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Should You Hike the Alps, or the Pyrenees?

Most North American hikers planning a trip to Europe don’t ask themselves, “Should I go to the Alps or the Pyrenees?” They dream only of the Alps. And they assume the range is entirely within Switzerland.*

Having trekked throughout the Alps for many months, we much prefer the French and Italian Alps to the more famous and crowded Swiss Alps.** And now, having devoted June through September of 2014 to hiking the Pyrenees, we realize the “Alps vs. Pyrenees” question is one all North American hikers bound for Europe should ponder.

The Pyrenees

The Pyrenees

It’s a worthwhile debate because the Pyrenees are spectacular, deserving of comparison with the Alps, yet the two ranges are distinctly different.

Had we ignored the Pyrenees, our mountain education would be deficient. Our perspective on the world’s vertical topography would be incomplete. We would have missed out on several trails that—in a lifetime devoted to hiking—rank among our most exhilarating and memorable.*** And we would have passed up a marvelous adventure. Our entire time in the Pyrenees, we were keen to stride. The range enthralled us. We treasured our days there.

Looking back on our summer, however, we’re aware that… drum roll… we favour the French and Italian Alps over the Pyrenees.

Yes, that verdict is subjective. But it’s reasonable—substantiated below by a point-by-point comparison. Bear in mind, our goal isn’t to bend you toward our conclusion. It’s to shed light on a topic rarely discussed even among dedicated hikers, and perhaps help you decide where to invest your precious trail time in Europe.

•Hiking almost anywhere in Europe entails visiting many villages. We savoured this aspect of our journey through the French Alps. So we eagerly anticipated seeing and staying in Pyrenean villages. But we were generally disappointed and sometimes dismayed. French Pyrenean villages are distinguished by an absence of charm. Structures with exterior stone are few. Drab plaster (cream, grey, beige) dominates. Flower boxes (ubiquitous in the French Alps) are rare in the French Pyrenees. It seems the residents long ago abandoned any effort to beautify their homes and woo tourists. Pride of ownership appears to have succumbed to hard times. Few French Pyrenean villages occupy noteworthy locations, whereas many villages in the French Alps are impressively perched. And, what? No water fountains? Potable water flows from fountains in most French Alps villages, suffusing them with a “Welcome, travelers!” ambiance. But we eventually gave up searching for village fountains in the Pyrenees.

Granted, many villages in the Spanish Pyrenees are pretty and lively. Here, dwellings and buildings with stone exteriors are common. We lingered in and admired many Spanish towns and hamlets, including Panticosa, Sallent de Gallego, Torla, Benasque, Biescas, Jaca, Alcazar, Ainsa, and Vio.

The Spanish Pyrenees, however, were severely disfigured by the development surge that ended abruptly in 2008. Condo complexes are prolific. Most are tasteless, constructed thoughtlessly, quickly, cheaply. Many are enormous, yet devoid of residents. Some were abandoned mid-construction yet still have cranes poised above them. A few, only partially finished, are already collapsing. All are monuments to greed. They give the impression an army of spendthrift dilettantes briefly conquered the region but were recently routed.

So, if we were judging a civic beauty contest, we’d say that, on the whole, Pyrenean villages do not compare to the villages of the French Alps.

Driving in the French Alps is a joy. The roads—often lined with gorgeous stone walls—climb to remarkable heights and cross sensational passes: Col du Galibier (2645 m / 8678 ft), Col du Lauteret (2770 m / 9088 ft), Col de l’Iseran (2770 m / 9088 ft), Col du Mont Cenis (2083 m / 6827 ft), Col du Noyer (1664 m / 5459 ft), to name a few. Driving in the Pyrenees didn’t elicit in us anything approaching the wonder we frequently felt in the French Alps. One notable exception in the French Pyrenees was the D918 highway between Col d’Aubisque (1709 m / 5607 ft) and Col du Soulor (1474 m / 4836 ft) where several times we stopped and marveled. The best-known Pyrenean pass—Col du Tourmalet, of Tour du France fame—is a jaw-dropping disappointment. The peaks ringing Tourmalet are nondescript. The huge, gleaming-white observatory atop Pic du Midi is a monstrosity. And the extensive development near where the road pierces the 2115-m (6939-ft) col is a ghastly goulash.

Trailhead elevations in the French Alps are generally higher than those in the Pyrenees. In the Alps, smooth, paved roads nearly always deliver you to trailheads in or near the alpine zone, where trees are few or nil, and where the scenery opens up immediately, or soon after you begin hiking. In the Pyrenees, particularly on the French side, approaches are longer, more forested thus less scenic, and require more elevation gain. Bear in mid, they’re never as demanding and tedious as is common in North America. But nowhere in the Pyrenees is there anything comparable to, say, driving up Valgaudemar, between soaring mountain walls, to the Gioberney trailhead, where several, premier, French Alps trails launch you into the alpine zone.

Trail signage in the French Alps is consistently excellent. We never faced a navigational quandary there. Trail signage in the Pyrenees varies from ideal, to poor, to nonexistent. We hiked sections of all the primary GR (gran randonneé) trails in the Pyrenees, including the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP), which uses the GR 11 in Spain, and the GR 10 in France. The HRP in particular requires trekkers to be confident, skillful navigators.

The Pyrenees are reputed to be significantly less crowded than the Alps. That’s true, but only if the Alps in question are Swiss. We’re convinced it’s a myth that the Pyrenees are less crowded than the French Alps. Our impression is that the two ranges are equally popular. You certainly shouldn’t choose the Pyrenees over the French Alps expecting to avoid crowded trailheads and busy trails. If you do, you’ll be disappointed. If anything, the Pyrenees are busier longer. Most French start their summer vacations in mid-July. The French Alps attract mostly French hikers, so the crowds diminish when most French return to work mid-August. But the Pyrenees attract hikers from both France and Spain, and most Spanish take their summer vacations later than do the French. While both the French and Spanish are on vacation, you can expect to see a hundred or more vehicles parked at the most popular Pyrenean trailheads.

Lakes are a prominent feature of the Pyrenees. We saw notably fewer lakes in the French Alps. It’s an oversimplification to say the Pyrenees are half granite, half limestone, but the range has that appearance. And in the granitic regions, the Pyrenees are splashed with lakes. Many of those lakes, however were dammed, thus are actually reservoirs. When the water levels are low, you’ll see unsightly, unnatural “bathtub rings.” Regardless of water level, the dams themselves, particularly those in the alpine zone, are eyesores.

If it’s sharp, soaring peaks you want to see, the French Alps will please you more than will the Pyrenees. Of course, the Pyrenees are occasionally peaky, but overall it’s a range of rounded, broad-shouldered summits. Pyrenees elevations are not comparable to those in the French Alps. And the undramatic shapes characteristic of the Pyrenees give the impression the peaks are more modest than they actually are. The three highest summits in the Pryenees are Pico de Aneto (3404 m / 11,168 ft), Pico Posets (3375 m / 11,073 ft), and Monte Perdido (3355 m / 11,007 ft). Compare that to the Mont Blanc massif (shared by France and Italy), where numerous peaks stand well above 4000 m (13,123 ft). Mont Blanc itself is Europe’s highest at 4810 m (15,781 ft). But even well beyond the shadow of Mont Blanc, the French Alps comprise many peaks nearing or exceeding 4000 m (13,123 ft), for example La Barre des Écrins (4,102 m / 13,458 ft), and La Meije (3,984 m / 13,071 ft).

Glacial ice is rapidly disappearing the world over. Still, the French Alps shoulder a readily-visible abundance of glacial ice. But the Pyrenees have almost none. This absence of white is startling, because it’s obvious glaciation was once a pervasive, powerful force here.

Low cloud—what we called the “French Fog Factor”—seemed to be an almost daily occurrence along the north slope of the Pyrenees. The cloud would begin forming early, become dense enough to obscure the peaks by midday, and not dissipate until evening. Many times we ascended the Spanish side under a blue sky, only to reach the crest of the range and witness a sea of cloud just below us on the French side. While the FFF often made it difficult to enjoy hiking on the French side of the Pyrenees, we never witnessed anything like it during our four months in the French Alps.

Our summer in the Pyrenees was consistently hotter and more humid than was our summer in the French Alps. That’s not to say this is always the case. But we were often, notably less comfortable—specifically more sweat-drenched—while hiking in the Pyrenees. Hiking above Valle de Hecho on the Spanish side of the range in mid-September, Kath succumbed to heat exhaustion for the first time ever.

Thunderstorms are another weather phenomenon that, based on our experience, distinguish the Pyrenees. Never, in any other mountain range, have we witnessed such frequent, apocalyptic storms. Sure, a few storms swept over us in the French Alps. But they were nothing compared to the hours long, carpet bombing, firmament illuminating, peak blasting, tree bending, tent-shaking tempests that regularly engulfed us in the Pyrenees. Fortunately, we were almost always in our very-storm-worthy tent at only moderate elevations when the lightning and thunder began swirling about, so we generally found the storms more fascinating than annoying or worrisome. But some hikers would surely find the Pyrenean thunderstorms frightening, perhaps unbearable.

In the Swiss Alps, trailhead-access toll roads and pay-to-park trailheads are annoyingly common, as well as bank-account depleting. We don’t recall any in the French Alps. But you will encounter them in the Pyrenees, for example the Pont d’Espagne trailhead (above Cauterets, France), and the road accessing the trail to Col de Madamète (above Saint-Lary-Soulan, France). To reach the Ordesa Canyon trailhead (above Torla, Spain), or the Cirque de Troumouse trailhead (above Gavarnie, France), you must pay to ride a shuttle bus, which underscores how crowded these must-see Pyrenean sites are.

The French Alps are green. The Pyrenees are greener, or at least that was our impression. Sweeping, undulating carpets of alpine grass were among our favourite features of the Pyrenees. But these aren’t just meadows, they’re pastures, so we shared them with cattle and sheep. Grazing seems to be more pervasive and intensive in the Pyrenees than in the French Alps. Even if no animals were in sight, their shit was often underfoot. Sheep shit has an astringent stench that we will forever associate with hiking in Europe, particularly the Pyrenees.

Speaking of “underfoot,” the Pyrenees are not an easy-striding range. Many of the trails are rough and bouldery, entailing lots of gymnastic, even choreographic, hiking. This is especially true in the granitic regions of the Pyrenees. In the French Alps, we were more often able to enjoy heads-up trekking on smoother trails.

Compared to the French Alps, the Pyrenees are thin. Arriving at a crest, col, or summit often grants a vista extending out of the mountains, to the flatlands beyond. In the Alps, attaining a vantagepoint usually rewards you with the impression you’re deep in the range and suggests there’s infinitely more to explore.

For cultural immersion, the Pyrenees and the French Alps are about equal. In the French Alps, it’s a safe bet the next hiker you see will be French. During our four-month, 1,000-mile summer in the Pyrenees, we crossed paths with only three people from our home continent. We shared Pyrenean trails and huts with a few Germans and Dutch, but the overwhelming majority of Pyrenean hikers are French or Spanish. You’ll meet more French on the French side, more Spanish on the Spanish side, but the range belongs to both nations. Trails, therefore hikers, constantly cross the frontier.

Most Spanish are sociable and garrulous. They also tend to hike in large groups, so those groups can be very loud. Nonstop, lively conversation punctuated by frequent laughter seems to be intrinsic to the Spanish hiking experience. (That’s fact, not criticism. The Spanish readily acknowledge this cultural trait.) The French, too, often hike in large groups, but the French tend to be quieter. If you prize tranquility, this distinction is one you should consider. In the Pyrenees, tolerating (or distancing ourselves from) noisy hikers or hut mates was a daily experience. Not so in the French Alps.

Pitting the Pyrenees against the Alps, and illuminating how—from our perspective—the Pyrenees fall short, might give the impression the Pyrenees disappointed us. They did not. We stand by the statement we made earlier in this post:  “Our entire time in the Pyrenees, we were keen to stride. The range enthralled us. We treasured our days there.”

Might we return to hike in the Pyrenees? Yes. Would we do so with eager anticipation? Yes. But returning to the French Alps is a higher priority for us.

Next post coming soon: “The 677-page Hiking Guide to the Canadian Rockies that’s now Ultralight Gear”

*In the Swiss Alps, we met hikers from all over the world, including Canadians and Americans. In the Italian Alps, we encountered fewer North American hikers. In the French Alps, our fellow hikers were almost exclusively French.

**Here’s an excerpt from our many posts about hiking in the Alps (www.hikingcamping.com/blog/?s=french+alps). It summarizes our feelings about the French Alps vs. the Swiss Alps: “We, like most people, thought of Switzerland as profusely green: the land of sweeping alpine meadows. The Alps are carpeted with more vast meadowlands than are North American mountain ranges, but the Swiss Alps are not predominantly green above treeline. They’re profoundly rocky, heavily glaciated, strewn with moraines, covered with scree. Shades of grey and black dominate. Often, the Swiss Alps appear as stern as the Swiss themselves. So the high-mountain scenery in Switzerland wasn’t as pleasing as we expected it to be. It was awesome, to be sure, but often rather menacing as well. We prefer the French Alps, which, though slightly less towering overall, are nearly as impressive yet vastly greener, more welcoming, more beautiful. We concede that’s highly subjective. For us, however, it’s absolutely true.”

***Our July 31, 2014 post titled “Best Trek You’ve Never Heard Of” details one of the Pyrenean trails we believe rank among the world’s best: www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2014/07/best-trek-youve-never-heard-of/

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35 Premier Hikes in the Pyrenees

Where to invest your precious trail-time in the mountain range shared by Andorra, Spain and France

We began hiking in the Pyrenees in late June, 2014. We continued at a fervid pace, hiking nearly every day until early October. Roaming through Andorra, then weaving across the French-Spanish border, we covered about 1932 km (1200 mi). That doesn’t qualify us as authorities on the range, but we do know it well. We offer the following recommendations because they would have helped us immensely when we began probing the Pyrenees. If you go—and we enthusiastically urge you to do so—we hope our advice helps you make optimal use of your precious trail-time. These 35 hikes were our favorites in the range. Bear in mind, our blog-post descriptions are far less detailed than those we provide in our guidebooks.

