A third visit to the GR1 Sendero Histórico

This my third visit to the 1000 km GR1 Sendero Histórico, a trail which crosses northern Spain from the Cantabrian Mountains in Asturias to the Mediterranean coast in Catalonia.  I walked it last March (knee deep in snow in parts), persuaded Cicerone that it was worth a guide book and then committed myself to another two visits.  I did the western half again in September and have just walked most of the eastern half.
Leaving Riglos on Day 1

Writing a guide book is a big commitment and I spent the winter grinding away at the detail. I was keen that this trip would be as good as I had persuaded myself (and others) that it would be.
With some important caveats it is, if anything, better.

For the first week we had excellent weather.  If anything it was too hot, 30 degrees centigrade, and humid. The scenery on this stretch from Riglos to Graus was amazing.  Last March the weather was poor (a late winter across Europe) and views of the Pyrenees were a rare treat.  This time they were omnipresent, a line of brilliant white sentinels to north, which alone made the walking special.
Looking into the Pyrenees from on Day 2
I had not fully appreciated before how the pre-Pyrenees (Prepirineo in Spanish), particularly the Gueva and the Montsec ranges, are in effect a southern ridge - a more modest echo of the Pyrenees themselves.  So in addition to uninterrupted views north to the Pyrenees, views south across the Spanish plain were also amazing.  The winter has been exceptionally wet and this meant that for once Spain was intensely green.  Views from near Pico Gratel (1567m) across the Hoya de Huesca were particularly wonderful.

Looking across the Hoya de Huesca from a window in the Loarre Castle
Despite the hot weather spring in the pre-Pyrenees was no further forward than it was when we left southern England.  Wild flowers (primrose, cowslip, miniature daffodils, violets, thyme and  rosemary) were out in profusion but trees were not yet in leaf. The GR1 might be 1500km south than Brighton but its also over 1,000m higher.
Tiny daffodils
This section of the GR1 is tough.  I was desperate to pack as much as possible into 15 days walking, but after seven tough 9 hour days, each involving 1200m of climb, I had to admit that enough was enough. When the weather broke and it rained in Graus I decided to take a day off (Christine took two days).  This is definitely the hardest part of the whole GR1.
The Can Boix Hotel near Peramola
The weather in the second week was cooler, which was a relief, and the views not so good but there were plenty of other compensations.  In particular, we stayed in two marvelous hotels and concluded that in Catalonia at least you could walk along the GR1 enjoying food that was close to or at Michelen star standard.

Apart from one very long day from Nocito to Paules de Sarsa, accommodation along the route is plentiful, so there are various options for configuring the walk. Spain provides a distinctive accommodation experience, has excellent food and is great value for money.

I have been reminded that you need your wits about you to find your way along the GR1. From time to time it disappears or even moves from where it was last year.  British walkers used to the certainties of following a route on an Ordnance Survey map could find this a little disconcerting, but it's a feature of walking in Spain where the routes are not generally plotted on the map base (and where they are the route can't be trusted).  There are lots of perfectly understandable reasons for this and ways around the problem (buy my guide book next year to learn more!) but it can be frustrating.

Despite some sore knees derived from my overambitious plans we have had a wonderful and unique 15 days' walking.  As usual I am indebted to Juan Holgado who is always at the end of a phone to help when my lack of language skills lead to problems locally. 

I had planned to produce a daily blog but with long days and the nightly bottle of red wine (between two I hasten to add) it was just too much of an effort.  It was, however, fantastic walking -  for a brief description of the highlights, carry on reading.

Day 0

Getting to the start of the walk went to plan.  We got an early morning Easyjet flight to Barcelona then a train to Huesca.  Huesca was a bit of a disappointment and not the classic Spanish medieval town I was hoping for.  It might be better to go straight to the mountains.

Day 1 Riglos to Loarre

If we hadn't stayed in Huesca we would have missed the train ride up to Riglos, which packed with walkers and climbers early on Saturday morning was great fun.  Riglos is a brilliant little place nestling underneath huge red cliffs with an international reputation amongst the climbing community, a large sample of whom were already high up the rock face when we arrived. We stopped for a second breakfast in the little hostal and confirmed that it would be an alternative place to stay.

Starting on the GR1 proper the route takes you underneath the cliff face, through a gorge and up to a pass.  The weather was perfect and we got our first view of the snow covered Pyrenees.  
The Torre de Marcuello

Heading south the views along the ridge of mountains and across the plain of the Hoya de Huesca grabbed the eye.  Everything was wonderfully green, not a colour I normally associate with Spain. The ruins of the Torre de Marcuello were a foretaste of many to come, but because of their location at the end of promontory these have a particularly epic quality.

One of things I was trying out on this trip was an alternative route to the GR1, the Camino Natural de Hoya Huesca.  It largely follows the GR1 but avoids some chunks of road walking. From the Torre de Marcuello it stayed high and avoided a descent into tiny villages where the original route has anyway been spoilt.   
Loarre Castle at sunset

We got to Loarre in time for a good late lunch at the excellent Hosperderia de Aragon, had a rest and then walked up to Loarre Castle in the late afternoon sun.  Despite being 1000 years old it's in great shape and is allegedly the best Romanesque castle in world. Ridley Scott used it in his film 'Kingdom of Heaven' (terrible film I thought).  On a sunny afternoon it was hard to dispute the claim.

