Backpacking the French/Spanish Pyrenees 2016

I moved house last weekend and don’t have any internet yet. This has given me the time to type up a quick account of the backpacking trip I did over the summer this year.

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Getting to the Pyrenees was an adventure in itself for me. I left early and caught a train up to Bristol then a flight at 1pm, which is risky as you never know if the train will be delayed leading you to missing the flight. Once I landed in Toulouse I made my way across the city to the main station and caught the train up to Ax to meet my family. They welcomed me with a huge pizza, beer and chips. Then the next day the walking started.

The walking started in Ax les Thermes, in the French Pyrenees and close to Andorra. Ax is known for its sulphurous hot springs which bubble up from the ground (in public basins) at a temperature between 25 to 78 °C. Back in medieval times they were developed to treat soldiers suffering from leprosy on their return from the Crusades.

The first day of walking was pretty simple, starting in Merens les Vals about half way up the valley we walked right to the col and camped at L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre (literally translates to the Hospital Near Andorra).

The oncoming hikerThe next campsite we stayed at was in Porta, it wasn’t a particularly nice campsite and felt more like a caravan shanty town. There were caravans converted into permanent features, lived in by pot bellied blokes and the camping pitches were bumpy ground that looked more like abandoned land. However we put up with it for the night and moved on the following day, vowing never to return.

From Porta we walked down the valley, taking a detour up a smaller valley to avoid a segment of road that our footpath joined for a few miles. Here on out the weather got worse, and over lunch we had to pitch the tarp over the footpath due to a flash storm.

From Latour de Carol we decided to aim for Err, which we theorised is in the rain shadow – a dry area in mountainous regions that is away from the wind. The idea being that the mountains block rain producing weather systems and cast a ‘shadow’. The area we were in – Cerdanya is notable as a rain shadow region.

This area of France seem to have a penchant for gutteral sounding names. After Latour we passed through Ur, and crossed over this bridge on the way out of town.

We had lunch in Llivia, another interesting anomaly of history. The town is an Spanish exclave within France, it covers 5 miles and is seperated from the rest of spain by a 1 mile corridor. The town itself is odd, there were many new homes and the buildings were all well kept yet we barely saw anyone and none of the shops were open. It may have been because it was over siesta time (lunchtime nap) but we still expected to see some locals.

Incredibly heavy thunderstorm, the road flash flooded and it rained heavily for about an hour, then off/on the rest of the night. When we arrived in Err around 5pm we hid in a bus shelter opposite Campsite Las Closas, we ran over to check if they had a free touring home but their response was rude and cruel considering the weather – “No, none are available, sorry.” An obvious lie considering the campside was pretty empty. We walked through the town to the other campsite and was welcomed with open arms. Leading to us staying two nights and enjoying the comfort.

Rain in ErrWe decided to spend a few days in Err and spent the next day walking up the Gorges du Segre, near Llo, home to sulphur hot water baths. We went up along the river Segre and had lunch near the end of the gorge where we were saw loads of butterflies. Then went back via Chapelle Saint-Félix du Château, a Romanesque chapel and seat of a small priory that was inhabited by a single monk until1260. It is perched at the head of the opening to the gorge on a small peak.

But we are nomads at heart and so the following day we carried on walking up into the mountains along to Nuria. Vall de Nuria is a mountain sanctuary in a valley 2000m above sea level, and only accessible via a rack railway or by foot. It was a long hike and seeing the almost prisonlike resort come into view was a relief.

NuriaTowards Nuria

 

 

 

We decided to stay two days in Nuria and the following day a short walk up along the edge of the valley to a viewpoint looking further into Spain.

Scenic resort Nuria

 

Nuria fishIn the evening a heavy mist came down, and we had some fun exploring around the lake in the mist.

Mist and boatsThe following morning we left the idealic Nuria behind and headed back up to the col to walk along the ridge to Refuge Coma de Vaca. Up on the ridge we happened across the oddest insect, as I walked along I noticed things twitching on the ground but whenever I tried to focus on them, it was impossible to spot. We later sat down and discovered they were little maggots/caterpillars encased in tried grass squirming their way out.

Over the mountainsRefuge

 

 

 

This refuge was a small building at the meeting point of 4 valleys which combined into a steep gorge cutting through the mountains. It was a perfect valley for me, with waterfalls in abundance. Later on in the evening it once again started raining heavily and around 7pm about 15 boy scouts rolled into the Refuge. Thankfully they opened up a new dorm and we weren’t crammed in like sardines.

Pyrenees, Spain (2016)The next day we headed back towards the border and stayed at Refugi Ulldeter, a slightly larger refuge with road access. A heavy mist once again descended and we opted for staying inside and honing our domino skills.

Skeleton in the mistAnd then we walked back into France again! We walked up over the ridge line and dropped down past five lakes, we were now looking for a wild campsite.

The 5 lakesThis wild campsite was one of the best I’ve found, we were walking down the valley looking for somewhere to camp, the valley descended in steps so we spent a little time looking on each one as we got further down. The first step didn’t look very good, most of it was marshy and damp but I poked around towards the edge of the valley and found somebodies little hide away on a small hillock.

They had built a fireplace – complete with a grill tucked under some rocks a minutes’ walk away.

Wild fireplaceOnce the fire was going, I cleared the camping area – there was enough space for two tarps though mine had a small lump in the middle.

The conversation with my brother across the campsite was –
“Which side do you want?”
“The left side”
“But that’s the best side!”
“No, it isn’t”
“Why do you always get the best side?”
I had no preference, and he had no preference yet that was the conversation we had.

Wild campsite tarpIt was thunderstorms most of the afternoon, but the evening mostly stopped raining but was incredibly humid. If you visit, there is a farm stall just out of town on Thursdays that sells wonderful peaches and other products.

Dead forestEarly the next morning we headed up through the town to catch the Yellow Train. The Yellow Train was initially confusing, we didn’t initially realise there was only one line  and was puzzled when a train coming into the station was from the wrong direction. I started panicking as it was my job to read the timetable and make sure we were at the right place, but then another Yellow Train rolled into the station going the way we wanted. We then realised that as it was a single line track that the trains had to arrive at the station at the same time to allow each other to pass. For someone who is used to English trains where there is normally only ever one arriving at any one time in most stations, it was initially a bit puzzling.

The yellow trainIt’s easy to lose perspective looking at this map, but hopefully when combined with the images above it gives you a good idea of what the expedition was like.

Pyrenees 2016 route

Its easy to lose perspective looking at this map, but hopefully when combined with the images above it gives you a good idea of what the holiday was like.

Written list of locations
26 June – Train from Ax les Thermes up the valley to Merens les Vals
27 June – Merens les Vals to L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre
28 June – L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre to Porta
29 June – Porta to Latour de Carol
30 June – Latour de Carol to Err
1  July – Err day walk, around Gorges du Segre
2  July – Err to Nuria
3  July – Nuria day walk, up to viewpoint
4  July – Nuria to Refuge Coma de Vaca
5  July – Refuge Coma de Vaca to Refugi Ulldeter
6  July – Refugi Ulldeter to wild camp above refuge de Ras de la Caranca
7  July –  Wild campsite to Saint Thomas les Bains
8  July – The Yellow Train from Saint Thomas les Bains to Latour de Carol and then a train down the valley to Toulouse.

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