To better appreciate a photo above, click on it to enlarge. Click on it again to enlarge fully.

 

ANDORRA

On a Pyrenees hiking trip limited to a couple weeks, it’s possible to stay entirely—and very happily—within the peak studded, trail laced, micro-nation of Andorra. We loved it there. But don’t look for accommodation in the capital, Andorra la Vella, unless you want to immerse yourself in duty-free-shopping mayhem. Base yourself in the comparatively small, sane village of Soldeu, where Philippe Courcol manages numerous apartments. His office is immediately right of the Hotel Himàlaia entrance. From there, it’s a 0h10m walk to the comfortable, fully-furnished studio apartment he rented to us. It was quiet, the balcony had a fine view, the wifi was stable and fast, and the price was low enough to compete with Andorra campgrounds. His company is Soldeu Paradis (www.soldeuparadissl.com). You can reach Philippe at 376 32 25 61, or 376 85 14 85. You can also reach him via email: <soldeuparadis@hotmail.com>. You prefer to camp? You’ll find appealing campgrounds in Llorts, in the valley N or Ordino. There’s also a campground just outside Soldeu, at the S end of Vall d’Incles.

 

Jucla Cascades

Jucla Cascades

 

Collada de Jucla 

hiking time 5h0m round trip to Collada de Jucla, plus 1h30m for col below Pic de Ruf

elevation gain 582 m to Collada de Jucla, plus 108 m to col below Pic de Ruf

map Rando Editions 21 Andorra – Cadi

 

Just W of Soldeu, drive N into Vall d’Incles. Proceed 4 km to the road’s end trailhead at 1860 m. Hike E, then NE, to Estany de Jucla. (Estany is Catalan for lake or pond.) Walk around the S and E shores to reach Collada de Jucla at 2442 m. (Collada is Catalan for col.) Want more? Ascend E to the 2550-m col on the S slope of Pic de Ruf.

 

Valle dels Pessons

hiking time 3h30m for lake circuit, 5h round trip to Pic de Ribus

elevation gain 490 m on lake circuit, 736 m to Pic de Ribus

map Rando Editions 21 Andorra – Cadi

From Soldeu, drive SE on highway N2 about 4 km to Grau Roig ski area. Park in the large, paved lot at 2120 m. Hike above the ski area to Estany dels Pessons. Continue right, hiking the loop counter-clockwise, WSW toward 2846-m Pic dels Pessons. At the SW end of the loop, fork left (E). The SW end of the loop is the S end of Estany de los Fonts. Fork left (E) here to return. Or extend the hike by ascending to the 2833-m col, then summiting 2813-m Pic de Ribus. Retrace your steps to the lake loop, then return on the GR7 via Estany de los Fonts and four other small lakes.

 

Ascending Pico Tristaina

Ascending Pico Tristaina

Pico Tristaina

hiking time 5h0m to 6h0m round trip

elevation gain 650 m

map IGN 2148 OT Vicdessos

From La Massana, drive NE, then generally N, to Arcalis ski area. Park near road’s end, at 2228 m. Compared to most trailheads in the Pyrenees, this one’s quite high—a special opportunity for hikers. From behind the lodge, ascend NE (on the trail above the GRT) to Estany Primer. Continue NNW, past Estany del Mig, into the impressive Tristaina cirque. Pass Estany de Tristaina. Ascend toward Port de l’Albeille, but do not follow the trail NE into the scree. From the flat area above the final, tiny lake, look for a small, wood signpost marking the route leading N toward Pico Tristaina. Surprisingly, this route, which begins as a faint trail, is not indicated on the IGN map. Soon begin a sustained, steep scramble posing minor exposure. The 2878-m summit affords a sensational view. Visible N, above the N shore of Etang Fourcat, is Refuge Fourcat at 2445 m. (Etang is French for lake or pond.) To summit via the French side, you’d need to overnight at the refuge. A route descends from the summit, first SSW along the ridge, then N, into the Fourcat cirque.

 

Pic de La Serrera 

hiking time 4h0m to 5h0m round trip

elevation gain 943 m

map French IGN 2148 OT Vicdessos, Spanish Rando Editions 21 Andorra – Cadi

Drive a couple km W of Soldeu. At El Tarter, follow the road N from Ransol, about 5 km to road’s end at 1960 m. Hike NW, creekside, through flower-filled meadows, to Estany dels Meners and a couple other small lakes beneath steep slopes. Proceed W, bearing left where a faint trail forks right. Reach a 2738-m col. Follow the easy ridge-route NW to the 2912-m summit of Pic de La Serrera, on the Andorran/French border. Overlook a vast area of creeks, lakes, and meadows.

 

Port de Baiau

hiking time 9h0m to 10h30m round trip

elevation gain 1717 m

map Rando Editions 21 Andorra – Cadi

Most people will likely need to overnight at a refuge to complete this demanding circuit. But if you’re swift and start early, it’s possible to do it in a single day. Regardless, you’ll need confidence born of experience on rough, sketchy, high-elevation routes to expediently, safely complete the N part of the loop: over Port de Baiau and Coll dels Estanys Forcats, beneath awesome 2911-m Pic de Medacorba.

From La Massana, drive NW to Arinsal ski area. Park near Pont Pedregat, in the paved lot at 1580 m. It’s just before and left of the tunnel. (The road ends near condos just beyond the tunnel.) At the small tourist office in the parking lot, ask for their map of the complicated approach and trail network.

Figuring the next move

Figuring the next move

Walk through the tunnel, turn right, soon reach road’s end, and proceed onto trail (a former road). Hike NW, then W, on the GR11 to Refugio de Comapedrosa, at 2241 m. Cross to the N side of the creek, continue W, then ascend steeply to a small lake between 2885-m Pic de Sanfonts (left/W) and 2942-m Pic de Comapedrosa (right/NE). Ascend N to 2756-m Port de Baiau. From here it’s a steep plunge NNW to Refugio de Baiau, at 2517 m. Ascend to 2695-m Forcats col, beneath Pic de Medacorba (N) and Roca Entravessada (S). Then descend through a tight, deep canyon to Refugio del pla de l’Estany, back to the GR11 junction, where you’re on familiar ground.

 

 

SPAIN

Parque Natural Posets-Maladeta

Base yourself at the modern, stone village of Benasque. Hotels and rental condos are plentiful. We pitched our tent about 3 km N of town, on the bank of Rio Esera, at Camping Ixela. The Caprabo grocery store in Benasque is open late, and on weekends.

Puerto de Benas

Puerto de Benas

Puerto de Benas

hiking time 4h0m to 5h0m round trip

elevation gain 745 m

map Editorial Alpina E-25 Aneto Maladeta

From Benasque, drive NE on road A-139. At about 11 km, just shy of road’s end, turn right near the 71-km milepost. Descend toward Vado de l’Hospital. Turn left, into the large, public parking lot. Elevation: 1700 m. Beyond here you must walk or ride the shuttle bus, unless you’re staying at the hotel. Forget the shuttle bus. Start hiking. Pass the hotel on the GR T-46. Ascend to 2445-m Puerto de Benas. It affords a grand view S, across the valley, to 3308-m Pico de la Maladeta, and SSE to 3404-m Pico de Aneto—highest in the Pyrenees. To overlook lakes on the French side, descend N a few minutes from the tight col.

A round trip to Puerto de Benas takes only about 3h30m. So consider lengthening the return by traversing E to Port dera Picada, then descending toward La Besurta. You can then ride the bus back, or resume on foot, hiking above the road, on the trail through meadows.

 

Puerto de la Glera

hiking time 4h30 m to 5h30m round trip

elevation gain 675 m

map Editorial Alpina E-25 Aneto Maladeta

From Benasque, drive NE on road A-139. Park where the road ends, at about 12 km, 1790 m. Proceed on the initally rough, awkward trail. It soon improves. Pass above two lakes before reaching 2364-m Puerto de la Glera. Seen from this angle, Maladeta and Aneto appear peakier than they do from Puerto de Benas.

Follow the ridge left (NW) toward Pico Sacroux. In about 0h15m, Luchon, France is visible far below (N). Competent scramblers can continue ascending to the summit of 2676-m Pico de Sacroux and overlook the lakes in Cirque des Crabioules.

nearby option

About 400 m shy of this same, road end is the trailhead for Vall de Remune. It’s a very worthwhile 4h0m – 5h0m round trip hike to Ibons de Remune, in a vice-grip canyon beneath 2800-m and 2900-m peaks. (Ibon is Spanish for tarn.) You’ll gain 430 m on a constantly awkward, boulder strewn, impossible-to-stride trail that demands patience.

 

Ibon de Creguena

hiking time 6h0m round trip

elevation gain 700 m

map Editorial Alpina E-25 Aneto Maladeta

From Benasque, drive NE on road A-139 about 5.5 km. Descend right to park at Plan de Senarta, in the unpaved lot beside a stone building. If you’re willing to pay the hefty shuttle-bus fee (17€ per person for a round-trip in 2014), begin hiking at Refugio de Corones, at 1950 m. Ascend to Ibon de Creguena, at 2650 m, on the S side of 3308-m Pico de la Maladeta.

 

Vielha

Anyone who visited Vielha a decade ago laments how the town has burgeoned. Free of that perspective, we immediately liked Vielha and enjoyed staying there. Located in Val d’Aran, this small city is close to Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes and other, premier hiking territory. But none of the campgrounds here appealed to us. We recommend basing yourself at the pleasingly affordable Hotel Husa Urogallo (http://www.hotelhusaurogallo.com/EN/hotel.html). Here’s the five-star review of it we posted on TripAdvisor.com:

“Conveniently located in the the heart of Vielha, the Urogallo is a fine hotel, run by a friendly, efficient staff. The rooms are small, but very clean and comfortable. The price we paid in September was a bargain. The buffet breakfast is lavish yet the price is so low, I had to ask twice to be sure I was hearing it correctly. We enjoyed staying here several days, ranging into the mountains above where we discovered some of the most rewarding trails of our four-month journey through the Pyrenees.”

 

Estanh de Mar

hiking time 7h0m round trip

elevation gain 879 m

map Editorial Alpina Val d’Aran

Estanh de Rius

Estanh de Rius

From Vielha, drive the N-230, ascending to and through the Vielha tunnel. After exiting the tunnel and starting to descend, turn around as if returning through the tunnel. Pass the Refuge de Conangles (right). Slow down. Do not re-enter the tunnel. Bear right onto the road ascending above and beyond the tunnel entry. Park in the large, unpaved lot in front of the (apparently defunct) Espitau de Vielha, at 1626 m. Begin hiking E on the GR11. The trail ascends to 2340-m Port de Rius in 4.5 km (about 1h30m). From there, it’s an easy, 0h30m cruise along the shore of Estanh de Rius. (Estanh is Spanish for lake.) At the far end of the lake, depart the GR11 by forking right, to Lac Tort de Rius. It’s beneath 2882-m Tuc des Estanhets. Proceed to the 2505-m col overlooking Estanh de Mar. Most dayhikers will turn around here, thrilled. You can, however, descend sharply to and beyond Estanh de Mar, to reach Refugi Restanca and rejoin the GR11. From there, you can circle back to the junction at Estanh de Rius. You’re then on familiar ground. Staying at the refuge breaks the circuit into two, comfortable days. It’s also possible to complete the circuit in an aggressive, 8h0m to 9h0m day.

 

Val de Molieres

hiking time 4h0m round trip to Pleta Naua, 7h0m round trip to Refugi de Molieres

elevation gain 324 m to Pleta Naua, 763 m to Refugi de Molieres

map Editorial Alpina E-25 Aneto Maladeta

From Vielha, drive the N-230, ascending to and through the Vielha tunnel. After exiting the tunnel and starting to descend, turn around as if returning through the tunnel. Pass the Refuge de Conangles (right). Slow down. Do not re-enter the tunnel. Bear right onto the road ascending above and beyond the tunnel entry. Park in the large, unpaved lot in front of the (apparently defunct) Espitau de Vielha, at 1626 m. Begin hiking on the unpaved road that initially drops to the Molieres River. Within 0h20m, cross a meadow where, in early summer, we witnessed an orgiastic flush of wildflowers. Within 0h45m, the trail steepens. Blocky boulders underfoot demand heads-down focus and gymnastic effort. At 1h30m, ascend a scramble route beside a cascading stream. The trail then eases into Pleta Naua, at 1950 m. It’s worth hiking even just this far. Peaks nearing 3000 m crowd the tight valley. If you’re up for another ascent like the one you just vanquished, carry on to 2357 m, where Refugi de Molieres is perched above several lakelets and beneath 3013-m Tuc Molieres. For a sensational, multi-day hike, continue over 2939-m Col de Molieres, then descend Valleta de L’Escaleta to Le Besurta, and pick up the road to Benasque.

 

Circ de Colomers

hiking time 5h0m round trip, plus 2h0m relaxing at the lakes

elevation gain 610 m

map Editorial Alpina Carros de FOC

An exquisite dayhike allowing you to sample the world class, multi-day Aiguestortes trek (see below). In this amphitheatre-shaped valley ringed by horned peaks, you’ll tour a dozen lakes among meadows and granite domes. From Vielha, drive E on the C28, through Val d’Aran to Salardu. Fork S toward Banhs de Tredos. In summer, you must park there, then either walk the unpaved road or pay for a taxi to reach Pont dera Montanheta (picnic area and trailhead) at 2.5 km, 1980 m. Beyond, walk SE, then SW, to Refugi Colomers. From there, begin a 4h0m loop. Hiking counter-clockwise, pass Estanh de Mort. At the S end of the loop, pass Estanh de Gelat at 2590 m, then Estanh de Podo beneath 2862-m Pic de Ratera. Hike N to Estanh Obago and Estanh Long to complete the loop.

