Vall de Gerber

March 24th, 2011 Written by Simon Rice

Early Autumn brought warm weather to the Catalan Pyrenees – ideal for walking high in the mountains north of the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, where Lucky is prohibited from running free. Access to this high glacial valley is easy as the entrance is near to the Port de la Bonaigua pass, which seperates the vally of the Noguera Pallaresa from the Vall d’Aran – the anomalous region, which, being on the northern watershed of the mountains, would otherwise be in France.

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That’s not to say it is an easy ride, however, as tthe Vall de Gerber is a hanging valley and the start of the walk passes through dense forest and some scrabbling was required – but  it was all good practice for seeking wild fruit! The Catalan for raspberries is ‘gerds’ and they were so prolific that I wondered if the name ‘Gerber’ was linked – I doubt it though!

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Soon we reached the glacial valley proper, with a delighful tarn on the edge of the forest – and the precipice – the sound of the nearby cascade was deafening after the solitude of the woods.

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But we persevered, Lucky and I. In dog years she’s in her ‘seventies’ and it was saddening to find that she’d lost some of her zeal since we had last walked seriously in Spring – before being grounded by the summer heat. But she was bouncy as ever when it came to games of hide and seek among the striated rocks – the scars left by passing glaciers – that strew the valley floor.

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Surrounded by high peaks such as the 2656 m Tuc de Locampo (centre) the main tarn, or estany, was a welcome sight when we finally got there – that pure water was irrrsistible!

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Refreshed, we headed home . . .

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Not forgetting the gerds, which came in handy for bribing the Car Park Security!

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Belchite

June 10th, 2010 Written by Simon Rice

Many tourists and students of Spain and its history are familiar with the characteristic views of the town, which was almost completely destroyed during the Civil War (1936-39).The site has, moreover, featured in numerous films both as a subject of the war, e.g. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006), or in general as a somewhat surreal location, for instance in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). But fewer images of the new town, built alongside by victims of the post-war repression under decree of General Franco, appear in the on-line and print media, or indeed in the movies. This is not surprising as the old town ruins, left unrestored and unpampered, are both fascinating and moving enough in their own right to fill a whole visit – as happened when a ‘delegation’ of the Iberianature Forum went there at the beginning of May 2010.

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But I returned at the end of the same month with friends of a quite different stripe and briefly explored the new town. There is no doubt that its architecture was designed to serve the Nationalist political ideology, which was explicitly stated in Franco’s decree of the town’s status,  recorded on a marble plaque set on the new church (long since removed by persons unknown!), “Yo os juro, que sobre estas ruinas de Belchite, se edificará una ciudad hermosa y amplia como homenaje a su heroísmo sin par. Franco” (“I swear that on the ruins of Belchite, a beautiful and spacious town will be built as a tribute to its unparalleled heroism. Franco”

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The Town Hall’s official web site points out that, not too surprisingly, there was a degree of favouritism in the allocation of the new properties, and in fact many citizens left altogether in the interim. Equally lamentable, perhaps, is that the town council of the day opted for the rebuilding rather than an ambitious irrigation scheme, which would have brought more long term wealth to the town – but one should ask, “Wealth for whom in particular?” of course!  The contrast between the old and the new is striking to say the least:

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Nevertheless, the architecture is fascinating and, at least from a restaurant terrace, Belchite strikes one as being an attractive place to live and work. I’m drawn to return time and again – not least for the drama of the journey there across Los Monegros – one of Spain’s most wild, weird and wonderful locations!

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Where the Weasels Were!

April 7th, 2010 Written by Simon Rice

The week ended with a late flight into Barcelona after two hectic days in Paris – a lifestyle I thought I’d left behind long ago when I moved to Spain! Having Nick Lloyd’s company during the drive home to the Pyrenees made all the difference though, and the following day we were able to spend time naturalizing in the wildwood around Casa Rafela.

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Recent rainfall ensured that there were plenty of tracks clearly visible and Nick’s expertise soon identified the passage of a badger (Meles meles), a very common species hereabouts that I normally notice from their latrines. Much more rare – and infinitely more exiting – was our stumbling upon  two weasels (Mustela nivalis) apparently playing among a pile of boulders beside the track.

