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.