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The Travel Episodes

THE TRANSPIRENAICA TRAIL

Into the Heart of the Pyrenees

The Pyrenees stretch from the Atlan­tic to the Medi­ter­ra­nean, and are among the most beau­ti­ful moun­tain land­s­capes in Europe. Johanna Stöckl treks through the central stages of the moun­ta­ins, through the provin­ces of Lleida and Huesca.

The heat is just beara­ble. One degree more – this is a threat to the universe – and I’m refu­sing to take anot­her step. I’ll just lie down in the shadow of a tree and wait. Until sunset, if necessary! For the last few hours the sun has been beating down merci­lessly on my head. My body is glowing from the inside out. I’m swea­ting from every pore. The thick socks in my heavy shoes are smoking. Still, I don’t let it show, of course. I keep going. Step by step. Up through the impo­sing gorge with its steep walls, in which six grif­fon vultures are having an enor­mous amount of fun in the heat. They’re using the ther­mals to sweep noisel­essly through the warm air. One man’s joy is anot­her man’s sorrow.

The good thing about walking in a group is the unspo­ken pres­sure it exerts. Too hot? Not in the mood? Not me! Why?
 
 
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It’s both more awkward and more effec­tive if, as is the case for me, you don’t really know your fellow walkers. None of my eight comra­des wants to show any hint of weak­ness on the first day. Nobody wants to drop their guard.

So we keep clim­bing in single file. 

Disci­pli­ned and silent, thanks to the heat. If I were with my boyfri­end, he could discharge the tension in the atmo­s­phere with a thro­wa­way remark. Probably by chan­nel­ling it into a fight. With a single ‚What’s wrong, not feeling fit today?‘ he’d tip me over the edge – I’m sure of it – into rage.

I’d curse and comp­lain, stand still and blame him for ever­y­thing, inclu­ding the Spanish heat: we got up too late, we linge­red too long over break­fast, etc. I’ve got to laugh. Despite my physi­cal discom­fort, I suddenly miss him inten­sely.

 
 
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Still, I keep going, rashly deter­mi­ned to reach the highest point of the day’s walk as quickly as possi­ble. The mere thought of my boyfri­end at home spurs me on. How absurd: he’s not even here and I’m trying to prove some­thing to him. My newly disco­ve­red mental tech­ni­que for fighting heat-induced rage in the Pyrenees distracts me for at least half an hour. It works a mira­cle. Because at some point Harry finally stops. We’re given a break to have a drink, prescri­bed by the moun­tain guide hims­elf.

I sling my ruck­sack from my shoul­ders, pull out my alumi­nium water bottle and drink. A lot. I eat an apple. Pausing to catch my breath, I enjoy the view of the Barranc del Bosc gorge behind us, which we’ve just crossed in a three-hour march from Terra­dets.

When Harry announ­ces that it’s all down­hill from now on, I’m over­joyed.

In fact, you couldn’t have a love­lier start to a walking holi­day. The weather’s ideal, the group is nice, the landscape’s glorious. The thought of soon being able to leap into the nearby Pantà de Terra­dets lake or the hotel pool spurs us all on. As yet we’re not aware of the fact that in about two hours we’ll be stan­ding in front of an ample buffet. It’s para­dise: there will be arti­cho­kes with garlic oil, plenty of mussels, gril­led lettuce hearts, cheese, olives, fresh toma­toes and deli­cious white wine.

PS: My group consists of nine people in total. Other than the guide Harry Ebin­ger (who left Karls­ruhe for Spain thirty years ago), we’re all German, and we all booked a guided walking holi­day in the Spanish Pyrenees via the Summit Club, the German Alpine Society’s travel agency. We’re not slee­ping in moun­tain huts, but in select accom­mo­da­tion that, while not luxu­rious, is – as it turns out – very char­ming. Each day we walk for between four and nine hours, and from day one we’ve got on pretty well. No stin­kers in this group, unless you count our shoes. 

