Hiking High in the Pyrenees

Euro-style Backpacking
  |  Gorp.com

If you start your hiking day at the late hour of nine or ten in the morning; if you drink your water from a metal fuel bottle; if you have never heard of giardia; and if your idea of a good hiking meal consists of four courses and a bottle of wine, chances are you're not hiking in the good ole U.S. of A.

Welcome to France and Spain.

Daily schedules, choice of gear, water treatment, and cuisine are only some of the ways that hiking Euro-style differs from its American counterpart. I had plenty of time to learn them all when I spent a summer walking the 600-mile-long Pyrenees High Route, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea over some of the most rugged and impressive mountains to be found in western Europe—or, for that matter, anywhere else.

The trail starts on the Atlantic beach at the small town of Hendaye on the French-Spanish border and quickly climbs through the lush farmland and pastures of Basque country. It gains elevation the slow way—up and down a series of ridges each higher than the next—until a few days later, it reaches the glaciated heart of the high Pyrenees.

One day in France, the next day in Spain, sometimes following the very crest that divides the two nations, the trail takes in unrivaled mountain scenery as it enters national parks on both sides of the border. It crosses through tiny Andorra—a country so small you can traverse it in a mere three days—and finally, descends into the sun-drenched vineyards of the Mediterranean wine country, where it ends on the pebbled beach of Banyuls-sur-Mer.

By the time we finished our nearly two-month odyssey, our French vocabulary had expanded to include words like fog, wind, and rain; lightning, storms, cold, steep trail, unblazed trail, and both the French and Spanish words for"I'm lost, please help." But we also learned to say "It's beautiful at the top," and "The view is even better on this side of the pass." Our accents improved.

We had also gotten the hang of strapping a baguette to our packs, buying cheese from local shepherds, and ending the day with a glass of wine bought from a high-country refuge. I'd have to say that our hiking style had acquired a European accent, as well.

And hiking may never be the same!


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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