 

Aiguestortes

Aiguestortes

 

Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes

See our previous blog post about a six-day hut-to-hut trek through an area of such unique and exquisite beauty that we’re urging all our mountain-minded friends to seriously consider walking there: http://www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2014/07/best-trek-youve-never-heard-of/

 

 

Balcón de Pineta

hiking time 6h30m to 7h0m round trip to Balcón de Pineta, plus 1h30m round trip to Lago Helado de Marbore

elevation gain 1100 m

map Editorial Alpina #10, Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park

A seriously steep, 3h30m ascent grants you a stupendous perch beneath the icy, N face of 3355-m Monte Perdido. The trail climbs past cascades, flowery pocket-meadows, and arresting cliff faces. From the French (N) side of the Bielsa tunnel, drive 14 km to the town of Bielsa, then turn right (W) into Valle de Pineta. From Spain, drive N about 32 km from Ainsa to Bielsa, on the very scenic A-138, then turn left (W) into Valle de Pineta. (Before or after your hike, visit the gorgeous, authentic, medieval village of Ainsa.) From either approach, drive NW 14 km through Valle de Pineta, to the huge, unpaved, trailhead parking lot at road’s end. Elevation: 1400 m. Begin hiking upstream on the trail along the W bank of Rio Cinca. Ignore the spurs (left) leading to cascades. And don’t go to Llanos de la Larri. After the initial, somewhat confusing 0h20 m, cross to the river’s N bank. Proceed NW on the trail signed for Balcón de Pineta. Crest the Balcón at 2500 m, about 3h30m from the trailhead. The remnant glaciers on 3348-m Monte Perdido are visible left (SSW). The frontier peaks near Perdido are 2800 m to 3200 m high. After resting, muster energy to continue NNW across bouldery terrain, about 0h30m to Lago Helado de Marbore, at 2595 m.

 

Ordesa Canyon

hiking time 6h30m to 8h0m circuit

elevation gain 780 m

map Editorial Alpina #10, Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park

Circo de Soaso cascades

Circo de Soaso cascades

A balcony trail high on the S wall of this justifiably famous canyon offers a spectacular traverse. You’ll contour into the Circo de Soasa, at the head of the canyon, then return along the canyon floor. The contouring trail allows you to appreciate the sheer, colourful cliffs forming the canyon’s N wall. Above those cliffs, you’ll see many 3000-m peaks along the Spanish/French border, and the famous Brecha de Rolano—a unique, missing-tooth-gap in the Pyrenean crest, better known by its French name, La Brèche de Roland. After dayhiking the canyon’s S wall, if you want to probe Ordesa again, hike the Faja Racon on the N wall. It gains 580 m and takes about 5h0m to 6h0m. Drive to the handsome, stone town of Torla. There’s a well-managed, good-value campground here, beside Rio Ara. To access this hike, drive to the huge parking lot on the SW side of Torla. Ride the shuttle bus to the road’s end trailhead at 1320 m in Ordesa Canyon. Follow the signpost for Sendero de los Cazadores. Go S, across the river, toward the canyon’s steep wall. Ascend through forest on a good, switchbacking trail. At 1875 m, fork left and continue climbing. After gaining 630 m in about 1h15m, reach a mirador at 1950 m. Proceed E from the mirador, along the slopes of Sierra de las Cutas. This is the Faja de Pelay. To the N are giant peaks: Tobacor, Gallinero, Perdido. The contouring trail eventually descends into Circo de Soaso, near the head of the canyon. Returning down-canyon, the trail initially passes an impressive series of cascades. But after about 1h0m, the remainder of the hike (about 1h15m) is a viewless trudge on a former road through forest to where you can board the shuttle bus. The alternative is to make this a one-way trip by hiking the Faja de Pelay (the S-wall traverse) out and back from the mirador. If you do that, you’ll enjoy the traverse twice, you’ll avoid the crowd that perpetually throngs the canyon-floor trail, and you’ll spare yourself the viewless forest plod, but you’ll face a very steep descent from the mirador.

 

Valle de Tena

Driving N of Huesca, Spain, into Valle de Tena, in about 85 km (1h0m) you’ll reach two of the Pyrenees’ premier hiker havens: the towns of Panticosa, and Sallent de Gallego. Skiers surge into Valle de Tena every winter. Summer, however, is slow season, despite the superb hiking opportunities. Among 2700-m to 3000-m peaks, are huge, granite basins harbouring vast meadows and numerous lakes. This is granite terrain of of Yosemite scope and beauty yet devoid of crowds. An extensive network of trails links several refugios, enabling you to devise superb, multi-day treks. Dayhiking here is also appealing, because the trailheads are at high elevations (much higher than is typical on the French side of the range). Fog—which shuts the curtains most afternoons on the French side—is far less common here. We’d hoped to car camp near Sallent or Panticosa, but found no suitable campgrounds. We did, however, stay at the Vicente Hotel, in Panticosa, and found it affordable and very pleasant: http://www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2015/01/hiker-havens-in-the-pyrenees/  If rain thwarts your hiking plans while you’re here, drive 0h45m to visit Jaca—an engaging city to wander in for an afternoon. Or, if you’re in need of some hiking gear, visit the Guara Mascun shop (www.guara-mascun.com), at Calle Vicente Campo #11, in Huesca. We purchased boots there at bargain prices.

 

Respomuso signpost

Respomuso signpost

 

Embalses Respomuso and Bachimana Alto

hiking time 5h0m round trip to Refugio de Respomuso, or 9h0m round trip to Col de Faxa, or 7h0m one way to Refugio de Bachimana

elevation gain 750 m to Refugio de Respomuso, or 1165 m to Col de Faxa, or 1295 m to Refugio de Bachimana

maps Editorial Alpina #6, Valle de Tena – Sierra de Tendenera; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

From Sallent de Gallego, drive N to the road’s end trailhead just beyond the restaurant at the N end of Embalse Sarra. Elevation: 1500 m. (Embalse is Spanish for reservoir.) Hike the GR11 N up-canyon along the Rios Aguas Limpias. Curve E into Val de Piedrafita. Reach Refugio de Respomuso at 2231 m, about 2h30m from the trailhead. It’s above the huge reservoir of the same name. This is a good turnaround point for a dayhike. If you started early, however, it’s possible to extend your dayhike to 2665-m Col de Faxa. If you’re a competent scrambler, the 3005-m summit of Pic Grand Faxa is also attainable, but to have sufficient time you’d probably need to spend a night at the refugio. Scrambling in the morning also gives you a chance of attaining views before the afternoon fog obscures the French side of the range.

Col Piedrafita, from Col Infierno

Col Piedrafita, from Col Infierno

For a spectacular hut-to-hut trip, continue SE on the GR11. Pass Ibon de Llena Cantal. Cross the dual cols—2765-m Piedrafita and 2722-m Infierno—with a deep lake between them. (If icy, as it was for us, Piedrafita is a technical col. Even without ice, the scree is so steep you might be scrambling on all fours.) Descend E beneath the vivid chocolate-and-vanilla veined 3075-m Picos de l’Infierno. In a gorgeous basin, pass Ibon Azul Superior and Ibon Azul Inferior. Below, turn right (SE) at the junction to follow the W shore of Embalse Bachimana Alto and reach the refuge of the same name at 2197 m, perched above the reservoir’s S end. Refugio Bachimana is new, gorgeous, and efficiently run by a friendly staff. Left at the aforementioned junction ascends over 2541-m Puerto Marcadau. From there, it’s an easy, 2h0m descent to Refuge Wallon at 1865 m. But do not stay at Wallon. It’s the most disgusting hut we’ve ever experienced. The staff was rude. The place was filthy. The food poisoned us; we both became violently ill. The next day, our 7h0m hike over 2665-m Col de la Faxa back to our car, was an ordeal due to our severely weakened state. Thanks to Refuge Wallon, we were forced to abandon our plan to explore the intriguing, lake basin N of Valle du Marcadau.

 

Above the Balneario

Above the Balneario

Embalse Bachimana Alto

hiking time 5h0m round trip to Embalse Bachimana Alto, or 8h0m round trip to Ibon Azul Superior

elevation gain 750 m to Embalse Bachimana Alto, or 792 m to Ibon Azul Superior

maps Editorial Alpina #6, Valle de Tena – Sierra de Tendenera; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

Drive N of Panticosa, to Balneario de Panticosa, at 1637 m. From this magnificent, granite cirque (which should have been declared a national park and world heritage site and protected from development, but sadly wasn’t), hike the GR11 to Embalse Bachimana Alto. Don’t be deterred by the crowd. The scenery along this trail, as well as the scope and beauty of the surrounding terrain, is staggering. Reach Refugio Bachimana at 2197 m. It’s perched above its namesake reservoir’s S end. If you have energy and time for a 3h round-trip extension, ascend to the Blue Lakes—Ibon Azul Inferior and Ibon Azul Superior—W of the reservoir’s N shore. The Blue Lakes basin is ethereal.

 

Ibon de Sabocos

Ibon de Sabocos

Sierra de Tendenera

hiking time 5h30m to 6h30m loop

elevation gain 1160 m

map  Editorial Alpina #6, Valle de Tena – Sierra de Tendenera; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

From the Panticosa ski-area parking lot, at 1148 m, cross the Roman bridge, Puente la Zoche. At the gondola building (left), there’s a signed junction for Hoz de Jaca and El Pueyo de Jaca. Go behind (left) of the gondola building (white roof). Pick up the path there. Go left, ascending SSE on the trail signed “PR95 Ripera.” There’s a creek below (right). Pass ancient terraces among flowery fields in Valle La Ripera. At 1h30m, intersect an unpaved road and follow it right. Do not descend to the bridge. At 1h45m curve right (S), crossing a small bridge to the creek’s left (E) bank. Visible ahead (S) are the 800-m walls of the Sierra de Tendenera. The pleasant road-trail ascends SW via switchbacks, then NW to 2090-m Cuello de Sabocos, about 3h30m from the trailhead. Descend to Ibon de Sabocos, at 1906 m. The stone building above the lake’s N shore bears a yellow blaze (on the corner, by the door). Continue NW across grass. The Picos del Infierno are visible N. From here on, we found it difficult to follow the route. But you’re in the alpine  zone, with distant views in all directions, so navigation is easy. In short… Ascend to the ski station, at 2092 m. From there, follow the road down to Panticosa. Where possible, short-cut the road’s sweeping switchbacks by hiking directly down the fall-line. In summer, when the skit lift is running, you can spare your knees the long, sharp descent by riding down instead of pounding down.

 

Punta Mesola

hiking time 4h30m round trip

elevation gain 700 m

map Editorial Alpina #4, Valles de Ansó Y Echo, or Tourist office Los Valles Occidentales

Several long valleys ascend from foothills to high ridges in the western Pyrenees. After probing the Hecho, Aisa, and Ansó valleys, we thought this hike was among the area’s premier options. From the city of Jaca, drive W to the Valle de Hecho road. At 16 km, turn N toward Jasa, into the Aragüés valley. Drive to Refuge Lizara, where the road ends and trail begins at 1545 m. Walk E, toward the limestone Sierra d’Aisa, to 1995-m Collado d’Bozo. Go right (S) onto the easy, panoramic ridge of Punta Napazal. Follow it to its 2168-m highpoint, Punta Mesola. For a more demanding hike to a more panoramic summit, ascend from Refuge Lizara to 2670-m Bisaurin. It’s a 6h30m round trip gaining 1125 m.

 

FRANCE

Etangs Fontargente

hiking time 4h30m round trip

elevation gain 454 m

map IGN 2148 OT Vicdessos

Haute Vallee de L'Aston

Haute Vallee de L’Aston

 

From Foix, in the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees, drive the N20 toward Tarascon. At the NW side of Les Cabannes, follow signs for Aston, then proceed on the D520A toward the Rulhe shelter. Pass Barrage Riete and Lac Laparan. (Barrage is French for dam.) Reach road’s end at Plat des Peyres. Elevation: 1696 m. Hike across the bridged creek and follow the trail SW, ascending gradually to another crossing at 1864 m. Continue E, ascending to Etangs de Fontargente, at 2150 m. (Etang is French for lake.)

 

 

Refuge du Portillon  

hiking time 4h30m to 5h0m round trip to Refuge d’Espingo, 8h0m to 9h0m round trip to Refuge du Portillon

elevation gain 827 m to Refuge d’Espingo, 1623 m to Refuge du Portillon

map IGN 1848 OT Bagneres-de-Luchon

Refuge d'Espingo

Refuge d’Espingo

 

From Bagneres-de-Luchon, drive W on the D618 W. Turn left and drive SW into Val d’Oo. Reach the road’s end trailhead at les Granges d’Astau. Elevation: 1140 m. Ascend the GR10 to Lac d’Oo, at 1504 m. Continue to Col d’Espingo, at 1967 m. The setting is gorgeous, but strong hikers who start reasonably early can, in a single day, vanquish the 1623-m ascent the to Refuge du Portillon, at 2671 m. The Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP) continues E & W from there.

 

 

 

Pic de Cecire

hiking time 4h30m to 5h0m round trip

elevation gain 660 m

map IGN 1848 OT Bagneres-de-Luchon

From 1132 m in Vallee du Lys, you can ascend into Cirque des Crabioules and continue to a series of lakes at about 2300 m. The cirque is grand, but you can can see it without enduring that 1170 m ascent. Instead, drive the D46 to the road’s end trailhead at Superbagneres ski area. Elevation: 1786 m. Hike the GR10 SW to Pic de Cecire, at 2403 m. Most of the way, you’ll enjoy a panoramic view of Cirque des Crabioules, 3060-m Grand Quayrat, and 3109-m Pic de Maupas.

