An extraordinary series of fortunate circumstances has brought together around the Mont-Perdu massif (3,355metres / 11,004 ft) - the Tres Serols, as Aragonians call it - the most marvelous diversity of Pyrenean landscapes, in an area modeled on the massif's geomorphology that merges with the space that UNESCO Worldwide Heritage has placed on its list as both a ""natural" and a "cultural landscape"". The overthrust of enormous calcareous masses together with the intense climatic contrasts between North and South generate highly picturesque effects that are imprinted on the shapes of the relief, the variety of species and the diversity of colors.
In the South, the flimsy thread of discontinuity of contact with the rock's two slow reptations showed the clear outline of a future canyon right from the moment the Pyrenees ended their surrection. Further West and still in Aragon, the crust cracked opening more deep fissures: that of Añisclo, with its mineral convulsions and sabbaths of arborescence, and then Ordesa, with its harmony of vertical rhythms where prow-like reliefs, dominating the vastness of its forest coat, scan the solemn parade of advanced bastions and secret blind valleys. In the North, large bygone glaciers have modeled the alignments of the Baroude walls, the huge cirques at Troumouse, Estaube and Gavarnie.
A tremendous massiveness entrenches these colossal structures / architectures. Ramond, the illustrious naturalist and writer of the Romantic era, could see there, even before he climbed Mont-Perdu in 1802, "these simple solemn shapes, these bold clear-cut sections, these rocks, so unyielding and so untouched whose wide foundations align themselves barrier-like, forming semi-circles, of tier-like amphitheaters thrusting upwards like towers which giants seem to have erected as straight as a die".
These gigantic walls called "nature's Colossus" by Victor Hugo would be of dismal austerity were they not tempered by the extravagant scenery: water cascading down their vertical nudity, a few brilliant snow-crowned cornices, and horizontal tiers encircling and overhanging the void.
These smooth cliffs do not allow the run-off to bury into the thickness of the karst, it gushes out into the void in the form of a multitude of small waterfalls. Another striking contrast of landscape, on the southern slope, is the water which, once freed from the grip of frost, is soaked up immediately by the appalling aridity of the high plateaus made of blazing scree. It frees itself from its blind course in vertiginous resurgences, beautiful springs, leaping torrents of foam and shade deep down in Aragon's luxurious canyons.
All these places present their lavish settings to the scarce writing of the mountain's geological history. They shelter a singular naturalistic wealth attested by a surprisingly vigorous endemism in such a relatively limited Pyrenean space. The situation of Mont-Perdu at the furthest Southern end of the Quaternary's European great glaciations shows a strong diversity between the vegetation of the slopes that face South, and that of the cold abysses of the Northern slopes. The juxtaposition of such a varied local ecosystem attracted the curiosity botanists as early as the 17th century. In much the same way, the "pierres coquillières" of the massif's highest summits still question the fire and Neptune theories of the 18th century geologists. That is how the observations of Mont-Perdu and its surroundings at that time have played a role in the early stages of modern botany and geology.
A few decades later, following in the steps of Ramond's literary work, the massif, once promoted to the position of the Mecca of Romanticism, welcomed the most famous European authors, artists, politicians. The Mont-Perdu massif, - especially in Gavarnie which remained for a long time a reputed center for mountaineering - is situated at the heart of the development of mountain tourism and of the epic of "Pyreneism", the local version of mountain climbing.
Nevertheless, such unquestionably interesting events do not blur the paramount importance of the long and exemplary history of native mountain-dwellers who lie at the roots of the "cultural landscape" UNESCO has sanctioned.
Megalithic remains testify to man's long occupation of these high lands. Agro-pastoral communities settled there as early as that era on all the outskirts of the massif. Very early, they mastered the mountain milieu and its climatic rigours by adapting their mode of production and an admirable social organization to the conditions of their environment. The exploitation of high pastures - here called estives or summer pastures - led to the discovery high mountain passes.
From that moment, taking into consideration the contrast between both slopes in the hope of fruitful complementarity, exchanges increased between the area of Barège in the North and those of Broto and the Cinca river in the South. From the 14th century, first the pastoral customs then the freedom and security of commercial exchanges have been regulated by written agreements and real treaties. Thus breeders from high-Aragon have obtained, under certain conditions and depending on the case, the use or possession of the grass of many pastures in the North slopes to make up for the summer drought in the South. Last but not least, as they concerned all the activities and relationships between the communities, these treaties made it compulsory for their respective collectivities to compensate victims for possible scuffles and robbery. As a consequence of this judicious and provident solidarity, suspects enjoyed relative protection, an astonishingly modern precaution for the time.
All around Mont-Perdu, landscapes bespeak of this magnificent and ancient alliance between man and his mountain: passes, lanes, hospices, refuges, sheds, low walls... This site, as a whole, "mirrors an agricultural way of life that used to be widespread in European mountain areas", but here it is remarkable for the perfection of its development, some features of which are still present today.
And what is more, a whole range of non-material values linked to nature, to the very ideals of cultural landscape accompanies with the visitor - an unspoiled geography which asserts its difference when faced with our technical civilization's standardization, through its essential and singular cultural values. These are rare places indeed, not only "protected reservations", but the hope, for UNESCO, to find there a model destined for harmonious development.
With its wealth of biological diversity that has been maintained by the traditional use of the mountain, and open to merging with our contemporary society - here is a mountain of landscapes where man remains aware of living on earth.
Landscape Description - Patrice de Bellefon - 10/01/2002