It took a couple of nights in an apartment in Cartagena to get a better sense of how long repairs were going to take. Given that a delayed tourist season was on us, and when repair days stretched to weeks, we headed north to the Pyrenees Mountains.
We made an executive decision: that Marlon would be happier with our favourite dog sitters, Brian and Lynn, rather than rolling around in the back of a rental car. He’s been having a wonderful time. Even enjoying a summer bromance with Tiger, a seven-year-old Staffordshire terrier. I’m sure he’ll be invigorated enough to blog about it soon.
Covid restrictions have lifted all over Spain and we excitedly drove north out of Murcia for the first time in months. Spain’s approach to the crisis has been justifiably cautious. The pandemic death rate spiked fast and settled down slowly. As constraints relax, requirements for physical distancing, mask-wearing in public, and the constant use of hand sanitizer are met with only a modicum of grumbling. The horrifying news out of the United States, a country once capable of walking on the Moon, is everywhere. As a result, even the few hardcore deniers here fell in line.
The Pyrenees run the length of the French-Spanish border. Like a putty knife on glass, France moulds mountains out of Spain’s topsoil as it slips under le pays de la belle on its way north. At their highest, the Pyrenees top out at just over 3,400 metres (11,100ft). The middle part, centred in Aragon, is the most rugged.
Traffic was light. As of July 1, it is possible to cross borders within the Schengen area, but a tsunami of French tourists has yet to appear. Hotels either opened for business on Thursday June 26 or have chosen to remain shut. Many places still offer off-season rates hoping to attract people, but we don’t expect that to last long. Meanwhile, we are not complaining. Not at all.
Crossing the Pyrenees on foot is an entirely reasonable prospect. Trails, just as in the rest of Spain, are clearly marked, while villages and refuges sit reasonable distances apart. Thanks to its lower elevations, days and nights in the Pyrenees are warmer than in the higher passes of the Alps. If we’d planned a little better, we’d probably be tripping along the GR-11, the 840km Transpirenaica footpath right now. Tripping being the operative word – and I don’t mean in a Timothy Leary kind of way.
Sandwiched between our first stop in Torla (see Swifts or Swallows) and Toloriu, our third, lay the very modern ski resort of Benasque. Like a bear waking from hibernation, the town was just reopening when we arrived. Situated on the southern edge of the huge Parque Natural Posets Maladeta, Benasque is one of Spain’s busiest ski resorts. Eschewing all the modernity, we stayed in the venerable Hotel Casa Cornel, a few kilometres uphill in the village of Cerler.
Surrounded by the last remnants of winter high up in the couloirs of the mountains, the deciduous trees shone brightly. Like they had just donned their late spring celadon pullovers. We found a trail starting inside the park boundaries that promised a bit of adventure, providing we took the high road. It didn’t disappoint.
This snippet of video tells only part of the story. Carol got about halfway across the ford and ran out of options. Blessed with longer legs, I managed to leap across the torrent to the far bank. Rather than leave her stranded, I reached back and grabbed her hand. With a giant stride she leapt to safety. Later, we celebrated our near-death experience in our hotel’s restaurant with one of the best meals we’d had to that point.
Our tour of the region’s major valleys took us towards the Principality of Andorra and the quaint accommodation of the Hosteria de Toloriu. The staff were both charming and friendly, but still finding their feet after opening only a couple of days before our arrival. That meant things were slightly jumbled. In the end we liked it so much we added an extra night.
The towering bluff of Serra del Cadi dominated our view to the south. The valley was cross-hatched with trails, several starting right outside our door. The next morning we set our sights on a beer in Estana before the bar closed. Setting off a couple of hours later than we should have found us in the heat of the day in the dark, cool interior of the Restaurante Baste. By then beer was the last thing on our minds. Only water would do. On our way up we had passed the village of Bar, a couple of kilometres from our hotel. We would delay beer until we got there. Fully 23km into the hike, we were back in Bar. Then, and only then, did we discover there is no bar in Bar. Walkers 2, Bars 0! But we knew our hotel had barrels of beer and it was hard by.
One of the curiosities of Toloriu (permanent residents: 5) is its historical relationship with the Aztec king Moctezuma’s daughter, Xipaguazin, aka Maria. We first bumped into the Moctezumas in Caceres a few months ago. Xipaguazin, the (apocryphal) story goes, married Juan de Grau, Baron Toloriu, and with her treasure made her way to the tiny hamlet in Catalunya. She then promptly died in childbirth. The year was 1537. A plaque from the Chapter of the Knights of the Order of the Aztec Crown of France memorializes what is most likely the county’s equivalent of Area 51.
Our hike towards Monte Perdido from Torla was relatively easy going. Hiking from Sallent de Gallego to the Refugio de Respomuso was a different story. It seemed like a do-able 25km day trip. Judging by the estimated 9 hour out and back time on Windy Maps, they thought otherwise. The elevation profile looked easy peasy, but on closer inspection it rose 950m, over 11km. That’s a grade of 8.4%, or hors catégorie in Tour de France parlance.
Rough and stony, the trail clung to the sides of the steep gorge. It reached high enough that we spotted a duvet of snow hidden under a crag beneath us. Lithe (and much younger) trail runners passed us handily in both directions. Soldiering on delivered us to our reward, expansive views of the dammed reservoir. By the time we got back to our hotel we basked in our training’s progress. A couple of months earlier we’d have collapsed at the top of the mountain and whimpered quietly. It was a beautiful hike. Tough to boot. And on the feets, too.
Paying for our hubris the next day led us almost directly to paragliding. From there we decided it was time to bid goodbye to the hills and head back to the flatlands of the south.
Staying Off the Beaten Track
Carol’s ability to find us interesting places to stay is now the stuff of legends. Armed only with her iPhone, in short order she discovered these little gems:
- Sos del Rey Católico – Pressed up against the border of Navarre, this historic town is one of the few places in Spain that recorded no Covid-19 infections. None. Based on how few people were around, they’re trying to keep it that way. Famous with filmmakers and actors, Sos del Rey’s picturesque castle and narrow streets are good only for exploring on foot. A Parador hotel dominates the north end of town, but we discovered the comfortable elegance of El Peirón and stayed there instead.
- Surrounded by undulating countryside with endless fields of wheat, we made short work of the town’s sights and turned south towards Zaragoza the next day. With no particular goal but to make it further south, we barrelled through the city where my younger daughter spent her junior year of high school and carried on for the Casa Rural La Contrada, another 150km southeast. La Contrada sits in a quiet valley where hunters still use dogs to track down wild javelinas. We worried being so far from town that dinner might be a problem, but our host turned out to be a wonderful cook. Our three-course meal started with courgette stuffed with shrimp and cheese, followed by cod seasoned with dill on a bed of sweet red pimento sauce. A most welcome surprise.
- Our last day on the road started poorly with a flat tire and dodgy spare. Compared with boat maintenance, modern cars are a piece of cake. Within an hour the spare tire was inflated to its operating pressure and the flat replaced. There was nothing to stop us staying the night in Bocairente, another of Spain’s ancient towns clinging to the sides of a drumlin. With decrepit bridges on one side and fine-inducing police cameras on the other, our hotel was accessible only by foot. The accommodations were disappointing, but the town square was packed with young families and the squeals of happy kids’ play. It was uplifting to sit out in the fading light of the comfortably warm evening and eat excellent tapas surrounded by life again. When our pauper’s bill arrived, we appreciated being off the beaten track even more.
We are now back in Cartagena with Marlon waiting for Aleta’s repairs to complete. Meanwhile, here are a few photos for your viewing pleasure.