We spent Sunday driving north through Spain. We had a destination in mind, but sometimes life throws us a little disappointment. We were almost retracing our steps through the Serra del Montsec and had decided to make good on our promise to explore the place more thoroughly. We had our hearts set on a dramatic walk through the Mont-Rebei gorge. Alas it was not to be. The main car park has a height barrier (boo hiss) and all other parking spots along the road were rammed. Coaches, motorhomes and just other cars we struggling to find spaces in the few laybys and lots of official looking signs sensibly prohibited parking on the single track road. We reluctantly, and with great sulkiness on my part, left this for another day. It’s obviously a very popular walk and so one for a weekday in winter.
We decided that, rather than look for an alternative walk in an area that seemed very deficient in motorhome parking – even park4night was drawing a blank – we might as well carry on to the Pyrenees and stop somewhere we knew would be motorhome friendly. And so we ended up in Les, a small town on the border with France. By the time we got here it was late afternoon and the town was pretty quiet with only one other motorhome parked up by the cemetery. Les was an odd border town. We had noticed that Spain’s prices were significantly lower than France, but we hadn’t realised that this would spawn border towns that were very much like Andorra; full of perfume, cigarette and alcohol suppliers. Not duty free of course, but the lower prices were enough to tempt people across the border to shop in bulk. Sadly the only shop we were really interested in – the local cider co-op – was closed.
We had one final walk in Spain before we crossed the border ourselves. From our parking spot we walked a figure of eight with the pretty village of Bausen as it’s waist. The route took us north of the village along the Camin dera Lana, past farm yards full of overwintering livestock, to the point where it crossed the main road. From here we crossed onto the road to Bausen and took the footpath that branched left from the road soon after the junction. We had left the Pyrenees shrouded in snow, but the snow appeared to have melted from all but the highest tops. The autumn leaves that had been clothing the trees in bright russet shades were now on the forest floor, hiding the rocks and mud (and dog poo) and creating a slippery uphill walk.
The path took us through Bausen where a number of paths meet. Our way on was via the Cami de Carlac that heads out of the north east corner of the village and on up along further forested paths.
As we climbed out of the forest the path circled round to the west and south and we started to head back downhill across slopes with a very different character, bare of trees and with many ramshackle huts and houses that seemed abandoned. We assume that these are the homes and shelters used while livestock are on the summer pastures, although it seems unlikely that any are used now. Motorised transport means that farmers and herders no longer need to move up to the hills in the summer, they can remain in their village homes and hop on their quad bikes.
The path bought us back down to Bausen, which we left from the south west corner this time, following the signs back to Les. We walked back through the village, passing the cider shop (still shut) on the way to Bertie. Although the walk was less wild than we had been used to it had still been enjoyable, particularly on the return leg where the forests had given way to views across the hills.
We decided to stay one more night in Les, our final night in Spain, and in the Pyrenees, for now.
We could have been accused of having no imagination as we trundled back to the Castell Saint Jordi. With a colder spell of weather approaching we wanted to spend a last couple of days by the beach and decided we were safer going back to somewhere we knew and liked.
Although the sun was still shining the breeze was picking up and the air was already feeling fresher, but I was determined to get a final swim in before we made our way back to the UK so I was straight down the beach in my bikini, getting some very odd looks from the Spanish who were all wrapped up in their winter gear. Paul was still feeling a little under the weather so he was towel monitor. I followed the swim up with a nice walk along the coast to the south.
Paul was a little jealous of my swim and so when he awoke the next morning feeling bright and chipper he decided that we should go snorkelling. Yet again we provided entertainment as we walked down to the beach in our wetsuits. The snorkelling was brilliant with many colourful fishes and interesting caves and alcoves but it was quite chilly above the water as the breeze ruffled our hair.
We didn’t spend the whole time being stared at – on the Friday afternoon when we arrived we had a good old nosey at an altercation happening across the carpark from us. A Spanish couple and their children had turned up, presumably for the weekend. When the police arrived on one of their regular rounds they stopped outside the Spanish motorhome and had a good look around and then a long conversation with the man where there was a lot of arm waving on both sides. We couldn’t work out what the problem was until the police car drove away. Then we saw the big puddle of water under the van – presumably the grey waste. For those of you who don’t know, grey waste is the waste water generated from anything that goes down the plug holes i.e. showers and washing up. Normally it gets collected in a tank and you drive to a motorhome point where you can dispose of it by driving over a drain. It is not at all good form to dispose of it on a paved surface and although it’s not the worst effluent it can get a bit smelly. It was pretty obvious by the arm waving that they were being told to leave, but first the poor man had to endure a dressing down from his partner which also involved a lot of arm waving and shouting. It was with a very hangdog expression that he finally drove off.
When you look at the Delta de l’Ebre (if you are Catalan – Delta del Ebro if you are Spanish) on the map it looks like a stingray swimming away from Spain’s coast, the two sandbanks, north and south, being the spread wings. It also looks like a pretty small area, but distances in Spain are deceptive and there was plenty to keep us here for a week let alone two days.
