Heading Into The Sunshine For Our Summer 2017 Thru-Hike…
Having spent the majority of last summer in the colder, Arctic north, this year we decided that we fancied walking somewhere a little closer to home. As our trek across Corsica back in 2015 had left such a lasting impression, we decided that it was time to experience another of Europe’s GR long-distance routes.
After a little research, the ‘GR11’or ‘Senda Pirenaica’ caught our attention. Running through the Spanish Pyrenees, this Gran Recorrido presented itself as a magnificent route through largely unspoilt, wild mountains, offering wonderful wild camp opportunities. Considered a serious challenge for experienced hikers, but less demanding than the higher-level Pyrenean Haute Route, it sounded just what we were looking for.
In its entirety, the trail winds some 840km from Irun on the Atlantic Coast, through Andorra, and onto Cap de Creus on the Mediterranean Coast offering a variety of landscapes – from rolling green hills to high granite peaks, with thundering cascades and serene glacial lakes, to expansive canyons and sweeping vistas. Yet the timescale of 45 days to complete such an endeavour meant that we didn’t have time to walk the whole trail (work always gets in the way!). So instead of giving up on the idea, we decided to be selective on stages and pick a section of the trail that we thought would offer us the best scenic opportunities and remoteness that we crave.
As we only had a two-week window, we opted to start in Canfranc located in the western half of the route and tackle the high mountain passes walking west to east. This would take us through one of Spain’s most popular national parks – the Parque National de Ordesa y Monte Perdido. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is famous for its 3,000m deep glacial valleys that are capped by Monte Perdido standing at 3,348m high. We would also hike through the Posets and Maladeta Natural Park, which has the highest concentration of peaks over 3,000m in the Pyrenees.
With the Pyrenees forming the natural border between Spain and France, we could quite easily have opted to walk the GR10 route, running along the French side instead. But the overriding factor in our decision was the weather, which on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees is usually very favourable. With the thought of endless sunshine and a much drier climate, as well as regular opportunities to pass through settlements to resupply, and good access routes from the UK, the GR11 was just more appealing to us than its French counterpart.
Ready and excited to set off on a new walking adventure!
Friday 11th August 2017 – Day 1 – Canfranc Estacion to Wild Camp (1km past Youth Camp, crossing the Rio d’a Canal Roya to scrubby area off-trail.) – ‘Better late than never!’
Start time: 20:06. End time: 21:55. Distance: 5.2km. Ascent: 412m / Descent: 127m.
The outbound journey started at Luton where we caught an early morning, cheap, no-fills Easyjet flight to Barcelona. (Departure: 7am. Flight time: 2 hours 15 mins. Total: £383.74 for 2 persons inc. return travel. Purchased Nov 2016.) From Terminal 2c we took the ‘Aerobus’ into the city centre (Single: €5.90), disembarking at Plaça de Catalunya, which was a short walk away from the guesthouse we had pre-booked for the end of our trip. (Milton House Gran Via.) The guesthouse had agreed to store for us a small case of clean clothes and personal items that we would need at the end of our hike until our intended stay a fortnight later. (Excellent service!)
Flying from the UK into Barcelona. Arriving just after 10am, we still had a long travel day ahead.
The day then entailed more travel to get to Canfranc, which was where we planned on starting the GR11 trail on arrival that evening. From central Barcelona we took the metro to the main train station (Sants Estacio) where we had pre-booked tickets via the internet to travel to Zaragoza by RENFE train – Spain’s high-speed rail network. (€42.15 pp) Pre-booked tickets meant we had a designated seat, which was comfortable, and the journey took a little over 2 hours to cover a distance of 255km.
The RENFE high-speed train on which we travelled to Zaragoza in a little over 2 hours.
On arrival in Zaragoza we had just over an hour to spare before our next connection, which was a local train that would take us the rest of the journey to Canfranc. Again we had pre-booked tickets, but this time there wasn’t an option for a designated seat. (€16.30 pp) We had intended on stocking up with food supplies from a nearby supermarket in Zaragoza to see us through the first couple of days on the trail. However the closest supermarket to the train station was undergoing refurbishment work, and as we didn’t have enough time to go searching further afield, we left Zaragoza empty-handed so to speak. (Note: Zaragoza train station has one restaurant but no kiosks with snacks etc. There are drinks vending machines only. Stock up beforehand for the 4 hour journey!)
Zaragoza Station is a very smart, modern building with a large outdoor plaza area.
From Zaragoza to Canfranc, the journey was particularly scenic as the local train slowly but surely wound its way through the mountains. The train, which consisted of one carriage, was virtually standing room only on leaving Zaragoza, but after stopping at a handful of settlements along the way that seemed peculiarly placed in the middle of a vast ‘nothingness’, there were just a few of ‘us’ left when reaching Canfranc some four hours later. By ‘us’, it was noticeably ‘hikers’ being the majority of passengers left to disembark, the telltale signs being big backpacks and trekking poles.
Canfrac Estacion is hugged by the mountains. We arrived a couple of hours before sunset so didn’t have much time to appreciate the surroundings as we had to stock up with food supplies and be on our way!
It was to be a very late start to our hiking day because of all the travel connections – but we knew that everything had gone smoothly and according to plan – from a punctual flight departure from the UK, to dropping our case off at the guesthouse in Barcelona, to making all of our train connections on time. The issue of our food supplies was also resolved due to the punctuality of the train. With it arriving as scheduled at 19:37, we had the chance to quickly visit the local supermercado across from the station before it closed at 8pm. (We had some emergency rations of instant noodles in our packs should the train have been late!)
