Hiking High in the Pyrenees

Continental Style
  |  Gorp.com
Pitching a tent in the Pyrenees high country
"Camping sauvage"

The first thing you'll probably notice about backpacking in Europe is that you are almost never in wilderness. Most of Europe is densely settled; sometimes it seems that there is a village between each ridge and the next. Even away from towns and villages, you'll see signs of human habitation in the occasional farmer's hut and the ubiquitous sheep. The Pyrenees boast some of the wildest and least-inhabited country in western Europe (unless you count the frozen tundra of northern Scandinavia). Nonetheless, you are rarely more than a day's walk from a road or a town.

This absence of wilderness creates a different hiking ethic. For example,"Leave no Trace" principles have only recently made their way across the pond. You'll see plenty of signs telling visitors to take out their garbage, but you'll also see plenty of evidence that the message hasn't quite sunk in. Recent environmental studies have focused on the impact of too many campers in concentrated sites, but the fact is that Europeans love to hike and they have limited places to do it. On a sunny weekend, you'll frequently see hundreds of people climbing up to a great view on a popular trail. I'm told the Pyrenees receive far fewer visitors than the Alps (although by American standards, some parts of the national parks' backcountry do seem jam-packed).

You'll also see a much more domesticated backcountry. The national parks in both France and Spain have a system of huts (called refuges in France; refugios in Spain), where hikers can sleep in a bed, buy four-course meals complete with wine, or (in some cases) cook their own meals in a kitchen provided for that purpose. If you'd rather put up your tent, you can pitch it—along with dozens of others—in well-used campsites around the hut. Real backcountry camping, referred to as camping sauvage (or wild camping), is often discouraged. In our conversations with our fellow hikers, it seemed that Europeans vastly preferred to end their day at an identified official destination, usually near a refuge or in a town.

And the towns are set up for hikers. On the French side of the border, most towns have so-called gites d'etapes, which are well-maintained hostels, complete with cooking facilities, designed not for roaming mobs of teenagers on holiday, but for grown-up hikers and bikers. On both the French and Spanish side, you'll find comfortable accommodations in two-star hotels.

In fact, long-distance walking has a venerable history in these parts. A thousand years ago, pilgrims streamed over the Pyrenees to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, carrying hiking staffs, capes, and a shell as an emblem of their journey. Today, we carry telescoping hiking poles, rain gear, and—in my case—a shell I picked up on the beach at Hendaye Plague, hoping to carry it to the Mediterranean Sea.

The ancient code of conduct demanded that pilgrims be helped on their way, and the same ethic is alive and well today, as local people wish us bon courage, give us directions, struggle to understand our abominable French, and in times of need, help us by providing rides, the use of a telephone, and information on where to change money or find a room on a national holiday.


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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