Noticias en ‘Favourite Walks’

May 23rd, 2009

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!

A Rushing River Ramble: the Riu Noguera Pallaresa

Dryads of mist rose and swirled among the trees and around the tent as the previous day’s torrential rain had left the ground sodden and the air decidedly chilly. But above the canopy we could see clear blue sky that hinted of a fine day to come. This Sunday was certainly not a morning for lounging around with the papers, so nothing else for it but to rouse The Pack and get down to our more or less eternal task of enlarging our list of ‘Favourite Walks’ that we leave for guests at Casa Rafela.

In its brief life the river Noguera Pallaresa passes through several distinct landscapes; high Pyrenean meadows, deep ravines like the Collegats (see ‘Gaudí on a Natural High? August 18th), or the spectacular Congost de Terradets. Terradets is in limestone country but here, on the stretch between Gerri de la Sal and Baro, there’s a swirling mishmash of rock types in the interstitial zone between the pre-Pyrenees and the granite massifs of the Pyrenees proper. Outcrops of red ironstone mingle with swathes of conglomerate and schist. The river, oblivious to this primordinal drama, meanders along the narrow valley, indolently slicing the harder rock into steep cliffs and depositing silt along quiet intermediate level stretches. The cliff sections hardly qualify as ravines, many are only fifty or so metres long with cascades of white water over the still eroding substrate. These stretches make the area ideal for rafting, specialised outward bound companies operate out of  the nearby township of Llavorsi. Several are ‘one sided’ as the river simply worked its way around obstacles, following a pre-determined path of softer rock. Here the forest sweeps majestically down to the riverside and at odd places huge oak trees have been undercut by the swiftly flowing waters and lie at crazy angles, their upper branches dipping into the water and making little dingles of shale and gravel in their wake.

Our route follows the trail from the roadside village of Baro to the hermitage of Mare de Deu d’Arbolo. Baro was an ancient fording place that grew to become a village from around the XIV C as the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age of the XVIII C. This made life in the higher villages untenable in winter. In the upland valleys important settlements, like the Bronze Age village of Santa Creu de Llagunes, which is thought to have been inhabited from around 1500 BCE, were completely abandoned as early as the turn of the XIII C. We are able to cross the river at Baro by the new Pont d’Arcalís, which lies alongside the earlier suspension bridge there. If the name sounds familiar there’s a well-known folk music group who have adopted it as their moniker.

From here the track winds in and out of the forest, sometimes running alongside water meadows where small herds of the indigenous Pyrenean Brown Cow, the Vaca Bruna, idly chew the cud. The great asset of this walk is the way the path is endlessly varied, climbing gently up and down the hillside and giving alternate views over the surrounding mountain scenery, or peering down to the river almost vertically below. The presence of the road is swiftly forgotten as the noise of the rushing river drowns out any hint of passing traffic, and in any event there are two tunnels where the road disappears entirely, leaving the riverbank to the wildlife and occasional visitors like ourselves. These reaches of the river are known for otters (Lutra lutra), called Llúdria in Catalan, and the woods are a haunt of Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), or Gal Fer.

This sylvan reach of the river ends abruptly at the hermitage, which is perched on a shoulder of rock high above the river at a ‘real’ ravine. The hermitage is well preserved and mass is still held there during fiestas. There are numerous hermitages in this region, I can think of a dozen off the top of my head. Although many are completely in ruins and very difficult to access several are the focus of meetings called ‘aplecs’ where as well as doing the pious bit the locals very sensibly settle down to a good meal! Here are Arboló there’s a lovely terraced area with a built-in picnic table and we settle for elevenses under the watchful eye of a dozen or so griffon vultures circling above the cliffs on the opposite bank. Meanwhile a heron took off along the river far below, much too far for a photograph, even if I had kept the camera switched on!

