The Vall de Boi Part 1 – Taüll

14/11/18 – 15/11/18

The Vall de Boi is the second major entry point to the Aiguestortes I Estany de Sant Maurici national park (the other being Espot). The valley runs from south to north into the park and so we had to leave Salardu, drive west to Vielha and then south before we could take the road that would take us deeper into the mountains.

In Vielha we stopped to take advantage of their supermarkets, a quick trip to replenish supplies especially as our experience was that November is a really quiet month and many smaller shops and bakeries are closed. Vielha was a nice town and we might have stayed here longer if we hadn’t overshot our proposed parking spot by missing the turning and so ended up at an out of town supermarket. Rather than turn back we moved onwards, taking the Vielha tunnel through the mountains. This is a common route across the Pyrenees for many people who are heading to Spain. In these winter months very few actually stop here in the mountains, preferring to get to the sun as soon as they can. We saw a few British vans on our drive but still haven’t seen any parked up in the Spanish mountains.

The route into the Vall de Boi is well signposted and we followed the road northwards amongst some of the most vibrant autumn colours we have seen so far, from scarlet to deep chestnut brown. Just south of Barruera there is a motorhome service point and we stopped to empty and refill. Only to find that the water was turned off. At least we could empty the toilet cassette, using one of our spare water bottles to provide a bit of a rinse. We considered parking here but we really needed to get some water on board, plus the service area has a very strange rule of no daytime parking. Only parking between 8pm and 8am, perhaps a way of ensuring that people move on.

Autumn colours

With a little investigation we discovered that there might be water at Taüll, a little further up the valley so we popped up there to investigate. There is an area of mixed parking with open public toilets, but the drinking water tap in the play area is off. We parked up and wandered into the village where we find a tap near the church that is working. A couple of trips backwards and forwards with our water carriers and we’d topped up enough for the essentials (cups of tea).

Because Paul wasn’t in the mood for walking we decided to drive Bertie further up the valley to the ski area of Boi-Taüll. On the way we spotted a couple of information posts for walking and snowshoeing trails and popped out of the van to take a look.

Stopping for a look around near the Boi-Taull ski area

The ski area parking was closed though so it was back down to Taüll for the evening. We wandered around the village where two churches vie for the title of prettiest Romanesque church. The curved stone buildings and perforated bell towers look like they’ve been directly transplanted from Italy but are quite typical of the 11th century churches in the area. The frescos inside are amazing, although many are reproductions with the valuable originals preserved in museums.

Sant Climent de Taull, one of three Romanesque churches constructed in the village, although Sant Marti was destroyed in an avalanche.
We saw this chap cycling up to the ski area, a clever home made ski and boot carrier on the back of his bike.

The following morning we drove back up to the ski area to walk the snowshoe trail that starts just below the ski area. There are two trails from here, a blue and a red, and we combined them both together to make a trail that took us to a couple of small tops with views over the hills and the ski area. On our way back it felt like it was raining, but actually they were running the snow makers.

Views from the top of the snowshoe trail. The stark line between snow clad north and bare south facing slopes is evident.

On our way down the hill I feel a little unfulfilled, our snowshoe walk had been a pleasant but undemanding seven kilometres and I wanted to go a bit further. Paul didn’t have the same motivation but was happy to stop part way down the road at another trailhead where I could walk a short circular route up one side of the Riu de Sant Marti and back down the other. It’s not often I walk on my own and I felt a bit odd walking without company, but the walk itself was really nice. It started on a track that swiftly became a path climbing the side of the valley. The sound of falling rocks startled me at one point, but it was a deer running across the scree. There had been a little snow on the path up to the bridge, but heading back down the other side of the river on the north facing slopes the snow hadn’t melted and I had a few moments where I had to cast about to find the path, something that is a lot more unnerving when you’re alone, but at least I knew I could retrace my steps.

Views on my walk around the Sant Marti river

That evening we drove out of this part of the valley and up towards the Caldes de Boi where we would be spending the next couple of nights.  

 

 

The Gerber Valley and Vall d’Aran

12/11/18 – 13/11/18

If you travel anti-clockwise from Rialp around the Aigüestortes I Estany de Sant Maurici national park, you eventually end up in the Vall d’Aran. It’s a drive I would highly recommend, following the highly scenic river valley of the Noguera Palleresa northwards before turning away to the west. Only a short stretch is single track as it skirts around the cliffs just south of the village of Sorpe, the rest is a nice wide road and it’s only when it starts to make squiggly switchbacks just below the ski area of Baqueira-Beret that it really starts to gain height.

Looking down on switchbacks

The parking at the ski area was our first destination, the starting point for a walk into the Gerber valley. There was already snow on the ground here and so we strapped our snowshoes onto our rucksacks. We wanted to test them out on a walking route rather than a designated snowshoe route to see if they allowed us to extend out walk further, after all that’s the reason we had bought them.

We weren’t the only people parked up here, the ski lifts were being tested so a couple of workers vans were in the car park and two people were already making their way up the ski slopes on their touring skis. Our route was not going up the ski slopes, but heading southeast from the bottom of the ski lift, following green signs along the side of the hill above the switchbacks we had just driven.

Our first hurdle was a series of avalanches. The snow of a few days ago had been warmed and melted by the sun and had sloughed off of the ground underneath leaving long bare stretches of grass and blocks of snow fanning out across the path. We had to pick our way around the debris and find the path again on the other side, a careful and painstaking exercise on what would normally be an easy path.

Avalanche debris

Once past this section we ventured into the Gerber valley itself. The snow was getting thicker but the path between the trees was quite rocky. We weren’t really sure whether to put the snowshoes on and decided to leave it as long as possible. One thing that we now know about snowshoes is that they don’t allow you to magically float over the top of the snow – you still sink, just not quite as far and not as quickly. This means that walking in snowshoes has less impact on your joints than the repeated painful moments when walking in boots and the snow isn’t as firm as you thought. But it also means that you can snag on rocks and shrubs under the snow if it’s not deep enough.

Snowshoes are on

We finally decided the snowshoes had to go on when we started to hit knee deep snow while picking our way amongst snow, rock and streams around the Estanyera del Mig.  With a sign of relief we walked onwards up to the Estany Gerber, a large lake set amongst the peaks. To the south we could just make out the tops of El Encantats. We ate our lunch here, watching a squirrel jumping between the trees, and decided that we would turn around despite only having come 4.5km. Our avalanche avoidance had worn us out and we’d taken nearly three hours getting this far.

Estany Gerber

We retraced our steps, keeping our snowshoes on until we started to see bare earth between the rocks and snow. Walking rocky paths in snowshoes does have it’s tricky moments, and I can see why the more heavy duty mountaineering snowshoes have a narrower design to avoid getting them trapped between rocks.

On the way back down

Back at Bertie we decided that it was too cold to stay overnight at our parking spot, so (after a cuppa of course) we drove down into the Aran Valley to the village of Salardu where there was designated motorhome parking. Our route took us through the massive ski area which is the largest in Spain and often hosts the Spanish royal family on their skiing holidays. There is a lot of new but ‘tasteful’ development here. Not so many large scale hotels, but lots of homogenous smaller apartment blocks in grey stone to blend with the traditional construction of the villages. On the switchbacks down into the lower reaches of the valley there was construction work taking place, keeping us waiting for about twenty minutes as they manoeuvred huge stone blocks into place in an incredibly large scale version of dry stone walling.

Building the biggest dry stone walls

Down in Salardu the motorhome parking was in a rough gravelled area next to the river with good views of the mountains. A bit of undeveloped ground that was being put to good use from our perspective. A number of vans were obviously there on a long term basis, being used by workers or just parked up by locals. There were no services but it was flat and there were water fountains in the village where we could fill up our bottles.

Parking in Salardu

We took a walk up to the car park where there was a tourist office, unmanned but with a touchscreen information point and several maps. When we saw the number of BTT (mountain biking) trails in the area we felt very frustrated. We cant wait to get Paul’s bike back up and running.

We also tried to find a shop that was open to pick up some bread, but there were no shops open at this time of year, just a couple of cafes.

The following morning we set out for a gentle stroll in the Aran valley. We followed  the sign posts around the valley. Heading south to the reservoir Aiguamog and it’s picnic area, then up to Baqueira village with it’s identikit ski accommodation and gondola station.

