Articles in ‘Pyrenees’
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Early on an October morning, the light among the ski installations of the Nuria valley was grey, and the sky overhead a cold blue. As we walked up the steep Noucreus path, an invisible sun ignited the tall grass on the mountain crest. Stars flew in the firmament – seeds blown by a wind we couldn’t feel.
On the crest of La Olla, where strong gusts sent vapours whirling, butterflies were on the wing, at 2,800 metres: Clouded yellow, Red admiral and Painted lady. Some males were waiting there to pick up a mate on migration.
The turn-off point was the Coll de l’Eina, and the low sun illuminated the herds of mouflon in the valley below. It was their rutting season, and rams were gathering in large numbers, pursuing the ewes with gaping mouths.
On the way down, we startled some chamois – a young one ran after its mother.
Marmots were still whistling above ground, though they were layered up in fat and thick coats, ready for hibernation.
The most common birds still active in the mountains were Water pipits and Black redstarts. A flock of Citril finches foraged near the cremallera station. Among the vulture traffic were a pair of Lammergeiers, swooping close together. One clutched what looked like a jaw bone with teeth.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
We turned our backs on the complex of buildings, ski lifts and artificial lake, and started climbing. It was a cold clear morning in Núria on Sant Joan’s day, and the group of walkers off the cremallera* rapidly dispersed in a variety of directions. * rack railway
The valley of Núria is an olla, or pot. In a tough annual race, runners follow its rim, tracing the circle of mountains, which range between 2,700 and 3,000 metres. But individually the peaks are very accessible for a day’s walk, considering your starting point is at 2,000 m. Our destination was Noucreus, at 2,790 m.
Past the pines and extensions of alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum), marmots were bounding across the grassy slopes. One got chased into its burrow by a wheatear. The nesting bird fluttered incessantly around the rodent’s head like an angry butterfly. Alpine gentians (Gentiana nivalis) cover the grass here, low to the ground, barely flinching in the sudden strong gusts of wind.
The way is steep, so before long you’re commanding a good view of the valley, the Núria complex still in view but increasingly remote. Then the path zigzags onto the scree and the majesty of the surroundings takes over completely.
The sight of plants cheerfully flowering in this desolate expanse of rock took me by surprise. The Parnassus-leaved buttercup (Ranunculus parnassifolius) has large white petals densely veined in pink, and dark green leaves. Its secret to surviving in this shifting world of rubble is a thick clump of roots, ensuring a secure anchorage.
Nearby Spoon-leaved Candytuft (Iberis spathulata), a member of the Crucifer family, was peeking coquettishly out of the rocks. This plant adopts a different strategy, spending the winter in seed-form until the next growing season.
Another plant, Senecio leucophyllus, still hadn’t produced its dense yellow flowerheads, but its velvety frilly leaves had spread widely. Once decomposed, all this biomass would be a great contribution to the richness of the soil below the scree.
I felt exposed on this narrow path, teetering slightly after bending to take photographs. There was nothing to hold onto, just an expanse of grey stone, falling away steeply. But what at first glance might seem a harsh, inhospitable desert is clearly a good home for a well-adapted plant. Low clouds frequently shroud these mountains, and the moisture condenses on the stones, to trickle down below. The scree then protects the soil from drying out in the strong sun.
The stark scattering of iron crosses on the Noucreus pass mark the deaths of travellers who tried to cross the mountain in snow but conditions that June morning were very benign. We lingered for hours, enthralled by the view and the vultures that regularly coasted past, including two Lammergeiers, who cruised slowly above the peaks. Far below in another valley was a herd of about 100 chamois – the young taking it easy while the mothers foraged.
On the peak itself there’s a sloping slab of rock, and sheltering underneath I found a Pyrenean endemic, Saxifraga pubescens.
Nearby, a tight cluster of soil-hugging rock plants had enabled the Alpine Forgetmenot to survive on the peaks, well above its usual alpine pasture habitat.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
The end of the Ansó and Hecho Valleys, where Huesca meets Navarra, is one of the least visited corners of the Spanish Pyrenees. What comes out in these random nature notes is the amazing sense of abundance that you can feel in wild places in August.
