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The Atlantic coastline from the Loire in the north to the vast barrier of the Pyrénées in the south, travels past the great plain of Poitou; the lush meadows of Le Bocage; the great wine-growing landscapes of Charentes and Bordelais; the lagoons and dunes of Landes; the valleys of Agenais; and the hills of Gascony.


Landscapes

Poitou

This large and ancient province, centred on the town of Poitiers, incorporates the Pays de Retz, Vendée and the Marais Poitevin (the Poitou marshlands).

The Plain

The limestone plateau between the ancient massifs of the Vendée (which are the southern extremity of the Armorican peninsula on which Brittany sits) and Limousin (the region east of Angoulême) comprises a crescent stretching from Loudun to Luçon. Almost denuded of trees and cut through with deep valleys, the plain seems to roll away to infinity, its succession of fields, meadows and moors scarcely interrupted by the occasional village.

Certain subtle differences are discernable: in the north the plain is actually part of Touraine (the region around Tours); from Thouars to Châtellerault there are outcrops of local chalk, carpeted with thin patches of cultivation and moorland cropped by sheep. Here and there deposits of sand occur, and fields of asparagus can be seen in the middle of pinewoods. On the exposed hillsides bordering the River Thouet and River Vienne, the scattered winegrowers’ houses are built of tufa (a hard crystalline chalk with a high mica content). The areas around Chauvigny and Montmorillon (on the Poitou borders), composed of sands and clay, were once a region of infertile heaths or brandes . In certain areas this heathland still subsists, supporting flocks of sheep and goats (the goat’s cheese of Chauvigny is well known). In other places, where the heath has been cleared, Charollais or Limousin bullocks are raised. Flocks of pirons (a variety of goose raised for its skin and duvet or down) wander near the farms. West of Clain, continuing as far as Melle and St-Maixent, the Jurassic limestone, lacerated by valleys, has decomposed on the surface into what is locally called terre de groie (a compound soil part clay, part gravel, part lime, of proverbial fertility – especially for cereals and fodder plants such as clover and alfalfa).

Le Bocage

The Vendée and the Gâtine de Parthenay , south and west of the River Thouet, have many features in common. This is the region known as le bocage – an area of lush meadows bordered by hedgerows of hawthorn or broom, with sunken lanes leading to smallholdings and farms half hidden in leafy copses. The speckled brown Parthenay bullocks, bred and fattened for beef, are often seen grazing in this patchwork of small fields. The area is dotted with apple orchards and the occasional field of fodder plants grown to feed the cattle. A chain of low, rounded hills forms the backbone of this productive agricultural area, and these are known as Les Collines Vendéennes (the Hills of the Vendée).

Marshlands and Coast

The marsh (Marais) area extends from the schist landscapes of the Pays de Retz to the limestone cliffs of the Aunis – an ancient region centered on La Rochelle.

Between these cliffs, which mark the limit of the prehistoric Bay of Biscay (or Golfe de Gascogne as it is known in France), and the sea, salt marshes transformed into oyster farms glitter in the sun and sheep and cattle graze in the water meadows. Early fruit and vegetables ripen on the alluvial soil and wild ducks paddle the canals beneath over hanging hedgerows alive with smaller birds. The marshland, formed from debris accumulated by rivers and ancient ocean currents, lies sheltered behind the coastal dunes; rocky islets from the ancient coastline define the area’s inner limit. From north to south the route passes successively through the Breton-Vendée marshland, which includes the marshes of Monts, the marshes of Olonne and of Talmont and the famous Marais Poitevin .

Huge beaches of fine sand lie along the foot of the dunes and on the offshore bars; between Noirmoutier and the mainland, on either side of the causeway known as the Passage du Gois, enormous stretches of mudflat are exposed at low tide. Noirmoutier itself and the more southerly Île d’Yeu (Isle of Yeu) provide yet more contrast: the one flat, peaceful and gentle; the other rocky and savage on its western coast.

