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.
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
After trying out our snowshoes we were very tempted to stay up in Arinsal and spend the evening admiring the views, but a quick check of the overnight temperature and we swiftly abandoned that idea. Minus 7 was too cold even for us fairly hardy souls. Instead we backtracked down the valley to a parking area we had seen earlier next to the side of the road. Parking Borda de Torres is on the outskirts of the small but lively town of La Massana and offers services and 16A electricity for 12 euros per 24 hours (you can use the services by paying for one hour’s parking which I think was 3 euros but I didn’t make a note), we thought it was worth a try. The parking spaces were close to the road and slightly sloping, but we didn’t have much overnight traffic noise, certainly not enough to wake us up and with our heating on we were so warm and toasty we didn’t feel like getting up in the morning.
When we finally dragged ourselves from our slightly stuffy bedroom we had a look at walks available in the area. We decided to do a circular walk that would head up on the Cami de Sola and head back on the Cami dell col d’Ordino. First of all we needed to get to the start of the trail, which meant either a drive or a walk to l’Aldosa de la Massana, a small hamlet just about 2k to our southwest. We decided to walk and picked up the Cami deles Molleres, wiggling back and forth up steps until we reached the CS-335 road. We had to walk south along this road for a few minutes before we found the start of the path on our left marked with a wooden sign. It took us up what looked like someone’s drive before leaving asphalt and carrying on around the north of the property’s garden.
Now we were on a proper trail, pleasantly rocky underfoot, that took us through the woods slowly gaining height and with nice views to the south across the valley. As we approached the highest point (about 1920m) we met a track, which we followed up a switchback into snow. Not enough for snowshoes (we hadn’t lugged them all this way), just a crisp coating on the grass. We followed the sign that took us over the small clearing and into the woods beyond.
Now on the north facing side of the hill the snow was more widespread, we crossed the closed and uncleared Coll d’Ordino road a couple of times as we worked our way down the path slipping over slush on rocks and tree roots and being dripped on by branches of slowly melting snow. As we worked our way lower in the valley we started following the narrow stream of the Riu de les Aubes as it gurgled down towards the village of Ordino.
Once the village had been navigated we were on the track of the Cami de Santa Barbara back into La Massana where we had to endure a walk along the road back to the parking spot. Walking along the road was the only downside to a pleasant wander in the hills around La Massana.
As we had overstayed 24 hours we decdied we might as well remain in our parking spot for a second night. A few minutes of google map searching later revealed there was a self service laundry in town (I’m still not happy to hand my dirty knickers over to just anyone) so that was our plan for the following morning. I carried a fat holdall of washing down to the Net and Sec ‘bugaderia’ and wandered around the town while it washed and then dried. Paul spent the time giving Bertie’s innards a good clean and taping over some of the holes in our heating vents (like the one that warms up the food cupboard – completely unnecessary).
After lunch we were on our way back out of Andorra into Spain, the traffic was a lot more normal than it had been on our arrival and the only hold up was a cursory inspection of Bertie as we went through customs.
We concluded that, despite our first impressions, we quite liked the bustling energy of the principality and would be happy to come back and explore it a little more. There’s more to Andorra than duty free.
If I ever claim that our pastimes are cheap then please feel free to have a word. Of course going for a walk or a bike ride costs nothing but kitting oneself out for walking, cycling and other outdoor stuff comes with a cost.
After our walk on the snowy hills of Andorra we had confirmed something we’d talked about since our spring in the Italian Alps, we want snow shoes! We want a way to extend our walks in snowy conditions of spring and autumn. We aren’t alpinists, we don’t want to scale icy peaks carrying ice-axe and crampons and avalanche transceivers (well maybe we do, but not yet, one step at a time), we just want to be able to walk comfortably in snowy conditions.
We have been researching on and off for a little while and had decided it was actually cheapest to buy snowshoes in the UK. The exchange rate at the moment isn’t great (have you noticed?) and in general the UK offers the best bargains. We hadn’t looked at Andorra though, so we had a look in the El Tarter outdoors shop (not a great selection) and then took a little trip into Andorra la Vella.
An hour of browsing later and we were the proud owners of a pair of middle of the range snowshoes. Not as sexy as the mountaineering ones, but good enough for us and a lot cheaper. A price comparison with the UK showed we had made a tiny saving, but at least we hadn’t spent more.
And while we were there…I just happened to buy a new pair of four season boots. At 12 years old my trusty Scarpa SL boots have had their day and weren’t coping with snow and rocks very well. I was tempted by a pair of last season’s boots but unfortunately they didn’t have them in my size, but then I couldn’t resist the temptation of this season’s boots. Luckily there was a much better saving on these Swiss (but manufactured in Romania) boots. Not that they were cheap!!!
Having spent all this money, and feeling slightly ill, I told Paul that we needed to get any duty free bought today. Then it would all be done and I could forget about the massive hole in our budget. A quick trip to the ‘River Centre’ supermarket near Saint Julia de Loria and we were lighter by some more euros (and heaver by a bit more liquid). Luckily the supermarket allows overnight parking and even has services. Without any need to move I could sit and drown my sorrows with a glass or two. It was raining too which accompanied my mood perfectly. Paul decided to make himself busy and useful (avoid my grumpiness) by fixing our sink which had come adrift from it’s housing.
The following morning, spending put behind us, we decided to go and try out our snowshoes. We drove up to Arinsal ski resort where there is a large parking area with lovely views.
First we played with the snowshoes in the warmth of the van, adjusting them to the right size and ensuring that we understood how to get them on and off. The slopes were nicely covered with fresh new snow ready and waiting for us, so once we were confident we made our way outside, the snowshoes initially attached to the sides of our rucksacks. We followed a track up beside the north side of the slopes until the mushy snow and mud combination became fluffy white stuff and then we donned our snowshoes.
