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.