Charentes

The region known as the Charentes comprises the two départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime, separated by the green and placid valley of the River Charente, which themselves embrace the ancient provinces of Angoumois (the Angoulême region), Aunis and Saintonge (the region around Saintes). Charente itself, abutting the foothills of the Massif Central, divides into four natural geographic areas: to the west the wine country of Cognac, at the centre the cereal-growing Angoumois, in the northeast the Confolentais with its plateaux, and to the south the Montmorélien, a hilly landscape of mixed farming.

Charente-Maritime, facing the Atlantic, presents a coastline of rocks, dunes and sandy beaches, with a rural interior of forests and plains.

Vineyards

In the heart of the Charentes lies the town of Cognac , the capital of that chalky champagne area (the soil is similar to that in the Champagne region, east of Paris) bordering the south bank of the river that nourishes the grapes from which the world famous brandy bearing the name of the town is distilled.

The Plain

The limestone plateau, which extends from Angoulême to La Rochelle, provides a slightly monotonous landscape, only rarely cut by valleys (such as that of the Boutonne) dotted with small towns and an occasional whitewashed hamlet. As in Poitou, the Jurassic bedrock is cloaked with a reddish terre de groie ,or a fertile alluvium, on which cornfields take second place to crops of clover and alfalfa or fields of sugar-beet grown as fodder.

Coast

The Charentais coast is unusual because, especially towards its centre, alluvial deposits from the River Charente and River Seudre have combined with marine currents to form an area of marshland not unlike that in Poitou. Most of this swampy land has been either reclaimed as polders (low-lying lands protected by dykes) on which crops are grown, or transformed – especially near Marennes – into shallow basins in which mussels and oysters are farmed. The distance the tide goes out varies from 2km/1mi to 5km/3mi.

Not far offshore, the low-lying and sandy islands of Oléron and Ré, scattered with pretty white houses, define the outer limit of an inner sea – the Mer de Pertuis , so-called because the only way its waters can reach the open sea is via one or other of the straits (pertuis) dividing these isles from the mainland.

Bordelais

The region known as Le Bordelais, at the heart of the ancient province of Guyenne (Aquitaine), centres on the confluence of the River Garonne and River Dordogne. This transitional area between the limestone plains of Charentes to the north and the vast sandy expanse of the Landes to the south is drained by the Garonne and its tributaries towards the zone of subsidence around the estuary.

Agriculture here is dominated by the cultivation of vines.

Gironde Estuary

The Gironde is the name given to the great estuary which lies between the Garonne-Dordogne convergence and the sea. It is a modest reminder of the marine reaches which covered the Aquitaine basin long ago in the Tertiary era.

The northern bank of the estuary is bordered by limestone hills known as the Côtes de Bourg and Côtes de Blaye . On the south bank, where the land on the whole is lower, similar limestone formations have been eroded and then covered by gravels, producing the topsoil in which the famous vines of the Médoc flourish.

Covering the limestone bedrock of the Gironde are deposits washed down by the two great rivers; these deposits, stirred by the action of the tides, have determined the formation of marshes, which are separated from the running water by an alluvial belt, the palus .

Some of the marshland has been transformed, in the Dutch manner, into polders where meadows now lie; the rest remains the province of hunters and waterfowl. Artichokes are grown on the palus, and certain vines which produce a palus wine.

Over the centuries the movement of the water has created a number of elongated islands as well as sandbanks which are revealed at low tide.

Médoc

This world-famous wine-producing area is divided into three separate zones: the region of viticulture proper; a zone of coastal forest; and the palus ,which punctuates the limestone bluffs of St-Estèphe and Pauillac. Fine red wines come from the first zone: north of St-Seurin-de-Cadourne these are produced mainly by local cooperatives and sold under the simple overall description of Médoc; to the south, from St-Seurin to Blanquefort, lies the district meriting the more distinguished Haut-Médoc appellation.

