Pinching Pennies in the Spanish Pyrenees

Chance was a Constant Companion
By Michael H. Brown
  |  Gorp.com
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Butterfield & Robinson, which bills itself as the"premier organizer of luxe biking and walking trips," is offering a six-day walk in the Pyrenees this summer at a per-person cost of $2,850 excluding airfare.

Last summer, my wife Margaret, our 14-year-old daughter Cate, and I took a three-week hiking trip to the Pyrenees for a total of about $1,800 excluding airfare. Along with the price tag, of course, the accommodations differed considerably.

Butterfield & Robinson promises "genial, family-run country hotels," "Michelin-starred dining," and an omnipresent van to bring in refreshments and carry out purchases.

We slept most nights in our dome tent, ate noodles cooked on a one-burner stove and transported everything on our backs. Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the Butterfield & Robinson way of doing the Pyrenees; it sounds great. But we certainly couldn't afford it. Chichi it was not, but backpacking worked for us. And I bet there might be some other families out there who would like to experience these beautiful and surprisingly isolated mountains without paying a pricey tripmeister.

But beware. In addition to cost and comfort, the do-it-yourself approach differs in another way from the organized walking tour. The Butterfield & Robinson website assures prospective customers that "we plan each trip as you would plan it yourself, leaving nothing to chance." Last summer in the Pyrenees, chance was our constant companion.

The Portella de Baiau is a 9,000-foot pass in the Pyrenees between the principality of Andorra and the Catalunya region of Spain. We timed our arrival to coincide perfectly with a massive outpouring of hail stones and thick rain drops.

It was our second day out, and the climb up the Andorran side of the mountain had left us exhausted. As I looked down into Catalunya, I could just make out the red-and-white trail markers disappearing over an expanse of wet scree -- rocks too small to be stable but big enough to crush a leg if disturbed from their momentary state of rest.

I wondered how in the world we were going to make it down this slippery heap in one piece. The three of us were following a footpath that runs along the southern side of the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, all of it in Spain except for a brief interlude in little Andorra.

The path is called the GR 11 -- for gran recorrido in Spanish or grande randonnee in French -- and is part of a network of long-distance European trails marked by red-and-white rectangular bars.

We had started out the previous morning in the Andorran village of Arinsal and were heading west, though with no expectation of getting anywhere near the ocean. Just how far we would go in the 19 days before our flight home from Barcelona, we didn't know -- somewhere, I was desperately hoping at this particular moment, beyond the Portella de Baiau.

Hobbled but Hardy

Outside magazine adventure types we definitely are not. Margaret and I are in our 50s; her knees have all the strength of spaghetti, and I'm a veteran of two back operations. That leaves Cate the only unhobbled one in the crew. What we do have going for us is a good bit of long-distance hiking experience, mainly in the U.S. but also a previous summer in the French Alps.

But let's be clear. It was an incredibly slow rate of descent, not skill, that allowed us to get down from that pass without breaking anything. Wet and hungry, we tumbled late that afternoon into an overnight shelter perched about a mile below.

The little structure was precarious enough that it was secured to the mountainside by cables. Like the Alps, the Pyrenees are dotted with refuges of varying size and sophistication. This one, definitely on the low-end of the scale, contained nine bunks and was made entirely of metal. I felt like I was inside a giant Campbell Soup can. But what the one-room hut lacked in visual charm, it more than made up for in warmth --and, it turned out, in camaraderie as well.

Andre, a delightful Belgian, and his teenage son, Pieter, arrived soon afterward, and following dinner we played cards as lightning and thunder crashed around us. First, we taught our new friends the game of hearts, which Andre soon pronounced a mindless enterprise.

He and Pieter retaliated by teaching us a Flemish favorite of theirs, the name of which, not to mention the rules, I never truly mastered and have since completely flushed from my brain. That evening of laughter, especially following a day best described as challenging, was a wonderful and unexpected dividend.

Simply put, backpacking makes for a slow-paced excursion that offers experiences as well as geography that may be off the beaten path. One day, after a 3 1/2-mile walk along an old"pista" made of huge rocks literally sticking out of a hill, we reached what our guide book identified as the hamlet of Lleret in time for the lunch of bread, cheese and fruit that we had purchased that morning in a closet-sized grocery in the village of Tavascan.

Lleret appeared to be abandoned. The buildings, all made of stone, were largely dilapidated, and the only living creatures in evidence were the dozen emaciated cats watching us a little bit too intently as we ate around what was once the community well.

Suddenly, there appeared a young man nattily dressed in sharply-creased trousers and a colorful sports shirt. He proceeded to give us a local history lesson, explaining that some of the stone structures around us dated back to the 1600s. How many people still live here, I asked? "There are nine," he said, before pausing to think. "No, eight."

Stark Scenery

The Pyrenees do not reach the heights of the Alps. They are also not as accessible and, in our experience, not nearly so bustling with tourists. We didn't see one other American and, judging by the reaction we got, not many of the locals had either.

The scenery is rockier, more stark, less pastoral than the Alps, but just as stunning. One spectacular day we went immediately from swimming in a crystal clear lake to tramping up a snow-covered mountain.

The French side of the Pyrenees has its own east-west path, the GR 10. We chose the Spanish side because the weather is supposed to be dryer, and we had not hiked in Spain before. The chain itself spans about 260 miles but the GR 11, with its twists and turns, covers almost twice that distance, obviously far too much for a three-week vacation.