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One had darted across the lane as we approached, drawing our attention, but we were amazed when it, or another one, re-appeared among the rocks. Soon there were two ducking and dodging about and although both were evidently aware of our presence – we were downwind and stood frozen to the spot, of course! – they were apparently unperturbed. Indeed they appeared to be curious about us. I was able to slowly remove my pocket camera and attempt a few images as they continued to gambol around their ‘fortress’ – disappearing at times and turning up a few yards way, tantalisingly ever closer.

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But at length they failed to reappear and, somewhat reluctantly, we continued along the path home. But in the gathering darkness another treat was in store; just a few hundred yards from home I saw a female red deer (Cervus elaphus) crossing the field ahead of us. It was by then too dark for photography and in any event the deer was gone in a few seconds – not before we could both positively identify it. I was amazed to find such a large animal so close to home, a home range that I’d been walking almost daily for the last dozen or so years! Nick postulated that it had wandered from the nearby Serra de Boumort game reserve, which is especially noted for its large population of red deer, and this led me to wonder if it was an adolescent male seeking a new herd. With no digital image to enlarge this will remain forever a mystery – and is, perhaps, none the worse for that!

In Hannibal’s footprints?

December 14th, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

Late October gave me a brief respite from the weather to test a pet theory of mine. The Roman historian Polibius noted that Hannibal’s route led through zones occupied by tribes called Arenosis and Andosins, which are now believed to be the Val d’Aran and Andorra. Leaving the latter to one side (with good reason!) I decided to make a round trip on my motorbike through the two possible routes into/out of the Val d’Aran: a green lane that follows the course of the river Noguera Pallaresa right up to its source on the Pla de Beret, and a return trip on the black stuff over the Bonaigües pass, which now hosts the main C28 highway.

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The view from Borén towards the beginnng of the green lane section

The Noguera Pallaresa appears to branch off into a smaller valley from the small town of Esterri d’Aneau, but it is the major branch in fact. The ‘main’ valley is that of the Bonaigüa river, which gives its name to the pass, the Port de Bonaigües. After passing through a narrow stretch the road, now a tarmacadamed lane (C-147), passes through the picturesque villages of Isavarre, Borén, Isil and finally Alós d’Isil and one gets an idea of the terrain still to be negotiated further up into the mountains.

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Packhorse bridges like this are a common feature all along the river Noguera Pallaresa

The first stretch of the cami rural from Alos d’Isil is asphalt, but it is very narrow and quite alarming as the visibilty is poor. It also overlooks a precipice into the rushing waters far below! But this lane soon changes to a rutted track beyond the mountain refuge, the Refugi de Fornet, from here on the valley opens out somewhat and the riding is much easier.

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Have BMW G650 X-Country - aka the Flying Banana - will travel!

As one gets higher and the valley’s orientation veers to the west, the trail leads into deep forest. Quite a shock to me as I was banking on encountering open, dry surfaces. I had inherited the bike’s original swanky Metzler hybrid tyres, which were also more than half-worn out. So I had plenty to occupy my mind as there was plenty of squelchy mud as the lane runs along the dark southern side of the valley, much less drying sunlight!

The autum tints are truly superb - depite being a 'Reserva Natural' green laning is allowed, encouraged even. Restricted trails are clearly signed, but whatever you do don't appear to be holding an organised rally, let alone a race!

The autum tints are truly superb - depite being a 'Reserva Natural' green laning is allowed, encouraged even. Restricted trails are clearly signposted.

I’m still a novice at green lane riding (and at my age every learning curve is that much steeper!) but I would judge this route to be quite easy – it would have to be! But the route does have a bit of everything; ‘staircases’ of steep, switchback bends, fords across rushing streams and lots and lots of inquisitive horses and cattle, all waiting to be herded down to the lower valleys before the onset of winter!

In the sunny uplands: - thanks to temperature inversion due to high pressure it was over 25C at 2,700 metres!

In the sunny uplands: - thanks to temperature inversion due to high pressure it was over 25C at 2,700 metres!

