourmalet TWICE!
The Tour is one of the toughest and most beautiful sporting events there is. As you watch the race this year and you see the masses of fans along the ridiculously steep road near the summit of Tourmalet, the fat guys with capes and pitchforks, the crazy wigs and costumes, the Elvis impersonators, the club fans, the Breton flags flying proudly, the crush of team cars and motorcycles, the words of encouragement painted on the road, during that brief time as the riders reach the summit and then fly down and away, stop and think about the quiet and remote valleys nearby.
Think of Gavarnie and all the other glacial basins at the top of the Pyrénées. And just over the top of that mountain is Spain. It is a beautiful part of Europe and one of the highlights of the Tour de France.
You can find out more about the Tour at: http://www.letour.fr/us/homepage_horscourseTDF.html
And you can see more photos of France in my galleries by following the Photography link above.