Walks Around Espot and the Estany de Sant Maurici

09/11/18 – 10/11/18

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

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

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

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

Parking area in Rialp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching the horses go past

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

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

Way markers on the snowshoe route

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

Distant views as the clouds start to clear

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

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

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

Leaving Espot

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

Mountains blocking the sun
Els Encantats
Lake of Sant Maurici

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

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

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

31/10/18 -02/11/18

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

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

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

Parking in Queralbs – look at all that snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the train back to Queralbs

     

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

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

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

Church of Sant Jaume

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

Following the footsteps of our absent guide

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

Crossing the bridge for our return journey

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

The river gorge we decided not to descend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading Into Spain: Gothic Bridges and Pyrenean Chamois

29/10/18 – 30/10/18

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning spot on the road to Vallter 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isards – not the best picture!

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

Snowy drifts
Increasing amounts of snow

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

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

Snowy Border Crossings at the Hospice de France

14/10/18 – 16/10/18

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.

The notice explains when you can ascend and descend the road to the Hospice de France

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.

Donkeys scratching each other’s backs
Our parking spot for the night

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.

Rounded hills above the steep sided valley (as seen from our walk the following day)

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.

Snowy valley into 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.

Smile sin the snow

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.

So many zig zags on the steep ascent

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.

The lakes and refuge on the way to the Port de Venasque

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.

The narrow opening of the Port de Venasque from the French side

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.

The view down into the Spanish side of the pass

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.

The near and distant views on our return were awesome

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.

Good signposting on the walk
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

    

Thwarted at 3000m

11/10/18

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.

Looking across the border with Spain
The deep valley at the start oft he walk.

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.

Our path took us up through this waterfall. Not as difficult as it might look though.

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.

Entering into the top of the Cirque de Garvarnie.

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.

My best picture of the Breche de Roland

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.

We shared our lunch with this cheeky Alpine Chough, Paul was able to hand feed it.
We finally caught sight of a marmot in the Pyrenees. They are a lot harder to see when there is no snow around!
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

Aulus-les-Bains and the Cascade d’Ars

27/09/18 – 29/09/18

After two weeks of sweaty walking and cycling we needed to do some washing. A bit of google maps investigation revealed that our closest launderette was at the Intermarche in Tarascon-sur-Ariege. It was only a small supermarket, but we managed to wedge ourselves into a corner parking space without being too much in the way and availed ourselves of the washing and drying facilities. Usually with these laundry facilities we don’t have any clashes, but today we had someone else waiting to use the dryer and could sense their exasperation as we went to check whether our clothes were ready and then put the dryer on for yet another session.

With clean clothes and fluffy towels we moved onto our next destination. Aulus-les-Bains is a small town that is off the main roads of the Ariege. Like many places in the Pyrenees it is named for it’s hot springs. One of these days we’ll have to try them out, but like a cheapskate I’m waiting to find a freebie like the fabulous Saturnia hot springs in Italy. The drive to Aulus-les-Bains was pleasant to Vicdessos, where it became a little narrow. At Port de l’Ers the road improved again and above the lake there were paragliders soaring and a significant entourage supporting or just watching. 

Paragliders over the hills

Aulus-les-Bains has a designated motorhome parking area for €2 per night plus free services outside the campsite. We parked ourselves up and popped into the Tourist Office to pay  our parking fee and to get some local information. Lots of tourist shops and attractions were already closed up for the season but the town was still busy enough with (I assume) locals. The lady at the tourist office sent us onto the Thermal spa complex as she had run out of the booklet of walks of the area. A small office there handed over the booklet of ‘parcours’ and a walking tour of the town which we followed to stretch our legs. There are some smart looking 19th century hotels here (it’s not clear how many are still in operation) although the Thermes complex is a bit of an ugly modern block.

Bertie in the parking at Aulus-les-Bains
The town of Aulus-les-Bains from a vantage point

The following morning we decided to follow one of the routes in the parcours booklet. Route E is a circular walk that takes you to the Cascade d’Ars. We started from a trailhead on the hairpin just up the road from the motorhome parking where we followed a track into the forest. Eventually the track met up with the GR10 and we followed the usual red and white slashes up along the bank of the river Ars. Sometimes we were right by the river as it flowed over boulders and at other times we were above the river gorge with just the sound of the river accompanying us.

It wasn’t long before we reached the cascade, we didn’t know whether to expect much as it has been so dry, but it was still attractive and impressively high. A single stream at the top separated into multiple strands in the middle and then converged into one single drop again for the lower drop. The official path walked safely to the side of the waterfall, but there were numerous small paths that allowed us to get a closer view and feel it’s cooling spray.

The middle section of the waterfall
Walking towards the top section of the waterfall

Getting to this point would be a nice walk in it’s own right, but we went onwards, following the GR10 up to the valley above the waterfall where the stream seemed far too innocuous to be feeding such a dramatic plunge and the fishes swimming lazily in the water seemed to have no fear of being swept over the edge. In the valley a signpost pointed out way onwards, still taking the GR10 on a gradual uphill traverse of the steep slopes where signs warned of avalanche dangers, skirting the head of a valley and crossing the squelchy plateau Guzettou.

Above the waterfall

After several frustrating moments where we thought we had reached the top only to realise we had more uphill to go we thankfully found ourselves going consistently downhill. The path descended steeply through forest next to the Etang de Guzet whose black waters were glimpsed through trees (we didn’t descend to the lake because we couldn’t face going back uphill yet again). We were keeping an eye out for the point where we had to branch off the GR10 to make our return. When we found the point there was a signpost, but no letter E to point our way. We had to take a bit of a guess, luckily it was the right one, following the sign to the Piste de Fouillet (if we had translated the route description from the booklet we would have realised this was the right way – we’ll remember that next time). This took us through bracken and across pasture before heading back into the forest and steep zig zags back down to the road, just above our starting point.

Views to the north as we start our descent

That night we decided not to stay in the town parking, but to drive up to the Guzet ski area which might be a little cooler and less smelly; the car park in Aulus was covered in sheep poo where a local herd had been walked down to the low pastures the evening before.

Sheep being driven across the motorhome parking

The following morning we decided to use our mountain bikes to explore the area around the Guzet ski resort. There is mountain biking here in the summer (known as VTT – Velo Touts Terrain – in France), but sadly the lifts stopped running the previous weekend so we had to get uphill under our own steam. 

View down across the ski area, our parking spot just about visible

We followed the road up through chalets and then took the track that bought us out above the ski area. Instead of heading straight back down we branched left on this track, heading roughly south around the contours of the hills for about 7km until we reached a point where the uphill looked too much of a struggle. Then we turned around, back to the ski area and down mountain bike routes (red 5 onto green 2) back to our parking spot.

We’re stopping here!

All along this route we had close up views of Griffon Vultures with their white heads and ragged looking long-fingered wings. I don’t have any good photos of them, so instead here is a curious sheep.

Not your usual sheep – instead of running away it came over to investigate our bikes
Cascade d’Ars hiking circuit
  • Distance: 14.75 km
  • Total Elevation: 945 m
  • Time taken: 5hrs 30mins
  • Type of Route: Easy track to waterfall, Moderate from waterfall onwards
  • Further Information: Parcours website. IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7
Exploring by mountain bike at Guzet ski area
  • Distance: 12.91 km
  • Total Elevation: 578 m
  • Time taken: 1hrs 45mins
  • Type of Route: Easy mountain bike route along track and red/green downhill runs
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7. Guzet VTT map. 

