All posts by steve

Frontier crossing

View from near the Port de Marterat down the Ossèse valley
View from near the Port de Marterat down the Ossèse valley

If you are hampered by the possession of a car and want to go from the hamlet of Quanca in Catalonia to Ossèse in France, you have to drive 210km. It takes four hours.

Yet the two hamlets are only 10km apart: there are mountains in the way.

If, on the other hand, you have a pair of walking shoes, there are wonderful things to be seen.

Estany de Mariola with Certascan in the background
Estany de Mariola with Certascan in the background

I walked over the frontier this weekend, trying out a route I haven’t used before, via Fangassal and Mariola to the pass at the Port de Marterat where I stayed in the hut overnight. I spent the evening watching an isard grazing on the other side of the valley.

Forlorn cross half-way down the Ossèse valley. The path from the pass traverses the slope just above the arm of the cross before diving into the valley
Forlorn cross half-way down the Ossèse valley. The path from the pass traverses the slope just above the arm of the cross before diving into the valley

Next morning, I descended to Ossèse in France.

Passage between stone walls, shaded by coppiced trees just above Ossèse.
Passage between stone walls, shaded by coppiced trees just above Ossèse.

The route between Quanca and Ossèse is not just a pretty walk, it has a long history. It was one of the paths over the Pyrenees taken by colporteurs (peddlers) burdened with huge sacks of easily sold items, carrying also tales of the wider world to the isolated farming communities. Smugglers too found it useful.

In times of war, particularly during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, the route was used by refugees, soldiers and airmen seeking freedom. Nowadays, the route is one leg of a 4-day cross-border walk, ‘The Mountains of Liberty’, evoking that era.

In times of peace, the route was used by migrants attracted by the possibilities of a better life over the border.

In the 21st century, the only people to frequent the area apart from walkers are the livestock farmers and their shepherds who spend four months here each summer.

Bordes de Graus: campsite, refuge and restaurant
Bordes de Graus: campsite, refuge and restaurant

Accommodation: Bordes de Graus (Tavascan, Catalonia) and L’Escolan (Ustou, France).

Making connections

Areou estive
Areou estive (above the Col de Pause on the French GR10)

On Google Earth, the mountain looks bald. Lower down it bristles with trees, but up here it looks like the bald pate of a man trying to hide his age: covered with fine white hairs brushed parallel. There are dozens of these white lines. Animal tracks?

On Catalan maps there is a real path in there somewhere but none of the lines on Google Earth looks important enough to be a path with a name. So, does the Camí de Aulà really exist? I email Fornet, the nearest hostel, but the reply is vague. I look on Wikiloc. Nobody has uploaded a record of having walked it. I ask in the local Facebook walking group. No luck there either. There’s nothing to do but take the risk.

Continue reading Making connections

Rewilding in Catalonia: sheep and bears, the official version

Sheep from the Boldis-Àreu flock now back in the valley.
Sheep from the Boldis-Àreu flock now back in the valley. In summer they can be seen on the GR11 near the pass between these two villages.

Source: Press release Department for the environment and sustainability, Generalitat de Catalunya, in conjunction with PirosLife and EU Life program, 31 October 2018, with additions based on interviews with one of the shepherds involved.

After five months in the high pastures the 36 sheep farms working with the PirosLife project have brought their 5600 sheep and goats back from the mountains. While in the mountains the animals were grouped into six flocks and various measures taken to protect them from bear attacks. The cost is borne by the PirosLife project.

Continue reading Rewilding in Catalonia: sheep and bears, the official version

Bears in the woods in Catalonia (and France)

Bear cubs photographed on an automatic camera near the Port de Tavascan, July 2017
Bear cubs photographed on an automatic camera near the Port de Tavascan, July 2017

The French government has recently promised to reinforce of the brown bear population in the western Pyrenees. Predictably this has stirred up French shepherds following an increase in attacks last year. Demonstrations are being planned. But on the other side of the border, in Catalonia, things are much quieter. Shepherds seem to be more willing to accept the new constraints. Continue reading Bears in the woods in Catalonia (and France)

Are Catalans better than French in dealing with bears?

On the Catalonia-France frontier above Núria
On the Catalonia-France frontier above Núria on the HRP/GR11

According to the authorities, the measures taken to protect livestock, principally sheep, from wild animals can be seen to work in Catalonia. The government gives compensation to farmers when their herds are attacked by protected animals (bears, wolves, etc). In 2009 it paid out 97,000€ but by 2015, the last year for which statistics are available, this figure had been reduced to 2,700€! If there is nothing hidden benind these figures it is a remarkable achievement. Continue reading Are Catalans better than French in dealing with bears?

Food for thought on the Way to Santiago de Compostela

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where the Camino de Santiago meets the Pyrenean Way GR10
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, where the Camino de Santiago meets the Pyrenean Way GR10 just before crossing the Pyrenees

My first is in walking, but under the sea.
My second is saintly, but not on the Way.
My third is edible, much prized and much prised open.
My whole is a riddle, the search for meaning.

How did scallops become associated with the Way of St James pilgrimage, to the extent of becoming a ubiquitous way mark?

Continue reading Food for thought on the Way to Santiago de Compostela

Spanish restaurants serve osso bucco to birds

Quebrantaheusos (Spanish), bearded vulture, Lammergeyer vulture (English), Gypaète barbu (French)
Quebrantaheusos (Spanish), bearded vulture, Lammergeyer vulture (English), Gypaète barbu (French)

Photo: Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak

The French and English names (gypaète barbu and bearded vulture) refer to its distinctive red “beard” but the Spanish name for the Gypaetus barbatus, Quebrantahuesos tells you more about it: the name means “bone breaker”. Continue reading Spanish restaurants serve osso bucco to birds

Strange bedfellows counting sheep… then dreaming of hunting them

New Mexico Bighorn Sheep
New Mexico Bighorn Sheep. Photo by Jwanamaker https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28291925

The debate on the reintroduction of carnivores (think wolves) and omnivores (bears) usually focusses on the polarised views of livestock breeders on the one hand and conservationists on the other. But what about hunters? I’ve just been reading an article in the New York Times about hunting sheep which adds a whole new dimension to the discussion. In the US, receipts from sheep hunting permits are used to finance more sheep reintroductions. Could this idea be applied to the Pyrenees? Continue reading Strange bedfellows counting sheep… then dreaming of hunting them