We did a circuit of the main slope, trying out our heel lifts as we walked uphill – a godsend and something I’ve not had when hiring snowshoes in the past, it’s like wearing heels and stops your calves from over straining on uphill walks – and seeing how steep the downhill slopes need to get before our snowshoes started slipping – the crampons underneath were pretty good at gripping the snow. We walked about 6km, so not a lot, but it was a good way to understand the limits of our equipment. We cant wait to try them out for real.
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.
We weren’t really sure what to expect from the Spanish Pyrenees. The French side of the mountains seems much more talked about in the motorhoming world, but people are generally quiet about the southern side. So we left our campsite on the coast and made our way back towards the snow dusted mountains with very little in the way of expectation. We knew there were mountains, we knew there were walks and we knew there was motorhome parking. But we didn’t have the enthusiastic input of fellow travellers to bring the area to life.
Our route took us over the Col d’Ares on the border between France and Spain. At first the road followed the valley taking us past farms and vineyards, then it rose gradually up to the pass. The snow that had fallen while we’d been hiding in the campsite made the landscape of the pass almost monochrome. Grey skies, dark trees and white fields stirred a strange excitement in us as we contemplated walking in the snowy mountains.
Our first overnight stop was in the town of Camprodon, liberally decorated with the yellow ribbons supporting Catalan independence. The motorhome parking here was in an oddly circular parking area where the signs, according to google translate, proclaimed that we should park like barrels. The weather had turned a bit grim and grey in the afternoon but we still enjoyed a walk around the town, taking in the ‘Pont Nou’, a gothic arched bridge that delighted me with it’s steep cobbled span over the rushing river Ter.
The following day the weather was improving and we decided to head up the Camprodon valley as far as possible, we drove past the various villages of the valley with their attractive stone built buildings, some ancient and some modern but all conforming to an attractive standard.
At the head of the valley is the Vallter 2000 ski area, but we were still a few hundred meters short of it’s altitude when the road became impassable (to us anyway) with a layer of icy snow.
We turned around slowly and carefully before heading back down the road a short way to a corner where we had spotted an information board and signposts for walking trails. There was enough room for us to park up off the road and point Bertie’s solar panels roughly south. We weren’t going to stay the night but we wanted our batteries to be as charged as possible.
A quick look on the map and wikiloc found that a couple of paths, including the GR11, set off from here and could be joined in a circular walk. Our chances of completing the circular route were pretty small given the amount of snow lying on the ground but we decided to follow it as far as we could manage.
So we set off, initially up the GR11 until we turned left towards the river. We hadn’t realised that we would need to ford the river, expecting either a bridge or a stepping stone crossing, so we were a bit nonplussed when we found a raging torrent that seemed to offer no safe passage. We wandered up and down a few times, looking for the most obvious way across. Eventually we decided on a crossing slightly downstream of what must be the usual point, the river split into a couple of shallower streams which reduced it’s flow and made us much more comfortable with the crossing.
After this we followed a path that roughly ran along the bank of the river through trees laden with snow. It wasn’t easy to stay on track, with plenty of snow on the ground covering the obvious signs of the path. Luckily we could use the GPS on our phones along with the wikiloc route to ensure we were heading in the right direction.
After about 3km the route left the woodland and brought us out on the open mountain where the valley opened out. We sat here and drank our flasks of hot drinks, very welcome in the cool weather. As our eyes roved around the views of the valley we realised that there was a herd of animals on the grass above us. These were Pyrenean Chamois, known as Isards, small deer (well ok, actually they are ‘goat antelopes’) with short backwards curving horns. As we continued our ascent we watched them browsing on the grass, occasionally starting and dashing off for reasons we couldn’t make out.
It didn’t take long before we had to turn around. The increasingly strong wind had blown the snow into deep drifts that blocked our way. After slogging through one of these drifts, up to our knees, we decided that it wouldn’t be sensible to continue and so we turned and retraced our steps. The return route was much quicker being downhill but also because we didn’t have any route finding difficulties. When we reached the river it proved embarrassingly easy to ford in this direction.
That afternoon we moved to a parking spot in Sant Joan de les Abadesses, it took a couple of manoeuvres to make the sharp turn into the car park, but it was worth it for it’s tidy motorhome services and spotlessly clean public toilet. We still had plenty of time left to explore the tiny medieval town which had yet another gothic bridge as well as the remains of medieval walls and the monastery that had given the town it’s name.
We left Les Angles behind and continued south and east along the N116. This road is wide and well constructed and makes sickening large swooping turns. The tables were turned from our gorge drive a couple of days ago. Paul was thoroughly enjoying himself on the wide bends whereas I was holding on tight on the turns and unable to do anything but look ahead. The road follows the valley of the river ‘La Têt’ as does the rail line for the well known Train Jaune, a canary yellow tourist train that runs up the valley and has open topped carriages in the warmer months. In the earlier stages the road is high above the river and the rail line can be seen below, further downhill the train crosses on viaducts above the road.
We had considered a number of places along here to stop. The area is peppered with forts, built during the period when the area was hotly contested borderland. We drove past the citadel at Mont-Louis in two minds whether to stop, but the weather was forecast to be cold and we decided to go a little lower for the opportunity to have a warmer night’s sleep.
We decided that the motorhome parking at Thues-entre-Valls would be our destination, on the map we could see a few options for walking routes and the parking had good reviews. We indicated to turn right and immediately saw a sign for a 3.5 tonne limit on the bridge, so Paul pulled back out before committing to turning and we continued a couple of hundred meters to the parking area on the main road. A discussion ensued, should we stay parked on the side of the road, ignore the weight limit or proceed onwards to another parking spot. In the end we decided to ignore the weight limit, whether we were sensible to do so I don’t know but we had observed a couple of weighty trucks driving across the bridge while we were deliberating.
