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(pĭr`ənēz), Span. Pirineos, Fr. Pyrénées, mountain chain of SW Europe, 21,380 sq mi (55,374 sq km), between France and Spain, a formidable barrier between the Iberian Peninsula and the European mainland. The principality of AndorraAndorra
, Fr. Andorre , officially Principality of Andorra, autonomous parliamentary co-principality (2015 est. pop. 78,000), 179 sq mi (464 sq km), high in the E Pyrenees between France and Spain, under the joint suzerainty of the president of France and the bishop of
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 is located among the peaks. Parts of six French departments and six Spanish provinces are in the Pyrenees region. Perpignan, Bayonne, and Orthez in France, Girona, Huesca, Pamplona, and Irún in Spain, and Andorra la Vella are the important cities. The Franco-Spanish border, unchanged since the Peace of the Pyrenees (1659), generally follows the watershed. The high stage of civilization reached in the Pyrenees by early humans is evidenced by the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira and Aurignac (see Paleolithic artPaleolithic art
, art produced during the Paleolithic period. Study and knowledge of this art largely have been confined to works discovered at many sites in W Europe, where the most magnificent surviving examples are paintings in a number of caves in N Spain and S France, but
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Geology and Geography

The chain extends in an almost straight line 270 mi (435 km) from the Bay of Biscay on the west to the Mediterranean Sea on the east; its maximum width is c.80 mi (130 km). About two thirds of its area is in Spain. Of the three main ranges of the Pyrenees, the central section is the highest. The Pico de Aneto, Spain (11,168 ft/3,404 m), is the tallest peak; other peaks include the Pic de Vignemale and the Pic du Midi d'Ossau (France) and Monte Perdido (Spain). The Cantabrian Mts. are a western extension of the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees were formed during the Tertiary period. Exposed crystalline rock is found in the uplands, while folded limestone composes the lower slopes. Glaciated in the distant past, the Pyrenees do not have any glaciers now. The permanent snowline is at an elevation of c.6,000 ft (1,830 m).

Characteristic of the French Pyrenees, which are much steeper than the southern slopes, are the torrents called gaves, often falling in cascades, and the natural amphitheaters known as cirques, notably the famous Cirque de Gavarnie. The more important rivers—the Garonne, the Aude, and the Adour—run north; among the Spanish rivers rising in the Pyrenees are the Aragón, the Cinca, and the Segre. The Pyrenees are a climatic divide. The northern slopes receive abundant rainfall while the southern slopes have a steppelike climate.


The Pyrenees are crossed by two rail lines, but the chief rail lines connecting Spain with France skirt the Pyrenees along both coasts. A number of roads cross the Pyrenees; of the major ones, three use tunnels and four are through high passes that can become snowbound in winter and spring. Most of the mountain passes are high and difficult, but they were often crossed by invading armies and barbarian hordes and by innumerable medieval pilgrims on their way to Santiago de CompostelaSantiago de Compostela
or Santiago,
city (1990 pop. 91,419), capital of Galicia, in A Coruña prov., NW Spain, on the Sar River. The city is one of the chief shrines of Christendom. There in the early 9th cent. the supposed tomb of the apostle St.
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. The Col de Perthus, used by the Romans, and RoncesvallesRoncesvalles
, Fr. Roncevaux, mountain pass (alt. 3,468 ft/1,057 m), in the Pyrenees, between Pamplona (Spain) and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (France). Tradition has made it the scene of the death of the hero Roland.
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, famous for the Roland legend, are the best known.


The Pyrenees are rich in timber and in pastures, and the many streams are utilized by hydroelectric power stations. Talc and zinc are mined there. The population, partly of Basque and Bearnese stock, engages mostly in stock raising and agriculture. On the French side are the best-known resorts, such as Pau and Tarbes, famed both for the beauty of their scenery and for their mineral waters. Lourdes, one of the world's chief places of pilgrimage, is also there. On the Atlantic shore, below the W Pyrenees, are the fashionable resorts of Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz (France) and San Sebastián (Spain).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Spanish, Pirineos; French, Pyrénées), a mountain system in southwestern Europe, in Spain, France, and Andorra; an important natural frontier separating the Mediterranean from Central Europe. The Pyrenees stretch for some 450 km from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea, reaching a maximum width of 110 km in the central and eastern sections and rising to 3,404 m at Aneto Peak in the Maladetta Range.