Day 2 Loarre to Aguis

Day 2 was on the long side but is still a great day's walk. The dull bit was the walk to Bolea in the morning where the marginal differences between the GR1 and the Camino Natural de Hoya Huesca caused some confusion.  Bolea was a nice old village and we found a traditional bar which served excellent local food and also provided accommodation; definitely a stopover if you didn't want to stretch things walking all the way to Aguis.

Unfortunately we were on a schedule and this involved our first big climb, 600m climb up to a pass which featured a little ice making pit - a Pozo de Nieve.  Still climbing we headed east towards the beautiful Pico Gratel, a pyramid shaped mountain which can be seen for miles across the Hoya de Huesca and then north to another pass and fantastic views of the Pyrenees.  The descent through a beech forest (not yet in leaf) was excellent but a little steep (not an original path) and by the time we got into what is a very pretty valley we were running on empty.  Unfortunately Aguis was another 90 minutes away and the hotel was frustratingly out of town down near a cement works.  It took a large beer to improve Christine's mood at the end of a hot but excellent day.

Day 3 Aguis to Nocito

Today was relatively short at 18km, but my memory of it seemed to have omitted the passes you have to climb before you get to Nocito and Christine was again making negative statements about being miss-sold before we arrived.

What I had promised her was the opportunity for a swim in the second most beautiful swimming spot on the whole GR1.  It more than lived up to expectations although judging by her expression she would have preferred the water to have been warmer.  
The second best place for a swim on the GR1
The beauty of this remote trail through hidden valleys, wild natural woodland and a series of abandoned villages more than made up for the ups and downs.  Eventually the mountain which gives its name to the Natural Park we were walking through, the Puntón Guera (2078m), comes into view and from the final pass it's two hours to Nocito.

Last time I stayed in Nocito I ate at the little campsite restaurant; this time it was the Albergue and to be honest the food was not as good.  Useful information for the guide.

Day 4 Nocito to Paules de Sarsa

After three tough days Christine had done something to her knee and it was sore. The prospect of another big walk was not helping.  We phoned Juan and managed to arrange a lift from the son of the owner of the casa rural in Paules de Sarsa shortening the day by 8km (now only 27km) and removing a horrible final stretch of road walking.
The best place for a swim on the GR1

Without the road walk this is my favourite section of the whole GR1 and includes the number one best wild water swimming spot - a deep pool fed by a waterfall - the stuff of dreams.  Better still (for me anyway) are all the abandoned villages (Used, Nasarre, Otin, Letosa and Bagüesta). Nasarre has wonderful views of the Pyrenees, Otin is the most complete and Bagüesta, a mass of brambles and decaying buildings the most dangerous.
Leaving Nasarre
Last year I managed to lose the route just beyond Bagüesta but it has now been re-waymarked (and possibly changed) which was just as well because Raul was already waiting for us when we arrived at the pick-up point at 5.30pm.  The road walk down to Paules de Sarsa is the last thing you need after a day like today and with Juan we were able to establish that, providing notice is given, the casa rural will provide a pick up service (for a well deserved fee) if future walkers need it.

Day 5 Paules de Sarsa to El Humo de Moro

Today I combined two of the guide stages to walk about 30km to El Humo de Moro and Christine who now had a blister on her toe as well as things moving about inside her knee was not particularly impressed. The first half of the walk from Paules de Sarsa to Samitier is OK but not as good as the second half, and what we should have done was ask Raul to drive us to Samitier. Instead we stuck with the plan.
The tower of the church in the reservoir at Mediano
We had walked most the second part of the walk with Juan last year - the walk through the splendid Rio Cinca gorge - but had done it in the morning when we were fresh. This time we did it on a hot afternoon and it seemed at least twice as long.  It's hard work and there is an awkward scramble up over scree just before you get to the dam which holds the reservoir which has drowned the village of Mediano (whose church tower still pokes up above the water).

The approach to El Humo de Moro was also longer than remembered. It was particularly frustrating when I discovered that my route, based on the GPS route from the Aragonese Walking Federation's web site - the body responsible for the route, was out of date. Still we got there, the hotel was excellent and after a large beer were soon feeling better.

Day 6  El Humo de Moro to Salinas de Trillo

With Juan last year we missed a chunk of this bit of the trail out with Juan keen to show us some of his favourite places in the lovely Fueva valley.  It was just as well we did it this year because again there were some serious inconsistencies between the route described by the Aragonese Walking Federation's web site and what we found on the ground.

Initially the differences were minor, the waymarks excellent and the route to Tierrantona, the little town in the middle of the valley excellent.  We had coffee at a little hotel which hadn't featured in any of my research, discovering another accommodation option in what is a very pleasant area for walking.