 

* * *

Chapter Two

Asceticism

The marvell­ous thing about a guided walking holi­day is that you can focus enti­rely on the trek. I fall into a rhythm that revol­ves around walking, eating and slee­ping.

Sounds boring? It isn’t.

Brea­king the day down into stages gives you valu­able time at each place you arrive, and you’re welcome to explore it inde­pendently if you feel like it. They also permit you – which is espe­ci­ally important during longer tours – to dedi­cate plenty of time to look after yours­elf and charge your batte­ries. People need time apart from the group, so you have time to yours­elf as well.

For me, as a coffee junkie, it’s crucial I can visit plenty of bars or small cafes where I can knock back at least an espresso or two. A brief conver­sa­tion at the coun­ter, plun­ging for at least a few minu­tes into the ever­y­day lives of the locals, is probably what I’m most inte­rested in. 

In Valèn­cia d’Àneu, for instance, I take the time for a stroll with Achim through that magi­cal place, which is inha­bi­ted by only a few hund­red people. An uncanny silence reigns in the moun­tain village. Other than a few cats making them­sel­ves comfor­ta­ble in the after­noon sun, we see no signs of life. On the stone houses, howe­ver, their roofs tiled with slate, colour­ful, flower-filled window boxes indi­cate that the homes are occu­pied. It’s a pretty village.

An ideal place to stay for a while, rent a room in one of the two nearby hotels and write a crime novel, I think to myself.

We follow the soft voices we can hear. There! A small bar. Outside the entrance are a few unoc­cu­pied tables and plastic chairs. We walk inside through a kits­chy frin­ged curtain. The tiny shop is filled exclu­si­vely with elderly men in work clothes. Behind the coun­ter stands a woman. It’s a shame our Spanish is so poor. We could have some inte­res­ting conver­sa­ti­ons here, I’m sure.

In a dark corner there’s a TV hanging on the wall. We see images of home. Angela Merkel and Presi­dent Obama are at the G7 summit at Schloss Ellmau, which doesn’t seem to inte­rest anybody here. And, to be honest, it doesn’t inte­rest us either right now. We enjoy Achim’s small white wine and my large cort­ado outside. For thirty minu­tes nothing happens – abso­lutely nothing – on the street.

 
 
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Then, as time stret­ches before us, a trac­tor comes chug­ging loudly around the corner. The gnar­led old man stee­ring it – ciga­rette in mouth, greasy cap on his head – waves at us in a friendly manner. Natu­rally we respond in kind. The simple gree­ting, nothing more than a flee­ting gesture, is the high point of my after­noon.

Suddenly the wave makes me genui­nely happy. 

Long stret­ches of walking, howe­ver, really sap your strength. When you’re on your feet for eight hours a day at eleva­tions of up to 1,000 metres, it chan­ges your prio­ri­ties. After arri­ving at the hotel all you want is to take a shower or a bath. Small luxu­ries can be truly blissful. The reason why I love to walk instead of driving is easily explai­ned. When I walk I find myself totally at peace, while driving a car, for instance, stres­ses me out. When I walk I’m comple­tely focu­sed on the climb itself, and the corpo­real is brought to the fore. Step by step. Up and down. 

Because my job mainly invol­ves sitting in front of a compu­ter, being active outside is a longing of mine, an urge, really – certainly a wonder­ful way to spend free time. Hours of mono­to­nous walking chan­ges things in your head: you have time to play out curious thoughts, ideally reaching an almost medi­ta­tive state. When I’m walking it’s not unusual for me to come up with fantastic ideas or solu­ti­ons to problems in my ever­y­day life.

Walking for long peri­ods takes stamina, but on anot­her level it relea­ses loads of energy. 

The scenery you’re travel­ling through can work wonders. Taking a mode­rate tempo gives you the oppor­tu­nity to notice details in nature. In the Spanish Pyrenees, I walk through stret­ches of land­s­cape so magni­ficent that I seriously consi­der retur­ning to a parti­cu­lar place to spend more time there, or to expe­ri­ence the area in anot­her season. Winter, for instance.
 