It wont be a place for everyone – it’s very quiet – but if you like being outdoors, watching birds and cycling it is a great place to visit. Rice is grown here in the fields and there are plenty of restaurants specialising in rice dishes. I imagine that in the summer there are a lot of unpleasant biting insects flying around, so it seemed we had picked a perfect time to visit, not too warm but nice and sunny. It has to be a contender for the top ten of places we have been to on this trip and that is a major accolade especially as Paul was pretty poorly while we were there. In fact maybe we enjoyed it so much because he was poorly and got to hang out in the van while I got out for some ‘me time’…
We spent two nights here, one in the mixed parking at the village of Poble Nou and one in the large motorhome parking area associated with La Casa de Fusta (free to park and a few euros for the service point). There are plenty of notices that forbid overnight parking on some of the most scenic spots, especially around the coast. Lots of people were ignoring these signs and secreting themselves among the rushes down sandy or muddy tracks that looked ideal for getting embarrassingly stuck, we chose not to follow their example. We did park up on the beach at Trabucador one day for Paul to sit in the van and watch the world go by while I cycled, but we stayed on the firm sand where we felt fairly confident because the salt lorries drive up and down several times a day.
The roads around the park are quite narrow, with just a couple of key roads that have two defined lanes. I have to admit I wouldn’t feel confident driving in the dark because the single track roads are usually causeways raised above the rice paddies and bounded by watery ditches. it was also very popular with motorhomes, it was a holiday weekend so Spanish families were out in force; the parking at La Casa de Fusta was full and overflowing into the restaurant car park by the time the sun set.
We managed to get out for walks at dusk to see the glorious sunsets and the starling mumurations that dizzied us with their swirling patterns. Paul was ok so long as he didn’t stray too far from the toilet.
I also managed a good long bike ride, with some muddy sections along the beaches and then following the cycle path that follows the Ebro river. I would definitely recommend cycling here – although there are footpaths you can see a lot more by cycling and it’s nice and flat. All around the lakes were bird hides, so my cycle was punctuated by lots of stops to get the binoculars out and spot the many different birds, including flamingos (never boring no matter how often they are seen) and marsh harriers as well as many of the usual wetland species, I don’t think I have ever seen so many herons. In the Ebro river and behind the wings of the delta it was easy to spot fishes jumping lazily from the water, they didn’t seem to be falling for the fishermen’s lures though.
We were still heading north and fancied a walk in the Serra d’Irta natural park. This area of hills and coast is between Peniscola and Alcossebre and we’d walked the coastline here almost a year ago when on our way to Italy. This time we wanted to hike the hills so we turned off the N-340 to park up next to the Calvary hermitage. It was a hidden and sharp right hand turn off this busy road which no one behind us was expecting. So even though we were indicating and had slowed down there was a bit of horn honking as we turned off.
The pretty hermitage is on park4night but I wouldn’t recommend it as an overnight stop unless you are immune to the noise of traffic; it nestles in between the N-340 and the toll road. As a parking spot for our walk though it was pretty perfect and it seemed to be a popular picnic spot with a couple of other Spanish vans joining us. If you were even more adventurous you could drive further into the park but it was single track roads and dirt tracks from here.
There are plenty of walking and mountain biking paths in the park and you can choose to walk as far as you like. Our plan was to walk east and then turn north to walk along the ridge of the Campanilles which includes the highest point in the park. From here we would turn west on one of the mountain biking trails before heading south to Xivert Castle and then back to the van.
The walk started by following the single track Cami de l’Espotet, crossing a road bridge and walking between orange and olive groves. Eventually the road turned right and we continued straight on a dirt track that took us up the Barranc de la Carrera. From here the path was well signposted to the Campanilles ridge where we started to encounter a lot of broken limestone rock underfoot and some interesting opportunities to scramble the crest of the ridge instead of sticking to the path. Here and there amongst the usual scrubby foliage and pine trees we could see purple flag iris providing an unusual dot of colour.
This ridge continues to the northern side of the natural park, but we took a left turn where it crossed an obvious and wide dirt track, marked as a mountain biking route. From there it was a case of following signs to the Castell de Xivert. The castle is an obvious landmark as you drive the N-340 and it is impressive up close too if you like a ruined castle (which I do). Originally constructed by the Moors, the majority of the castle you can see now was constructed by the Knights Templar and added to in the middle ages. It is free to visit and the information boards dotted around have English information. Although there is a reasonable amount of parking I’m not sure how easily it would be reached by motorhome, it would make a good parking spot though if you were brave enough to try it.
The walk was 20k in total, and although we hadn’t climbed very high there had been a lot of ups and downs so it had been a tiring day. We were worn out by the walk and the very warm sunshine but still had to find somewhere to stop for the evening. We ended up pushing on to Benicarlo where there were free services with just seven parking spaces. Luckily for us someone left just as we turned up and we bagged the last space. We were very glad not to have to move again even though there was more parking a bit further north that would have been fine. Unusually all seven vans were British and we enjoyed a quick catch up with some of the residents before heading to the supermarket to buy something that wouldn’t take much cooking.
Wow, it’s been such a busy Christmas and tonight is the first time I’ve sat down in the van to do some blogging. I cant believe I’ve let it go for so long, but revisiting our memories of the sunshine in Spain has been a pleasant reminder of warmth while we sit in the grey cool winter of the UK.
So I cast my mind back to early December for this blog entry. It’s a good job I keep a diary!
So … we found ourselves heading back north and staying in a car park in Torreblanca Playa, or maybe Torrenostra, it wasn’t entirely clear. But whatever the name, the parking had a good atmosphere, on rough ground with no services, but free and moderately busy. We were entertained by a Polish couple and their cats on strings. You can probably imagine two inquisitive cats on long strings and how well that worked. The poor couple spent most of their time undoing knots and tangles. Every now and again the cats decided that sitting on the top of our wheels was the warmest most comfortable spot in town and we’d hear a thud as the owners pulled them out.
