From the ancient stone villages and fortified chateaux of the Knights Templar dotting the foothills that turn to the great
wine plains of the Gare, Garrone and to Aquitaine it looks like a lonely outpost of bristling towers and domes on an iced-over alien planet. It appears impossible to reach.
Its residents look to the stars.
I drove from Bagneres-de-Bigorre, a sweet little town built on hot springs and, once-upon-a-time populated by suicidal maniacs and men mangled by war. The road passed through several villages and up a steep alpine road to the famed Le Tourmalet, the highest road in France, first topped on bicycle by a teacher from Chartres years before the Tour de France laid its claim to the route.
After a coffee and a look into the small church built for the montagnards I rode the cable car across yawning gaps in the peaks to the 9,439 foot(2,877m) high Observatoire du Pic du Midi de Bigorre station above.
Thankfully, the air was still and the ride smooth. The conductor said that high winds – often topping 160mph – frequently buffet the Pic du Midi observatory. Yikes! It is still, quite a ride.
Located almost exactly on the Greenwich Meridian, the peak was perfectly situated for astronomical observation and so, in 1878, the Société Ramond led the initial construction of the observatory. The challenges were too great, however, and the French government took possession in 1882. The hundreds of tons of concrete and metal that had to be carried to the top cost far beyond what anyone had expected. Still, it was a marvel of structural engineering and construction and has proven well worth the effort.
The first dome was installed in 1908. It housed the famous equatorial reflector whose photos (along with the observations of Eugène Antoniadi at Meudon) discredited the “Martian Canal” theory of Schiaparelli. A second dome was added in 1946 with a 60cm telescope and a spectrograph was installed there in 1958. It was the Apollo mission, however, that really put the observatory on the map. NASA funded a 106cm telescope that was installed in 1963 to take detailed photographs of the moon for the effort to put a human being there in 1969. 1965 saw the detailed analysis of the atmospheres of both Mars and Venus. The first of its kind using the infrared spectra. Yet another large telescope the 200cm Bernard Lyot was installed in 1980 and was quickly used to discover Saturn’s moon Helene. It is the largest telescope in France.
It was oddly warm at the top and one of the station managers said that every year the melt seems to come earlier – this being the earliest yet. Water dripped everywhere and from everything and then rain off over the edge to fall hundreds of feet below. To the north were the plains. To the south all you could see where icy spires of white against an almost painfully clear blue.
From up there it was hard to imagine how the montagnards ran those huge flocks of sheep up in those mountains. Not so hard to imagine were how they gave shelter to the Republican refugees running from the Right Wing in Spanish Civil War and how, a few years later, they hid hundreds of allied servicemen from the Nazis. How could you find anyone up in there?!
The observatory also hosts a 55cm telescope, a stellar spectropolarimeter , the HACO-CLIMSO coronograph (for looking at the sun) and the highest museum in Europe! Then there is the high end restaurant – which was sadly closed when I arrived.
There is also a small hotel. For a pretty penny, 20 guests can be accommodated over night. Not the richest traveler in the world, I was saddened not to be able to stay for the amazing photo opportunities I knew would arrive at sunset and sunrise….not to mention the stars!!!
Sigh. One of these days.