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.
I’ve now walked the length of the Pyrenees three times on different routes. 2700km, Atlantic to Mediterranean: 164 days hiking. I’ve been asked which route I liked best. Is it the Pyrenean Way (GR 10) [guide and forum] in France, the Senda Pirenaica (GR 11) [guide and forum] in Spain and Andorra, or this year’s trek, the Pyrenean Haute Route [Cicerone guide] (Haute Route Pyrénéenne, HRP, in French; Alta Ruta Pirenaica in Spanish) which flits across the border every second day?
I knew I could never walk the Haute Route (HRP) – too high, too technical, and above all I would need to carry a tent and all the extra kit that implies. But then, in the dog days of February, I came across TransPyr, a guide which claimed a tent wasn’t necessary. I looked at other guides to the Pyrenean Haute Route.
The Senda Pirenaica crosses the Camino at the western end of the Pyrenees. I am returning there this year, staying in the Roncevaux/Orreaga Pilgrims’ Hostel so I have been reading about the ‘other’ trek.
It is not clear what is happening to Catalonia’s rewilding project. Despite decreasing damage to livestock, the farmers’ union is becoming increasingly agitated.
The Unió de pagesos is demanding “urgent and effective measures to reduce the damage caused to mountain flocks by bears and wild animals. We need to find equilibrium between livestock farming and biodiversity.”
Last Thursday (5 May 2016), the union organised a demonstration in Vielha (Val d’Aran) complaining about the current situation. According to official figures, which the union does not contest, there were 290 attacks on flocks between 1996 and 2011. But since 2005 increased vigilance and keeping the sheep together in flocks has reduced losses caused by bears from 25 to 10 per year. 94% of the attacks concern sheep.
It is the same with vultures. There were 50 vulture colonies in 1999 growing to 158 in 2009. Between 2011 and 2014, livestock owners claimed compensation for 233 attacks but only 12 were considered to be clearly the work of the birds. In 2014 there were only 24 claims; 6 were compensated.
Yet despite the trends, the union is demanding more preventive measures and a moratorium on reintroductions until the current problems have been solved.
Before the 1970s only a handful of walkers had crossed the Pyrenees from E–W but hundreds of thousands had done it from N–S or S–N, and not just at the ends near the coast. Hannibal and Pompey; pilgrims on the Way of St James; Cathars; pedlars; shepherds; Napoleon’s armies; smugglers; Ramond, Russell, and other explorers; golondrinas; priests with Spanish religious statues; political refugees; the entire Spanish government with its paintings and gold; Jews and pilots; maquis; economic migrants; terrorists… All crossed the Pyrenees.
[Note: some of these routes are not particularly recommended for walkers but are included for their historical interest. Each route includes practical information for those who wish to cross from the Senda Pirenaica (GR11) to the Pyrenean Way (GR10).]
Many of these crossings are now celebrated by official treks, mostly created in the last fifteen years, with interpretive panels and museums by way of explanation. These are known as Grand recorridos transfronterizos in Spanish and Sentiers de randonnée transfrontaliers in French.The Aragon government has just launched a project [Spanish text] to develop them.