 
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Food is, of course, never far from my mind, and on a walking holi­day you can enjoy it guilt-free. After all, you use up far more calo­ries than you can consume. From a culi­nary perspec­tive, the Pyrenees have plenty to offer. Unlike in Spain’s chic cities or on the coast, in the moun­ta­ins more hearty fare predo­mi­na­tes. Apart from tapas and paella, we enjoy deli­cious lentil and chick­pea stews, fresh salads every day, sausa­ges of all kinds, lots of pota­toes and soy cabbage, gril­led black pudding and – as we’re not far from the French border – all sorts of home­made pâtés, served with baguettes before meals. 

The fact that after a long period of walking we’re really longing for dinner has a posi­tive effect on the atmo­s­phere in the group. With every passing day the conver­sa­ti­ons at the dinner table get funnier, more rela­xed and yet more intense. Our shared expe­ri­ence is gradually brin­ging us toge­ther, and as the days go by we become a well-oiled machine. 

Every day we sleep some­where new, and after a few days it means, oddly, that imme­dia­tely after waking up I’m not sure exactly where I am. Some­ti­mes I have to take a brief look out the window to reori­en­tate myself. I prin­ted out the sche­dule for the week with the descrip­ti­ons of each stage and hotel, and it stays by my bedside every night. 

Where was I today? Where are we going tomor­row?

 

* * *

Chapter Three

Peepshow

The Pyrenees and birds – somehow they belong toge­ther. Curtain up! The stage is set for spec­ta­cu­lar displays of flight against gigan­tic back­drops and an enchan­ting, early morning bird wedding.

As ever­y­body knows, on a trek­king holi­day you carry your posses­si­ons in a ruck­sack on your back, and limit your choice of ward­robe to the bare (and ideally ligh­test) neces­si­ties. Paring back not only saves on weight but time. Without the agony of choice you never have to consi­der what to wear. And you don’t have to bother about taking ages to pack. If you’re meeting for break­fast at seven, for instance, you can confi­dently sleep in until 6.40. Twenty minu­tes is all you need to wash, brush your teeth, dress and pack your bag. You can shower in the evening. Every day we get better at shaving precious seconds off our time while still being punc­tual. Maxi­mi­sing sleep is everyone’s top prio­rity. That’s the only way we can manage to reinvi­go­rate our tired bodies day after day.

At 4.40 – a full two hours before the expec­ted pinging of my mobile phone – I open my drowsy eyes because … well, because the alarm’s going off. Turn it off! Anot­her five minu­tes …

… I drift off again.
The chir­ping doesn’t stop.
Ok. Slowly now. Turn on the light.
I’ve got to orien­tate myself: where am I, again? Oh yeah, Spain, the Pyrenees.
Panic: did I overs­leep?

How late is it?

Perhaps I should add that, even in winter, I always sleep with my window open. Gradually I realise that the chir­ping isn’t coming from my phone. There’s a whole orches­tra of birds twit­te­ring and peeping and chir­ping outside, just for me! I close my eyes again, deli­be­r­a­tely, and enjoy listen­ing to this free natu­ral concert while I let my head sink back into the soft pillow. Louder voices come to the fore, while others, croakier, produce a kind of bass. And listen! There! Very tender, a magi­cal warbling. Nothing can keep me in bed any longer.

Curtain up! The stage is set!
The Birds, live in concert!

I’ve got to get up, and I step out onto the balcony in my pyja­mas to enjoy the Pyrenees Symphony. After all, slee­ping in a concert hall is a faux pas. 

Stan­ding in the blue dawn, I liter­ally fall out of time, tumb­ling head­long into a – how best to describe it? – almost a trance. While I’m being bewit­ched and lulled in equal measure by the various birds’ voice in the dead silence of the early morning, my gaze turns to the buil­dings oppo­site, which are lit by a single street lamp. In the early morning light, I can just make out the words ‚Hostal Cortina‘ on the deso­late neon sign. I wonder about the history of this empty house in the middle of the Pyrenees, while a bat flits around my head. Why aren’t there any guests coming and going, as there are at the Hotel La Morera, where we’re stay­ing? The old hotel would make a fabu­lous back­drop to an exci­ting thril­ler! A little murder, perhaps?

