The Pyrenees is a mountain range located between Spain, Andorra, and France. It spans 415 km from the Mediterranean Sea (Cap de Creus) to the Atlantic Ocean, with mountain peaks exceeding 3,000 m, such as Aneto (3,404 m), Posets (3,375 m), Monte Perdido (3,355 m), Viñamala (3,298 m) and Estats (3,143 m), small glaciers, lakes, and a large number of valleys and canyons with extraordinary plant and wildlife.
From one side of the range to other, the Pyrenees is divided into eight administrative bodies belonging to three different countries: to the north, three French regions: Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon; to the south, four autonomous communities: Euskadi, Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia; and the Principality of Andorra, which is also a country.
The mountain area is bounded by an exact permiter ecompassing 1,772 “units”, including 583 Spanish municipalities, 7 Andorran towns, and 1,182 French towns.
The Pyrenees: Territory of Life and People
The Pyrenees is a vast territory covering more than 49,850 km². It extends from west to east for 415 km, north to south for 150 km, and has a pronounced north-south gradient since ⅔ of the range is located on the Spanish side.
Geography of the mountain range
In terms of physical geography, the Pyrenees forms a straight, rather narrow, range of 415 km in length from the Mediterranean (Cabo de Creus) to the Atlantic (Monte Jaizkibel).
From west to east, three different mountain regions are recognized:
• Atlantic Pyrenees, also called the Low Pyrenees. It extends from the Bay of Biscay (Atlantic) to the Pic d’Anie. Slightly elevated, this region does not exceed 2,000 m and therefore the altitude of its mountain passes is also relatively low (eg. Roncevaux Pass, 1,057 m); however the valleys can be pronounced (eg.: Kakouetta Gorge). This region belongs to the Basque Country.
• Central Pyrenees, from the Pic d’Anie to Puymorens Pass (Ariège). The highest peaks can be found here, some exceeding 3,000 m, such as Aneto (at 3,404 m, it is the highest peak in the Pyrenees) or Viñamala (at 3,298 m, the highest peak on the French side). There are very few passes between France and Spain in this region.
• Eastern Pyrenees, also known as the Catalonian Pyrenees. It extends eastward from Puymorens Pass to the Mediterranean Sea. Although this range is not as high as the Central Pyrenees, there are some impressive peaks such as Mount Canigou (2,784 m), Carlit (2,921 m), Puigmal (2,910 m), and large natural massifs such as the Corbières.
The Pyrenees axis (which is a very elongated ellipse extending along the highest altitudes, from the Pic d’Anie to Roussillon) is formed by significantly older rocks than those forming the peaks. Here, the prevalence of crustal rocks (granite and gneiss) that are relatively resistant to erosion gives the range its solid and somewhat even appearance.
Surrounding the axis, Jurassic and Cretaceous formations have been folded into concentric bands. They are further apart on the southern slope, where they form successively staggered mountains and high plateus. In the north, they form a relatively narrow band in the Central Pyrenees, much like in the pre-Pyrenees, giving way to foothills from Aude to Salat and Garonne with limestone links such as the Plantaurel; they extend westward, beyond the Pic d’Anie where granite peaks are flanked by limestone layers, and to the east, in Corbières, where slate and limestone bases reappear, strongly folded and furrowed.
During the Pleistocene, glacial erosion formed cirques and U-shaped valleys, which are common on the north side. It also led to the creation of fluvial plains north of the mountain range (such as Lannemezan) where alluvial gravel and clay carried by watercourses accumulated over time.
Network and population
In all of the territories included in the Pyrenees, there are more than 18 million inhabitants, 1.100.000 of which live in the mountain range. Of these, 555,000 live on the French side, 555,000 live on the Spanish side, and 80,000 live in Andorra (figures from 2008). The population is mainly concentrated on the borders of the range: the 3 coastlines, the northern plain, and also near major cities and transportation networks.
Towns with sparser populations are located farther from cities and in mountain areas. Population density in the Pyrenees varies depending on the side: an average of 27.52 inhabitants/km² on the French side as opposed to an average of 13.3 on the Spanish side.
Despite an aging population (negative growth) in recent years, the range has become an increasingly attractive place to live on both the French (average + 5,000 inhabitants/year) and Spanish sides, although some towns have fallen into neglect (+ 1,500 inhabitants/year 1991-2002).
The average age in Andorra is 39; this young age can be explained by economic development and immigration trends.
Land use: planning and infrastructure
Despite the increasing number of second homes in the Pyrenees, most homes are primary residences built before 1970. In terms of urban planning and distribution of people, each of the main regions in the Pyrenees face different challenges: the prevalence of highly-transformed terrains is closely linked to areas of high population density and tourist areas such as coastal areas and high mountain resorts in the Central Pyrenees (increasing construction in Andorra during recent years).
The road network consists of 90 km of highways throughout the range, 500 km of national roads, and 2000 km of local roads. The highways, which concentrate cross-border traffic (35% of traffic passes along coastal highways), cross the Eastern and Western Pyrenees, and will soon join Tolouse and Foix to Barcelona in a straight route that runs close to the border with Andorra. Today, the network is mainly used by heavy vehicles and passenger cars and certain roads receive heavy traffic (especially, near Andorra). In 2006, more than 122,300 light vehicles and 20,735 heavy vehicles (travel and freight) crossed the Pyrenees.
The rail network covers 350 km and has a cross-border center with Spain and Andorra. Most travelers (82%) use international lines. Below, regional (16%) and local (2%) traffic can be found. In terms of freight transport by rail, north-south traffic is slightly heavier than south-north traffic. Exchange of goods between France and Spain (railway and highway) reached more than 57M tons in 2006.
• Atlas estadístico de los Pirineos (2002)