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motorway aires: 16

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Pic du Midi,A64
multi-telescope observatory

Longitude, latitude and altitude of the Pic du Midi Observatory

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The Pic du Midi cable-car.

pic du midi aire
pic du midi observatory
a short history of the Pic du Midi Observatory
the importance of this observatory
the telescopes and other instruments
the pic du midi observatory - some interesting facts
sketch map locating the pic du midi aire
end notes

Motorway aires are designed to provide a suitable environment for relaxing, refreshing and recovering during the long, hard journeys. As well as facilities of often dubious nature, picnic tables and seats, a telephone kiosk, there are often optional extras such as a play area or a display related to some local interest or event.

marker at

the Pic du Midi aire

Foot tunnel under the A64 motorway, looking northwards from the main building
Foot tunnel under the A64 motorway, looking northwards from the main building

About nineteen miles east of Tarbes is the gigantic Pic du Midi aire, named after the nearby 2877 metre peak - Pic du Midi de Bigorre. This aire’s theme is astronomy and the work of the international observatory located at the mountain top.

On the southern and somewhat smaller, eastbound site, is the main building, while on the northern, westbound side of the A64, is the extensive children’s astronomical play area. There is a pedestrian tunnel, with constellations punched into the metal cladding, connecting the two parts of this huge aire.

Main building at the Pic du Midi aire with cafeteria and cinema.
Main building at the Pic du Midi aire with cafeteria and cinema.

The modern main building houses a pentascope - a 180° cinema showing on five panels simultaneously - and a cafeteria. The cafeteria, when visited, appeared rather uncared for and disheveled. In fact, the whole place was a bit seedy (you may note the broken door windows in the photo above).

The pentascope screen shows a film made by Productions du Futuroscope in Poitiers. The film, Passeurs d’étoiles or Guides to the Stars, retraces the adventurous history of the Pic du Midi, the construction of the observatory high near the Pic’s summit, and its research work. When visited, one of the five screens was not working. The 30-minute film is shown during the day, stopping when the work day of the person on the information desk stops work [ last showing: 17:30h/5.30pm]. She will answer questions and provides leaflets on visiting the Pic du Midi Observatory, but her English was somewhat limited.

On the nearby grassland, through the tunnel at the other part of the aire, are play areas for children, created on astronomical themes.

Astronomy themed play area at Pic du Midi aire, A64
Astronomy-themed play area at Pic du Midi aire, A64

Astronomy play area at Pic du Midi aire, A64

The solar system, including Saturn climbing frame, Pic du Midi aire, A64
The solar system, including Saturn climbing frame, Pic du Midi aire, A64


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the pic du midi observatory

Pic du Midi Observatory - 1937 postcard
Pic du Midi Observatory - 1937 postcard

Modern view of the Pic du Midi Observatory. Source: not known
Modern view of the Pic du Midi Observatory. Source: not known

The Observatoire du Pic du Midi near Tarbes opened to the public in July 2000. Visitors take a cable car, travelling at 12 metres/sec, providing they do not mind riding in “a bucket on a string”.

The trip starts from La Mongie, at 1,800 metres. Fifteen minutes later, the Observatory is reached at an altitude of 2,877 metres. Cable cars depart every 15 minutes, the visit taking about two hours. A spectacular panorama awaits, with its view across the snow-topped Pyrenees, towards the great plains of southern France and north to the Massif Central foothills. On clear days, you can make out the lighthouse at Biarritz (125 miles or 200 km away) and buildings at Barcelona (250 miles or 400 km away) .

Before you visit, it is strongly recommended that you check the weather, and call the Observatory to verify that it is open.


  • Due to the high altitude, almost 1.8 miles [2.9 km] above than sea level., there is 30% less oxygen than down at sea level.
  • If you have any respiratory, heart or other weaknesses, please assess carefully whether a visit would be safe for your health.
  • Note that the site is also not considered advisable for pregnant women or children under three years old.
  • And don’t forget to bring both warm clothes and sunglasses.

The price of a ticket during the day, including the cable car journeys and visit to the Observatory is
Adult: 30€, disabled person: 27 €, children between 6 and 12 years: 21€ (under 6 yrs: free)
Family package: 2 adults with 2 children under 18 —  84€, additional child - 21€.