Not Quite in Andorra

24/09/18 – 26/09/18

We woke up on the top of the Col de Pailheres in thick fog, we could barely see anything; a bit of a concern as we wanted to drive back down towards Ax-les-Thermes. After a couple of hours the fog had lifted enough to be considered low cloud and gave us enough road level visibility although there were no views to be had. What a difference on night can make.

We were heading in the direction of Andorra, this should have been an easy route directly down the N20 but our sat nav is not happy. We could see there were plenty of large lorries on this road so we ignored the sat nav, and eventually we found the cause of the problem – an arched bridge that has a 3.1m warning. It’s not 3.1m at the apex, but the arch is low sided and large vehicles need to be in the middle of the road.

Our destination was not Andorra itself but the last village before Andorra – L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre. The population of approx. 90 people are celebrated in a large poster as you enter the village. There is not a lot here, a train station, a couple of cafes and a hotel. But most importantly there is an aire of nicely separated diagonal pitches. We enjoy watching people manoeuvre into them. It’s pretty easy if you drive round the back, but everyone seems to want to reverse in from the front at an awkward angle. The trains pass close by but they run infrequently and slowly and don’t disturb us.

Busy aire in the gloomy evening.

That afternoon it’s a bit drizzly so we settle down to a couple of sewing projects. We are adjusting our bath mats so that they fit in the space in front of the shower without having to be awkwardly folded. No prizes will be won for the finish but we’re happier.

The following morning is bright and clear, we are woken by the whirring of helicopter blades. There is a lot of avalanche protection work going on and we can see the helicopters flying supplies and equipment up to the top of a long avalanche corridor on the mountain above the road. Binoculars show workers in precarious looking positions positioning fencing across the steep drop.

Paul fancies a bike ride so we head on up to the Col de Puymorens where we can cycle up the Coma d’en Garcia. We don’t end up getting very far, but we stop for a nice long picnic in the valley where we bask in the sunshine and take in the views. We see a large bird of prey that might be an eagle, but we’re not sure. Magpies mob the kestrels that are hovering in the valley. It’s pretty idyllic.

Contemplating the views from our very short bike ride

We stay at the car park on the col overnight with a couple of other vans but most motorhomes are just passing through; stopping for photos at the top and then heading on into Spain. It seems to be typical of many people to treat the Pyrenees as something that needs to be got through in order to get to Spain.

Views from the Col de Puymorens

The following morning we decide to head back down to L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre in order to do a circular walk. This starts across the main road from the aire. We don’t realise that there is an underpass so scuttle across when there is a gap in traffic. On the way back we find the underpass and feel safer although it adds a few hundred meters to the route. We follow the GRT steeply up through the woods, ignoring the branch off to the Cascades. As we get higher we move into birch woods, the silver trunks shining against the backdrop of autumnal shrubs. The main junction, where the circular part of the route starts and finishes, is well signposted. We branch off the GRT and head towards the Etang du Siscar, continuing to follow the stream that meanders up through a beautiful series of terraced valleys. It’s incredibly scenic and feels quite remote.

Signposting

Siscar lake is in the final valley surrounded by jagged peaks. We know there is an onward path from here up over the Porteilla de Sisca, but cant see it. Eventually we realise that we need to head slightly back on ourselves to take a couple of long switchbacks up the side of the corrie. Finally we are at our highest point – 2440m – we stop for a rest and some lunch and admire the views. We have been on our own so far so selfishly spread our stuff over the path which is the only flat surface. That just happens to be the point at which another walker appears and we hastily remove ourselves from their path – slapped wrists for us!

We couldnt resist a peek inside one of the shepherds huts. They can also be used by walkers.
The steep sided valley above the Etang du Siscar

The route down takes us steeply down to the Etang de Pedourres where we have another rest stop – it’s good for the soul to take a moment to enjoy the beauty around us, or that’s my excuse anyway. From the lake we follow another river down a long valley. The stream of rippling water glistens in the sunshine as it makes textbook snakelike curves. This is another walk that is incredibly satisfying and we’re glad that we found it on Esther and Dan’s website. Soon enough we are on the last stretch, under the pipeline for the EDF powerstation and back to the junction.

The Etang de Pedourres
Looking down the Arques valley
Text book meanders

    

Vallee du Siscar and Val d’Arques Circuit
  • Distance: 16.18 km
  • Total Elevation: 1058 m
  • Time taken: 6hrs 50mins
  • Type of Route: Moderately demanding due to length, well marked tracks
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7

Getting Around near Beadnell

23/07/18 – 27/07/18

I have always been a fan of public transport. I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my late twenties, and that was more out of necessity for work rather than any desire to actually do any driving. Unlike many people I didn’t equate the ability to drive with any form of freedom, after all you cant read books while driving and that is a serious impediment to my liberty! I suppose it also helps that I always lived in towns within easy walking distance of amenities, had I lived in a village in the middle of nowhere things may have been different. Certainly Paul has a completely different perspective.

On our travels so far we haven’t used as much public transport as we expected, we’ve moved the motorhome to be close to the attractions we want to visit and the trailheads for walks and bike rides. It’s just part and parcel of the way we have travelled, moving every one or two days. It’s also a sign of how well the countries we have visited are set up for motorhomes, the parking areas seem to be in the right places. Now we’re in the UK we are finding ourselves spending more time in one place and a static Bertie means that we need to find a way to get out and about.

By this point we were in the Temporary Holiday Site at Annstead Farm near Beadnell. We took the plunge and moved from the campsite at £22 a night (without electric) to this THS at £8 a night. The THS was as busy as the campsite, but the wardens explained that they try not to turn anyone away; their overflow field and the ability to squeeze some of the generously sized pitches give them room to manoeuvre and still stay within the rules (minimum of 6m from the neighbouring unit). By the time we left on Friday we had been rearranged to provide a pitch for another motorhome between us and our neighbour. They started with over 100 spaces, who knows how many units were on site by the end. 

All lined up on the well organised THS

From here we were able to walk the coast path in either direction and make use of the excellent X18 bus that runs along the coast between Newcastle and Berwick-upon-Tweed. The bus comes with a bit of tourist commentary, and kept us entertained as it pointed out key sights along the route.

On our walks we visited Long Nanny, the location of a breeding colony of Little and Artic Terns. The beach is closed off and a community of volunteers and naturalists live on-site during the breeding season. Sadly this year hasn’t been a good one for the Little Terns whose nests were almost wiped out by a storm earlier in the year. We spent a little while talking to one of the rangers who explained how they raise the nests off the ground to try and protect them from high tides and storms. While the parents are away, each nest is painstakingly removed from the ground, boxes full of sand and shingle are then placed over the nest site and the nest is reconstructed on top. By the time the parent birds return it all looks the same as when they left – just a foot higher. All the time we are talking the more successful arctic terns are noisily wheeling around overhead, readying themselves for their migration.

The beach at Long Nanny
The river at Long Nanny
View from the bird hides at Newton-by-the-Sea

Dunstanburgh Castle sits on an outcrop of rock looking out over the surrounding farmland and sea. It’s one of those evocative ruined castles, sufficiently intact to clamber about in the towers or the remains of the bailey walls. We used our NT membership to visit for free and ate our lunch while watching children running around with wooden swords playing at being knights. You could tell that the school holidays had started. There are plenty of other castles around but we chose to view Bamburgh Castle and Alnwick Castle from the outside rather than pay the entry fees. I’m sure we’ll be up this way again.

Approaching Dunstanburgh Castle from the north
View from the towers at Dunstanburgh Castle

Craster was the furthest south that we managed to walk in one hit, famous for it’s kippers, the smell of smoke and fish wafts through the village. It’s much nicer than it sounds. We visit a number of other pretty villages on our explorations, Embleton Newton-by-the-Sea, Seahouses, Beadnell and Bamburgh are all attractive places, but Craster is our favourite and we can sit and watch the harbour for hours.

