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!

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!