The whole resort was quiet, not quite empty, a few motorhomes were dotted around in locations other than the car park and one bar was open with the football showing in their outside (covered) seating area.
With good weather and calm seas we decided to get the kayak out for a bit of paddling. We hadn’t even intended to bring the kayak on this trip – it’s of limited use in the mountains – but it was lovely to be out. There is something so relaxing about bobbing on gentle waves and even though this coastal area was not the most exciting we were very happy to be out on the water. I just wish I’d had my phone while Paul rinsed off under the beach shower – it was rather cold which encouraged the dancing of a little jig.
That evening we wandered around the wetland nature reserve next to the parking area. The sounds of water birds accompanied us as we marvelled at the sunset colours and waded through muddy puddles.
Inland from Benicassim and Castellon is a small area of hills that had been calling to us each time we visited. A quick google search showed that the natural park had plenty of walking and mountain biking trails. We also picked up a bit of information about the area which was named a ‘desert’ because that was the traditional name for the places used as retreats by Carmelite monks. There are plenty of hermitages and monasteries in the area, ruined and intact. Pretty obviously there are also plenty of palms growing in the natural park.
We decided we would do a round trip walk, taking in Bartolo – the highest mountain in the region – and then walking the ridge to the Coll de la Mola. Our starting point was to be the mirador of San Jose, a large area of parking that we were pretty sure we would be able to get Bertie in. The mirador faces towards the sea and has fantastic views down the valley over the ruins of one of the hermitages. It’s a pretty perfect place to go for a picnic as well as a good starting point for a walk.
To start our walk we headed east along the road from the mirador and next to a tiny chapel we struck off north on a signposted path. Bartolo was to the north of us, the large collection of antenna on the summit impossible to miss. The path was surrounded by the usual meditteranean scrub, fragrant with rosemary and thyme and buzzing with bees.
There was plenty of signposting on the route and we soon met an obvious red dirt track up towards the summit, this was also a mountain biking route, wide and smooth. It got a bit boring so as we approached the summit we took a slight detour to stay closer to the ridge.
The summit was busy with pedestrians, runners and cyclists enjoying their Sunday day out, we stopped to take in the views and drink our flasks. The weather was lovely and sunny and the views were far reaching, if a little hazy.
From Bartolo it was easy to follow the path along the ridge to the Coll de la Mola, this section of the walk was the highlight of the day, a beautiful rocky path with a bit of very very minor scrambling over boulders and sloping rocks, always with great views and enough shade giving trees to keep us from getting overheated.
Once we reached the Coll de la Mola we were on the home stretch of the walk, following signs to the information centre and then the monastery to bring us back down to the van.
This was a super walk with lots of variety. We considered staying up on the mirador overnight, but sometimes the police can be funny about people parking in natural park car parks and we didn’t fancy having a drive down the hills in the dark. Instead we drove down to Torrenostra and found a nice bit of parking behind the beach.
It was hard to believe it was December already, the weather had turned positively balmy and only the short days hinted at the season. Because it was so nice we decided we wanted some more beach time and made our way back to El Grao de Castellon. We turned up at the motorhome parking spot on the Friday lunchtime and nipped into one of the last spaces. It was going to be a busy weekend.
For a bit of variety we spent some time inland at Castellon itself – Castellon de la Plana. It’s not a tourist town really, just an everyday place with lots of bustling energy as people go about their lives. We wandered the streets, finding a few interesting buildings and the market square but not really looking for much, it was just something pleasant to do in the warm day, although Paul did get some odd looks for his shorts and t-shirt combo. Most people were wearing warm jackets to ward off the chill.
We popped into Castellon’s museum of art, a freebie that has some interesting (to us anyway) ethnographic and archeological stuff in the basement, plus pottery and artworks on the higher floors. The basement was noisy with sounds from the displays, particularly the buzzing of bees and the clang of metal working, it bought the displays to life but if you have a bee phobia you should probably avoid it. The art on the top floor was particularly interesting too, but the 2nd floor religious imagery did very little for me and the ceramics would probably have been more interesting if I hadn’t run out of energy for translation by that point. The building is huge and modern and energy conscious, we were the only people in some of the sections and it was quite disconcerting to see the darkness beyond some of the doors – were we allowed inside? – it was only as the lights came on that we knew we were in a gallery and not a store room.
Back in El Grao de Castellon we ventured into the planetarium where there was a good display about female astronomers on the ground floor and some other displays in the basement.
Once we had been suitably cultured we felt that we could relax and enjoy some beach time, soaking up the sun and swimming in the sea. It was gorgeous.
Valencia. For a few days we’d been considering it as our terminus for this trip. The furthest point south before we start heading back to the UK. We decided to use a campsite while we were in Valencia. We looked at the reviews of a camperstop and a couple of campsites and eventually settled on Devesa Gardens. We wanted to be in the Albufera Natural Park, the area of wetlands and rice fields south of Valencia, and the campsite (in the ACSI book and 19 euros a night) had good reviews. I desperately wanted somewhere with showers so that I could dye my grey striped hair before heading into civilisation.
The campsite pitches were fairly typical for Spain, no grass in sight, hard packed earth pitches big enough for the van and table and chairs and with a framework of poles which can be used to provide shelter from the summer sun, not needed at this time of year when any direct sunlight is very welcome. The staff were very friendly and had excellent English, providing bus timetables and maps and all sorts of information. Paul must have been sat in the van for half an hour waiting for me to finish checking in. When we finally got onto our pitch we were straight into the showers to check them out. They lived up to the reviews, spotlessly clean with blasting hot water. Not a push button in sight. The oddest thing was getting pink wristbands which we had to wear to get into the ‘park’ area of the campsite. It felt a bit over the top given that the campsite is in the middle of nowhere but I suppose that in summer they could get people trying to take advantage of their facilities. We fastened them loosely enough that they could be slipped off. We had to be a bit careful with them as they needed to be returned at the end of the visit, along with the electronic key for the entrance barrier, to get our deposit back.
