Over the Pyrenees: Col du Tourmalet
But not on a bicycle!
Some time ago I went on an adult holiday with my mother. I was 25, and we travelled in France to places where I had been on childhood holidays.
Mum wanted to see La Reole and my aged aunt Maggie – related several generations back – thinking that this was the last time we would meet up. Maggie had arrived in La Reole when fleeing northern France during the Nazi invasion in 1940 – and stayed. She worked as a milliner and lived on a little street built over a railway tunnel.
Rue du Tunnel was an Impasse with a simple railing at the end above the exit to the tunnel. Beyond the railing you could see the entrance to the next tunnel about 100m away, and trains would skittle between the two tunnels making a loud arrival and sudden departure.
It was always remarkable how my sisters and I as kids got used to this sound and slept through. There are lots of childhood recollections of this place, and on another time I will revisit and write about this town on the far edge of the Bordeaux wine region. But a later memory for me was the trip Mum and I made down from Maggie’s to the Pyrenees. We travelled over the three Cols, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde to Bangères-de-Luchon.
Now, in 2018, was the time for Sarah, Lola and I to go there in Brian.
The Cols will be well known to cycling fans. Most years these are some of the most fearsome parts of the Tour de France. Like Mont Ventoux in central France, these can be the stages that decide the Tour, certainly the King of the Mountains, and represent a unique challenge to even the best riders.This is a also a big skiing area, with the town of La Mongie being possibly the best known, but there is skiing on both sides of Tourmalet and beyond.
As you start the rise up to the Col du Tourmalet, you drive through a high walled valley with many signs warning of falling rocks and sections of road protected either with nets or open tunnels. The rise is gentle but starts getting more extreme as you go further.
We had decided to stay overnight at a plateau near the ski lifts 600m below the Col. From here we could see the Pic du Midi de Bigorre with the Observatory at its peak. This area is regarded as a ‘dark sky’ and the Perseid meteor shower was in progress when we were there. Sadly it was cloudy when we arrived but clear at 4am when we sat and watched as streaks of light went across the sky beside a great view of the Milky Way.
We were not the only people to have chosen this location to stop but it was not crowded and we were able to eat, drink, and wash at the cafe/restaurant where Christophe served us well and cheaply, and also taught us some basic words of Spanish.
There are a number of wild flowers up the Tourmalet, and they supply a grouping of bee hives in one corner of this plateau. It is good to see both the bee population and the flowers supported in this way.
Whilst I would have liked to drive up to the Pic du Midi, we were firmly told that this was not allowed and that the route was very difficult. Despite Brian’s motto “you can go fast but I can go anywhere” we agreed that we needed to obey that rule.
The next section of the Tourmalet is a steep but steady climb to the Col. You get increasingly interesting views and see the plateau reduced to a miniscule size below. Part way up we saw a herd of cattle sat down on a mound, looking like it was the easiest place to be. We knew there were livestock about because of the bells they wear announcing their movement and location.
Many brave-hearted souls take on the challenge to cycle up and down the Tourmalet. We passed many cyclists in varying degrees of exertion, although no-one was pushing their steed.
Round one corner we stopped to find a shrine established by a cycling club from a town in the Netherlands. Every year they cycle the Col to raise funds and remember people who have died from cancer. Each rider brings with them a small piece of chunky dark grey slate, inscribed with a memory, a name or a message and leaves this stone here. There are also some framed pictures, flowers, and even the odd cycling shoe and glove. It is a very touching sight.
The Col summit is, well, the Summit. You can stop if you fancy and there is of course a monument and information to browse for those interested in the Tour.
Continuing down the mountain, La Mongie is a victim of brutalist ski architecture. Now I may like some brutalism but this is not quality. You could be moving through a modern residential part of many Eastern European cities, and this being summer there was nowhere open to get breakfast.
Alongside this, La Mongie has some of the largest car parks I’ve seen outside an airport. However Lola was fascinated to have her first encounter with Llamas in one parking area.
We travelled on to Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde and thence to Bagnères-de-Luchon, thence to Spain which is a story for another day.