The soaring peaks of the Pyrenees are speckled with chocolate-box towns and villages. Explore some of the prettiest settlements in this wild mountain range, which divides France and Spain while cutting right through Andorra. You’ll discover Romanesque churches and stone houses, storybook forts and healing thermal waters in these idyllic Pyrenees destinations.
Catalonia’s Boi Valley is famed for its collection of Unesco World Heritage Romanesque churches. The stone relics are scattered across a valley of meadows and alpine forests, surrounded by the hulking granite peaks and glacial lakes of Aiguestortes National Park. The village of Boi itself has one of the largest populations in the valley and is filled with traditional stone and slate houses with wooden balconies – at its heart, discover the 11th century Sant Joan Church which is decorated with restored frescoes.
While not technically in the mountains, Biarritz lies in the Pyrenees-Atlantic region and is a gateway to the Basque Country. This iconic French beach town is loved by surfers for its huge waves and boasts long sandy beaches lined with buzzing promenades. Biarritz has been a coastal haunt for European royalty since the 1800s and was even home to Napoleon III. Today, its regal edge is still visible in the belle-époque townhouses and heritage-listed villas, all just a short drive from the mountains.
Pilgrims flock to Lourdes, one of the world’s most sacred Catholic sites, to bathe in healing waters at the Grotto of Apparitions. It was here, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, that 14-year-old Saint Bernadette received visions of the Virgin Mary. By night, candlelit processions lead through Lourdes to its spike-topped Basilique Notre-Dame du Rosaire, where outdoor mass is held. The town is also overlooked by a hill-top castle and set to a soundtrack of the gurgling Gave de Pau River.
Once the nerve centre of the 13th-century Kingdom of Majorca, Perpignan lies close to the Spanish border and is the capital of the Pyrenees-Orientales. The town is home to royal architecture with a distinct Catalan influence, including its top treasure, a Gothic-Romanesque palace that overlooks the Mediterranean coast. Wander the palatial gardens and medieval old town, which is filled with grand houses. For views over the rooftops of Perpignan, climb up to Le Castillet, a 14th-century entrance fort.
La Roca, Spain
The village of La Roca sits perilously atop a basalt cliff in Catalonia’s Garrotxa volcanic zone. Below, the fast-flowing Fluvià and Toronell Rivers meet, while green-furred mountains serve as a backdrop. Today, less than 50 people live in La Roca’s volcanic-stone houses, which date back to the middle ages. Narrow streets give way to modest plazas and the 11th-century Sant Salvador Church clings to the cliff edge. Get a superb view of La Roca on a round-trip walk to the nearby Sanctuary del Cos.
There’s more to Andorra than luxury shopping and swanky ski resorts. The region has its share of mountain villages and Ordino is the crown jewel. Its original stone, wood and iron buildings have been well maintained, making it Andorra’s most important urban heritage zone. Take the summer cable car up the mountain for aerial views of Ordino and to appreciate the 3,000-metre-high mountain ridges, plus don’t miss the elegant town hall in the Plaza Mayor and Sant Corneli I Sant Cipria church.
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the starting point for the famous Camino de Santiago. It lies on the Nive River at the foot of the Pyrenees (hence the name, St Jean at the foot of the pass) and is protected by sandstone fortifications. From here, pilgrims cross the torrid mountain border into Spain on their quest to reach Santiago de Compostela. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is characterised by its steep, cobbled streets and Gothic design. In the evenings, the church holds candle-lit mass for pilgrims, offering blessings for the journey ahead.
The tiny town of Lanuza survived being submerged by a reservoir in 1978 and now sits on the edge of topaz waters that reflect the surrounding mountains. Every July, crowds come to enjoy the South Pyrenees Festival, where music concerts are held on a floating stage in the village. You’ll find Lanuza in Spain’s Aragon region in the Tena Valley. Filled with stone chalets, cottages and one small Romanesque church, it’s the surrounding views that really make Lanuza special.
This alpine spa town was favoured by the royal family in the 19th century, who came for its pure mountain waters which are thought to cure ailments. The town is now better known as part of the Formigal-Panticosa resort, one of Spain’s top ski destinations. Picture stone buildings with slate roofs, surrounded by mountains and icy lakes, at this village on the edge of the Búbal reservoir.
Puigcerdà lies in northern Catalonia, just a couple of kilometres from the French border. Due to its strategic position surrounded by tantalising Pyrenees slopes, skiers use Puigcerdà as a jumping-off point for winter snowsports. Although the town dates back to the 12th century, most of its historical buildings were destroyed in the civil war, except for a Romanesque bell tower. Puigcerdà is now dotted with brightly-coloured buildings, has an artificial lake and main square with snow-covered Pyrenees views.