Although the campsite didn’t have the most amazing views it did back onto a lake,.In fact we wished we’d taken a pitch at the back so that we could get views of the birds, bats and incredible sunsets directly from Bertie. But it didn’t hurt us to stretch our legs in the evenings.
We spent two days looking around the area. Exploring the city of Valencia on one day and exploring the Albufera towns on the other. I wasn’t at my best after a couple of sleepless nights but even so we managed a mooch around the old part of Valencia, slightly unnerved by the beggars at the cathedral – it’s been a long time since we’ve been in a big city and the signs of real poverty and blatant opportunistism side by side with the tourist infrastructure was a shock to the system.
By far our favourite part of the city centre was the food market. We always try to get to the food markets of big cities (and smaller towns) when we visit. As well as showcasing local and regional products they are a great source of more exotic ingredients that you might not find in supermarkets. Sure enough there was an Asian stall in the market that also sold cheerios and lucky charms and other such alien goods.
With a bag of local bomba rice, it’s grains as round and shiny as little pearls, we left the food market and moved onto the Mercado Colon. This modernist building is a venue for cafes and restaurants. I chickened out of trying the Horchata (a thick chalky looking drink made from Tiger Nuts – a tuber rather than a true nut) although it doesn’t contain milk it still looked too much like milkshake for me to stomach.
A further wander took us to the dry river bed that provides the venue for Valencia’s parks. The river was diverted after a devastating flood in 1957 and although there were a number of options for using the land, the residents of the city campaigned for it to be a green space. If you follow the river bed you will find various types of park from formal gardens to playground spaces. And of course there is the City of Arts and Sciences with it’s futuristic buildings and reflective water. We watched as they were setting up the course for that weekend’s marathon around the base of the buildings, and then turned our attention upwards where workers must have had fantastic views from the tops of these amazing buildings
As we approached the City of Arts and Sciences we started to feel peckish. We were too hungry to wait for a bus to take us down to the beach and harbour area for lunch, and anyhow we hadn’t finished looking around. A quick look on google and I found a restaurant short distance away that had reasonable reviews and served Paella. We headed towards ‘Alqueria del Pou’, crossing some rather desolate looking land. Paul was starting to fret as the only sign of life was a young man in his twenties hanging out by his car with his top off (i’m not sure exactly why he found that unnerving). Contrary to his concerns the restaurant did exist and was open, we were just a bit early for lunch – it wasn’t quite two o’clock. The waitress told us she only had two tables available, although there were only a couple occupied when we arrived. By the time we left the place was heaving and the car park was full. We were happy with our outside table, the weather had warmed up nicely and it felt like a British summers day.
After finishing our sightseeing in Valencia we got the bus back to the campsite. The fare was a nice simple €1.50 per trip, paid on the bus, but the journey was about 50 minutes.
Our next day was spent wandering towards El Saler, taking in the long beach, the lagoons behind the shore, rice fields and of course THE Albufera – the largest lake in Spain. It was strangely quiet except for El Saler itself, the miles of cycle path and footpath empty of anyone but us.
When we left Valencia we tried to avoid recreating our drive to the campsite, which had taken us through the city and around some interesting roundabouts, really large but with no clearly defined lanes, just a free for all. We kept closer to the harbour which was a much easier journey and allowed us to see some different parts of the city. I would strongly recommend a visit here, it would make a great weekend break.
We left Castellon to head inland to get bit of variety. Our initial destination was Sagunto. I wanted to visit Sagunto castle, the remains of a Roman fortress topped with Moorish and medieval defences. It’s highly visible from the road as you journey south perched on the top of a hill with the modern town around it’s base.
With no motorhome parking in the modern city we initially tried to find a parking spot at the railway station, but it was far too busy to squeeze us in. We drove around for a bit in a search of some parking but didn’t turn up anything we were happy with. In frustration we popped to Lidl, did a bit of shopping and looked on the map. It was then I remembered that it was Monday and like many tourist attractions the castle is closed on a Monday. Although we could have walked around the outside of the castle by this point we just decided to give it a miss. Maybe we could come back another day.
Onwards we travelled to our next planned spot. Segorbe. The motorhome parking here was on the edge of the road with a service point and multiple motorhome parking spots. The railway line runs parallel to the road but the trains were infrequent and didn’t disturb us overnight. There is a sign that indicates overnight parking is not allowed, but it seems to be ignored. We weren’t the only people here and the police drove past several times.
We spent the remains of the afternoon wandering around the town that rises on the hill behind the parking area. There is enough here to for an interesting stroll, the old city walls and their towers, remains of a medieval castle and more modern buildings. An interesting cathedral and, as you might expect, many churches.
The following morning we set out on a walk around the Pallencia river. Our aim was to reach the Salto de la Novia, an impressive waterfall. We set off from our parking spot around the eastern side of the bulge of Segorbe, taking tracks through orchards of oranges and persimmons to bring us to the Pallencia at the ‘Fuente de los 50 Canos’. Each spout of this fountain has the crest of a different province of Spain.