As a result of mountain-building movements, primarily alpine, the ancient Hercynian core of the Pyrenees was uplifted to a considerable height, and the sedimentary strata overlying it were sharply folded, in some places forming overthrusts. The topography combines medium-elevation flat-topped massifs and folded linear ranges. The relief is alpine in the highest parts of the mountains, which underwent Pleistocene glaciation. Contemporary glaciers, covering about 40 sq km, are concentrated in the Central Pyrenees, composed chiefly of crystalline rocks (granites and gneisses), as well as slates and sandstones. The Western Pyrenees are medium-elevation mountains composed primarily of Mesozoic limestones with massifs of crystalline rock. The Eastern Pyrenees consist of ranges and massifs of crystalline rock, sandstone, and limestone dissected by inter-montane depressions with flat bottoms. Natural resources include deposits of iron ore in the west near Rentería and in the northeast at Vernet, brown coal at Figols on the south slope, bauxite near Tarascon on the north slope, manganese ores in the Neste Valley, and marble and granite. There are many hot springs.

The climate is moderate and humid, except in the southeast, which has a subtropical Mediterranean climate. The mean January temperature, 4°-8°C at elevations of up to 500–600 m, falls to between — 8°C and — 10°C in the highest ranges. In July temperatures average about 18°C in the western foothills and reach a maximum of 24°C in the eastern foothills. Near the snow line, lying at 2,400–2,800 m on the northern slopes and at about 3,000 m on the southern slopes, the temperature is about 5°C. The northern slopes receive 1,500–2,400 mm of precipitation annually and the southern slopes, up to 500–750 mm. Over most of the Pyrenees the precipitation falls throughout the year; the east has dry summers. The rivers are full and flow in deep narrow valleys, sometimes forming waterfalls, such as the famous Gavarnie Falls. Their hydroelectric potential is considerable. The rivers that empty into the Mediterranean have a low flow in summer and dry up in places during years of drought. There are numerous shallow lakes of glacial, avalanche, or tectonic origin. Lakes and rivers that flow underground for part of their stretches are found in limestone areas and regions with a karst topography.

Forest landscapes predominate over much of the Pyrenees to elevations of 1,800–2,100 m. Deciduous and coniferous forests are found primarily on the northern and western slopes. In the lower part of the forest zone are broad-leaved forests of oak, chestnut, maple, and beech; in the middle part pine forests alternate with oak and beech forests; and the upper part is covered chiefly by beech, spruce, and fir forests with an admixture of birch. On the southern and eastern slopes, forests alternate with shrub thickets and heathland, with shrubs predominating near the Mediterranean Sea. Here, up to 500–700 m are found evergreen formations of the maquis, garigue, and tomillares type, as well as open woodlands of holm and cork oak and subtropical species of pine. Above the forest zone, high-mountain shrub thickets of mountain pine, juniper, rhododendron, and azalea give way to alpine meadows. Much of the natural vegetation of the Pyrenees has survived.

Wildlife includes such mammals as the chamois, wild boar, badger, Spanish ibex, and genet. Among birds are capercaillies, partridges, eagles, vultures, and hawks. The mountain fauna and landscapes are protected in the Aigues Tortes and Ordesa national parks in Spain and in the Néouvielle Preserve in France. In the foothills and intermontane basins are fields of wheat, corn, barley, and oats, as well as vineyards and orchards; groves of cork oak and olives are also found in the east. Cattle, sheep, and goats are raised in pastures in the forest zone and in the high-mountain meadows. Tourism is an important source of revenue.

Based on natural conditions, the Pyrenees are divided into the Western Pyrenees, extending from the Atlantic Ocean to Somport Pass, the Central Pyrenees, encompassing the area from Somport Pass to Carlitte Peak, and the Eastern Pyrenees, stretching from Carlitte Peak to the Mediterranean Sea.


Martonne, E. Fizicheskaia geografiia Frantsii. Moscow, 1950. (Translated from French.)
Birot, P., and J. Dresch. Sredizemnomor’e, vol. 1. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from French.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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