 

Lac de Caillauas

hiking time 6h0m to 7h0m round trip

elevation gain 973 m

map IGN 1848 OT Bagneres-de-Luchon

Yes, there’s extensive hydroelectric development here. And, yes, you should hike here anyway. You’ll enjoy a thrilling, mostly high-elevation, balcony trail through a tight gorge to a couple grand lakes (actually dammed reservoirs, but still dramatic sights). Alpine terrain is easier to access here than is generally possible elsewhere on the French side of the Pyrenees. (However, we don’t recommend the other option here: hiking from Pont du Prat, into Vallee de la Pez.) From Loudenvielle, drive S on the D725 S about 10 km up Vallee du Louron to the road’s end trailhead at Pont du Prat, immediately below the Tramezaygues hydro plant. Elevation: 1230 m. At the first trail junction, fork left to ascend into Gorges de Clarabide. In about 1h0m arrive at Refuge La Soula. From there, fork right and ascend SE to Lac de Puchergues, at 2111 m. This trail traverses back NW, accessing the spectacular Lac de Caillauas, at 2158 m. It’s surrounded by high peaks, including 2964-m Pic du Hourgade and 2848-m Pic des Hermitans.

 

Cirque d’Estaube / Hourquette d’Alans

hiking time 3h0m round trip to the cirque, 6h30m to 7h0m round trip to the col

elevation gain 150 to the cirque, 780 m to col

map IGN 1648 OT Gavarnie

From Gedre (S of Luz St. Sauveur, en route to the famous Cirque de Gavarnie), drive SE to park below Lac des Gloriettes, at 1650 m. (This “lac,” like most in the Pyrenees, is actually a dammed reservoir.) Ascend the grassy valley surrounded by rugged ridges. Continue to Hourquette d’Alans, a 2430-m col. From the col, overlook Val de Gavarnie (though the famous cascades are not quite visible), and see icy, 3298-m Vignemale (NW). Should you turn around before the col, however, this is still a beautiful, worthwhile hike.

 

Col de Tentes

hiking time 2h0m to 3h0m round trip

elevation gain 150 m

map IGN 1648 OT Gavarnie; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

Cirque de Gavarnie is a world wonder, justifiably famous, and perpetually thronged. If you hike there, you’ll almost certainly be shouldering your way through a crowd of Paris Metro proportions. So here’s an option… Drive past the village of Gavarnie, to the road’s end trailhead at Col de Tentes. Elevation: 2208 m. Hike the easy, gentle, grassy ridge to its end, at 2292-m Pic de la Pahule. Across the deep valley, you’ll see 3144-m le Taillon (SE), and 2739-m Pic des Sarradets (S). Between them is La Brèche de Roland, a unique, missing-tooth-gap in the Pyrenean crest. Cirque de Gavarnie is visible SE.

 

Vallon de la Gela / Cirque de Barroude

hiking time 5h0m to 6h0m round trip

elevation gain 997 m

map IGN 1748 ET Neouvielle-Aure Valley; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

From St. Lary, drive the D118 (the road to Spain via Bielsa tunnel) about 13 km SSW to the turnoff for Piau-Engaly ski area. Continue a bit farther to a tight SW jutting hairpin turn. Parking is minimal here, along the road edge. Just above the hairpin is the signed trailhead, at 1380 m. Hike SW into Vallon de la Gela. Within 0h40m, the valley’s steep, grassy walls are impressive. At 1h0m the trail crosses pastures at 1500 m. Fork right (SSW) at 1704-m le Gela hut. At the 2340-m junction, the sheer, two-toned walls of Pic de Gerbats and Gela are immediately ahead (NNE). Go left (S) beside Muraille de Barroude, to Refuge de Barroude, at 2377 m. It’s above several slender lakes. Given time and energy, you can continue ascending SE about 0h40m to 2534-m Port de Barroude for a view into Circo de Barrosa.

 

Vignemale

hiking time 5h0m round trip to Refuge des Oulettes, 9h0m to 10h0m for entire loop

elevation gain 655 m to Refuge des Oulettes, 1178 m for entire loop

map IGN 1647 OT Vignemale – Ossau – Arrens – Cauterets; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

VignemaleFor athletic hikers in search of an enduring sense of accomplishment as well as gorgeous scenery, here’s a five-star loop. It ascends to the striking N face of 3298-m Vignemale, highest of the French Pyrenean summits, then continues over two, high passes before descending through the most beautiful, lake-splashed basin in the range. If you can’t manage the 9h0m to 10h0m loop, hike just the first leg as a round trip: to Refuge des Oulettes, which sits directly in front of Vignemale’s vertical N face. To begin either option, drive S from Cauterets, to the enormous, paved, pay-to-park lot at Pont de Espagne. Elevation: 1496 m. (Cauterets, by the way, has a huge, excellent campground.) From Pont de Espagne, hike S on the GR10 to Lac de Gaube, at 1731 m. Continue S to Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube, at 2151 m, about 2h from the trailhead. To proceed on the loop, hike SW then ascend W to 2591-m Col des Muletas and cross into Spain. From there, the trail drops only to 2445 m as it traverses the head of a basin to cross 2528-m Col d’Arratille. After resting at this less-visited col, descend past lakes, through meadows, and besides streams. Allow yourself a 0h30m break near the shore of Lac d’Arratille, at 2247 m. At the 1830-m junction just E of Refuge Wallon, turn right (NE). Descend the Vallée du Marcadau, back to Pont de Espagne.

 

Refuge de Larribet

hiking time 4h30m to 5h0m round trip

elevation gain 712 m

map IGN 1647 OT Vignemale; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

Refuge de Larribet

Refuge de Larribet

 

Approaching from the W, drive to Laruns. Proceed E on the D918 to Col d’Aubisquet (above Gourette ski area). Continue E to 1474-m Col de Soulor. We consider this the most beautiful highway pass in the French Pyrenees. From Col du Soulor, drive 8 km to Arrens-Marsous. Carry on SW about 9.5 km into Vallee d’Arrens. Trailhead parking is near the Maison du Parc, at 1470 m. Hike S along Lac de Suyen. Bear right at two junctions, left at the third, and ascend to Refuge de Larribet, at 2060 m, below 3144-m Balaitous, and 2579-m Petit Balaitous. From the refuge, resume to Lacs de Batcrabere, at 2182 m.

 

Pic du Midi d’Ossau

hiking time 7h0m loop

elevation gain 927 m

maps IGN 1:25K 1647 OT Vignemale; IGN 1:75K Vignemale, Pic de Ger, Vallee d’Ossau

Midi d’Ossau is a landmark peak, visible all the way from Pau. This hike  loops around the iconic horn. Drive S from Laruns. Just SE of Gabas, turn right for Lac d Bious-Artigues. Trailhead parking is at road’s end. Elevation: 1420 m. Unless you arrive early, however, assume the upper lot is full. Park in the large lot below, at 1360 m, and hoof-it from there. From the upper parking, we hiked counterclockwise, because most hikers were doing the opposite. Ascend E to 1698-m Col Long de Magnabaigt, then SSE to 2127-m Col de Suzon. Descend to 2031-m Refuge de Pombie. From there, Val d’Soques (details below) is visible E. Instead of ascending over 2208-m Col de Peyrege, walk the gentle trail S to 2129-m Col de Soum de Pombie. Circle W, then NW, around Pic Peyreget and over 2194-m Col de I’Iou (not indicated on this IGN map). Descend NW (bearing right at a fork) into the Gave Bious valley. Go right on the dirt track to reach the trailhead in another 2.8 km.

 

Soques / Col d’Arrious

hiking time 6h0m to 7h0m round trip to Lac d’Arrious, 10h0m to 11h0m round trip to Pico de Arriel

elevation gain 910 m to Lac d’Arrious, 1470 m to Pico de Arriel

map IGN 1647 OT Vignemale

Above Col d'Arrious

Above Col d’Arrious

 

From Laruns, drive S. Or, from Col du Pourtalet, drive NW on the D934.  Trailhead parking is in the small lot on the W side, at Soques. Elevation: 1380 m. Walk to the E side of the road. The trail departs the road 200 m NE. Ascending the grassy, steep-sided valley, reach 2259-m Col d’Arrious within 2h. Lac d’Artouste is visible below. The main trail descends toward Lac d’Artouste, then—via tight switchbacks—climbs to Refuge d’Arremoulit, in a stupendous, rocky bowl. Scramblers comfortable with exposure can shortcut to Lac d’Arremoulit via the Passage d’Orteig (a cable-aided traverse on a vertical wall), then loop back to Col d’Arrious via the switchbacking trail.

Another option from Col d’Arrious is to ascend SE on trail to the NW end of Lac d’Arrious, at 2290 m. Find the trail first contouring, then ascending S, to reach 2449-m Col de Sobe in about 1h0m. At this point, experienced routefinders will recognize the way (E) to Col d’Arriel. From there, ascend S to 2824-m Pico de Arriel. The summit is about a 2h0m round trip from Col de Sobe. From Col d’Arrious, the elevation gain is 565 m. The summit panorama includes Lac d’Arremoulit (N), 2974-m Pic Palas (NE), Balaitous (E), and other lakes (SSE).

Next post coming soon: The Opinionated Hikers compare the Alps with the Pyrenees

 

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Hiker Havens in the Pyrenees

In our last post, we explained how free-camping allows us to travel and hike for extended periods in Europe. Yup, we’re dirtbaggers. We enjoy it. And we’re proud of it. But we don’t dirtbag full time. And we don’t do it entirely out of need. We bring a little dignity and discernment to the practice. You might say we’re “executive dirtbaggers.”

While driving between trailheads, we’re always watching for opportunities to free-camp. But while passing through towns and villages, we remain open-minded about perhaps taking recess at a restaurant, or seeking refuge at a hotel or campground cabin. We know that an occasional break—a respite from the elements and the rigours of camping—keeps us energized and motivated on our multi-month journeys.

We don’t duck out on a reprieve whenever we want to. We do it only when we’re aware we need to. And still, we always seek a bargain, or at least a solid value that we can justify within our low-to-the-ground budget.

Last summer, while hiking 1000 miles (1600 kilometers) through the Pyrenees, we found three hiker havens that we urge you to remember for when you explore the mountainous, French-Spanish frontier:

Soldeu, Andorra

Apartment balcony, Soldeu, Andorra

Apartment balcony, Soldeu, Andorra

On a Pyrenees hiking trip limited to a couple weeks, it’s possible to stay entirely—and very happily—within the peak studded, trail laced, micro-nation of Andorra. We loved it there. But don’t look for accommodation in the capital, Andorra la Vella, unless you want to immerse yourself in duty-free-shopping mayhem. Base yourself in the comparatively small, sane village of Soldeu, where Philippe Courcol manages numerous apartments. His office is immediately right of the Hotel Himàlaia entrance. From there, it’s a ten-minute walk to the comfortable, fully-equipped studio apartment he rented us. It was quiet, the balcony had a fine view, the wifi was stable and fast, and the price was low enough to compete with Andorra campgrounds. His company is Soldeu Paradis (www.soldeuparadissl.com). You can reach Philippe at 376 32 25 61, or 376 85 14 85. You can also reach him via email: <soldeuparadis@hotmail.com>.

Panticosa, Spain

View from room, Vicente Hotel, Panticosa, Spain

View from room, Vicente Hotel, Panticosa, Spain

After completing a multi-day backpack trip, then free-camping for a couple nights, a thunderstorm blackened the sky while we neared the end of a long, steep dayhike. Rain splattered us while we stuffed our packs into our car. Lightning split the evening gloom with flashes of high-noon visibility. Driving into Panticosa, we saw Vicente Hotel. We parked and walked in. We met Jaime, the owner. He showed us a room, and we instantly knew we’d found a hikers’ haven. This reasonably-priced hotel is small, family owned and run, conveniently located beside the main road, yet within easy walking distance of the village. The rooms are simple, but very clean and comfortable. They’re also quiet (facing away from the road), with pleasing views of the village immediately below and the ski hill beyond. Best of all, Jaime is a font of knowledge about the Pyrenees. He grew up in Panticosa and began climbing as a boy, alongside his father, who eventually passed the hotel on to him. Though a hotelier by trade, Jaime is a black-belt mountaineer who loves the Pyrenees, knows them intimately, and gladly, patiently shares his knowledge with hotel guests keen to hike. Talking with him was fun, inspiring, and extremely helpful. He studied maps with us and offered advice that proved invaluable for our next foray into the mountains. Though we intended to stay at Vicente Hotel for just one night, we stayed a couple more. While you’re there, be sure to eat dinner at San Pietro, a superb restaurant just a couple minutes’ walk from the hotel. Order the potatoes-onion-garlic dish, and the green beans, along with whatever meat they grill for you. They also have Spain’s most distinctive beer—Marlin—on tap. Vicente Hotel is on your right as you’re passing just above the village, en route to the Balineario.  For reservations, phone (34) 974 48 70 22. Here’s the Booking.com link to Vicente Hotel: http://www.booking.com/hotel/es/vicente.html?

Vielha, Spain

Town centre, Vielha, Spain

Town centre, Vielha, Spain

Conveniently located in the the heart of Vielha, the Hotel Urogallo is run by a friendly, efficient staff. The rooms are small, but very clean and comfortable. The price we paid in September was a bargain. The buffet breakfast is lavish yet the price is so low, I had to ask twice to be sure I was hearing it correctly. Free camping in the immediate vicinity of Vielha was impossible, and none of the campgrounds there appealed to us. So we enjoyed staying a couple nights at Hotel Urogallo, each day ranging into the mountains above where we discovered some of the most rewarding trails of our four-month journey through the Pyrenees. For reservations, phone (34) 973 64 00 00. Here’s the Booking.com link to Hotel Urogallo:  http://www.booking.com/hotel/es/husa-urogallo.html?   If many days of athletic hiking have tightened you up beyond what yoga can relieve, be aware there’s a physio therapy / osteopathy practice in Vielha. It’s called Eutsi. Telephone: (34) 973 64 32 40. The office is a three-minute walk from the large, free-of-charge parking lot in the town centre. Book a deep-tissue massage with Rafael Mombiedro. He’s very skilled.