Looking out to sea at Craster harbour
View from the coast path round Bamburgh golf course

We ended the week being treated to a slap up meal by Aaron and Katie, we indulge our love of seafood with a couple of massive seafood platters at The Old Boathouse in Amble. It’s a wonderful meal and food wins this contest – we have to take home the smoked salmon for lunch the next day.

Enjoying fabulous food
So much seafood!

 

Gran Paradiso Part 2: Ibex on the Slopes of the Big One

07/06/18 – 10/06/18

These blog posts may get a bit samey…visit a valley in the Aosta region, cycle a bit, walk a bit, see some marmots etc etc. if they get a bit dull then all I can say is that it doesn’t reflect the amazing time we’ve had in this area. We never get bored of mountain views, snow, ice, meadows, rivers and nature all around us, but it gets a bit difficult to find new ways to describe them.

We withdrew from the Cogne area to re-stock with food and wine in Aosta. Aosta is a really nice city, but we have visited before while skiing and only ventured in for food shopping on this trip. We tried to get into the Lidl car park but found it rammed full of cars, so instead we parked with several other motorhomes in a parking area near the roundabout at the east end of town and walked to the shops to stock up on basics.

Our destination this time was Valsavarenche  – the next valley west of Cogne. Whereas Cogne is the tourist centre of the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is the outdoors capital of the area, this is where most people will leave to summit the Gran Paradiso itself. Sadly we weren’t planning to ascend it on this trip, we would need to pay for a guide because we don’t have the experience to cross the crevassed terrain near the summit on our own. We have been higher, but that was on Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru in Tanzania, and those mountains don’t have glaciers on the ascent route (Kilimanjaro does have a glacier but it’s dwindling fast). Summiting an alpine 4000m mountain is on our bucket list though, so maybe next year.

Valsavarenche was a lot quieter that Cogne, we turned up at the sosta in the main village to find ourselves alone, next to the obligatory river and within sight of the usual flower -dotted grassy meadows. We popped to the town hall (municipio) to make our payment only to be told that they wouldn’t start charging until July. I wouldn’t have minded paying but I’m not going to say no to a free stop over when it’s offered up. Because we were alone and the weather was nice we decided to get the BBQ out to cook up a nice bit of steak for tea. What a treat that was, the Cadac has taken some getting used to but it cooked the steak perfectly, charred on the outside and still pink in the middle. We served it up with some barbequed sweet potato, which we cut into slices, dip in oil and griddle, it’s our new favourite barbeque veg. I’m salivating just thinking of that dinner.

Bertie in the sosta at Valsavarenche
View from the sosta

We spent two nights in this sosta before moving up to the head of the valley and parking in the large car park for a couple of nights. The parking area at the head of the valley is outside a nicely positioned campsite which was closed when we arrived, but did open for the weekend.

As well as being the starting point for the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is where you are most likely to see Ibex. These large-horned members of the goat family were almost hunted to extinction before their population was protected and restored. The Gran Paradiso was one of only two areas where Ibex still existed at their lowest population point. The national park was the hunting preserve of the first king of a united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. His hunting practises both killed and preserved the species (an argument that is often used by hunters of trophy animals today, but today we should be much more enlightened). Nowadays they aren’t hunted and as a result you can seem some older specimens with their unfeasibly long horns that  look as though they would weigh down the heads of the animals. If you want to see some examples of Ibex horns for different aged animals then there is a good display on the outside wall of the municipio in Valsavarenche (it’s on the wall that faces away from the road and towards the river). We were lucky enough to see a male group (probably the same group) several times in the areas at the head of the valley.

Cycling up the Valsavarenche

Our initial foray into the Valsavaranche was on our bikes, we just took the road up to the head of the valley and then zig-zagged up the man made track (route number 4) on the side of the valley. There was a large amount of avalanche damage here and I really didn’t like the looks of the rocks that teetered on the edge of the trail, ready to fall down on the path below. At one point the top of an electricity pylon had been dragged down to the opposite side of the valley and the wires had been temporarily suspended on lower poles. At the head of the valley we popped to the campsite to see if it was open and saw a herd of Ibex crowded onto one of the large boulders that were scattered across the camping area.

The views from our bike ride

A Walk to the King’s Hunting Lodge

This walk was a circular foray up to Victor Emmanuel II’s hunting lodge at Orvielle. It followed trail number 8 from the village up through the forest, a trail that is also used for snow shoeing in the winter. This trail did feel a little interminable as we zig-zagged upwards through trees on a humid day. Wood ants were out in force scurrying around the forest floor carrying their treasures back to the nest; it was difficult to find a spot where we could sit down for a break without ants coming to investigate us.

On our  back and forth route we crossed an avalanche corridor several times, massive rocks had taken gouges out of the soil where they had been flung down the slopes and trees lay in neat lines following the line of descent. Occasionally we had to cross the snow where it had been laid down thickly by repeated avalanche action. I’m sure it’s probably melted by now.

View through the forest

The hunting lodge was enclosed by a fence which said that access was forbidden, we stopped here for a bit of lunch and I said to Paul that I would take a photo from a small rise that was on our onward route. I completely forgot though because an Italian came bounding over to us to show off his photos of Ibex around Lago Djouan. They were great photos and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we’d seen a herd down in the valley the previous day.

We left Orvielle to follow route 7 back down to the valley. Oddly this wasn’t very well signposted, but we managed to spot the obvious path where the trail broke off. This trail went more steeply downhill than the ascending path, past the abandoned buildings of the hamlets of Le Carre and La Ruya. We emerged in the valley at Le Cretou and walked back to Bertie through the wild flower meadows alongside the river, surrounded by butterflies.

Abandoned hillside buildings slowly falling apart

Halfway up the Gran Paradiso

We might not be able to make it to the summit of the Gran Paradiso, but we were definitely going to get as high as we could on the route. We headed up route number 1 with the aim of reaching Refugio Vittorio Emmanuel II. We weren’t alone on this route. We had watched many people ascending in the late afternoon of the previous day, taking their snow shoes, crampons, ice axes, snowboards and skis up to the rifugio where they would spend the night before an early morning ascent of the Gran Paradiso and possibly the excitement of a fast descent on skis. When we started up the path there were plenty of casual walkers just going up to the waterfalls or the hut along with us. There were also the first few people descending from their early morning summit exploits. It was a bit of a shock compared to our previous walks where we had only encountered one or two other people and reminded us of walking in the Lake District or Snowdonia.

Skiers on their way up to the mountain lodge

The initial part of the trail followed the river before turning upwards and following tight hairpins up a well constructed and well maintained path. The zig zags gave us glimpses of the valley and the large waterfall that tumbled down the gully next to us. We quickly emerged from the trees onto the open mountain side and increasing amounts of snow covered our path. However the large numbers of walkers meant the path was well trodden and easy to navigate. We pushed upwards over deeper and steeper snow, at one point we watched people descending a steep slope by sledding down on their backsides. I told Paul there was no way that I was doing that, but still we somehow managed to descend by that route! We could see plenty of ski tracks over the snow and by the time we reached the rifugio we had seen skiers, it didn’t look like it was difficult skiing, but there were plenty of rocks just under the snow that I wouldn’t want to encounter (plus the whole thought of carrying skis and BOOTS up was just exhausting).