The drive to the parking was a test of our nerve, across the bridge with the weight limit and then steeply up through the village, following the signs for parking through narrowish streets. We didn’t meet anyone coming in the opposite direction and our short drive finally rewarded us with the entrance to the car park and clear signage for the motorhome parking. The parking here has services and is €9 for the first 24 hours and €5 for each subsequent 24 hours, you take a ticket on entry and then have to pay at the machine (cash only) before leaving. We parked up in the level motorhome area under chestnut trees and breathed a sigh of relief, we’d made it!
By this time it was only early afternoon, but the sunny weather and sheltered position tempted us to relax outside the van rather than do anything energetic. We watched the yellow train go past a couple of times, full of holiday makers enjoying the scenery and waving from the windows. The train stops here (on request) and is another good reason for choosing this parking spot if you aren’t inclined to long walks. When we got bored we collected fat ripe chestnuts and took a wander down to the notice boards and café/kiosk to see what walks we fancied doing. We even got the BBQ out for a change although by tea time it was cooling down rapidly and so we ate inside.
The following morning we set out to walk the Carança gorge. We knew this walk was going to be exciting and exposed because of the many warning signs at the entrance to the gorge. Little did we realise just how exciting it would be and that we were at the start of one of our favourite walks in the French Pyrenees.
The entrance to the gorge is through an archway carved through the rock under the railway line and next to the river. The path starts quite gently, a part concrete and part rock path alongside the gorge leading to a concrete bridge where you can cross and walk up the other side of the gorge, up into the hills, or back via a hilly route to the car park. We were not crossing the bridge but continuing onwards, staying on the same side of the river and following the path as it tracked uphill becoming more rocky and exposed and then back downhill again to rejoin the river. Along the way we could see the path along the other side of the gorge, a corniche dug into the rock and realised that we were going to miss out on this spectacular section of the walk. If you are going to do the long loop like we did, I would recommend crossing the river at the first concrete bridge and proceeding along the corniche for maximum excitement, rather than the Roc de Madrieu route.
We reached the next bridge across the gorge about an hour from the start, this was a metal walkway with a single rope hand rail. It wasn’t that exposed but it was a taste of things to come. This is also the point at which we could have done the shorter 8km loop, by crossing this bridge and turning right we would have found the route back along the corniche to the concrete bridge and our start point.
But we weren’t heading back, we were pressing on across the bridge and further into the gorge. The path now followed the river closely, moving from one side to the other and using a selection of suspension bridges, walkways and ladders to navigate the sheer sides of the gorge. At every point there was at least a single rope handrail – the suspension bridges were very wobbly but at least had handrails on each side to help keep your balance. I let my darling husband go first across most of these obstacles as he had a habit of shaking the bridges if I went first! On the map this path was marked as ‘Sentier sur passerelles’ which interpreted as trail on gateways – I suppose the walkways were a bit like gates, laid on their sides and attached to sheer rock faces. At least I will know what this really means if I encounter it again.
We really enjoyed this unexpected but adrenaline fuelled section of the walk. If you’ve ever done Via Ferrata this was like the very easiest of Via Ferrata without any safety equipment. It’s no surprise that dogs are not allowed on this walk, and I would caution against bringing small children this far unless you are very confident in their ability.
After the passerelles the path resumed it’s rocky course along and above the river gorge. Beautiful in it’s own right but feeling rather tame following the more adventurous section. At one point a small stone bridge and pathway seems incongruously placed in the middle of nowhere, but historically the river was used to transport logs down from the forests to the village sawmills and the stone path would have joined up with wooden walkways where the passerelles are now.
After about 10k and three and a half hours we reached a signpost. Twenty minutes further on would have taken us to the refuge but we were turning right and heading back along the Cami Ramader, a Catalan name meaning Farmer’s Way. This cattle tracked path led back towards our parking spot but much higher up the side of the valley. Along the way we found traces of the original farming communities who bought their livestock up to the high and steep pastures above the river. A small hamlet of ruined dry stone huts remain where once whole families would have migrated in the summer. The steep ground has been terraced by many generations of herders to create flat grassy areas held back by stone walls. It is amazing what humans will do to try to eke out a living in areas that seem inhospitable.
The path stays high for some time here, winding up and down between stone pinnacles – the ‘Campanilles’ mentioned on the map – and providing fantastic views across to the hills on the other side of the gorge. We started to get apprehensive about the downhill section as we were still so high up, and when we left the deciduous woodlands and entered the pine forests the path started it’s downhill trajectory and we started to feel the strain on our calves. Beside the path were what looked like metal bathtubs – evidence of the charcoal burning that once took place here.
This path took us eventually to a junction where we could have turned right onto the corniche, but instead continued downhill along a section of 14 switchbacks to the original concrete bridge. This section of path had been shored up using stone walls again, improved at the same time as the creation of the corniche by the SNCF engineers who built the railway.
It had been a long walk, but an incredibly beautiful and exciting one. We will be coming back at some point to walk the corniche and explore other aspects of this historically interesting area. For now we took our aching legs back to Bertie and decided to stay another night in these beautiful surroundings.
Walking the Gorge de Carança and Cami Ramader
Distance: 21.8 km
Total Elevation: 1604 m
Time taken: 7hrs 05mins
Type of Route: Difficult – long and with significant exposure
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8
Following our morning of sightseeing in Carcassonne we decided to crack on back into the Pyrenees. Our target was Les Angles, a large ski resort in the Pyrenees Orientales. Originally we had identified it as a destination due to it’s extensive mountain biking area but as Paul was still waiting for his mountain biking part we had a look for some walking routes instead.
The D118 road down to Les Angles followed the upper reaches of the Aude. After Carcassonne there was very little sign of flooding and as we got further south the river was constrained by the rocky walls of the Gorge d’Aude and Gorges de Saint Georges. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the drive, the fabulously scenic road twists and turns through the gorge with the river rushing below. At times it’s single track, although there are plenty of passing places, the main difficulty was navigating around working vehicles who were making repairs, clearing hedges and removing overhanging branches from trees. At times this balcony road is cut into the side of the cliff which made me reflexively lean towards Paul, but the overhangs were never too low for us.