We kept coming across faded irises and it felt a shame to have missed them. But at 2000 metres and above they were still in bloom. It was breath-taking to find swathes of these flamboyant deep purple flowers spread over the stark mountain, surrounded by bare limestone and a fiercely blue late-August sky.
Another marvel: I associate Granny’s Nightcaps with woodland clearings in spring time, so it was something of a surprise to find them flowering at 2,000 metres on a high rocky pass, among scree slopes and lone twisted pines. They turned out to be the Pyrenean species, Aquilegia pyrenaica.
In the depths of the Gamueta beech wood, in the pools of a plunging crystalline stream, Pyrenean newts softly padded over the rocks on their chubby feet, with a dreamy look in their eyes. They’re also known as Pyrenean Brook Salamanders. (Huesca has some of the best conserved beech woods in Spain.)
Evening walks in the moonlight were accompanied by legions of Common Toads. At moments, they seemed the most prolific species in the world. The quiet night was filled with soft plops as they propelled themselves along the track. When an occasional vehicle approached, it was heartening to see how fast they could suddenly lollop if necessary.
Not a hint of a snake, but lizards abounded. Certain paths were so crowded with baby wall lizards, you were afraid of treading on one. One day I was putting on my boot, and it felt very tight in the toe. I took it off and turned it upside down to give it a shake. I don’t know who was more startled, me or the lizard who’d taken refuge inside. He was unsquashed and hid under the skirting board.
The mountains belonged to the jet-black Alpine Choughs. Vast flocks would fill the sky and the silent peaks would echo with their calls and the falling stones they dislodged. Some were cheeky – they knew the popular peaks where people climb, and circled them for picnic leftovers.
The most exciting bird sighting was on the Collado de Lenito, just above the Hotel Usón (see below), where the bones of a cow lay stripped clean. We were talking about vultures when two low-flying Lammergeyers overtook us on the way down. A shepherd thought the cow bones would be too large for them though.
Griffon vultures soaring majestically were a constant. One was spotted perching opportunistically by a sheep pen. Inside the barn you could hear lambs bleating, so maybe there were placentas available.
Like the Choughs, the butterflies took advantage of summer visitors. A variety of Blues in particular were attracted to mineral-rich hikers. I had one clamped to my nose, like the sausage in the fairy-tale. Sunglasses and hands were also popular.
Crowds of Blues puddled by streams, but it often felt just too hot to try and identify them. The Damon Blue was nicely distinguishable.
Giving themselves away by their warning whistles, it was a game to spot the angular features of a marmot frozen among the jumbled rocks.
Mountain livestock are usually in admirably good shape, like these sheep, galloping down to drink in the river and return to their pen.
This lot weren’t in the mood for going anywhere and had locked themselves into a wheel.
For a non-mountaineer, the Petretxema is a rewarding peak to climb. Its popularity is clear by the depth of the path, a deep rut in the turf. The final part is like a stone rocket launch into the sky. It was so peaceful at the top, one woman wrapped herself in a scarf and fell asleep. When I left, there was only her, curled up on the rocks and the Choughs, hopping closer.
In this landscape, the sloping peak on the left is the Petretxema. Below is the tiny Ibón d’Ansabère, one of the most western lakes of the Pyrenees.
Nice places to stay
The camping site at Zuriza, which also has hostal/mountain-refuge style accomodation, makes a good base for walking at the end of the Ansó valley. Clientele is mainly Basque, the location is idyllic though the bar/restaurant can be quite hectic at night. Meals are hearty and midnight curfew respected.
In complete contrast, at the small Hotel Usón tucked away on its own towards the end of the Hecho Valley, the nights are very calm. There’s a garden to relax in after dinner and watch the moon rise. Owners Imanol and Lucia are very hospitable (and speak some English). 80% of their energy is provided by the sun and wind, and the peppers they grow in their garden make smoke come out of your ears.
