In his Pyrenees guide book Ton Joosten describes the high section east from Salardu as by far the most difficult. This, plus impressions derived from photographs, meant I was discouraged from walking it. Two years ago I met a Spanish chap, Jose, who said the central part of the chain is the best and after twenty years walking, there were parts he wouldn’t bother with again. I’ve come to the same conclusion after walking in the Pyrenees five times, mostly along the High Level Route. The section east from Salardu is not my favourite. What follows is a journal account of my 2012 trip.
I started in fact from Vielha, continuing where I left off two years ago. I flew to Toulouse, got a train to Luchon, hitched over to Bossost and then down to Spanish Vielha. It worked out quite well, as I knew it probably would from prior experience of using my thumb. Then straight to the hostel where I stayed before where you get a basic but perfectly acceptable room for E25, which works out about 21 or 22 pounds. Vielha is not a great place to stay, but it’s convenient. It’s essentially a tourist town catering for winter skiing, with no other character or interest. I like its facilities however, namely a decent supermarket (the other one seems to have closed), a few pizza outlets and a tapas place where you can put together a decent meal. If you need them, there are also two or three outdoor shops. It also has ski shops and fancy clothes shops.
Day Two: Estany de Rius
I made up for a sleep deficit with an eleven o’clock bedtime and arising about 9.30. I left the hostel at 12, headed down the wrong road which goes to Salardu which, together with bread buying and eating, meant I lost about an hour. However the very moment I put my thumb out I got a lift through the Vielha tunnel with a friendly chap (they usually are) who helped me find where I needed to start my walk. Had he not done this, it would have been difficult and a lot of hard work because it’s not obvious which building is the Vielha refuge. I had lunch before I set off, struggled to eat, drank too much water (only a litre), felt ill, vomited, thus lost more time, and eventually set off quite late at 3.30. Then I felt very weary – but it’s been worse. Around 7pm at Estany de Rius I decided it made sense to stop there to eat and sleep and enjoy a leisurely evening rather than shorten the next day, which was only to the Restanca refuge. I wasn’t feeling very strong for all of this, so I’d decided to cut 7 or 8 hour days in two where possible, and thus take it easier. For me, a 7 or 8 hour day in Joosten’s book means 10 hours or more.
A short walk and an overnight camp is still a pleasure because it gives you an extended time in the hills, so this made for a good first day. I was pleased that the travel and the hitching had all worked out as I’d wanted.
Day Three: Restanca and Beyond
One of the small highlights of the trip. After a good night’s sleep in the outdoors I opened my tent and saw the Pyrenees! Beautiful blue skies, peace, silence, solitude, and the promise of a good day. After a good and much needed 10 hours I awoke refreshed and energised and smiling. Wonderful! I’m back!
Most of the day was leisurely and relaxed, deliberately not pushing myself too hard. The highlight was seeing the beautiful Estany de Mar.
After that you descend to the Restanca refuge where I had a quick drink then set off climbing to Estany deth Cap deth Port to pitch my tent and sleep.
The end of the day was tiring and depressing when mist rolled in and obscured the hills, making it far too chilly for my routine cold wash in whatever lake, pool or stream which is beside me. It’s a great place for a camp, but there’s nothing to enjoy with 15 foot cold visibility. Here’s what it looked like the next morning when the mists lifted for a moment:
Day Four: Colomers and Beyond
I felt very ill which, continuing the previous night’s gloom, meant I had a bad morning. Tired, dizzy, weak, and basically not well. But I had no choice but to walk, and after a few hours felt better. I think it was a touch of sunstroke.
Dividing Joosten’s days into two works well for me. It means I can have a casual start, have snack rests, and walk at a leisurely pace. I feel more relaxed when I can do these things. My plan was to camp near the Colomers lake but I found this wasn’t really feasible so I walked further, down into the valley, and found an idyllic spot in a field with a stream for water supply and a relatively warm pool for washing. It was a touristy area where day trippers march past but I was hidden quite well and pitched my tent around 7 or 8 pm when it was quiet.