Next post coming soon: “35 Premier Hikes in the Pyrenees”

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Best Trek You’ve Never Heard Of

 

Aiguestortes National Park

A car motoring at highway speed. An open passenger window. An outstretched arm. A hand holding a cell phone aloft. A tiny lens aimed at a distant object. A photo snapped without the photographer actually looking.

It’s an iconic act of modern travel and one that makes us uneasy whenever we witness it, because we believe in walking: taking all the time—and making all the effort—necessary to see a place thoroughly. To experience it, know it, meld with it.

This summer, we’re walking in the Pyrenees. And last week (mid-July) we completed a six-day loop through an area of such unique and exquisite beauty that we’re urging all our mountain-minded friends to seriously consider walking there.

It’s called Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici. It’s a cluster of 3000-m, granite peaks on the Spanish side of the range. It harbours more than 400 lakes and is carpeted with luxuriant, boulder-studded meadows nurtured by “aiguestortes”—the “twisted waters” of the namesake streams and cascades.

The route we loosely followed is called the Carros de Foc, or Chariots of Fire. It was created in 1987, when some mountain-hut guardians completed the entire loop in a single day. It was not a competition then—just a challenging, adventurous way to visit the other guardians. Today, the Carros de Foc is a one-day race that attracts endurance runners. But most people take five to eight days to hike the loop, staying each night at one of several refugios (Spanish for mountain huts). Tent camping is not allowed in the park, so you have an official excuse for traveling light. Sleeping and dining at the refugios, some of which even have hot showers, allows for minimal pack weight, thus comfortable striding.

Bunking at the refugios has drawbacks, of course. Chief among them: zero privacy. But it also has many advantages, such as the opportunity to socialize and meet new friends. (Greetings Raisa & Zel, Vera & Christian!) Most of our fellow trekkers were Spanish or French, but we also met Dutch, Germans, Danes, and Israelis. In six days, we crossed paths with only one North American. He was hiking the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP) and veered into Aiguestortes without previously knowing about it; he’d simply altered course to avoid dangerously snow-covered cols elsewhere. Apparently, the park is almost unknown among Canadian and American hikers.

The research we did prior to our Aiguestortes trek was invaluable. The route we chose was ideal, and we recommend it. Start on the south side of the park, at the top (N) end of Val d’Fosca, or Dark Valley. Ride the cable car—gaining 305 m—from Sallente, to Estany (Lake) Gento. Then hike the loop counterclockwise. The scenery builds to a climax in that direction. And, presuming you’re carrying your own lunches and enough power foods to adequately supplement the refugio meals, your pack will be significantly lighter by the time you face the most demanding ascents/descents. The most significant of those, by the way, is 2748-m Col Contraix, between the Ventosa and Llong refugios. It’s very steep, littered with loose boulders and scree, requires some hands-on scrambling, and can be snowy/icy on both sides until early August.

We were generally pleased with the refugios we stayed at. And the hiking distances between each were just about right: long enough to fill most of the day, but not so long we were pressed to arrive by dinner time. Day four was our shortest, with a hiking time of only 3h45m. We appreciated having an easy, slow day with lots of long breaks, because we felt slightly depleted after the first three days.

Several of the refugio dinners were excellent. A couple left us craving more. The same was true of the breakfasts. Before paying for breakfast, ask what it will consist of. The buffet breakfasts are great. The basket breakfasts are dismal: insufficient to fuel you past the first few cairns (itos in Spanish). Bring plenty of power foods for midday energy and protein.

Here’s the itinerary we suggest, along with each day’s approximate hiking time and elevation gain. (In Europe, trail signs might state hiking times and elevations, but rarely state distances.)

Day One
4h30m via Refugio Colomina to Refugio Josep M Blanc, at 2350 m. Elevation gain: 545 m. Blanc has a gorgeous, lakeside setting, serves abundant, delicious food, and offers a buffet breakfast.

Day Two
6h0m to to Refugio d’Amitges, at 2380 m. Elevation gain: 350 m. When the trail approaches Lake Sant Maurici, bear left on the trail above the S shore, in the direction of Subenuix and Mirador de l’Estany. Amitges has a spectacular setting and serves the most delicious, generous meals.

Day Three
5h0m to Refugio Colomers, at 2138 m. Elevation gain: 350 m. From Port Ratera (Port is Spanish for pass.), be sure to make the easy, 1h0m round-trip detour to 2840-m Ratera Peak. On a clear day, the summit affords an aerial view of lake-studded Circ de Colomers, and a view of Pico de Aneto—highest in the Pyrennes. Resuming the loop from the NW edge of Port Ratera, go left (NW), via Estang Obago. Do not follow the GR 211.4 descending NE to Refugio Saboredo. 

Day Four
3h45m to Refugio Ventosa, at 2220 m. Elevation gain: 430 m. The hut’s location is dramatically scenic, affording a panorama of the spiky, 2800-m ridges comprising Serra de Tumeneia. Ventosa also serves excellent food, including a buffet breakfast.

Day Five
5h30m to Refuge Estany Llong, at 1980 m. Elevation change: 620-m gain, 840-m loss. This is the most demanding day on the loop, as mentioned above. Inexperienced hikers, though strong, took 9h0m to complete the hike and were unnerved on the final ascent and initial descent of Col Contraix. A family (moderately fit, with teenage kids) took 11h0m. Even before approaching the col, the trail diminishes to a scramble route over huge boulders.  

Day Six
5h30 m to the Val d’Fosca cable car. Elevation gain 600 m. The easiest terrain on the loop. Just a few kilometers below the cable-car parking lot is a spacious meadow. You can pull your vehicle well off the road here and free camp, as we did. If you prefer a lodge, stay at Hotel Vall Fosca (info@hotelvallfosca.com), 973 66 30 24. There’s also an official campground in the valley, just S of Capdella. 

To see many more images from our Aiguestortes trek, go to our Dropbox: 
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/kzqu4qunj3f6g35/AADoH2qcWOVflrGBQ25qAnWZa

For more details about the trek, visit http://www.carrosdefoc.com/en/itinerari/

Before setting out, get the Carros de Foc guidebook and map published by Editorial Alpina. The guidebook is little more than a pamphlet, but the 1:25 000 topo is essential.

To make reservations at the Aiguestortes refugios, phone 973 64 06 98 in Spain.

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How Hikers Should Do Europe

Advice from 35,000 Miles on the Trail

For the past six months we’ve been hiking in Europe: primarily the French Alps, but also the Italian and Swiss Alps, and now the mountains along Spain’s Costa Brava and Costa Dorada. All our hikes on this sojourn have been dayhikes. We’ve camped every night in our campervan.

We’ve now travelled in Europe (always with a focus on hiking) by nearly every means possible. We’ve backpacked hut-to-hut. We’ve backpacked carrying a tent, stove, food, etc. and wild camped (free camped). Between backpack trips, we’ve travelled via trains and buses. We’ve hitchhiked extensively. Even on our current trip, hitchhiking has enabled us to complete long, one-way dayhikes. We’ve also rented cars in Europe and, between dayhikes, pitched our tent in village and city campgrounds, or stealth camped free of charge in all kinds of settings. Other times, we’ve rented apartments for several weeks, used rental cars to access mountain trailheads, and returned each night to our village base. Occasionally we’ve stayed in hotels, but largely avoiding hotels has helped us afford longer journeys.

So, which approach do we prefer and recommend?

It’s a question we’ve often pondered and discussed. Now that a couple readers have asked for our advice on the matter, it’s time we commit to an answer.

We’ve enjoyed it all. Each approach has distinct pros and cons, of course. Which one will best suit you depends on your budget and personal preferences. But during all our previous European hiking journeys, we envied the hikers and climbers we saw camping in vans at trailheads. Now that we’ve done it, we can say with certainty that—for us—traveling and living in a campervan is the optimal way to hike Europe.

First, a clarification. What we call a “campervan” in North America goes by different names in Europe. The British call what we’re now driving and living in a “motorhome.” The French call it a “camping car.” The Spanish call it an “auto caravana.” In North America, our vehicle would be considered either a small motorhome or a large campervan. In this blog post, we’ll continue calling it a “campervan,” because (1) it’s possible to travel and live here nearly as comfortably as we have in a slightly smaller vehicle that’s definitely a campervan, not a motorhome, and (2) because many motorhomes in Europe are notably larger than our vehicle and would certainly be considered motorhomes, not campervans, in North America.

We prefer the campervan for many reasons. We’ll elaborate on them presently. Topping our list, however, is a personal bias unrelated to campervans that makes a campervan viable for us: In Europe, we prefer dayhiking to backpacking (either hut-to-hut or self-supported).

That’s heresy, we know. The European mountain hut system is a venerable one. Long distance, hut-to-hut hiking is a life-list dream for many North American hikers. And many European hikers are hut-to-hut devotees. Slashing your burden by eliminating a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking equipment, and carrying little food, enables truly ultralight hiking: relaxed and comfortable. Having delicious meals cooked for you and served to you is a luxurious indulgence. Still, we’d rather dayhike.

Staying at huts costs about 20 to 30 Euros per person. Eating at huts costs about 15 Euros per person just for dinner. At those prices, we couldn’t afford to hike in Europe for long.

Huts are crowded and noisy. Often you’ll have a stranger sleeping within nudging distance of you, perhaps two strangers: one on each side. Often you’ll sleep (or lie awake) with perhaps 20 to 60 other hikers in one room. Some will snore or cough. Some will retire late or rise early. Some will be noisy because they’re either clumsy, unable to sleep (tossing and turning), or just inconsiderate. Some will get up to pee in the middle of the night. Your sleep will almost always be compromised at a hut.

Huts can drain the energy you need for athletic hiking. Having to socialize with strangers at the dinner table every night, particularly people whose language you struggle to speak, can be stimulating and rewarding but also severely draining. Forgoing all but the barest stitch of privacy can prevent you from fully relaxing. And if you’re also not enjoying deep, uninterrupted sleep, your strength and endurance will wane, preventing you from fully enjoying each day on the trail.

Huts can also compromise your nutrition, further sapping your energy. Though eating meals at huts can be a marvelous luxury, it requires that you relinquish control over what and how much you eat. Some huts serve delicious, generous meals, others don’t. Europeans’ concept of breakfast is less hearty than that of most North Americans, so you’ll leave some huts in the morning with less than a full tank. No hut we’ve heard of includes a PowerBar, or any kind of sports-nutrition supplement, in the packed lunches they provide for hikers. If you have special dietary requirements, such as a need to avoid gluten, hut fare will not suit you.

We’re becoming increasingly aware that what we eat before, during, and after a hike profoundly affects our physical capability, our attitudes, and ultimately our level of fulfillment. We know precisely what we need to eat and how much. For example, we consume huge servings—literally platefuls—of fresh vegetables before and after hiking. Huts cannot be expected to serve the quantity of fresh veggies we think is a healthy-hiker requirement. While on the trail, we favour dried fruit (apricots, figs, goji berries, Turkish mulberries) and nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), but we also rely on sports nutrition (especially PowerBars, PowerBar Energy Blasts, Honey Singer Protein Bars, Isostar Cereal Bars, and Isostar Sport Drink). Huts cannot be expected to cater to hikers who fuel themselves as if they were competitive athletes.

Yet another disadvantage of hut-to-hut hiking is that huts require reservations, typically well in advance. That means you relinquish flexibility and spontaneity. When you finally begin hiking to the first hut you booked, you could be heading into a week of rain. We much prefer to choose each day’s hiking destination according to the latest weather forecast.

Occasionally, while hiking trail A, we’ll see an intriguing peak or col that requires us to hike trail D, which we hadn’t planned on doing. Or, while hiking trail J, we’ll overlook the area probed by trail M, which was on our agenda, but now we can see it’s much less compelling than we’d imagined. Dayhikers can always, easily adjust their plans. Hut-to-hutsters are locked in.

Hut-to-hut hiking is almost never the continuous, blissful, peaky-horizon-always-in-view, alpine cruise that most hikers imagine it will be. Most days on most hut-to-hut routes entail long, grinding ascents, and long, pounding descents. Usually there’s a col, and sometimes a couple cols, between huts. Often there are long stretches between huts where the trail remains in forest. This is where dayhiking offers a significant advantage, because mountain trailheads in Europe are located at much higher elevations than are mountain trailheads in North America. Many are well above treeline, yet accessible via paved roads. So dayhikers who study their topo maps and choose their trails carefully are likely to spend more of each day striding above treeline than are hut-to-hut backpackers. Which is to say, dayhiking can be both easier and more scenic.

Hut-to-hut hiking is a revered tradition and immensely popular. It tends to keep you immersed in a crowd. Not only when you’re at the huts, but also while you’re on the trail. This past summer, we dayhiked several stages of established, hut-to-hut routes. Those were always the days we encountered the most hikers. On the stages we hiked of the Tour de Mont Blanc, for example, other hikers were constantly in view. On most of our dayhikes, we did not follow established hut-to-hut routes, and we were often alone.

Most stages of the popular hut-to-hut routes sacrifice interest for efficiency. So in addition to denying you optimal scenery, the trails themselves are sometimes boring. Following the easiest, most direct routes, long stretches of many hut-to-hut trails are broad, eroded pathways. They don’t engage you. You simply plod them. But many European trails are more compelling than North American trails because they forge more daring lines. Dayhikers who opt for these surprising, challenging routes will find them thrilling. With the exception of some of the high-level variants on some hut-to-hut routes, hut-to-hutsters often find themselves in a mundane, heavily-trod rut.