We were leaving the coast behind, Pyrenean-bound. Back in Barcelona, the trees were wearing light new foliage, and through the train window, we could see spring spreading inland along the River Ter. House martins and swallows swooped over the rain-swollen water, set to be torrential when the thaw reaches the mountains.
Climbing out of Campdevanol, spring receded with every step to an earlier phase. The way was spotted yellow with Cinquefoil (Potentilla neumanniana), unchecked by any competition. The woods were lit up with white and purple anemones (Anemone hepatica). In a sheltered spot, Peacock butterflies (Inachis io) came out with the sun, their rich colours as warming as brandy.
In the Sierra above Montgrony, rising to 2,000 metres, spring would presumably have even less of a foothold. But there were surprises. A strong scent invaded a clearing, its source a small solitary bush of Common Mezereon (Daphne mezereum), all bare branch and florid pink blossom. Horses were hungrily tearing at the short grass where emphatically blue Spring Gentians had sprung up. Higher up, purple crocuses could hardly wait for the patches of snow to melt.
We stood near the top looking over at the high mountains on the French border, white under an iron-grey sky. A line of geese crossed the ridge, heading north.
Wearing every spare layer, we got out our lunch. The silence was broken by a kronk, as two Ravens materialised, settling near by. Sometimes they rose up and circled us, black feathers shining like oil. As soon as we moved on, they came and cleared up the leftovers. The mountains felt very remote that day, but the ravens were a reminder that other people come up and have picnics too.
Large outstretched wings passed above – a Red Kite. Below, we saw the brown backs of Griffon Vultures. The Gombrèn valley is a busy highway for raptors moving in and out of the Cadi-Moixeró area. The day before we’d seen a pair of Egyptian Vultures, a very easterly sighting.
Descending under a shower, we watched the outlines of the hills opposite gradually merge with the clouds, and it was our turn for the sun again.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
The landscape was overwhelmingly beautiful but unforgiving. After stepping out of the car, my face soon numbed and toes froze. What would we find alive out here?
A steep crag rose out of the snow, facing the sun, gathering warmth. Four sets of binoculars scanned the rocks, and almost immediately we noticed restless flocks of brown-backed birds, briskly foraging among stones and plants, even digging in patches of snow. Up went the telescopes, and you could see orange bills and contrasting black and white tails. Then every so often, a group would sweep off the ridge – a flurry of white birds magnified against the bluest of skies, clearly visible with the naked eye.
The snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis) is in fact grouped with the sparrows, as suggested by the Spanish name, Gorrion Alpino. Like the urban House sparrow, it’s learnt to take advantage of humans and, since home is above 1500 metres, looks for feeding opportunities at ski stations.
As well as snowfinches we saw Alpine accentors (Prunella collaris) and, very surprisingly, a wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria), first spotted by sharp-eyed Max. Our eyes were squinting and weeping with the glare, but as Mike said, sunglasses aren’t much use when birdwatching.
All kinds of intriguing tracks patterned the snow, some leading directly towards the snowfinches’ crag. A chamois in a thick winter coat of brown and cream was grazing its way upwards. Already at the top was a fox, surveying the land like a ginger cat.
If we tired of craning up at the rock, we could look the other way towards blue islands – Montserrat, and further away still, Collserola, with the minuscule needle of the Norman Foster tower. The world was in reverse to my normal view from the coast. Sometimes a Griffon vulture would float past or mount a thermal. The snow-muffled silence was broken by the bark of a raven, the powerful light revealing contrasting shades of black on its wings, normally unnoticed. Lower down we’d seen crossbills, just next to the sign indicating the Ruta del Trencapinyes (Route of the Crossbills).
Back down in the valley, in Bagà, trees and rooves were dripping fast in full mid-afternoon thaw and the village cats sunned themselves in a spot freshly cleared of snow. A dipper (Cinclus cinclus) probed the water under the medieval bridge. The crooked shapes of Montserrat filled the horizon as we drove home.