The day was essentially divided into two sections. The first was walking up to Montardo and then down the other side in the Aigues Tortes region, then the descent down to Colomers and then my camping area. I’d planned to climb Montardo but there was still a dense mist which meant there was very little to see. There were congregations of people around the bottom of the peak waiting, perhaps, for the mist to clear.
Day Five: Salardu
This day consisted of a pleasant stroll down to Salardu through the day trip valley and then a road. I stopped halfway at a hotel and restaurant where I thoroughly enjoyed a simple dish of pasta, cheese, pesto and salad. I need this quality and quantity of food three times a day to fuel me for the rigours of walking but I survive on barely adequate and boring fare.
I met a nice German couple resting at the hotel for a day or two, mid way on their traverse of the entire High Level Route. I’d met them two days previously. The woman was interested in Pyrenean flowers and was able to identify those in my photographs.
Salardu was smaller than I expected with only an alarmingly basic supermarket. I headed straight for Refugi Rosti which was a good decision: it’s inexpensive at E28 (as I recall) for two or more nights; it’s basic, simple, but pleasant. It is however very noisy: from the adjacent road, from the plumbing, and from some kind of machine situated below it which cuts in periodically with a whining roar. I asked for a room transfer which took me away from the road, but the machine noise was still evident. I don’t know what it is and didn’t ask. I’ve been in a similar situation in Greece: you try to explain your displeasure and they either don’t understand (it doesn’t bother them and they discuss it as if it shouldn’t bother you), or they don’t care. They accepted my request without any fuss however, and it’s a pleasant family who run the place. It’s also part museum with a fascinating collection of Victorian mountaineering equipment, photographs, books etc and a collection of antique cameras. Worth a visit, even if you don’t sleep there.
Day Six: Rest
My face was badly swollen because of sun exposure. I’ve had worse though. I expected it to improve but it hadn’t. I decided on a rest day because the weather forecast was unfavourable; this day was characterised by cloud, moments of sun, then rain, and then heavy rain started in the evening so although days like this are boring and depressing it’s far better to be static in a town than endure bad weather in a tent.
I went back into Vielha using a good bus service for provisions and a map but wasn’t successful in either respect: no milk powder, and there wasn’t the map I needed to finish my trip. This made me slightly anxious. Walking the Pyrenees without a map to cover your area is very inadvisable. I did however have a few days to consider the situation and make a decision.
Day Seven: Rest
Wanderlng Salardu. Sleeping. Strolling. Reading. Met a British party and had a nice conversation which included some discussion about the Spanish Civil War about which I’d known very little. In Spanish towns like Vielha (and Alos de Isil and Noarre which I arrived at later) you often find a significant and documented history in terms of the conflict, how people survived, and how people tried to escape over the border into France.
The weather was better: sunny in the valley, but the mountains were still covered in discouraging cloud.
Day Eight: Rosari
Blue skies and sun – hurrah! I’d planned to take a taxi up to Plan de Beret, avoiding an awful boring and strenuous climb up the road. The refuge owner (Manuel) said the taxis were busy until midday (I’d asked him to phone) but his daughter, Bertha, could drive me there. I didn’t believe him but the plan suited us both: they make some easy money and she was a nice girl so we could converse easily in English (she’d lived in London), stop for photographs etc. I’d like to show you my photo of the smiling Bertha, but I said I wouldn’t publish it so I can’t.
You walk up through a pretty valley to the Baciver lakes and then – if you follow Joosten – walk along a ridge which is rough and unmarked then down to Airoto. I stopped and spoke with a couple of people about directions and one of them, he said, had attempted the ridge but got lost. It’s technically quite difficult and was clearly going to be very strenuous so I decided on an easier short cut by crossing the col below a mountain called Rosario. This meant I had no guide book directions, nor a path plotted on my map. I mistook a different lake for Airoto which entailed descending down rough and irritating hillside for 2 or 3 hundred metres then when I worked out what my situation was – or rather some other people did who were camping near the lake – climbed back up exhausted, then staggering, but determined to do this as an effort of damage limitation so the next day, too, wouldn’t be spoilt by this aberrant diversion.