Paul, it has to be said, found the drive highly frustrating as he crawled around corners and past other vehicles. The amount of concentration and patience required took any joy out of the drive and he was relieved when suddenly the valley widened in front of us and we were in a completely different landscape.
Our first parking spot here was near the ski lifts at Pla del Mir. This designated motorhome parking is priced depending on the season, for us it was €6 including 16A electricity. It rises to €11 during the ski season but still seems good value for money. We settled in for the evening and while we had electricity I trimmed Paul’s hair and reduced his stubble to something a little neater.
The following morning we took a walk up from the parking area into the mountains. The character of the hills here was significantly different than the jagged peaks we had become used to. The hills slope gently away from the valley floor with large boulders peppering the grassy sward. We walked in the sunshine, enjoying a recovery walk that was a little less strenuous than usual.
The route was on a track at first, running to the north of the Animal Park, and was well signposted as we wandered up through meadows and open woodland. We followed the signs to the Lac d’Aude, the source of the river that had caused so much trouble recently, keeping left where we had the option, which took us under the cliff face of the Roc del Filipe before we made our way to the southern shore of the lake.
From here we walked around the lake eventually finding our return path leading vaguely southwest from the north west corner of the lake. This path was on the map but was poorly signposted and there were very few tracks on the ground. We eventually realised that we should be following the wooden posts with dark green paint that were sparsely distributed along the route. Thankfully the day was clear and we could navigate using the posts, our map and the infant river Aude to guide us in the right direction. We met our outward route again roughly where we expected on the initial section of track. It hadn’t been a long walk, and navigation issues aside it had been a pleasure to walk in such different scenery.
That afternoon we drove down to the Lac de Matemale where we parked up in a specific motorhome parking area (no services) with lovely views of the lake. An easy mountain biking route circles the lake, but with Paul’s bike out of action we were a bit stuck. The following morning we saw lots of people jogging past the van and so I decided that I would jog the 9k around the lake, Paul would give me a head start and see if he could catch me using my bike. He did! It’s been some time since I went for a run and although my legs were fine, I was mentally unfit, obviously far too used to walking and stopping for a break whenever I feel like it!
Walking Pla del Mia to Lac d’Aude
Distance: 13.24 km
Total Elevation: 411 m
Time taken: 3hrs 35mins
Type of Route: Easy/Moderate – some route finding difficulties on the return leg
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8
We had a fixed date in the diary for the coming weekend, a rugby match in the town of Castres. Although we’d already been to Bagneres de Luchon we decided that we would make it our midway stop on the way east, we liked the town, it’s easy to get to from the main trunk roads and we knew there was plenty more good walking in the area.
We chose to drive to Luchon by heading North and avoiding the cols we had crossed on the way. Although the drive was mostly on main roads we were avoiding tolls and so still encountered plenty of smaller hilly sections that made it a more ‘interesting’ drive. It was a humid day and although rain was forecast it didn’t arrive until overnight. We were a bit hot and sticky by the time we arrived.
That afternoon we had a wander around Luchon town with the rest of the Sunday afternoon strollers, nosing at the streets of large villas, some of which looked in significant disrepair and other plots where the original house had obviously been demolished to make way for apartment blocks. The demand for smaller holiday flats obviously greater than any demand for a holiday mansion.
We spent the night in the Luchon aire before making our way up to the Hospice de France. We had been somewhat concerned about driving up here as the reviews on Park4Night made it seem narrow and steep, but actually the road was good and wide enough for us to pass farm vehicles coming the other way. There is a traffic management system in place too, a board displays the times at which you are allowed to either ascend or descend although at this time of year the farm and forestry vehicles didn’t seem to be paying it any mind.
Once at the top there is a large, slightly sloping, tarmac parking area with a couple of more level gravelled terraces beyond. The parking is enfolded by the mountains forming a beautiful vista of deep cut valleys and snow capped peaks and the refuge is open serving drinks and (I think) food as well as providing overnight accommodation to hikers. A pair of donkeys made their presence known to us by nuzzling up to the van. Soft hearted Paul (yes really) got the carrots out to give them a treat.
Several walking paths branch out from the parking area and we decided to do a shortish walk that afternoon, we wanted to see what altitude the snow started at to prepare us for a longer walk the following day so we headed up to the Pas de Roumigau on the border with Spain. The hills we were walking into, on the east side of the valley, were surprisingly rounded, reminding us of the Yorkshire dales. But the route up to them out of the valley was steep work.
Eventually we exited the valley, passing a right hand turn that would be our return route the following day and then going straight over a crossroads with a farm track, walking into the snowy valley and over the border with Spain.
The snow started at about 1800m and we enjoyed our walk through the white stuff, spotting an highly visible fox darting across the snow, before finally returning to the crossroads where we turned north along the farm track – The Chemin de Louise – to the Plateau de Campsaure. This track took us between large herds of sheep and a few cattle before coming to a shepherds cottage and then circling down into the pine forest. The track bought us into the lowest levels of the car park, walking past mountain biking route signs which only served to frustrate us.
The following day was a biggie, we were heading on a circuit that would take us up through the Port de Venasque and follow the border on the Spanish side before returning through the Pas d’Escalette. We chose to walk it this way around because of the snow. If we were going to encounter any difficulties with snow or ice it would be on the way up through the steep approach to the Port de Venasque.
The way up was clearly signposted and easy to follow, a series of multiple zig zags up through several false summits in the Venasque valley. When we hit the snowline we were nearly at the end of the zig zags and into the hanging valley where the refuge was sited next to a number of small lakes. We stopped here to take stock of the situation, could we see our path ahead? and did we think the next 200m of ascent would be a problem for us. The path skirted the left side of the lakes and climbed up rocky steps. The path had been trodden by a few people ahead of us and looked easy enough to navigate, the rocky steps were covered with a layer of crunchy snow and a little slippery underfoot but not too exposed.
