GR11 Week 7: Deserted Villages of the Dry Valleys

flower terrace

Refugio Conagles- Espot (Not continuous)- La Guigueta d’Aneu Estaon- Bordos de Nibros- Areu

After events in Week 6 on Ballibierna, we were forced to take  two rest days at Refugio Conagles, this dented our budget a bit but it was a much needed respite and chance to watch the daily tide of hikers that are the rhythm of refuge life.

Conagles Gardien

A sketch of the Refugio Conagles Guardian in his heyday, surrounded by ice axe and crampons.

This picture of the Refugio’s Gardian drew my attention, because it seems to capture perfectly a moment at his life’s peak on a day of bare rock and mountain sunlight.

Vulture cloud swirl 2

Vulture cloud swirl

Griffons drift out of Swirling cloud.

Barry seemed to recover at Conagles, and we left after two days in expectation of crossing Aiguestortes National park, a highlight of the route, but it was not to be. After ascending the col (and going wrong on the way up), the wind rose higher and banks of cold cloud swept across us. We sat in moody silence while I made noodles, frozen hikers emerged from the trail ahead through a wild back-country of jagged granite spires. We had left Conagles too soon, Barry was badly run-down and felt unhappy to continue, so one of the rare occasions on our GR11 trip, we turned around and went back. The rough, steep trail was worse going down, not helped by how disheartened were were. An encounter with a shepherd cheered us a little and we chatted in a combination of Spanish, English and Romanian!


A Romanian shepherd in the Spanish mountains

Barry continued to regain health, but slowly, and this casued practical and logistical issues which we had to work around for the remaining few weeks and caused us to break some of the continuity of our hike.


After the scenic glories of the previous weeks, in Week 7 the GR11 led us out of the mountains and into lower, drier terrain for a few days. This stretch took us over a series of ridges and into valleys where the remains of small villages, old field terraces and crumbling farmsteads were a poignant reminder of the land’s gradual abandonment.  A number of other hikers we spoke to were very dismissive of these ‘non mountain’ sections of the GR11, but for us these cultural landscapes held both interest and inspiration.

Dry valley landscape 2

A typical scene from the dry valleys, a once thriving and complex cultural landscape being reclaimed by time and nature.

Traversing a landscape and observing its changes is one of the privileges of a long hike, and walking the transitions and contrasts not only adds variety but is an affirmation of a hikers own progress in traversing distance. In many ways it is the ‘places in between’ that form the mortar of long hike such as the GR11, and what distinguishes the commitment and experience of a through-hike from just cherry picking the best bits.

Some other  GR11 hikers we spoke to felt the lower sections such as the dry valleys and the Basque hills, were irrelevant and just to be ‘got through’ as quickly as possible; but I think this risked missing a lot of the subtle beauty and quiet gifts to be found along the trail.


Hummingbird Hawkmoth.

Day 40 and on departure from the tourist town of Espot we descended towards the pretty village of Jou, before turning more sharply down a old path to the valley floor. This section of trail was a classic example of how the GR11 would surprise us. The little path wove down between ancient stone walls and terraced fields, awash with the tangled wildness of bright flowers. We stopped often, sitting among the scent of herbs and thrum of insects trying to absorb the sheer, unfettered profusion of nature around us.


The ‘almost’ abandoned hamlet of Dorve.

That night we made camp on an overgrown field near the valley floor, only to be woken in the early hours by a grumpy wild boar outside the tent. Despite us shouting he seemed reluctant to move and kept returning, by 2am we decided to break camp and scarper, having had enough of his heavy, rumbling breath the other side of the flysheet! Frazzled by sleeplessness and feeling desperate we ended up bedding down in a bird hide nearby, throwing our roll-mats down on the wooden boards. At least 2m off the ground, it was a relief to relax high above the shenanigans of night creatures, and we fell asleep to the sound of ducks and grebes dabbling in the lake below.

It was an uncomfortable night, and I woke to watch the stars fade in the dawn light and brewed tea to stave off the damp chill. Trout leapt and splashed in the lake, and we ate cold porridge oats soaked in condensed milk, before packing and heading off before anyone discovered us.

Church door flowers

Dried flowers in the church door at Dorve.

Day 41 and after checking email and stocking up in the local towm we trekked uphill to the nearly abandoned hamlet of Dorve. The signs for no camping as we entered the surrounds of the village were not promising, and really a little ridiculous given that it was mostly ruinous.

