GR 11 Week 8: Into the Wild Heart of Catalonia

We are here to know the meaning of life’s wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name“- Boris Pasternak

us hking

Pugicerda- Planoles- Nuria- Setcases-Beget

Week 8 began in the town of Pugicerda which lies in high, broad rift between the Alpine Pyrenees to the west and a final, high section around the Catalan ‘stronghold’ of Nuria. This final mountain section, some way to the east of the main Pyrenean range, would see the GR11 reach its highest point and then begin its long, undulating descent to the sea.

The dry valleys of the previous week had been a welcome change from the high terrain, but we were both now looking forward to returning to the beauty of the high country. Indeed, this contrast in terrain was one of the joys of the GR11, which had been far more varied and beautiful than we had anticipated. In Europe it is quite an achievement for a trail to maintain such a high level of quality over such distance, and for this it deserves more recognition than it receives.

Hike on road

Hiking hard to escape traffic on the outskirts of Pugicerda.

Day 49,frosty morning and traffic fumes as we exit Pugicerda, then a long haul up towards Coll Mercer and Coll de la Meians, the latter a momentous one because it was the last 2000-er col of the trip. Not all is well though, my legs felt heavy and stomach kept contracting painfully, I was not sick but something was wrong. We filtered our water religiously but maybe something crept through….. or was it the diet….or just weeks of rough living.

Road mirror

The novelty of mirrors! We catch sight of our scruffy selves on the road outside Pugicerda.

But the trail was easy underfoot, ascending to Coll Marcer (1980m) on forest tracks to broad, blue-sky pastures and bending, golden grasses.

Border marker

The GR11 ran along the Spanish-French border between Coll Marcer and Coll de la Meians, marked by a series of border stones.

After descending the second, highest Col, we lost the GR11 in scrub and ankle-deep mud, a few choice expletives were uttered (mainly on my part….Barry just laughed) as we extracted ourselves, before regaining the trail on the track below. We camped in a gully out of the rising wind, and cosy in our jackets and woolly hats, we cooked a warm meal, followed by tea and biscuits.

Trail dnner

Our most popular trail dinner-couscous, tuna, olives, olive oil, garlic salt and herbs…we were always too hungry get bored of it!

Laying back under the clear, cold sky we watched aeroplanes crossing the mountains, glinting on their descent to Barcelona, Girona, Malaga….. another world away….

Tent by brook

Camp in a sheltered gully below Coll de la Meians.

We spent a quiet night in the gully with the brook bubbling nearby. Sometimes I though I heard a shout, then singing, but it was only the voice of the water spilling and gurgling between rocks.

Descent to planoles

Descent to Planoles through dry, Mediterranean scrub.

Day 50, the tent shivered and twisted in a brisk, icy wind. As the sun rose the rifts of high cloud turned a bruised pink-purple, we hoped the weather would hold. We rose reluctantly and set the water to boil for tea as we packed among eddies of yellow birch leaves.

The descent to Planoles led us on dusty tracks between dry scrub, where the warmth rose with the smell herbs and flicker of small birds. My the pain in my stomach was still giving trouble, it sapped my energy and was very frustrating as the walking was so pleasant. By the time we reached the campsite at Planoles I collapsed on the grass while Barry made camp and cooked lunch. The afternoon passed under the shade of tree, in a drowsy haze of birdsong and the passage of slanting sunlight.

Blue sierras

Spain, land of blue sierras.

Day 52, after a day of rest in Planoles we attacked the climb to Collett de les Barraques, an early morning thigh-burner up steep forest paths, which put Barry in a bad mood. Once we established a rhythm however it was pleasant in the early sunlight, and views soon opened out between the trees to rolling blue sierras. We had a long day ahead, with a descent to the village of Queralbs before a long pull up through the gorges of Nuria.

gnarly trail marker

Gnarly old GR marker on the descent to Queralbs.

We were pleased to bump into fellow GR11-er Max from Holland, who we thought was miles ahead of us. Max was a super-fit, superfast hiker who we had met before at Refugio Pineto near Ordessa, but he had been laid low for over a week with a virus near Parzan. Max said he found hiking alone fairly lonely, having been on the trail for several weeks now, and appreciated some company as much as we did. The smooth trail down to Queralbs crossed beautiful limestone grasslands, and we hiked without having to think about our feet, chatting about the GR11 and dreaming of future hikes.

Rebecca and Max

Hiking with Max.

Trail to nuria

Barry and Max hike ahead as we descend through quiet forest and meadows.

Nuria Trail 2

In the warm sunlight the limestone grasslands were alive with flowers and insects.

Before Queralbs Max forged on ahead, he was running short of supplies and needed to the shop before it closed for siesta. We had no specific plan, but the intense afternoon sunlight in the gorges sapped our energy, and by 5pm we were happy to find a rock shelter to stay for the night. From our ‘cave’ we lay on our sleeping mats reading and writing our trail journal, as the light deepened into dusk and a luminous moon rose above the forest .

cave camp

Cave- camp on our ascent up the gorges of Nuria.

