Spanish Pyrenees

Thursday 30th April 2009, Etxarri
Tonight the rain has been drizzling down as we camp beneath a mountain peak that disappeared a couple of hours ago, swallowed by the blanket of grey cloud that swirled over its summit hiding all evidence of its existence. We are in the Spanish Basque region here. To our east lies Pamplona, near the border with France, while northwards is San Sebastian. We are almost back into the same countryside of Northern Spain through which we passed on our arrival back in the middle of March.

And what a relief it is to be here! Gone at last is the flat, uninspiring region of central Spain to be replaced by a green, mountainous landscape where the lower reaches have deciduous woodland and green fields. There are flowers again and animals! Horses and cattle roam free on the hillsides and the roads are edged with dry stone walls. There is colour and birdsong and the few small villages we have passed through look better cared for than those of central Spain. We went for a damp walk in the nearby woods earlier. Bright leaves were just appearing on the beech trees, there were brambles, ferns and hawthorn bushes. We saw chaffinches along the path and the familiar sound of blackbirds in the rain made us think of home. A cuckoo flew around the woods, its call coming to us from several different directions.

Main square with plain trees, Etxarri

Our route from Burgos this morning was hardly more attractive than our route to the city had been. It continued westwards for nearly a hundred miles across a flat, dusty red landscape devoid of any interest. There were countless road building projects but little else. For much of the way the Camino de Santiago runs parallel to the road. The season for pilgrimages is well under way and there was more traffic walking or cycling the pilgrim route than there was on the dual carriageway! There were literally hundreds of people walking westwards carrying their heavy packs. How will the city accommodate them all once they arrive? Nobody ever walks back from Santiago. It's understandable that the mediaeval pilgrim route is a challenge that has captured the imagination, but did these 21st century pilgrims realise just how horrible and tedious the landscape would be? The route runs immediately beside the road, indeed it's frequently along the verge with heavy lorries passing a couple of feet away! At least it was cool and dry for them today. At other times there would be no shelter from either the heat or the rain. Watching them as we drove along made a more pleasant diversion than watching heavy plant equipment ripping open the body of the earth.

Otherwise the drive has passed in a daze with nothing of interest until we touched the Rioja region and saw small vineyards, the vines still no more than black stumps with scarcely a sign of green shoots. At Estella, almost the first town of any size we'd seen all day, we parked and bought a few vegetables in the market just as it was closing. Everywhere else was already closed and the town was generally run down and uninteresting.


Once beyond the town however we turned north and left the plain behind, climbing steadily up into the mountains. Gradually wild flowers started to appear along the roadside – irises, poppies, wild marigolds, dandelions, cowslips and grape hyacinths. Eventually we reached the top of the pass of Lizarraga at 1090 meters and after passing through a tunnel, emerged to start the long, steep descent down towards the valley floor spread out far below us, the red tiled roofs of a couple of tiny Basque towns showing vividly against the bright green of the surrounding countryside.

Coming over the pass, looking down towards Etxarri

The Basques, like the Catalonians, have a strong regional identity and their own language. Everything here is written in both Spanish and Basque, a unique language unrelated to any other and spoken here since before the arrival of Indo-European peoples. The region crosses the border into France, an area we wrote about when we visited Salies de Béarn back in 2005. We've learnt from our mistakes then when we got totally lost searching for Irún on the border with France, unaware that Iruña was actually a completely different place in Spain being the Basque name for Pamplona! Today we noticed that Castilian names on signposts have frequently been whitewashed out leaving only the Basque names. We stopped to look around Etxarri as we passed through. There is a great deal of political propaganda with notices pasted up around the square in Basque. Spanish signs have been obliterated, the acronym of the Basque separatists ETA is scrawled up on the wall of the church and much graffiti is written in Basque. Even the instructions around the campsite are in Basque! No possible chance of making an educated guess. Still, if we muddled by in the Baltic States we should survive here!

Saturday 2nd May 2009, El Pont de Suert, Catalonian Pyrenees
Over the last two days we have been so preoccupied with driving the narrow switchback roads through the Pyrenees that once we finally settled for the evening and sorted out supper, I was far too exhausted to even consider writing the blog.

It rained solidly all night Thursday, so that when we woke yesterday morning the campsite was puddled with a white mud that gets everywhere. We decided to bypass Pamplona having seen enough Spanish towns recently to last us a very long time. Besides, Pamplona is famed mainly for it annual bull run when every morning for a week, herds of bulls are released onto the streets of the city for locals and tourists to confront or avoid, according to how much alcohol they'd consumed the previous evening. This happens in July, so there wasn't much point in waiting around. We headed up into the Basque Pyrenees to the col de Roncesvalles, just a few miles short of the frontier with France. It was here in 778 that the rearguard of Charlemagne's army was surprised and routed by the Basques, as they tried to withdraw back into France after a raiding foray across the mountains. The event has become a legend, immortalised in the "Song of Roland." In Roncesvalles is the supposed tomb of Roland, nephew to Charlemagne and leader of the rearguard, buried in the village by the orders of Charlemagne. If the legend is true, the treacherous mountain pass appears to have been crammed with thousands of Charlemagne's warriors, thousands of Basques pursuing them and thousands of Saracens who came across them all by surprise and joined in the battle. Considering the difficulty of the road up there yesterday, using a modern vehicle, we are quite astonished at the mere ergonomics of it all and feel the legend may be slightly exaggerated!

