Meanders through the Proud Land

Peter Williamson, 02 August, 2018
In early summer, Peter Williamson visited Catalonia and found a land steeped in history and a people bursting with pride in their homeland and its heritage.

Not far from Andorra and the French border high in the Catalan Pyrenees, lies the small town of Ribes de Freser. From here, I ventured into the mountains, still coated in the last vestiges of winter snow, before heading over lofty meadows from one valley to the next, while staying in traditional, family-run hotels, where the hospitality was truly touching and the cuisine warmed body and soul.

Pride in their homeland comes in many forms and I soon got used to seeing the Catalan flag, hanging on balconies, bridges, buildings and even bushes. Many people seemed in favour of independence from Spain – but there's always two sides to every discussion.

My first hotel was Els Caçadors (the Hunters) in Ribes de Freser where chef-patron Ramón's gin collection was a dazzling sight to see. Sadly, I wasn't there long enough to make much of an impression...

On that first evening, Ramón insisted on taking me to an atmospheric tapas bar where we dined on tasty seafood dishes cooked by his friend, drank beer with the locals and chatted about their hopes and plans for the future.

One of the highlights of this holiday came when I took the cog railway up to the monastery at Núria and walked up onto the high peaks from there, watching isards (Pyrenean chamois) scrambling across rocky slopes in search of a meal.

The descent was even more thrilling, following a gushing stream as it cascades down the steep gorge to Queralbs. It's downhill all the way on rocky, winding paths and my knees were certainly relieved when I finally reached the station for the ride home.

Heading over to Llanars, the trees gradually give way to mountain pastures, where isolated farmsteads nestle on the silent hillsides while eagles soared above. It was a bit of a slog, but the views more than made up for the effort.

Pardines was one of several farming hamlets I walked through. Quiet and traditional, probably little changed over the years.

Someone in Pardines had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to make their views on independence very clear. It certainly put a smile on my face.

One of the best things about this walk is undoubtedly the views – as I climbed up and over high passes, I looked back at hillside villages tucked beneath a magnificent backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees.

Arriving in Llanars I wasn't expecting the luxury offered by the Grèvol, a Swiss-chalet-style hotel with large, comfy rooms; stylish spa and pool; generous public lounges; courteous, friendly service; a superb restaurant and bar – and some of the best food on the trip.

A riverside walk from the Grèvol took me to the town of Camprodón and its famous packhorse bridge arching high over the 'Riu Ter'. Today, it is adorned with yellow political ribbons.

When I reached the small hill-top hermitage of Sant Antoni overlooking Camprodón, I found the old church sitting on its lofty perch surrounded by a carpet of colourful, delicate alpine flowers.

...and the views were rather good, too: row after row of wooded hills stretching away as far as the eye could see, fading into the distance.

You may not see many walkers on these quiet hills, but you won't be alone. There are plenty of docile (if somewhat ferocious looking) cows munching away, who will hardly give you a second glance as you plod by.

In Villalonga de Ter, I came across a man selling cherries. He proudly showed me how good they were, offering me one to taste. The bag I bought made a refreshing addition to my picnic as I continued the walk to Setcases.

Descending into Setcases ('Seven houses'), my eyes were drawn to the blue washing standing out in stark contrast amid the typical red roofs of the village.

Another highlight of this holiday is staying at the Hotel La Coma in Setcases. It's been in the same family for generations. Here, the owner Carmen poses in front of a photo of her father in the restaurant, while 'Mamá' sat quietly trimming green beans in the lounge.

While in this lovely village, Carmen's husband Augustín encouraged me to visit the quirky little honey shop – La Casa de Mel, a veritable emporium of heavenly honey delights.

The choice of routes from Setcases rewards the serious walker, with challenging options high up into the mountains at Coma de l'Orri, 2,500m above sea level. Here, pockets of snow linger long into early summer, while isards and marmots graze the high, rocky slopes.

For something a little less rigorous, I followed a lower level route that wound its way up past a series of dreamy waterfalls. In each leafy glade, I saw signs of vigorous activity by wild boar, snuffling for truffles and other root-based delicacies. Too shy to show...

The walk from Setcases to Molló is widely regarded by walkers as the best route of the week, and I had to agree. After an initial climb through pine woods, I loved the walk along a wide ridge that slowly led me past more red Catalan cows into the next valley and the last hotel.

The red roofs of Molló came into view in a blaze of colour as I approached the Hotel Calitxó. The moment I stepped across the threshold – my week's walking just completed – the heavens opened. I watched the tempest from the comfort of the bar.

After dinner, as the sun made one final appearance before disappearing behind the village's Romanesque church, I reflected on what had been a great week of walking, and the wonderfully kind and hospitable Catalan people I had met. I wouldn't hesitate to do it all again. But enough reminiscing for now. Bastante...

The Catalan Pyrenees

The people of the Catalan Pyrenees are justly proud of their homeland and walking through remote valleys, silent woods and over high passes is a real privilege, matched only by the warmest of welcomes (not to mention the tasty cuisine) that awaits at each hotel along the route.
More about our hotel-to-hotel walking holidays in Catalonia >
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