We finally made it up to the Port; this doorway to Spain has been used for many years as a crossing between the two countries and a defensive position at times of conflict, views from here back into France and down into Spain are pretty awesome.
A short descent from the Port de Venasque into Spain allowed us to pick up the path that follows the border. The sun on this south side of the mountains made the snow slushy and our feet were skidding around. Walking poles helped us keep our footing but both of us ended on our bottoms at some point as we took over-confident strides, luckily the path here is not exposed or steep. Paul was down to his t-shirt in the strong sun that bounced off the snow and reflected onto us from all angles.
A short ascent back up to the border took us to the Pas de l’Esacalle, a less dramatic entry into France than the Port but still with amazing views. From here we could have taken a route straight down through the valley, but we preferred the look of the ridge walk along the Crete de Crabides which didn’t have so much steep descent in the snow.
Finally we were back on the path we had followed the day before and heading into the valley. We decided to drive back down to Bagneres de Luchon that evening to warm up a little. We’d had a couple of tiring but incredibly satisfying walking days and were looking forward to our weekend.
Walking the Pas de Roumingau and Chemin de Louise
Distance: 10.95 km
Total Elevation: 626 m
Time taken: 3hrs
Type of Route: Easy walk, well signposted, a little steep to start
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 5
Walking the Port de Venasque circuit
Distance: 17.59 km
Total Elevation: 1293 m
Time taken: 6hrs 25mins
Type of Route: Moderate/Difficult walk due to length and snow cover
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 5
The Cirque de Gavarnie may be the most famous of the Pyrenean cirques, but it is not the only one. When the day dawned with yet more cloud hanging over the local mountains we thought we’d try going a little further afield. Not very far, just a short hop to the next valley and the Cirque de Troumouse. On the way we passed the road that takes you to the Cirque de Estaube, but that cirque is going to have to wait for another day.
The road into the Vallée de Héas is narrower and less well travelled than the road to Gavarnie, but still it must carry a fair bit of traffic in high season. If you want to experience the cirque without a long walk you can take the toll road, which rises from the end of the valley up into the cirque itself. There was no-one collecting tolls in this low season period, but still we didn’t want to drive up. It’s narrow with multiple tight switchbacks, and anyway we like to walk. There is ample parking just before the toll road on gravelly hard standing and we stopped here to start our ascent.
We had a feeling that we’d made the right choice, there were large patches of blue sky above and we could see the tops of the surrounding mountains. Happy Days!
While the Cirque de Troumouse is definitely a cirque, with a wide semi circle of steep rock cliffs, it is not the perfect cirque you find in Gavarnie. Gavarnie’s cirque is open-fronted so that you can see the scale of the amphitheatre as you approach it whereas Troumouse has a massive hill in the middle of the cirque that obscures the views of the cliffs until you get right up amongst it. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have it’s own special attraction. The landscape is different, the cirque is wider and the grassy meadows in the centre of it are full of strangely eroded boulders and small lakes. On the central hill is a statue of the Virgin Mary, benevolently surveying the cirque, and you can stand next to her for a great panoramic view. Because it was a sunny day, and less crowded than Gavarnie, we enjoyed it more. Who knows how we would feel if the weather was different.
Our path took us up the eastern side of the cirque, along the east side of the valley between the cirque walls and the central lump of a hill. Initially the ascent was gentle but eventually the path had to climb up to get into the base of the cirque. You soon realise that most of what you’re walking on is gravel and rock; glacial moraine pushed down the mountain sides who knows how many years ago by rivers of ice that are now long gone. Where the grass and shrubs hold the loose rock together the walking is good, but where water and footsteps have eroded the topsoil and exposed the scree it is harder work.
It didn’t take long to get up amongst the lakes and rocks, avoiding the path that would have taken us up and over the cirque wall. We came across a few more people, most of whom had driven up the toll road and were taking a stroll around these lush meadows where you can explore to your hearts content.
Eventually we meandered our way around to the car park at the top of the toll road and were doubly glad we had decided to walk because it was closed and people were having to park on the edge of the road. I don’t think Bertie would have been happy perched up here.
The route down was via a set of steep and eroded paths that crossed the toll road, cutting out the switchbacks but making for hard work, especially when the path had been eroded to create a two meter drop down to the road (this was near the bottom of the valley and I managed to backtrack and find an easier route). The unpleasant parts of the path were countered by the beautiful scenery. This is the path of the river that runs down into the valley, and there are many beautiful waterfalls and cascades. A nice flat plateau part of the way down gave our legs a break (make sure that you follow the path that leads down here – we nearly went too far to the right) before we picked up the path for the final descent from behind the restaurant.
A fantastic day, this is definitely in our top 5 walks so far in the Pyrenees so far.
While here in Gavarnie I wanted to tackle one of the easier 3000m peaks of the Pyrenees. The Pic du Taillon stands as the highest mountain of the Cirque de Gavarnie at 3144m and doesn’t have anything more technical than a summit scramble to throw at us. When we woke up to changeable skies and blustery winds we considered whether we would attempt the route or not. In the end we decided that we would see how far we got, but we knew it was unlikely we would get very far. Maybe the wind would blow the clouds away, but the cirque was obstinately gathering more cloud so we didn’t get our hopes up.