Burial place of Roland, Roncesvalles

The pilgrim route crosses the Pyrenees from France at this point, passing right through Roncesvalles on its way down to the flat, uninspiring plain below. Pilgrims with their burdens were struggling up from the French side in a steady stream, issuing whoops of joy as they reached the top of the pass and started off downhill. A kilometre below in the village, there is a special hostel for them. Knots of them were trickling in, dripping wet from the perpetual misty drizzle that covered the mountain tops all day. We looked in to see what they could expect. They were sat along the walls on wooden benches peeling off their soaking cagoules and hiking boots. For six euros a night they could expect a dormitory bed but they had to provide their own towels and sleeping bags. Cooking was not permitted and supper was 9 euros a head. They had to be in bed by 10pm and out of the hostel by 8am. Presumably most of the pilgrims had taken their annual leave from work to do this. They must all be complete masochists! Just outside the hostel, to cheer them on their way at 8am in the rain, without breakfast, there is a road sign reading "Santiago de Compostella, 790 kilometres". And they don't yet realise that the next 150 kilometres is across the barren wasteland to the south of the Pyrenees.

Pilgrims drying out at the hostel in Roncesvalles

A sight to warm the cockles of their hats!

The village church was packed out! It was May Day yesterday and a national holiday so a special mass was being celebrated with a miraculous statue of the Virgin – according to the lady we asked about it all in the tourist office. People were queuing at the altar to kiss the statue while the priest was wiping her over with a disinfectant cloth between kisses. Many of the villagers were wearing Basque traditional costume, the girls wearing a white handkerchief on their heads and the boys a black beret.

Kissing the miraculous Virgin, Roncesvalles

After the Mass, villagers in Basque costume, Roncesvalles

It was really cold and wet in Roncesvalles so we were eager to return to the warmth of Modestine and continue our winding route through the magnificent landscape of mountains, valleys, gorges and pastureland. Even with the constant rain it was stunningly beautiful. Indeed, we've been driving for the past couple of days and everything we've seen has been awesome.

In the isolated little Pyrenean town of Ochagavia we stopped for a break and a walk around the cobbled back streets. The river through the centre was in spate after the constant rain. Despite the cold weather, most of the houses had their heavy wooden doors ajar. Inside was an entrance lobby with a pebbled floor. Often there was a wooden table, some glowing copper or brass ornaments, a few religious icons, paintings or a crucifix and maybe a deer's head and some candlesticks.

River through the main street, Ochagavia

Back street, Ochagavia

Peeping through an open door, Ochagavia

It was not until we started to look for somewhere to spend the night that we began to have doubts about the map we were using, and indeed about our camping books. Either the campsites had closed, hadn't yet opened for the season or had mysteriously disappeared. We drove far longer than intended and when we eventually found a site open we were told it was full. We were heading on a switchback road up towards France and the Pic du Midi, thinking we may have better luck on the French side when we chanced upon a really pleasant, friendly Spanish campsite. It was intended for club members but they let us in and, exhausted as we were from such concentrated driving along difficult narrow, often steep, always winding roads, we slept well, beneath the snowy crags of the high Pyrenees.

Hilltop village in the Pyrenees

This morning, a contrast with yesterday, has been hot and sunny, a perfect day for appreciating the beauty of this area. Again much of it has been spent travelling rather than walking but we have a target to meet. We are trying to get to Andorra and the roads are so tortuous it takes all day to drive a few miles from west to east, winding around the mountains, climbing up to the passes, plunging down through narrow ravines where the bare rock face rises up all around, often with an azure blue river surging over boulders beneath us. From time to time we have passed ruined and desolate abandoned villages. From what we have read they may have been sacked and burned by the French during the Peninsula Wars, but they look too recent for that. More likely it was something to do with the Civil War and its aftermath.

Abandoned village, Pyrenees

We have moved out of the Basque Pyrenees and most of today we have been in Aragon. This evening though we have just crossed the border into the Catalan region, so this campsite has notices in Catalan rather than Castilian Spanish. We can actually tell them apart now so we must have made some progress even if it doesn't feel like it.

Below is a selection of photos taken along our route today.

Snowy peaks, Pyrenees

Hiking path, Pyrenees

Waterfall above the little town of Broto. Over time the water has worn a rounded hollow into the cliff face. Pyrenees

Romanesque font in the church at Broto, Pyrenees

Vista from the road, Pyrenees

Lovely picnic spot, Pyrenees

Our road through the ravine of Congosto de Ventamillo, Pyrenees

Congosto de Ventamillo, Pyrenees

Snowy peaks, Pyrenees

Sunday 3rd May 2009, Ribera de Cardós, Catalonian Pyrenees
Just across the mountain to our right lies Andorra. It's no distance as the bird flies and the cuckoo that has been with us since we arrived in the Pyrenees has flown back there this evening to check out some unsuspecting sparrows she's thinking of using as surrogate parents. Almost certainly she will flit back across the mountain to rejoin us here in the morning. We in the meantime, are camped many tortuous miles by road from our destination and at the speed we travel it could still be a couple of days before we reach Andorra! No wonder it has remained an independent state. It is so completely inaccessible it has been left to its own devices.