All in all I was grateful to reach  ‘civilsation’ at the ski station on the Pla de Beret itself – at 2,700 metres I felt I had had quite a climb! From here one passes over an escarpment into the Val d’Aran itself – with some spectacular views!

Down into the dark, dark valley - plunging into the shadows of evening with temperatures falling quickly sub-zero is one of the 'pleasures' of riding in the Pyrenean off season!

Down into the dark, dark valley - plunging into the shadows of evening with temperatures falling quickly sub-zero is one of the 'pleasures' of riding in the Pyrenean off season!

The Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici – part 2

October 22nd, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

We began our return trip to the high Pyrenees with a visit to the annual horse fair at Esterri d’Àneu, almost at the end of the Noguera Pallaresa river. Apart from fairs helping bind local communities and provide entertainment during the autumn, they stimulate the local economy in what would otherwise be a quiet period between the summer and the winter months when tourists return for the skiing.

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The stocky Pyrenean breed is not used for riding or even ploughing, however, but are a traditional part of the diet! Turning away from the food tent we were drawn to the procession – complete with its pyrotechnical dragon, El Drac, in this case based on the Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus aquitanicus). The protected Gal Fer is endemic to the forests hereabouts and are an emblem of this part of the Pyrenees. I must be one of the few people alive who has actually eaten one – many, many years ago I hasten to add!

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Throughout Catalonia the Caps Grossos always parody local characters and are dressed in traditional costume. A good deal of ribald humour, often self deprecating, accompanies them in a parade.

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We had good reason to go to the fair, however, as the north wind came straight from the Arctic, with a top-up dose of cold as it crossed the highest peaks for good measure. The fair had a splendid market on the fringe, just the place for buying warm hats and gloves in readiness for our day out in the Parc.

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This time we stayed around the Lake of Sant Maurici, whose waters were whipped up by the chill wind. We explored the sylvan woodland along the lakeside, accompanied only by the brave!

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In severe winters avalanches fall through the pine forest, cutting great swathes right down to the valley floor. Surpisingly perhaps, birch trees are the first to repopulate the newly cleared terrain. White birch (Betula pubescens) are a feature of this side of the Parc and it was in such a colony that we had our best moment of the day.

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The red deer are  in the midst of thier rutting season and this stag sported a magnificent set of antlers. Perhaps it was the season that overcame his usual caution and he remained close by during a two-minue ‘stand-off’, facing down our  exited huskies!

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Lucky certainly thought she had landed on the moon; fortunately we were well provided with heavy dury restraint gear! We all slept well that night after our long day – but a good amount of four-legged sleepwalking took place!

The Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici – part 1

October 22nd, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

It’s been year since we were in the Parc, before we became dog owners in fact, so that makes it ten years! But a brief respite from stormy weather in early October and visiting friends who wanted to go got me there without the huskies.

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I was stunned all over again by the beauty of the scenery. As indeed is everyone else – I gather that the Parc is one of Spain’s most photographed sites – with good reason; the autumn tints over the Ratera lake never fail to please!

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It took just an hour’s walk to get to the Mirador overlooking the Estany de Sant Naurici itself, lying in the shadow of the twin Encantats (enchanted) peaks. After all these years the distances seemed shorter (due no doubt to chasing walking the dogs all this time!) so we vowed to return with The Pack the following week. But in fact we went to the other half of the Parc, to the Aigüestortes (meaning twisting waters) themselves.

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This side of the Parc features evidence of severe glaciation, making open views that are admired by all!

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Further back down the valley we were treated to yet more autumn tints, shown here to perfection against a background of Black pines (Pinus nigra) that are a special feature of the Parc.

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The weather worsened in the high mountains, however, so we took ‘refuge’ with an interlude in the Pre-Pyrenees, crossing the Sierra de Montsec. The distances here are remarkable, we could see the Sierra de Montsant, a good seventy-five kilometres away south over the Pla d’Urgell.

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We had crossed the Montsec’s summit years ago, when we had a jeep, but now the track is well metalled thanks to Catalonia’s new Observatory, reflecting the fabulous air quality found on the summit.