Landes

The word landes (moors) still conjures up a vision of the more desolate aspect of this part of the coast which existed prior to the 19C, when a remarkable project of reforestation transformed the area into a huge pine forest.

Coast and Dunes

The Landes sit on an enormous plain, roughly triangular in shape, covering an area of 14 000sq km/5 400sq mi. The side of the triangle runs down the 230km/143mi of coast from the Gironde estuary to the mouth of the Adour, and turns eastwards from the two points to meet at the triangle’s apex 100km/62mi inland.

This ruler-straight shoreline, known as the Côte d’Argent (Silver Coast), is essentially one vast beach on which the sea deposits sand at an annual rate of 15 to 18cu m per metre/20 to 24cu yd per yard of coast. The sand, especially in those reaches of the strand only reached by the highest equinoctial tides, is then dried and blown inland by the west wind, where it accumulates in dunes. Until the last century these dunes then moved away from the sea at a speed varying between 10m/32ft and 27m/88ft per year. Today, fixed in position by the plantation of shrubs, grasses and forest trees, the dunes form a continuous but static coastal belt 5km/3mi wide. The strip is the longest and highest series of dunes in Europe.

Lakes, Lagoons and the Plain

Most of the watercourses in the region find themselves blocked by the dune barrier, the one exception being the Leyre (known also as the Eyre in its lower reaches) which finds its way directly to the sea via the Bassin d’Arcachon.

Elsewhere the streams have formed lakes, the surfaces of which are 15m/50ft to 18m/60ft above sea level. Most of these lakes intercommunicate; their waters force a passage through to the ocean with difficulty, via turbulent currents popular with water sports enthusiasts; the Huchet and Contis currents are typical examples.

The lakes and currents are well stocked with fish (such as trout, tench, carp and eel) but the huge areas of water involved make these coastal lakes and lagoons particularly suitable for the use of large scale boating equipment.

Sands distributed over the inner areas of the Landes originally formed part of material gouged from the Pyrénées by Quaternary Era glaciers; they exist now as a layer of brown sandstone, no more than 50cm/20in thick, known as the alios . This bed inhibits the percolation of water and blocks the extension of roots, and this, combined with the poor drainage of the plains because of their negligible slopes, adds to the dampness of the region and the sterility of its soils. Until the middle of the 19C this inner zone was no more than an unhealthy stretch of moorland, transformed into a swamp when the rains came, and supporting only a scanty shepherd population which went about on stilts. Even the sheep were raised more for their manure than for their meat or wool.

Wayward River

Over the centuries the course of the River Adour and its outlet to the sea has been altered by the region’s shifting sands. Documents reveal that in AD 907 the river left Capbreton to carve a route to the sea via Vieux-Boucau-Port-d’Albret; in 1164 it again channelled a new path, this time near Bayonne, but later returned to Capbreton. A terrible storm in the 14C blocked the river’s way and so it once again flowed to Port-d’Albret. Meanwhile, the port at Bayonne was being engulfed by sand. In 1569 Charles IX insisted that the river should be given a fixed estuary, which saved the harbour at Bayonne; nine years later a channel leading through 2km/1mi of dunes beyond Bayonne was opened, and the port at Boucau-Neuf was created.

Consolidation of the Dunes

As early as the Middle Ages it was known that mobile sand dunes could be fixed by the use of maritime pines or plants with spreading roots. A number of experiments were made in the Landes but it was Nicolas Brémontier (1738–1809), member of the Caen Academy and an engineer from the Roads and Bridges Department, who perfected the process and started the gigantic task here in 1788.

First he constructed a dyke designed to check the movement of the sand at its starting point, then, about 70m/230ft from the high-water mark, he planted a palisade of stakes against which the sand could pile up. Adding to the height of the palisade as the accumulated sand rose higher, he progressively formed an artificial coastal dune 10m/33ft to 12m/39ft high, which acted as a barrier. He fixed the surface sand by sowing marram grass , a variety of grass with a thick network of rapidly spreading roots. He then turned his attention to the problem of the inland dunes.