Next stop was the village of Tredós and then finally back to Salardu. This was all on country lanes, some on tarmac, some rocks and cobbles and some dirt tracks but very easy going and a pleasant alternative to mountain walking. Our legs thanked us for the rest and we enjoyed soaking up the sunshine, watching fish in the river and horses and cattle in the fields.

That night we stayed in Salardu again, it was a quiet and comfortable area. We’ve got some unfinished business here and I’m sure we’ll find ourselves mountain biking in the valley sometime in the next few years.  

Rest and Remembrance

11/11/18

The 11th of November has been an ever looming date in the diary this year. The 100th anniversary of Armistice Day for World War I. Throughout the UK and many parts of Europe it was being commemorated with special events. Not so in Spain however, although there were some commemorative activities happening, particularly in expatriate areas. Spain was a neutral party in the first world war and doesn’t attach the same significance to it as they do to the Spanish Civil War. Despite their neutrality Spain couldn’t help but be impacted by the war, and here in Catalan Spain there were a number of people who left to join the Foreign Legion and support their French Catalan brethren. I have nothing new to say, that hasn’t been said before, but still I think it bears repeating. We must never forget what we humans are capable of, both the evil we do when divided and partisan, and the sacrifices that are made in our search for peace and unity.   

The 11th of November is not just important to us because it’s Remembrance Day. It is also is Aaron’s birthday. 23 this year, how time flies! Of course we spoke to him that evening to add our Happy Birthdays to the many that he’d accumulated.  

The third reason that the 11th of November is important is that it represents one whole year since Paul stopped smoking. Over the past months he has coped with the withdrawal pretty well, only a slightly increased irritability and a widening of his waistband evidencing the stress of giving up and hinting at his alternative habit. Fortunately doughnuts are no longer a daily necessity.

We whiled away the day in Rialp taking a walk through the town where a few cafes were open, over the Pont de Santa Carolina and then north to cross the river again before heading back south to Rialp and visiting the slightly underwhelming castle. It was only about 8km but it was enough to keep our legs stretched. 

The Pont de Sant Catarina with Rialp beyond

We stayed for a second night here in Rialp to take advantage of the milder climate before heading back into the high mountains.

Walks Around Espot and the Estany de Sant Maurici

09/11/18 – 10/11/18

When planning on leaving Andorra we had been trying to work out what next. Truth to tell we hadn’t been chased away from the mountains as soon as we’d expected. The autumn of our pessimistic imaginings, beset with rain and snow had, in reality, turned out to be mostly sunny and cold. And we’d been so busy enjoying the mountains that we’d given no thought to our original plans to visit inland Spain and get as far as Madrid. Even knowing that we had less than six weeks before our ferry home wasn’t enough to persuade us to drag ourselves away from the Pyrenees. We would visit the Aigüestortes I Estany de Sant Maurici National Park before reassessing our plans.

This is one of two National Parks in the Spanish Pyrenees (there are National Parks and Natural Parks, and then just the rest of the mountains) and because of the National Park status it has particular protections, including vehicular access to the park area. We wouldn’t be able to (nor would we want to) drive the trails into the park itself, those are the preserve of the authorised four wheel drive taxis, nor would we be able to drive to some of the car parks on the edge of the park due to our size (a lot of the roads have a 2m width restriction). Despite this we were hopeful that we would find hikes we could do from car parks we could access.

Our other practical planning concern was access to motorhome services. November is the month of preparation and repair for many of the campsites in the area so nearly all of them were closed. Plus there aren’t huge numbers of motorhome parking spots with services. We did a little research and had some likely areas targeted and, with a bit of doubling back, we knew we could enjoy the lowest of the low season in this area.

So our first stop was Rialp, which is where you would have found us on the morning of  November 9th. This town just outside the south east corner of the park has a motorhome service point and large area of parking alongside the river and near their football field. It was a really peaceful spot for sleeping and we made sure to empty and top up before we left. The garage across the road was also a small Dia supermarket where we picked up a few supplies. We were all set for our first destination – Espot.

Parking area in Rialp

Maybe Espot wasn’t quite ready for us. Our journey was interrupted twice as we travelled this scenic road next to the river. The first time we came to a halt in a small queue of traffic, as we crept round the corner we saw a few fluorescent jacketed individuals standing in the road. One person directing traffic and the others looking in consternation up the cliff to our right. A couple of people were let through and then a hand was waved and traffic was stopped, a slow trickle of rocks dribbled out from underneath the avalanche/rockfall protective netting, and then a few more. As an encore a head sized slab of slate bounced out from under the netting, rising up a couple of meters before coming down next to a man in an orange jacket who looked at it with that kind of bemusement that you get when you know you’ve just dodged something life threatening and there was no way you could have avoided it if your number was up.

Just a little rock slide, but every rock a potential menace

When we were finally allowed to edge past the rockfall everyone was standing a little further away. We held our breath and hoped that Bertie’s rumbling weight didn’t precipitate any further falls. It looked so innocuous, the avalanche netting holding most of the debris back apart from a small mound of stone. It’s another reminder of the power of the mountains.

The second interruption to our journey was far less frightening, although the flashing lights of the police car heading our way worried us at first. The policeman waved us down from his window and asked if we spoke Spanish. With my reply of ‘un poco’ he obviously decided that it would be better to speak English. He obviously knew that a British person’s definition of ‘a little’ would probably only enable them to get by in a restaurant and campsite.

Anyhow, the reason for the flashing lights was the approach of a herd of horses (I do actually know the word for horses – so there) being ushered down from the mountains to lower pastures and possibly the abattoir. I don’t know much about the farming of horses in the Pyrenees but I do know that many are now bred for their meat. Eating horse meat is something that feels wrong to many British people, but now we no longer rely on them for transport, using them for meat is the main reason why you still find so many herds in the mountains.

The horses came out of the tunnel ahead of us, probably a couple of hundred, some spirited and restless, some young and nervous, others old and weary and one final lame horse that really didn’t look like it should be taking the journey at all.

Watching the horses go past

With the horses all through we could carry on uninterrupted to Espot where we parked for the moment in the large parking at the entrance to the village. Overnight parking is not allowed here but I wanted to pop into the tourist office and see if I could pick up a map. The lady in the tourist office provided me with a free map of the key paths but I spotted that they had a 1:25000 map of the park for sale and I wanted it!

Because of the restrictions on parking in the village we were heading up to the Espot ski area where we would spend the night. We drove round the extensive parking a couple of times trying to find the most level spot before settling in behind the amber leaved trees. Our afternoon activity was going to be some more snowshoeing, this time following the marked ‘Les Picards’ circuit up the ski slopes to the Estany de la Bassa and the viewpoint above. First of all we had to walk the 3 km from the car park to the mid station, an easy walk up a track with signposts. After about 2km the snowshoes went on and we continued up the track until we found the first of the red lollipop signposts that mark the snowshoe route.

Way markers on the snowshoe route

The only downside of this short route was the lack of anywhere to sit and drink our hot drinks. Everywhere was covered in snow. In the end we brushed off the steps at the top of the ski lift and sat on the rather cold metal while we watched the start stop of the ski lifts as down below each chair was being lifted onto the wire. On the way down we spotted finally spotted some wildlife, a small group of three Isards jumping across the track to drink from the stream.

Distant views as the clouds start to clear

It was a cold evening, we had the heating on but the lack of sun had left us with only partially charged batteries to run the fan that blows the warm air around so we had yet another drive around the parking area to try to inject some life into them. The hot water bottle was a welcome addition to our bed that night. 

The following morning we drove back down to the parking at Espot, we were going to walk one of the main routes in the park to the Estany de Sant Maurici. We weren’t able to drive up to the next area of parking so our choices were to either walk from the village, or to get a taxi up to the next parking spot or even to get a taxi all the way to the lake and walk from there. We chose to save our money and walk from the village, the taxi service was going to be busy anyway on this pleasant Saturday, we could tell from the number of people turning up in their everyday clothes including one coachfull.