We drove up to the Col des Tentes, a short drive from our parking spot up past the ski resort. Here a path leads away from the end of the road, surprisingly with a wheelchair accessible initial section, including disabled parking spaces. Once there were plans to build a road link with Spain from here but it seems that it will never be completed. The parking area had several work vans and piles of building materials in one corner and as we arrived a helicopter was landing. I had my heart in my mouth as we watched it being buffeted backwards and forwards by the strong wind before it eventually managed to land and drop off someone wearing hi-vis overalls. It was only when we were part way through our walk that we realised the reason for all the vans. A group of men descended past us carrying their drills and wearing working gear rather than walking kit, they had been working on the Refuge des Sarradets which is being significantly extended. That’s one hell of a commute and if they had a choice I could understand why they might have chosen to descend on foot rather than in the helicopter.
The path from the Col des Tentes is long and quite flat initially. We walked along the edge of the steep sided valley to the border with Spain before turning back and walking along the other side of the valley over increasingly barren and rocky terrain.
As we looked ahead of us we wondered where the path went to take us out of the valley. As usual the valley walls looked quite steep and impenetrable from a distance, only when you get close up do you see the zig zag route that takes you up through the boulders and eventually to a short almost-scramble up a waterfall.
Once past the waterfall you are in the upper section of the Cirque de Gavarnie, an area we hadn’t been able to see through the clouds on our walk a couple of days previously. From here we had views of the Grande Cascade as it dived over the edge of the cirque, plus the scaffolded refuge, but we still couldn’t see the top of the mountains.
Just barely we could make out La Breche de Roland. Like a missing tooth in the Cirque de Gavarnie’s smile this missing section of rock seems out of place and artificial. Supposedly the breach was created with one blow of the mighty sword Durendal, wielded by Charlemagne’s knight Roland who was the subject of much medieval romance and hyperbole.
The Breche de Roland was as far as we got, an easy but tiring slog up a snow covered slope. The cloud had descended lower and lower, wreathing around us, obscuring any views and occasionally threatening sleety showers. We knew we wouldn’t enjoy going any further, so we retraced our steps back down to Bertie. We’ll be attempting some more 3000m peaks if the weather allows us, but with winter approaching it’s likely that snow will stop us.
Walking from the Col des Tentes to the Breche de Roland
Distance: 11.39 km
Total Elevation: 670 m
Time taken: 4hrs 02mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with some steep rocky sections
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 4
We left the campsite with a vague promise of better weather from at least one weather app. Our destination was Gavarnie, a tourist honey-pot and probably the most famous part of the Mont Perdu UNESCO world heritage site. The reason for it’s fame is the Cirque de Gavarnie; a spectacular rock amphitheatre that is a draw for hundreds of thousands of people each year.
The popularity of the village is evident as you approach, signs at the side of the road warn you of the parking charges to come – €5 for cars and €8 for motorhomes – the main street of the village is pedestrianised but the surrounding roads are just a mass of parking. It’s all very well organised with well marked spaces, some parking areas with height barriers and some without. There are ticket machines everywhere. No excuse for not paying although we don’t see anyone checking during this quiet off peak time.
Motorhomes are directed up the hill to a nice level aire with the usual facilities. Arriving on a gloomy week day there were very few cars or motorhomes around, but by the time we left the parking was filling up and many motorhomes were parking further down the hill to get better access to the village. I can see why when it’s a good 20 minutes downhill walk to the village from the aire (and half an hour back up again) and pitch black at night.
When we arrived the weather was dry, even if it was too overcast to see the tops of the mountains. We decided to walk to the Cirque de Gavarnie straight away. A quick look at the map showed that we should be able to follow a path directly from the motorhome parking along the side of the valley, rather than dropping all the way down to the village and then back up again. There was no specific signposting from the motorhome car park, but at the back of the car park there was a small square red mountain biking sign (a stylised picture of a bike made up of two circles and a triangle). It appeared to be pointing in the right direction so we followed the track up and over a small rise and then to the right. Luckily we soon found some national park signs (yellow with black writing) that indicated we were going in the right direction for both the village and the cirque. A little further along the village was signposted going downhill to the left and we carried straight on. Because we weren’t on the main tourist footpath the route was not very well signposted. At junctions the signs often didn’t mention the cirque at all and so we had to use the map and work out which paths we didn’t want to be on. However we made it into the cirque without taking any wrong turns, joining the main path just as it started to ascend to the hotel.
We returned along the wide main track to check out the village. Both routes have their merits; the route from the village gives you views of the cirque all the way whereas the route along the side of the valley is wilder, more rocky and occasionally amongst the trees. Not always such great views but more variety. I think if we did it again we would do it in the opposite direction.
From the hotel onwards you are in the cirque itself. We wandered in as far as the base of the waterfall, although we realised that our tiresome slog up the mountain of scree below the waterfall was pretty pointless. There were no better views of either the cirque or the waterfall.
There is no doubt that the Cirque de Gavarnie is a spectacular natural feature. the green grass of the lower slopes leads you in gently, but there is no other way out – the steep limestone walls tower above you in three tiers of neck-aching splendour. I wish we had better weather, but it’s a wonderful sight even covered in a grey blanket.
Down in the village we dodged horses as we walked down the single main street. We had a peek in the shops that were selling the usual tourist stuff, from fridge magnets to sheepskins. As it was my birthday I treated myself to a new pair of slippers. The soles on my existing pair were slowly falling to bits. We also tried to have lunch somewhere but it was mid afternoon so we had to make do with just a drink.
The weather brightened in the late afternoon but this spell of good weather only lasted till mid morning the following day. In the morning we cycled down the hill to the tourist office and tried to find a map of the mountain biking routes, but they were being reprinted due to some recent changes. Our plans for a cycle were put on hold as the rain started to fall heavily and we made our way back to Bertie via the bakers.
The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing and doing odd jobs in Bertie’s dry interior as we crossed our fingers for a better day tomorrow. We fixed the hood of Paul’s waterproof (it seemed appropriate given the weather), having to deconstruct the lining and the channels for the drawstrings before putting it all back together. We were quite pleased with our joint effort, particularly the flexible needle we made with a cable tie to pull the drawcords through into the right positions. Cable ties are one of the things in our toolbox that we wouldn’t be without, but we never envisaged using one in this way.