 
 
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Back to my feathe­red friends. Birds and the Pyrenees – as I learn over the coming days – somehow belong toge­ther. For now, howe­ver, I’m anything but well-versed in orni­tho­logy, some­thing I come to seriously regret after my musi­cal expe­ri­ence on the balcony in Valèn­cia d’Àneu. I don’t know which voices belong to which birds. I’m able to reco­gnise a black­bird, a swal­low and a finch on sight, but when they’re hovering magni­ficently in the air I can’t really tell a golden eagle from a falcon. It’s a shame. I’d like to learn!
 
 
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In the Pyrenees, birds are ever­y­where. The isola­tion of the moun­ta­ins are an ideal envi­ron­ment for them to live and breed, so we’re trea­ted to some spec­ta­cu­lar displays of flight during our walks: impo­sing birds of prey like falcons, vultures and hawks are often circling the skies, and golden eagles, wood grouse and buzzards are native to the Pyrenees. But we also see signi­fi­cantly smal­ler birds suddenly come sailing by: ring ouzels, citril finches, wallcree­pers and water pipits. Some of them, like the white-backed wood­pe­cker, you hear but never see.

There are nume­rous agen­cies specia­li­sing in the bird-watching market, orga­ni­sing multi-day trips for twit­chers from across the world. Clau­dia from Munich, whose hobby is orni­tho­logy, is a member of our walking group, and in Torla she suddenly flips out. Eating dinner at the Hotel Buja­ruelo, she sees a man stan­ding at the salad buffet whom she reco­gni­ses from various specia­list jour­nals and publi­ca­ti­ons: no ques­tion. It’s Roberto Cabo! If you’re trying to picture the situa­tion, it’s as if I abruptly bumped into Lionel Messi in the dining room. 

Roberto who? For us, the clueless orni­tho­lo­gi­cal newbies, Mr Cabo is just anot­her hotel guest, albeit one who looks a bit like Richard Gere. But the German natu­ral histo­rian is a pretty big deal in the bird-watching scene, and his book A Guide to the Land­s­cape of Spain is a kind of bible to anyone inte­rested in Spain’s flora and fauna. Roberto is leading anot­her German tour group. They’re explo­ring the Pyrenees on foot, focu­sing espe­ci­ally on botany, orni­tho­logy and natu­ral history. Sight­see­ing for natu­ra­lists, in other words.

Inso­far as the terrain permits, from now on I keep glancing up into the air as I walk …

 

* * *

Chapter Four

For All Eternity

Land­s­capes so breath­ta­kin­gly beau­ti­ful that we can’t get enough of them. Scenery so inten­sely power­ful that we want to stay there fore­ver.

Many stages of the jour­ney have a special quality even if they’re not parti­cu­larly long. They’re somehow compel­ling, and we spend ages stan­ding around, taking great photos, crazy selfies or amateur videos. Olaf, anot­her member of the group, even takes out his note­book at regu­lar inter­vals – totally analo­gue – to jot down notes and capture scenes in writing. Among the group he’s known as the ‚wande­ring poet‘. 

In their own way, ever­yone in the group tries to capture the expe­ri­ence for all eter­nity, almost invol­un­ta­rily.

From time to time, howe­ver, we fall silent, forget­ting our came­ras and Face­book pages, pausing, reflec­ting and enjoy­ing the vistas opening up before us. It makes you want to grab a picnic basket, lay out a fluffy blan­ket and maybe a pillow, and dissolve into the scene, give yours­elf over to it, become absor­bed into it. 