I found a camping spot a short way below the Rosari lake which was actually quite pleasant, and it boosted my morale when I was able to have a shower wash in a relatively warm pool. I have to be careful when I do this, making sure there are no swooning damsels around unused to the sight of a chap.
Day Nine: Alos de Isil
Theoretically this was an easy day down to the Airoto refuge and then Alos de Isil, but the second part of it was foul. I missed the path down to the latter, descended half way down to Isil, which was intentional when I realised what was happening in the hope of getting a bed and a decent meal in the valley town then taking a taxi back into the hills for the following day. I met some people however who advised me there was no longer a hotel and the restaurant was very expensive and as regards a taxi, all you had was a phone number beside a telephone which again didn’t look good: no doubt more massive expense, if it was available at all, coming from goodness knows where, and when, and I can’t speak Spanish and didn’t know if anyone would be able to help me!
I climbed back up the dirt road, exhausted, fed up, resumed the right path and then had a further foul experience making my way down the hillside to Alos de Isil: you have to improvise here through grass, down slippery dusty hillside, through bushes etc. It’s rough stuff, not a proper path. In parts that’s how this section of the Pyrenees is. Joosten suggests you come back with “memories” because it’s not a simple walk but one which tests you in various ways. I guess some people like that kind of thing; I don’t.
Joosten advises there’s neither a camp site nor any accommodation in the town but you can request some hospitality and that’s what I decided to do with the first people I saw. To hell with British reserve – “I say, old boy, do you have a bed where I can sleep for the night?” or similar. Actually I thought a nice maternal lady would be a better proposition and it was indeed a woman I approached. Nothing here she said, no hotel, no restaurant, nothing, but maybe you can ask some “children” down in the square. So what is the “square” exactly in this little town; it turns out it is actually a “square” with a fountain and trough in one corner and there was a group of boys on bikes. Not encouraging, from British experience, but they were nice boys who then led me to a barn, asked me if I needed water, gave me a can of cola, and walked me to a place beside the river where I could wash. After I’d eaten, laid out my sleeping bag and prepared for sleep, I quietly went back to the square and washed face, neck, arms and legs in the trough where the water was quite warm: the river walk was far too rough and the water far too cold.
So far then, I’d had some nice moments but also some rather crap moments. This continued for the rest of the trip.
Day Ten: Halfway to Mont Roig
More irritation, wasting time and energy: I hitched a lift but they took me too far, so I had to walk back down the road to the start of the route. It did however give me some bearings in relation to Refugio Fornet, where they dropped me.
It was a lovely walk. I hadn’t realised how green and fertile some parts of the Spanish Pyrenees are. With a slow pace and two food stops, I decided to break the walk in two with a camp beside a lovely small lake which Joosten refers to. It was taking me huge amounts of time to eat: five minutes to chew and swallow a small hunk of dry baguette. I couldn’t get it down – in the heat, when I didn’t feel hungry anyway, because walking takes my appetite away, which is never good to start with. I found a solution which is quite unpleasant but was becoming necessary. Tear off hunk of baguette. Take a drink of water. Masticate it into mush, then swallow. You get no enjoyment from food eaten in this way, feel further aversion to doing it again, and so it goes on. All of this with 15 kilos on your back, hundreds of metres to climb etc, which is not exactly armchair leisurely stuff free from the need to eat.
I had some slight discomfort that I should be doing more than four hours walking and some anxiety that prolonging the time means a greater weather risk but it was pleasant to sunbathe, rest, and read. There were lots of grasshoppers, a large number of tadpoles (only a few frogs) and I saw a 12 inch adder. I got a few unsatisfactory photographs and thought I’d try to pressurise it into the open again after it had slithered into hiding by poking around with my foot. Very silly, I later thought, if it had decided to strike and bite me wearing only sandals and shorts. I felt oddly challenged by the thing – fearful but also determined it wasn’t going to get the better of me with it slithery hissing aggression. Ha! slither at me eh? Hiss? yeah? yeah? Come on then! But it would have got the better of me if I’d had snake venom making me ill, alone in the mountains.
