Best Discovery

Two small lakes in the Catalan Pyrenees, at just under 2500m , where you can swim comfortably on a summer afternoon; usually any water over 1800m is impossibly cold, and anything with a shallow, shelving bottom is muddy or reedy. These are emphatically none of the above, and I'm giving no clues other than to say they're east of Taull in the Aigues Tortes country.

Favourite Hotels

Much French Pyrenean hotel stock is either desperately aging and badly converted, or recent, sterile and overpriced, with little in between. Exceptions include the Hotel du Pic d'Anie in Lescun village, all wood and antiques but en suite, and the Hotel des Voyageurs in Gavarnie, where the belle monde of the 19th century stayed. At Hotel du Lac in the Vallee d'Estaing, non-en suite old-fashionedness is an asset, while Relais de Pailheres in Mijanes has the biggest, wood-floored rooms I saw in France. The Spanish side has the big advantage of having gone directly from the Stone Age to the space age touristically, with numerous spotless en suite facilities, many installed in restored medieval buildings. A pair of cases de pages at La Miana hamlet in Girona province are exceptional: Rectoria de la Miana, a manor house complete with crumbling Romanesque chapel, and Can Jou, a residential horseriding centre. Hotel La Morera at Valencia d'A neu, with enormous balconied rooms and a streamside pool with lawn, is representative of the better tasteful modern outfits, while Casa Portola down the hill in Arties, with full sized bathtubs attached to pine-trimmed rooms, is a good example of a renovated village-centre inn. Casa Puyuelo in Sarvise, and Los Tres Albares in Lardies, both on the approaches to Ordesa, are top casas rurales, the Aragonese equivalent of the Catalan cases de pages.

Best Meals

You'll often do better at isolated wayside inns sprung up along former pilgrim routes than in the midst of resorts. Now often shunted to backwater status by modern traffic patterns, such inns have to give good value or risk going under. The French side, of course, acquits itself well: try frog legs and prune tart at Chez Vignau in Gabas; nouvelle cuisine outdoors at Le Jardin des Cascades near Luchon; hotel-standard meals at Chalet d'Oredon, a mountain refuge run by a qualified chef; and superbly esoteric delights at L'Auberge d'Audressein. The Spaniards are no slouches in this department; Catalan and Basque cooking is the most creative. Montagut in Arties has well-priced local specialties with a nouvelle twist, such as sopa de ajo and duck; vegetarians are catered for almost uniquely in the mountains at Posada Magoria in Anso. The Meson del Labrador, an old pilgrim's inn beyond Ordesa, is more traditional in its abundant four- course set menus; the re-opened Llanos del Hospital hospice updates the concept with gourmet menus including recau, a chickpea-and-greens hotpot.

Biggest Let-Down

Going to visit the famous passerelle or Himalayan-style suspension bridge over the junctions of the Gorges d'Olhadybia and d'Holtzarte in the French Basque country on an August afternoon. The 45-minute trail in was steep, badly eroded and smelling of people rather than the forest; once we arrived, the span proved impressive enough, but was packed with yobs shouting and bouncing up and down as if it were a funfair attraction.

Biggest Mistake

This arose from basic ignorance/stupidity vis-a-vis Pyrenean weather. On my first visit to the mountains, in 1986, I showed up at the Ordesa National Park in May, wondering why the gateway village of Torla had been so deserted. I soon discovered the reason: waist-deep slush, even on the canyon-bottom trails, which iced up during the cold nights, for which I was totally unprepared. Wet, under-equipped (not that snow gear would have helped much) and hypothermic, I retreated after two days.

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FRANCE: Hotel du Pic d'Anie, Lescun (tel: 05 59 34 71 54) 260F; Hotel des Voyageurs, Gavarnie (tel: 05 62 92 48 01) 230F; Relais de Pailheres, Mijanes, Donezan (tel: 04 68 20 45 76) 150F; Hotel du Lac, Lac d'Estaing (tel: 05 62 9 14 37) 190F.

SPAIN: Hotel La Morera, Valencia d'Aneu (tel: 973/62 61 24) 5,000-7,500pts; Rectoria de la Miana (tel: 972/19 01 90) & Can Jou (tel: 972/19 02 63), both appx. 4,500 pts half-board pp; La Miana, Sant Jaume de Llierca Los Tres Albares, Lardies, Ribera de Fiscal (tel: 974/50 30 06), 4,000 pts; Casa Puyuelo, Sarvise, Valle de Broto (tel: 974/48 61 40) 3,500 pts.


FRANCE: Chez Vignau, Gabas, Vallee d'Ossau (tel: 05 59 05 34 06); Le Jardin des Cascades, Montauban-de-Luchon (tel: 05 61 79 83 09); L'Auberge d'Audressein, Audressein (tel: 05 61 96 11 80); Chalet-Hotel d'Oredon, Reserve Naturelle de Neouvielle (tel: 05 62 39 63 33).

SPAIN: Montagut, main highway, Arties, Vall d'Aran, Meson del Labrador, San Nicolas de Bujaruelo (tel: 974/48 60 60); Llanos del Hospital, Valle de Esera, Benasque (974/55 20 12); Posada Magoria, Anso (tel: 974/37 00 49).