Our first ‚wow‘ expe­ri­ence of this kind occurs in Aigües­tor­tes Natio­nal Park in Cata­lo­nia. More than 250 lakes huddle toge­ther at an eleva­tion of between 1,700 and 2,700 metres, crea­ting the largest concen­tra­tion of high-alpine lakes in Europe. Who’d have thought! A lake district in the middle of the moun­ta­ins! During our trip to the Refugi d’Amitges hotel, 2,380 metres above sea level, we can hear the water constantly chuck­ling and gurg­ling. We expe­ri­ence the sheer play of water: gently mean­de­ring streams, peace­ful moun­tain lakes that reflect the peaks around them, marshy ponds, blossom­ing moors, thun­de­ring water­falls and turbu­lent rivu­lets, swel­led with snow, rushing down head­long into the valley. 

 
 

At long last, at the end of the day, the heavens open and it pours with rain. As we leave the Hotel-Restaurant Roya in Espot, a delight­ful and more than 100-year-old hotel in a small village in the province of Lleida, it starts bucke­ting down, which means of course that we’re forced to get anot­her cort­ado … and a nice pine liqueur. 

In the north-east corner of Cata­lo­nia, in the heart of the Spanish Pyrenees, lies the Val d’Aran. To the north, the valley borders France. I was aware of the beauty of the region from nume­rous walking and skiing maga­zi­nes, which, as we disco­ver on our trip, has become more touristy than many other areas. In some ways it’s surpri­sing, since for many years the moun­tain valley was rather isola­ted during the winter months. You simply couldn’t reach the valley from Spain, as you’d have to cross passes up to 2,450 metres high. In winter there was just one way to access it, from France. Only since they built a tunnel has the valley been acces­si­ble from both sides all year round. 

Perhaps it’s precisely this long period of isola­tion that made the valley such a trea­sure?

The region harbours an inter­na­tio­nally signi­fi­cant collec­tion of Roma­nes­que churches crea­ted in the eleventh and twelfth centu­ries by archi­tects, artists and ston­e­ma­sons from Lombardy. 

 
 

On one tour we meet Elisa Ros, the custo­dian of the Val d’Aran’s cultu­ral heri­tage, disco­vering that not only Spanish and Cata­lan but prima­rily Aranese is spoken in the valley. The language, which is not a dialect and is rela­ted to Occi­tan, has been used for many years. Of the 6,000 inha­bi­tants of the valley, 65 percent still speak Aranese, a language other­wise only found in Southern France.

I’m dumbst­ruck by the Mont-Rebei gorge. This spec­ta­cu­lar natu­ral jewel was formed in the foot­hills of the Pyrenees by the Noguera Riba­gorzana River, which wore through the Mont­sec Moun­ta­ins over several million years, split­ting the limestone cliffs. Anybody wande­ring, like us, through the eight-kilometre-long gorge, which invol­ves passing over a suspen­sion bridge, is also marching from Cata­lo­nia towards Aragón. At some places the gorge is so narrow that the 500-metre-high rock walls are nearly touching. Else­where the reddish canyon opens out, making space for the shim­me­ring turquoise Canel­les reser­voir.

Nature is not the only one to create a master­piece in this place.

Two Jacob’s ladders have been made by human hands. 

 
 

Assuming you have a head for heights, you can climb the verti­cal walls. You don’t have to be a parti­cu­larly good clim­ber. Wooden steps, with thick cables as hand­rails, wind up the sheer rock face like a worm. What an expe­ri­ence!

Some­ti­mes nature can be truly over­powering.

If you think rain could put a damper on our spirits or what we were able to do, you’re sorely mista­ken. If you want to reach your goal with dry feet, the occa­sio­nal rain­fall ensu­res you have to move pretty quickly. On the Sendero de Caza­do­res, a hunting path in the Ordesa y Monte Perdido Natio­nal Park, we step­ped on the gas but even­tually lost the race with Mother Nature. At the head of the valley, a plain surroun­ded by craggy moun­tain peaks, we’re gree­ted by a down­pour that accom­pa­nies us into the valley.
 
