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.
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.
Next morning, I descended to Ossèse in France.
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.
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.
Aneto, at 3404m may well be the highest point in the Pyrenees but it is not the highest point on the Spanish peninsula. That honour goes to Mulhacén, 3479m, in the Sierra Nevada, within sight of Granada. It is said to be the last resting place of the penultimate Moorish king of Spain, Mulay Hasan. Unlike its Pyrenean rival however, Mulhacén is not a great challenge to climb in summer. From the Alpujarras, to the south it looks like a big potato: locally it is known as the “Cerro”, the hill.
Normally, climbing Canigou (2784m) is an essential part of the HRP but I have climbed it many times from all sides and know the Mariailles and Cortalets hostels well. But I hadn’t stayed in the new Saint Guilhem hostel, nor at Batère with its hot tub!
Amélie-les-Bains is the only significant town on the HRP.
Hot day, no rush, cool swim.
After Amélie I stayed at the Moulin de la Palete which is also a stage on the Pyrenean Way. After it, both the Pyrenean Way and the HRP go to Las Illas but the shortest route crosses into Spain and only the HRP follows it.
The Mas Coll de LLi was the last staging post before the border and escape from the approaching fascist armies at the end of the Spanish civil war in 1939.
The HRP follows the Pyrenean Way from Las Illas to the sea but I wanted to try some new paths and also see the trees planted by Manel.
Requesens is essentially a farm. But the family runs a restaurant (open at mid-day only) and a secret hostel. I discovered the restaurant when I walked the Senda two years ago. But that night I slept in the Forn de Calç hut. There are no signs, absolutely nothing to indicate a hostel, but if you ask nicely you will be admitted into another world, dated c 1960, with one or two anachronisms: a microwave and a posh gas stove. Luxury.
I had always promised myself I would spend my last night on the HRP at the Refuge Tomy although I could have easily reached Banyuls. The shelter is tucked under the Pic de Sallfort (960m). The overhanging rocks make standing up impossible and it can accommodate a maximum of three people. But every aspect of the construction has been carefully thought. There is a gas stove (please make a contribution to the costs) and water. And a view over Banyuls and the Mediterranean to take your breath away. When the sun emerges, gasping, from the Mediterranean, you know you have arrived.
The sunrise was disappointing but on the way down I had the luck to meet a Pyrenean legend. Maurice Parxes, easily recognisable from his red and black bonnet . Maurice not only created and maintains the Refuge Tomy, bringing fresh water from the spring 130m below every week in summer, but had also competed in the Championnat du Canigou for the last 34 years. He is now 74. This year the race – 34 km, 2180m ascent – took him 5h47. He was first in his category, V4. 250 younger competitors took longer.
I crossed international borders 23 times without ever being asked for my papers.
The earliest train back arrived at 13:20 so, although the Bésines hostel was only three hours away, it was later in the day than I would have liked. Inevitably this was one of only two days on the Haute Route that I got caught in a thunderstorm.
I had originally planned to walk along the frontier, just in France, heading for the Rulhe hostel but the more I investigated, the more difficult it seemed. So I crossed into Andorra to El Serrat, a village almost entirely made up of hotels and holiday apartments.
The Andorran meteorologists forecast thunderstorms every afternoon so I re-planned for shorter days. After El Serrat (Hotel Bringué), staying at the new Sorteny hostel, the Cabaña Sorda hut, and the Juclar hostel. In the event there were no storms at all. On the other hand the claim that even the unmanned huts had mobile phone coverage turned out to be true. Not far from Sorteny, a botanical garden is very useful for identifying the plants seen in the mountains.
Although there is plenty of water at the Cabanya Sorda, the outflow from the reservoir was dry. A filter or water purifying tablets are a must.
I had chosen this route to avoid Pas de la Case, one of Andorra’s many towns in this country “dedicated to shopping” as the tourist leaflets proudly proclaim.
From L’Hospitalet près l’Andorre I went home for a week’s rest.
“The accelerated rhythm of life today is not just confined to the cities. It has been moving into the mountains, and is making them a focus of competition too. But not everyone sees the peaks in this way. Juanjo Garbizu hikes to slow down, creating moments when time is suspended (he walks without a watch). So he can enjoy everything the landscape has to offer, sharpening his senses by observing nature and immersing himself in the stimuli unique to mountains. This is the Slow Mountain, mountaineering at a leisurely pace, which Garbizu has made his own in this book: a manifesto for a return to the original spirit of mountaineering and hiking.” (Free translation of the synopsis; the book is in Spanish.)
I am reminded of Gordon Wilson’s Space for Wonder, a personal take on trekking in the Pyrenees. A highly readable guide to crossing the Pyrenees combining the three classic trails, it emphasises the importance of taking “the time to stand and stare”. Full of anecdotes, it shows that long-distance walking doesn’t have to be a hard slog.