Today temperatures have soared into the 30s though it was more like 3 degrees when we woke this morning. Needing a break from concentrating on near vertical hairpin bends and unfenced narrow roads we decided to explore the Vall de Boí, very near where we were camping. Along the valley are several villages, each with its own little Romanesque church. What makes them special is that all nine churches are very similar in style and date of construction. They were built in the 11th century and were constructed by Lombardy stonemasons, looking exactly as they would in the Italian countryside. So exceptional are they that the valley is included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. We parked in Boí and set off on foot along a mountain footpath that cut directly across fields yellow with dandelions and cowslips, clambering over dry stone walls and struggling steeply uphill. It cut nearly four kilometres off the ascent by road, but climbed the same vertical distance of some 280 metres. We arrived in the village of Taüll gasping for breath feeling hot and sticky. We'd been accompanied at the beginning by a huge and friendly dog who'd scratched out most of its fur and was so elderly it looked as if each step would be its last. We are ashamed to say that it eventually got fed up waiting for us and we found it later up in the village resting in the shade, being fed titbits by tourists who'd gone up by car.

Our path up to Taüll, Pyrenees

The church of Sant Climent at Taüll is typical of all the Romanesque churches of the valley. It stands, silhouetted against the mountains peaks with its tall slender bell tower, low square church with a rounded apse to one end and two smaller ones to each side. Originally it would have been coated externally in protective plaster with printed decoration, fragments of which still survive. It had an arched frieze around the walls while inside the three naves were separated by two rows of rounded arches. Originally the inside walls were covered in frescoes dating, some from the 12th century, others from the 16th. They have mostly been removed to the Museum of Catalan Art and Archaeology in Barcelona for safe keeping, after one had been shipped across to Boston in 1919 and have been replaced by facsimiles. They are stylised early religious art and look very similar to the icons that are still being created in Greece today.

Sant Climent, Taüll, Pyrenees

Christ in Majesty in the central apse, Sant Climent, Taüll, Pyrenees

Sant Climent, Taüll, Pyrenees

Back down in the village of Boí stands a second church and just across the valley in the village of Erill la Vall is a third. These we visited and they were representative of the rest. An excellent heritage centre explained the origins of the churches in the valley and the complex ways in which the different mountainous areas of the Pyrenees where originally governed by their feudal lords. For us though, the attraction lay in the charm of the little churches, a touch of Italy here in the mountains of Spain.

Sant Joan de Boí, Pyrenees

Fresco at the entrance to Sant Joan de Boí, Pyrenees

Erill la Vall seen from Boí, Pyrenees

Santa Eulalia, Erill la Vall, Pyrenees

We stopped for a late picnic lunch in a pretty area beside the clean waters of a stream running through the valley. The sun was so warm we made excuses to linger. Eventually though we set off, winding our way slowly eastwards through the mountains, climbing up to the snows, crossing passes and making corkscrew descents for many miles before levelling out along a valley floor for a while, passing through tunnels bored out through the mountains. Then up we'd climb again, blue irises by the wayside, villages high on isolated crags and grey-brown cattle with white calves browsing in the steep fields. There are several hydro-electric undertakings in the valleys of this region. They are not beautiful but certainly practical.

Winding through the Pyrenees

Descending to the hamlet of Perves, Pyrenees

Gigantic cliff face in the Congost de Collegats, Pyrenees

There are alternative routes we could have used. These though follow the valleys and the magnificence of the scenery is lost as the routes pass in and out of mountain tunnels. It would also have meant driving northwards into France, following the Pyrenees on that side and climbing up into Andorra from France. On our map that part looks horrendously difficult so we decided to stick with Spain. Incidentally, the route up into France, passing the Pic du Midi, has a six kilometre tunnel drilled out by Spanish slave labour using Republican prisoners after the end of the Civil War.

Eventually we reached the point where the road branches off to Andorra. It was almost evening and we had no wish to climb up to the town so late in the day. The nearby campsite was rather expensive – as they all seem to be on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Our ASCI camping book mentioned a site 20 kilometres up a side valley to nowhere for 11 euros less. It was worth the 30 minute drive and the scenery was truly magnificent. The bonus is that we are the only people staying on the site and it is wonderfully peaceful. Up here in this isolated valley people speak Catalan rather than Castilian Spanish and all signs are written in Catalan. The chill of the evening has driven us inside and darkness has now fallen. Outside the black peaks of the surrounding mountains stand out against the lighter grey of the night sky and there is utter, total silence.

Street in the village of Ribera de Cardos, Pyrenees