Natural High in the Pyrénées Resort of La Mongie
Explore the Pyrenean resort of La Mongie, in Grand Tourmalet, in all seasons – beautiful ski slopes in the winter, iconic cycling in the summer and breathtaking star-gazing all year.
The Chalet des Pisteurs, a restaurant high up in the Pyrenean resort of La Mongie, in the Grand Tourmalet ski area, is not easy to reach. It’s a skis-off, dig-the-points-of-your-boots-in climb up a steep, snow-covered track between the pines. Once the refuge for the piste rescue team on this section of the mountain, it’s now an altitude restaurant, and a glorious place to stop to replenish your energy supplies after a morning on the slopes.
Huddled against the mountain and with panoramic views that sweep across some of the most spectacular parts of La Mongie, it’s worth every step of the climb. There’s a full menu – think entrecôte or confit de canard, or a hearty veggie option, followed by a blueberry tart – or a choice of simple but tasty desserts, all cooked with local ingredients. Food is an important part of any skiing trip, but even more so when you are skiing en famille. It’s my husband and me, and our three kids – two teens and a tween – and someone is always hungry. Someone usually wants a lie-in, too, but this morning we are all up early, and take the Pourteilh lift from La Mongie, across the silent mountains, then a tiny two-person chair lift, which takes us up – and up and up – to one of the highest points in the resort, Quatre Termes (2,500m).
Grand Tourmalet encompasses the resort where we are staying, La Mongie, which has wide open slopes, and Barèges, where the pistes meander along forest trails among the pines. It’s the largest resort in the French Pyrenees, with a total 100km of pistes, but is still decidedly bijou compared with the big destinations in the French Alps (the largest, Les Trois Vallées, boasts 600km). It’s a little cheaper too – lift passes for six days for a family of four works out at €926, as opposed to €1,152 at Les Trois Vallées. And for families and groups with mixed ability levels, Grand Tourmalet really has all you need. The village is small and relatively modern, with a good selection of bars and restaurants, and the atmosphere is low-key and very friendly.
As for the skiing, there are slopes for all abilities, though options for the biggest thrill-seekers are perhaps more limited – there are four black runs, 15 green, 23 blue and 15 red. The queues for the lifts are rarely long, and there’s enough scope for plenty of variety, but the resort is small enough to return to your favourite spots more than once. Seasoned skiers can head up the aptly-named Panoramic chair lift and take Coume L’Ayse, a gratifyingly challenging black run with incredible views. And at the far eastern end of Barèges is Ricao, a narrow, steep and sinuous black piste that weaves its way through the trees. If you want to test your skills, the Grand Tourmalet snowpark provides a place to ski or board over the bumps and jumps. And for those who are content to watch, there’s a well-placed bar and restaurant.
Eating at altitude
And while we’re back on the crucial topic of food, a short ride away from here is l’Étape du Berger, a large and convivial canteen-style restaurant with a huge log fire. Squatting at the bottom of a great big snow bowl, it offers a pleasing view of the skiers making their way down the mountains all around it. Once you’ve clomped round in ski boots filling your tray with copious portions of hearty, freshly prepared dishes made from local produce, take a seat in the sun or, on less clement days, stay inside and warm yourself by the fire.
On Wednesday and Saturday evenings, the restaurant serves set menu dinners – raclette, côte de boeuf or garbure, a local stew – to the few intrepid diners who make their way to the restaurant after dark. As there are no roads to l’Étape du Berger and the ski lifts are closed at this time of night, the only way up is to take a snowmobile (from €30 per person), or hitch a lift across the pistes on a snow groomer (€25 per person) beneath the stars.
Read More: Top Things to Do and See in the Pyrenees
Stars and slopes
The night skies are particularly impressive in Grand Tourmalet – the area around the resort forms one of a network of International Dark Sky Reserves, locations known for their commitment to keeping the night skies dark through control of light pollution. The constellations here put on a dramatic show for amateur astronomers – and there are ways to get even closer to the skies. Most visitors to the resort take time off the slopes to visit the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, famous for its observatory and planetarium, which are housed in a dome worthy of a James Bond villain some 2,877m above sea level. The visitors’ centre at the top takes 15 minutes to reach by cable car and is open summer and winter.
The panorama from the Pic du Midi is exceptional all year round – in the warmer months rocky peaks and dark green pastures unfold beneath a dark blue sky, while in ski season, the landscape switches into monochrome, as thick snow coats everything within sight, and even builds strange sculptures around the buildings of the observatory. The visitors’ centre and observatory let visitors see the Pyrenees from a different perspective, gazing down on the summits that usually tower above us. And there is perhaps no viewpoint more humbling, and frankly a little bit scary, than the end of the pontoon in the sky, a gravity-defying platform, like a giant diving board with a transparent floor, 10m long and seemingly suspended in mid-air above the mountains.
Inside, the museum houses exhibitions and films which document the history of the Pic du Midi and its place in astronomical history, from the placing of the first basic buildings to the Bond villainesque dome that stands here today. It’s hard to imagine, but much of the original structure was transported to the top of the Pic du Midi on the backs of mules – and men – between 1907 and 1908.
The observatory’s recently-built interactive exhibition explores the mysteries of the night sky, with plenty of buttons to press and surprises to uncover for younger visitors. Meanwhile, the planetarium lets you sit back in plush comfort and admire the constellations in one of the oldest parts of the observatory.
Some evenings, the last cable car leaves later to allow visitors to watch the sunset before they float back down the mountain; and a lucky few stay on even longer. The Pic du Midi welcomes a small number of overnight visitors. Guests are treated to dinner, a tour of the scientific elements of the observatory – including areas that are not open to the general public – and an opportunity to stargaze with the experts. In the morning, there’s a chance to see the sun rise over the Pyrénées and a mountain-top breakfast. Competent skiers can follow a guide and ski all the way back down the mountain after their stay. Prices start at €255 per person and places are snapped up quickly – reservation well in advance is essential; bookings are already open for 2024. (It’s worth knowing, too, that while some of the staff speak excellent English, the visit is conducted in French.)
A week in Grand Tourmalet has given us the time to explore the area, push ourselves out of our comfort zones on the tougher slopes and enjoy skiing through some of the prettiest and most fun slopes as a whole family. On the last day, we head to the edge of the resort. We would have stopped at the Chalet des Pisteurs for a coffee, but it’s closed, the owners having thoughtfully (and thankfully) warned people with a sign at the bottom of the path, so no one would traipse up that steep track for nothing. We ski past the notice in family formation to the little two-person lift and let it carry us to top of that beautiful blue run at Quatre Termes. We take a breath, take in the scenery, and speed down the mountain one last time before the stars come out again.
Read more: Tracing the Pyrenees
La Maison de la Nuit
A new way to discover the night sky around Tourmalet opened this winter – La Maison de la Nuit. Situated on the Col de Tourmalet – a legendary mountain pass for cyclists and a famous element of the Tour de France – this museum and information centre promises an immersive experience for visitors, with a show focusing on the stars taking place within the brand new building’s dome. It’s all about the night – not just the stars in the sky, but the importance of darkness and nocturnal life as a key part of the planet’s biodiversity. And, of course, there will be a nod to cycling’s biggest challenge – an introduction to the historic moment when the Tour’s riders climbed the Col du Tourmalet mountain pass for the first time in 1910.
Lead photo credit : The Tourmalet pass in the French Pyrenees © shutterstock
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