Pyrenees History

History of the Pyrenees

Please note this section is not finished and is a work in progress…


How do you write a brief the history of a mountain range that stretches approximately 450km from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean? A range that has been so much to so many?

For some, like the 13th century Cathars who dared to set up a Christian religion outside of Catholicism, it was a temporary safe haven. For others, like the World War Two servicemen who crossed it to reach the relative safety of neutral Spain, it was a very real barrier to overcome. Spaniards during Franco’s rule regarded it as a metaphor for their isolation: “Europe ends at the Pyrenees”. For monarchs, rulers and politicians throughout the ages it was a natural solid wall, cutting across their carefully laid plans for empires and dominance. During World War 2 and the Spanish civil war it was a wall to hide behind or escape over through treacherous little known passes. For palaeontologists it has been the place of some of the most exciting pre-historic discoveries in Europe.

For many it has simply been home. It is a mountain range which encompasses languages such as French, Spanish, Basque, Occitan, Aragonese and Catalan. Each valley has its own patois; impenetrable to strangers (and strangers can be from the next village down).

So, where to begin with the history of such a diverse, complex, intriguing area? We begin where all history begins. With a creation myth.

Pyrene the Pyrenean Fairy

In classical mythologyPyrene is a princess who gave her name to the Pyrenees. The Greek historian Herodotus says Pyrene is the name of a town in Celtic Europe.[3] According to Silius Italicus,[4] she was the virginal daughter of Bebryx, a king in Mediterranean Gaul by whom the hero Hercules was given hospitality during his quest to steal the cattle of Geryon[5] during his famous Labors. Hercules, characteristically drunk and lustful, violates the sacred code of hospitality and rapes his host’s daughter. Pyrene gives birth to a serpent and runs away to the woods, afraid that her father will be angry. Alone, she pours out her story to the trees, attracting the attention instead of wild beasts who tear her to pieces.

After his victory over Geryon, Hercules passes through the kingdom of Bebryx again, finding the girl’s lacerated remains. As is often the case in stories of this hero, the sober Hercules responds with heartbroken grief and remorse at the actions of his darker self, and lays Pyrene to rest tenderly, demanding that the surrounding geography join in mourning and preserve her name:[6] “struck by Herculean voice, the mountaintops shudder at the ridges; he kept crying out with a sorrowful noise ‘Pyrene!’ and all the rock-cliffs and wild-beast haunts echo back ‘Pyrene!’ … The mountains hold on to the wept-over name through the ages.” Pliny the Elder connects the story of Hercules and Pyrene to Lusitania, but rejects it as fabulosa, highly fictional.[7]

