Pinching Pennies in the Spanish Pyrenees
We took Air France through Paris to Barcelona, the closest major Spanish city to the Pyrenees; our round-trip tickets cost $928 apiece including taxes. At Barcelona's airport we caught one of the frequent buses to Placa de Catalunya in the heart of the city; the $3 fare was far more reasonable than a taxi. (Prices are based on 150 pesetas to the dollar, the exchange rate we generally got last summer.)
In Barcelona there is daily bus service to Andorra from the Estacio del Nord terminal, which is in walking distance of the city center. Our return bus from Aragon used the more distant Estacio Autobuses de Sants, which handles coaches from outside Catalunya. Barcelona's modern, underground metro system made it easy to get around the city. In fact, all of the public transportation we used ran like clockwork.
Where to Stay
The only room reservations we made before leaving the U.S. were for the two nights we planned to spend in Barcelona before taking off for the Pyrenees. We chose Hotel Nouvel (telephone 011 34 93 301 8274) an adequate, no-frills establishment conveniently located near the Placa de Catalunya and just off Las Ramblas, the lively main drag. Our double room with a rollaway and breakfast was $136 including tax. To make sure we had a place to come back to after the hike, we booked a room at the more economical Hotel Jardi (34 93 301 5900) for our last night in Spain. The Jardi has a great location in the Barri Gotic and a nice price ($48 without breakfast); also, our room had a barracks decor that would not satisfy anyone approaching finicky.
While advance reservations seemed to be mandatory for Barcelona, in the Pyrenees we had no trouble getting same-day accommodations. We were traveling in July, and perhaps August is another matter. But in Arinsal, Tavascan, La Guingueta, Espot and Benasque, we showed up and easily got rooms in small establishments that were without exception clean and inviting; prices for the three of us ranged from $29 at a hostel to $54 at a one-star hotel, excluding meals.
The accommodations we saw varied considerably in size and comfort. The little tin-can hut we stayed in had no staff, and a note on the wall asked visitors to send the equivalent of 70 cents to a Barcelona hiking group responsible for upkeep. The large refuges charged overnight guests around $7 (at the Refugi d'Amitges it was $7.34 a person whether you were in a bunk or on the floor) and served meals and refreshments.
We did not eat dinner at one but did have breakfast at several, always toast, jelly, a wafer or cookie and hot drinks for between $4 and $5. The large refuges have telephones, and you can make reservations by phone.
However, there is no central reservation number; so you must call each refuge individually. For the location and telephone number of refuges in Catalunya, the Spanish tourism office says to call 93 302 6416 in Barcelona; similar information is available for refuges in Aragon (34 976 22 7971) and Navarra (34 948 22 8431), the third Pyrenees region.
While the refuges are handy and provide a good way to meet European hikers, they tend to be cramped. Privacy? Forget it. Also, dependence on refuges is likely to straightjacket your itinerary, and force you to make a set number of miles each day.
For those reasons, plus their cost, it is at least advisable -- and in my view mandatory -- to carry a tent. Our four-person home weighs about 10 pounds but we broke up the components -- tent, poles, ground cloth and fly -- among the three of us. At lower elevations, bugs, mainly flies, were pesky, and a couple of night we ate dinner in the tent as well as slept there.
Our backpacks were our only luggage; we jammed everything we brought into them. For Barcelona and other stops in civilization, we each had long pants, jersey and sandals. Otherwise we took what you would take on a backpacking trip anywhere: First-aid kit with plenty of moleskin, flashlight and extra batteries, rain jacket and pants, gloves, wool hat, long underwear, wool sweater, hiking shorts, T-shirts, books, small binoculars, camera, sleeping bag and foam pads, twine, insect repellent and water bottles.
Our kitchen consisted of a light-weight backpacking stove, three fuel bottles (which we filled at a gasoline station in Andorra), two cooking pans with tops, six plastic cups (no plates), a metal stirring spoon, three plastic eating spoons, sponge and biodegradable soap.
We carried a hand-pump filter and, as a backup, iodine tablets to treat all stream water we used, an absolute necessity given the goat and sheep population. We ate simple dehydrated food bought off the grocery shelf, not the expensive variety sold in camping stores.
After we exhausted our initial supplies from the United States, we restocked at Spanish stores. Breakfast was usually hot cereal with coffee, tea or hot chocolate. Dinner was some kind of soup bolstered with some kind of pasta followed by tea and a German or Swiss candy bar. For lunch we would try to buy bread and cheese at a local market; otherwise we settled, though not happily, for peanut butter, honey and crackers. We supplemented our menu with liberal handfuls of homemade gorp -- nuts, dried fruit and M&Ms; and, to be perfectly honest, with a few meals at village cafes.
One helpful item didn't go in the pack. Margaret speaks French and is well on her way to learning Spanish. Without one of those languages, a Pyrenees hike could be difficult. Except for Europeans from outside the region, almost no one we met in the mountains spoke English.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication