Noticias en ‘Catalan Pyrenees’

March 24th, 2011

Vall de Gerber

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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Where the Weasels Were!

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?

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

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

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!

Snowmelt fills the Noguera Pallaresa

It’s been a record breaking winter for rain and snow – and not before time after three years of drought. But even though the snow held on for longer than usual the seasons follow their eternal path, and a warm, early spring ensured a dramatic melting up in the high Pyrenees. It was a slightly unnerving night, camping in a watermeadow on the riverbank, and certainly a noisy one! But a dawn walk along the bankside path was certainly worthwhile. I’ve read that the Noguera Pallaresa is the most powerful river in the Pyrenees. Although I’m not sure how this is measured, it’s certainly easy to beleive at this time of year.

After breakfast we decided to retrace our steps along one of our favourite stretches of the river, the Congost de Collegats. Here, the old road that links the Pallars Jussà to the neighbouring comarca of Pallars Sobirà has been bypassed by long tunels, leaving the riverside to its own devices. For a change it was the river’s turn to grab one’s attention, rather than the magnificent scenery of the ravine.

Further upstream a stop at the picturesque and historical village of Gerri de la Sal, where salt has been extracted from springs at least since 807 when Benedictine monks founded the monastery here, was rewarded with a new discovery.

With a mission to educate and inform, the Planter de Gerri uses rehabilitated terraced gardens to grow a wide range of autoctonous plant species. It will be good to return here in furture years when the installation has matured.

You can always spot an otter . . .

There could hardly seem a less promising place to go naturalising than the stretch of the Noguera Pallaresa just downstream from Tremp, ‘capital’ of the Pallars Jussà comarca in the Catalan pre-Pyrenees. The river here passes through a wide flood plain and is flanked with large banks of shaley gravel; in fact the numerous irrigated fields that take advantage of the level ground are interspersed with several gravel pits. The river itself is contained within large levees that run in a dead straight line for several miles. But in its wisdom the Ajuntament, or town hall, has developed the west bank with leisure facilities and a nature trail; as well as equipment for circuit training of the sit-up, press-up variety (which I studiously ignore!) and the track itself has been prepared for walkers and runners, complete with kilometre posts and some very welcome benches, with notices pointing out the flora and fauna – plus strict instructions about not damaging them!

The river itself has a life of its own, however, as in recent years the water authorities have guaranteed a constant flow of running water, rather than siphoning the whole lot off upstream for irrigation as happened in the past, and this has led to the development of lots of habitat between the drearily imposing levees. Islets have formed amid the reed beds and there are stretches of rapids where the course narrows between them. In other places these islets have grown large enough to support trees and there are torpid backwaters oozing with waterweed. These islets are a small miracle as they have to be stable enough to face some serious flooding when the massive San Antoni reservoir just upstream has to ‘let go’. But on closer examination there was something even more interesting!

The facility is surprisingly popular and we find ourselves using it a lot, especially recently during that no-man’s-land time between going to the builders’ merchant before it is inundated with chaps in little white vans, and five-thirty when the proper shops open. This was the first time in weeks that this lowest part of the Conca de Tremp wasn’t still swathed in freezing fog even at that time, and there were plenty of people taking the opportunity for a paseo. That, coupled with the fact that we were, as always, accompanied by our two lupine husky dogs would preclude any great interest in the wildlife but there it was; an beautiful otter in a fishing frenzy just about ten metres away!

It must have been a combination of the noisily rushing water, the animal’s obsession with the task in hand and the fact that we were downwind, but we were able to watch it for well over five minutes (the camera timed this, a handy tool!), moving around to get better camera angles, even flagging down a jogger to look (he stayed in iPodland, however, so maybe this was a more common sight than we’d imagined!) and generally doing the kinds of thing David Attenborough would shudder at! Otter caught at least five fish during this time, appearing to steady itself against a boulder whilst lining up the fish, each about 4-6 oz I would guess, to be swallowed in one gulp.

