Cirque de Gavarnie
UNESCO World Heritage
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The little village of Gavarnie in the Hautes-Pyrénées department of south west France – situated at 1365 meters altitude, the highest village in the Pyrenees - is the place of not one but two UNESCO World Heritage listed monuments.
The first one is a natural monument and more known: it is the Cirque de Gavarnie.
The Cirque of Gavarnie is one of the most beautiful sites of the Pyrenees. It is a 6km in diameter and up to 1500 meters high natural amphitheater produced by a glacier.
The territory of Gavarnie is part of the Franco-Spanish UNESCO recognized site of "Gavarnie-Mont Perdu " that with a total area of 30,639 ha, includes two of Europe's largest and deepest canyons on the Spanish side and three major cirque walls on the more abrupt northern slopes in France.
The two major features of the cirque are the Gavarnie waterfall – la Grande Cascade - and the “Brèche de Roland”.
With a drop of 442 meters the Gavarnie waterfall is the highest in Europe. Its water is supplied by a small glacier on the Spanish side of the mountains and it is the source of the Pau Gave River.
The “Brèche de Roland” is a natural gap, 40 m across and 100 m high, at an altitude of 2804 m in the steep cliffs of the Cirque. The legend says that Roland attempted to destroy the sword to prevent it from being captured by the attacking Saracens and created La Brèche de Roland in the process.
Cirque de Gavarnie is accessible all year round only by foot (or on horse or donkey) after an approximately one hour walk from the village of Gavarnie.
The second UNESCO listed monument is the village’s Saint John the Baptist 13th century church. The church is recognized by UNESCO along with all the other monuments on the routes to Saint James de Compostella.
Gavarnie history started in the middle ages when the Knights Hospitalers of Saint Jean of Jerusalem built a hospital for the pilgrims that were taking the road to Saint James de Compostalla. The mission of the hospital was not only to treat the sick but generally to offer hospitality to the travelers.
Around this rest house the village of Gavarnie was formed and of course a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist was built. (The hospital was abandoned in the 15th century and reinstituted in the 16th century under the rule of the Knight of the Order of Malta, and was later abandoned again during French revolution). The church underwent many reconstructions and now the modern exterior architecture hides inside medieval treasures like a statue of Notre Dame de Bon Port dating from the 14th century – Notre Dame du Bon Port being the protector of the travelers - , and the polychrome statue of Saint James de Compostella.
Another landmark of Gavarnie village was the Hôtel des Voyageurs. Unfortunately destroyed by fire in 2000 only it’s the outside walls are still standing. The hotel built in the 18th century welcomed throughout the years famous people like Victor Hugo, Gustav Flaubert, George Sand and even the Empress Hortense de Beauharnais – Napoleon Bonaparte’s step-daughter and sister in law! It is related to the Empress Hortense, who arrived at the hotel on the 24th of July 1807, that one of the facts that was to shape the history of France (and not only) in the second half of the 19th century possibly took place here. The Empress who was visiting the Pyrenees without her husband, the king of Holland, described her nightly stay at the hotel as: “one of the happiest nights of her life”. She joined her husband – whom she despised - only in August but on the 21st of April the following year, 1808, gave birth to future Napoleon III.
Gavarnie is nice but not easily accessible by car. But then again it is in the middle of the montains!
Go on horse back Francisco. You want to get by car everywhere? :-((((