Sitting by the little church and considering our options we were surprised to see a door open in a ramshackle house and a shepherd emerge. He was unlike anyone we had met before on our journey, a cross between an Indian Sadhu and a crazy mountain man, dressed in rags tied with string. He screeched to call his dogs back and herded a small flock of sheep up through the lanes to pastures above. Later, as we made camp above the village we could hear his raucous, rasping cries across the landscape.  Who knows what his story was, he was not even that old, but modernity, a mere 5km down the road, seemed not to have touched him.

lunch before col

Refuelling on ascent to Coll de Montcaubo.

Day 42 and a cold, grey dawn. We pack up and begin the steep zig-zags up out of Dorve across bare hillsides, before plunging into forest and climbing onward to Coll de Montcaubo at 2201m. The wind was cold and the cloud swirled ever lower, Barry was not feeling 100% so we stopped in a forest meadow to refuel and warm-up in the lee of a pine tree.  It was not a good climb, the col was further than expected and the cloud threatened to engulf us at any minute. I was glad when we crossed the ridge and descended, steeply at first, then on pleasant winding tracks towards Estaon, leaving the ominous cloud base far above.

Approach to Estaon

Approach to the village of Estaon on old mule paths .

Despite being a small hamlet, Estaon has a refugio, and we gladly shed our packs and sat listening to dogs bark and the gabble of chickens as the helpful guardian prepared two bocadillos and an ice-cold cola.  Our destination that afternoon was the deserted hamlet of Bordos de Nibros, the approach to which was up a beautiful river lined with poplars.


Barry describes the scene as we crossed the river….

“Entering the deserted hamlet of Bordos de Nibros was atmospheric, and a stone in the wall of the first house dated the building to 1730.  Many of the buildings and barns were fully intact with original doors and locks still in place. Sitting on the doorstep of one of the small cottages it was easy to imagine life in the lanes and barns and the sounds of livestock all around. A world now lost in time, lines from Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘Fern Hill’ wove in and out of my thoughts”

………”Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs, about the lilting house and happy as the grass was green….the night above dingle starry….time let me hail and climb, golden in the heydays of his eyes………. –Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas

Life and work in those times was hard but closely interwoven with nature and the seasons, and for children, more innocent times. In the evening I walked along the grass trails out of the hamlet and up through the terraces, hard won from the steep hills with hand tools and strong arms, held in place still by stone embankments and tumbling stone walls.  Tall poplars planted 100 years ago marked boundaries and lined the old path to a rocky stream. Here, children’s play and voices were easily imagined and in the glade five fallow dear barked at my presence and bounded off, tawny, spotted white.

“It was all shinning, it was Adam and Maiden. The sky gathered again, and the sun grew round that very day. So it must have been after the birth of the simple light, in the first spinning place….” – Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas

Choc cake

Barry snacking by an old barn in Bordos de Nibros…yes that is a WHOLE chocolate cake…!

That evening we pitched our tent near to the hamlet and Barry cooked ravioli as steely grey clouds piled in from the south and the wind rose. I lay in the tent and watched the pines swaying on the high ridgeline, I still felt a lack of confidence after our experience on Ballibierna and fell to thinking about our limitations, both physical and mental.

The GR11 had certainly pushed us out of our comfort zones on several occasions, and while this was, I believe, a good thing, it could also be stressful. When should we take heed of our limitations and, to an extent accept who we are, and when should we push against them? Surely there is growth in learning to accept some of our limitations…but then how also do we prevent ourselves being bound by them? Which of our limitations, where and in what circumstances are acceptable?

The GR11 was raising many complicated questions in my mind, and on that cold, grey evening, I really did just want to go somewhere with four walls, shut the door and go to sleep.

Tent and ponies at Nibros

Dawn at our camp at Bordos de Nibros, and in much esteemed company!

Day 43 and a dark overcast prospect. Peeping out of the flysheet I saw mare and her foal grazing quietly nearby. I got out of tent to stretch and spun around at the sound of thundering hooves. In the meadow around there were over 30 horses, and when they saw me they spooked, only stopping to turn and look curiously when at a distance. Despite last nights doubts about our journey, I could not help but smile, where else would I start the day in the company of 30 wild ponies in deserted valley of wind and rushing water?

Ponies nirbos 2

While I made tea, Barry went for a walk to see if he could find the wandering ponies.

Barry takes up the story again…”It was a still damp dawn and I wandered towards the meadow where the dear were last night and found the ponies. Beautiful animals, golden maned, in a tranquil scene”…….“the spellbound horses, walking warm……onto the fields of praise”- Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas

Flowers after fire

Wild pansies thrive in an area of burnt hillside.

Despite being out of Alpine terrain for a few days, the dry hills had their pound of flesh and Day 43 saw another steep ascent and long descent into an adjacent valley. The descent was cold and exposed, across bare hillsides burnt by recent fires. The trail was good however, and not needing the facilities at the village of Tavascan further up, we took a shortcut across the valley to the village of Lladorre ready for our climb to wild camp that night.