Initially this walk, which follows the GR11 route throughout, starts on the road that leads up to the next parking area. After a couple of km we were able to take the path to the right that led along the back of some fields amongst rocks and occasional trees. The lady in the tourist office had informed us that there was no need for snowshoes on the route as it was so well trodden and this lower section, much less well trodden, was completely free of snow. We didn’t see anyone on the first part of the walk which was lovely and peaceful, just the occasional whinny of a horse in the fields and the unceasing murmer of the river below us. Vultures wheeled silently above the walls of the valley and small birds flitted from tree to tree.

Leaving Espot

The path from the upper car park joined our route in an open valley where the terrain levelled off for a while and the river flowed past in gentle meanders. There were a lot more walkers here and we could also see the road and the steady stream of 4WD taxis ferrying people all the way up to the lake. There was more snow here, the path either clear or compacted snow (or ice in the shady spots) and the snow increased gradually as we ascended again through pine forest up to the lake. The jagged peaks to the south, including the very distinctive triple peak of ‘Els Encantats’ – the enchanters, were blocking the sun and it was getting pretty chilly. Our stop at the lake to eat lunch was brief as we didn’t want to cold down too much. We turned around to retrace our steps, we would stop again to finish our lunch when we got somewhere with a bit more sun to warm us.

Mountains blocking the sun
Els Encantats
Lake of Sant Maurici

Back at Bertie in the parking area we found a wallet and handed it in to the taxi office as the park office was shut until four. Hopefully the owner got it back again, it had their ID card in so fingers crossed they could be tracked down. We waited in Bertie while we had a warming cuppa wondering if the owner would turn up, but there was no sight of them. Due to the cold we decided to head back to the lower altitudes of Rialp that night and prepare ourselves for our next foray into the park.

Walk and Snowshoe at Espot Ski Area – Les Picards
  • Distance: 10.8 km
  • Total Elevation: 726 m
  • Time taken: 3hrs 23mins
  • Type of Route: Easy/Moderate – somewhat steep in parts
  • Further Information: https://www.espotesqui.cat/hivern/
Walk from Espot to the Estany de Sant Maurici
  • Distance: 16.2 km
  • Total Elevation: 610 m
  • Time taken: 4hrs 15mins
  • Type of Route: Easy
  • Further Information: https://www.espotesqui.cat/en/summer/ , Carpeta Alpina 1:25000 National Park Map

A Final Walk in Andorra’s Hills

06/11/18 – 08/11/18

After trying out our snowshoes we were very tempted to stay up in Arinsal and spend the evening admiring the views, but a quick check of the overnight temperature and we swiftly abandoned that idea. Minus 7 was too cold even for us fairly hardy souls. Instead we backtracked down the valley to a parking area we had seen earlier next to the side of the road. Parking Borda de Torres is on the outskirts of the small but lively town of La Massana and offers services and 16A electricity for 12 euros per 24 hours (you can use the services by paying for one hour’s parking which I think was 3 euros but I didn’t make a note), we thought it was worth a try. The parking spaces were close to the road and slightly sloping, but we didn’t have much overnight traffic noise, certainly not enough to wake us up and with our heating on we were so warm and toasty we didn’t feel like getting up in the morning.

When we finally dragged ourselves from our slightly stuffy bedroom we had a look at walks available in the area. We decided to do a circular walk that would head up on the Cami de Sola and head back on the Cami dell col d’Ordino. First of all we needed to get to the start of the trail, which meant either a drive or a walk to l’Aldosa de la Massana, a small hamlet just about 2k to our southwest. We decided to walk and picked up the Cami deles Molleres, wiggling back and forth up steps until we reached the CS-335 road. We had to walk south along this road for a few minutes before we found the start of the path on our left marked with a wooden sign. It took us up what looked like someone’s drive before leaving asphalt and carrying on around the north of the property’s garden.

Rustic Barn in L’Aldosa de La Massana

Now we were on a proper trail, pleasantly rocky underfoot, that took us through the woods slowly gaining height and with nice views to the south across the valley. As we approached the highest point (about 1920m) we met a track, which we followed up a switchback into snow. Not enough for snowshoes (we hadn’t lugged them all this way), just a crisp coating on the grass. We followed the sign that took us over the small clearing and into the woods beyond.

Southward views from the Cami del Sola

Now on the north facing side of the hill the snow was more widespread, we crossed the closed and uncleared Coll d’Ordino road a couple of times as we worked our way down the path slipping over slush on rocks and tree roots and being dripped on by branches of slowly melting snow. As we worked our way lower in the valley we started following the narrow stream of the Riu de les Aubes as it gurgled down towards the village of Ordino.

Crossing the road on the Cami del Coll d’Ordino

 

River crossings, nice and easy for once

Once the village had been navigated we were on the track of the Cami de Santa Barbara back into La Massana where we had to endure a walk along the road back to the parking spot. Walking along the road was the only downside to a pleasant wander in the hills around La Massana.

Tiny Church of Santa Barbara

As we had overstayed 24 hours we decdied we might as well remain in our parking spot for a second night. A few minutes of google map searching later revealed there was a self service laundry in town (I’m still not happy to hand my dirty knickers over to just anyone) so that was our plan for the following morning. I carried a fat holdall of washing down to the Net and Sec ‘bugaderia’ and wandered around the town while it washed and then dried. Paul spent the time giving Bertie’s innards a good clean and taping over some of the holes in our heating vents (like the one that warms up the food cupboard – completely unnecessary).

After lunch we were on our way back out of Andorra into Spain, the traffic was a lot more normal than it had been on our arrival and the only hold up was a cursory inspection of Bertie as we went through customs. 

We concluded that, despite our first impressions, we quite liked the bustling energy of the principality and would be happy to come back and explore it a little more. There’s more to Andorra than duty free.

Spend! Spend! Spend!

05/11/18 – 06/11/18

If I ever claim that our pastimes are cheap then please feel free to have a word. Of course going for a walk or a bike ride costs nothing but kitting oneself out for walking, cycling and other outdoor stuff comes with a cost. 

After our walk on the snowy hills of Andorra we had confirmed something we’d talked about since our spring in the Italian Alps, we want snow shoes! We want a way to extend our walks in snowy conditions of spring and autumn. We aren’t alpinists, we don’t want to scale icy peaks carrying ice-axe and crampons and avalanche transceivers (well maybe we do, but not yet, one step at a time), we just want to be able to walk comfortably in snowy conditions.

We have been researching on and off for a little while and had decided it was actually cheapest to buy snowshoes in the UK. The exchange rate at the moment isn’t great (have you noticed?) and in general the UK offers the best bargains. We hadn’t looked at Andorra though, so we had a look in the El Tarter outdoors shop (not a great selection) and then took a little trip into Andorra la Vella.

An hour of browsing later and we were the proud owners of a pair of middle of the range snowshoes. Not as sexy as the mountaineering ones, but good enough for us and a lot cheaper. A price comparison with the UK showed we had made a tiny saving, but at least we hadn’t spent more.

And while we were there…I just happened to buy a new pair of four season boots. At 12 years old my trusty Scarpa SL boots have had their day and weren’t coping with snow and rocks very well. I was tempted by a pair of last season’s boots but unfortunately they didn’t have them in my size, but then I couldn’t resist the temptation of this season’s boots. Luckily there was a much better saving on these Swiss (but manufactured in Romania) boots. Not that they were cheap!!!

New boots – despite the cost I love them.

Having spent all this money, and feeling slightly ill, I told Paul that we needed to get any duty free bought today. Then it would all be done and I could forget about the massive hole in our budget. A quick trip to the ‘River Centre’ supermarket near Saint Julia de Loria and we were lighter by some more euros (and heaver by a bit more liquid). Luckily the supermarket allows overnight parking and even has services. Without any need to move I could sit and drown my sorrows with a glass or two. It was raining too which accompanied my mood perfectly. Paul decided to make himself busy and useful (avoid my grumpiness) by fixing our sink which had come adrift from it’s housing. 

Put down that massive bottle of vodka Paul – or maybe not!

The following morning, spending put behind us, we decided to go and try out our snowshoes. We drove up to Arinsal ski resort where there is a large parking area with lovely views.

First we played with the snowshoes in the warmth of the van, adjusting them to the right size and ensuring that we understood how to get them on and off. The slopes were nicely covered with fresh new snow ready and waiting for us, so once we were confident we made our way outside, the snowshoes initially attached to the sides of our rucksacks. We followed a track up beside the north side of the slopes until the mushy snow and mud combination became fluffy white stuff and then we donned our snowshoes.