Later, while Mrs Simon explored our El Carillet walk in the nearby Val Fosca, I was reflecting on the morning’s walk when another heron flew slowly down the adjacent riverbank, just under the canopy of trees. I’m no birder but I’ve always been lucky with herons; as a schoolboy I was on nodding acquaintance with one as I cycled to school of a morning (hard to imagine that journey now in this age of the ubiquitous ‘School Run’, a two-mile ride into the village to catch the bus there for the remaining six miles into ‘Town’!). I love the heron’s quiet dignity, a far cry from the raucous gregariousness of the griffons. That word ‘raucous’ put me in mind of the Catalan, ‘rauxa’, which is much more than just a word! Rauxa and seny represent the duality of the Catalan character. Many newcomers to Spain, and we were all newcomers once upon a time, come expecting all Spaniards to have the fey bravado so well summed up by Ian Gibson in the title of his book ‘Fire in the Blood’. So it comes as a shock to find a people notorious for their diligence, level headedness and, if you believe what many other Spaniards say about them, a rather slavish regard for money. These anglosajón qualities, or rather anglosaxó as it would be said here, are summed up by the word seny, which implies a canny, common sensical pragmatism (the Scottish word, nous, is probably the best translation) that is indeed highly valued hereabouts. But life would be very boring, anglosaxó indeed, if this summed up the entire Catalan mentality. Fortunately for them, and ‘tourists’ like ourselves, this is counterbalanced by rauxa, which has been feebly translated as ‘rashness’. But rauxa is far more than this. We’d been having a seny weekend, getting back in touch with the earth and the stars and recuperating from a manic summer, but more than that preparing ourselves for the rauxa ordeal to come. For back home in the city of Tarragona, in secret caverns, mysterious beasts are stirring, literally warming up for the mayhem soon to be unleashed upon its citizens!

Monument Valley: the Vall de Serradell in the Catalan Pyrenees

When it came the storm was as sudden as it was unexpected and the tent was lit up like daylight as lightening flashed around the night sky, surreal in the absence of its accompanying thunder, which was drowned out by the white noise of a series of rushing rapids just outside the ‘door’. As the rain cascaded down the temperature dropped sharply and Lucky, who had briefly stirred at the onset of the deluge, curled herself into an even tighter ball and adopted the classic husky blizzard position; nose tucked firmly up her bum. I did a quick mental inventory of the scene outside, nothing there that a bit of rain would hurt, but the damp had put a stop to any idea of striking camp and getting away early. I badly needed a lie-in, but Lucky needed a long walk more. I resolved to return to Monument Valley.

It sounds like overstating the obvious but one of the lovely things about the Pyrenees is, well, there are so much of them! After spending over twenty years exploring my particular area in the Catalan province of Lleida I still get the occasional surprise, or shock even. Circumstance had brought Lucky, my lupine Husky/German Shepherd cross, and I camping alone for three days. The only full day was to be occupied with business, sadly, but the evening we arrived and made camp I’d planned to re-visit the Val Fosca, meaning ‘The Dark Valley’ in Catalan, to update my image bank of the region. But as I approached the entrance to the valley, at the Congost de Erinya, I saw that ominous clouds were already forming over the high peaks beyond, so on a whim I turned off into the valley of the Riu de Serradell. I hadn’t been there for well over twenty years, when we’d been disappointed by a failed house purchase, so maybe that explains why I’d never been back. This time my eyes were for the valley, not for bricks and mortar, and I was amazed as I approached the village and the landscape opened out in front of me. Nothing for it but to boot up and take an hour’s exploration – much to Lucky’s delight!

What is it that makes a landscape so stunning? Certainly not sheer size as in this case the valley is dwarfed by the higher ranges just to the north and the two local big sierras, Boumort and Montsec. Walking the mile or so (a couple of kilometres at most) of farm track towards the Obac de Serradell, the last flat, cultivated space at the head of the valley, it struck me that here quite the opposite was the case; even though the landscape is big, even by Spanish standards, it is small enough to be constantly changing as I walked up the valley, with new vistas and facets emerging with every turn. Plus there is a lovely juxtaposition between the bare cliffs and the wooded slopes that reach up to them from the valley floor. Meanwhile, the domesticity of the immediate surroundings, with their rolling meadows and quaint bordes, or field barns, contrasted with the primordial appearance of the dense forest and the heavily eroded slopes. It was on this short stroll that I decided that some day I’d explore a ‘proper’ walk and came up with the name for it; Monument Valley. Sooner than expected, then, we were back. Still ill prepared, no map, no details, but with a cool morning ahead and plenty of willpower to thoroughly enjoy the few hours that we had left of the weekend.

Driving up towards Serradell the six kilometres of sinuous lane snake among tiny meadows and glades of oak and ash trees. The valley has a strange combination of agricultures. I usually associate olive groves with wheat fields and vineyards, and with the rearing of sheep and goats. But here the olives were interspersed with grass cultivation; it was haymaking time, and the tiny fields with the cut hay waiting for the baler reminded me of Cantabria rather than Catalonia. Some meadows had electric fences installed (useless for goats!), and sure enough, around the next bend there were dun cows with their offspring meditatively chewing the cud – much to Lucky’s amazement, she’d hardly ever seen a cow before, let alone a calf. Suddenly, the olive trees disappeared, and pine trees began to predominate the view. This is the Bosc de Serradell, and I began to gaze in wonder as the true nature and extent of the valley began to unfold. As the lane passes along the northern flank of the east-west running valley, much of the ‘view’ is over pine forests, which turn out to be plantation dating from the nineteen-fifties, but important stands of indigenous European box (Buxus sempervirens) and beach (Fagus sylvatica) trees, whose origins date from the cooler quaternary epoch, continue to thrive among the more sheltered slopes.