Brémontier mixed the seeds of maritime pines with gorse and broom seeds, sowing them beneath brushwood, which temporarily held back the sand. After four years the broom had grown into bushes nearly 2.5m/7ft high. These sheltered the slower-growing pines, which eventually outgrew the bushes, and, as they died and rotted, provided fertiliser for the young trees. By 1867 the work was almost complete: 3 000ha/7 500 acres of coastal dunes were carpeted with marram grass and 80 000ha/198 000 acres of inland dunes were planted with pine trees.

Cleaning up the Interior

At the beginning of the 19C the inner part of the Landes area was still a fever swamp unfit for cultivation; it was badly drained and resisted all attempts to establish an agricultural presence. Under the Second Empire, however, an engineer named François Chambrelent (1817–93) found the answer: he systematically broke up the unfertile layer of alios and then drew up a scheme of drainage, clearance and reforestation. The results justified the large scale planting of maritime pines, cork oaks and ilex trees: the Landes département soon became one of the richest in France as the many products made from pine trees brought large returns.

Agenais

The Agenais is a transitional region lying between the southern section of the Périgord, Bas-Quercy (Lower Quercy, to the east) and the Landes. This fertile area is lent a certain unity by the valley of the River Garonne.

In the damp northern sector herds of dairy cows graze in the pastures covering the clays; further east, pinewoods and plantations of oak and chestnut appear. In the area around Fumel, on the River Lot, a number of small metal­lurgical works exploit the local sands rich in iron ore.

Pays des Serres

This area stretches as far as the southern part of the Lot département . Unlike nearby Quercy, which has retained a variety of crops, this region of long, narrow hills tends to specialise. On the muddier plateaux of Tournon-d’Agenais wheat is the most important crop; the hillsides are used for the cultivation of vines.

Lot Valley

The Lot Valley is one immense orchard punctuated by nurseries and fields of tobacco. Fresh peas, green beans and the melons of Villeneuve-sur-Lot are among the renowned local products.

Garonne River Valley

The alluvial soils and mild climate here allow more delicate crops, most of them grown on terraces, to flourish; each town and village has its speciality. Agen, for example, is famous for its onions and its prunes: hand-picked, specially graded fresh plums, grown on grafted trees, are subsequently dried either naturally or in a slow oven to produce the pruneaux d’Agen .The use of grafted plum trees here dates back to the Crusades. In the 16C the monks of Clairac, near Tonneins, were the first to foresee the commercial possibilities of the plum, and 200 years later the market had grown to such an extent that it had to be government controlled. The plum variety used almost universally in the region today is the Robe-Sergent (Red Victoria plum). Marmande is famous for its tomatoes and pumpkins; Ste-Marie produces peaches and cherries. Since the 18C even poplar trees have been pressed into service: plantations on land subject to flooding provide wood used in carpentry and the manufacture of paper.

Gascogne

The Aquitaine basin is part of a series of French sedimentary beds, which resulted from the silting up of an ancient ocean depth; what distinguishes Gascogne (Gascony), the region lying between the Pyrénées and the River Garonne, is the upper covering provided by enormous masses of debris washed down by the rivers after the erosion of the mountains during the Tertiary Era.

The most common formation in Gascony is known as the molasse – layers of sand frequently cemented into a soft yellow sandstone penetrated by discontinuous marl and limestone beds. This geological structure has resulted in a hilly landscape of mixed topography.

From an agricultural point of view the soils here vary between terreforts , which are clayey and heavy to work, and boulbènes – lighter and slightly muddy, but less fertile and more suitable for grazing and cattle breeding.

The Hills of Gascony

The rivers, all tributaries of the Garonne, fan out northwards from the foothills of the mountains and cut through the hills of Armagnac in thin swathes. Those emerging from the major Pyrénéan valleys – the Neste d’Aure and the Gave de Pau (Aure and Pau torrents) for instance – are already discharging the deposits they carry, and this material, mixed with the detritus from ancient glacial moraines, has produced a soil that is relatively poor. As a result there is a succession of moors between the high Plateau de Lannemezan and Pont-Long, north of Pau, via the Ger Plateau on the western side of Tarbes.

