The 3,355-metre Mont Perdu stands proud over the vast jumble of surrounding peaks straddling the France-Spain border. On one side it dominates the deep, burning hot Ordesa, Pineta and Anisclo canyons. On the other, it commands the sweeping and magnificent Gavarnie, Troumouse and Estaubé cirques, cooled by waterfalls and great forests.
The only site in France to be listed on the basis of both natural and cultural criteria
It is this magnificent part of the Pyrenees covering more than 30,000 hectares that UNESCO listed as a World Heritage Site in 1997. It is extremely unusual in being listed on the basis of both natural and cultural criteria. Only a handful of sites around the world have been given this double distinction, such as Mount Taishan in China and the Sanctuary of Machu Picchu in Peru.
You only need to spend a day there to realise that UNESCO's nature criteria are easily met. This is because the Cirque de Gavarnie and surrounding area provide a striking insight into how the Pyrenees were formed. In places you see the thrust faults that occurred in the early Tertiary period, rising to an altitude of 3,000 metres, and in others, the sheer walls of the cirques eroded in the Quaternary by glaciers of unimaginable size.
Its heritage value, protected within the confines of the Pyrenees National Park, also lies in its exceptionally rich flora and fauna.
A unique friendship between France and Aragon
Even more amazing are the cultural criteria that the Gavarnie - Mont Perdu area meets, since it is an example of economic and social organisation in a mountainous area of a type very seldom seen in Europe. From time immemorial, the French and Spanish-speaking communities here have shared the same pastoral way of life that remains the basis in which their identity is rooted. The area also saw the development of exchanges of both an economic and a spiritual nature.
From the 12th century onwards, lies and passeries governed the pastoral customs here, regulating the free circulation of people and herds and keeping the peace despite the wars in which the kingdoms of France and Spain were embroiled.
Today, this friendship can still be seen in the paths, chapels, mountain huts and shacks that dot the mountainside. It is demonstrated in the pastures on that French side that the Aragonese are permitted to graze to get round the problem of their dry sierras. And today it lives on in the ties that still exist between the Aragonese and the French villages here.