Mountain memories from the Pyrenees: part 5 - the high peaks
For all the warmth of the people, for as much as I was charmed by Girona and for as much as I enjoyed our trip back to ancient times at Empúries, I simply would never have been here had it not been for the mountains.
It was in these high peaks - sometimes forested, sometimes glaciated and other times bare - in which I had invested the greatest expectations of adventure, of natural beauty and of fresh mountain air.
The joy, and fear, of cowbells
The Pyrenees region stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and down to the plains around Huesca and Lleida. But there's no doubt that they reach their most dramatic in the high mountains of Aragón and north-western Catalonia.
We had our first look at them in Cadi Moixeró, where forested slopes rise up in all directions around peaceful pine forests and hidden high pastures. And it was here that we first heard that most seductive of sounds; the gentle clanging of a cowbell. I challenge anyone to find a sound more relaxing. You can keep your Tibetan bowls thank you. Two weeks later I spent at least half an hour of my life discussing the intricacies of cowbells, sheep bells and goat bells with Xabi, a Basque native and Pura co-founder. I went to great pains to explain that, bizarrely, only the former is properly able to communicate the true essence of the sound.
Mind you, there was nothing relaxing about an encounter we had with a cow further along the trail. This time the clang was a warning to us not to approach as a mother stood guard over her calf, lying on the ground beside her with what was clearly a gravely injured leg. The path was completely blocked. And we'd been walking for a good hour or so - too long to give up and turn round. There was only one thing for it...
I held on to loose branches and tried desperately to keep my footing as Emma edged around me and over a fallen tree trunk. We slipped on loose mud and put our hands on slimy moss. A couple of metres up, said mother watched on with bemusement and mistrust and shook her bell as hard as she could as we stumbled across the bank which sloped sharply below the path. It was far from elegant, clumsy in the extreme. When we got back on solid footing we put our head down and walked away as fast as we could. When I relayed this tale back to Xabi, his response was typically brusque: "that's the difference between someone who knows animals and someone who doesn't. I'd have hollered and shouted at it as loudly as I could to scare it off the path."
Rather you than me my friend.
Next was Aigüestortes National Park. In English its name translates as twisted waters, and aptly so it seems. The park offers a very different landscape, of granite spires and black pines. But it's all about the water here. Unfortunately, you can't have flowing rivers and tumbling falls without a bit of rain and on our morning here we were destined to get wet. Very, very wet.
It takes a special landscape to retain its charm in the rain. Aigüestortes pulled off that trick effortlessly, helped in no small part by the autumnal hues of reds and yellows that were appearing in the woods through which we walked and the mass of trees which spread up the mountainsides from the Estany de Sant Maurici lake. Chaffinches and great tits hopped from lush pine tree to lush pine tree, grey clouds rolled in to shroud the pointy peaks in a mysterious cloak up ahead and a rainbow formed against the deep green surface of the Estany de Ratera.
In the Escuaín Valley we went in search of vultures, preferably of the Bearded variety. These beautiful and scarce birds are under serious threat of extinction in the hills of northern Spain. It's why another Pura co-founder, Diego Martín, has invested so much of his time over the years in raising awareness of the need to protect their natural habitat and loop this into the local tourism and agricultural industry.
We hadn't yet made it to the valley when we saw two of them circling above us in the sky, pointed out to us by a friendly Frenchman at the side of the road. In fact, we never did see any more, but rather groups of Griffon vultures instead. But it didn't matter, the experience of watching a dozen or so of these creatures swooping across a forested canyon to within a matter of metres of our heads is something I'll never, ever forget. Nature can be so wonderful when you sit back and let it do its thing.
At the other end of the road from Escuaín is the little middle-of-nowhere village of Tella. Rather than chasing vultures (though it felt like they were chasing me) I was hunting down a scene I'd previously seen in a glorious photo taken by Diego. In the foreground is his wife María, walking towards a small Romanesque stone chapel from the middle ages. Above it rears up a great jagged outcrop, through which thick bushes and trees sprout. Behind this, wispy clouds engulf a snowy mountain peak and the space between the two hints at a great valley below.
I found that chapel, that outcrop, that valley. I didn't have the clouds, nor the snow, but the view is every bit as special as the image promises. We stopped and stared at it, no one else in sight, a blue sky up above in which those vultures circled and are probably still circling as I write. It's this sort of scene, whether hunted down or unexpectedly presented, that stops you in your tracks and leaves you lost for words when you see it in all its three dimensional glory.
The hike of a lifetime
Our Pyrenees adventure ended in style. From here we were to drop down onto the plains of Huesca and end our journey in Zaragoza, in the midst of a local fiesta. Before that, one of the greatest hikes of my life.
I'd been told by Diego, on more than one occasion, that the walk across the top of the Ordesa canyon and down to the valley floor and the emblematic Cola de Caballo waterfall was his favourite trail in all of Spain. And this from a man who has walked just about every step of our Inn to Inns in his native land.
We had to modify his route somewhat with the need to start and finish at the same point where we'd left our car. In this position you have two choices; the easy 'there and back' along the valley floor, or the harder and longer schlep halfway up the canyonsides to the faja - the skirt of the mountains. We took the latter.
I won't lie - it was hard going. For nearly an hour and a half we zig-zagged our way up the switchback path through the increasingly monotonous forest with the end always just out of sight, demoralising so. People twice our age passed us in all manner of lycra outfits and expensive walking poles in hand. We had none of that, though a huge supply of nuts and flasks of warm coffee and ice cold water to keep us going.
Was it worth it? Oh yes, oh yes indeed. Mountains look different from up high, with truer proportions, more texture, more detail. Valleys stretch out longer, peaks roll off into the distance and the air feels fresher. From our high vantage point we sloped ever downwards over the next couple of hours, all the way to that waterfall, which loomed high overhead when we finally got up close.
On the way back we threaded our way past more waterfalls gathering in turquoise pools, beneath beautifully ancient beech trees, below rocky ridges that glowed a soft orange in the late afternoon sun.
I don't know that I've ever had such a post-walk sense of satisfaction than at the end of this one; 22kms completed, the first few up a painfully long uphill section, getting back to the car before the light faded away and the pang of pride at not having taken the easy route, which still endures today. We dined well that night. And slept like logs.
If you're faced with that choice one day, may these words serve as encouragement to follow in my footsteps. If you're wondering where to take your next holiday, may our Pyrenees Uncovered driving trip serve as inspiration for your own mountain adventure.