The Senda is a long walk. Like its elder sister, the Pyrenean Way (GR10) in France, it runs from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean, taking in the entire length of the mountains. With over 950km to hike and around 42000m of climbing it is a serious trek. Kilian Jornet may well have brushed it off in eight days but ordinary humans will take at least six weeks.
Yet there’s more to the GR11 than the one and a half million footprints and the encounters with other nomads. It is also a window on a way of life. The last vestiges of the Old Mountains are still visible in recently abandoned hamlets and overgrown hedgerows. And the New Mountains are moving in, bringing with them infrastructures and ideas conceived on the plains.
The Pyrenees are changing
Nature is also mutating. Although attempts to clone a Pyrenean ibex from the last female were a failure and the species is officially extinct, ibex from further south have been reintroduced.
The Pyrenean bear is also officially extinct and yet it too is still surviving, albeit in a genetically modified form. In 1996 there were only five bears in the mountains but the arrival of the Slovenian branch of the family and interbreeding has brought the numbers back up to 30. Many shepherds are disgusted. The predator they thought they had eliminated is being re-imposed on them. They aren’t too happy about wolves either, though the wolves have come back of their own accord. As for the wild boar population, it is out of control!
So the conflict between nature and culture is reshaping the Pyrenees. Rural versus urban is another axis around which the hills are being reconstructed. In 21st century Wild-West La Jonquera, truckers and tarts, fags and farlopa hang out on the sidewalk or head out on the motorway. But on the hillside just above, the pretty village of La Vajol lives at a much slower pace. Yet they both share the common memory: the Retirada, when half a million Spanish refugees spilled across the Pyrenees in the winter of 1939.
Half a million refugees crossed the Pyrenees in less than a week
Recently the elements have been playing havoc. Heavy snowfalls making parts of the Senda impassable even at end of June. Floods swelling the rivers into frothing torrents. And fire, stoked by the wind, leap-frogging over the motorway.
So the walk was eventful. Footprints on the mountains is my account of it.