Village house

Village house in Lladorre, preserved without loosing it’s character.

The sun had come out by lunchtime and we found a warm place outside the local doctors surgery with benches and railings to hang our damp kit to dry. We made noodles and dipped bread into the juice before laying in the warmth and just basking for a while.

Rest outside doctors

A much needed lunch break in the village of Lladorre, a good time to dry out damp kit.

Hiking past Boldis

Nearly there! A 5km climb up on the road to the hamlet of Boldis Sobira.

Having eschewed the official GR11 temporarily for a more direct route uphill on the road, we found a campsite above the hamlet of Boldis Sobira in a meadow. The wind was whipping up ferociously, and we were glad of our shelter behind a small copse where our MSR Hubba Hubba (not the best tent in wind) would withstand the night. As dusk fell we were feeling happy in our snug spot when a trail bike roared up out of the shrubbery to check us out. Obviously we had been spotted from the village. He gave us no hassle however, but I do prefer to remain incognito.

The wind died down overnight, only to be replaced in the early hours by a terrible bellowing, sometimes distant, sometimes closer. By dawn, it was, on average, getting closer, and grumpy at another disturbed night we packed quickly and set off into the grey light.  We never did determine the nature of said bellowing beast, although my fear was that it was a bull, and we ended up sitting on a damp farm-track, forcing down stale baguette and cheese triangles.  Sometimes trail life can be shitty!

Giant insect

A grumpy breakfast was relieved by the visit of a huge cricket, equipped with some spectacular weaponry!

With dawn a cold wind blew up again and we made quick progress up winding forest tracks to the Coll de Tudela (2243m). A break in the cloud allowed us to look back wistfully on the wintry summits of Aiguestortes National Park, and watch Griffon vultures drift in swathes of cold sunlight.

Cold clouds

Cold autumn dawn at 2000m.

In a forest clearing by the trailside, we were surprised and heartened to see two other wild campers, a Polish couple who  were walking a section of the GR11 in the opposite direction to us. We had not seen any other GR hikers for ages, much less wild campers, and we were pleased to linger in the sunlight and exchange stories about our journeys.

The push to col Tudlea was longer than expected, and after trudging up through scattered forest we emerged onto broad grassy meadows. Thinking we had scaled a high, lonely place, we were bemused to see famers and their Landrovers parked up by a sheep pen! We gingerly skirted the growling sheepdogs and plunged downward on a soft, sunlight forest trail where a female capercaillie flushed from the undergrowth beside us.

Pine trail

Descent from Col de Tudela on a forest trail barred with  sunlight and shadows.

By mid afternoon we had arrived in the village of Areu, only to find it smaller with fewer facilities than we thought. The shop was so poorly stocked that we wondered why they bothered at all. But, sitting in front of the small hotel with a cold beer and a fresh sandwich it did not seem to matter that much. That night we would have a real bed and a warm bath, and after 5 days in the dry valleys, with disturbed sleep and freezing mornings, the novelty of such luxury had still not worn off!

Tea in meadow

Tea in the meadow above Areu. Looks idyllic but the flies were a nightmare!

Week 7 was difficult, it was hard not to feel a sense of ‘failure’ at having to miss some sections, and there was also a lot of self doubt. Things were turned on their head compared to our confidence a mere week before…would we ever regain our pace and rhythm….would we still make the sea….and most of all, would our GR11 journey still count, or mean as much with a few holes in it?

Certainly it took a lot of inner struggle to let go of the purist mentality that we had to walk every step of the way. I was reading the Zen Classic ‘The three pillars of Zen’ by Phillip Kapeleau, and in it a Zen student describes a moment of realisation. She realises that “things are either done or not done”, and in that moment of clarity, gains an equanimity that saves her so much torment about about what she ‘should, could or ought’ to have done in her life.

Can it really be that simple? Why do we impose these rules of ‘should, could, ought’ on ourselves, and for whose benefit? Why all the self judgement? Who else cares anyway? Perhaps completing each step of the GR11 had become a point of pride and self worth…but in the end, Zen teaches us to shed such pride as a manifestation of ego, a false sense of self. What mattered in the end was not what we ‘should’ or could not do, but what we did do, and the quaility of our experience. Barry and I had come this far together, and as a team we would find a way to complete the GR11 that was meaningful to both of us.

Lighter in mind, and more at peace with journey, we set a course for the gorges of Nuria, and the climb to the highest point of the GR11.

Catch up soon with GR11 Week 8: Into Nuria- Heart of Catalonia

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