GR1 Week 1: Coastal plain to lonely sierras

Days 1-6 (Empuries to Ripoll)

Kilometres hiked: 135

Pictures from days 1-6 on Instagram (see feed by scrolling down on blog homepage or visit


Welcome to our first blog from week 1 of our GR1 hike across Spain! It will be fairly brief as we have had a long day, but the photos will help fill in the details. My face is burning from days of sun and wind, in 6 days we have come from the coast into the heart of the Sierra de Garrotxa. It has not been an easy week on a number of levels, but we are happy with our progress tonight and feeling great. The last week has packed in so much already- that’s the thing about hiking and camping-we notice everything and it fills our days and senses to the brim.

So, how did we begin a walk of a 1000 miles? Well…we were a bit grumpy from poor sleep and were not in the mood for too much ceremony last Saturday when we left Empuries. The coast was gorgeous, little coves lapped by sparkling water, families out enjoying the Easter weekend, dogs playing and barking in the sea. After being in grey Britain it seemed counterintuitive to be leaving the mellow Mediterranean and heading up into the colder sierras The other reason not to make too much fuss was a superstition that we might jinx the walk- it was (and still is) hard to conceive the scale of our task. We did find a quiet place however to dip our scallop shells into the sea and poured the glittering water out of them before attaching them to our rucksacks. This was symbolic, our journey as ‘wildpilgrims’ could now begin, and after setting the GPS app to go, we turned our backs and walked West, inconspicuously, through the crowds of Easter weekenders. Whatever we were to face in the next 3 months, it had begun

The trail quickly left the town and led us out across the blazing plain where we squinted in the white light and heat. There was the rustle of reeds, the smell of marsh mud, Serins jangled from the scrub and the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees floated high and distant above the haze. The heat was a shocker for late March, but soon we rose higher into rolling hills of field and forest where we could rest in the shade. We tramped miles of field-edges where colourful wildflowers overspilled from the crops, and high above we watched the scything flight of 10 Alpine swifts.

Worrying about water before we camped that night, we called at a small farmhouse to ask for a refill. We were rewarded with more water than we could hope for and a bag of doughnuts! Camp that night was tricky to find, but we settled at last in a sheltered forest hollow. As the last rays slanted through the pines, the landscape echoed with sounds of distant children shouting, dogs barking and church bells clanging…Easter weekend in rural Spain. I was aching that night and felt a kind of fever in my limbs and joints, Barry was tired too and we slept deeply and soundly.

Next morning dawn woke us with the calls of a Scops owl above the tent and a chorus of robin and blackbird song. It didn’t take us long to fit back into our GR11 camp routine, and we were packed and ready to go within the hour. As we packed we gulped hot tea and munched the gorgeous aniseed doghtnuts we had been given the night before- a perfect hikers breakfast. Day 2 opened up vistas of endless green sierras rippling inland and led us deeper into that vast rural tranquility of Spain that we both love. Buzzards called and displayed above the brown earth fields and the fluting song of woodlarks drifted down as we sat resting in sunny, sheltered groves. By lunchtime however the sky was grey and wind cold, we arrived at the hamlet of Orriols feeling chilled and a bit glum. Barry sat wrapped up as I cooked some noodles in the lee of the church and pondered a plan for the afternoon. A few local families were setting out for their Easter lunch and not for the first time I wondered a little about what we had taken on.

Food and warmth always work though, and a glorious afternoon of easy walking and deep sunlight dispelled any doubts and negativity. We both knew it would take time to adjust to the hiking life again, the freedom but also the constant choices to be made, the rewards but also the discomforts, finding an equilibrium with each other and building confidence in our ability. By evening we found an area of sunny scrub to make camp, the blackbirds sang and insects murmured, the leaves traced delicate patterns on the tent and we sank into drowsy relaxation- nearly 25km hiked that day- not bad for our second day (we must maintain an average of 20km a day to finish within 3 months). At dusk there was a snort and rustle nearby, I sat bolt upright- a boar! I hissed and the beast ambled off (too slowly for my liking), but he did not return. I wear earplugs at night now, based on the philosophy that 99% of the time the things that wake me are not important- they only scare me! As if to prove this wrong however, Barry was woken later that night by gunshots-hunters in the woods- and lay awake for a couple of hours gauging how close they were to us. I hope the boar was far away from them too.