From here we followed the side of the river for a short while before heading up, past a tennis centre onto a ridge of red rock. Following a well worn trail through scrubby Aleppo pine and holm oak that eventually dropped down and bought us to the waterfall below an elaborately eroded cliff.
At the waterfall there was a large group of students and we were shocked to hear so many people speaking English. The exchange group were making their way along the river but moving very slowly in the way of large groups of teenagers.
We continued on up the river where there was another waterfall, accessed by some steps but barely a trickle. There were a couple more water fountains along the way and goats climbed the rocks on the other side of the river.
After a while we turned around and made our way back, past the waterfall where the students seemed to have made little progress and were still gathered in clumps. Instead of climbing back up onto the ridge we bore right and continued to follow the river for a while, finding evidence of previous man made water courses and aqueducts – now dry and collapsed.
When the path headed away from the river and up to a track we left it and followed a modern irrigation channel. This was full of water and bordered by bamboo but we managed a balancing act along the concrete edge to short cut through olive groves back to our original path. We headed back down to the 50 spouts and to vary the return route a little we wandered through the narrow streets of the town.
If there’s one thing we have realised on our travels so far it’s that beach locations can offer so much and deliver so little. It has, I think, to do with the commercialisation of seaside locations and the resulting over development, often accompanied by the economic deprivation that accompanies such a seasonal and trend dependent economy. We see it in the UK, and even more so we have seen it in Portugal, Italy and Spain. And so our foray to the coast is accompanied by a little nervousness about what we will find.
Our first spot on the coast was at the motorhome parking behind the Castell of St Jordi d’Alfama. A tolerated motorhome parking spot (no services) right on the coast, in the area of the Tres Calas tucked between two of the three pretty sandy coves. It’s surrounded by villa developments of varying quality, many owned by ex-pats trapped in negative equity. It has that odd and peculiarly Spanish situation where one minute the roads will be beautifully newly laid tarmac and the next minute will be old rumbling strips of concrete. The route in took us on what looked like a service road under the railway and motorway before bringing us up in a huge area of parking which was already busy with motorhomes.
Despite it’s oddities it was a peaceful and rather beautiful place. The coastline is conglomerate rock, highly eroded, forming many small coves, caves and overhangs. The GR 92 route runs along the coast and is marked with red and white stripes, sometimes along the coast, sometimes clambering over rockfalls and sometimes back into the streets. We wandered north along this path until just before the power station and then wandered back again, stopping frequently to admire the crystal clear sea and at one point a snorkeler making his way around the rocks.
Our next stop was Peniscola (yes the name does engender a bit of a snigger). Last year we had stopped at Alcossebre, on the southern edge of the Serra d’Irta natural park. We had walked along the coast and seen the promontory of Peniscola in the distance. This year we finally made it there in the motorhome. We had high expectations, many people have talked about how beautiful the place is. Our view? Well the castle on a rock jutting out into the ocean is very scenic and it’s worth a ramble around the walls and the surrounding narrow streets. The views of the Serra d’Irta are beautiful and the way that the more exclusive end of town climbs in whitewashed steps up the side of the hill is attractive. Turn north and look at the beach and it’s high rise backdrop and it’s just another over exploited beauty spot. Perhaps we were in an unusually negative mood, but it just wasn’t somewhere we wanted to stay. We had paid to stay at Parking Els Daus – a fairly standard private motorhome parking spot – otherwise I think we might have just moved on.
Our third coastal location was at El Grao de Castellon. Here in the stretch of coast between resort town Benicassim and the working port of Castellon there are two options for motorhome parking. You can stop by the airfield in a large car park without services, or you can stop on the parking next to the planetarium which has services. Both have their benefits but as we needed services and then there just happened to be a spot available, we stayed by the planetarium.
On first sight this wasn’t for us, lots of motorhomes squished together behind a long and unexciting sandy beach, but there was something about the place that really appealed. Perhaps it was the parks, one park littoral just behind the beach with boardwalks and paths and one park of pine trees with paella barbeques and play areas, both made pleasant places for a wander. Perhaps it was the sight of parachutes descending from the sky on a regular basis, tiny specks of colour against the blue. Perhaps it was the harbour with it’s friendly cafes. We didn’t do much here, we watched birds (lots of hoopoes) and bats, we waded in the sea, we chilled in the van and we sat in the cafes. It was a nice place and we stayed a second night without needing any persuasion. It’s a good place to linger for a day or two even though I cant quite put my finger on why.
When we left the parking area at La Selva there was already someone waiting to take our spot. I really hope the local community gain something from having the motorhome parking there.
Our destination was a parking spot inland, provided by the cooperative Wine and Olive Oil producer Cellar Masroig. I am really quite uneducated about wine, I like drinking the stuff – particularly soft, easy drinking, red wines – but I don’t know much about it. I was looking forward to trying some locally produced wine rather than just picking up a cheap bottle from the supermarket.
The village of El Masroig sits near the border between the Priorat and Montsant DO regions. The main grape grown is Carignan, one I’d never heard of – and it’s not surprising as it’s rarely used to make a single variety wine. The lady in the winery explained that Carignan has high yields but has to be picked by hand, it’s main characteristics are high tannins, strong acidity and a deep colour. Not my sort of wine at all. When we arrived at the parking in the morning we saw people turning up with plastic 5 litre bottles which they were getting filled in the winery. It turned out that the wine they were collecting was pure Carignan wine and I insisted on trying it although I was told I wouldn’t like it. True enough it was too rough for me.