This was a good Pyrenean day and the first, actually, that I fully enjoyed. I did wonder – again – if I should have planned differently and got to Mont Roig in one day, perhaps to then climb Mont Roig. But it was a good day for two reasons. First, I saw the best high views I’d had thus far. Second, the quality of the paths was quite good. Rough mountain tracks but with clear orientation or markings – cairns, mostly. I added another two hours by exploring ridges leading up from Col de Curios and Col de Calberante. The first gave the good views, the second was a scramble to a rocky peak which gives some part of the outlook form Mont Roig. I was starting to want the comforts of a camp site and restaurant food so wondered if I’d bother climbing Mont Roig the next day.
Day Twelve: Mont Roig and Valley Camp Site
Another good Pyrenean day. Decided to climb Mont Roig because it only takes about three hours from the Mont Roig refuge – then I went further to the French summit adding another hour. Clouds were getting very dark over the French side and I got worried about an imminent storm: they can be formidable and very dangerous in the Pyrenees. The clouds passed over to the Spanish side and there was a clap of thunder in the distance. There was no storm but some rain and overcast skies after I returned to the refuge and started the valley descent. I wore my Goretex jacket and trousers for the first and only time, but not for very long.
It’s a beautiful alpine valley below the refuge and then down through a steep sided forest. I’d thus got to know this area quite well with two camps and two diversionary ridge walks. The views from Mont Riog – or Pujol as it’s also called – are definitely worthwhile for such a short excursion. Further effort to get to the French summit is not particularly rewarding but you may feel the urge to do it so you explore the mountain fully and get more photographs. The dark sky views gave me a few shots which I think are some of the best of the trip.
The final descent down to the camp site is quite wearing, down a tarmac road. I realised I hadn’t checked whether it existed – the Joosten book I was using was a few years old and outdated for example in regard to Isil. It wouldn’t be a serious problem when I was basically self sufficient, but it would be a serious disappointment because I wanted some comforts. Fortunately it was still there and it turned out to be very pleasant: camping Bordes de Graus.
Day Thirteen: Camp Site
Thoroughly enjoyed the simple pleasure of a breakfast. Toast, marmalade, coffee, apples, cheese and fruit juice while sitting at a table in the sun. The photo above shows the terrace where I sat. I was finding wild camping and crap food quite gruelling this time and started to think about normal people and normal holidays: sun, sea, beach, cold drink and nearby food. Rather nice idea.
I sunbathed beside my tent, washed some clothes, sunbathed again then hitched down to Tavascan after a substantial late lunch: the kind of food, again, I should be having three times a day when I really need it i.e. carrying a heavy rucksack in the heat over the mountains.
I bought a few food items from the small and inadequate food shop then hitched back to the camp site with an elderly chap who complained to me in Spanish – I think – about the bad driving and how hazardous it was on the mountain road. The road walk from camp site to Tavascan would be gruelling and unpleasant both ways, either up or down the steep incline.
I wasn’t hungry in the evening but forced down another good meal; not too difficult with reasonable food unlike my hill food.
Day Fourteen: Certascan
I didn’t like leaving the comfort and relaxation of the camp site. There was a nice, pretty girl there and an older woman with a distinctive laugh who’d tried hard to accommodate my vegetarian diet. When I left I made my mucho gracias goodbyes, made for a friendly hand shake and she grasped my hand warmly, realised it was for a more formal English shake which she undertook, laughing. I’d made friends with the staff as I had at the Salardu refuge, which was nice.
I hitched a lift to Quanca and set off to Noarre. I enjoyed looking back to Mont Roig and re-imagining all the previous days and the distance I’d walked. Unfortunately it clouded over, which meant there was no point climbing Pic Certascan. I camped beside the Certascan lake. It was a good view but the skies were grey and it was chilly; I read a little before sleep, feeling I was comfortably withdrawn from the environment as you are when you read at home in bed.