Dayhiking in the Alps, by the way, isn’t necessarily the round-trip, out-and-back, same-scenery-twice experience it tends to be in North America. There are far more trails in the Alps than you’ll find in any North American mountain range. Imagine a spiderweb dropped over the mountains. Each thread linked to the others. That’s the Alps: a web of trails, ensuring loop hikes are often possible. Constantly forging into new terrain makes dayhiking much more appealing.

Finally, hiking hut-to-hut—depending on your beliefs regarding safe mountain travel—might not be the carefree, ultralight saunter you’ve imagined. Should you really set off on a multi-day hike through mountains you’ve no experience in, without carrying a shelter, sleeping gear, extra clothing, and food that might enable you to survive an emergency bivouac? What if the weather suddenly turns violent and visibility plummets while you’re between huts? What if you make a navigational error that, come nightfall, leaves you well shy of the hut you’d intended to reach? What if an incapacitating injury befalls you or a companion? What if all of the above happen? That’s why, when hiking hut-to-hut, our packs have been far from weightless. We were always prepared to survive a night out if our plans unspooled into drama.

In summary, we’ve enjoyed hut-to-hut hiking, but for all the reasons explained above, we much prefer dayhiking. Dayhiking makes a campervan viable for hiking-focused European travel. And a campervan is… ooh la la… the way to travel, for the following reasons:

Renting a campervan is, admittedly, not the cheapest way to go. But if you add up the cost of staying in huts, eating in huts, plus the cost of accommodation (probably hotels) and transportation (even public transportation) when travelling between trails, you’ll realize that travelling via campervan is surprisingly cost-competitive.

It’s possible to camp free-of-charge every night in a campervan. Free-camping in a campervan is especially easy in France, where campervans are—by and large—welcomed or at least accepted. And free camping in France is by no means a hardship. It’s an advantage. This past summer, we camped 140 nights free of charge in our campervan, and all but a few times our “campsites” were excellent. We tucked into forests. We pulled off atop alpine passes. We overlooked picturesque villages. Often we were next to or within earshot of a stream. Many times we had superb views of the surrounding mountains. Almost always we enjoyed more tranquillity and privacy than we would have had we paid to stay in a campground, where incessantly chatting campers, screaming kids, and barking dogs are a frequent annoyance. While free camping, we never trespassed, violated regulations, or—to the best of our knowledge—annoyed anyone. Finding a place to comfortably camp free in a campervan sometimes requires a little creativity, courage or determination. But it also makes the journey more interesting and fun. And free-camping is what makes renting a campervan affordable, because the rental fee covers both transportation and accommodation.

Throughout France, you’ll find “aire de services” specifically for campervans. At an aire de service you can, usually free-of-charge, responsibly empty your grey- and black-water tanks. You can also refill your fresh-water tank. Many aire de services allow campervans to stay overnight—free of charge. Aire de services are so common in France that, clearly, the nation has made a concerted effort to accommodate campervan travellers. As a result, campervan life is relatively easy in France, and campervan travellers feel welcome.

A European hiking journey via campervan allows for very efficient travel. At trailheads where you have several hiking options, you can simply stay, camping free each evening after you return from dayhiking. No need to repeatedly drive back and forth between down-valley accommodation and high-elevation trailheads. Camping free at trailheads saves time, gas money, and allows for more relaxation.

You can stock a campervan with enough groceries to last a week. That allows you to shop less frequently, at larger supermarkets offering lower prices and more choices. That means you save time and money, and eat what you want, as much as you want, whenever you want. That ensures that each day you set out on a dayhike, you can pack the precise trail foods you prefer. And it ensures that every morning before you hike, and every evening when you return from a hike, your breakfasts and dinners are ample, nutritious and delicious. There’s a particular brand and flavour of tea that you love? You can carry a dozen boxes of it in your campervan. You find a boulangerie that makes the best bread you’ve ever tasted? Buy a couple loaves—one for today, one for tomorrow. And, of course, campervans have refrigerators, so you can stock up on your favourite fresh foods and always enjoy an ice-cold, post-hike beer.

Speaking of refrigerators, campervan fridges have freezers, which provide a key benefit specific to dayhiking: therapeutic ice packs. Each time we returned to our campervan from a long, demanding dayhike, we would apply ice packs to our knees and ankles to help reduce inflammation. This, plus occasional massage, helped keep us on the trail six days a week. Hut guardians are, to say the least, unaccustomed to having trekkers show up and ask for ice packs.

A campervan can be a mobile gear closet. No need to severely limit your hiking gear. Campervans have enough storage space that you can bring a variety of clothing and gear, which you can choose from depending on the terrain and weather you anticipate encountering on each dayhike. That means you don’t always have to pack your heavier, Gore-Tex Pro Shell. If it’s a shatterproof, sunny day, you can keep your pack weight minimal by instead carrying your ultralight Gore-Tex PacLite shell. Most hikers travelling in Europe have just one pair of hiking boots. With a campervan, you can carry heavier boots for rougher terrain, a lighter pair of boots for easier trails, a pair of walking shoes for urban hiking, a pair of sandals for kicking back at the campsite, plus a pair of down booties for inside the campervan at night. Most hikers travelling in Europe have to wash their few items of clothes frequently. With a campervan, you can carry enough changes of hiking clothes that finding a laundromat becomes necessary only about once every couple weeks. This past summer, we always had precisely the gear we needed. This allowed us to keep our pack weight minimal and hike as comfortably as possible. It also ensured we never had to do laundry on a day when the weather was optimal for hiking. We could choose to do laundry only on those days when the weather was poor or we wanted or needed a rest.

A campervan is a reasonably comfortable home in foul weather. Unlike a tent, a campervan has a heater, plus enough room that you can stand up, move around, lounge, do yoga. Unlike in a tent, you can hang your damp hiking clothes in a campervan, so they’re dry by morning even if it rains all night. And because a campervan has abundant storage, it can be a mobile library, containing all the guidebooks and maps you need. When you elect not to hike on a rainy day, you can make optimal use of your time by spreading out your maps, perusing several books at a time, and planning your hikes.

Your bed in a campervan is your bed. A different bed in a different hotel every night (unless you’re staying at expensive hotels) leaves you vulnerable to a poor night’s rest: an uncomfortable mattress, a room that’s too hot, too cold, too stuffy, a room in a noisy location, etc. With a campervan, you’re almost always in control of the physical and audio atmosphere in which you sleep. That makes it the most consistently homey accommodation possible for a traveller.

There are, however, some drawbacks to European campervan travel you should be aware of:

Many roads in Europe are narrow. Much narrower than North American drivers are accustomed to. This makes it a challenge to pilot a campervan. You must be a skilled, confident driver. You must always be vigilantly alert behind the wheel. You must drive slower than you might prefer. And you need a co-pilot always on duty as shotgun (a second pair of eyes attentive for potential trouble), navigator (constantly glancing up at directional signage and down at a road map), and ground crew (exiting the van to direct the pilot, and perhaps coordinate traffic, whenever it’s necessary to back up the rig).

The only access to a few European trailheads is via one-lane roads. Even if you’re driving a small car, some of these roads pose difficulties should you encounter another car traveling in the opposite direction. In a campervan? Fuhgedaboutit. That’s when we’ve parked our campervan and hitchhiked. Compared to North Americans, Europeans are less fearful, more at ease about picking up hitchhikers. Europeans who are themselves hikers will reflexively stop for anyone geared-up to hike and obviously en route to a trailhead. Our hitchhiking attempts never failed, even when several rides were necessary. And hitching always enhanced our day. A lively, cultural exchange ensued every time we climbed into someone’s car.

With all your hiking gear and valuables (laptops, portable hard drives, passports, etc.) in your campervan, you have more at risk when you leave the van parked at a trailhead than you would if you’d left all your gear and valuables locked in a hotel room and parked a relatively empty car at the same trailhead. We don’t know anyone who’s parked more vehicles at more trailheads in both Europe and North America than we have, however, and we’ve never been broken into on either continent. Our sense is that trailhead theft is less common in Europe than it is in North America, perhaps because trailheads in Europe tend to be busier: too public for easy thievery. Still, we remain vigilant. We always go out of our way to leave our campervan parked where it will be in view of people coming and going. And we always take the extra time necessary to disguise and hide our valuables within the campervan. Campervans have excellent hidey holes that would be difficult for a thief to find.

In most of Switzerland, free-camping in a campervan is verboten. In Spain and Italy, it’s possible to camp free, but it’s less safe to leave an unattended campervan parked at trailheads. Outside France, we’re less enthusiastic about hiking-focused travel via campervan. Bear in mind, we have not travelled via campervan beyond France, Switzerland, Spain and Italy. If hiking is the focus of your journey, however, you’ll find much of the world’s best hiking in the Alps. And the French Alps, as we can attest, are ideal for campervan travel and free camping.

So, how to come by a campervan in France? Don’t try to buy one. (We explain why not in our post titled “U-Turn,” July 12, 2012). Rent one from the same people we did: France Motorhome Hire (www.francemotorhomehire.com). They’re located in Montargis, just south of Paris. Their email address is <francemotorhomehire@gmail.com>. Their international phone number is +33 238 97 00 33. They are Hannah and Phill Spurge. Starting with their response to our initial email enquiry, continuing through what is now our sixth month on the road with one of their rentals, they have been unfailingly honest, fair, creative, flexible, helpful, responsive and enjoyable. We emphatically recommend them.

Our campervan journey through the French Alps has enriched us beyond measure. If you’re a hiker, you’ll likely feel the same. Start planning now.

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Hiking in “Crowded Europe”

Hiking in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast this winter (see previous posts) has reminded us that North Americans cling to a uniquely narrow definition of hiking.

In the U.S. and Canada, hikers expect to depart civilization at the trailhead and remain severed from it for the duration of their hike. Anything less than pristine wilderness, they believe, sullies the experience. In Europe, civilization is often integral to hiking. European hikers don’t expect to always leave civilization behind; they know they’ll encounter it at least occasionally. This doesn’t disappoint them; they appreciate it.

The majority of European hiking trails are historic. Outside the high Alps, many trails are on terraces held in place by ancient stone walls. Others are cobbled for long distances. European trails frequently pass, or grant views of, villages, castles, and myriad structures that are either still used or are now in ruins. Sometimes European trails briefly merge with roads, even paved roads. At higher elevations, most trails link huts or refuges, where hikers who’ve reserved ahead will have everything they need waiting for them: a hearty meal, a comfortable bed, and perhaps a hot shower.

So is hiking inferior in Europe? In our opinion, no. We love hiking here. The European definition of “hiking,” which embraces rather than spurns civilization, allows far more opportunities to hike. It can even make hiking more intriguing and rewarding. Spiderwebbing networks of trails in Europe allow you to tailor each trip to your circumstances, sometimes on the fly. Loops, in which you never retrace a step, are frequently possible. Here, trailheads disperse rather than funnel hikers.

North America and Europe are as different—geographically, historically, culturally—as they are distant. North America, with its vast tracts of wilderness, allows hikers the luxury of insisting that civilization and hiking be mutually exclusive. And many European hikers travel to North America to immerse themselves in “pure nature.” But relatively few hikers from North America reciprocate. They wince at the thought of hiking in “crowded Europe.” We believe their assumptions of Europe are inaccurate, and their view of hiking is blinkered.

We’ve devoted our lives to hiking. The wilds of North America are our natural habitat. Our home in the Canadian Rockies backs onto a mountainside frequented by grizzly bears, cougars, and elk. Yet the months we’ve hiked in Europe—ascending mule tracks through olive groves and medieval hamlets to mountaintops crowned with shrines, frequently greeting our fellow hikers en route—and the months we’ve backpacked in North America—through remote mountains and obscure canyons where we were utterly alone—have been equally joyful.

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Mallorca Earns Top Honours as Winter Hiking Destination


How do I know this? I recently consulted the Walk the Earth Institute. Membership in this highly exclusive think tank is limited to me and my wife, photographer Kathy Copeland.

Both of us are self-appointed experts on everything to do with foot travel, and our methods are rigourously scientific: if we agree, it must be so.

At the Institute’s last convention—yesterday’s hike in the Serra de Tramuntana Mountains of Mallorca—I said “This is one of the most amazing trails we’ve ever hiked.”

Kathy enthusiastically agreed, just as I had agreed with her when she said something similar the day before. And this exclamation/affirmation banter has been a daily occurrence since our first hike on Mallorca a couple weeks ago.

So it’s unanimous and therefore indisputable: Mallorca is one of the world’s supreme winter hiking destinations.

Mallorca is best known as the Spanish isle where Europeans beach themselves for sun-and-sand therapy. Long swaths of the Mallorcan coastline are horrific. Not just overdeveloped but badly developed: a soul-crushing wall of towering, tasteless, tacky hotels and apartments.

The capitol, Palma de Mallorca, has a handsome, historic center. Wrapped around it, however, is an obese belly of crass commercialism where traffic moves like sludge and finding a parking spot is akin to winning the lottery. Fortunately the airport is well outside the city, enabling you to immediately veer into the heart of the island.

But Mallorca is not big. And most of its 3,638 sq km (1,405 sq mi) is not dramatic but merely undulating or simply flat. Pretty? Yes. Fill-your-camera-card gorgeous? No. Though agriculture is prevalent (olives, almonds, oranges, tangerines, lemons), and the remaining, historic wind-pumps are romantic monuments, the island feels urban. It’s peppered with towns and small cities, most of which are bland by French or Italian standards.