Snowshoes!

We did a circuit of the main slope, trying out our heel lifts as we walked uphill – a godsend and something I’ve not had when hiring snowshoes in the past, it’s like wearing heels and stops your calves from over straining on uphill walks – and seeing how steep the downhill slopes need to get before our snowshoes started slipping – the crampons underneath were pretty good at gripping the snow. We walked about 6km, so not a lot, but it was a good way to understand the limits of our equipment. We cant wait to try them out for real.

Andorra: Love It or Loath It?

03/11/18 -04/11/18

We made a complete misjudgement with our visit to Andorra. We decided to drive there on a Saturday on a Spanish holiday weekend. It wasn’t planned, we had just lost track of the day. We have no excuse, it was obvious from the busy parking area in Ripoll that morning that everyone was out enjoying the long weekend. But we didn’t twig and with no expectation of the journey to come we set off.

The journey started well, following the dramatic N-260 up towards the Collada de Toses at 1800m. This drive was spectacular, and supposedly the other side of the col is even more so, but when we reached the highest point we were directed down an alternative route – the road had not yet been cleared of snow. No worries, the alternative road took us past the ski resort of La Molina where we stopped and watched people skiing despite the lifts being out of actions. Lots of families were there with children, giving them a few skiing lessons or just enjoying a bit of sledging.

The traffic chaos started just as we turned north onto the N-145, for the next two hours we sat in slow moving queues of vehicles. By the time we got to the turn off for Andorra la Vella, our planned stop for a bit of shopping, we’d had enough. There was no way we wanted to venture near this busy town through traffic that rivalled Italy or the UK.

Queues of traffic entering Andorra

We drove straight on, following the signs to France, until the traffic eased and we could release our pent breath and relax our tense muscles. At El Tarter we saw a large parking area near the ski lifts and decided to park up for the day. It was an ugly car park with little to recommend it apart from the fact it was free and motorhomes were allowed, but sometimes that’s good enough. 

That afternoon, once we’d recovered, we nosed around the local area a bit, popping into the shops that offered all sorts of alcohol and tobacco – and some that actually offered something else. We tasted cheeses, sausage and ham and picked up some of the nicer cured meat for sandwich fillings. We popped into an outdoor equipment shop and browsed through the contents, mostly last season’s stuff. We wandered around streets of identikit apartments and finally found the few houses of the old village and the tiny church of Sant Pere del Tarter. 

To try and rid ourselves of anti-Andorra vibes we planned a walk up into the hills the following day. Although there was plenty of snow around it was very clear that the south facing slopes were largely clear of snow, whereas the north facing slopes, untouched by the sun, were still covered with their fluffy white blanket.

Looking across to the slopes of El Tarter, our parking spot in the centre of the photo – can you make out Bertie?

Although our map covered this part of Andorra, it didn’t have many paths marked on the map. We couldn’t work out a decent route and turned to wikiloc for a bit of help. A number of people had recorded the same route on wikiloc, going up to the Estany del Querol and Estanys de les Salamandres. It looked like it would be a well marked trail and we could see a way of making it into a loop by going on to the refuge at Cabana Sorda and then back down the Incles valley.

The main difficulty was finding a way from our parking spot to the start of the walk on a road to the north of El Tarter. We could see various trails leading up the side of the mountain, so trusted to our sense of direction (ie go straight up). We went as high as we could along the Cami de la Basera and after the last turn we found steps on the right, leading up the hill. These steps were obviously on the local dog walking route as we found (smelled) Dog Poo Corner, presumably at the point most people would turn around and go back downhill.

From here we followed a path that took a couple of zig zags uphill, crossed one road and then deposited us at the start of the walk, well signposted with wooden notices. There was a bit of parking up here but we were glad we hadn’t tried to drive Bertie up. The snow started almost straight away, but the path was clear and easy to follow as it zig-zagged steeply up through fir trees. After about 4km we were out into the open with grand views of snow covered hills in front and behind us.

So many mountains – looking back towards El Tarter

The slope eased off, and although we were now going across the snow it was pretty easy going. On the rise just before the first lake we bumped into a gentleman who had been up to the Estany Querol and pronounced it ‘just perfect’ (everyone speaks such good English! it makes me embarrassed) but said that the ongoing route was too snowy for him. Well that was a challenge wasn’t it! It’s happened to us before, and we don’t like to be beaten.

So we made our way to the lake which was indeed very attractive, and from there we followed footprints and signposts to the Estanys de les Salamandres, which were equally as beautiful.

Walking up to the next lake, the snow was getting deep here
Estany de Querol

After that the snow was deep and unbroken white, no one had been here since the snow had fallen. An occasional route marker was visible but generally we were crossing a featureless terrain. We knew we were heading in roughly the right direction as we took an easterly route down the slope, always sticking to the least steep option. Finally we could see the gorge of the Riu de Cabana Sorda ahead of us. If we stuck to our original plan we would be traversing around a steep slope at this point, taking us to a point where we could cross the river and find the refuge. But we didn’t like the look of the slope we needed to traverse, it was steep and snow covered, even if it wasn’t an avalanche risk there was a possibility we would misstep off the path and slip down the hill.

We cast about, exploring the more gentle slopes. Our map showed some paths that headed up from the Incles valley towards our position, but they all ended before they got this high. Would we be able to find a path that joined up with them and avoid retracing our steps?

Breaking new ground as we try to find an easier onward path. Paul still in a t-shirt!

The lucky answer was yes, Paul’s sharp eyes picked up a trodden path below us, looking like it went off the edge of the river’s ravine. We agreed we would walk down and take a look, but turn around if it looked in any way difficult. When we got to the footprints we realised that the path turned away from the edge of the ravine and went in a southerly direction down a rocky path that was mostly clear of snow. It looked like it was going the right way for us, and we happily followed it, feeling relieved.

The path took us down into the Incles valley where we could have crossed the road and found a path, but decided that our tired feet would enjoy a bit of even tarmac for a change. This valley really was pretty, not just because we had actually made it in one piece, it’s southern aspect made it a little sun trap, warm and sunny but surrounded by white peaks. As a contrast to Andorra’s main road there was very little development and traffic here, making it relaxing and peaceful. Sadly we had to leave this oasis and walk two kilometres down the main road to get back to Bertie, but it was a fair price to pay for an enjoyable and exciting walk. 

Looking down into the Vall d’Incles
Peaceful Incles valley.

We decided that the walk had enabled us to put our unpleasant traffic experience behind us. We wouldn’t be running away from Andorra but would spend a bit more time (and money) here.

  

Queralbs and Nuria. Snow, Water and an Unexpected Train Journey

31/10/18 -02/11/18

The last day of October was rather rainy and unpleasant. We drove to Ripoll, which is quite a large town for the area, and did some supermarket shopping. The rest of the day was spent in the motorhome parking in Ripoll – a mixed parking area with a levelled off spot for about 5 motorhomes and a service point. We considered popping out for a wander round the town, but every time we saw a patch of blue sky and thought the weather was clearing out we would be treated to a new deluge. It’s been a long time since we saw this much water running down Bertie’s windscreen.

Luckily the rain dissipated overnight so we set off in the morning to Queralbs high up in the Vall de Ribes. We had a little contretemps with the sat nav in Ribes de Freser, where it tried to take us up a cobbled alley. We turned around and used the road signs to find our way through the narrow streets of the town.

Queralbs was to be our starting point for a walk to Nuria, a small tourist resort, ski area and pilgrimage destination high up in the valley. No roads rise as far up the valley as Nuria, the only motorised transport is the ‘cremallera’ – a cog railway that runs up and down pretty much all year round (they shut for about three weeks in November). Queralbs is the nearest that you can get in a motorhome and has a large parking area with a specific section for motorhomes although there are no services. Parking is meant to be limited to 24 hours here but we were a bit naughty and ended up staying a little longer. The cremallera starts at Ribes de Freser (where there are two stations) and also stops here in Queralbs before reaching it’s destination in Nuria. If the snow had not been so thick on the ground we might have taken the train up and followed one of the many trails from Nuria itself, but we knew we weren’t equipped for it today. 