The Pic du Midi is also accessible by hiking trails, but anyone endeavouring such an expedition must verify for themselves the routes and their distrance, weather, equipment and personal fitness - this is not an expedition for the unprepared. For the few that do reach the summit by foot, there is a special priced ticket for the return cable car ride.

The observatory is a working scientific site, the sun and its corona being monitored here daily. As can be seen from the two photo illustrations above, the site has developed greatly since early in the 20th century. At the Discovery Centre, visitors can learn about the research being done with the astronomical instruments. There is also a restaurant, a snack bar and a gift shop. The highest museum in Europe housed in the Baillaud Dome.

There are several types of visits available. As well as extended evening visits watching the sunset during a meal at the restaurant, all night visits are possible in order to see the night stars with the naked eye. After a sleep in a renovated bedroom, visitors can watch the sun rise, spreading colour onto the (still) snow-covered mountain summits. This is another way to understand the life of a researcher at this Observatory. (These night visits are limited to 19 people a night.)





The chronograph building


First cable car to the Pic du Midi





a short history of the Pic du Midi Observatory

  • 1774: Monge and Darcet studied atmospheric pressure.
  • 1873: General de Nansouty set up a weather station on the Col de Sencours, below the Pic de Midi.
  • 1874: Road between Bagnères and Barèges built, passing through through the Col du Tourmalet.
  • 1878: Foundation stone for the Observatory was laid.
  • 1888: Start of international participation in meteorological observations.
  • 1908: 8-metre Baillaud Dome built. All material and equipment was brought up by foot along rough and narrow footpaths.
  • 1927: The Tourmalet-Sencours track opened, enabling equipment to be brought up during summer by mule.
  • 1929: Project to study the Sun’s corona at times other than eclipses devised by Bernard Lyot.
  • 1931: Coronagraph built in order to enable systematic observations of the Sun’s corona.
  • 1933: Track extended to the Laquets. First refuge accommodation built.
  • 1940s: Observation of the Moon’s surface indicates a fine covering of dust.
  • 1949: Steeply sloping track built to take people and equipment from the Laquets to the summit.
  • 1949: Installation of cosmic radiation detectors.
  • 1952: Cable car built between La Mongie/Taoulet and the Pic du Midi.
  • 1959: 50-cm solar reflector and turret-dome constructed.
  • 1962: Télévision de France [TDF] building and mast completed.
  • 1963: 105-cm telescope constructed for lunar mapping, requested by NASA for the lunar landings.
  • 1980: 2-metre Bernard Lyot telescope completed.
  • 1988 and beyond: Permanent station for measuring ozone in the atmosphere added.
  • 2000: The Observatory was opened to the public during the summer season to help promote a culture of science and technology. There are now about 25,000 visitors a year.
  • 2003: The site is listed as a site of natural beauty.

Past directors of the observatory [web site in French]

  • Célestin Vaussenat (1882 - 1891)
  • Emile Marchand (1892 - 1914)
  • Camille Dauzèze (1920 - 1937)
  • Jules Baillaud (1937 - 1947)
  • Jean Rösch (1947 - 1981)
  • Jean-Paul Zahn (1981 - 1988)
  • Michel Blanc (1988 - 1998)
  • D. Guédalia (1998 -


the importance of this observatory

Comets, meteors, galaxies and Milky Way are the heart of the Observatory. The many professional astronomers come to study the atmosphere, the evolution of the ozone layer, weather, atmospheric electricity or seismic activity in the Pyrenees. The history of the site is closely linked to innovations that gripped astronomy.

Outdoor dinner at the Pic du Midi Observatoire. Image: Valérie Desnoux, François ColasThe Pic du Midi Observatory is at such a high altitude that it is in the “boundary layer” - the zone of the atmosphere beyond which the density of air, and the quantity of air molecules, and air pollution, reduces to none. Thus, the ‘transparency’ of the atmosphere at the height of this observatory enables taking extremely clear photographs of the moon, sun and other planets.

As well as university and other scientists and researchers from around the world, this facility is much used by “amateur” astronomers, who often are semi-professional in their interest.

A medical electronics scientist by profession, Valérie Desnoux has an impressive web site which includes several detailed pages on the Pic du Midi and its scientific activities. On this page, Valérie Desnoux gives an excellent, personal account of a working sejourn. It is a detailed description of one two-week visit, together with many photos of the Observatory and its inhabitants, the research undertaken and equipment used, as well as spectacular photos taken of the heavens. In all, it provides a very good feel of what it is like to live and to work at this part of the top of the world.