Mallorca is also strewn with motorways and roads that are in constant use by a population that seems to be in perpetual motion. The motorways are world-class. All the other roads are smoothly paved but alarmingly narrow—even when bordered on both sides by level farmland. Plus they’re shoulder-less, with abrupt edges. If you swerve 20 cm (8 in) too far (and you must swerve frequently to avoid colliding with these aggressive, road-hog Mallorcans) you’ll plunge. You’ll likely total your vehicle. You might need an ambulance. Definitely pay for the full insurance option when you rent a car here.*

“Narrow” is a petty criticism, however, given the sensational terrain these roads traverse on the island’s mountainous northwest coast. This is the Serra de Tramuntana. And here, Mallorcan roads are marvels of engineering prowess. So what if you have to slow down to cede the road to oncoming drivers? Slow is essential to appreciate the phenomenon of 1400-m (4600-ft) peaks rising directly from the Mediterranean, and the spectacle, the seeming miracle, of exquisitely paved roads switchbacking from sea to summit.

After hiking in the Serra de Tramuntana daily for nearly two weeks, we’re in awe. The stature of this range, given that it rockets skyward from the surf, is difficult to comprehend. Imagine seaside French Alps. Paved access to Tramuntana trailheads is luxurious. Imagine the Canadian Rockies laced with high-altitude roads. Ancient trails in the Tramuntana allow easy hiking in rugged, vertical terrain that would otherwise require scrambling or climbing. Imagine Patagonia with an extensive network of trails—signed and mapped.

As much as we loved Spain’s Costa Blanca range (see previous posting), we’ve been even more impressed by the Tramuntana, which resemble the Costa Blanca’s major peaks (Puig Campagna, Serra Bernia, Sanchet, Montgo) crushed together into a great massif and pushed out to the beach at Benidorm. To see the Tramuntana, go to the photos/videos page of our website. Click on Spain, then skip to photos 53 through 89.

The Tramuntana, however, occupies only a portion of a relatively small isle, so dedicated hikers can thoroughly sample the range in about two weeks—even with a few rain-enforced rest days. Ideally, devote a month to the Costa Blanca and the Tramuntana. Both are too hot to hike May through October. Come in December, January or February. Winter in Alicante Province (the mainland region comprising the Costa Blanca) and on Mallorca is sufficiently mild for comfortable hiking.

It does rain that time of year, however, and some days will be very windy. Daytime high temperatures at 200 m (656 ft) above sea level will probably average 12°C (54°F). At mountain elevations, daytime high temperatures will rarely exceed 10°C (50°F). On Mallorca, the humidity always has a chilling effect in winter. Hope for sun and warmth. You’ll get it occasionally. But be prepared for cloudy, cool weather, because you’ll surely get that too. From mid-January to early February we hiked one day in shorts, a few days in lightweight long pants, and most days in Schoeller-fabric pants. Our toques (wool beanies), neck gaiters, and windproof gloves were occasionally necessary, particularly when were still hiking at sunset (about 6 p.m.).

We rarely encountered other hikers, even on the trails near Deia, Valldemossa and Soller—the island’s most beautiful and popular towns. That’s another advantage of hiking here in winter: serenity. Mallorca is inundated with tourists the rest of the year. Accommodation is substantially less expensive in winter, too.

We were lucky. We stayed at Finca Vista Levante. Go to http://www.ownersdirect.co.uk/balearics/B4090.htm for photos and details. Our hosts, Brian and Inga Drewitt, are paragons of hospitality. Both are constantly beaming with positive expectancy. They’re among the happiest, most good natured people we’ve ever met. And their guest house is very comfortable. By the time we left, we felt Brian and Inga were our relatives who’d retired on Mallorca. Though it’s neither in nor near the Tramuntana, Vista Levante allows reasonably easy access to the entire range. It’s outside Santa Margalida, surrounded by agricultural land, so it’s peaceful. You can reach Brian at <brian.drewitt@arcor.de>. You’ll find him a lively and helpful correspondent.

Though the signposted GR (Grand Randonee) 221 runs the length of the Tramuntana—from the southeast end of the island, to Pollença in the northwest—only portions of it afford superb trekking. The over-hyped section of the GR between Pollença and the famous monastery at Lluc, for example, was historically important but will severely test your patience where it skulks in dark forest and lingers beside a paved road. So don’t assume the GR obviates trail research.

Aim for the big summits on clear-sky days. Hike the premier sections of the GR 221 when the weather is less favourable. See our list of suggestions below. Before leaving home, buy and study the 1:25,000 maps published by Editorial Alpina. If you’ll be hiking on Mallorca ten days or less, get only Tramuntana Nord and Tramuntana Central. For a longer stay, also get Tramuntana Sud. The scale of these maps makes them much more accurate than the 1:40,000 Mallorca North & Mountains Tour & Trail map published by Discovery Walking Guides. Check mallorca-camins.info for updates on trail improvements and closures.

Here are some of the hikes we enthusiastically recommend. These brief notes are intended only to motivate and orient you. You’ll need a map, and perhaps a guidebook, before you begin hiking.

Cami de s’Arxiduc
14-km (8.7-mi) loop / 530 m (1740 ft) gain / 5 hours
An archduke commissioned the construction of this astonishing bridal path so he could admire the scenery from the edge of sheer cliffs rising 900 m (2952 ft) from the sea.

Ascend from Valldemossa to Mirador de Ses Puntes, then follow the archduke’s path to 931-m (3054-ft) Puig Caragoli. From the cairned junction, you can attempt to summit nearby 1062-m (3483-ft) Teix, but the stile allowing hikers to surmount a high stone wall might be gated and locked. (This is a nuisance you’ll sometimes encounter on Mallorca, where trails often cross private land.) Descend the old road from Font d’es Polls, through Cairats Valley, back to Valldemossa.

Puig de Massanella
15-km (9.3-mi) loop / 860 m (2820 ft) gain / 6 hours
Start on the unpaved road just south of the petrol station near the Lluc junction. Ascend to Comafreda, where the land owner’s gatekeeper will probably be there to demand a usurious fee. Pay it, so you can complete a beautiful loop over the mountain. A relatively easy ascent leads to Masanella’s 1392-m (4566-ft) summit.

Hikers confident on steep, loose rock will want to descend the cairned, southwest ridge. Head for the obvious trail in the valley. Ascend to 1205-m (3952-ft) Coll de’s Prat, the island’s highest pass. At the signed junction with the GR 221, go toward Galileu and Lluc. Descend a broad, switchbacking, stone trail to the highway. Then turn right and walk 2 km (1.2 mi) back, past the petrol station, to your vehicle.

Barranc de Biniaraix
12 km (7.4 mi) round trip / 800 m (2625 ft) gain / 6 to 7 hours
Start just east of Soller, in the charming village of Biniaraix. Hike the ancient, cobbled, streamside, mule path through Barranc de Biniaraix. (A “barranc” is a canyon.) The time, labour and skill that the original inhabitants invested to create terraced olive groves here make this craggy niche a wonder to behold. You look up, see cliffs, and think “this trail can’t continue,” but it does, all the way to the summits above.

At L’Ofre farm, follow a rough, bouldery path through forest to a junction in Coll de L’Ofre. Do not continue east on the dirt road descending to Cuber Reservoir, visible ahead. About 15 meters from the trail sign, look for a feint trail veering right (south). In 30 m it broadens to road width. Ascend through forest southeast to Coll des Cards.

The tourist hiking brochure suggests you resume ascending L’Ofre (right) whose summit ridge is bushy and unappealing. Instead, go left (east) up L’Ofre’s sister summit: 1067-m (3500-ft) Franguera. It’s bare limestone, allowing you to enjoy a freelancing ascent with constant views. Sporadic cairns offer guidance but are not necessary. Mallorca’s highest mountain, Puig Major, rises from the far side of Cuber Reservoir and dominates the view northeast. Tossals and Tossals Verds are east. Much of Mallorca is within view. Return to Biniaraix the way you came and appreciate the barranc again.

Torre de na Seca
8 km (5 mi) round trip / 500 m (1640 ft) gain / 4 hours
From C-710, between Lluc and Gorg Blau, just east of the tunnel, drive spectacularly serpentine Road 214 down to Cala Tuent. This is where the ancient, stone path to sa Costera begins. Follow it, contouring around the bay, then ascend an old road to Col de Biniamar. Look for the cairned trail ascending right (west, then north) to the stone tower of Torre de na Seca. The small summit grants distant views along the rugged coast.

Mortitx Gorge and Rafal D’Ariant
11-km (6.8-mi) loop / 780 m (2560 ft) gain / 6 to 8 hours
You must be a confident scrambler and skilled at cross-country navigation to attempt this exciting journey through one of Mallorca’s wildest, roughest backcountry areas. You’ll descend a steep, bouldery gorge nearly to the sea. From Rafal D’Ariant you’ll ascend an ancient trail that soon deteriorates to a cairned, blazed route. You must then traverse gorgeous but complex (i.e. potentially disorienting) terrain back to Mortitx. There are many criteria by which to judge a hike. We give this one five stars for “exhilaration.”

Between Lluc and Pollença, park at the Mortitx vineyard gate. Follow the unpaved road down to the vineyard, fork right and continue beyond. In about 25 minutes look for a route veering right (northeast). It’s marked by a cairn and a few red paint daubs on boulders. After briefly winding across a level, grassy, boulder-studded flat, the route plunges into Mortitx Gorge.

The sometimes scrambling descent leads, in about two hours, to a pool that blocks passage. Bear right here and ascend on loose rock, then through tall grass. Where the grade levels, look for a cairned path. It leads to the ruins of what was once a shepherds’ hut. But once the hut is visible, well before you reach it, slow down. Look carefully for a cairned-but-easy-to-miss, right fork that immediately begins ascending toward what, at first glance, might appear to be an impassable wall but actually affords a gradual, ramping exit up and out of the barranc. The path soon broadens into a well constructed, ancient trail—supposedly a smugglers’ path.

Locating this exit point tested our ability to read the land, decipher an inadequate map, and quickly make vital decisions a mere one hour before sunset. Should we return via the barranc? It was challenging but familiar, because we’d just descended it. Or should we attempt to continue navigating the loop return?

The barranc would require a two-hour ascent, so we’d spend half that time in the dark, wearing headlamps. We knew the rest of the loop would be a route-finding puzzle, but we were confident the terrain would be less physically demanding than the barranc, so we could hike faster and probably reach the vineyard before dark. We also wanted to see what was up there.

The longer it took us to find the smugglers‘ path, the more the pressure mounted. It seemed we were wasting our precious remaining daylight on a futile search. We did find it, however, and we were able to navigate the entire loop at high speed. We passed the vineyard with a little time to spare. We reached our car before dusk.

We tell you this so you won’t make the mistake we made. We started this loop way too late in the day (after 1 p.m.), which forced us into a potentially dangerous predicament at the bottom of the barranc. Our excuse is that our absurdly vague and inaccurate guidebook did not describe the severity of the terrain. We urge you to start by 10 a.m. so you’ll have plenty of time.

We’re very glad we completed the loop. It’s a fascinating tour of limestone crags and ridges—a swath of the original, untouched Mallorca.

Mortitx to Coll des Vent
11 km (6.8 mi) round trip / 492 m (1615 ft) gain / 3 hours
This a road, much of it paved. Yet you’ll encounter no vehicle traffic, because it’s gated year-round. And the final stretch is closed even to foot travel between February 1 and July 1, because, according to the sign, this is sensitive black-vulture habitat. “Then why build a road here?” we wonder. Whatever the reason, it was no doubt very compelling, because this is tumultuous terrain. Building the road must have been hugely expensive. All we know is that it accesses scenery as magnificent and uniquely Mallorcan as any on the island. And because it’s a road, the hiking requires no more effort or ability than do the steep sidewalks of San Francisco.

Between Lluc and Pollença, park at the Mortitx vineyard gate. Follow the unpaved road down to the vineyard, fork right and continue beyond. Stay on the road. At a fork, bear right to cross the dam retaining a deep, crystalline, spring-fed pool. At the next fork, ascend left where right descends to a rifugio.

Proceed on the road up and over 502-m (1647-ft) Coll des Vent, then down to 410 m (1345 ft) where the road ends in a large, cleared field at Les Basses. The field itself is utterly anticlimactic, but it’s not a destination. The reason to hike all the way to road’s end is to see as much of the national-park-quality scenery as possible.

Puig Tomir
9 km (5.6 mi) round trip / 570 m (1870 ft) gain / 4 hours
Tomir’s 1103-m (3618-ft) summit offers a panoramic view of bays, peninsulas, and the eastern end of the Tramuntana. The initial ascent is on a gated road. The upper ascent is on solid limestone. This is one of easiest peaks to surmount on Mallorca. After passing it numerous times while driving west from Pollença to Lluc, we couldn’t resist the friendly, “Come on up!” invitation it seems to extend.

Tossal Verds
12-km (7.4-mi) loop / 470 m (1542 ft) gain / 5 to 6 hours
From CV-710, beside Cuber Reservoir, this trail circles 1047-m (3434-ft) Es Tossals and 1097-m (3598-ft) Tossals Verds. Initially follow the service road on the east side of the reservoir. At its southernmost point, descend 450 m (1476 ft) through the gorge beneath the dam.

The rough route follows an old canaleta (water conduit) down to terraced orchards. From there, ascend to the substantial Rifugio Tossals Verds. Follow signs for the GR 221 to Coll d’es Colloms on the east side of Tossals Verds. Then, on its north side, the trail follows another canaleta west, back to Cuber Reservoir.

Passing the Rifugio Tossals Verds on this engaging and varied loop, a girl of about seven years old asked us “Donde va?” At first we didn’t understand. But by the time she followed us up to the next switchback, we realized she was asking, “Where are you going?” So we said, “Lago Cuber.” Then she said, “Esta bien,” and queried “Por que?” We liked that she was so open and curious, so Kathy dug into our paltry Spanish and said, “Es muy divertido, y interesante, y buen ejercicio.” “Comprenda?” Craig asked. She and her brother smiled and nodded. So off we went with their unspoken but very evident blessings.

