For years I spent most of my free time in Luchon. I worked in London, or from London to be more accurate, and officially called Toulouse home. Between flights I would rest and recuperate in and around Luchon, either on the ski slopes or hiking in the local mountains.
During this time I always thought of St Béat, as it was known, as a pretty village to drive through when the Col du Portillon was closed due to bad weather. Then one day I finally got out of the car and succumbed to her charms.
Saint-Béat-Lez is a new commune which came from the unification of Lez and Saint-Béat in 2019.
The Col du Portillon is a mountain pass which connects the city of Luchon to the city of Bossost in Spain. You may have heard of it if you are a fan of the Tour de France which often passes through here, during the Pyrenean stage of the race. If you are local, you may also have read that this pass has been closed for the past ten months, allegedly to curb the migration of terrorists from Spain to France or the other way around.
Having to pass through Saint-Béat-Lez to get to Spain allows you this nice little detour through a typical Pyrenean village.
The village is located at the foot of the Pic du Gar, in the Pyrenees, southern Haute-Garonne, in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains rich in marble.
In antiquity, the site of Saint-Béat was known as a “Passus Lupi” (passage of the wolf), because the tightening of this part of the Aran Valley allowed frightened wolves to pass without getting their legs wet in the Garonne. This seems like a tall tale; as far as I know wolves are not afraid of much, and certainly not water. Wet paws or not, it seems they did pass through here. It is also a wonderful place to cycle.
Once a stronghold, with a strategic position so close to the Spanish border, it became known as “la clef de France”, or the key of France.
Since then, Saint-Béat-Lez has been best known for its white marble quarries, discovered no doubt while seeking to widen the narrow passage which has been exploited since Gallo-Roman times. The quarry of Rap in the mountains of Rie is a huge quarry, nearly 40 kilometres long.
Legend has it that the columns of the convent of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges were made of the local marble. Marble from Saint-Béat was also used for the basins and several statues of the park of Versailles. Nowadays, since 2000, there is a ‘festival of sculpture and marble’ every summer when it becomes “the city of marble”.
The twelfth century Chateau Chapelle de Saint-Béat looks over the village and the Garonne river.
The Château of Saint-Béat is one of the rare citadels in the Pyrenees, from this era, to remain so intact. The feudal castle was built in the XII century and later enlarged by the consuls under Henri IV. The Chapel was built later, in the 19th century, after a plague epidemic. It was erected in 1855, with a virgin to protect the inhabitants of the village. The castle is imposing, perched high on the hill but not actually too grand in size. It looks spectacular at night, lit up, against the backdrop of snow on the mountains.
Le Mourtis ski resort is another reason to visit the area. It is in nearby Boutx with 25 kilometres of slopes available, as well as some cross country trails. 🎿 ⛷
The town has endured some difficult times in more recent history with a destructive flood in 2013 that effected the whole area, Luchon included. Most of the businesses which suffered at that time have been rebuilt and the town is back on its feet again. It is definitely worth the detour, either on your way to Spain, or on a day trip from St Gaudens or Toulouse.
If you are going through Saint-Béat-Lez from Luchon you will be surprised by the charm of this pretty, once very important town. Just before you reach St-Béat-Lez, on the way to Spain is the road to Lac de Géry (the lake of Géry). There is a nice restaurant (fish and bbq) overlooking the lake, and a centre for rafting and other outdoor activities just waiting for you. (in the summertime) H2O http://www.h2o-vives.com
I hope that you have enjoyed this post about the Pyrenean village of Saint-Béat-Lez. Follow me to keep up with me on my travels around beautiful Occitanie.