The temperature was steadily dropping with no sun to warm the air, so at least my new slippers got a good work out.
A circular walk to the Cirque de Gavarnie
Distance: 15.55 km
Total Elevation: 653 m
Time taken: 4hrs 15mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with some route finding and a steep (and unnecessary) final section to the base of the waterfall
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 4
The weather for the coming weekend was predicted to be wet and cold, and we wanted to tick off a couple of things before it changed for the worse.
The key thing we wanted to do was to climb to the summit of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. This 2877m high mountain is not the highest in the Pyrenees, but it’s position as an outlier from the main mountain chain means that it offers incredible views. It’s great height in comparison with the surrounding peaks also makes it ideal for astronomy and so it has a large observatory right on the top of the mountain. The observatory and associated cable car provide an alternative route to the summit from the ski resort of La Mongie.
In order to get to the Pic du Midi (there are two Pics du Midi in the Pyrenees – so the de Bigorre bit is quite important, but for this blog post I shall shorten it) we either had a couple of cols to cross or a long detour. Bertie is quite used to mountain roads, so we approached the Col d’Aspin with confidence. The road up was mostly that ‘one and a half cars wide’ size that meant we could generally ease past any oncoming traffic at the wider points. However when we met a coach coming the other way we had to reverse to find a spot big enough for both of us. My heart was pounding as we reversed downhill along the edge of a long drop. It was only about 20 meters but it really made me glad for Paul’s confident driving.
At the top of the Col we got our first sight of the Pic du Midi in the distance, the observatory glinting at the top of it’s rounded peak. We stopped here for a short while before descending into the valley to find our parking spot for the night.
Payolle lake is in an area of valley parkland. It’s a leisure area with multiple walking and cycling routes as well as the lake. It has holiday chalets, cafes, a designated aire and a motorhome service point. Confusingly we parked with the majority of motorhomes in a large parking area near the service point which wasn’t the aire.
That afternoon we had a short cycle around the area just to explore the area. It was so pleasant we decided that we should tackle one of the official mountain biking routes before we left the following day. So after a quick investigation we decided on route 18. It would take us up above the Col d’Aspin and looked roughly equivalent to the ride we had done in Superbagneres a couple of days previously, but this time we would go uphill first which made me much happier.
So the following morning we set off, heading back to the lake and up the D113 for a short while until we reached the signpost where the track branched off through the forest. This track took us eastwards up a gentle incline on a well made forest track with occasional views down to the lake below and the Pic du Midi in the distance.
After a couple of hairpin bends we were heading south just below the ridge, initially we were still on a track but – at a point we missed and had to backtrack to – the mountain bike route diverged off to the left. Here it became a pleasing single track route following the contour just below the ridge line and above the forest. Roots and rocks made it interesting enough that we had to keep our eyes on the path rather than the view that was opening out in front of us, but that was a good excuse to stop for a few minutes and take in the panorama along with a slurp of water.
After enjoying this route for a little longer we reached the road at the Horquette d’Ancizan. We followed the road downhill for a short while until the road turned sharply to the left and we followed a track straight ahead. This rocky track took us steeply back down to our starting point. In all a pleasant morning’s ride.
After the bike ride for a change we felt energised rather than knackered. We had a spot of lunch, used the services and the headed onwards. This drive would take us over the Col du Tourmalet to our parking spot for the night and the disembarkation point for our ascent of the Pic du Midi. The Col du Tourmalet is the highest road pass in the Pyrenees and is used regularly as part of the Tour de France route. On both sides of the col there are ski resorts whose slopes and lifts join up in winter when the road is shut. We found this col a lot less exciting than the Col d’Aspin. It’s road was wide for the majority of the climb – only the section between the two ski resorts was narrower and even that was not so narrow that passing places would be needed. It was busy busy with tourists – including us – taking their obligatory photos. Once we had done the tourist thing we descended a short way down to a small parking area beside the road.
The following morning we had difficulty waking up, the outside temperature was cold even though the sun was shining and we didn’t want to get out of our snuggly bed. We could hear the arrival of cars and chattering of people outside. By the time we had got out of bed the car park was pretty full and we could see the line of walkers snaking up the path. The a coach turned up and disgorged about 30 more walkers. By the time we had eaten breakfast and packed our rucksacks we were the last in a long line of walkers.
Walking in such a busy place is highly frustrating and we were kicking ourselves that we hadn’t taken advantage of our overnight parking spot to be up bright and early. Stuck behind people who were walking at a slower pace than us meant we were always on the lookout for opportunities to overtake, and so we ended up going at a faster pace than we would normally find comfortable. By the time we got to the Lac d’Oncet I was puffed out and needed a rest – and of course people started overtaking us again!
From the Lac d’Oncet onwards it was a bit easier though, the path was wider and the gradient steeper. The crowds thinned out and we could take the rest of the walk at our own pace. Above us the domes of the observatory looked like a temple on the top of the mountain, with us as penitents crawling up the steep slopes. Finally at the summit we stopped for our lunch on the free terrace (the paid area was €18 each). The views from here were far reaching but a little too hazy to make great photos. On the way down the distant visibility improved a little.
We retraced our steps on the way down, stopping to investigate a couple of the abandoned buildings and to enviously watch some paragliders taking off from the slopes above us (this is an activity that is definitely on our bucket list). Down in a valley near Bertie a dead cow had attracted a few vultures, it looked too recently dead to make them a good meal.
We were glad to have done the walk, it was an easy route but the highest summit we have reached without a guide. In a way it reminded us of the tourist route on Ben Nevis, an iconic mountain but not the most thrilling ascent.
That evening we descended further down from the col to Tournaboup where there is a large car park that serves the ski resort. We parked here, made dinner and had an occasional wander around the car park to stretch out our lakes.