Moon rising

The evening moon rises- view from the cave.

The joy of sleeping out! To see each subtle colour-inflection of the glowing sky, to smell the rising forest damp, and lay upon the gentle heat of sun-warmed rock. Later, buried deep in our sleeping bags, the moon was almost too bright for sleep, it washed the cave with silver-light. I watched the silhouettes of pines on distant, dark sierras, the luminous stillness vibrated with the pulse of cricket song, it was impossible to not bear witness to this most mysterious night.  The time and freedom to experience such things, is for me, the true wealth.

Nuria gorge

Drama of the gorge leading to Nuria, stark sunlight and deep shadow.

Day 53 and we climbed the winding gorges, first in cold shadow, then bright sunlight, to emerge in the mountain sanctuary of Nuria, part hotel, part shrine- all nestled with its lake in a green bowl below the peaks. Standing high above the lake Barry noticed that something extraordinary was happening.

“Before us a flock of 300 martins were swirling and inter-weaving amongst each other, like a whirlwind, the bright sunlight flashing off their blue wings. Seemingly excited and like a ball of joyful energy they twirled and tumbled down towards the lake’s surface. The water was rippled with sparkling wavelets and the birds swept in waves across its surface and as they skimmed to drink they created linear flashes, some splashed and flashed, it was a mesmerising elemental lightshow of life. Some birds dived horizontally into the water to bathe and emerged headlong like flying fish, hardly losing pace, as others swept past, all swirling up again, all was motion and sparkle, a twittering ball of energy and exuberance. Again the whirlwind rose 200 feet to spiral before  us and then dive in a blizzard of glittering tumbling wings to lightdance the waters once more”.

Nuria is an important site in the history of Catalonia, treaties were signed here and shrines established before that, so thousands of Catalans make the pilgrimage here every year, many taking the mountain railway up, and walking down….no such luxury for GR hikers though!

catalan ass

The rather lovely Catalan asses in the Sanctuary of Nuria, ancestors of the American mule.

Up close, Nuria was a bit of a shock to the system, families and day trippers, lots of noise and crowds, but there was something pleasing about the holiday atmosphere and we wandered aimlessly, availing ourselves of burger and chips before pitching tent in the small campground.

Pilgrim stained glass

Stained glass depiction of a pilgrim, note the scallop shell around his neck, in the main chapel at Nuria.

Nuria was our launch-pad for an 800m climb the next day to Coll de Tirapits (2780m), the highest point on the GR11. Despite fine weather for days, the forecast was dodgy, and given the high ridge walking to be done, we cursed that we had not made it a day earlier. We went to sleep not knowing what the morning would bring.

scree climb

Scree climb into the blue….ascent to Col de Noucreus.

Day 54, a miraculously blue, if freezing, dawn, ice rimed the tent and the grass crunched underfoot.  With fingers and toes already numb, we started up the Torrent de Noufonts, pacing ourselves for what lay ahead. Bodies warmed up, heart and circulation pumping nicely we made good progress, watching the first sunlight sliding slowly toward us down the mountain slopes. The ridges above stood pin- sharp against the skyline, and we soon spotted the silhouette of a mouflon ram, resplendent with curling horns. A majestic sight, at home in the high places amid the glory of dawn.

High point1

Making headway across spectacular ridgelines towards the col of Tirapits, the highest on the GR11.

1.5 hours into the climb from Nuria we finally reached sunlight and the base of the slope below Col de Noucreus. The sun was gently warm at that altitude but cold wind cut through, so we lost no time in tackling the climb. The slope gradient veered up more steeply, zig zagging a lunar landscape of glittering screes. It was tough, but deeply satisfying. For the first time in nearly two week we both felt fit again, back to previous form and glad to feel alive in the cold, blue air. On reaching the first col we were passed by trail runners draped with Catalan flags, covering in few hours what would take us all day.

High point 2

GR11 traces the spine of a giant whaleback ridge to Col Tirapits

To be head-height with the peaks again, and indeed for the last time on the GR11 was moving and significant. In getting up into the high mountains again we had rediscovered some of the joy of our earlier weeks on the GR11, it was essential for our morale and proof, after set-backs and doubt, that we could still do it, a redemption of sorts. As we walked the broad ridge towards Col Tirapits, cloud swirled around us, obscuring the trail ahead. Between the clouds we were rewarded with views as starkly beautiful as any we had seen on the GR11, wild, sparkling valleys studded with glacial lakes.

Barry high point

Happy Barry at 2750m, the highest point on the GR11.

In the end we could not figure out which exact part of the ridge was the highest point of the GR, so we make a good guess and spent a few minutes jumping around for silly photo’s and generally celebrating. With the clouds thickening and turning dark however, it was time to head down to gentler terrain. The weather came in as we descended, curtains of rain swept across the bare mountainsides amid a maelstrom of sunlight and rainbows.

chamoix

Chamoix grazed close by as we ate lunch.

choughs

Choughs (behind the left-hand chamois) called brightly as they swirled up from the grasslands- quintessential sound of the mountains.