Chemins de Liberte – Escape routes and the Resistance during World War Two

There were many routes to freedom, or for many, back to the fight, that passed through out local area of the Pays Toy in the Hautes Pyrenees. Much of our personal information has been collected by word of mouth – mainly from the direct descendants of the local people who were involved in the resistance movement here. We have compiled in this following section a collection of very good French sites which have in depth information on the history and routes used and provided an English summary to help you out if your French is a little rusty.
This webpage is particularly interesting, the commemorative plaques of the local area – on the wall beside the road at the turn to Troumouse, on the Pont Napoleon at St. Sauveur and at the Mairie in Luz (images 2, 3 and 4).
The first plaque translates: “In the course of the 20 years preceding the liberation of the South of France, thousands of patriots, risking their lives, voluntarily left the occupied country. Via Spain they rejoined the French Free Forces of General de Gaulle. When they were not themselves amongst them, the residents of the Pays Toy (valley of Luz, Bareges and Gavarnie) offered their guiding on the difficult and dangerous pathways of the mountains. Thus George Adagas of Gavarnie, Edouard and Marc Culouscou, Abel Nogue of Gedre guided 20 young Parisiens to the Port de Pinede at the Spanish frontier in July 1943, usually in the middle of the night and at risk of meeting the German patrols, preferring freedom and the Honour of France to servitude in Germany. Guided by Gerard de Clarens, Remy and Denis Lohse, Jacques Carlier, friends and long-standing Pyreneistes, the first 332 Resistance, Allied Airmen and other Military of the network Sarrasin-Andalousie based in Spain, traversed the Pyrenees. This network, born in our valley, founded and directed by Gerard de Clarens, regrouped the majority of the resistance of the Pays Toy and became after the liberation “Commandement Militaire de la Frontiere, Secteur Pyrenees Centrales”. Remembering and recognising, this plaque bears witness to the engagement of the Pyrenean Mountaineers in service of France“.
The second plaque at the Pont Napoleon translate “To the Escapees of France from the Canton of Luz. In 1943, refusing slavery, they chose the perilous adventure of the Passage of the Pyrenees to rejoin the armies of freedom“.
The third plaque at the Mairie of Luz  shows a list of names of escapees and the local resistance guides. We recognise many of the family names, whose descendants are still living in the area. The inscription describes how on 11/11 1994 a flag was offered to the escapees by the mayor, Mr Jean Paul Abadie. Two commemorative plaques were placed, one at the Pont Napoleon and the other in Barbastro, Spain at the “Las Capuchinas” prison.
The text on the commemorative plaques website explains how Francois Pujo, local historian and writer, offers much information on the different escape routes. “I will give you the itinerary taken by the evadees towards Spain between 1942 and 1944 in the valley of Luz St Sauvuer. The sources are from two books “Montagnes de le Peur et l’Esperance” by Emilienne Eychenne (“Mountains of fear and of hope”) and “Histoire extraordinaire de la resistance Francaise” by Dominique Lormier (“The Extraordinary history of the French Resistance”), and by direct witness of the children of the guides of the valley of Luz. NOTE: we cannot say exactly where they passed – the routes were adapted as a function of the German Patrols. The escapees sometimes took just the last stages of the route, if they had the chance to be transported to Luz, Bareges or Gavarnie”
“First Route: meet at Boo Silhen, then Viscos, Sazos, Agnouede, Sia, Trimbareille. From there two choices – Cestrede, Aspe then Ossoue (on the side of Soum Blanc) and finally the Lac de Bernatoire to Spain. Henri Martin, escapee, was killed on the “Prat Coummunau”. They also passed by Gedre, Saugue, Gavarnie and Boucharo. Or by Saugue, Coumely, Estaube and the Port de Pinede or Port de la Canau”
“Another Route: Lourdes, Hautacam, Lac Bleu, Bareges, Camp Rollot (Lienz), La Glere then Refuge Packe, Hourquette de Bugaret, around the Pic Long, descent into Campbielh then Camp Long (above Heas). From there, several choices depending on the Germans – Hourquette de Charmentas then Baroude into Spain, or the ridges of the Cirque de Troumouse, Munia – accompanied into Spain with the guides returning via the Port de la Canau. Or otherwise a direct traverse of the Cirque de Troumouse and the Port de la Canau. All were generally completed at night with sometimes (usually via Gavarnie – an easier route) women and children. Some escapees spoke of 8 days spent in the mountains”
“My mother remembers one escapee who left in the night, dressed in her father’s trousers that he wore as a cattle drover. Take note of the extreme difficulty that these escapees, after having already taken part in the war, would have faced in the night in these unknown places”. 
“Michel Bourdis (a French Escapee), amongst others, came in the 1980s to thank the Guides of Gedre (Jean and Laurent SABATUT).”
The Camp Rollot on the Lienz plateau above Bareges is mentioned in several different sources: and
Translation: “This camp was established by Father Dieuzayde (originally as a Scout Camp), who recognised very early the threat of the Nazis. During the war, profiting from his extensive knowledge of the area, and the minimal control exercised by the Germans at Bareges, situated 30km from the Spanish border, while the passages at Gavarnie and Cauterets were more tightly surveilled, he made his Scout camp at Lienz a starting point for the passage of Jews, Resistance or Airmen to Spain. It was two days of walking, most often at night, via the Refuge Packe, Hourquette de Cap de Long and finally the Port de Barroude to Spain. The camp received the “Croix de Guerre” witnessing a dozen names, French and English, inscribed on a rock at the Camp – of those who lost their lives in these acts of resistance“.
The camp and escape routes from Bareges were run under the MI6 JADE AMICOL code name
More on the Jade Amicol group
At Bareges after the war, in a complete role reversal, German prisoners of war and Collaborators built the hydro electric network of the valley.

New sections to come:

  • Ancient history of the valley: Cro-Magnon man through to the British occupation in the 13 century (including the Romans and Moors in between!)
  • The Thermal history, from Louis 14 and later Napoleon to cures for Fibromyalgia.
  • The Skiing history. The winter Olympics and World cup races in Bareges the second oldest ski resort in France through to the current world champions from the valley.

Or if you can’t wait come, on one of our guided holidays and just ask Rob or Emma!