Day 3 and the Mistral wind blew down from the peaks at dawn and made for cold hiking. We were headed for Banyoles, the biggest town since the coast, and entered the cold, quiet streets by mid morning feeling hollowed out. A chance turn led us to a coffee shop (one of very few open that Easter Monday morning), and in that warm place, fresh ground coffee and crispy croissants never tasted so good! Hiking truly strips us back so we appreciate everything, even the a hot running tap for instance…miraculous! The GR1 was merciful again that day, leading us past old farms and monasteries, on winding tracks through forest and field to the very foot of the Alta Garrotxa. The last time we were in the Garrotxa we were on the GR11, it poured down for 3 days, the dark green forest was dripping, smothering, it was dark at night, boar snuffling everywhere, it was so isolated and I wanted to get out. So it was with trepidation and the desire to dispell bad associations that we approached another, different traverse through there on the GR1. That evening in the campsite in the gorgeous medieval town of Bensalu, we treated ourselves to  beer and proper meal. We were feeling great until CRUNCH! Barry bit an olive stone and cracked his tooth. This put pay to the next day’s planned exploration of Bensalu as we went back to Banyoles by bus to find a dentist. It was all sorted in the end, although said tooth had to be extracted and it took the dentist 45mim to lever it out. Barry was very stoical about it all and had little pain after, just some antibiotics to keep infection at bay. We went to the local Lidl to buy some comfort food (fresh baguette,cold vanilla yoghurt and chocolate) to cheer us up

The 3 days following have taken us high and deep into the wild and forgotton world of the Alta Garrotxa. Barry spotted our first short-toed eagle of the trip too. Climbing on tracks through deep woodland, past crumbling old farmsteads, beneath limestone crags and onto airy, blue ridges, the Garrotxa grew and spread around us until we were in its heart. On ancient trails in dappled light, butterflies rose around our knees, we passed mysterious ‘oratorios’- places of devotion- with statues wreathed in dried herbs and wilted flowers, and sat listening to the wind rush in the pines as the sweat dried on our backs. Yes, the Garrotxa has won us over, in just a few days it seems we have left the ‘modern’ world and entered this wilder, lonelier place that time has left behind. At 600-800m, is colder a night here though, I lay shivering at night even in my clothes and the snowline is not too far above us. It is as if we are going back in the season and the bare woods still look wintery.

The GR1 is getting harder from now on- well, until we get beyond the Sierra de Guara anyway. Many days now will have us ascending 1000m or more over 20 ish kilometres. Often the stages are remote and the lack of water information is making it hard to plan for camping. In contrast to the GR11 though, I am not transfixed by the guidebook, I am taking each day as it comes and not thinking too far ahead. To try and predict and deal with all the logistical difficulties ahead would fry my brain and spoil the walk. I would like to say that 6 days in we are finding our pace and balance, we are starting to relax and enjoy ourselves, so what more can we ask for?

The GPS app has been brilliant so far, and almost indispensible given how poor the waymarking has been in places. It is a real revolution for me to use this device to track our progress in real-time, it gives so much info at my fingertips. I am however a bit worried about how much we are relying on the GPS, quite simply we could not walk the GR1 in this direction (aka against the guidebook) without it. A fragile and fallible piece of electronic gadgetry as our main support…hmmmm, we’ll see.

The only other issue right now is that I have had a fairly severe reaction to the sunlight on my hands. They have come out in many painful blisters and tonight are swelling up. Seems like it is an immune system reaction to sunshine on my skin and I have been given hydrocortisone cream to help- hope it works because they look like monster hands and irritate/ burn terribly. On that note it’s time to sign off, we have a proper bed tonight for the first time since we left Britain and I want to spend maximum time resting my bones in it before checkout tomorrow! 

Next week looks to be tougher and wilder than the last. Check out the pics on Instagram, I update these more frequently than the blog, and I hope you have enjoyed the update. Next post in about a week, WiFi depending 😉





2 thoughts on “GR1 Week 1: Coastal plain to lonely sierras

  1. I cycled through this part of Spain many years ago and it bought back memories, not least the shivering at night and waking to hear gun shots in the woods. Best of luck x


  2. Thanks for the interesting post – I’ll have to get Gemma to show me how Instragram works!

    Sorry to hear about Barry’s tooth – nasty shock. Although you have had some settling-in issues I’m sure you are now back in the groove and I expect are now enjoying the walk.

    Can’t type loads – just back from hols an need to get on with work.




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