Fortunately for me the blended wines (using Grenache, the other key grape variety in the area) were much more enjoyable and I particularly liked their boxed Vi Negre. So I had to pick up one of those (I think I’ll be returning to pick up some more) along with some of their filtered olive oil and a jar of local honey. We didn’t do a tour of the winery, but the shop is very accommodating and has lots of samples of wine and oil available for people passing by.
We didn’t just come here for the wine, there is also plenty of walking in the area. So when we arrived, and before we even leapt into the winery, we were off on a hike through the vineyards and olive groves of the area.
We decided to do a walk that joined two paths to make a circular route. The only issue being the part where the paths joined, it looked like we’d be able to follow a ridge but we weren’t sure.
So we set out of the Northern side of the village on the Cami del Masroig y Bellmunt following a well marked track used by the local growers to access their crops. Although it was mostly dry, there was still evidence of the recent floods in the scoured clean barrancas.
Lo Serrai is a small peak on the end of a ridge and we turned off the main path towards it (still signposted) and clambered up the friable rock to reach it’s summit. From there the marked path ended but we wanted to follow the ridge to the west and drop down to pick up the Puig Roig track. It took a few false starts before we found the trail along the top of the ridge. And it was good walking once we found it, but we were continually delayed by route finding. We knew that people had walked it – there was a wikiloc route along it (sadly the GPS info was incorrect) and we found small cairns along the way – but the top of the ridge was scrubby and there were multiple routes through, some ending on the edge of the cliff.
Finally we started to drop down and the route became easier to find. We worked our way through a vineyard where the vines were clad in their autumn leaves and around a muddy Olive grove to reach the path to Puig Roig By this time we were too tired (read frustrated) to go and visit the archeological site of Puig Roig itself, so once we reached the track (actually an asphalt road, but we didn’t encounter any motorised vehicles) we followed it back to El Masroig.
We stayed at the Cellar Masroig parking that evening in one of the six (I think) marked out bays for motorhomes and topped up using their free service point the following morning. It was a really peaceful night on the outskirts of the village.
Tarragona is not all about ancient Rome, but the industrial port city on the shores of the Meditteranean was the earliest Roman city founded on the Iberian peninsular, so part of the draw for us were the Roman remains (affectionately known as ‘old sh*t’ by Paul) dotted around the city.
Our first Roman site was slightly outside the city, an impressively intact (and impressively free) aqueduct that hides in a park a few kilometres from Tarragona’s centre. We stopped here on the afternoon of our visit to Poblet, taking a stroll amongst the scrubby pines that are so typical of Spain’s coastal areas and wandering across and under the aqueduct. It’s a fine way to spend a couple of hours and if we both had working bikes we could have cycled from here into Tarragona city itself along a pedestrian/cycle track.
We had looked at some reviews of Tarragona’s motorhome parking spots and had dismissed them on the basis of reports of robberies and people being moved on. In hindsight we probably needn’t have worried at this time of year, but feeling a little cautious we decided to stay outside of Tarragona and use public transport.
Our chosen parking spot was in the town of La Selva del Camp where there is a modern parking area with services and free electricity. Oddly it doesn’t have drinking water, but this is being remedied – a tradesman and a local government employee (or so we judge by their sign written transport) were discussing the best possible site for the tap while we were there, we asked in our broken Spanish when drinking water would be available and the answer was ‘when you next visit’. It was the busiest motorhome spot we had been on to date with multiple nationalities parked up and all of the spaces taken by the time the final van turned up that evening (they doubled up with their friends on one of the generous parking spots). We spent the evening wandering the town and sussing out the time it would take to walk to the train station. It was back to Bertie for tea, after we’d visited a couple of local shops for some fresh veg and bread. We still haven’t got to grips with the late dining arrangements in Spain and so if we eat out it’s usually at lunch time.
The following morning we were down at the station with the commuters, I was a bit nervous as we didn’t have anywhere to purchase tickets, but as soon as we were on board it was evident that it was perfectly normal to buy tickets on the train. The conductor spoke Catalan to us and then switched to English which somewhat undermined my attempt to speak Spanish, but I did try. It’s not the speaking that foxes me so much as understanding the responses.
Tarragona is highly industrialised and our train journey took us past the petrochemical factories that sit behind the port, where smoke belched into the sky and a bright flame burned at the top of a chimney. Starlings queued along the wires and fences in their thousands silhouetted against the dull sky. It all looked a bit post apocalyptic.
The train arrived into Tarragona station without any Mad Max style mishaps and we were ready to start our wandering around the sights of the city. We walked up to the amphitheatre first, not much is left of the ancient Roman site, a few arches and terraced seating – some built and some cut into the natural rock embankment. Although you can see most of it from the outside we had decided we would pick up the MHT (Museu d’Historia de Tarragona) ticket that would provide access to Tarragona’s main Roman sites as well as a few other places. It was only €7.40 each which seemed a small price to pay.
We wandered around, using a tourist map provided by the amphitheatre to help spot bits of Tarragona’s past dotted around the city, a bit of a wall here, some arches and colonnades there. In fact that was one of the most interesting aspects of the city, the way that you can see how the city built up around and on top of it’s historical buildings, using them for building materials (the amphitheatre) and for refuse and drains (the long vaults of the circus). With the ticket we visited the Muralles – the Roman walls, later developed as defences against cannons – the Praetorium – which was repurposed as Medieval castle and has amazing views over the city – the Circus – where chariot races were held by the Romans and now partially hidden under 18th and 19th century houses. There was an excellent short animation in the vaults of the Circus, showing the location of the Roman buildings and the way the layers of the town had built up over the top.