The guide book we used --"Through the Spanish Pyrenees" by Paul Lucia, a British publication from Cicerone Press -- breaks the end-to-end trip into 44 days. In my judgment you would have to be remarkably fit to keep Mr. Lucia's schedule. A couple of French hikers we met planned on 40 days. In good weather they were switching to an "haute route" alternative that stays on tops of the peaks and avoids lengthy ups and downs.

Starting from the Center

Initially, I thought we would start at the Mediterranean and see how far west we could go. But a little pre-departure research indicated the mountains' most dramatic scenery is in the middle -- from Andorra west to around the Spanish city of Jaca in Aragon. That became our general target area.

Our exact starting point was dictated by a simple calculation worked out after we arrived in Barcelona: What spot on the GR 11 would be easiest to reach by public transportation?

From the tourist office in Barcelona's central Placa de Catalunya we got the local telephone numbers for bus and train information. Each offered several possibilities but the quickest and simplest seemed to be a four-hour bus ride to Andorra la Vella, Andorra's capital. The bus was punctual, comfortable and rocking with piped-in 1960s American music. From the capital, we caught first a local bus and then a taxi to reach Arinsal on the GR 11.

Besides transportation, maps were the other critical piece of logistics left for Barcelona. The Cicerone guide included sketches of the GR 11 route but advised taking detailed trail maps as well—a definite necessity, we would later learn.

We could find none for sale in the U.S. but, tipped off by Lonely Planet's"Trekking in Spain," we got what we needed -- in fact, far more than we needed -- at Llibreria Quera, a small book store in Barcelona's Barri Gotic section. The shop has a wide inventory of hiking materials, including an Editorial Alpina series of large-scale GR 11 maps. In what proved to be an act of laughable optimism, we bought 11 of them -- enough to take us from Andorra to the Somport pass north of Jaca, a distance of 185 miles.

The brutal reality is our grand total turned out to be 86 miles, barely enough to get us out of Catalunya and into Aragon. One reason is basic: we don't walk very fast. Another was the terrific midday heat, a condition we had not experienced before. The initial wet weather was followed by a week of blistering sun and humidity that made it difficult, if not foolhardy, to walk in the early afternoon, a lesson we learned too slowly. When we oozed into the village of Boldis Subira about 3 p.m. one sweltering day, every single shutter was rolled down tight, and not even the cats were out.

The third reason was illness. While making a 3,100-foot climb one afternoon, Cate came down with a fever. We proceeded slowly over the next pass and camped that night literally on the trail because that was the only flat spot we could find.

The next morning on the way down to the dusty town of La Guingueta d'Aneu and what we knew from the guide book would be a hotel room, the thermometer we carry in our first-aid kit showed Cate's temperature was up to 103.5.

The next day the patient was greatly improved, thankfully, and we went by taxi to a hotel in nearby Espot, an attractive ski town on the edge of the Aiguestortes and Sant Maurici national park. After two more days of recuperation -- and restaurant meals -- Cate was as good as new, and we were on our way again.

Tenting Tribulations

Except for that time-out plus two nights in refuges and one in a village inn, we slept in our tent. Camping is generally allowed along the GR 11, Mother Nature being the only barrier. You need a water supply and a few feet of passably flat land, conditions often not readily at hand.

One evening when they were proving particularly elusive, an elderly shepherd gladly let us use his pasture. He carried what seemed to be the one mandatory piece of shepherding equipment, an umbrella, and made no effort to hide his amazement at the idea of human beings flying across the Atlantic. Had Cate been scared? The jovial gentleman wanted to know.

Another time, after a long, steep, sometimes-hand-over-hand climb through thick shrubbery — "We were in hell," Margaret insists with a conviction just this side of hysteria — we came out on a sparkling stream running through a carpet of soft, dry grass. It would have been a fine sleep anyway, but the pitter-patter of gentle rain on the tent fly after we were snug in our sleeping bags made it more so.

The one place with a no-camping rule was the national park. There we stayed in the Refugi d'Amitges, a large stone building at 7,800 feet with a stunning view and a welcomed assortment of wine and other refreshments.

All 66 bunks were taken by the time we arrived, but the staff let us bed down on the dinning room floor. That was fine with me because the two dormitories were jammed and dark, not an inviting combination for a closet claustrophobic. Like most large refuges, this one served meals.

Home Cooking

But mindful of the beating administered to our finances in Espot, we retired to the self-cooking area along with a couple dozen other guests, most of them, I would guess, in their teens and early 20s.

We carried a backpacking stove able to burn gasoline, diesel or just about any other liquid fuel. That particular night we dined on chicken soup and pasta while watching the sun's reddish orange reflection sink slowly below the jagged gray peaks that surrounded us.

A week before our scheduled Sunday flight home, Margaret and I got out the maps to figure out where we should end the hike. The choice quickly seemed clear.

The medieval city of Benasque was — for us — a five-day walk away and had bus service, the last such opportunity for a good while. Our decision was endorsed the next day by a young man guiding a German hiking group that we crossed on the trial. Speaking English, he gave us a helpful rundown on Benasque's bus service and other attributes."You are Spanish," I asked as we were parting? "No, Catalunyan. My passport is Spanish," he replied with a twinkle, providing further evidence of the region's fierce spirit of independence.

We walked into the old Aragon town of Benasque Thursday evening, and found we could get a bus early Saturday morning south to Barbastro, and there transfer to one reaching Barcelona that afternoon. That left us free Friday to explore the picturesque Benasque valley.

It also gave us a chance to have a wonderful end-of-hike celebration dinner -- lamb, salad, and dessert of flan. A backpacking trip certainly isn't for everybody but it is guaranteed to have one universal effect on all who try it: A greatly increased appreciation of food.


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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