A Travellerspoint blog

September 2019

Spain: From the Pyrenees to the Desert

Route: Vallcebre – Barcelona – Arguedas – Girona - Barcelona

sunny 28 °C

SEPTEMBER 2019

After an amazing eight days in Andorra we headed back into northern Spain. Our first destination was the tiny mountain village of Vallcebre, where two good friends, Neil and Nikki, had generously invited us to stay with them for a week. Neil had referred to the accommodation as “The Shack”, which really couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The property was set on a hillside, a kilometre outside the village and accessed by a dirt road. It was a four-storey mansion, with six en-suite bedrooms, vast kitchen and dinning room, swimming pool and magnificent views from the balcony.

The Shack

The Shack

Companions of the Shack

Companions of the Shack

We weren’t the only guests though, as over the week the numbers in the house grew to 12. As you can imagine this turned into a very social affair with the main event being the evening meal where large quantities of food and drink were consumed each night.

The Chef

The Chef

Another great dinner at the Shack

Another great dinner at the Shack

Meal at the Shack

Meal at the Shack

But it wasn’t all eating and drinking, although that did take up a lot of the time. We did manage more healthy activities as well, which included walking in the area and a visit into Andorra for lunch.
The area surrounding the house was in the Pyrenees foothills and close to the Parc Natural del Cadi-Moixero. This provided a beautiful area for hiking, with its wooded hillsides and impressive cliffs.

Cliffs of Vallcebre

Cliffs of Vallcebre

View of the Shack in the valley in the background (bottom right)

View of the Shack in the valley in the background (bottom right)

Hiking around Vallcebre

Hiking around Vallcebre

Hiking around Vallcebre

Hiking around Vallcebre

Church in the woods

Church in the woods

Old church

Old church

View of reservoir in Vallcebre

View of reservoir in Vallcebre

Although we had just spent eight days in Andorra, the rest of the party had never visited. Therefore it was decided that it would be a great location for a group day out. We had already selected a suitable restaurant for lunch during our recent stay, so that was the focus of our visit. The day turned out to be great fun, as we not only enjoyed an incredible lunch, we managed to pack in some sight seeing and shopping as well.

Andorran Restaurant

Andorran Restaurant

Lunch cooking in Andorran restaurant

Lunch cooking in Andorran restaurant

Andorra mountain views

Andorra mountain views

Sadly though, all good things must come to an end, which was probably a good thing for our health, and we said our fond farewells. At this stage everyone headed off in different directions, us included, as we had identified an interesting hike in the nearby village of Gosol.
From the attractive village our hike took us around the ancient castle and up in to the hillside forest. Before completing the circuit back into the village once more. We then drove to Barcelona for one night to meet up with Anne’s sister Catherine.

Scenic view on the road from Vallcebre to Gosol

Scenic view on the road from Vallcebre to Gosol

Description of the floating figures

Description of the floating figures

Strange art on our Gosol hike with swimmers made of porcelain

Strange art on our Gosol hike with swimmers made of porcelain

Gosol Hike

Gosol Hike

The following day we started a new adventure with a long drive west into the centre of Northern Spain. Our destination was the town of Arguedas, which sits on the edge of the Bardenas Reales Natural Park, the main reason for our visit. After a long drive we needed to stretch our legs, so we went for an early evening stroll to check out the town’s unusual cliff dwellings (see “Arguedas Cliff Dwellings” below).

Arguedas Town

Arguedas Town

View over Arguedas

View over Arguedas

With bad weather forecast for the afternoon we didn’t delay the next day’s activities. Straight after breakfast we drove the short distance into the Park Natural Bardenas Reales to explore its amazing landscape. The park is split into three areas and today we were exploring its most famous, La Blanca Baja. The whole park is classified as a desert and covers an area of 42,000 hectares. But what makes the scenery so incredible are the rock structures that have been eroded by water and wind over millions of years. We drove a circuit of the whole area, constantly getting out to admire the amazing natural structures that appear around every corner. There were canyons, plateaus, tabular structures and even isolated hills, called cabezos.