In the hills themselves, careful watering has led to the establishment of market gardens specialising in produce such as strawberries and melons.

Vines in this region form only a part of the traditional polyculture; production of appellation contrôlée wines, such as the Jurançon and Madiran whites and reds, and VDQS (vins délimités de qualité supérieure) from Béarn and Tursan, remain limited.

Pays d’Adour

The great curving sweep of the River Adour – northwards from its source, then west and finally back towards the south – creates a major demarcation line on the hydrographic chart of the region; the convergence towards Bayonne of all the rivers within this arc is evidence of a continuous sinking of the earth’s crust beneath the ocean, which has persisted since the end of the Secondary Era.

Within the area encompassed by the Adour is a hilly landscape cut through by the tributaries of the river. The lower slopes of the valleys are terraced as they drop towards the cultivated alluvial strips flanking these streams.

Les Pyrénées

The customary division of this mountain range into three large natural areas succeeding one another from west to east is justified by major differences in structure, climate and vegetation. The distinction is underlined by the traditions and language of the inhabitants.

Formation of the Chain

The remarkable view from the town of Pau of the Pyrénéan mountains rising above the hills of the Béarn district presents a seemingly endless series of finely serrated crests – a mountain barrier revealing at that distance neither individual peaks, with the exception of Pic du Midi d’Ossau, nor saddles.

The barrier itself, stretching 400km/248mi from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, is relatively narrow (30km/19mi to 40km/25mi on the French side of the frontier) yet also massive and continuous: the average height of the Pyrénées is 1 008m/3 307ft.

History of the Range

Approximately 250 million years ago a Hercynian (Palaeozoic) mountain mass similar to the Massif Central or the Ardennes stood on the site occupied by the Pyrénées today; however, whereas the central and northern heights experienced a relatively tranquil existence, this chain between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean was sited in a particularly unstable zone. Already vigorously folded, and then partially levelled by erosion, the Hercynian block was submerged about 200 million years ago beneath a continental sea and covered by Secondary Era sedimentary deposits, before being totally resurrected – and literally shaken from top to bottom – by the Alpine folding, the earliest spasms of which occurred here.

Under the enormous pressure of this mountain-building movement the most recent beds, still comparatively pliant, folded without breaking but the rigid ancient platform cracked, broke up and became dislocated. Hot springs burst through near the fractures; mineral deposits formed and metal-bearing ores appeared.

During the geological eons that passed while this was occurring, the mountain mass, now tortured and misshapen, was ceaselessly worn down by erosion, and the material torn from it washed out by rivers across the plains below.

Central Pyrénées

The overall structure of the Pyrénéan region is characterised by the juxtaposition of large geological masses arranged longitudinally. Starting from the Upper Garonne, the relief encompasses:

- The rises known as the Petites Pyrénées, of only medium height but remarkable for the alignment of limestone crests pleated in a fashion typical of the Jurassic period;

- The real foothills, formations of the Secondary Era (either Cretaceous or Jurassic), with folded beds more violently distorted;

- The Axial Zone , the true spine of the Pyrénées along which granitic extrusions, recognizable by sharply defined peaks chiselled by glacial erosion, thrust through the Primary sediments: the Balaïtous, the Néouvielle and Maladetta massifs, the Luchon Pyrénées. The summits however are not made up entirely of granite, since patches of extremely hard schist and limestone exist which are even more resistant to erosion;

- The southern Secondary Era sediments, under-thrust to a height of more than 3 000m/9 840ft at Monte Perdido, which are to be found largely on the Spanish side of the frontier. Two master­pieces of mountain scenery stand out among this limestone relief: in Spain the canyon of the Ordesa Valley (a National Park); in France the lower part of the Gavarnie amphitheatre, with its gigantic platforms of horizontal strata piled one upon the other.

