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Hiking Spain’s Pyrenees

Arriving in Zaragoza after dark it was hard to judge the character of the place. The fast food joints and out of town retail outlets which lined the bus route from the airport filled me with dread. However on arriving in the town centre the occasional ornate building and the large Roman style arch in the middle of a roundabout raised my spirits. A slightly dingy narrow street led us to a pleasantly modern and stylish hotel, which most importantly was relatively cheap.

Despite our tiredness the alarm sounded early the next morning as we aimed to catch the first of only two trains to the Pyrenees Mountains a day. I had learnt that Zaragoza has a new train station (Delicias), indeed our bus had passed this concrete monster, but we planned to use the old city centre station (El Portillo). However after unsuccessfully trying to locate this I tried out my limited Spanish on a local man to enquire where the station was. He directed me to the new, state of the art concrete monster conveniently located a mile out of town. According to him, the town centre station now only served buses!

We were now in danger of missing the train as it left Delicias before El Portillo, after failing to hail a taxi, we hopped on a bus, which was packed with early morning commuters. Eventually we spotted the station, you can’t really miss it, and hoped off the bus into the nearest entrance, we had minutes to spare. The sight which greeted us was like setting a model railway in the middle of Wembley stadium, a vast space enclosed a couple of railway lines deep below us. Checking which platform we needed we dashed for the nearest escalator. As I reached it, it slowly dawned on me that something was wrong, it was going up only, and I had to get down. At the same time we had attracted the attention of a security guard who proceeded to direct us to the ticket office and platform access at the other end of the station, about a kilometre away! Even if we had been Olympic power walkers not weighed down by hiking backpacks our chance of the train had gone.

Having started out on empty stomachs we used our enforced recreation time to refuel with a Spanish omelette and returned to the station for the next train. We boarded the train and had barely parked ourselves in our seats before it stopped at the first station, this of course was the mythical El Portillo! We passed the hours in a relaxed holiday doze and arrived safely in Sabinanigo, having now missed the bus connection for today. On checking into a hotel we embarked upon a siesta, how well we were adjusting to the Spanish pace of life. Or so we thought, emerging from our slumber to explore we discovered we were too early still, there was no sign of life all shops and businesses were closed. We were soon to discover that Sabinanigo is not a town with many attractions even when things are open. In the evening we toured the streets passing dingy bars, and selected what we hoped was the lesser of the many evils on offer, and indulged in an interesting ham and pineapple pizza, which had been drawn from the ice cream freezer by our waitress before our eyes and once warmed we discovered it was a novel recipe involving fruit salad complemented by tomato and cheese on a crispy base.

To get to the mountains from the hell hole of Sabinanigo involved a short but nausea inducing ride on a bus round the hairpin bends of mountain roads.  The bus stop by the way is the social centre of Sabinanigo where people go to see and be seen, dozing on benches and muttering about the tourists passing through. On arrival, Torla the mountain village which would be our base camp appeared to consist of one parade of shops half of which were closed. There were three campsites marked on the map and we chose the one halfway between the village and the national park, the best of both worlds we hoped. Being out of season we practically had the place to ourselves, which meant the undoubtedly extortionately priced camp supermarket was closed so after setting up camp it was the short walk back to Torla for food shopping. After shopping in a small, but well stocked and overpriced supermarket we found the village was a little more than the one street I had assumed earlier. Restaurants and hotels lined a labyrinth of narrow streets, evidence of the Euros to be made from those seeking recreation in the tranquillity of the mountains.  That night our camp was indeed tranquil but freezing cold!

After a lie in, the hiking began with a gentle introduction, a day walk into the Ordesa canyon.  Here the Limestone bedrock has been scoured by Ice Age glaciers leaving a deep valley overshadowed by towering cliffs.  Over clear mountain streams shaded by majestic trees decorated with autumn colours we wandered deeper into this natural wonderland.  Where the valley narrowed between sheer cliffs we struck upwards through woods to waterfalls and breath taking views. However our late start meant we could not continue along the precipitous cliff edge path and instead much to my disappointment had to return via the same less adrenalin stimulating forest path.