Bardenas Reales, scenic route

Bardenas Reales, scenic route

Bardenas Reales, La Blanca Baja area

Bardenas Reales, La Blanca Baja area

Bardenas Reales La Blanca Baja area

Bardenas Reales La Blanca Baja area

Vulture in the desert

Vulture in the desert

Iconic rock structure in La Blanca Baja of Bardenas Reales NP

Iconic rock structure in La Blanca Baja of Bardenas Reales NP

By mid afternoon we decided we had seen as much as possible and headed back to the apartment. This move was timed to perfection, as no sooner had we got in than an almighty thunderstorm broke.

By the following day the storm had cleared, this meant we could explore more of the park. This time we choose the area known as Plana de la Negra; here the sparse vegetation covering the rock turns the otherwise white environment a much darker shade. Magnificent scenery once again, even if the hot desert sun made the hiking pretty exhausting.

El Fraile in the distance, start of the hike

El Fraile in the distance, start of the hike

El Fraile

El Fraile

On top of El Fraile, Bardenas Reales NP

On top of El Fraile, Bardenas Reales NP

View from the top of Cebazo el Fraile, Plana de la Negra area of Bardenas Reales desert

View from the top of Cebazo el Fraile, Plana de la Negra area of Bardenas Reales desert

It was now time for a change of scenery and after a long drive east we arrived in the town of Girona. We had three nights here, which gave us enough time to see a bit of the area.

First on the agenda was to explore the historic old town. A short bus ride got us to steps leading up on to the ancient wall that still encircles part of the old town. From here we started our self-guided tour. The walkway on top of the wall gave us great views of the towns’ old and new quarters, together with the rural surroundings in the distance.

Girona

Girona

Girona wall and old town

Girona wall and old town

View from Girona wall old town

View from Girona wall old town

After about an hour and a half our wall walk was completed and we descended down back into the old town. Here a myriad of narrow lanes contained shops selling everything from tourist trinkets to high-end fashion to enticing food, all housed in restored historic buildings. We spent a fascinating hour or so wondering around before the crowds and heat got too much and we escaped back to our apartment.

Girona Cathedral

Girona Cathedral

Girona old town

Girona old town

Shop in Girona

Shop in Girona

Old town Girona

Old town Girona

This part of northern Spain was home to the surrealist painter Salvador Dali and a visit to the Dali Museum was one of the reasons we had come to the area. So the following day we drove the short distance north to the town of Figueres, Dali’s birthplace and home to the Dali Museum. What followed were several hours of museum time, admiring the unique, crazy and skilfully created works of Dali plus a couple of exhibitions by other likeminded artists.

Dali Museum building

Dali Museum building

Typical Dali painting

Typical Dali painting

Dali Art

Dali Art

Ceiling art Dali

Ceiling art Dali

Then before returning back to Girona there was time for lunch and a bit of a look around Figueres.

Outside Dali Theatre - Museum

Outside Dali Theatre - Museum

Tyre sculpture in Figueres

Tyre sculpture in Figueres

So that brought us to our last day in Spain. With no rush to get back to Barcelona, we decided to take the scenic route. This took us west into La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, a beautiful part of the country where mountain roads wind around extinct volcanoes all of which are covered in lush vegetation. But in addition to all this natural beauty, there was an historic village we wanted to seek out.
The village in question was Santa Pau, where a cluster of medieval buildings sits atop a small hill surrounded by extinct volcanoes. Its centrepiece is its castle, dating back to the 12th century, which is encircled by period properties and an outer fortress wall beyond them. The whole village is in fairly good condition considering its age, although sum buildings are now in desperate need of repair. We spent an hour or so looking around and having a light lunch in a café within the walls, before continuing our drive to Barcelona.