Valleys

The inner part of the chain lacks a channel, parallel to the backbone of the range, which could link up the many transversal valleys. This makes internal communications difficult, a problem exacerbated in the Central Pyrénées by the fact that most passes are impracticable in winter. Each of these valleys was therefore isolated for much of the time, and this led to a survival of socially autono­mous lifestyles of the kind still to be found in such petit pays districts as the Couserans , the Quatre Vallées (Four Valleys) region, and the Pays Toy . The valleys are nevertheless far from being inhospitable; despite being hemmed in, they seem no more than a hilly extension of the plains of Lower Aquitaine – with the additional advantage of a sheltered climate.

Glaciers

A thousand years ago the ancient glaciers thrust their abrasive tongues across the mountain landscape, gouging out the terrain as far as the present sites of Lourdes and Montréjeau. Since then these giant ice rivers have shrunk to negligible proportions (less than 10sq km/4sq mi for the Pyrénées, compared with 400sq km/155sq mi in just the French part of the Alps). There is only one whole glacier, complete with tongue and terminal moraine, in the entire range: the Ossoue , on the eastern slopes of the Vignemale.

Many of the most dramatic and appealing features to be found at the heart of the Pyrénées were formed by the old glaciers: hanging valleys, amphitheatres, canyons transformed into pastoral sweeps, jagged crests and scatters of huge boulders, lakes (over 500 in the French Pyrénées), cascades, bluffs, sudden morainic platforms and powerful waterfalls, some of which are harnessed for the production of hydroelectric power.

Summits

The frontier between France and Spain is marked by the peaks of Balaïtous (3 146m/10 321ft) and Vignemale (3 298m/10 820ft), though the greatest heights of the Pyrénées are located on the Spanish side of the border: the impressive massifs of the Maladetta (3 404m/11 168ft) and Posets (3 371m/11 059ft). The French side nevertheless boasts Pic du Midi d’Ossau (2 884m/9 462ft), which owes its majestic silhouette to the extrusion of volcanic rocks, and Pic du Midi de Bigorre (2 865m/9 400ft), notable also for the way it towers over the plain below. The Massif de Néouvielle (3 192m/10 472ft at Pic Long) includes an extraordinary water tower, the contents of which are now almost totally reserved for the hydroelectric installations in the valleys of the Pau and Upper Neste torrents.

Picturesque Pyrénées

The Cauterets Valley perfectly illustrates those traditional and well-loved aspects of the Pyrénées, which have inspired so many artists: steep-sided, narrow valleys opening up in the higher reaches of their rivers into huge upland pastures, gently sculptured, jewelled with lakes and webbed with torrents both turbulent and limpid. Such attractions, added to the benefits of the hot springs, the individuality of local customs and the proximity of Spain, appeal to romantic natures. Despite the progressive abandonment of temporary dwellings (such as mountain refuges and summer sheepfolds), of upland tracks and some of the highest pastoral slopes, the Central Pyrénées retain – at least in the Axial Zone – that friendly and characteristic image of mountains that have been in some way humanised.

Atlantic Pyrénées

This part of the range is characterised geographically by the disappearance of the Axial Zone, which has led to a confusion of the general relief, there being no longer a continuous spine or backbone to act as a “natural” frontier.

It is among the calcareous beds covering the eastern extremity of the Axial Zone that the most noticeable examples of geomorphological disturbance occur. These are the twisted contortions of the 2 504m/8 213ft Pic d’Anie and the savage gashes of the Kakuetta and Holcarte gorges. The subterranean levels of these fissured limestones riddled with potholes have provided an immense area of exploration and study for speleologists. The slopes of these Lower Pyrénées are abundantly wooded and relatively diffi­cult to cross (the Forest of Iraty for example).