This section of the High Level Route is very quiet which, if you are walking alone, makes for a very solitary experience. You might see just a few people the entire day, say hello, then move on. I didn’t like this. Although I’m not a massive socialite talking to a few people in the evening – as you do in other parts of the Pyrenees at the huts – is a pleasant way to finish the day.
Only three more days – it always goes quickly – with no doubt more to enjoy but this area lacks distinctive peaks and you can’t camp beside the Spanish huts, so I was looking forward to having decent food again and valley comforts.
Day Fifteen: Baborte
Lovely sunny morning changing the mood of the previous evening and as Joosten says, it’s a beautiful area down from Certascan to Estany Romedo de Dalt and Romedo de Baix. Beyond there it gets rough and extremely arduous – I found – climbing up through a forest and then up hills to Col de Sellente. It was 9.30 when I finally descended to the Baborte lakes for the night. I’d set off at 10.30, wasted an hour with a wrong path and maybe took an hour’s break making nine and a half hours as opposed to Joosten’s advised six and a half.
I was feeling tired with it all. Not the most inspiring mountains, and all so arduous! I started to look forward to finishing.
Day Sixteen: Pla de Boavi
The Baborte lake makes for a beautiful area, then you walk downhill mostly through forest. I went wrong again with the path and wasted an hour going down then climbing back up an incline, and started cursing Joosten. He’s never wrong but there are certain critical moments when an extra sentence or two added to his sparse description would help avoid very easy mistakes.
I decided to break the day in two so I could relax, amble, camp at Pla de Boavi and enjoy a lunch at the nearby refuge Ferrera. Unfortunately they were only providing “sandwiches” for lunch but it’s quite tasty and much better than the contents of my rucksack: slightly toasted bread drizzled with olive oil and a tomato garnish with slices of cheese. The staff were pleasant and cheerful and when I came to pay she said E1. I fished around for a coin and said “E2” when that’s what I found. My food and drinks should have been maybe E15 but she’d noted that I was very tired and was being kind. Here she is in the doorway:
I rested and sunbathed in the afternoon; unfortunately it clouded over and became a little chilly in the evening making it too cold to wash more than face, hands and feet and I started feeling fed up again.
Day Seventeen: Arinsal
Pla de Boavi is a lovely plateau area and I had the pleasant company of two cows bellowing for their offspring in the morning, feeding them, then cleaning and nuzzling each other. After mum had finished breakfast the calf came over to me and was interested in my tent. Like a naughty child when I turned my back it started licking it and when I turned back and stared it stopped. After a few minutes of this I shooed it away because it may have started to chew on it.
The directions were difficult – again – when Joosten says arrive at a footbridge then walk with the stream on your left. I did exactly that. What he means by footbridge is a more substantial construction compared to two or three – well, footbridges – over smaller streams. Or perhaps the latter didn’t exist when he was there, but I think that’s unlikely.
The path continues up a climb to Refuge Baiau where I chatted with a Spanish chap who was photographing and getting information for a web site his sister was constructing. The next stage appeared to be visible and I proceeded accordingly, making the most significant error of the entire trip. Joosten says go down to the lake, traverse an incline, pass a few rocks and then turn left and go uphill. Nothing more than that, and that’s exactly what I did. As I discovered and worked out several hours later, he meant big rocks and then turn left which takes you up to Port de Baiau and on to Refuge Coma Pedrosa. The path I’d taken led to an entirely different valley which became very confusing. All this was clarified for me with the help of a Spanish walker who had a larger scale map than I did. In fact this was precisely the area where I didn’t have a map – only a small a part of the day and if Joosten’s words had been adequate there would have been no problem.
In hindsight it was perhaps fortuitous because it meant I walked down to Arinsal for that evening and enjoyed a room, bed, and good meal which is rather what I wanted. It also meant I avoided what appears to be scree hell: a steep slope up and a steep slope down. I wouldn’t have been able to camp beside the refuge so I’d planned to take a bed but which would probably have entailed a sleepless dormitory night. So perhaps it was for the best and I’m not sure – most importantly – there was any scenic advantage in walking up to the refuge. In any case, there are some lovely lake views if you take the path I followed down to Arinsal via the Port dels Estanys Forcats.