Ascent of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre
Distance: 15.78 km
Total Elevation: 1024 m
Time taken: 5hrs 20mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with some steep ascent on good paths
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 4
As the weather is still beautifully sunny and warm I’m a little surprised to find that we’re now into October; a month that usually signals a definite move from summer to autumn. Here the evidence of the changing seasons is in the crops ripening in the fields; the sunflower’s bobbing heads are dark and without their petals, the maize is cut back to stubble and the hay is baled.
We drove from Aulus-les-Bains to Bagnères-de-Luchon (simply called Luchon on the road signs) – yet another reference to bathing and hot springs. It was a longish drive for us, but a pleasant one along a pleasant valley towards St Girons and then across farm land to Montrejeau, with red kites flying overhead, before heading back into the valleys again. The reason for such a long way round? Well it was the quickest route, but the main reason was a search for LPG. We found the most expensive LPG we have ever bought in St Girons – 81 cents a litre, but without it we are stuck, no fridge, no cooking and no heating.
In Luchon the aire was busy with weekend visitors, more motorhomes in one place than we had seen for some time including some Brits for a change. We spent a while trying to work out how to pay for the parking, in the end realising that one of the four buttons on the motorhome service point was for the 5 euro parking charge. The service point seemed to confuse a few people with one motorhome owner accidentally paying for water which then gushed out uncontrollably as he shrugged and other people dashed out of their motorhomes with receptacles to catch the precious liquid.
We took a turn around the lake to stretch out our legs after our drive, but it was a hot afternoon and we soon retreated into the shade of our van where we watched the gliders and their tow planes taking off and landing at the nearby aerodrome.
The following morning we managed to successfully use the service point to fill up with water. We chuckled at the group of older gentlemen who spent the morning hovering by the service point with their water containers. They were ready to take anyone’s surplus water and were very friendly about it, chattering away in French to us as we replied in a mix of French and (mostly) English. You cant blame them, the surplus would only end up down the drain otherwise.
From Luchon we took a short drive up the road to the ski station of Superbagneres (or super bangers as Paul kept calling it – I don’t know what he had on his mind). The cloud had dropped and started to envelop us as we ascended the switchbacks to the resort. By the time we got there it was looking a bit gloomy and we had no idea of the view that was hidden behind the clouds. We could see the large and impressive 1920s hotel that is the main building up here, sadly surrounded by ugly modern buildings that seem to be half derelict. One building with broken windows and empty holes where the doors should be has a planning permission sign from 2008. Not much seems to have happened to it but the ground floor is still occupied by ski hire shops and the like.
We had planned a walk but were in two minds about setting out in such gloomy conditions. In the end we decided we might as well go for it, if the weather turned worse we could always walk back down. Our walk was to the Pic de Céciré, a mountain top that we should have been able to see from the car park, but the view was sadly obscured. It was an easy route – following the well signposted GR10 which has been rerouted since our map was published.
Instead of a gradual uphill traverse around the side of the peak, the walk drops towards the river valley, before making zig zags up a newly scoured path where it eventually re-joins the original route of the GR10. When the GR10 reaches the col, it carries on over the top, but our path to the top of the peak split off to the right.
We saw plenty of Griffon Vultures on the way up, forced into low flight by the cloud. As we approached the col at the top of the gully the cloud started to break and we got brief glimpses of the amazing glaciated mountains to our south, the higher we got the more the cloud lifted. We spent half an hour at the top eating our lunch and watching the strange movement of the cloud as it swirled over the col and was lifted like smoke signals by the thermal currents.
The way down was a simple retracing of our steps and as we dropped lower the cloud cover increased again until we were completely under it’s blanket of grey again by the time we were back at Bertie. We settled in for a cold night, putting our heating on for the first time that evening and again the following morning just to take the chill out of the air.
The following morning the sky had completely cleared and we could see the skyline of glaciers and mountains from Bertie. In the distance, across the border in Spain, was Aneto – at 3404m it’s the highest peak in the Pyrenees. Closer to us and still in France was the chain of 3000m peaks whose glaciers we had glimpsed the previous day.
Today we had planned to follow a mountain biking route (route 10) round the resort. It was a marked red circular route and had kept me awake at night with apprehension. I don’t feel that my cycling muscles are working very well at the moment and this bike ride went downhill first before climbing back up to our parking spot. Normally a route will start with uphill and I know that if it’s too much for me then I can just turn around and freewheel back downhill. Here I was going to have no such escape route. We cycled up, gaining about 80m as we went towards the top of the ski lift. From the track that circled around to the right we could see the lowest point of the ride, a small reservoir that seemed a long way below us. The downhill from here was steep and stony, once we’d committed to it there was no going back up this route except by getting off and pushing.
We managed to skid downhill pretty quickly to where the track followed a more reasonable downhill gradient around to the reservoir. I looked up and could see the steep green banks of the ski slopes, but Bertie was out of sight. It looked like a long way. The next section climbed slowly through the forest. I was glad for the trees masking the extent of the climb with just occasional views further down into the valley. We pedalled on until we came to a fork in the track where we took a right hand turn up difficult switchbacks that would have been very nice on the downhill. Tackling the berms uphill was punishing but bought us out onto a parking area on the road below Bertie with only a couple of hundred meters climb to go. We could have continued off road here, but decided to make it easier and cycle up the road instead. After my earlier trepidation I felt relieved and even managed to look back on the route as being quite enjoyable. I would still prefer to do the uphill section first though!
Walking to the Pic de Céciré
Distance: 14.55 km
Total Elevation: 970 m
Time taken: 4hrs 50mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with a small amount of steep ascent on mostly good paths
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 5
Superbagneres Tour du Plateau
Distance: 15.27 km
Total Elevation: 583 m
Time taken: 2hrs 20mins
Type of Route: Moderate (red) mountain bike route with a steep downhill section