Serradell itself is tiny, with about thirty-odd houses all clinging around a hump of mountainside below glowering cliffs. The rocks hereabouts are all conglomerate dating from the Oligocene period. These formations crop up all over Catalonia and the best-known example is probably the Montsant range in Tarragona. Here though, and in the nearby Collegats ravine, the rocks have a very distinct pink hue and from a distance one could confuse them for sandstone; especially as the soft rock is subject to wind erosion giving the cliffs a voluptuous curving form. Furthermore, rainwater erosion, which works away wearing down exposed faces down the sides of the cliffs leave huge columns standing apart where the tip has been capped by large boulders. These sometimes have a cathedral like magnitude. There are caves visible which break the surface up into lateral lines and deep vertical scars of watercourse carve the cliffs into lobes. A sign in the village points to a walk to the Font d’Aigüafresca, the Cold Water Spring, and it’s true; spring water from this rock is extra cold! Serradell is a pretty village that clambers up the hillside with covered alleyways more typical in style to those of the high-Pyrenees. Several of the houses were being restored and those that were finished had a tendency to ‘tweeness’ that spoke of serious money. As we left the village and walked further into the valley isolated bordes, which used to be used as barns and stabling for the livestock, were also being done up, and the prevalence of Swiss registered cars confirmed the impression.

One the first excursion I’d seen a signpost for the Cova de Cuberes. I had a vague recollection of remains of prehistoric human occupation in the valley and decided to make this the aim of my walk, but as the lane petered out at the very last borda there was no sign of any cave (here is the information that I was missing, thanks to the excellent Palau Robert Institute). Instead a marked forest trail began, with the obvious intention of heading up and over the Coll de Serradell (1,550m approx.), which was clearly visible although at a somewhat frightening angle of ascent! Nothing for it but to press on into the dank forest so in we went. The trail is marked with the standard red and white stripes and but for them I would have a) given up and/or b) got hopelessly lost! Deep and dank the forest certainly was and I was glad of Lucky’s company on many occasions. She is indeed lupine in her habits and manner as having been born and raised in the Pyrenees she’s used to having free rein in the open woodland around our house in the nearby Conca de Tremp, but here in the forest it’s definitely no-go. I’m used to not seeing much of the fauna while out and about with the dogs but with Lucky’s unerring sense of smell and acute hearing causing her to pause almost every few yards one has a great sense of their presence. Squirrels and martens are a frequent sighting though, as Lucky adopts the pointer position towards some tree or other. Meanwhile walking alone gives time to ponder on one’s vulnerability and the fragility of life in general – not a good time to remember that no-one in the world knows where you are – I’d tried the mobile phone coverage earlier on – no chance! So I hung onto the dog for more than just physical support as the path began a steep zigzag ascent of around three hundred metres. Near the top, as we passed out of the now sweltering forest onto a nasty traverse across a section of cliff face, Lucky froze once again, looking back across the deep ravine that we had just climbed. She was fixed on the seemingly bare rock face opposite and as I caught my breath I could hear the tip tapping of hooves on hard rock. Try as I may I could see nothing, however, despite being only about fifty metres away across the yawning divide. I guessed they were Izards (Rupicapra pyrenaica pyrenaica) as these are the most common hoofed mammal species hereabouts. They may well have been in the trees that crept up to the foot of the rocks but I felt frustrated all the same; there was a strange intimacy between us, so alone all the way up here. Who knows how long it was, or would be, since any other human had been here?

The climb turned out to be a chimera, reaching one peak just gave me a better view of the subsequent section (in fact I’d only climbed about a hundred and fifty metres from the bottom of the cliff, plus about the same again from the village!), and I had to face the facts that I was ill prepared, it was now getting seriously hot and that I had to be back home in the city that same afternoon. So after a breather we set off back. As we left the shoulder of rock and re-entered the forest we heard a fox give a valedictory yelp, reclaiming his own, perhaps. The steep path turned out to be almost as hard going down as it was up; the curse of the husky owner being that they pull with equal force in both directions and never seem to tire! So I was glad to emerge into the strengthenig sunlight and regain the farm track on the valley floor. It gave me plenty of time to ponder our relation with nature in its more raw aspects. Ahead of me lay the trappings of civilisation; the car, good music, good food and more, none of which I would readily do without, but for the immediate future what we both wanted was to get down to the icy cold waters of Lake Sant Antoni!