Santa Pau

Santa Pau

Santa Pau

Santa Pau

Street Art in Santa Pau

Street Art in Santa Pau

Santa Pau

Santa Pau

Crumbling away

Crumbling away

Recycled agriculture équipement making up a fence

Recycled agriculture équipement making up a fence

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Arguedas Cliff Dwellings
The cliff Dwellings of Arguedas emerged towards the end of the 19th century as places that could serve as homes for local people who could not afford to buy somewhere to live.
The lay of the land meant that these cave dwellings could be dug in the rock, along the front of the rock face. This made best use of natural light, as most didn’t have electricity. The homes had no corridors so you passed directly from one room to another. Many of these had a grain store and a yard, as the majority of their owners were small farmers.
In 1940 the number of cave-homes reached 52, but they were gradually abandoned in the 1960s due to the construction of social housing.

Arguedas and cliff dwellings

Arguedas and cliff dwellings

Cliff Dwellings

Cliff Dwellings

European Deserts
When you think of deserts you don’t usually think of Europe, but it does have a few. A desert is a barren area of landscape where little precipitation occurs (less than 25mm per year) and, consequently, living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life.
In fact Europe has 16 areas that meet the classification of a desert. The Oltenian Sahara in Romania is the largest, covering an area of 800km2, followed by Bardenas Reales in Spain (see above) at 420km2.

A desert road in Bardenas Reales NP

A desert road in Bardenas Reales NP

Bardenas Reales NP Desert view

Bardenas Reales NP Desert view

Catalonia
Throughout our travels in Northern Spain and Andorra we found that the people we met would proudly call themselves Catalan and not Spanish. They would generally converse in Spanish but would speak Catalan (an ancient romance language that incorporates Spanish, French, Portuguese and other old dialects) to each other. Although the Catalan region of Spain is semi-autonomous, there is a movement within the regions of Northern Spain, Southern France and Andorra, for a completely independent Catalonia. However, this line of conversation never came up with the people we met.

Flag of Catalan

Flag of Catalan

Posted by MAd4travel 08:04 Archived in Spain Comments (1)

Andorrable Andorra

Route: Barcelona (Spain) – Ransol (Andorra) – Vallcebre (Spain)

sunny 20 °C

SEPTEMBER 2019

After a few weeks exploring the UK and catching up with friends, our adventures resumed. A flight from London Gatwick to Barcelona in Spain got us started. Then after a pleasant night in an airport hotel, we picked up our rental car and headed northwest, our destination was the tiny country of Andorra.
The drive out of Barcelona was on quiet motorways until we turned north into the Pyrenees Mountains. The scenery was now much more spectacular as the road cut through river valleys gaining altitude all the way. Crossing the border from Spain into Andorra couldn’t have been simpler; there was no-one checking documentation so we barely stopped.
Andorra is a small country, only about 35km from north to south and about the same east to west. So our journey from the border to our accommodation in the village of Ransol was fairly short, just 25km. After a bit of a problem locating our accommodation, but with the help of a few local residents, we were settled in our one bedroom apartment before nightfall.
The following morning dawned bright and sunny, and the view from our balcony allowed us to appreciate the magnificent scenery all around us. Ransol sits at an altitude of about 1700 meters and from our balcony we could see right down the valley, almost to the nearest town of Canillo.

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

Still a bit knackered from a busy few weeks in the UK, we decided to take it easy during our stay in Andorra. This didn’t prove difficult, as all the attractions are just a short drive away. With this in mind, checking out our local supermarket and a stroll around the nearest town of Canillo was the sum total of day one activities.

Iberico ham on sale in duty free supermarket

Iberico ham on sale in duty free supermarket

Andorran chocolate selection

Andorran chocolate selection

Duty free alcohol

Duty free alcohol

Street art in Canillo

Street art in Canillo

Romanesque church of Sant Joan de Caselles from XII century

Romanesque church of Sant Joan de Caselles from XII century

Thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon of day two, so we just did a road trip to explore the east. It was beautiful mountain scenery again, all the way to the French border and back.

Drive to the french border

Drive to the french border

With the thunderstorms over, the following day dawned with blue skies and a sun eager to make an appearance. This meant it was time to resume our exploration of this beautiful country. Our first destination was Del Roc del Quer, a platform jutting out of the mountainside offering a great view of the central valley. But before we could enjoy the view there was a mountain road to negotiate. As with most mountain roads in these parts it is very windy, with numerous hairpin bends as it snaked its way up. However, unlike many mountain roads we have driven in the recent past, these were very well maintained and a joy to drive, also there was very little traffic this time of year.