Nearer the ocean a more placid topography characterises the Basque Country, typified by La Rhune , Mont Ursava (at Cambo-les-Bains) and the mountains surrounding St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The landscape between the Adour estuary and Spain mainly comprises hills sculpted from a heterogeneous mass of marine sediments.

Basque Pyrénées

The charm and cohesion of this region derives mainly from its oceanic climate, and the colourful language and culture of the Basque people, so closely interwoven with those in the neighbouring Spanish provinces of Guipuzcoa and Navarra. Trans-Pyrénéan traffic is largely concentrated on the coastal route but the inland passages remain very popular with tourists and locals who have used them ever since the era of the great pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Coast

The dunes and pinewoods of the Landes region stretch beyond the mouth of the River Adour, as far as Pointe de St-Martin near Biarritz.

Further south however the coastline bites into the Pyrénéan folds, and the rocks – sedimentary beds violently arched over, foliated into thin laminated layers – form the low, slanting cliffs responsible for the picturesque appearance of the Basque Corniche.

Flora

There are three main types of vegetation in the Pyrénées, associated with the different geographic zones. To the west, the climate is affected by the Atlantic; the central Pyrénées is a continental mountain zone; on the far eastern end of the range, the Mediterranean climate prevails. The diversity of species also depends on altitude, as in other mountainous areas. Below 800m/2 625ft, in the foothills, the forest is mostly common oak, typical of Atlantic regions. As the hills rise to 1 700m/5 580ft, the mountain sides are covered with beech on the lower slopes, and pine higher up, where the undergrowth is thick. From this level up to 2 400m/7 874ft, a robust species of hard pine ( pinus uncinata – it proliferates in the rocky soil around the Cirque de Gavarnie) joins birch and serbus domestica , a fruit-bearing tree resembling mountain ash. At this limit the forest grows sparse, rhododendrons and alpine meadows strewn with wild flowers predominate. From here up to 2 800m/9 186ft, few trees subsist, apart from the dwarf willow; other multicoloured vegetation hugs the ground. Beyond this altitude, the wintry landscape is one of rocks covered with the barest layer of moss and lichen, growth which resists the long months spent under snow.

There is an extraordinary wealth of native species of plants, flowers which are found nowhere else on earth. Some of them, such as ramondia , a small plant with deep violet blossoms and fuzzy leaves, can be traced back to the Tertiary Era, when the climate was subtropical. Countless species flourish in the mountainous, sub-alpine and alpine zones. Among the loveliest and best known are the lily of the Pyrénées, long-leafed saxifrage, blue Pyrénées thistle, campion, sisymbrium, Welsh poppies (blown in, no doubt, by the western wind), and wild iris (especially around the Cirque de Gavarnie). These delightful and rare plants flower in June and July, as well as in August at high altitudes.

Fauna

A range of mountain species can be found in the different altitude zones. Among the protected species, the brown bear, now unfortunately a very rare sight, lives in the mountainous zone. In the beech and pine woods, the last of the lynx roam (it is uncertain how many of them survive in the wild). The isards (a local name for the indigenous chamois) prefer the grassy meadows and rocky outcroppings of the alpine altitudes. Beyond 1 500m/4 921ft, the river banks provide shelter for muskrat; the local species is known as desman , and these rodents grow to about 25cm/10in. The lakes and streams of the Pyrénées had been fished out, but recent efforts to reintroduce species have been successful, and trout and salmon again swim the waters. An amphibian of the uridela order, resembling a newt with a yellow underside and flattened tail, known as the Pyrénéan euprocte, likes to hide under flat stones in rivers and ponds (10–20cm/3–8in). The area is also home to many birds of prey, including the royal eagle, the griffon vulture, and the rare bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) , the largest bird of prey in Europe, also known as a lammergeier . The wood grouse is found in the underbrush, where it feeds on grains, berries and pine buds. During mating season, its courtship routine is a particularly noisy affair. Marmots come out in the early morning to start their daily routine of eating, napping, playing and keeping watch for predators.

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