The last time, almost the only time in fact, I’d seen an otter was in Jerez Zoo, of all places, in the company of the denizens of the Iberianaure Forum which held a ‘summit’ nearby in April last year. As the ‘experts’ carried on their tour of the rare and exotic species I remained at the otter enclosure, struck by its repetitive behaviour, swimming up and down, up and down, in a manner that reminded me of inmates in an institution. But as time went on I realized that the otter was playing a game, swimming upside down at times and turning against the banks of its little pool in numerous different ways, making a seemingly endless variation. Was it romantic of me, or worse still anthropomorphic, to be reminded of Ken Kesey, Henri Charrière or even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn! In fact ‘our’ otter did very much the same, swimming dexterously between the boulders using numerous different twists and turns. With its head under the water searching for prey its powerful shoulders made a striking bow wave that reminded me, unpleasantly, of that of a nuclear submarine, whose ‘bows’ are underwater several yards ahead of the visible portion.

Leaving those unpleasant reflections we walked back into town as the dusk settled, glad to be back in the human world of street lighting, the babble, not of flowing water but flowing conversation, and more fish, this time neatly arrayed on the peixeteria’s white marble slab!

Postscript: despite the problems I subsequetly had with the camera, it’s obvious that having it to hand generated some memorable, if completely amateur, images. However I feel the more important aspect of our brief encounter was in its unexpected, spontaneous nature. I developed this theme elsewhere last year in the Iberianature Forum following a similarly sighting of a fox. Unencumbered with gadgets our little party, incuding a professional ‘media’ person, were simply spellbound by the close proximity of a wild animal in its own domain. This time the impression was heightened, perhaps, due to the unprepossessing location and inauspicious circumstances!

Autumn along the Noguera Pallaresa

It’s only a few weeks ago now but with the recent wintry weather makes it seem as if autumn has passed us by. Mid October gave us what was probably the most perfect weeks to explore the upper limits of the River Noguera Pallaresa, high in the Pyrenees upstream of the town of Esterri d’Aneau –the last township on the southern side of the central cordillera.

The main road heads northwest in its quest for the Port de Bonaigüa and the Val d’Aran that lies beyond. But we headed due north, seeking the source of the river before it was cut off until spring. The valley of the Noguera seems to dive between towering slopes on either side, passing the tiny villages of Borén and Isil (above) before petering out altogether at Alos d’Isil. Beyond the Refugi de Fornet the track gets too rough for our car and besides the huskies are by now getting decidedly fractious.

The proximity of dense forest mean that we are all trussed up together – once huskies get loose in the range there’s little chance of them heeding our calls. So we spend time dawdling among the water meadows, exploring the ruined bordas along the way and simply admiring the stunning colours of the autumn tints.

Along the way we find a memorial plaque commemorating the guides who helped allied airmen escape into Spain during the Second World War, just alongside the present day Grande Route trail over the Porte d’Aulan, lost among the peaks high above us.

The sky begins to turn threatening as we press on, checking watches and beginning to realise that we weren’t going to get far enough. As if to remind us we encountered herds of cattle heading down from the summer pastures.

The following week the autumn seemed to shut like a barn door – blizzards and freezing weather engulfed much of Northern Spain, and the Catalan Pyrenees were no exception. Looking at the scene from a walk near to Casa Rafela we couldn’t help but notice the dogs’ yearning to return to thier ‘native’ habitat!

This time we too took the Port de Bonaigüa road and passed through the ugly ski resort of Baqueira Beret, turning sharply uphill through the snow to the Pla de Beret. Here we nearly drove into the source of the river, neatly sealed off from passing tourists by a picket fence!

The river flows constantly direct from the font and all but the heaviest snow falls fail to settle there so we could see the course meander off across the almost dead flat pla.

Its curious to think that just a few metres away the neighbouring brook tumbles northwards to join the Garona, the French river Garonne, in the Val d’Aran far below.

After a bit of an anticlimax we pressed on beyond the ski station and tried to walk down towards the abandoned monastery of Mare de Diu de Montgarri which bears silent witness to the warm climate that existed here before the mini ice age of the XVII century – nowadays life here would be unimaginable in winter!

It was frustrating to see the settlement far below, but once again we had underestimated the distances in the huge landscape!