TRAVEL: Conquer the climbs at top cycling destination

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It has been more than a year since Sheffield said ‘Au Revoir’ to the Grand Départ of the Tour de France.

On a sunny day, our beautiful Peak District is populated with a constant stream of cyclists zipping down the hills and then puffing and panting their way up the other side.

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, France

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, France

But what if you’ve followed in Chris Froome’s cycle tracks as far as you can on this side of the English Channel? Ooh la la, it’s time to say ‘Bonjour’ to France.

Welcome to the picturesque Hautes-Pyrénées, the home of some of the most famous climbs of the Tour de France. For a few days of the year, the roads in this stunning, southwestern corner of France are closed off while buzzing crowds push Froomey and co. up the steep, winding routes with a force made up of cheers, claps and cow bells.

But for the remaining 360-odd days of the year, this cyclists’ dreamland is yours to discover.

For my week-long break, I’m joined by my parents. We quickly discover that from our comfortable and well-equipped base at Les Artigaux – a gorgeous family estate just outside the charming village of Arrens in the Val d’Azun – there is a range of activities to suit all three of us.

Les Artigaux is situated near the village of Arrens in the beautiful Val d'Azun

Les Artigaux is situated near the village of Arrens in the beautiful Val d'Azun

My dad, a huge cycling enthusiast, was in his element. From the doorstep of Les Artigaux, he conquered climbs steeped in cycling history including the famous cols of Tourmalet, Aubisque, Soulor and Hautacam.

Meanwhile, mum and I were able to wander into the mountains and enjoy the breathtaking scenery on foot. There are walks to suit most abilities, from the relatively gentle stroll from the Col de Soulor to the Lac de Soum, to the nail-biting scramble from Arrens up the Pic de Pan.

On rest days, you can either relax in Les Artigaux’s sauna and wood-fired outdoor hot tub, or hop in the car to explore the local area.

Market days at the nearby small town of Argelès-Gazost are well worth a visit to soak up the sights, sounds and smells around the stalls. It’s also a great excuse to pop into a boulangerie for a tarte aux fruits and café crème.

Slightly further afield are the Grottes de Betharram, a series of caves you tour with a guide on foot, by boat and even by underground train. The caves’ rock formations, most of which are millions of years old, look magical as they are lit up from different angles.

The caves are not far from the town of Lourdes, world famous for its Grotto of Massabielle where, in 1858, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Bernadette Soubirous. Whether or not you are Catholic, the Sanctuaries Notre-Dame de Lourdes is a sight worth seeing for its incredible architecture, Bernadette’s story and the peaceful spots for reflection.

Or if peaceful isn’t your thing, how about jumping off a mountain with a parachute strapped to your back? Paragliding school ‘Comme un Oiseau’ is a short drive from Les Artigaux. When you’re floating above a green patchwork quilt of fields, with a backdrop of majestic mountains, you certainly do feel ‘Like a Bird’.

By the end of our trip we realised this wasn’t an ‘Au Revoir’ – it was an ‘À bientôt.’

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there: We flew to Bordeaux with Easyjet. It is a three-hour drive to Arrens.

Accommodation: We stayed in Le Soulor apartment at the Stay family’s Les Artigaux estate. Book a visit to Le Soulor online at www.cheznous.com using property reference 190059C.