Travel just a few miles from world-famous Lourdes and you’ll stumble upon Saint-Savin. The village, set on a crystal river in the Pyrenees National Park, has little besides a main square with a fountain and handful of streets lined with pastel, shuttered houses. However, this understated beauty is exactly what makes Saint-Savin special, alongside its Unesco-listed Benedictine abbey, which is known for its Romanesque frescoes from the 11th and 12th century.
Cauterets, in a basin shadowed by the High Pyrenees, is a base for outdoor adventures. In winter, snow blankets the slopes of nearby ski resorts like Cirque du Lys while the pine forests, lakes and waterfalls of the Pyrenees National Park beckon summer hikers. Cauterets has a history as a 19th-century spa town with healing thermal springs. Today’s visitors continue to soothe aching muscles at the stately Bains du Rocher with its mineral pools, hammam and bubbling Jacuzzis.
Ayet en Bethmale, France
Set among bottle-green valleys and imposing mountains, this French village lies at the centre of the Ariège Pyrenees Regional Nature Park. The hamlet is one of many that scatter the Bethmale valley, which features seven small, glittering lakes. Here, locals wear wide-brimmed hats teamed with wooden clogs and are known for their cheesemaking and folk dances. Ayet en Bethmale is made up of typical stone houses set on the side of a hill, complete with a 14th century church.
Take a day trip from Barcelona to this fairytale village in the low foothills of the Pyrenees. Known as one of Catalonia’s best-preserved medieval villages, Besalú is accessed by the region’s most photographed bridge, which stretches over the Fluvià River. Pass through the castle-like entranceway to navigate a maze of cobbled streets which lead to Besalú’s Romanesque Sant Pere monastery. The town’s unusual former Jewish quarter features the only Jewish bathhouse discovered in the Iberian Peninsula.
In Arreau, old stone houses sit beside a babbling mountain stream. Enjoy summer views of the surrounding undulating meadows, while in winter, snow-white ridges of the High Pyrenees dominate. Explore cobblestone streets, which feature houses with distinctive pink-marble facades and wooden lattice work. Five of Arreau’s buildings, including its ornate church, are listed as Historic Monuments. One of the town’s highlights is its thrumming Thursday morning market. Browse locally-grown produce in the covered market hall, which is topped with a clocktower.
The last town in Catalonia before you reach the French border, Portbou is unique because it sits both in the foothills of the Pyrenees and on the Mediterranean coast. Portbou was once a peaceful fishing village until its international railway station opened in 1878 and it became a way stop for travellers. Its star attraction is the pebbled, crescent beach, which forms a natural amphitheatre backed by mountain slopes. Visit the memorial of German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who tragically committed suicide in Portbou.
Medieval Barruera is set on the border between Catalonia and Aragon, in a landscape of flowering meadows and forests backed by looming, icing-sugar peaks. Stop off here to photograph Sant Feliu Church, Barruera’s majestic centrepiece, as part of a village-hopping tour in the Boi Valley. Built in Lombard-Romanesque style, the stone building has a signature bell tower and is part of the Boi Valley’s collection of UNESCO-protected religious sites.
Castellar de N’hug, Spain
Castellar de N’hug is the source of the Llobregat River, which flows all the way to Barcelona before pouring out into the sea. The village lies on the Catalan side of the Pyrenees near the Cadi Moixeró Natural Park, a hiker’s paradise. Expect medieval streets with Catalan Romanesque architecture, the best example is the Church of Santa Maria de N’hug. The rural hub also holds a well-known sheepdog contest in August and has a small museum where you can learn more about Pyrenean culture.
El Querforadat, Spain
The name of this miniscule Pyrenees village translates to ‘rock pierced’, which speaks to its precarious position, perched on a large knobbly crag. El Querforadat has a smattering of stone houses with red rooftops, which are built in terraces and offer sweeping views across the valley. The town lies in the Alt Urgell area of the Catalan Pyrenees and is a welcome stop on the GR 150 walking trail, which leads to the Cadi Moixeró Natural Park.
You’ll find Huesca among some of the highest reaches of the Aragonese Pyrenees, many of which reach over 3,000 metres into the sky. It serves as a gateway to the Posets-Maladeta Natural Park, where you can hike, ski and go white-water rafting. The area is a haven of natural beauty, from glaciers to aqua-marine lakes, waterfalls and forests. Benasque itself is a tranquil base to explore the surrounding mountain wonders and ancient buildings like the Count of Ribagorza’s palace.
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