An easy amble into the heart of the Pyrenees: the Cirque de la Plagne

I've lost count of the number of people who come and stay with us who think that walking (and driving!) in the mountains would be just too scary. To those - and to you, if you're one of them - we recommend this walk. It's short, it's ridiculously easy, it's nobbut a gentle climb ... but as the photos will show, you'll feel as though you're right in the heart of the high Pyrenees. And actually, you are, although you've done very little work to get there.

Here, you're in the Biros valley, these days one of the least-known and least-peopled in the Ariège - though it was once a hive of activity, with iron, lead, silver and zinc mines . You'll start the walk literally at the end of the road, butted up almost against the Spanish border and below the peak of Maubermé, higher than Mont Valier though not so well known. If you were a crow and could fly right over the mountain tops, you'd be in the Aran valley in Spain in just a few minutes (we sometimes drive there for the day: it takes us an hour and a half!).

Drive to the end of the tarmac road then continue on to Bocard d'Eylie, where you'll leave your car. There's nothing here now but a gîte d'étape, the Lez river, and some disused buildings that once housed 30 to 40 women, whose job it was to wash and process the minerals coming down from the mine workings. There were two high altitude mines where nearly 700 miners lived and worked: the highest, at 2750 metres altitude, was nicknamed Macchu Picchu! The mines were exploited for 100 years, between 1850 and 1950, and in this peaceful, remote spot it's almost impossible to imagine what life must have been like here back then.

To start the walk, cross the bridge over the river then follow the piste to the Port d'Urets (marked).


This is such a simple walk that unless you're going to continue up into the hills (see below) you don't even need a map; you just need to remember that when the Port d'Urets path veers off and up to the left, you don't take it! Instead, you carry straight on; you'll cross a cattle grid and a short while after that the Cirque de la Plagne will open up before you.




A cirque is a natural amphitheatre at a valley head, formed over millenia by erosion of the rock from the waterfalls that fall from the mountain tops to the valley floor. There are four waterfalls here, active all year, though at their powerful best in spring when the snows are melting.


Once you've reached the beginning of the meadows at the foot of the cirque, the piste turns away from you to the right and climbs up into the hills. It's quite possible to follow this for another couple of hours, but to stay with the basic walk and in the environs of the cirque, just meander around the grassland or settle down by the water with a picnic. You can amble as far as a little stone hut, close to the bowl of the cirque.


The small stream that flows here is actually the river Lez, one of the two large rivers that join in St Girons.


This is one of the best places to come to see vultures. If you're extremely lucky, you may see a bearded vulture, also known as lammergeier - the largest and one of the rarest mountain birds, highly protected; we didn't, on this day (though we have, before) but we did see over a hundred griffon vultures wheeling over the craggy rocks. It's an extraordinary sight - the photo below doesn't begin to do it justice. A little patience is needed - settle down, watch, wait, and a vulture-fest is almost guaranteed.


On the way back (same as the way out), lots of interesting flowers to notice - and some extraordinary coloured rocks, caught by the evening sun.




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