That day, we crossed Col Tirapits from Nuria, seemed to hold the very essence of the GR11, its drama and harshness, its beauty and wildness. It was as if all the elements of our best GR11 days came together to leave a final, indelible impression.

biscuit break on trail

Obligatory morning biscuit break on the trail above Setcases.

Day 55, the previous evening we had finally been overtaken by the weather on descent from Tirapits. Soaked and cold we headed to the Refugi d’Ulldeter only to find it was closed. A stone bothy adjacent gave us some respite, and we sipped tea until the rain eased and set off for a Hostal further down. Shortly after leaving we got engulfed in hail again, but pushed on, confident we would find shelter. To our despair, arriving frozen and wet, we found it was also closed. The gardian who came to the door told us that at that time of year (late Sept) they were only open at ‘weekends’, which by their rules meant Friday and Saturday!  Annoyingly it was Sunday and we didn’t have the will to argue with the logic.

I was turning blue by that point, so the offer of lift down to the village of Setcases was a relief. As we drove, rain slid in great sheets across the road. Only one hotel out of several options in Setcases was prepared to rent rooms and it seemed expensive compared to elsewhere.  The other hotel-bars were still serving food but would not rent their rooms as it was the tail end of the season. We encountered, and got frustrated with, this rigidity a few times in Spain on the GR11 – businesses which were happy to turn away custom rather than be a little flexible. In the end we took the only choice available. At least the staff were helpful, and the warm bath temporarily quelled any further quibbles.

frosty meadowMagic as a frosty meadow catches the first sunlight.

We left Setcases dry and refreshed, loaded up on what we food we could from the slightly oddly stocked shop. Very few shops on the GR11 seemed to have latched on to the sort of food that hikers want/need. We climbed high into freezing woodlands, through dusky, streaming church-light, and across crystal- frosted meadows. Gaining the ridge at Coll de Lliens we could look back to the mountains behind us, and ahead into a widening glare, over ever lower sierras. Although we expected it on any day now, the sea, however distant, was not visible yet.

poinies on trail

Trail jam near Coll de Lliens, a mare and her foal. We bush-wacked around them!

ponies

Mare and foal on the golden grasslands near Coll de Lliens.

wild camp by river

Camp at the end of Day 55.

Day 55 ended by a river near the village of Molla, where the water ran deeply and trout lingered in the shadows. Tired from a long day in wind and sunlight we crawled into the tent early and rested our bones in the soft luxury of down sleeping bags. The long evening passed as thrushes ‘chakked’ and chuckled heartily in the undergrowth, fading to a moonlit night with the song of crickets and a hooting owl.

And so ended a week of redemption and renewed faith in the journey, we said farewell to the mountains and dared once again to dream of the sea. Ahead lay one more week through forested sierras and across the hot coastal plain to end of our quest at Cap de Creus.

If you have stayed with ‘wildpilgrims’ on the GR11 for this long, our heartfelt thanks for following our blog, and we hope very much that you’ll join us at the end of our journey in our final GR11 instalment:

GR11 Week 9: The Sea…At Last….

Readers may be interested to know that we are finalising our plans for more ‘wildpilgrims’ adventures next year, and will be blogging about this early in the new year.

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3 thoughts on “GR 11 Week 8: Into the Wild Heart of Catalonia

  1. This sounds amazing! I’m thinking of travelling through the Pyrenees alone for 5 or so days. I’m in Barcelona, do you know any good start off points and which route I should take with the time I have? I’m 20 years old and an amateur hiker if that helps.. Haha. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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    • Hi Chloe,
      Thanks for checking out our blog. We are far from experts on the Pyrenees and without knowing your experience in hiking etc, are cautious about recommending anything specific. Key things to consider are timing (the Pyrenees are still under snow at the moment), having the right gear (i.e. are you camping, staying in refuges etc) and your confidence/experience level with navigation/mountain weather etc. There are many fine and well marked routes in the Pyrenees, and some have better connections and facilities than others. Areas like Aiguestortes d’Estany natural park and the Ordessa canyon natural park, are real jewels of the range on the Spanish side, so might be a good starting point for research. I think there is a website for the parks. Aiguestortes park has a number refuges (which i think can be pre-booked) if you don’t fancy camping. It also has a route called the Carros de Foc (Chariots of Fire route) which goes around the park linking the refuges….we mean to try this ourselves at some point.

      Happy travels and liked reading your blog on Morocco 🙂

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      • Hi Rebecca and Barry, thanks so much for this info, very useful and i´ll look into this range on the Spanish side especially the parks etc which might be easier to navigate around as I basically have no equipment, only the basics! Happy travels and thanks for the kind words!

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