Noticias en ‘Catalonia’

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!

Jurassic Park – a week in La Garrotxa

I’d noticed the droppings and marks on the ground near our tent late in the evening, too late to consider changing location, and sure enough the wild boar snuffled through the camp at about four in the morning. In the dim luminescent light of the tent I saw the dogs’ ears prick up briefly. Lucky, my lupine husky-cross stirred and looked at me across the groundsheet while Streak rolled over in his half-sleep, grunting in the process. The boars stopped and silence reigned for a moment, then the night air was shattered by a huge braying sound – deep in the primordial forest one of the larger inhabitants of was on the hoof once more! I couldn’t help wondering whether the story about large game not entering tents was apocryphal, but the next thing I knew it was morning, and a damp one at that. We had survived our first night in Jurassic Park!

The title ‘Jurassic Park’ is a joke, of course. In fact La Garrotxa is about as far removed from the Jurassic period as can be, the region’s volcanic origins make it one of the most contemporary landscapes possible; the last large activity was about 15,000 years ago, not 150,000,000! And our camp, even though it felt like being in the jungle, was in a well-organised and officially registered site – albeit a very distinctive one – owned and run by Dutch ex-pat Stendert Dekker and partner Maria Tamayo. Can Banal is located just off the upper Llierca valley in a narrow, densely wooded defile. It was the primordial appearance of the forest, together with the echoic quality of the landform, that inspired the nickname; the braying wasn’t a sauropod ploughing its way through the jungle, but a distraught male donkey, or ‘jack’, imploring Stendert’s four ‘jennies’ to allow it to mount them. As well as the camping Stendert has owned and managed about 90 hectares of forest since coming to the area in the mid nineteen-eighties. Can Banal is in the Alta Garrotxa district, just to the north of the more well-known Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa. He grazes cattle in areas where he has been able to clear the dense woods; a problem here since progressive waves of rural depopulation since the end of the nineteenth century has reduced human impact here.

Talking with Stendert gives a fascinating insight into woodland conservation issues. As well a grazing livestock, the woods were used for forestry activities like charcoal production, wood products like withies or osiers, etc. as well as for timber. Left to itself, however, the woodland has become too dense for use and is being damaged by invasive species like Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and European black pine (Pinus nigra), which outgrow the predominant native deciduous trees such as oaks, especially Downy oak (Quercus pubescens) and common beech (Fagus sylvatica). The problem is that as well as the pines starving the forest floor micro-systems of light, the autochthonous trees must compete for access to sunlight in the canopy and grow too tall and thin as a result. Stendert has to thin sections of forest gradually, otherwise the affected trees can’t withstand winds, and it can take over ten years of husbandry to restore the forest (this was music to ears for Mrs Simon, who is somewhat of an expert in the field, albeit her specialism is in humid tropical environments!). Fortunately, under the auspices of the new Plan per a l’Espais d’Interes Natural (the plan for areas of special natural interest or P.E.I.N.) the Generalitat (Catalan Government) has come round to the view that this intervention is necessary and gives the necessary permissions, and grants, for sustainable forestry practises. Another current issue, however, is the growing trend for second home ownership; managed tended forest is sparse compared to ‘natural’ wilderness and can appear ugly to urban eyes – supported by the myth that the natural environment is in stasis and that there exists a ‘pristine’ ideal form.

But La Garrotxa certainly does appear pristine and idyllic. The extent of the forest is truly astonishing and its undulating hills are dotted with beautiful masias, the traditional Catalan family homesteads. Although some of these are still farmed the agricultural economy needs input from urban spin-off such as rural tourism. We felt that the area was more like France than Spain and but for the lack of British ex-pat population it appeared more reminiscent of the Dordogne than the Dordogne itself! In fact we much preferred the Alta Garrotxa to the Pac Natural itself. We felt that there the villages have suffered from the impact of tourism and that there is a sense of being ‘over managed’. This is very laudable, of course, but it seemed to isolate one from the natural environment and villages like Santa Pau, beautifully situated in the heart of the Parc, was positively twee!

Much more to our taste was to walk around the immediate vicinity of Can Banal, where Stendert has marked numerous walks that take in the nearby section of the GR1 trans-Pyrenean route. Much more to our liking!

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.

Stormy Weather – Springtime in the Ebro Delta

I’ve been spending a lot of time in flatlands of late, ranging from the plateau ‘desert’ of Los Monegros* to the Fens of East Anglia. Wetlands have a strange beauty all of their own. The rice paddies, called ‘arrossars’ in Catalan, of the Ebro Delta brought back memories of Guyana, where we studied the huge Mahaica Mahaicony Abary (MMA) water management project back in the mid-nineties. There we gained a great deal of practical knowledge about the arcane subtleties of rice cultivation.

* Los Monegros is certainly not a desert

The increasing intensity of the rising thunderstorm and the humidity of the afternoon were atmospheric reminders of those days.

For all the technology, rice production is labour intensive, involving huge maintenance of the land’s drainage and irrigation channels. The odd big installation like a pump house or sluice, are the tip of the iceberg – the real work involves slopping around in the mud, trousers rolled up, attending to the thousands of miles of ditches – but that afternoon the farmers fled the impending tempest and headed home!

Typical of cultivated wetlands like the Fens or on the Guyanese coast, the Delta is far from uniformly flat. Tiny settlements, some ugly, some with a neat cosiness, are found squeezed onto patches of higher ground.

The mosquitoes make camping here a reckless activity, and many tiny Cases de Pages offer snug accommodation.

But for us the dream would be to stay in a ‘Barraca’, the traditional hovels that still dot an ever more wild land/seascape.