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The clearing air bode well for the following week’s return trip to the Sant Maurici, meanwhile the dogs were beginning to revell in the cold northern air!

The Irati Forest

October 21st, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

While we were in Navarre we couldn’t resist a visit to the Irati Forest, one of  Europe’s most important woodland areas whose 17,000 hectares stretch westwards into the Basque Country and over the Pyrenees into France. The forest is most notable for its abundance of beech (Fagus sylvatica) and silver fir (Abies alba).

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The approach to the Forest along the banks of the Irati river is verdant enough, with meadows being increasingly engulfed by woodland. But the road suddenly leaves the valley and climbs towards a cleft in the ridge.

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Here the Forest’s ‘secret’ nature is apparent and it is easy to see why it has remained isolated through time, maintaining an air of magic that spans the centuries and gave rise to numerous myths and legends!

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Once under the canopy, however, the range and beauty of the habitat easily overwhelms the ominous sensations we had on our arrival – helped by the glorious August sunshine illuminating the new green foliage!

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Timber extraction is both a pillar of the local economy and an essential element of forest conservation, however. Although the forest is relatively young, at 12,00 years it emerged after the last great ice age, it has had many stages in its development. Originally composed of oak this gave over to the predominating fir trees from the middle-ages. This in turn has been overtaken by beech in recent centuries due to the increasing lumber trade.

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As with most forest areas, it is interesting to observe how fragile the habitat is, and how little material is required to support such apparently huge vegetation. A forest trail blasted through the surface reveals the scant soil on which the canopy evidently thrives.

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Inside, it is easy to believe that the woods are endless, but climbing back out of the Forest its ‘spell’ is broken by the sight of the distant peaks of the Pyrenees on the far side.

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Back at the picture-post-card village of Ochagavia it is easy to guess how close we are to the French border – time to head home to Catalonia!

The Valle de Roncal – Navarre

August 17th, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

The Valle de Roncal, in the extreme east of the Autonomous Community of Navarre, runs due north and  is deep and dark, with dense, seemingly impenetrable forest lining the steep mountainsides. But at the extreme head of the valley, beyond its ‘capital’ Isaba (Izaba in Basque) the valley of the river Belagua takes a turn for the east and opens out very markedly.

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This area, known as the Macizo de Larra is based on karstic rock formations, one of the most important in Europe. The formation has been widened by the effects of glaciation that allows long daylight hours and encourages the growth of deciduous trees at higher altitude than is usual. The area is notable for its virgin forest, especially with the presence of beech (Fagus sylvatica) and we walked among them, following a marked trail, the Mata de Haya, in the Reserva integral del barranco de Aztaparreta nature reserve.

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The dark, dense and damp forest made a sharp contrast to our home in Catalonia; the other end of the Pyrenees does not benefit from the Atlantic weather systems and by July we yearn for the temperate climate enjoyed by lands on the Atlantic seaboard – including the British Isles! It’s strange to see plants and flowers that were once too common to be of any note to us; we haven’t seen bracken in half a dozen years and the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) seems exotic to our eyes!

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Indeed, the lush vegetation seemed voluptuous, tropical even, in the mid-summer heat (rare for the western Pyrenees – and only in the daytime as we were to discover later whilst camping at Isaba!). A paradox here is that although the pine forests of the Mediterranean regions are quicker growing, they don’t exude the sense of flux, the physiology if you will, of deciduous growth – and death!

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Leaving the forest via the summer pastures it was difficult to imagine how much the scene would be different in winter, but we have vowed to return in the autumn. The herdsmen, (and women!) return with their cattle to the tiny, close knit village communities like Isaba or Roncal itself – the latter giving its name both to the valley and the famous, and delicious, sheep’s milk, Queso de Roncal, which is a mainstay of the local economy.

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Isaba has a grim, rather unfriendly face, much to do with the severe black masonry of its older buildings and their forbidding adornments.

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But the people themselves were warm and welcoming, despite the obvious impact of tourism, which is also vital to the economy there. Friends, even Catalan friends, all agreed that we would eat well in Navarre, and indeed we did – what a pleasure it must be to garden here with all this lovely water to hand!

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