The rifugio

The refuge was at 2710m and there was no way we were getting any higher as snow was lying thick on the ground. The building was a cut above any of the other mountain huts we had seen so far, a large building with an arched roof which could hold 120 people. It was busy with people on it’s sunny terrace, some settling in for the day and others packing up their kit to come back down the mountain.

Looking back towards the rifugio

Valle d’Aosta. Perfect Peace in Torgnon

28/05/18 – 30/05/18

We had finally arrived in the Valle d’Aosta, the most westerly of Italy’s alpine regions which has borders with Switzerland and France. In fact French is an official language as well as Italian (and many people also speak a local dialect) and so you will see both on road signs and other information boards and people. The Aosta valley runs from east to west and has subsidiary valleys both north and south of the main artery. The valleys to the south take you into the Gran Paradiso national park, more about that later. For now we were heading north into the Valtournenche.

We’re quite familiar with the Valtournenche (the name of the valley, a town in the valley and the local ‘commune’) because we have skied here a few times now. Mostly our skiing has been at the head of the valley in the resort of Breuil-Cervinia, so, for a bit of a change, we wanted to spend some time lower in the valley.

We popped into the tourist information centre in Antey-St-André to see if we could get some information on walks and bike rides in the area. This was one of the most helpful tourist offices we have been into yet, it probably helped that the lady spoke good English so could ask us lots of questions about what we were planning to do and how long we were planning to be here. We left with a good map of walks and mountain bike routes in the lower and upper valley (€5) and booklets of bike rides, driving routes, local food and drink, castles and motorhome parking spots. She also advised us to head to Torgnon if we wanted somewhere peaceful and surrounded by mountain scenery and walks. The sosta in Torgnon is free outside of the ski season AND has electricity, we took her advice and headed up the switchbacks to the strung out series of hamlets that make up Torgnon.

Looking down on the hamlets of Torgnon

The sosta is beyond the top of the village just under the small ski resort. As promised it was quiet; the restaurants and cafes in the ski area do open in the summer, but not till July. There was a bit of road repair going on, and every now and again a car or van would drive up to one of the buildings. There was a ski lift directly in front of us and every day someone would come up and start the lift up, we wondered if this was a usual summer routine, just keeping things ticking over. One day the chairs on the lift had large blue containers on them, we assumed they were testing the weight capacity of the lift as they had about 100 of the containers stacked up next to it and when we went for a nose they were pretty heavy.

View from the sosta at Torgnon

We stayed here for three nights in glorious isolation, the weather was the typical mountain weather we have been experiencing for the last month or so. Dry and bright in the mornings, cloud building up during the day and rain and thunder at some point in the afternoon. So we tried to drag ourselves out of bed as early as possible in the mornings (which is still pretty late really) so that we could get out and enjoy the outdoors before the rain fell.

On the first day we followed a mountain biking route that doubled as a cross country ski trail in the winter months. We cycled out of the parking area up to the ski resort where signposts pointed the way for us (this was also walking track number 1). This ride took us through mountain scenery to paths around small lakes, over streams and under gushing waterfalls. We stopped for lunch in a dilapidated building to shelter us from the rain and were very excited to see marmots frolicking in the meadow in front of us. The highest point of the trail took us over 2100 meters and we ended up having to push the bikes uphill over snow in this section which was a bit demoralising. It was a shame that the weather wasn’t better for this ride because the views were very beautiful but by the time we got back we were muddy, soaked and had fingers like icicles, hence a lack of photos.

Small lake/marsh area under a crag
Mist getting lower over our cycle route

The following day the sun came out and we decided to see fi we could tackle the Becca d’Aver which had been teasing us with it’s summit for the last couple of days. We knew we probably wouldn’t make it to the top because we could see a significant amount of snow in the saddle between it and the next peak. We were right, we only got as far as Mont de la Fenêtre before we had to give up due to a ridiculously small patch of snow on a steep section. The route up this far was lovely though (route 8 and then 9 from the ski area) so it wasn’t a wasted walk, the narrow path wound up and around rocky outcrops; one section had a chain as a hand rail, but manufactured rocky steps had been added later making the chain unnecessary. To make up for not reaching the summit we followed the southerly part of route 1 (which we hadn’t followed on the bikes the previous day) through the woods, climbing over trees still bowed or felled by the weight of snow, even though it was now gone. On the way we spotted fleeting glimpses of deer through the trees and one hare running across a meadow below us.   

The view from Col Fenetre into the next valley
Picking my way down the snow
Climbing over fallen trees
Looking down over the ski resort
The annoyingly small patch of snow that stopped us in our tracks

After three nights we felt it was time to move on, a few chores to do first.  We did the usual empty and refill, but also took advantage of the fact that the water here is fed from a spring and so is constantly running through a trough. We used the trough to give our muddy cycling clothes a good scrub and washed down the bikes. How long they will stay clean is anyone’s guess.

  

 

Classics and Chamois

12/05/18 – 13/05/18

As we travelled around the ridge of the Gran Sasso we started to see more evidence of earthquake damage, this was to become a feature of the next week or so and we never got used to the way in which people’s lives have been turned inside out by such a primal force of nature.

We stopped at Tossicia on the way around the mountains, this small town on the edge of the national park has a motorhome service area near a community centre and some of the ‘temporary’ accommodation that was erected after the 2009 earthquake. The mediaeval heart of the town sits on the edge of a gorge, but wander down it’s lanes and you see buildings that are only standing with support. We watched an older couple drive up and inspect one of the buildings, in my imagination this was their home they were visiting and wondering when or if they would ever be able to move back.

Motorhome parking in Tossicia

From Tossicia we followed one of the Ippovia – bridleways – on our bikes for a while, but the weather was hot and muggy and after fighting through undergrowth Paul was sweating so much that I was worried he was dissolving like the Wicked Witch of the West. We gave up and turned around getting back just in time for the thunder to start, but the fat spots of rain never really amounted to anything and the muggy atmosphere drove us onwards and upwards.

Our next destination was Pietracamela, we drove along the attractive SS80, following the river gorge before turning south and climbing up steep hairpin bends to the village. We thought there might be parking here but it was difficult to tell from google maps due to the tree cover. We almost overshot the turning just before the village which was unmarked and led sharply downhill to some parking on grass-crete just below the church. It wasn’t a dedicated motorhome parking area but no one else seemed to be interested in parking here so it was very peaceful. The car park also boasted a hi-tec recycling station which kept me entertained for a little while.

From here we followed a walk suggested by the guidebook we had bought, in fact we joined together three walks to create a circuit that has to be one of our favourite walks of all time, firstly following path 102 up into the spectacular Val Maone and then taking path 100 via Prati di Tivo to Pietracamela.  

In early 2011 Pietracamela was subject to a different natural disaster; part of the rock outcrop above the village collapsed and a massive chunk of rock ‘the size of a block of flats’ sheered off from the cliff. As we walked up through the village on the first part of our walk we could see the resulting blocks of rock to the side of the path. We were lucky that the path was now clear as it had been closed for some time until the rock had been cleared away.

Rocks from the Pietracamela landslip

The path followed the river as it appeared and then disappeared under the limestone rocks. As we walked through the wooded valley we passed memorials to a couple of climbers who had been killed in blizzards here back in the early days of alpine climbing. The steepest part of the walk was a climb up a muddy bank shaped by a landslip and littered with fallen trees before we reached an attractive little waterfall and then broke from the tree cover into the Maone valley. This was the highlight of the walk, a beautiful and dramatic valley between the steep rock walls of Pizzo d’Intermesoli and Corno Piccolo. We walked up here as far as we could, over snow and around huge boulders. On the steep slopes we could see chamois browsing on the short grass and cooling off by laying in the snow.