Drive up to the mirador Del Roc del Quer from Canillo

Drive up to the mirador Del Roc del Quer from Canillo

The man at the mirador Del Roc del Quer

The man at the mirador Del Roc del Quer

Having finally dragged ourselves away from the magnificent views, we headed down the mountain to continue our day of exploration. Our decent brought us into the Vaira del Nord (northern valley), and after a brief stop at the picturesque village of Ordino, we started our drive up the valley.

Ordino

Ordino

Drive up the Valira del Nord

Drive up the Valira del Nord

Our aim was to enjoy the scenery as we drove up the valley and stop at a few attractions on the way down. The road ended at a ski station, Ordino Arcalis, which looked like a great place for a hike for another day. Then the drive back took in some memorable sights.
First was the Parc Natural de La Vall de Sorteny, a valley surrounded by 3000m peaks and with many interesting hikes on offer. Unfortunately, our limited time in Andorra would mean we wouldn’t have time to check them out.
Just down the road from the park entrance we made a brief stop at a waterfall, in the hamlet of El Serrat. Not a big waterfall by any means, but one of the most beautiful we have seen. Emerging out of a thick forest, the water tumbles over some large rocks, before descending under a bridge. However, what it lacked in size it made up for by it uniqueness. The rock that formed the main drop was porous, so the water seeped inside to almost immediately re-emerged as a tiny spouts, all underneath the main cascade.

Waterfall at El Serrat

Waterfall at El Serrat

Barely a kilometre further down the road we made another stop, this time to see a bridge. The bridge was over the Riu Vaira del Nord, the same river that formed the earlier waterfall. But what was interesting was it age, it is believed to have been built during the Roman occupation. The bridge was small, about enough room for a chariot to cross, steep sided and with rough stonework for its base.

Roman era bridge

Roman era bridge

Our final adventure for the day was another mountain road. Unfortunately this one didn’t have the views of the one earlier in the day, was narrow in places and not so much fun to drive.

The next day was another beauty, so we decided it was time for a hike, and yesterday’s ski station would be our starting point. Another enjoyable drive over the mountains and up the northern valley got us to our destination. From there a cable car transported us up to the start of the hike.

It was then a steady climb up the mountainside to reach a plateau, and there lay three lakes glistening in the mountain sun. The next stage was to traverse each one of them, not much elevation change at this point but a lot of rock scrambling though. The lakes were glacial and filled with crystal clear water, all interlinked by small mountain streams. It was a beautiful place and an ideal spot for us to stop for a picnic lunch. It was then a decent back down to the cable car station where we had started.

Walk up to the Tristinia Lakes

Walk up to the Tristinia Lakes

One of the Tristinia lake

One of the Tristinia lake

One of three of the Tristania lakes

One of three of the Tristania lakes

Although now a bit tired we couldn’t resist going higher, so we boarded a chairlift and started a further accent. The chairlift took us from 2,200m up to 2,700m and amongst the surrounding peaks. The ride was tranquil and very peaceful, all you could hear was a gently breeze and cow bells from the valley below us. The cowbells were unusual in this instance, a common sound in European mountains, but these were around the necks of horses. Farm horses we imagined put out to graze on the lush mountain pastures.

Andora horses in the valley

Andora horses in the valley

Andorran Horse with bell

Andorran Horse with bell

Chair lift to El Pic de Peyreguils at 2700m

Chair lift to El Pic de Peyreguils at 2700m

Once at the top the views were spectacular. Mountain peaks all around us, small glacial lakes wherever there was an indentation and even Bearded Vultures circling above our heads. It was truly amazing.

Border between France & Andorra at El Pic de Peyreguils

Border between France & Andorra at El Pic de Peyreguils

View over France from El Pic de Peyreguils

View over France from El Pic de Peyreguils

Looking down from El Pic de Peyreguils

Looking down from El Pic de Peyreguils

View of the Tristinia Lakes

View of the Tristinia Lakes

After short walk around at the top, our legs wouldn’t allow much more, we descended via the chairlift and took the cable car back to the car park. It was then a drive back to Ransol, this time on the main roads, and a reflection on another incredible day.