Bernard Lyot telescope


Gentili dome


Jean Rosch lens


the telescopes and other instruments

[The links below are to the scientists weblogs’ for each instrument. The blogs are in French, but copiously illustrated with images obtained during observation, as well as photos of the observation rooms, instruments and scientists.]

  • The coronagraph [Coro] records the activity of the sun - the flaring of gases from its surface - every day of each year. The original chronograph, that was installed in the Baillaud Dome in 1931, no longer exists. Instead there is a full-size model in the Baillaud Dome that is part of the visitors’ tour. Other chronographs were installed in another dome in 1996-1997.
  • Numerous photographs of the depths of the universe are taken by the Bernard Lyot telescope [TBL]. At 2 metres diameter, it is the largest telescope in France. It is housed in a tower 28 metres high, with a 14-metre diameter.
  • The Gentili Dome houses the 60 cm telescope [T60], which is now used by amateur astronomers interested in spectroscopy.
  • Also in the Gentili Dome is the 1 metre telescope [T1M], installed with the cooperation of NASA for observing the Moon.
  • The Jean Rösch lens [LJR], 50 cm diameter, is equipped with a spectrograph so the surface of the sun may be observed. This dome now also includes CALAS camera, developed for studying solar supergranulation [composed of gaseous cells about 30,000 km across, that last about 24 hours].


the pic du midi observatory - some interesting facts

  • Snow falls eight months of the year.
  • Temperatures can fall to -30°C during winter nights.
  • Water boils at 92°C, thanks to the lower air pressure.
  • There is 30% less oxygen in the air than at sea level.
  • Between five to thirty people work at the observatory. There are people there every day of the year.
  • Floor area, including interior and connecting corridors: 10,000 square metres.
  • Corridors: 5 km.
  • Complex is built on six levels.
  • Power supplies: two 12KWA transformers
                             a 850 KWA generator group
  • There is a water treatment station.
  • 107,795 visitors in 2005.
  • Visitor turnover: about 3 million € a year, now increasing with the inclusion of all-night visits.
  • Security:
    • 5 firemen on 24-hour duty
    • emergency beds and food for 600 people for 5 days during the summer/300 people for 10 days during winter
    • a complete pharmacy
    • hospital room with decompression chamber and semi-automatic defibrillator
    • direct link to Haute Pyrénées emergency services (SAMU and SDIS)
  • Weather reports at the Pic du Midi [in French]
  • This year, the Tour de France cycle race will go over the Col du Tourmalet [alt. 2115m] on the 14th July - Stage 10.

The Pic du Midi Observatory is part of the Midi-Pyrenees Observatory based at Toulouse.


Mir space station at the Cité de l'Espace, Toulouse.

Observing space and the bodies that travel and orbit in it, as well as furthering its exploration, has long been an interest both of scientists and military/governmental types in France.

France has been sending missions to space for a decade and more now. The heart of France’s space industry is at Toulouse, while regions west are gradually being colonised by industries involved with or related to space exploration.

Created by the City of Toulouse as a monument to this local industry and as a local attraction is Space City - le Cité de l’espace, a theme park specialising in space and space exploration. The Cité de l’espace includes a real Mir space station, the predecessor to the International Space Station.


sketch map locating Pic du Midi aire,A64

This aire is accessible from either direction of the A64 motorway. There is a pedestrian tunnel connecting the two parts of the aire. You reach the cable car access to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre two sorties further west at Sortie 14, Tournay. Of course, there are other routes from the A64 autoroute by which you can reach La Mongie and the Pic du Midi cable car. This is particularly so when approaching from the west. However, these alternatives may well be more awkward to negotiate. Consult your maps and/or online map services to help with your choice.

The Pic du Midi aire is in Département 65 - Hautes-Pyrénées.

See also the Pyrénées mountain range


end notes

  1. aire: in this context, an area —
    aire de loisirs: recreation area;
    aire de pique-nique: picnic area;
    aire de repos: rest area;
    aire de services: services , motorway (GB) or freeway (US) service station.

  2. Col
    A mountain pass between two peaks. A col could also be a gap in a mountain ridge. The Breech de Roland near Gavarnie is one such col.
    French for a mountain summit.