What we found in Canfranc was a fantastic local store – probably one of the best throughout our entire trip – selling a whole array of goodies at not rip-you-off tourist prices! (If we had been staying in town overnight, then it would have been perfect all the more as half the store is literally shelves filled with alcohol!)
As we didn’t have much time to deliberate, we decided on some Spanish staples – bread, cheese and chorizo – and we even saved some money by buying the 1 Euro ‘smart price’ budget options that were available! We then supplemented this with several other snacks good for hiking e.g crisps, nuts, muesli bars and chocolate.
The fantastic local grocery store in Canfranc where we stocked up with supplies for the first few days. (Also handy to know – there is a Santander bank with ATM right next door if you need to withdraw some cash!)
We repacked our bags out in the street, then set off hiking up the valley away from the town at 8:15pm. (It was difficult, but we ignored the temptation to stay overnight at a hotel in Canfranc and enjoy an asado from the local tapas bar/restaurant – reminiscent of the amazing parillas we had feasted on in Argentina that mean we are now always hankering after a giant meat feast!)
Heading straight into the mountains… Canfranc is perfectly placed to begin a Pyrenean adventure!
Our intention was to hike around 5km and wild camp past the designated ‘Camping Canfranc’ campsite to save €15! If we had felt tired or the weather had been bad, we would have gone straight to the campsite. However as we were fresh from travelling and keen to get started on the trail, plus with still enough daylight to achieve around 5km of hiking before dark, we decided to go for it!
Leaving Canfranc and realising how close to the French border we were.
We quickly left town following the well signposted GR11 route. Signs were yellow in colour and looked new, and were more informative having how many kilometres to the next waymark printed on them. Along the trail, we also noted the familiar red and white flashes painted along rocks and trees as with the GR20. Our immediate thought was that no matter the heat and the elevation changes of the GR11, we knew the trail would be kinder and no way near as difficult as what we faced and completed in the summer of 2015! Little did we realise what was to come…
The GR11 route is well signposted from Canfranc. It felt reassuringly familiar to be back following the red and white flashes that were our guide on the GR20, two years previous.
Enjoying being back on the trail and leaving civilisation behind for a while…
Just out-of-town, we spotted the tent of a wild camper right alongside the trail, in the shelter of an unoccupied building. We wondered if it was someone who had just disembarked the train like ourselves, but had thought it was too late in the day to hike on? We also passed several older Spanish couples walking in the opposite direction to us who looked like they were returning to town after a day hike. They were all pleasant and chorused “Hola!” as they walked on by.
Following a well-defined, well-marked trail uphill away from the town heading in the direction of Ibón Anayet.
It wasn’t long before we reached what was marked as a ‘Youth Camp’ on our map, complete with picnic tables and a makeshift stone amphitheatre. We were tempted to camp right in the centre of the amphitheatre as it was flat and it offered shelter from any wind, but we decided it was just a bit too conspicuous! We didn’t really want to attract attention to ourselves on our very first evening! If we had needed to cook hot food, then we most certainly would have made use of one of the picnic tables to sit and prepare dinner; however as we were yet to purchase gas, that evening our dinner was to consist of us sharing a large bag of crisps!
(Note: ‘Screw on’ valve type gas canisters are hard to come by on the GR11. Both the Spanish and French tend to use ‘Campingaz‘ which is a pierceable cartridge. We knew from our research that we wouldn’t be able to buy the ‘Coleman‘ style canister we needed until reaching the town of Sallent de Gallego the following day, where there is a mountain equipment store with a full range of gas canisters available.)
Passing through the youth camp area and hiking on.
Passing a ‘fuente’ – a natural spring water fountain. This was typical throughout the GR11 trail and meant we didn’t have to filter drinking water if there was the option to fill up from a spring.
Having passed the youth camp area, there was now little choice or indeed any flat ground on which to pitch our tent, so we decided to continue walking until we reached the river, Rio d’a Canal Roya, where we would then look for a wild camp spot close by. Walking further that evening would save us a few kilometres the following day, which was already going to be long one at over 20km.
As we crossed the bridge over the river we were aware that we were now in cow territory. There was a huge herd of caramel brown cows leaving a grassy plateau and making their way further up the valley for nightfall. The ring leader had a giant cowbell around its neck, and as the others followed en mass, the bell could still be heard clanging, echoing through the valley way off in the distance. We thought that we wouldn’t be able to sleep – but the cows soon quieted down as the sky went black.
With no option but to hike on, we continued towards the river looking for an area big enough to pitch our tent before it got too dark.
We didn’t want to walk over to the flattish area where the cows had been congregated, even though it would have been the most level area to pitch, just in case they returned during the night and we were trampled on! So instead, we set the tent up on a small area of greenery that had spiky long grass and patches of prickly scrub in places (not ideal!). Thankfully we had brought with us a new addition to our kit – a Tyvec ground sheet to protect the tent in case of scrubby ground such as this!
By the time the sun had disappeared behind the rugged peaks, we were wrapped in our sleeping bags, thankful of the extra layers I had brought by way of fleece pyjama bottoms and a lightweight down blanket, as the temperature seemed to plummet rapidly. We were perfectly comfortable however, no longer having any fears about camping in the wild. So we were soon sleeping soundly after such a long day.
Our new walking adventure had started. It was time to immerse ourselves once more into trail life, to escape from the digital world for a precious while…