Approaching the mountains
The river tumbling over rocks
Waterfalls
Looking back down the Maone Valley
Chamois on lookout

When we had our fill of the valley (and our lunch) we walked back to the waterfalls and took the alternative path across to the ski resort of Prati di Tivo. This path followed the contours of the valley and crossed a couple of snow banks. As we reached Prati di Tivo we crossed beautiful alpine meadows with narcissi and orchids flowering. It felt like a true Heidi moment.

Alpine meadow

At Prati di Tivo the car park was busy, it took us a moment to realise that there were an astoundingly large number of Porsches and Lancias amongst the cars. Then we realised it was a classic car rally. Paul was particularly taken with the Sierra Cosworth and Peugeot 206 GTIs. It all just looked like a 1980’s carpark to me.

The walk down took us through woods again, and as we approached the village we had to climb over a new landslide, the rocks clean and freshly cleaved from the cliff. We stayed at Pietracamela overnight, watching the bats flit across the sky as the sun set and enjoying the stars in an unusually clear night sky.

Navigating another landslip

 

Whose Pigs are these?

29/04/18 -30/04/18

We spent some time in Camping Torre Sabea thinking about our plans for the next few weeks. We need to be back in the UK for the end of June and have a wish list of things to do between then and now. We mulled over our options – do we continue tootling around and taking things as they come, or do we start to make more firm plans to visit the areas we know we want to see. We decided on the latter…for now.

So first on our list was a visit to the Gargano peninsula. We had seen mixed reviews of the area, but most of the negative reviews were about the busy summer period when it gets incredibly busy. The positive reviews extolled the beauty of the coastline and the forested interior. It’s a popular destination for Italian holiday makers and campsites can get full. We felt we were safe enough in the low season, although we did wonder what the May public holiday might bring. 

The Gargano Peninsula is still in Puglia, but when you look on the map Puglia is a very long region and by the time you reach this ‘spur’ that sits above the heel of Italy you are actually further north than Naples. It was a pretty long Sunday drive and for the first time in ages we had to pay a toll for the main roads (the motorways in the south are free).

We drove to a couple of spots in busy Manfredonia, but didn’t really enjoy the vibe of the place, it was just too busy for us and the parking was all in quite noisy locations. So we trundled around the coast to Porto di Mattinata where we parked in a large parking area right by the harbour. Our drive was a little more exciting than we expected as the tunnel was shut and so we had to climb switchbacks over the ridge before taking further hairpin turns back down to the coast. The road was fine though and the views were amazing.

We had expected to pay for the parking by the harbour, but no one was manning the entry so we were lucky. Although the little seaside resort was very busy the car park was almost empty, everyone seemed to be parking along the side of the roads. That evening the couple of restaurants and bars were busy and the atmosphere was cheerful, we wandered down for a late evening drink to get a taste of the atmosphere.

Evening view across the bay at Porto di Mattinata – one of the first times we’ve seen the brollies and sunbeds out

The following day we walked south along the bay and up the marked path to the headland of Monte Saraceno. From this vantage point we could see the orderly ranks of olive trees on the flat land behind the bay. Mattinata town itself sits as a shining white highlight in a sea of green on the steeper land a couple of kilometres back from the bay. The olive trees may have been an important part of the economy once, but many of them now have dual purpose, doubling up as campsites, private parking areas or providing access to the beach lidos. Who can blame the local population for making the most of this beautiful location.

Olive trees taking up all the available flat land

Our walk followed one of the ‘running trails’ that are marked up for the Gargano running week. In the temperatures we were experiencing I wouldn’t want to be running, it was sweltering enough to be walking in the heat of the sun on this exposed bit of coast. The path took us around the north side of the headland and then up onto the ridge heading from east to west. The limestone rocks of the ridge were carved into strange shapes and overhangs and the mostly good path was eroded in one section – a rope had been provided to help people up or down.

Walking the coast path around the peninsula

On the top of the ridge we startled a couple of groups of pigs who were keeping cool under the scrubby trees. Did you ever sing the song ‘Whose pigs are these?’ ? I remember school coach trips and family drives where we had fun trying to think of rhyming solutions to the pig conundrum. ‘They are John Potts’ and I know them by the spots’ is the usual first verse but of course you can make up any version, as rude as you like (if the teachers aren’t paying attention). 

Whose pigs are these?

As well as being home to a herd of pigs the ridge is the location of the necropolis of the Dauni tribe who lived here over 2500 years ago. Grassy paths wind in and out of the tombs carved into the rock, some obviously man made, some that might be natural. It’s a mysterious place to wander around and try to identify the graves, it’s a shame there isn’t much information  locally about their discovery or their contents.  

Our first sighting of a gecko in Italy, hiding in the corner of a rocky grave
Tombs cut into the limestone at the necropolis on Monte Saraceno

After wandering along the ridge we found a footpath downhill that crossed the switchbacks of the road we had driven down the day before. We were too hot to venture into Mattinata itself so we headed back through the olive groves to the beach where we could cool off in the sea. 

Bones and Birds in Otranto

23/04/18

We left our lovely campsite to head a very short distance to Otranto, We had one of those starts where we just couldn’t settle. There is a lot of parking in Otranto, but we couldn’t find a spot that we felt happy with. After visiting several of them we parked along the side of the road while we went for a look around. That evening we finally decided on a car park. It said we had to pay, but all the parking machines were turned off so we figured we would be ok overnight.

The morning was spent wandering around this touristy town. We were parked near the harbour so we walked along looking at the boats and the fish swimming lazily in the sea. Our entry into the centro storico was via a gate in the medieval fortress, we walked through the busy streets roughly in the direction of the cathedral, there were lots of tourist shops but there wasn’t any hard sell.

Looking across the harbour at the medieval fortress walls
The monument to the Otranto Martyrs

The cathedral is the main event in Otranto, we wandered into the cool calm crypt first with it’s many marble pillars and frescos. We had obviously done this the wrong way round as we weren’t allowed to ascend the stairs to the cathedral and had to walk around the outside to get in. Once in the cathedral proper we could see the  12th century mosaic spread across the floor of the nave and adjacent areas. It is crude when compared to Roman mosaics, but it’s depictions of beasts, demons and angels were compelling; we spent some time trying to decipher the Latin and make sense of what we were seeing. Above the mosaic is a fabulously ornate gilded coffered ceiling added in the 17th century.

Also in the cathedral are the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, killed in 1480 by Turkish invaders. The town of Otranto had put up considerable resistance to the invading Ottoman army, when the Ottomans finally gained the town they killed or enslaved the majority of the population. A group of able bodied men were told to convert to Islam or die. They chose death and were executed. The following year the Ottomans were ousted and the relics of the martyrs were exhumed. Now you can see many of their bones in glass fronted cabinets on the walls of the chapel although some of the relics have been shared amongst other churches in the Salento region and even further afield. This was one of our favourite religious buildings, maybe we’re a bit ghoulish! 

The relics of the martyrs lined the walls of the chapel – slightly surreal

Our wander around Otranto had only taken the morning so we popped back to Bertie for a spot of lunch and then decided to do some walking along the coast south of the town. We were aiming for Punta Palascia, but it was a hot day so we didn’t make it that far. We had passed a nice looking beach at Cala Casotto, so we decided to turn round there after a swim. It was a bit of a scramble down the cliffs to the beach, but it was worth it to cool down in the clear water.