*Full insurance with Gold Car, the Spanish rental-car company we recommend, will even cover the cost of replacing the ignition key, should you lose it. I know this because in an absent-minded moment I (Craig) dropped the key to our chili-red Citroen C30 into the marina at Palma de Mallorca. I’d previously never lost a car key—ever, anywhere. And wow, are remote-entry keys expensive. It cost 150 Euro ($225 USD) to replace ours. I later imagined how I might retrieve the key and earn back the replacement fee: go fishing with a magnet. But our time was limited. We were busy hiking. Where was I going to find a magnet? I thought no more of it, until one evening after hiking all day, Kath and I were strolling through the town of Soller. We passed a large hardware store. She said, “Maybe they have a magnet.” I walked in and met a clerk who spoke excellent English—a rare skill among Mallorcans. I humbly told him my story. He lit up. “Yes, we have a strong magnet!” he said. This magnet was huge, at least 10 kg (22 lb). It had been in the store for 30 years and was currently employed as the door stop. He generously offered to loan it to me, along with a 20-m (66-ft) rope, in return for a 50 Euro ($75 CDN) refundable deposit. The serendipity was too miraculous to ignore. So at 9 p.m. Kath and I drove across the island, far out of our way, into the traffic of Palma. I spent an hour dredging the marina precisely where I’d dropped the car key. Nada. It remains in the muck, 15 m (50 ft) below the dock. But we gained from the experience. We met Joseph, the muy sympatico clerk at Bernat, the hardware store (ferreteria) in Soller.

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Hikers Pause in Valencia, Spain

To reach the Costa Blanca Mountains, we trained from Barcelona to Valencia, then rented a car.* We glimpsed the city only briefly, but it seemed intriguing. So before our flight** from Valencia to the island of Mallorca, we devoted an afternoon and evening to exploring the city. We’re glad we did.

Most European cities have interesting historic centres. Naturally, some are more compelling than others. Barcelona’s ancient centre, for example, is fascinating, whereas medieval Valencia is more oppressive and dilapidated.

Much of the architecture here—including the Longa de la Seda (silk market), Torres de Serranos (Europe’s largest Gothic city gateway), and heavyweight cathedral in the Plaza de la Virgen—is somber. The National Ceramics Museum is a weird, garish, rococo affair. The modernisma Plaza del Mercado is unimpressive from the outside but houses an enormous, thriving market.

Urban floating (walking through a city at the pace of a float in a parade, slow enough to see and be seen) is always enjoyable. But in Spain, the joy is marred by smokers. Apparently, lung cancer is to the Spanish what global warming is to Americans: a myth. When we weren’t dodging the cigarettes they thoughtlessly wave about, we were ducking the clouds of smoke they spew.

Having seen enough of old Valencia, we began navigating back toward our hotel.*** En route we entered the Jardin Del Turia. In 1957, the Turia River flooded, wreaking havoc on Valencia. Fearing a repeat disaster, the city diverted the river and reclaimed the riverbed, cultivating it into a lovely, sinuous, leafy park running 7-km (4.3-mi) through downtown. It was now dark, so we were wary about walking here, but we soon realized this is where athletic Valencianos exercise after work. The former riverbed was coursing with joggers.

The Turia led us directly to La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (The City of Arts and Sciences). We anticipated contemporary architecture, but La Ciudad is magnificently futuristic, as if it had been beamed down from a distant planet whose civilization is far more advanced than ours. And La Ciudad is huge, comprising several, glorious structures. This, we realized, was all the reason we needed to visit Valencia.

La Ciudad ranks among Europe’s great monuments. The architect was Valencia-born Santiago Calatrava. The scope of the project he completed is staggering. It’s originality is inspiring. Its beauty is stirring. And the details he incorporated, such as Gaudiesque fragments of tile (an historically important industry in Valencia), are brilliant.

But La Ciudad isn’t just a monument. It functions as a performance venue, an oceanarium (Europe’s largest marine park), a planetarium, and more. In addition to the photos we’ve posted above, you’ll find more under “Spain” on the Photos/Videos page of our website. And La Ciudad’s website (http://tv.cac.es) is rich with imagery. Right of the main, homepage photo, scroll down to, then click on, “Great Events.”

*In Spain, we recommend renting a car from Gold Car (www.goldcar.es/en). Their Valencia office has a free airport shuttle. Gold Car’s rental vehicles and the quality of their service are excellent. Yet their rates are much lower than those of their international competitors.

**From Valencia to Palma de Mallorca, we recommend flying with Air Europa (http://www.aireuropa.com/en/default.html). Compared to other airlines, Europa is less expensive yet allows a higher weight allowance (23 kg) for your one, allotted, checked bag.

***In Valencia, stay at the NH Villacarlos (http://www.nh-hotels.com/nh/en/hotels/spain/valencia/nh-villacarlos.html). It’s clean, modern, quiet, reasonably priced, and the staff is very helpful. It’s also within easy walking distance of La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias. And it’s very close to the busy roundabout graced with a fantastic sculpture by Juan Garcia Ripollés. To us, it looks like a huge, childlike, dancing, sun god. You’ll no doubt have your own creative interpretation. You’ll find it at the intersection of Eduardo Boscá and Paseo la Alameda, at the end of the Puente Angel Custudio, just above the southeast side of Parque de la Rambleta, a mere 2.5 blocks from the Villacarlos.

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Urban Hiking in Barcelona

We just spent four days in Barcelona. At every opportunity, we asked residents how they like their city. All of them enthusiastically said, “I love it!” And it was easy for us to appreciate why.

Barcelona is vibrant, eclectic, culturally rich, architecturally beautiful. It has that easy, inviting, comfortable ambience so characteristic of Spain. And, like most European cities, Barcelona is entirely walkable. For urban hikers like us, it’s an ideal destination in winter. At the Calgary airport, the ground crew spent 30 minutes de-icing the wings of our jet during a blizzard. When we arrived in Barcelona, we left our hotel wearing short sleeves.

Go to the Photos/Videos page of our website (http://www.hikingcamping.com/photos-spain.php) to see far more shots of Barcelona than we could possibly include with this blog post.

You’re a traveler, and Barcelona is on your “gotta see” list? Here are a few notes from our recent stay that will further encourage you to visit this great city, might help you plan your trip, and could be useful once you arrive.

Make reservations at Aparthotel Silver (www.hotelsilver.com). This 40-room hotel is everything a traveler could ask for: modern, clean, comfortable, efficient, friendly, and an excellent value.  We chose what they call a “comfort” room. It even had a kitchenette and a safe. We were entirely pleased. The hotel is in the Gracia neighbourhood, which is authentic, low key, neither commercial nor touristic. Yet there’s a subway stop within 100 meters of the Hotel Silver’s front door. (In Spanish, the subway or metro is called “el meteo.”) And its an easy walk from the Hotel Silver to Parc Güell—the huge, gorgeous, unique, urban park designed by Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona’s most celebrated architect. From the park’s highpoint, you can survey the entire city. It’s dazzling at night.

Upon arriving at the Barcelona airport, we caught the Aerobus (runs every 15 minutes, 4 euros per person) to Plaza Catalunya. From there, we rode the meteo to the Fontana station, then walked five minutes to the Hotel Silver. Utterly easy. Even enjoyable. Suggestion: In all the public transport facilities, look for the elevators (ascensors) so you don’t have to portage your luggage up and down lengthy staircases and end up in need of a chiropractor.

We enjoyed wandering the Gracia neighbourhood. Flow east along Carrer d’Asturias, then north along Verdi. You’ll pass a superb bakery that offers organic, alternative-grain, gluten-free bread. You’ll also see silver-jewelry shops, a couple exotic tea shops, and of course numerous boutiques selling those utterly impractical, extremely sexy, nearly knee-high leather boots that fashion-conscious women everywhere from Montreal to Moscow are tucking their tight jeans into these days.

Eat at La Lola. It’s on the corner of Carrer de l’Escoria and Carrer de Saint Lluis, near the Joanic metro station, about a 20-minute walk from Hotel Silver. This is by no means haute cuisine. It’s fresh, hearty, local fare at a reasonable price served in the Spanish equivalent of an American diner. The collegial staff rightfully takes pride in their excellent work. They hustle, but they’ll also stop to chat with and kindly touch the cheek of a long-time local patron. Watching them in action was gratifying and entertaining. When we came back a second time, they all beamed, then proceeded to treat us like friends. This is “community” in action. For about 10 euros, the lunch special (approximately 1 to 3 p.m.) is an enormous meal that includes a cerveza and dessert. La Lola is a convenient place to stop while walking from Parc Güell to the most famous Gaudí creation of all: the wildly whimsical cathedral known as Sagrada Família.

From Barcelona’s iconic cathedral, we entered the city’s medieval center. The Barri Gotic and Ciutat Vella are intriguing warrens where you can wander (we call it “urban floating”) for hours through narrow, serpentine alleys and streets, admiring an encyclopedic variety of unique shops and distinctive restaurants. Like hot, colourful, liquid jello poured into an antique mold, people have oozed back into this ancient setting and exuberantly revived it. Contemporary creativity and sophistication ambushes you around every archaic corner. Locals obviously find everything they need here—including stimulation. Independent entrepreneurs such as these artfully demonstrate how soul-less the world-dominating superstores really are.

Be sure to see Eglesia de Santa Maria del Mar. It’s a marvelous, Gothic cathedral that will inspire you regardless of your spiritual leanings. The Placa del Rei should also be on your agenda. If possible, see it at night, when golden lighting romantically softens the harsh stone of this stalwart plaza.

We also enjoyed the relatively new district of Eixample, which has many, impressive Modernisme apartment buildings. On Passeig de Gracia you can admire Gaudi’s famous Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera. It’s more sensuous sculpture than monolithic structure.

As for tapas, you’re spoiled for choice in Barcelona. We saw dozens of tapas restaurants we yearned to sample. Tapas, by the way, are a sophisticated, Spanish cuisine—a slow meal in which you continue choosing from a vast array of appetizers. They can be cold (such as mixed olives and cheese) or warm (such as puntillitas—battered, fried, baby squid). Tapas are conducive to conversation because a single, large meal never distracts you from your companions, and because you all share, plucking the toothpick-speared delicacies from numerous, small plates. In some restaurants, diners stand and move about while eating tapas, which further stimulates social interaction. Caveat emptor: the bill can quickly swell to three figures well before you’re sated.

After much deliberation, we finally chose Longja de Tapas. We’re glad we did. Superb food, gracious service, congenial atmosphere, reasonable prices. Here, the chefs respond to each order as it arrives in the kitchen, so every tapas dish arrives at your table fresh. (Some restaurants have counters laden with trays of pre-prepared tapas.) You’ll find Longja de Tapas at Pia del Palua 7, in Ciutat Vella, across the alley from an exotic tea shop that seductively offers free samples.

People who’ve visited Barcelona tend to launch their description of the city by telling you about Las Ramblas—one of Europe’s most famous pedestrian arteries. It’s true that walking Las Ramblas is an engaging experience. We enjoyed it. But everything else we’ve described here outranks it in our memory. Most of the commercial establishments lining Las Ramblas are not particularly interesting. And a large percentage of the people strolling Las Ramblas are tourists, much like yourself. What’s of interest here is the ambience. Tidal surges of humanity aimlessly sauntering up and down a grand boulevard and eyeing each other with curiosity is… well, a curiosity. By all means, join the promenade. But only once, for a short while. Don’t fixate on it the way most visitors do.

More impressive than Las Ramblas is Monestir de Montserrat—an ancient monastery perched on a spectacular massif just beyond the edge of the city. After exploring Barcelona for a day or two, it’s refreshing to switch from urban hiker to mountain hiker and stride among pinnacles and along ridges to Montserrat’s 1,236-m (4,055-ft) summit. A mere 16 euros buys you a 3-hour round-trip train ticket from the city center to the monastery, where marked, maintained trails begin.

Infinitely more impressive than Las Ramblas is a performance, any performance, at Barcelona’s gorgeous Palau de la Musica Catalana. Immediately after you settle in at the Hotel Silver, find out what’s on at the Palau and reserve seats. For us, the planets aligned: we discovered Cecilia Bartoli, the world’s most famous mezzo-soprano, was performing the night we arrived. She was perfection. And the venue itself beats many of the world’s great art galleries.

After the performance, we walked across the city, back to Hotel Silver. It was late. The Spanish are creatures of the night, but by now the streets were quiet. Barcelona was ours. And we felt absolutely safe. Guidebooks had warned us about thieves, pickpockets and such, but we detected no threat whatsoever.

We could have ridden the meteo. Barcelona’s public transport system is extensive, swift, and comfortable. Ten meteo passes cost just 8 euros. But we rode the meteo only when we were burdened with our luggage.* The rest of the time we walked. We  urge you to do the same. Barcelona is a brilliant city for urban hikers.

*Wish we could say we travel in svelte, ultralight style, but we don’t. Between destinations, we’re beasts of burden: humans imitating mules.

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YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY

Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

Information published in a book or on a website—regardless how authoritative—is not a substitute for common sense or sound judgment. Your safety is your responsibility. The unique details of your specific situation and the decisions you make at that time will determine the outcome.

When hiking, threats to your wellbeing are unpredictable; you must always be aware. In the backcountry, risk is subjective; you must gauge it for yourself. Away from civilization, small mistakes can have severe consequences; you must vigilantly prevent injury and avoid becoming disoriented.

Never hike alone. Before setting out, check the weather forecast and current trail conditions; adjust your plans accordingly. Always carry a map and compass, a first-aid kit, extra clothing, a personal locator beacon, plus enough food and water to survive an emergency.

If you doubt your ability to negotiate rough terrain, respond to wild animals, or handle sudden, extreme weather changes, hike only in a group led by a competent, licensed guide.

The authors and the publisher disclaim liability for any loss or injury incurred by anyone using information published on this website or in the books presented on this website.