On our final day in Béarn, we decided to spend the day exploring one of the region’s subterranean delights – the Grottes de Bétharram. The Grottes de Bétharram are a series of caves underneath the Pyrenees that can be visited on a guided tour, which allows you to explore the complex on foot, by boat and by train.
During the low season, the caves are closed between midday and 1.30pm, and as it was around lunchtime when we arrived at Bétharram, we decided to have a spot of lunch before the caves opened for the afternoon.
We stopped at a small shack nearby, which was run by an eccentric older couple who seemed thrown by having customers. When I asked for a cheese sandwich (one of the few sandwiches listed on the menu), the lady had to run to the fridge to check they had any cheese.
Preparing our food seemed to be a painstaking process, too, but 20 minutes later we had two sandwiches, a small portion of fries, two coffees and one earl grey tea. There were picnic benches on the grass near the shack, so we sat down at one to enjoy our meal.
Lunch over, we made our way back to the caves and found we had to wait until 2pm for more people to arrive before we could begin our guided tour. Once 2pm rolled around, we all piled on a coach, which took us to the caves’ entrance some 1km away, where we bought our tickets.
Inside the cave complex, we were greeted by the sight of an enormous cavern featuring a series of steps that led down five storeys, as the caves are split over five levels (above). It was a cool 14° inside the caves, and our enthusiastic and friendly tour guide told us that the cave complex was home to another 12km of caves that were off limits to the public.
Rather than follow the steps down into the chamber, we were guided to the right, where we were taken on a tour of a gigantic cavern. The cave was spectacular with lots of stalagmites and stalactites, including a few gargantuan ones that had merged over the centuries.
The cave was full of beautiful and weirdly-shaped rocks, including ones that resembled a woman, Scooby Doo, a bear and a marmot. There were lots of pools, too, and an incredible mottled ceiling (above) that was unlike anything I’ve seen in a cave. It was a spectacular cave with lots of weird and wonderful features, and it was fascinating to walk through it.
After thoroughly exploring the huge chamber, we came back on ourselves and made our way down the five levels of steps, taking note of the many incredible sights along the way. After a little while exploring the lower levels of the caves, we were ushered onto a long boat with a dragon’s head on each end, which took us on a 100m journey across a large pool of water.
On the other side of the pool, we continued walking through the caves, and for a time, were walking on a path alongside a small river that flowed through the cave complex. Having followed the underground path for a while, we came to the final part of our tour – the train journey.
The train was a small, multicoloured engine, similar to those you get in theme parks (above). We all clambered aboard, put on our seat belts and were off! We whizzed along the tracks at quite a speed and I was taken a back at how quickly we were going. I’d expected it to be slow and cumbersome, but the train was rather nippy. The train came to a stop above ground, and at the train station, there was a small shop and an excellent café housed in a grand early-20th century building.
I really enjoyed our visit to the Grottes de Bétharram. The caves were unbelievably beautiful and some of the best caves I’ve been to, with lots of interesting and unusual features. Our guide was friendly and welcoming, and the short boat trip and train ride at the end were great fun, too. Well worth visiting.