Our little beach spot – perfect for a dip

This was one of our favourite coastal walks. For most of the walk the cliffs were quite high and rocky with deep water offshore. Lots of fishermen had found their favourite spots and settled in for the day. Sea birds wheeled around off shore, including mediterranean gulls with their distinctive red beaks and feet. We spotted hen harriers – mostly brown with a white strip across the base of their tail – being mobbed by swallows and other small birds. On the heathland were crested larks singing loudly from the ground, possibly distracting us from their nests. There were many spring flowers dotting the grass. The whole area was full of life.

The interest wasn’t limited to natural wonders, on the headland near the Torre Dell’Orte there were many underground buildings and bunkers built into the rocks which we explored as much as we dared (our fear mostly being of finding human waste – our motto being ‘if you see tissues turn around’). A ruined lighthouse stood sentinel on the hill, it’s rear half collapsed.

It had been a very full day, Otranto was somewhere we could have stayed for longer. If only we could make up our mind where to park!   

Black Squirrels in La Sila

30/03/18 – 31/03/18

It might seem like we’re doing the Hokey-Cokey with our regular alternation between coast and inland. It was time to put our left leg in and move inland again. Our destination this time was the Sila mountains. The landscape here is a densely forested high plateau with several lake reservoirs. We were attracted by the well marked and maintained forest trails, unusually for Italy we could find the routes online which gave us lots of opportunity to prepare.

La Sila has several ski areas as well as walking, mountain biking and plenty of interesting flora and fauna. While we were there the ski resorts were in their last throes, but events were being held for Easter and snow conditions still looked ok for a bit of morning skiing in Lorica. Other resorts had lots of brown patches. We weren’t here for the skiing though, tempting as it was. We were here for the walking and biking.

Our first night was spent on the shores of Lago Ampolino, parked on a small spit of land that extends into the lake. The motorhome service point, owned by the nearby café, was shut when we arrived; winter covers were over the water supply and the waste disposal, but the owners must have spotted us and it was uncovered by the following morning.

Parking spot by the lake

Our drive up had been slow and winding but nothing too adventurous, the highlight being just a few meters away from our parking spot when a black squirrel darted across the road in front of us. We saw several other black squirrels while we were in the area, but this was the only one we managed to capture a grainy photo of. The black squirrels here are assumed to be a genetic variant of the red squirrel, although a bit of web trawling reveals an opinion that they are a separate species.

Black squirrel from Bertie’s window

The weather was good when we arrived at the lakeside so we spent the afternoon lazily pottering around, strolling around the village and very low key ski resort (just a hotel and a lift really), watching the wildlife and getting excited (Paul) about a sea plane that skimmed back and forth over the lake a few times. That evening it was pleasant enough to sit outside and watch bats skim over the lake hunting insects. In Italy we have spent a lot of time in car parks with lighting, so it was nice to get a bit of darkness and see the stars for a change.

The following morning we got on our mountain bikes and headed west along the main road, the SS179. Only a couple of cars passed us, the area seemed very quiet considering that it was the Easter weekend. We took a right hand turn off the road towards the village of Zimmaro and followed random tracks northwards through the forest to try to connect up with the SP216. As we ascended over the small ridge between the two valley roads we encountered more snow between the trees, but also signs of spring starting to emerge. Crocuses were blooming and small bluebell like flowers dotted the verges. When we finally reached the other road we headed east between farmsteads where sheep and cattle grazed. We followed the opposite shore of the lake whose banks were high and tributaries swollen with snow melt. Eventually we had made a full circuit of the lake and arrived back at Bertie. 

View of the lake

That evening we decided to move northwards into the heart of the mountains. There was a forecast for snow so we fancied a campsite where we could use our electric heater. Camping Lago Arvo is just outside Lorica and was €8 per person per night in winter. This huge campsite has a lot of very attractive grass pitches by the lake, but we wanted to avoid getting bogged down so stayed near the entrance where the pitches were firmer. 

   

A Walk and Two Doughnuts

10/03/18

We stayed in Marina di Camerota for two very different nights. On Friday night we were joined by a couple of Italian motorhomes in the big carpark behind the beach and had a peaceful night’s sleep. On the Saturday night the Italian motorhomes had left us alone in the carpark and we spent a couple of hours being the obstacle in a boy racer’s playground. It was only one car with a young driver and his girlfriend taking it in turns to speed up and down, do handbrake turns and screech donuts around us. Paul watched from our bedroom window, probably reliving his youth, and after a while they left us in peace. That’ll teach us to be wary of large empty carparks on Saturday nights.

Marina di Camerota

During the day we took another coastal walk to visit four beaches; the long sandy beach at Marina di Camerota that is split in two by a small rocky promentory, and the steep sided coves of Calas Pozzallo, Bianca and Infreschi. In fact we didn’t end up getting as far as Infreschi, having been captivated by the two other beaches. One day we may come back and walk in to Cala Infreschi from the other direction.

Looking across the long sandy beach at Marina di Camerota from the east

This coastline here is still part of the Cilento national park and is stunning. The cliffs are steep and wooded and the path strays inland to avoid obstacles but when it hits the coast you are rewarded with limestone cliffs, wave cut caves and brilliant blue water.

Caves in the cliffs – most of them had barriers in place

As we walked east of the carpark we encountered the first cave, a tourist attraction just behind the headland that divides the beach. This was gated and closed for the low season but we could read the boards that explained the Neaderthal and early Homo Sapiens habitation of the site. At the far end of the beach was the town’s cemetery and the path heads up through the wooded cliff beyond this, marked with red and white slashes. We had considered an alternative route closer to the cliff edge that we had seen from the far end of the beach, but didn’t realise that it would involve wading through the sea for a couple of yards, so decided to leave that for the return.

The path took us up through the woods and then onto tracks past olive groves, farm buildings and villas. We took a wrong turn at one point, keen to get off the main track we headed down a path through olive trees only to reach a dead end where a couple were clearing undergrowth from around the trees. They directed us back up to the track where we kept a closer eye out for the route markers.

Brightly coloured lizard – in the warm sunshine they were everywhere

The day was turning out to be pleasantly sunny and warm and so we stopped to enjoy some sun when we reached  the pebbly beach at Cala Pozzallo. The walk down here had taken us past a small patch of agricultural land where dogs yapped at us (not an uncommon occurrence here) and a rather nice beach bar (closed). The beach had the look of somewhere that is visited mostly by boat as one of those ‘visit a deserted beach but actually you can rent chairs and umberellas and get a cocktail once you’re there’ destinations.

Once we managed to tear ourselves away from here we took another detour inland before dropping down to Cala Bianca, this time walking out to the headland west of the beach before clambering down over the sharp limestone rocks to the beach. Again we stopped to enjoy the good weather, eating our lunch while sat on the rocks above the cove and sharing our bread with the voracious fishes that were swimming beneath us.

Looking down on the beach at Cala Bianca

It was at this point that we had to turn around in order to ensure we got back to Bertie in time to watch the rugby. The walk back was much quicker, along the way we kept an unsuccessful eye out for wild asparagus and had more success spotting many jewel toned lizards basking in the heat of the day.

This time we did get our feet wet as we walked to the end of the headland where a watchtower looks out over the bay before dropping down many steps to a tiny cove where we had to wade around the corner and back onto the sandy beach.

Wading around the rocks at the eastern end of the Marina di Camerota beach

That afternoon we watched rugby while eating scrumptiously light and sugary ciambella (doughnuts) that I had bought from the bakery that morning.     

Putting Down Roots

02/01/18 – 06/01/18

It took some persuasion to move us away from our next stop, that and a very full toilet. The sun was shining and the wind had mostly dropped and we had found a perfect beachside stop mere paces from the sea.