What does a professional bird guide do when not working? Go bird-watching of course. Stephen Christopher of www.catalanbirdtours.com was intent on photographing the snowfinches, bad weather having thwarted his previous attempt a few days before. The difficult light and restless nature of the birds meant he couldn’t secure a good shot. He did get the following image, however: a Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), very rarely recorded in Catalunya. Not bad for your day off.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
It was cold at nearly 2,600m, but there were plenty of grassy hollows and boulders to shelter from the wind. The Port de Ratera was created when ice overflowed from the Ratera basin into the Saboredo. This colossal polishing has created a natural resting place, appreciated by walkers, whether approaching via the scree slopes from the Refugio d’Amitges, or climbing up from Val d’Aran.
The route from the Sant Maurici lake, the GR 11, rises in a series of giant steps, a typical pattern of glacial erosion in hard granitic rock. For the walker this translates as tough slogs interspersed with welcome respites.
On one of these pauses, among still water and scattered rocks, a herd of chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica) were foraging, a group of females and young. Separated from the rest, one of the adults came bounding past, hooves thudding as it circled the valley.
The renewed silence was broken by a piercing whistle, as if a referee had just stopped play. The first time I ever heard a marmot’s warning call, I was sure it was a bird. One tone warns of raptors and another of danger on the ground. The Pyrenean marmots didn’t survive the last ice age, but were re-introduced in 1948, and have been burrowing there extensively ever since. They are Europe’s largest and perhaps shaggiest rodents, preferring to stay underground on hot days, as well as hibernating throughout winter. This upright marmot was on lookout duty.
Black redstarts were ubiquitous at all levels, from the streets of Espot to the top of the pass. They’re also a familiar sight at sea level, visiting Barcelona in winter. Other birds I saw that day were rock bunting, wheatear and alpine accentor, and a solitary mallard in the Estanyet de Port de Ratera.
Near the pass I found Globe-headed rampion (Phyteuma hemisphaericum), which grows in the highest reaches of the park, up to 3,000m, thriving in thin sandy soils. Starry saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris) was in flower by a stream.
Another resilient high altitude species is the Mountain pine (Pinus uncinata). One grows near the pass, braced against the prevailing north-west wind. Another, on the south side of Els Encantats at 2,700m, is a candidate for the highest tree of Spain. Bark blending into stone, they are capable of growing out of a fissured rock.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Presiding over the Sant Maurici lake, this vast two-peaked monolith is omnipresent in local hikes – a yardstick to measure how far you’ve walked and how high you’ve reached.
In the legend of Els Encantats, two hunters were enticed onto the mountain by the biggest chamois they’d ever seen, and then blasted by lightening for daring to mock the good villagers at mass in Sant Maurici’s chapel. Their fossilised remains, two splinters of rock, can be seen between the peaks.
Everywhere there are bleached, twisted wrecks of trees, another reminder of the dangers of lightning. With afternoon storms forecast, I didn’t aim to go far. The day had started misty and still, but seemingly from nowhere, waves of wind began searing through the crags. Suddenly the sky was an electric blue, and my hands were frozen. Clouds were surging past, and over the shoulders of Els Encantats a cumulo-nimbus was rising. Enhancing the vividness of the moment, a stunning tangerine-coloured butterfly was browsing at the shore of the Sant Maurici lake: a Scarce copper (Lycaena virgaureae).
I climbed up to a spot protected from the wind, with the whole majestic block of Els Encantats in view – from the peaks, with the doomed hunters inbetween, to the creamy-white glaciar in its belly button – a vestige of the 400m-deep glacier that once filled the Escrita valley.
I could see silver glitter racing across the Estany de Sant Maurici in the valley bottom, the water a deep turquoise compared to the dark blue of higher lakes, which lack sediments, minerals and algae. I was watching a flock of crossbills prise open pine cones but the sky beyond the great mountain was now the darkest blue – time to go.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
On my second attempt to walk to the Port de Ratera, I took the GR 11, which goes directly there and beyond. It takes you round the Estany (lake) de Ratera, with its marshy grass and hairy Bog cotton (eriophorum angustifolium).