For a bit of something different we visited the free Modern Art museum which had an interesting collection of works by Julio Antonio, of importance to the city because he created a monument to the survivors of the Siege of 1811, a particularly horrific episode in the Peninsular wars. The final sculpture was controversial because of it’s classical nature (ie naked bodies) and it took some time before it was finally installed in the location it was intended for.
As well as the ancient stuff we wandered around the more modern areas where the streets are wide and clean. A statue of a ‘Castell’ stands on one of the main streets. Building human castles is something that Tarragona has taken to such extremes that it has UNESCO recognition. If you visit in the summer you can watch teams practicing in the lead up to the championships in October.
There is obviously a lot of development going on along the seafront to improve the pedestrian access and we wandered out to the Punta del Miracle to take a look at the beaches. This is also where one of the motorhome parking spots is and it looked perfectly safe and pretty busy.
Tarragona was great for a varied day in a small, industrious, city. We were tired but satisfied when we got back on our train to La Selva. The weather had warmed during the afternoon and heavy clouds were building over the hills. By the time we got back to the van it was a muggy moody twilight and before long we started to hear rumbles in the distance. The thunder and lightening storm that followed was pretty impressive, most people in the parking spot were in their vans, but we stood outside, joined by a couple of other Brits and watching the light show. Until the first fat raindrops started to fall and then we all raced inside again.
We woke up to a dreary morning at La Pobla de Segur and decided to move on rather than stay and look around the area. As the motorhome area is next to a park we had a quick leg stretcher before we left, joining local dog walkers taking in views over the large lake and across to the hills beyond. Although we had left the main mountain ranges of the Pyrenees the terrain is still mostly hills and ridges and quite dramatic.
While we had breakfast we triggered the free electricity again to give all of our devices a final charge. There are two electricity points on the service tower and they are free, but they have to be triggered every hour as they are still on the same timer that would normally be triggered by a coin or jeton.
Our drive took us south east, we were heading towards Tarragona, our first touch on the coast. With the weather so dull we thought we might get there in one journey, but I took the opportunity of a long easily navigated drive to do some research and decided we should stop at Poblet monastery on the way. Before we got there though we passed through the Serra del Montsec and were taken aback by the dramatic limestone cliffs and the gorge of the Noguera Palleresa river. We stopped for another leg stretch and a gawp at the rock strata, caves and cliffs. The highest mountain here is 1676m, higher than anything in the UK, and yet I had never heard of it until we got here. Spain has got so many mountains and I feel a little guilty that I only know about the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada. As a comparison the average height above sea level of Spain is 660m, compared to the UK at 162m so it’s a pretty hilly country. We made a note to come back here some time in the future and do a tour of Spain’s less well known mountain areas.
After our stop we continued following the river towards Lleida, the views were great and it wasn’t a difficult drive. Lleida was a point where we could fill up with fuel and pick up some supermarket goods before we continued to Poblet. It was also the point where we suddenly found ourselves out of the mountains and into agricultural Spain, surrounded by olive groves and almond orchards.
Poblet monastery has a large car park down some good but not overly wide roads in a very peaceful location amongst vineyards. Peaceful so long as you are immune to the sound of the bells regular chiming. They allow overnighting and we decided to spend the night and visit in the morning. If we had thought it through we would have gone to the ticket office that evening, but we didn’t realise that entry was on a timed basis and ended up having to wait nearly an hour. You have to go in and leave (they lock the gates) with a tour group, although you don’t have to actually follow the tour leader once you are inside. They didn’t have any English tours running while we were there so we payed our 8 euros (it’s 10 euros with a tour guide) and were let in with the Catalan tour. We had a handy booklet in English so that we could work out what we were looking at. Although we didn’t stay with the guide, he was a very proficient English speaker and was quite happy to answer questions when we were let out at the end of our visit.
The monastery itself is a UNESCO world heritage site. A large complex of austere stone buildings around a large church and beautiful cloisters. Alongside the original 12th century buildings and later medieval additions there are a number of modern buildings including a guesthouse. Despite being very obviously modern they blend quite well with the ancient complex.
There was a gardener in the cloisters while we were there, creating beautiful herby scents as he weeded and pruned.
The church may be best known as the resting place for a number of medieval kings and queens of Spain and the tombs are quite splendid.
Possibly more interesting is it’s history. It was originally founded by Cistercian monks after the Moors were conquered in this part of Spain. It is said, although it was almost certainly propaganda from the supporters of the confiscation of monastic property, that the monastery became highly corrupt, only interested in increasing it’s wealth and luxury. Whatever the truth, after the Spanish dissolution of the monasteries it was abandoned, ransacked, fell into disrepair and plundered for stone by local people. It was only in 1940 that a group of Cistercian monks from Italy returned to Poblet and began the process of restoring the monastery, reversing the decline of the buildings and extending it to provide modern services. The work continues and a small community of monks live here, seen in occasional glimpses as we took our tour.
We wandered around the inner areas, taking in the calm beauty of the spaces until the tour group were finished, the gates were unlocked and we were allowed back out.
As I’m writing this blog post I am sitting in Bertie at a parking spot on the meditteranean coast and the outside temperature is 21°C. It’s a far cry from the single figure days and frigid nights in the Pyrenees. The one common thread is sunshine. We have been really, really lucky; our time in the Pyrenees has been sunny more often than not and now we’re down at the coast in the sunshine too. While we were in the mountains we had seen news of flooding in France and more latterly reports of heavy rain and flooding on the Catalan coast of Spain but we’ve managed to avoid the worst of it. Fingers crossed that luck will continue.
