By Gill Smith
As someone with a real interest in flowers and nature in general, my ideal walking holiday is one that not only introduces you to some fantastic scenery but also offers the chance to see a wide variety of wildlife. The unspoiled Catalan Pyrenees therefore seemed the perfect choice.
The walk starts at Ribes de Freser, an authentic mountain town, and the simple but friendly Hotel Caçadors. The staff couldn't have been more attentive, making sure we had everything we needed and helping us decipher the Catalan menu. I've rarely seen such generous portions and, though it was very tasty, would recommend avoiding bean stew as a starter if you are to stand any chance whatsoever of managing a main course and dessert!
Another tip I should pass on is to be sure to have a €1 coin with you for the following day's excursion to Nuria, one of Catalonia's holiest sites. After a good night's sleep, we set off to the station to catch the rack railway to the sanctuary. Our eyes were glued to the window for the entire journey, so spectacular were the views up to the high peaks that were still covered in their winter blanket of snow. It is usually possible to walk above the monastery, but due to late-lying snow we had to content ourselves with a trip in the cable car for further breathtaking panoramas before starting the descent back to Ribes. The first part of the walk took us through a steep, narrow valley to Queralbs, which has a beautiful Romanesque church with an intricately sculpted colonnade that is well worth visiting. It is here that the euro comes in handy, as without one, you must explore in the dark, unless you do as we did and hang around until another visitor comes along and puts a coin in the slot.
For the next walk from Ribes to Llanars, we decided to take advantage of the transfer to Pardines, which cuts off the first four miles or so of the walk. From Pardines, our path climbed steadily to the Collada Verde. The weather wasn't on our side, with clouds obscuring what the walking notes described as superb views, but any disappointment I felt was soon banished by the discovery at the pass of a handful of dog tooth violets, a flower that I never seen growing in the wild before. From the pass, we descended along a broad track to Llanars, which we reached after a good five hours' walking. Here, the 4-star Grèvol is the highest-category hotel on the holiday, complete with an indoor pool.
We chose to fill our day at Llanars by walking to nearby Camprodón and ascending to the ridge behind the town that can be seen for miles around. We followed this to the pass we'd walked to the previous day, and this time around the sky was clear and the views were as magnificent as I'd imagined them to be. It really was a perfect day, with lots of wild daffodils and crocuses lining the latter part of our ascent, and I loved the feeling of having the mountains to ourselves. In fact, the only person we saw all day was a puzzled farmer, who asked us something incomprehensible in Catalan. It was only on our way back down to Llanars that it occurred to us that he had been asking if we had seen his cows. I hope he found them.
The route between Llanars and Setcases took us past La Roca, a tiny village that surely defies gravity in the way it clings to the rock, then through a mix of pastureland and forest, parts of which are planted with hazelnut and walnut trees. We enjoyed good views of Setcases as we approached, and from our elevated position could appreciate its secluded location amid thick woodland.
Looking back, the hotel at Setcases turned out to be my favourite of the holiday. It is set on the edge of the village, so we had good views from the balcony of our bedroom, and the outdoor pool must be really pleasant in summer, but what made it special was the hospitality. Nothing was too much trouble for our hosts. The food was very good too - over the course of our stay we enjoyed main courses of duck with pears, a speciality of the Catalan mountains, and delicious local trout topped with chopped almonds. In hindsight, I wish we'd stayed here longer - there are certainly other possibilities for walking. But with two nights we did at least get one very good circular walk in. We climbed to the high pastures and sat there in the sunshine admiring the views and watching the birds. So far, I'd spotted several flowers that were new to me, but it was here that I was able to make the first of three ticks on my bird sheet - I spotted my first ever crested tit flitting about between pine trees. (The other two firsts were a citril finch and a red-backed shrike, in addition to sightings of griffon vultures, honey buzzards, linnets, bee-eaters, firecrests and leaf warblers, to name but a few.)
On a purely walking level, the last day's route to Molló was my favourite. The ascent out of Setcases was rather stiff, but the trees provided some shade. Finally the woodland gave way to open pastureland, and we followed the contour across the slope. It was hazy, but we could just about make out the high mountains through which we had walked on previous days and the foothills of the Garrotxa region that lay ahead of us. We saw plenty of interesting flowers, including the endemic Pyrenean gentian, and the leaves of many more were beginning to sprout, so it must be marvellous in late June, with a real carpet of wild flowers.
All too soon, we found ourselves at our last stop, the well-located Hotel Calitxo in Molló, where we enjoyed some of the best lamb of the week (local lamb features on many menus here, either in a stew, as grilled chops or roasted with gravy) as we reflected on the holiday, and the fact that with their combination of gentle foothills, woodland and high mountains, not to mention varied wildlife and impressive views, every day had been wonderfully different.