Further up, the path narrows, and you reach the Estany de les Obagues de Ratera (the Lake on the dark side of the Ratera). Red and white poles stop you getting lost, so the map could’ve stayed folded, but once open, a tempting alternative materialised, leading away from the GR 11 up to some tiny lakes. The contrast with the previous day was brutal. The way was marked by cairns, to guide you over an avalanche of rocks. Going became a little easier as the path crept along a narrow strip of grass skirting a vertical wall. There were traces of chamois everywhere. What took me half an hour of awkward balancing they could skip across in 3 minutes. There was no sign of any lakes.
I reached an outcrop of Mountain pines (Pinus uncinata) and sat in their shade, as if for protection. Unsoftened by vegetation or water, this was the harsh side of the mountains. The dead silence was broken by the cawing of a raven. Back at the Estany de Obagues de Ratera, I noticed a round white spot in a crevice: a dipper (Cinclus cinclus). Scouting around the streams I found some late pink and white orchids (see discussion on forum). There were also Field gentians (Gentianella campestris), discrete but welcome flowers at the end of summer. Small details, but very reassuring after the stark wilderness higher up.
This time I kept to the GR 11, but in the other direction. Instead of taking one of the jeep taxis that wait on the hour at the Sant Maurici lake, I walked back to Espot. The path follows the sunny side of the Escrita river, through meadows and tunnels of hazlenut trees. The dark side is covered by a thick mass of uniform fir forest haunted by capercaillies. The setting sun escaped from the clouds, lighting up the valley and the leaf flurries shed by silver birches. Long shadows were cast eastwards towards the mountains of Andorra.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
A mountain pass is a chance to look into another world, or at least into the next valley, so with a great choice of trails heading out from the Sant Maurici lake, I decided to walk to the Port de Ratera via the Refugio d’Amitges. The map showed an interesting looking path, an alternative to the more direct jeep track.
The way was unsignposted but quite well marked by cairns, and I only strayed twice, where the path branched. After a summer in sandals, I felt clumsy in heavy boots, stumbling over the rocks and gasping from the sheer steepness.
The path wound through a knot of Mountain pines and dense alpenrose, emerging onto a small plateau. It was a resting place for a narrow river that had just finished cascading down a cliff. It now paused to meander peacefully among grass and flowers, before resuming its turbulent course, crashing down into the Ratera lake, as the Cascada de la Ratera.
It was an arcadian scene at an altitude of 2,200 m. The water was crystal clear. Orange fritillaries floated among heather and harebells still glistening with rain drops after last night’s storm. The distant roar from the waterfall faded in and out with the gusts of wind. A one-horned chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica) foraged among the boulders on the other side, unperturbed as long as I kept my distance. Perhaps it had found a patch of alpine clover, with its delicious liquorice-flavoured roots.
After some false starts, I located the path on the other side of the stream, and more steep climbing took me to a cluster of small lakes. Tiny frogs clung to stalks of grass, among white starry flowers. Unexpected murmurs came from the rocks, where water trickled unseen.
Besides its proliferation of lakes (272 in all), the park is also renowned for the splintered crests of its mountains, a myriad of crags and needles, the result of freeze-thaw action. The roving clouds fragment the mountains even more, as the sun selectively illuminates a peak or picks out a crevasse. Highly sculpted, yet never static, it’s a landscape that is renewed with every step you take.
I also appreciated the park’s capacity for regeneration in another sense. It bears the weight of visitors lightly – you wouldn’t guess it had just emerged from the busiest month of the year. In the peace of that day, a weathered clothes tag found by a rock, “Boreal UK”, seemed it was lost a decade ago.
In such surroundings, and with so much new flora and fauna to take in, you enter a different time dynamic, disassociated with your watch. I could hardly believe the time – mid-afternoon and, although the Refugio d’Amitges was in sight, the Port de Ratera was still a long way off. I’d try again the following day.