With aching limbs from the day before, a more sedate pace was now required. Our first port of call was the Juberri Gardens. A private garden that extends up into the forest, covered with sculptures of all types. It wasn’t quite what we were expecting from the tourist guide, and was obviously designed for children. Nevertheless it was very well done and worth the visit.

Juberri Gardens

Juberri Gardens

Juberri contemporary gardens

Juberri contemporary gardens

From the gardens we descended the mountain and went into the capital to have a look at its historical centre. The historical centre of Andorra le Vella is small so this activity didn’t take long. In fact we spent less time looking around the centre then we did negotiating the capital’s traffic and finding our way out of a supermarket car park (there was some strange ticketing arrangement if you shopped in the store).

Old government building in the Capital

Old government building in the Capital

St Esteve Cathedral in Andorra La Vella

St Esteve Cathedral in Andorra La Vella

Mural in Andorra La Vella

Mural in Andorra La Vella

5 of the 7 poets in Andorra La Vella

5 of the 7 poets in Andorra La Vella

Now fully recovered, the next day we headed back up into the mountains for another hike. This time we were in the south east of the country, and in the Vall del Madriu-Perafita Claror. This is a secluded valley with no road access, so the further you are willing to walk the more remote it gets. Now, as much as we would like the remoteness our energy levels dictated that we wouldn’t venture beyond it outer limits. Even so, we had a steep climb through dense forest just to get a glimpse of one of its beautiful secluded mountain meadows. But it was worth the effort, just for the views.

Hike in the Madriu NP

Hike in the Madriu NP

Looking down to a mountain meadow in the Madriu NP

Looking down to a mountain meadow in the Madriu NP



And so it brought us to our last full day in Andorra. The time had raced by and we still had lots more things to do, so it was tough to select just one. We finally selected a hike in the Vall d’incles. A beautiful walk along the edge of the River Incle, with mountain slopes either side of us and clear blue skies above our heads, made us realise this was a good choice. However, although the sun was shining the wind was particularly cold, which reminded us it was getting near the end of summer. As usual the views were magnificent, but the sight of sheep dogs rounding up sheep and the hardy breed of Bruna d’Andorra cattle grazing (although that had all decided lay down by the time we reached them), made it even more pleasurable.

Incle Valley

Incle Valley

Incle Valley

Incle Valley

Incle Valley

Incle Valley

Sheep herding in the Incle valley

Sheep herding in the Incle valley

Bruna de Andorra Cattle breed

Bruna de Andorra Cattle breed

Big cattle bell

Big cattle bell

And that was Andorra, a gem of a country and one we will definitely revisit in the not to distant future. It was now time to cross the border and explore northern Spain.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Andorra
Andorra is a small country wedged between France and Spain. It is the sixth smallest nation in Europe (16th in the world), covering an area of 468 square kilometres and with a population of around 80,000. Its whole land mass is situated in the Pyrenees Mountains with an average altitude of 2,000 meters and a highest peak of 2,942m. Its GDP per capita is one of the highest in the world, with most of its income being generated from tourism, but also from financial services (Andorra is a tax haven) and, surprisingly, tobacco.

Tobacco cultivation

Tobacco cultivation

Tobacco leaves

Tobacco leaves

Andorran Postal System
Unique to Andorra, it is the only country in the world not to have its own postal system, but does have its own stamps. The postal system in Andorra is run by the French and Spanish national postal services, but can only be used if an Andorran stamp is attached to the letter, postcard or parcel. It is also free to post items within the country.

Andorran Roundabouts
Andorra has its fair share of roundabouts, which aid the traffic flow. But it seems that the Andorran are very proud of their roundabouts, as each is adorned with a sculpture, floral display or other form of decoration.

Andorra Roundabout

Andorra Roundabout

Roundabout around Andorra

Roundabout around Andorra

Another lovely sculpture on a roundabout

Another lovely sculpture on a roundabout

Posted by MAd4travel 08:41 Archived in Andorra Comments (2)

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