The next day an early start was needed to walk the length of the valley to overnight at the manned refuge at the far end of the canyon before returning the following morning. Unfortunately with all our stuff to carry even retracing our steps of the day before to the park’s main car park seemed to take an eternity. Resting here for a soup snack, we were engulfed by a noisy herd of mountain cattle. Who had clearly decided the best grazing was to be found in the car park. Onward up the valley the gradient never eased but the views never stopped amazing us. Frequent photo stops and snacks kept our spirits high but the distance between mapped landmarks seemed to grow depressingly large and our aching muscles began to complain louder and louder with every step. As we exited the beautiful trees in to open meadow of the Circo de Soaso, the chill of the night began to descend and the unmanned but stone build refuge hut looked inviting. Pushing on we reached the end of the canyon and looked for the trail which would take us to the manned refuge. Small lines of red and white paint on the odd boulder guided us across the steep scree slope. Looking high to our left above the fine waterfall I saw what I thought looked like the refuge, it was depressingly far away.  Taking my camera I zoomed in, it was no refuge only an outcrop of slate gray rock. A few steps on another nervous glance upwards and there in the far distance I glimpsed the unmistakable shape of the refuge.  By now with darkness closing and the lure of shelter in the valley below my determination cracked and I listened to the pleas of my aching limbs. Suggesting our best option was to overnight in the unmanned refuge, we retraced our steps and ate alone in the valley under the stars. The night proved restless as the concrete floor of the shelter chilled us to the core but upon exiting as dawn warmed the barren mountain slopes I was greeted by the magical sight of a Pyrenean Chamois crossing the stream, this was a real privilege. To be alone with such natural beauty felt like being in paradise. Our return hike passed in the blink of an eye compared to our upward march but we were still exhausted by the time we returned to the campsite. Summoning the last of our energy we made our shopping trip to Torla and enjoyed a campfire meal and early night as goats mowed the grass around our tent.

To pass the hours before the bus without straining our already overworked legs we strolled into Torla and bought food and postcards, we also discovered the shuttle bus to the park’s main car park was still running, we had assumed it wouldn’t be out of season, this could have saved us two hours of hard hiking everyday and countless blisters! A campfire lunch of large amounts of lentils proved a mistake as the bus ride back to Sabinanigo was worse than our outward journey thanks to the furnace like temperature in the bus as the Spanish sun bore down. In Sabinanigo we joined the local celebs at the bus station to recover and wait for the train, buying our tickets involved a half hour wait while the station attendant attended to a very important phone call from his best mate. The Spanish countryside conjured dreams of future adventures as it slid past the train window bathed in the orange glow of sunset. Exiting the train at El Portillo, because it does exist and it was closer to our hotel, we asked various bemused locals for directions to the town centre and eventually arrived in the comfort of the hotel.

In the morning I enjoyed catching up with the English football highlights from my bed before we set out to explore. With the whole city to explore there was a tight schedule especially as most places closed for lunch and afternoon siesta. The morning began with visiting the Plaza del Pilar and the famous cathedral.  In particular I enjoyed photographing the spires of the Cathedral reflected in the waters of the Fuente de la Hispanidad, a modern water feature located at one end of the Plaza near the ruins of Roman walls. We went on to investigate Zaragoza’s Roman heritage. The city of Caesaraugusta was founded in 14BC on the banks of the Ebro River, four museums around the city, the forum, the public baths, the theatre and the docks allow visitors to experience the city’s archaeology. Unfortunately to make the most of our experience we had to try to keep one step ahead of a group of schoolchildren visiting the museums that day.  For lunch we headed to a recommended Aragonese restaurant, where we feasted on roast lamb, I know now why an after lunch siesta is needed!

The afternoon we thought would be the highlight, the Moorish Palace of the Aljaferia. In reality it was the finest collection of empty room I have ever seen, with only one or two ornate ceilings to get excited about and a rather pleasant courtyard garden with a water feature the sort of which you can see at any good Garden Centre in the UK. Thoroughly disappointed and tired we retired for a drink to while away the time before our flight home.

I am well aware that the cheap price of our flights was a trade off for a lack of comfort but I do not expect to be lied to no matter how much I pay. Sadly at Zaragoza airport in the sparse departures “lounge” the announcement came loud and clear that our flight was to start boarding, the expectant queue by the gate shuffled forward with renewed vigour. However it was clear for all to see that there was as yet no aircraft for us to board. So unless Ryanair had invested in new invisible aircraft we were all being lied to!  Half an hour or so later it transpired that that was indeed the case when a Ryanair plane taxied into position and we continued to wait while passengers disembarked. I understand delays happen but cannot understand why corporations stoop to such blatant lies. It was a sour end to what overall had been a fantastic holiday, the finest points of which were when we were insulated from the rest of humanity by the natural splendour of the Ordesa National Park.

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