Parking in Queralbs – look at all that snow

The 1st of November, All Saints Day, is an important religious and public holiday in Spain. And as it fell on a Thursday this year most schools were closed for both the Thursday and Friday, making it a busy long weekend. In the upper car park people were unloading their cars, preparing themselves for the walk or the train journey in various states of attire. We had looked at the webcams for Nuria and realised it was going to be very snowy, last night’s heavy rain had topped up the snow that had been laid the previous weekend. Typically we were well prepared with rucksacks packed with waterproofs, gloves, hats, food, water and hot drinks plus the ever present map, compass and first aid kit. It seems to be a particular trait of British walkers to anticipate every eventuality, maybe because of our changeable weather. We only saw one other group as heavily laden as us. Mostly people were walking up in sportswear, trainers and carrying a water bottle or maybe a small rucksack.

The walk out of Queralbs to Nuria is very well signposted as it is part of the GR11 route. It climbs up from the carpark and over the railway line where you turn left on the road before turning right up some steps (not signposted – just a short cut) and then along cobbles and concrete through the north of village.

From that point the path pretty much follows the railway line, with just a couple of other routes are indicated off the main path. The valley narrows from Queralbs to become a gorge before widening back out again as Nuria is approached, with the dam across the lake being the first sign that you’re almost there. The snow was calf deep by the time we reached the highest point, and the trees were shedding their heavy burden of snow, making me very glad of my waterproof and hood. Three quarters of the way up the path is a small alcove where you can take shelter, we stopped here to have our hot drinks and a lovely Catalan lady (very definitely Catalan and not Spanish) shared her All Saints Day almond treats with us.

Looking ahead from near the start of the walk
Pont del Cremal on the route to Nuria – I’ve seen pictures of people bathing here. Not today!

The scenery along the walk is spectacular with rocky cliffs, trees and vultures circling overhead. The walk is well worth doing in one direction or the other (or both as we had originally planned), or in the summer you can make longer circular walks. We ended up just doing the walk up, the heavy snow tested the waterproofing of Paul’s boots to their limits and with soaking wet feet he decided he would prefer to take the train down.

Paths under the cliffs
Watching the train go past – it’s a shame it’s not the highly visible canary yellow of the Train Jaune
The lake and buildings at Nuria seen from a mirador near the end of the walk

We bought our train tickets in the large hotel and sanctuary complex that makes up the main building in the Nuria valley (there is also the separate chapel of St Gil) and then wandered around watching everyone enjoying their holy holiday. Plenty of people were making religious observances in the sanctuary, but it wasn’t just a solemn day. Families were playing in the snow throwing snowballs and using the bottom of the ski slopes to race their sleds. The gondola was running and although it was very early a few keen people had bought skis with them to make the most of the snow. Other people had snowshoes and were setting off on the walking trails to get to higher points on the mountain.

Enjoying the snow
Looking back down the valley towards Queralbs
The cable car at Nuria

Eventually we crowded into the waiting room to get the next train back down to Queralbs. The waiting room may have seemed busy but the train was only half full when we got on and we had a pleasant downhill journey watching the scenery go past in relative warmth and comfort. A short pause on the way down was a mystery, the driver and crew got out and cleared something off the line but we were too far back to see if it was a fallen branch or rock or something else.  

Getting the train back to Queralbs

     

That night we stayed in Queralbs, braving the overnight cold which was going to be below zero. It was a two duvet night snuggled in Bertie and the gas heating was used for the first time in a while, giving us a blast of warmth before bed and again in the morning.

The following day we had decided we would take a walk in the other direction, following the GR11 out of the other side of the village and then (hopefully) managing a circuit along both sides of the Riu de Tosa. A notice board in Queralbs had information about the paths, which went off the bottom of our map. We should have taken a picture.

We walked through Queralbs to the south west, following the red and white markers of the GR trail. We passed by the church of Sant Jaume before leaving Queralbs along an overgrown path that was obviously not as popular as the walk to Nuria.

Church of Sant Jaume

This path followed the side of the valley up above the river, crossing farm tracks and rising gently. It didn’t take long for snow to appear, mostly slushy stuff on the muddy path and then deeper snow as the path become more rocky. The path wasn’t easy to find as the markers were mostly hidden by the snow, but luckily someone had been there before us and we followed the footsteps of our absent guide with an occasional check against our GPS and every now and again a sigh of relief as we found a clear path marker.

Following the footsteps of our absent guide

About a kilometre from our highest point we wondered whether we should turn around as the snow was as deep as the day before. Paul’s boots had been newly waterproofed though and as his feet were less sodden swe ploughed on, feeling very chipper when we saw the yellow signposts ahead that marked the point where we could cross the river and start back down the other side.

Crossing the bridge for our return journey

Our route on the other side of the river was a track rather than a path. Much easier to follow. Someone had evidently brought their skis up here and descended along the track, we followed their twin tracks through the snow gradually downhill until we reached a signposted junction. We had planned to go left at this junction and descend down into the bottom of the river valley and the miners path, but the descent looked a bit steep, icy and scary. No one had been down before us to convince us it could be done safely. Luckily the signpost offered us an alternative route back to Queralbs and a look at the map suggested it would be a gentler gradient even if it was a lot longer. We opted for this safer route and continued to follow the track. Along the way we bumped into a father and daughter who were looking out for ‘capra’ – the tiny Isards. We had to report that all we had seen were hoofprints, but only five minutes later we saw one jumping across the track in front of us.

The river gorge we decided not to descend

Where the track split we took the left hand fork which took us down through the hamlet of Vilamanya where snow had disappeared and cows grazed in the fields. We continued to follow signs for Queralbs though the fields and woods. ‘You know we have to cross the river’ I said to Paul as we descended into the valley with the accompanying sound of rushing water, ‘I hope there is a bridge’.

There was a bridge, but unfortunately it was no help with crossing the river. The course of the river no longer ran under the stone arch but alongside it, frantic and choked with branches. We didn’t know what to do, the only other option was to descend even further to the main road and then walk the long way up to Queralbs. On the other side of the river another couple were also staring with consternation at the possible options. We exchanged shrugs as we tried and failed to cross and they ended up turning back. Eventually we made ourselves a makeshift bridge from a couple of logs and crossed with great caution, my heart was beating as if I’d just run up a mountain.

The debris under the original bridge meant only a trickle was running beneath it
Trying to build a bridge ocross the rushing water
Finally a log in position

Back in Queralbs we bumped into the couple who we’d spotted trying to cross, they had been trying to take the path down to Ribes de Freser but had now decided to take the train instead of crossing that torrent. They definitely weren’t interested in using our makeshift bridge. A no entry sign had now been set up across the path which hadn’t been there when they made their descent half an hour previously.  A descent and river crossing that they had been assured was ‘ok’ by a couple with a baby who had crossed only a short while earlier!

Belated signposting on the path from Queralbs – not that it would have helped our approach from the other side
Streets of Queralbs

Despite, or perhaps because of, our perilous river crossing it had been a very satisfying day and we were pleased we had actually managed a planned walk without being turned back by snow. I cant wait to get back here in the spring or summer to tackle some of the other trails.

That evening we decided to drive back down to Ripoll where the temperatures were a little more comfortable even if there was some overnight road noise. We arrived to find about a dozen motorhomes parked up, all of them Spanish and obviously visiting for the weekend. We were lucky to find a level spot that had just been vacated and spent the rest of the evening people watching and relaxing.  

Walking from Queralbs to Nuria
  • Distance: 9.7 km
  • Total Elevation: 934 m
  • Time taken: 3hrs 25mins
  • Type of Route: Medium – some steep sections and snow
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8
Circular walk around the Riu de Tosa valley from Queralbs via Vilamanya
  • Distance: 16.1 km
  • Total Elevation: 822 m
  • Time taken: 5hrs 06mins
  • Type of Route: Medium – some snow and route finding issues
  • Further Information: this route was partly on the IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8, we used the noticeboard in Queralbs centre to determine options for our return.