Day Eighteen: Andorra la Vella
I discovered in the course of the morning that a) there was a festival that evening b) it would last until 4 or 5 in the morning and c) would involve cars and motorcycles a stone’s throw from my room where they were preparing a race course. I’d like to have rested but made a quick decision to get the hell out with a bus to Andorra la Vella, which is like Oxford Street in the mountains. Clothes, shoes, electronic goods, it’s all there. I found a hotel with a pleasant roof terrace, not too bad for E46. My room was interior and had no windows, but it was quiet.
Day Nineteen: Toulouse
The bus journey back to Toulouse takes about three hours. I was puzzled when I bought a ticket and they asked for my passport but you are of course crossing a border from Andorra. This was emphasised again when French customs police stopped the bus about thirty minutes from Toulouse and searched the baggage. The officer who addressed me decided I didn’t fit the profile of a smuggler and couldn’t be bothered to pull out the contents of my rucksack, which suited me. It occurred to me customs stops would also be a good way of monitoring a more serious situation after the bomb a Muslim detonated in Toulouse about six months ago, killing some Jewish people.
I’d decided to go to the hotel where a British party went two years ago, who I’d initially met walking up Le Taillon. It was better than the hotel I found for myself, and I’d decided another ten Euros or so was worthwhile. It wasn’t available however, the hotel I’d used before only had a four person room which was uncomfortably full of bunk beds; the single person reduced price was acceptable but not the room. I found another a short distance away.
Day Twenty: Toulouse and Home
A strange day. I’d planned to find some grass and sunbathe, relax, and perhaps read. There aren’t any garden areas in central Toulouse, nor any grass where you can comfortably sit. It’s a problematic area near the station where you see groups of homeless people, a solitary homeless person begging, drunks with litre bottles of wine beside them which cost less than one euro (maybe 60p), sixty year old prostitutes and – when I used a public toilet – I found a syringe. There are several good supermarkets where you can get everything you need and also quite a few sex shops literally next door to reasonable hotels and cafes. In and amongst all of this you find small apartment blocks where people live. It reminded me a little of Soho before it was “cleaned up”. Quite odd after the mountains but what struck me is I didn’t feel threatened by any of the above; there was a sense of live and let live, homeless and destitute and drugged and dodgy beside ‘regular’ people albeit those who don’t have the money (presumably) to live elsewhere. Polite French squalor, a pleasant change from aggressive Brit squalor.
Walk for twenty minutes and you find the more bustling ‘regular’ part of Toulouse with shops and restaurants. The view from my window is below. There was a homeless woman begging here the night before, and she was back again in the morning. I saw her laughing and apparently drunk with a can of Heineken, sitting on the pavement:
I was exhausted and after walking and exploring and a couple of coffees, I bought a baguette and an avocado pear and sat in the station. There wasn’t really anywhere to sit unless you wanted to watch or be beside such people as the above, apart from cafes. After having my lunch I simply sat and rested and watched people. It didn’t look out of place because others were too waiting for trains. I was content just to sit, and do nothing, because of extreme tiredness.
The bus from town to the airport takes about twenty minutes. When I got there and prepared to check in I suddenly remembered I was still carrying some methylated spirits. I’d bought a litre bottle, same as last year, which suits me quite well for a 2-3 week camping hike: with a little in reserve, which is ideal. I left the terminal building and surreptitiously poured the stuff away onto concrete, guarding the spot and waiting for it to evaporate so some innocent smoking chap didn’t find his ankles suddenly ablaze: not the best way of building Anglo-French relations.
A mixed trip then, and not all of it pleasant. I knew this part of the High Level Route wasn’t as good – in my view – as other parts. I didn’t quite anticipate however exactly what that means in practice, and what the experience feels like.
I’ll probably distil some further narrative from the above and write more about the trip, but for now this is a reasonable diary account of where I went and what I did. I got some good photographs adding to my Pyrenees collection which is very rewarding, because photography is always integral to my walking.