  3. Corona
    Outer, extremely hot, plasma layer of the Sun that sends out magma eruptions, jets of gas that are visible to the naked eye during a total solar eclipse.

  4. For more information on visiting the Observatory, see [links to English version of Pic du Midi Observatory web site], or call 05 62 56 71 11 [English-speaking not guaranteed].

    Day visits
    Ticket prices, including cable car ride and visit:
    Adult: 30€, disabled person: 27 €, children between 6 and 12 years: 21€ (under 6 yrs: free)
    Family package - 2 adults with 2 children under 18: 84€, additional child: 21€
    Audioguide rental (French, Spanish, English, German, Dutch) : 5 €
    1 June to 30 September:
    First cable car departure from La Mongie : 9.00 am/09:00
    Last cable car departure from La Mongie : 4.30 pm/16:30
    Last cable car departure from the Pic du Midi : 7.00 pm/19:00
    1 October to 31 May (check this page for dates open):
    First cable car departure from La Mongie : 10.00 am/10:00
    Last cable car departure from La Mongie : 3.00 pm/15:00
    Last cable car departure from the Pic du Midi : 5.30 pm/17:30
    Cable car trip takes 15 minutes, visit takes about 2 hours.

    Evening visits available on one or more evenings a month [calendar in French]. You go up to the Observatory during the afternoon, watch the sun set, have a starlit, and maybe moonlit, meal (a full dinner or fast food pot-luck depending on the ticket bought, look through various telescopes and return to La Mongie by 11.30 pm/23:30 hrs. There are limited numbers of places.
    Evening including dinner: 80€ adult, 42€ children under 12.
    Evening without dinner: 50€ adult, 34€ children under 12.
    Postal address: Réservation Soirées, Pic du Midi, Rue Pierre Lamy de la Chapelle, 65 200 La Mongie, France.

    For those that do reach the top by foot, there is a special ticket to enable taking the cable car back to La Mongie: 20 € for adult and 10 € for a child under 12.

    If you enter “hotel” and “La Mongie” into this Pages Jaunes [Yellow Pages] web page, about 40 results come back, of which the first five are at La Mongie, and the rest are for a town a bit lower down, Bagnères-de-Bigorre. If you prefer, you could enter other town names for other hotel details.

    Night visits: occur on one or more nights a month [calendar in French]. As well as an evening meal, you can visit the scientific facilities and watch the sunrise. Limited to 19 people per night.
    199 € per person in a single room.
    299 € for 2 persons sharing twin room, (maximum of 8 twin rooms available).
    Postal address: Réservation Nuits, Pic du Midi, Rue Pierre Lamy de la Chapelle, 65 200 La Mongie, France.

    Phone reservations: 33 (0)825 00 2877, Office hours, Monday to Friday.
    Internet reservations.

    The night car park in La Mongie is regulated. If you are coming to an evening or a night at the Pic du Midi, make sure you leave your vehicle on indicated places [night cark park map .pdf].

on first arriving in France - driving motorway aires, introduction
travelling by rail to and within France individual aires                                             
A75 autoroute from Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers and its aires Les Pyrénées, A64 Poey de Lascar, A64
A89 autoroute from Bordeaux to Clermont-Ferrand and beyond - aires Pic du Midi, A64
Hastingues, A64
Dunes, A62
Mas d’Agenais, A62
A7 - aires on the busy A7 autoroute from Lyons to Marseille Pech Loubat, A61
Port-Lauragais, A61
Mas d’Agenais, A62
Garonne, A62
A9- aires on the motorway to Spain Ayguesvives, A61
Renneville, A61
Catalan village, A9
Tavel, A9
A62 - aires on the autoroute of two seas three aires on the canal du midi, A61 Lozay, A10
Poitou-Charente, A10
A65 : the autoroute de Gascogne, from Langon to Pau Carcassonne, A61 Les Bréguières, A8
A64 and A61 - aires on the other autoroute of two seas  
A83 motorway in Poitou-Charentes - aires A63: the French Wild West, Bordeaux to the Spanish border - formerly the N10
A837 motorway in Poitou-Charentes - aires A20 - aires on the Occitane autoroute, from Brive to Montauban
A42 and A40 motorways - aires from Lyon to Switzerland and Italy A87 motorway and its aires in Poitou-Charentes

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