 
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Drip­ping wet, we reach our accom­mo­da­tion for the follo­wing night, the Hospi­tal de Benas­que. While are shoes are drying in front of the hearth, we enjoy roast orange duck. Doesn’t sound much like losing, does it? 

Heading home on a small bus taking us back to Barce­lona, the Pyrenees open up before us once more, when we stop for a loo break at Riglos, a tiny village of 100 people – one final fare­well high­light. At the steep conglo­me­rate rock forma­ti­ons Mallos de Riglos, which rise as one out of nothing, clim­bing history has been made. 

 
 
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In the El Puro bar we indulge in a final nost­al­gic drink. On the wall hangs a signed photo of my idol. It was here that Alex­an­der Huber free-climbed the Mallo Pisón, which now, seeing the protru­ding rock faces in reality, seems even more impres­sive. I’d love to walk around the towering rocks at least once, via the easy path.

It’s probably the diver­sity that I find so endu­rin­gly bewit­ching about the Pyrenees.

In terms of land­s­cape, food, culture and even language, there’s a huge amount of contrast cram­med into a rela­tively small area, so that it takes some time to orien­tate yours­elf in the over­dose of sensory impres­si­ons, let alone to process them. Or you just take it a step furt­her, travel­ling onwards. People who like the moun­ta­ins will love the Pyrenees. On the GR 11, the leng­thy foot­path through the Spanish Pyrenees, I could theo­reti­cally walk from the Medi­ter­ra­nean all the way over the moun­ta­ins to the Atlan­tic.

That would come to 800 kilo­metres and a 40,000-metre eleva­tion gain. Maybe I should give it a shot?

 

* * *

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An Episode by

johannastoeckl.de

Johanna Stöckl

As a free­lance jour­na­list, Johanna Stöckl writes for various daily news­pa­pers and maga­zi­nes. Her topics are sports and travel. Born in Austria, she’s regu­larly drawn to the moun­ta­ins at all seasons. Johanna lives in Munich. She loves nature, good reads and exci­ting sport reports. Her hobby: to create photo colla­ges on her iPhone.

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  • Birgitta & Alex on 1. Mai 2016

    Liebe Johanna,

    man spürt, mit welcher Leiden­schaft du über deine persön­li­chen Erfah­run­gen berich­test. Du soll­test das haupt­be­ruf­lich mit deinem eige­nen Blog machen. :-)

    Salu­dos desde München

    Birgitta & Alejan­dro

    Reply
    • Johanna Stöckl on 3. Mai 2016

      Liebe Brigitta,
      lieber Alejan­dro,

      danke für euer nettes Feed­back. Ja ich schreibe gerne, vor allem, wenn ich mich nicht einschrän­ken oder an strenge Vorga­ben halten muss. Ich lebe vom Schrei­ben und belie­fere Tages­zei­tun­gen und Maga­zine. Einen eige­nen Blog? Daran habe ich irgend­wie noch nie gedacht ;-) Mir reicht es, wenn ich ab und an was für die Travel Episo­des liefern darf. Lieben Gruß nach Spanien! Johanna

  • Christian Kuhn on 16. Mai 2016

    Unglaub­lich toller Bericht. Ich liebe den Norden Spanien und vor allem die Pyre­näen. Eine Freun­din von mir wohnt dort auf einem Einsied­ler­hof und ich war völlig begeis­tert von der dorti­gen Natur. Danke für die tollen Bilder und den sehr schön geschrie­be­nen Bericht!

    Reply
    • Johanna Stöckl on 20. Mai 2016

      Lieber Chris­tian,

      da du die Pyre­näen kennst, freue ich mich ganz beson­ders über dein Feed­back hier. Das mit der Freun­din und dem Einsied­ler­hof klingt span­nend. Wo genau lebt die Dame denn? Dir wünsche ich eine gute Zeit und dass du hoffent­lich bald wieder in die Pyre­näen aufbre­chen kannst. 

      Lieben Gruß vom Schreib­tisch in München von der
      Johanna :-)

Overview

Antarctica