We were at Playa el Playazo de Rodalquilar, a beautiful cove where overnight parking is (sometimes) tolerated in low season. The route down to the cove is along a good quality concrete track and ends in a sandy parking spot where there were maybe a dozen vans. To the north is a small fort, privately owned but creating an interesting feature, and the low cliffs are eroded into a series of platforms and caves. To the south the coastline rises sharply, a slope of desert like sandy rocks and scrubby plants. Along the valley road leading to the beach palm type shrubs are being grown in rows, another fort sits abandoned alongside the shell of a windmill and a handful of houses and holiday properties. 

An array of vans parked behind the beach.

We walked in both directions from here, two short walks that could be joined together to make one decent length walk. The weather was too good for long walks though and each day we were keen to get back, relax on the beach and refresh ourselves with a swim in the sea.

We took the kayak out on one day – the second time in a week – and explored the caves and coastline. The area is a marine reserve and while the sea was calm we could see the underwater vistas, sadly it didn’t stay calm for long. I’ve started to hanker after a glass bottomed kayak, I wonder if it’s possible to get an inflatable glass bottomed kayak?

Kayaking into one of the caves on the coast

A couple of times we snorkelled, the water was pretty cold and my ears were freezing, but it was worth it to see the wonderful underwater views up close; rocks covered in vibrant red and green weed, surrounded by shoals* of colourful fish, swathes of sea grass hiding yet more fish and sandy sea bed where the fishes were so well camouflaged they seemed almost transparent.

The fort of San Ramon in the rosy sunset light

The vans parked here were of all types, self build ‘hippy vans’, camper vans and white boxes like Bertie. At night we were lulled to sleep with the sound of bongos and the desultory strumming of a guitar, the waves a gentle accompaniment in the background. It was warm enough to sit outside at night watching the bright, clear stars before the moon rose. In the morning day trippers came down and set up their umbrellas and windbreaks on the sand, one chap towed a trailer tent onto the sand to create a shelter for his extended family (he had some problems getting it back off the beach, but a few rocks under the wheels helped to get some traction). Nudists got it all out on the beach, while other people were dressed to combat the wind in full length trousers and puffer jackets.

After three days we were meant to leave, but we just couldn’t, on the fourth day we had to leave or create a pollution problem. Tearing us away from this beach was difficult. We don’t dare come back in case we never leave.

Looking north along the coast at the caves we would later visit by kayak
Walking North

We decided to do a small circular route north and wanted to save the best (the coast) for last. So we started by heading up the valley towards the self catering properties past the Torre de los Alumbres, a ruined fort that had been built to defend the population from pirates. It didn’t do a great job, having been built in 1510 and then sacked by the pirates in 1520, but it was reused in the 18th century.

Walking inland, cultivated palms on the left, dry and dusty on the right, and the ruined fort in the background.

Just before we reached ‘La Ermita’ we followed a track to our right across the valley. When this met a narrow path at a t-junction we turned left and ascended up a gully between hills, past a white building that looked like a converted water tower and a collection of beehives. This path met the road and we turned immediately right to follow the dry river bed down to the Cala del Cuervo. Then we finally turned onto the coast, a very pleasant walk along the fantastically eroded cliffs that passed the 18th century Castillo de San Ramon before dropping back down to our parking spot.

Looking back down to the beach from the cliff top path
Walking South

We walked south from the parking area following the coast path’s white and green markings. When the path eventually crossed the tarmac road we followed it up switchbacks until we reached the lighthouse, the Torre de los Lobos, at the top. This tower was rebuilt in the 18th century on the site of an earlier lookout post, and is apparently the highest lighthouse in mainland Spain. The views are certainly spectacular.

The Torre de los Lobos with the remains of the volcanic cone of El Fraile in the distance

From the faro we descended the switchbacks again until we could break off onto a path that descended straight down the hill, cutting off the last switchback, we skirted around the southern edge of the small conical peak to our left and ended up at the parking for the Cala de El Carnaje. This terraced parking was quite extensive, but the dirt track to it was heavily eroded and would have been impossible to drive in anything other than a 4×4.

From the parking we followed the dirt track inland to the same road that led to the lighthouse, this time following it inland until a track led to the right. We followed the track around a house and then down to the small collection of holiday properties  on the road back to our parking spot.  

while I was writing this I had to check whether I should be using shoals or schools to describe groups of fish. Did you know that a shoal is schooling if the group of fish are all moving in the same direction in a coordinated manner? ‘How interesting’ as Paul would say.

Cycling in Cabo de Gata

28/12/17 – 29/12/17

We were looking forward to visiting the Natural Park of Cabo de Gata, somewhere that we had seen on blogs and forums and imagined we would enjoy.

We started at the western end of the park, driving (via supermarkets) to the town of San Miguel de Cabo de Gata where there is a large area of hard standing behind the beach. Motorhomes were parked in neat rows looking out to sea and we started a third row, peering through the ranks in front of us to see a sea that was still wild and foamy from the winds of the days before.

Clouds at sunset, looking out to sea from our parking spot

There was a tap here, which was lucky as the water we had taken on board at the campsite in Balerma had a very strong chemical taste that was really unpleasant. A lot of people prefer to drink bottled water and use their water tank for cleaning and washing, but because we’re in the motorhome full time we are flushing water through the tank quickly so feel quite happy using it for drinking too, usually, but with the horrid taste of the water from the campsite we decided to fill our emergency water containers up here for drinking until the water in the tank had been flushed out.   

On the way to the parking spot we had passed the end of the salt pans that run behind the coast here. We had spotted a hide for viewing the birds and wildlife of the area so took a short walk alongside the road back to the hide so that we could do a bit of flamingo watching. This is the third place we have seen flamingos and they have not lost their appeal, with their bizarrely rubbery necks, great scooping beaks and the intense flash of dark pink as they raise their wings.   

Flamingos – taken through our approximation of a telephoto lens – a iPhone and a monocular

The following day we got the bikes out and cycled along the road eastwards in front of the salt flats. Here we got the answer to one of our questions from the previous day – what were all the lorries doing going past the carpark? At the eastern end of the salt flats was a salt production operation with great mounds of salt and lorries going to and fro all day.

Mounds of salt ready for distribution

Soon after this the road started to go uphill and we huffed and puffed from the shock of steep roads after our days of lethargy at Christmas. Luckily the uphill was rewarded with a downhill section towards the lighthouse, where we were able to take a few offroad paths. Then more uphill, steeper and higher this time as we went past a barrier (the coast road is not a through road, unless you are the type of person who will drive their family hatchback anywhere – and there are a few of them round here!), we climbed up this road, up and up the tarmac to the Torre de la Vela Blanca.

Our view along the Cabo de Gata coast from the highest point on the bike ride

Then down the other side, this time the tarmac had disappeared and we were on rough dirt track. Paul whizzed down over rocks as I picked my way more carefully, using my brakes nearly the whole way.

Looking up the dirt track we would have to climb on the way back to Bertie

Down on this side we went past several possible motorhome parking spots and beaches until we got to the beautiful Playa de los Genoveses where we stopped for some lunch. This looked ideal for overnighting in Bertie and we agreed we would head here for the night.

Playa de los Genoveses, we fancied spending some time here

On the way back we pretty much retraced our steps until we got to the salt flats where we went a bit further inland to follow a sandy track which ran closer to the lakes, there were three further hides along here which we visited in succession, watching yet more flamingos and other wading birds.

Looking across the salt lagoons from one of the bird hides

As an introduction to Gabo de Gata it rated pretty well and the rollercoaster ride had been a good re-introduction to exercise after our Christmas relaxation. With the beautiful surroundings of the coast and volcanic hills, and with improving weather, we looked set for a good few days.  