Heading Into Spain: Gothic Bridges and Pyrenean Chamois

29/10/18 – 30/10/18

We weren’t really sure what to expect from the Spanish Pyrenees. The French side of the mountains seems much more talked about in the motorhoming world, but people are generally quiet about the southern side. So we left our campsite on the coast and made our way back towards the snow dusted mountains with very little in the way of expectation. We knew there were mountains, we knew there were walks and we knew there was motorhome parking. But we didn’t have the enthusiastic input of fellow travellers to bring the area to life. 

Our route took us over the Col d’Ares on the border between France and Spain. At first the road followed the valley taking us past farms and vineyards, then it rose gradually up to the pass. The snow that had fallen while we’d been hiding in the campsite made the landscape of the pass almost monochrome. Grey skies, dark trees and white fields stirred a strange excitement in us as we contemplated walking in the snowy mountains.

Our first overnight stop was in the town of Camprodon, liberally decorated with the yellow ribbons supporting Catalan independence. The motorhome parking here was in an oddly circular parking area where the signs, according to google translate, proclaimed that we should park like barrels. The weather had turned a bit grim and grey in the afternoon but we still enjoyed a walk around the town, taking in the ‘Pont Nou’, a gothic arched bridge that delighted me with it’s steep cobbled span over the rushing river Ter.

The Pont Nou, originally built in the 12th century
The town runs alongside the river Ter
Looking across the town from our parking area

The following day the weather was improving and we decided to head up the Camprodon valley as far as possible, we drove past the various villages of the valley with their attractive stone built buildings, some ancient and some modern but all conforming to an attractive standard.

At the head of the valley is the Vallter 2000 ski area, but we were still a few hundred meters short of it’s altitude when the road became impassable (to us anyway) with a layer of icy snow.

Turning spot on the road to Vallter 2000

We turned around slowly and carefully before heading back down the road a short way to a corner where we had spotted an information board and signposts for walking trails. There was enough room for us to park up off the road and point Bertie’s solar panels roughly south. We weren’t going to stay the night but we wanted our batteries to be as charged as possible.

A quick look on the map and wikiloc found that a couple of paths, including the GR11, set off from here and could be joined in a circular walk. Our chances of completing the circular route were pretty small given the amount of snow lying on the ground but we decided to follow it as far as we could manage.

So we set off, initially up the GR11 until we turned left towards the river. We hadn’t realised that we would need to ford the river, expecting either a bridge or a stepping stone crossing, so we were a bit nonplussed when we found a raging torrent that seemed to offer no safe passage. We wandered up and down a few times, looking for the most obvious way across. Eventually we decided on a crossing slightly downstream of what must be the usual point, the river split into a couple of shallower streams which reduced it’s flow and made us much more comfortable with the crossing.

Beautiful icicles adorning the trees over the river
River crossing point, we were glad we had walking poles to aid our balance

After this we followed a path that roughly ran along the bank of the river through trees laden with snow. It wasn’t easy to stay on track, with plenty of snow on the ground covering the obvious signs of the path. Luckily we could use the GPS on our phones along with the wikiloc route to ensure we were heading in the right direction. 

After about 3km the route left the woodland and brought us out on the open mountain where the valley opened out. We sat here and drank our flasks of hot drinks, very welcome in the cool weather. As our eyes roved around the views of the valley we realised that there was a herd of animals on the grass above us. These were Pyrenean Chamois, known as Isards, small deer (well ok, actually they are ‘goat antelopes’) with short backwards curving horns. As we continued our ascent we watched them browsing on the grass, occasionally starting and dashing off for reasons we couldn’t make out.

Isards – not the best picture!

It didn’t take long before we had to turn around. The increasingly strong wind had blown the snow into deep drifts that blocked our way. After slogging through one of these drifts, up to our knees, we decided that it wouldn’t be sensible to continue and so we turned and retraced our steps. The return route was much quicker being downhill but also because we didn’t have any route finding difficulties. When we reached the river it proved embarrassingly easy to ford in this direction.

Snowy drifts
Increasing amounts of snow

That afternoon we moved to a parking spot in Sant Joan de les Abadesses, it took a couple of manoeuvres to make the sharp turn into the car park, but it was worth it for it’s tidy motorhome services and spotlessly clean public toilet. We still had plenty of time left to explore the tiny medieval town which had yet another gothic bridge as well as the remains of medieval walls and the monastery that had given the town it’s name.

The gothic arches of the bridge – this one much more heavily restored.
Doorway from the church of St Pol

Taking Shelter

27/10/18 – 28/10/18

When the forecast says heavy rain and snow then we start looking for electricity. Neither of us are particularly keen on hot hot weather, so we find we cope well enough in cool temperatures (down to about -4 overnight) so long as the days are sunny and we can replenish our electricity with solar power. In those sorts of temperatures we usually just use our gas central heating for a short while before bed and first thing in the morning. The van is insulated well enough that we don’t drop below freezing inside, and most importantly our water pipes are internal to the van and don’t freeze.

But if it’s going to rain or snow all day and the skies are overcast then we find our solar doesn’t replenish our leisure batteries fast enough to allow us to have the heating on (and we cant increase our leisure battery capacity without a bit of an overhaul of our old electrical system). And of course if it’s grim during the day then we’re not out and about raising our body temperatures with exercise, nor is Bertie getting warmed up through the greenhouse effect of the large windows, so we want the heating on for longer.

All in all it adds up to a need for electricity or to escape the drab and dreary weather.

So we ended up doing a bit of both. We were already well progressed towards the eastern end of the French Pyrenees with the coast in sniffing distance, and we knew that down on the coast there would be campsites or aires with electricity.

We settled on Argelès-sur-Mer as our destination. It’s probably the biggest resort on the coast between Perpignan and the border, it’s not that pretty or cultural, but it does have a large municipal campsite with good cheap prices (13 euros a night plus tourist tax of 0.66 cents per person per night – what an odd figure!) and it wouldn’t take us too far out of our way.

So we drove to Camping Les Roussillonaise, checked in with the friendly staff, drove around the HUGE campsite to find a pitch we fancied and settled ourselves in to weather the storm.

Obviously now we were out of the Pyrenees the weather wasn’t as wet or cold as we might have experienced, but it was still a bit dismal and high on the hills we could see the snow starting to settle. We whiled away our time doing the usual stuff, cleaning and tidying, planning the next stages of our travels, cooking, chilling and getting out of the van whenever the weather brightened up.

Argeles Plage is a long expanse of beach, but the coast to the south looks much more interesting – one to flag up for another time.

We decided that actually the town was quite nice out of season. All of the other campsites were closed and many of the tourist attractions were boarded up, but there was still some life about the place, probably helped by it being French school holidays. The seafront had a steady stream of pedestrians, the cafes and shops that were open had enough customers to make them seem friendly and welcoming. 

On the esplanade there was an interesting exhibition of undersea photography.
The town got steadily more salubrious as we moved away from the campsite and south towards the harbour.

 

Tourist Attractions at Villefranche de Confluent

26/10/18

With aching legs from our previous days drive we decided that this should be a day of sightseeing. We settled on Villefranche de Confluent as our destination as it had a selection of interesting looking tourist attractions, it was also the bottom station for the Train Jaune although we decided that we would save that for a future visit in the summer when we could try to get a seat in one of the open topped carriages.

With that destination in mind we actually drove a little way past the town to visit the Grottes des Grandes Canalettes, a tourist cave complex that appealed as we hadn’t visited any caves since Portugal last year. There was motorhome parking here, as part of the extensive parking for the caves, somewhere we thought about staying but decided against in the end.

We payed our €10 each to get into the caves, rather an expense for us, and proceeded through the tourist tat section of shopping and café into the caves themselves. The entrance way was not very dramatic and we looked at each other as if to say ‘what have we just spent our money on’. The tunnel showed the evidence of drilling by whoever had opened it up for tourists and was just rather drab brown rock. Soon, though, we were into spectacular large chambers with all sorts of formations. Unlike many caves we didn’t have a guided tour but were left to our own devices to explore the caves and read information boards, this was a blessing as it was the French school holidays and children were running around having a great time with the UV torches they had been given. We could let them get ahead of us and then take in the surroundings in peace and quiet. It must have been great for the kids too, not having to be quiet and listen to a tour guide, it definitely reduced the whinge factor.

It took us just over an hour to get our fill of the caves, as you exit there is a bit about the water cycle and the history of the caves, including the sad tale of a cave diver who died during exploration (one of THE most risky hobbies) but unfortunately it’s all in French, unlike the information boards in the caves themselves.