These two days were to be our last in the Pyrenees for now. We had finally decided that we would allow ourselves some beach time, a treat for being so active for the past eight and a bit weeks. Before we left we had two more walks planned in the Vall de Boi. Originally we were going to base ourselves in the car park by the hotel at Caldes de Boi. But there is no phone reception there and so we decided we would backtrack down to a parking area by the side of the road. Not that we absolutely MUST have data, but …
So we moved back downhill , the only downside of this parking area was the noise of the trucks going past as went back and forth to the Mineral Water bottling plant up the road. Luckily they didn’t work overnight, but they made an earlier start than we usually do. Oh and it was a little bit sloping, we ended up using our levelling blocks which doesn’t happen very often.
Our first walk left from this parking spot, following the Ribera de Sant Nicolau, mostly a there-and-back journey, but with a couple of options to add a bit of variety. We weren’t going any higher than about 1900m so we didn’t have to worry about snow and there was nothing demanding about the path that rose steadily at an easy gradient. This was going to be a leisure walk for the joy of the scenery and it turned out to be a favourite.
From our parking spot there was a short walk up to the next car park, somewhere we couldn’t drive Bertie but smaller, thinner (ie under 2m wide), vans would be able to access. It didn’t really matter because it was only a short walk and on the way we had nice views of the river and came across an old lime kiln.
A little way further up the path and we came across our first challenge. The Pyrenean cow is a cute looking creature with fluffy ears and long lashed eyes, but they make a heavily muscled and obstinate barrier in a small space. They had congregated on the path, crowding together for warmth. Of course cows are inquisitive creatures so they wanted to get closer to us rather than back away. With the electric fence behind us there was no chance of us being able to back off and let them pass us, we were going to have to push past them. Paul did his best cow-herd impression and chivvied them backwards (not a cows favourite direction) until we got to a spot where we could get off the path and go around them. It was only about 5 meters but it took a good twenty minutes.
The path continued to a bridge across the river. Here it is possible to walk along both sides of the river, so we crossed the bridge on the way up and came back down using the other path, it’s definitely worth doing both. The path on our side of the river is called the Otter path, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any. There were squirrels though, red squirrels and their black cousins scampered between the trees industriously preparing for winter. Along this path we also passed the chapel and partially ruined hermitage of Sant Nicolau, only opened for the annual pilgrimage on the 1st of July.
The Estany de Llebreta is the point where the two paths meet again, we dropped down to it’s shores where the calm water reflected the autumnal trees on the far side of the lake. On the way back we followed the lake-side path to it’s western end where we crossed a bridge to take us onto our return route.
At the far end of the lake is a beautiful waterfall, a series of stone cascades and pools with a path that climbs easily by it’s side. We clambered up the rocks and finally emerged onto the Aigüestortes plateau.
On the Aigüestortes plateau is where you can see where the name – the tortuous waters – derives from. The river twists and turns in slow but tight meanders through the valley, flowing under broad leafed trees and across meadow grass, crossing between erratic boulders and shaded marshes. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic and we sat here in the warming sun just taking it all in, watching the vultures taking to the thermals in the blue sky above us.
If you cant walk this far the national park taxis will bring you all the way to the plateau, where there is a wheelchair accessible route that explores the river for a couple of kilometres. We followed this route with it’s shaded views of the water, but in these winter conditions the shade had left the boardwalk icy and treacherous, rivalling the cows as the most challenging part of the walk.
You could also take a taxi to this point if you wanted to walk deeper into the park. This path eventually links up with the Estany Sant Maurici, where we’d been a few days before. It’s a long walk but with the help of the summer bus service that goes between the two ends of the walk you could do it in a day, or stay in the refuge at Estany Llong to make it two more comfortable days. It feels like a challenge for the future, linking the two places that give the national park it’s name.
We stayed in the same parking spot overnight and then drove back up to the Caldes de Boi the following morning. We had a couple of possible walks to do from here and we chose to do something a little more strenuous today, walking up the steep slopes on the western side of the valley to reach the two lakes Gémena de Baix and Gémena de Dalt.
This path starts on the road north that leads to the reservoir, but soon turns off to the left past a couple of large erratic boulders. It climbs steeply through the forest amongst mossy boulders and silver barked trees.
After a while you start to hear the sound of the river, but only ever catch glimpses of it between the trees to the left until the steep slopes level off and the path crosses the intertwining streams.
More steep slopes then took us up to the plateau below the lakes where once again we had to cross the river, here it was snowy but passable and we could see our route onwards would take us up the rocky cliffs to the north. A waterfall teased us with distant views but we never reached it. The signpost told us it would be an hour and a half to reach the topmost lake that was only about a kilometre on the map, sure enough it was a steep and strenuous walk.
When we emerged by the lower lake we were in a beautiful cirque with snow all around and the water partially frozen. Our route took us around the lake and then up a step in the valley to the next lake where we ascended the side of the valley to get a seat with a view. From here we could see mountain peaks for miles, a beautiful view between the clouds, we are really going to miss this.
We followed the same route back to Bertie. Only just over 10k, but we had climbed nearly 900m and it had taken us 5 hours. A tough walk but worth it for the views over the park.
That evening we left, driving southwards out of the park and out of the Pyrenees. Our parking spot for the evening was at La Pobla de Segur, a nice parking spot with services and electricity. But it wasn’t the mountains.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We stayed for a second night here in Rialp to take advantage of the milder climate before heading back into the high mountains.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.