 

Mountain Summits and Vultures

18/12/17

Our last post was on New Year’s Day 2018, so we’re going back in time to catch up on the happenings of later December 2017.

We had stayed the night outside Grazalema village and been awakened, multiple times, by the sound of vehicles driving over rumble strips on the way into the village. Once we’d woken up properly and had our breakfasts, we drove back through Grazalema again, stopping for bread and cakes on the way. 

On today’s agenda was a longer walk. We parked outside the local campsite on a large flat parking area, the campsite seemed to be closed for the season and I’m sure we could have parked here overnight, but then we would have needed to drive to get bread anyway.

From this spot we were climbing up and turning right at the junction to meet the path we had walked the day before. Today we would be turning off behind the enclosure to go up into the mountains proper and we were full of excited anticipation as we would be climbing to a couple of summits for a change.

The start of the walk was even more frosty than the day before and we marvelled at the way the ice crystals had pushed the earth up, especially where the previous day’s frost hadn’t melted. It looked beautiful in the morning light and the going was easy underfoot over the solidified mud. To the west the cliffs held griffon vultures, large even from this distance, perched and waiting for the warm air currents to start rising. On the rocks to the east of us we startled a herd of Spanish Ibex who were minding their own business on the rocks.

Ibex looking down on us
Frosty meadow. near the animal enclosure at the beginning of the walk
Frost coats the plants on the way up the mountains of Grazalema
Frost crystals pushing through the soil

The path was easy and obvious to follow, although we were also following the walk via wikiloc. It skirted behind the enclosure heading up through the woods and out onto open mountainside, always pretty much south. Once out into the open we warmed up and were quickly down to t-shirts in the sun. We continued to head south following the path through a high meadow with the ridge of Simancon on our left, trying to decide at which point we should head up onto the ridge and back north to the summit. In the end we walked to the south end of the meadow to see the views before taking an easy line north-west onto the exposed backbone of the ridge.

The bare ridge of Simancon

From Simancon our route to the next peak was obvious, picking our way down steep slopes westwards to an obvious saddle leading to El Reloj (The Clock). Then less obvious route south from El Reloj, trying to find our way to the Charca Verde (green pond – more like a puddle, but still attractive to cows who had congregated there for a lie down) where the path became clear again.

 

Cows congregating on the way to the Green Pond

Following the path down was a delight, the forest was shaded and mossy with stark white rocky outcrops and occasional tiny grass clearings where the sunlight broke through. It would have made any Victorian garden designer weep with envy.

Eventually we re-joined the path back down to the campsite, the ground was still frosty even on such a sunny afternoon, but the air was warm and we sat and watched many vultures carrying nest building material to the cliffs. We pondered over the collective noun for vultures, and when we got back to Bertie we found that they have three. We had definitely seen a Kettle of Vultures (in the sky), and possibly a Committee of Vultures (sitting), but not a Wake of Vultures (feeding) on this walk.

Vultures wheel overhead

Back at Bertie we knew we would have to get moving before we succumbed to exhaustion. It had been a great day but we were leaving the mountains on our way to meet up with Aaron. The Sierra de Grazalema  Natural Park is another place that we’ll definitely return to.

 

In the Footsteps of Columbus

11/12/17 – 12/12/17

We crossed the border between Portugal and Spain, passing into the province of Huelva, an area of Spain I had never heard of before. There is a lot of industry here with mines inland and a large port at Huelva city, but there is also a long stretch of coastline with coastal resorts backed by pine trees and cork oak forests and a huge national park that encompasses the wetlands around the Guadalquivir and Odiel rivers.

We had fancied spending a night by the coast but we couldn’t find anywhere we felt comfortable, the parking in the forests was on soft ground made softer by the overnight rain and other parking was too close to the road. We settled for having lunch in a parking spot alongside the road and taking a short walk along the beach.

We proceeded onto Huelva city and drove around the outskirts to the large area of parking next to La Rabida monastery. On the way we passed through the wetlands; the ‘Marismas del Odiel’ where we saw flamingos, we didn’t stop here as we were on the main road but it looked good for a bit of bird watching.

Huelva has strong ties with Christopher Columbus, La Rabida monastery was where he approached the Franciscan order for aid in securing royal funding for his first expedition west to find the Indies, and the town of Palos de la Frontera was the point that the first expedition set sail from.

While we were here we cycled into Palos de la Frontera, and attractive town with the church where the sailors on Columbus’s first voyage received a blessing before setting off. We also found the point that the three ships set sail from, although the river is silted up and there is no port any more. On the way we passed through fields of polytunnels where strawberries were being grown – apparently the area is famous for them – and saw more birds on the wetlands this side of the city including several glossy ibis. 

We visited La Rabida monastery, it was based on a Moorish site and had some Mudéjar architectural elements which made it feel cool and tranquil. There were  audio guides in English which explained the history and Columbus related artefacts. We wandered around with the guides glued to our ears, the only people in the building apart from cleaners.

Courtyard in La Rabida monastery
Chapel with Mudejar architectural influences in La Rabida monastery

We also visited the replica ships from Columbus’s first voyage. These ships were constructed in the late eighties to be part of the celebrations of the fifth centenary of the discover of the Americas. They sailed to America before returning to Spain where they now sit in a dock with an accompanying small museum. It’s quite astounding how small the ships are, the ‘Pinta’ and ‘Niña’ were caravels and the bigger ‘Santa Maria’ was a carrack but is still under 19 meters long. When walking round the vessels we imagined what it must have been like on the heavy swells of the Atlantic, with water rushing down the curve of the deck, trying to manage the sails and the climb the rigging. Some of the reviews of the museum had been less than complementary but we found it really interesting, although some of the waxwork dummies of sailors and natives were unnecessary.

I think this was the Santa Maria, note the  sailor in the rigging – sadly I didn’t get any gratuitous photos of the naked natives
The three replica ships that undertook the voyage to the ‘Indies’

That afternoon we moved on into the mountains, heading to the town of Aracena. On the way we passed huge mine workings and at one point a large rodent ran out across the road in front of us. We thought it might be a marmot, but after a bit of investigation it’s more like to be an Egyptian mongoose.   

Laid Back at Praia de Bordeira

03/12/17 – 04/12/17

When we woke up at the Praia de Bordeira we were surrounded by vans. The usual big white boxes of various nationalities, but also smaller campervans and van conversions of all sizes. Surfing seemed to be the main theme here with many surfers already on their way to the beach to catch the tide, but the thing that made this stop stand out for us was the number of young families travelling with children. The whole combination gave the parking area a laid back vibe, although it took our ears a while to readjust to the sound of children’s chatter.

The car park here sits behind the river, you can reach the beach either by wading through the river (seldom more than knee deep), or you can walk along the point to the south of the parking area and descend wooden steps to the beach where the river disappears below the sand, this second option is not always available as the river channel changes and sometimes flows above ground all the way to the sea.

River and beach from the headland at Praia de Bordeira. You can see someone wading across the river

We spend two days here, chilling out in the sun, watching surfers, swimming at the beach and walking the paths around the headland. and village. Large fishes swam languorously in the river, plenty of sea and river birds enjoyed the waters, storks flew overhead, their orange beaks and legs making them easy to distinguish, and at one point a peregrine falcon alighted on the bank of the river, turning it’s grey moustached face backwards and forwards to survey the area before flying off again.

Views of the cliffs on the other side (south) of the headland
Portuguese fishermen scaling the cliffs to find the best fishing spot

If there had been somewhere to dump our waste and refresh our water we might have stayed for longer, but instead we moved on further south.  

Another view of the beach from the headland