After our visit to the caves we lazily drove down to the walled town, using the paid parking area at the western end of the town. The parking costs weren’t extravagant so we were happy to pay up and wander into the town to take a look around.

Looking into the towns medieval streets

Paul declined a visit to Fort Liberia which perches on the cliffs above the town, he said his legs were aching far too much to tackle the ‘thousand steps’, and I wasn’t willing to pay for the 4×4 to ferry us up there. So we contented ourselves with a walk around the fortifications (4 euros each). These fortifications are one of the reasons that Villefranche de Confluent is a UNESCO world heritage site. Originally built in between the 11th and 13th century they were improved by the famous military engineer Vauban in the 17th century. Although Vauban designed defensive improvements for hundreds of French citadels, it is the 12 in this contested area of Catalonia that make up the UNESCO world heritage listing.

Inside the covered walls

We wandered around the fortifications, taking in the remaining medieval tower, the covered fortifications and occasional views of the rooftops. Because the fortifications are covered, not that high and set in the valley you don’t get far reaching views, I expect those are to be found at the top of those thousand steps. Nevertheless it was an interesting perambulation, helped by the English language information sheet we were provided at the ticket office. 

More views of the citadel
View into the citadel
One of the many fortified towers along the city walls

After getting our fill of the pleasant and very tourist oriented town we returned to Bertie and decided to move on. The weather was due to turn and we decided to wait out the rain and snow down by the coast. That afternoon we did a bit of grocery shopping and then settled into motorhome parking near Ille-sur-Tet. The parking was for another tourist attraction – the gorges of Les Orgues – but by the time we turned up the rain was falling and we didn’t have any desire to get out for a look.

Wobbly Bridges and Historic Paths in the Carança Gorge

24/10/18 – 25/10/18

We left Les Angles behind and continued south and east along the N116. This road is wide and well constructed and makes sickening large swooping turns. The tables were turned from our gorge drive a couple of days ago. Paul was thoroughly enjoying himself on the wide bends whereas I was holding on tight on the turns and unable to do anything but look ahead. The road follows the valley of the river ‘La Têt’ as does the rail line for the well known Train Jaune, a canary yellow tourist train that runs up the valley and has open topped carriages in the warmer months. In the earlier stages the road is high above the river and the rail line can be seen below, further downhill the train crosses on viaducts above the road. 

We had considered a number of places along here to stop. The area is peppered with forts, built during the period when the area was hotly contested borderland. We drove past the citadel at Mont-Louis in two minds whether to stop, but the weather was forecast to be cold and we decided to go a little lower for the opportunity to have a warmer night’s sleep.

We decided that the motorhome parking at Thues-entre-Valls would be our destination, on the map we could see a few options for walking routes and the parking had good reviews. We indicated to turn right and immediately saw a sign for a 3.5 tonne limit on the bridge, so Paul pulled back out before committing to turning and we continued a couple of hundred meters to the parking area on the main road. A discussion ensued, should we stay parked on the side of the road, ignore the weight limit or proceed onwards to another parking spot. In the end we decided to ignore the weight limit, whether we were sensible to do so I don’t know but we had observed a couple of weighty trucks driving across the bridge while we were deliberating.

The drive to the parking was a test of our nerve, across the bridge with the weight limit and then steeply up through the village, following the signs for parking through narrowish streets. We didn’t meet anyone coming in the opposite direction and our short drive finally rewarded us with the entrance to the car park and clear signage for the motorhome parking. The parking here has services and is €9 for the first 24 hours and €5 for each subsequent 24 hours, you take a ticket on entry and then have to pay at the machine (cash only) before leaving. We parked up in the level motorhome area under chestnut trees and breathed a sigh of relief, we’d made it!

Parked in dappled shade under the chestnut trees

By this time it was only early afternoon, but the sunny weather and sheltered position tempted us to relax outside the van rather than do anything energetic. We watched the yellow train go past a couple of times, full of holiday makers enjoying the scenery and waving from the windows. The train stops here (on request) and is another good reason for choosing this parking spot if you aren’t inclined to long walks. When we got bored we collected fat ripe chestnuts and took a wander down to the notice boards and café/kiosk to see what walks we fancied doing. We even got the BBQ out for a change although by tea time it was cooling down rapidly and so we ate inside.

The following morning we set out to walk the Carança gorge. We knew this walk was going to be exciting and exposed because of the many warning signs at the entrance to the gorge. Little did we realise just how exciting it would be and that we were at the start of one of our favourite walks in the French Pyrenees.

Entering the Gorge de Caranca

The entrance to the gorge is through an archway carved through the rock under the railway line and next to the river. The path starts quite gently, a part concrete and part rock path alongside the gorge leading to a concrete bridge where you can cross and walk up the other side of the gorge, up into the hills, or back via a hilly route to the car park. We were not crossing the bridge but continuing onwards, staying on the same side of the river and following the path as it tracked uphill becoming more rocky and exposed and then back downhill again to rejoin the river. Along the way we could see the path along the other side of the gorge, a corniche dug into the rock and realised that we were going to miss out on this spectacular section of the walk. If you are going to do the long loop like we did, I would recommend crossing the river at the first concrete bridge and proceeding along the corniche for maximum excitement, rather than the Roc de Madrieu route.

Rocky pathways along the Roc de la Madrieu side of the gorge
Pathway cut through the rocks
The corniche on the opposite side of the gorge

We reached the next bridge across the gorge about an hour from the start, this was a metal walkway with a single rope hand rail. It wasn’t that exposed but it was a taste of things to come. This is also the point at which we could have done the shorter 8km loop, by crossing this bridge and turning right we would have found the route back along the corniche to the concrete bridge and our start point.

But we weren’t heading back, we were pressing on across the bridge and further into the gorge. The path now followed the river closely, moving from one side to the other and using a selection of suspension bridges, walkways and ladders to navigate the sheer sides of the gorge. At every point there was at least a single rope handrail – the suspension bridges were very wobbly but at least had handrails on each side to help keep your balance. I let my darling husband go first across most of these obstacles as he had a habit of shaking the bridges if I went first! On the map this path was marked as ‘Sentier sur passerelles’ which interpreted as trail on gateways – I suppose the walkways were a bit like gates, laid on their sides and attached to sheer rock faces. At least I will know what this really means if I encounter it again.

Wobbly bridges
Walkways above the river
Climbing ladders

We really enjoyed this unexpected but adrenaline fuelled section of the walk. If you’ve ever done Via Ferrata this was like the very easiest of Via Ferrata without any safety equipment. It’s no surprise that dogs are not allowed on this walk, and I would caution against bringing small children this far unless you are very confident in their ability.

After the passerelles the path resumed it’s rocky course along and above the river gorge. Beautiful in it’s own right but feeling rather tame following the more adventurous section. At one point a small stone bridge and pathway seems incongruously placed in the middle of nowhere, but historically the river was used to transport logs down from the forests to the village sawmills and the stone path would have joined up with wooden walkways where the passerelles are now.

After about 10k and three and a half hours we reached a signpost. Twenty minutes further on would have taken us to the refuge but we were turning right and heading back along the Cami Ramader, a Catalan name meaning Farmer’s Way. This cattle tracked path led back towards our parking spot but much higher up the side of the valley. Along the way we found traces of the original farming communities who bought their livestock up to the high and steep pastures above the river. A small hamlet of ruined dry stone huts remain where once whole families would have migrated in the summer. The steep ground has been terraced by many generations of herders to create flat grassy areas held back by stone walls. It is amazing what humans will do to try to eke out a living in areas that seem inhospitable.

Pathways around the rock pinnacles
Dry stone huts of the high pastures

The path stays high for some time here, winding up and down between stone pinnacles – the ‘Campanilles’ mentioned on the map – and providing fantastic views across to the hills on the other side of the gorge. We started to get apprehensive about the downhill section as we were still so high up, and when we left the deciduous woodlands and entered the pine forests the path started it’s downhill trajectory and we started to feel the strain on our calves. Beside the path were what looked like metal bathtubs – evidence of the charcoal burning that once took place here. 

