The Cirque de Gavarnie is a cirque in the central Pyrenees, in south-western France, close to the border of Spain. It was described by Victor Hugo as « the Colosseum of nature » due to its enormous size and horseshoe shape causing a resemblance to an amphitheatre. It is located within the commune of Gavarnie, the department of Hautes-Pyrénées, and the Pyrenees National Park. Major features of the cirque are La Brèche de Roland (English: Roland’s Pass) and the Gavarnie Falls.
The cirque is 800 m wide (on the deepest point) and about 3,000 m wide at the top. The rock walls that surround it can be as high as 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) above the floor of the Cirque. During the warmer seasons of spring and fall, there are a number of large meltwater falls that spill into the cirque. The largest of these is Gavarnie Falls, the second highest waterfall in Europe. It descends some 422 metres (1,385 ft) over a series of steps before reaching the floor of the cirque.
The waterfall is the beginning of the Gave de Pau stream. It is fed by a melting snow and a small glacier, located in Spain. This water seeps underground until it appears at the upper rim of waterfall. The average annual flow in the waterfall is 3 m3/s. In summer, when the snowmelt is most intense, it can reach up to 200 m3/s. In winter it sometimes freezes and stops flowing.
There are also several passes and clefts between the peaks that form the rim of the Cirque. The largest is La Brèche de Roland, at 2,800 metres (9,200 ft) above sea level. Legend says that its sheer walls were cut into the mountain by the sword of the hero Roland, nephew to Charlemagne.
The cirque, and many others like it in the Pyrenees, was formed by the process of glacial erosion. The Cirque de Gavarnie’s uniquely immense size was likely caused by repeated cycles of glacial scraping over millions of years.