Looking back down at our original path
Autumn was here – beautiful colours on the hills

This path took us eventually to a junction where we could have turned right onto the corniche, but instead continued downhill along a section of 14 switchbacks to the original concrete bridge. This section of path had been shored up using stone walls again, improved at the same time as the creation of the corniche by the SNCF engineers who built the railway.

It had been a long walk, but an incredibly beautiful and exciting one. We will be coming back at some point to walk the corniche and explore other aspects of this historically interesting area. For now we took our aching legs back to Bertie and decided to stay another night in these beautiful surroundings. 

Walking the Gorge de Carança and Cami Ramader
  • Distance: 21.8 km
  • Total Elevation: 1604 m
  • Time taken: 7hrs 05mins
  • Type of Route: Difficult – long and with significant exposure
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8

Following the Aude

22/10/18 – 24/10/18

Following our morning of sightseeing in Carcassonne we decided to crack on back into the Pyrenees. Our target was Les Angles, a large ski resort in the Pyrenees Orientales. Originally we had identified it as a destination due to it’s extensive mountain biking area but as Paul was still waiting for his mountain biking part we had a look for some walking routes instead.

The D118 road down to Les Angles followed the upper reaches of the Aude. After Carcassonne there was very little sign of flooding and as we got further south the river was constrained by the rocky walls of the Gorge d’Aude and Gorges de Saint Georges. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the drive, the fabulously scenic road twists and turns through the gorge with the river rushing below. At times it’s single track, although there are plenty of passing places, the main difficulty was navigating around working vehicles who were making repairs, clearing hedges and removing overhanging branches from trees. At times this balcony road is cut into the side of the cliff which made me reflexively lean towards Paul, but the overhangs were never too low for us.

Overhangs, never too low for us at 3.5m
Narrow section of the balcony road

Paul, it has to be said, found the drive highly frustrating as he crawled around corners and past other vehicles. The amount of concentration and patience required took any joy out of the drive and he was relieved when suddenly the valley widened in front of us and we were in a completely different landscape.

Our first parking spot here was near the ski lifts at Pla del Mir. This designated motorhome parking is priced depending on the season, for us it was €6 including 16A electricity. It rises to €11 during the ski season but still seems good value for money. We settled in for the evening and while we had electricity I trimmed Paul’s hair and reduced his stubble to something a little neater.

The following morning we took a walk up from the parking area into the mountains. The character of the hills here was significantly different than the jagged peaks we had become used to. The hills slope gently away from the valley floor with large boulders peppering the grassy sward. We walked in the sunshine, enjoying a recovery walk that was a little less strenuous than usual.

Boulders in the meadows

The route was on a track at first, running to the north of the Animal Park, and was well signposted as we wandered up through meadows and open woodland. We followed the signs to the Lac d’Aude, the source of the river that had caused so much trouble recently, keeping left where we had the option, which took us under the cliff face of the Roc del Filipe before we made our way to the southern shore of the lake.

Rowan berries and Lac d’Aude
The cliffs of the Roc del Felipe

From here we walked around the lake eventually finding our return path leading vaguely southwest from the north west corner of the lake. This path was on the map but was poorly signposted and there were very few tracks on the ground. We eventually realised that we should be following the wooden posts with dark green paint that were sparsely distributed along the route. Thankfully the day was clear and we could navigate using the posts, our map and the infant river Aude to guide us in the right direction. We met our outward route again roughly where we expected on the initial section of track. It hadn’t been a long walk, and navigation issues aside it had been a pleasure to walk in such different scenery.

Views across pathless, featureless grasses

That afternoon we drove down to the Lac de Matemale where we parked up in a specific motorhome parking area (no services) with lovely views of the lake. An easy mountain biking route circles the lake, but with Paul’s bike out of action we were a bit stuck. The following morning we saw lots of people jogging past the van and so I decided that I would jog the 9k around the lake, Paul would give me a head start and see if he could catch me using my bike. He did! It’s been some time since I went for a run and although my legs were fine, I was mentally unfit, obviously far too used to walking and stopping for a break whenever I feel like it!

Our view across the lake, just beautiful
Walking Pla del Mia to Lac d’Aude
  • Distance: 13.24 km
  • Total Elevation: 411 m
  • Time taken: 3hrs 35mins
  • Type of Route: Easy/Moderate – some route finding difficulties on the return leg
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8

Carcassonne, Following the Floods

21/10/18 – 22/10/18

We nursed a mild hangover on Sunday morning, relaxing in the Lagbruguiere aire until Paul felt fit to drive. We needed to make our way back to the Pyrenees, this time to the  Pyrenees-Orientales, the easiest route would be following the Aude river south, but only a week previously there had been severe flooding along the Aude and we weren’t sure whether the roads were back open again. A bit of online research didn’t help us so we stuck with our original plan, hoping that any diversions would be clearly marked.

One of the things I find difficult to get my head around is the fact that the Aude river flows south to north. For someone who has mostly lived in the south of the UK this feels unnatural. As it drops out of the Pyrenees it carves gorges and gathers tributary mountain streams to contribute to it’s power. Just north of Carcassonne it bends east towards Narbonne, it’s Mediterranean destination.  

So we drove southwards with Carcassonne our destination. We stopped for lunch at Lac des Montagnes, a very attractive spot high in the hills. There was motorhome parking here and we were severely tempted to stop for the rest of the day, but after a walk around the lake we decided to move onwards.

Calm waters at the Lac des Montagnes

It was at Cuxac-Cabardes that we encountered diversion signs, sending us westwards off of the main road and via the very attractive village of Montolieu. Unfortunately I was too busy worrying about the signage to take pictures and enjoy more of this ‘Village of Books’, there were 3.5 tonne limits, one-way systems, narrow roads and bridges that made us slightly stressed as we tried to navigate our way through without ending up in some cobbled back street. We breathed a sigh of relief as we escaped out of the village, having ignored a 3.5 tonne limit in order to stay on the main thoroughfare.

We later realised that the reason for the diversion was the badly flooded village of Villegailhenc where sadly people had been killed by the highest floods since 1891. 

We approached Carcassonne intending to use the aire outside the municipal campsite, but I had read a recent review that it had been closed due to the flooding, and as we approached it we could see it was barriered and taped off. It looked unaffected by the flooding but I could understand the caution as it is on level ground near the river. We drove around the southern part of Carcassonne a couple of times looking for an alternative parking spot, but on-street parking doesn’t appeal to us so we ended up driving slightly out of the city to the Lac de Cavayère where there is parking (no services) near the lake and park. We had another little leg stretching walk and then settled down for a blessedly alcohol free evening.

If we both had working bikes we could have cycled a long the cycle track from here back to Carcassonne, but Paul’s bike was still out of action. So the following morning we decided to drive to the bus and motorhome parking on the outskirts of the medieval city of Carcassonne. You can park overnight for free (between 10pm and 8am) but at other times you have to pay, the first half hour is free, but then the price goes up in 30 minute increments. You take a ticket on entry and then pay before you leave at a machine that takes credit cards as well as cash. I can see why they charge for parking as entry to the city is necessarily free, so this is their way to recoup the cost of maintenance of the ancient and heavily visited city.

Walking into Europe’s larges walled city

We walked around the city, first of all taking the route between the two sets of city walls, an area known as ‘le lices’ where medieval knights would have trained. Parts of this area were blocked off, so we moved into the centre of the ‘cité’ where tourism abounds; restaurants, hotels and gift shops make up the majority of the buildings here. I wonder if anyone actually lives in the cité. We popped into the basilica to listen to the beautiful choral music that was being performed (‘you can buy a CD as you leave’) and generally wondered at the many towers and turrets of the citadel. It’s amazing to think that this city was once so derelict that it was recommended to be  demolished. It’s now so perfectly restored that it feels almost sterile and Disney-esque.

Towers and turrets
Art installation on the walls of the city – they were peeling off the yellow while we were there
City streets

However as we wandered around we found evidence that all was not well, the recent massive amount of rainfall had caused the collapse of a couple of small walls inside the cite, and had badly eroded some of the gravel paths through le lices and out to the town below. As we walked around the outside of the city, taking in views of the walls from below, we could see that parts of the mound that supports the city had been washed away. Workmen were busy shoring things up and making good. This is where our parking fees go.

Collapsed wall inside the city