The afternoon was frustrating.  The route was poorly waymarked, overgrown in places and I think we just missed it between the pretty village of Formigales and Troncedes (dramatically located on the edge of the cliff).  Beyond Troncedes it was just wrong and given the steep descent I didn't want to take any risks.  
Christine, a curious dog and the polygon tower at Troncedes
We moaned about this to the owner of the Casa Rural at Salinas de Trillo (via his brother in law who spoke some English) and I was soon in his car heading back up the mountain.  Turns out he used to walk that very route to school at Troncedes by himself every day when he was just six years old.  It was a lovely old route, brought to life by his descriptions of how he used to run along the narrow ledge in a thunder storm. The school is of course now closed.

The casa rural at Salinas was as good as I remembered it - a really special place with authentic local dishes made entirely from home produced ingredients.

Day 7 Salinas de Trillo to Graus

An excellent day's walk, but definitely a walk of two halves.

The first half, after a short road walk to the largely abandoned village Trillo, involved a long but lovely walk along a forest path to Pano, a previously abandoned village now being restored by a Swiss financier.  We stopped for a glass of water and there appears to be accommodation there, although to be honest the status of it is a bit unclear.  
The Romanesque church at Salinas de Trillo
After a long climb to the Castillo de Panillo (which protected the Christian population in the Fueva Valley throughout the Moorish occupation) the route followed an open dirt road all the way to Graus.  The views were excellent, but the road was meandering and it seemed to take forever to get to Graus. We walked into a strong headwind all the way down, just like last time.
The road to Graus
We stayed at the Hotel Llieda, the same place we stayed last year.  The rooms are small but the food is good and the bar is great fun.  Christine, who at one point was thinking about going home, was now taking a well deserved break and Graus, where we were staying for two days, turned out to be just the place with its little bars, it's old churches, the circular walk up to the hill top hermitage and the great choice of unpretentious but great quality restaurants.

Day 8 Graus to Castigalue (nearly).

While Christine explored Graus I plugged into my headphones and blasted my way along a stretch of walking I missed out on altogether last year.  It's not a bad stretch but not one of the highlights of the GR1.

The first 20kms takes you east out of Graus, over a medieval bridge, along a low ridge (great views to the Pyrennees) to the village of Capella, which has another fine medieval bridge and a huge grain tower.  The route is well waymarked all the Lascuarre where everyone had congregated on Easter Saturday in what I think was a community bar.
The tower at Luzás
The route then takes you on a huge detour along a dirt road to the tiny village of Luzás, which has a huge medieval tower at least as big as the grain tower at Lascuarre.  The route was poorly waymarked and overgrown in places and I think the best option now is to follow a mountain bike route which almost goes the same way. 

I got to the road to Castigalue just a few minutes before the taxi arrived to take me back to Graus.

Day 9 to Puente de Montanya

Easter Sunday was a wet day in Northern Spain and although I would have liked to have checked the route from Castigalue to Puente de Montanya again I was ready for a break.  Christine had found an excellent place for lunch; the Hotel Llieda were happy for us to keep our room until late afternoon so, despite the rain, we had a very relaxing day - a holiday from our holiday. We took a cab to Puente de Montanya at around 5pm.

Day 10 Puente de Montanya to Ager

You start this day with a 7km road walk south out of Puente de Montanya, but after that you follow a dramatic rock cut path through a gorge.  The gorge, the Ribagorçana is one of two that divides the Montsec range of mountains into three separate lumps and the walk is one of the highlights of the whole trip. We were lucky with the weather, the forecast was bad and kept the crowds away (a couple of days before there were over 1,000 cars in the nearby car park) but as is often the case in Spain the weather itself was much better than predicted. 
The gorge and the watchtower
A defensive tower is perfectly located near the northern end of the gorge so you can see it through the slit in the high cliffs as you emerge at the southern end. The gorge is high and the gap between the two huge vertical cliffs very narrow, so walking through it feels dark and damp. You need to concentrate as the drop down into the deep blue water below is not something you want to experience. As you emerge at the southern end of the gorge the cliffs, 600 metres high, open up like a huge fan.  On the western side and somewhat controversially, a precarious looking wooden staircase has recently been constructed as part of another trail route which zig-zags its way up the cliff face.

After the drama of the walk we stop for a 3 course lunch at Corca, a tiny village with a bar which carefully hides the fact that it's open.  

It's another 10km to Ager, a lovely town located on a hill in a middle of a wide and very green valley.  We stayed at a sort of youth hostal there, clean with good food and bunk beds.  Joel, who is also a para gliding instructor, is a mine of information about the area and more than happy to take guests up and down the valley in his vehicle if a short-cut is required.

Day 11 Ager to Hostal Roig

Today includes the toughest climb of the whole walk, 1100 metres climb up to the Portella Blanca.

Before starting the climb there is another bit of relatively easy gap filling I need to do involving a 12km walk from Ager round the northern side of the valley and down to the station at the bottom of the gorge where a train stops twice a day, once on the upward journey and once coming back.  Christine grabs the chance to explore the medieval centre of Ager and, as with Graus, finds more than first expected.
On the long climb up to Rubies
Joel gives Christine a lift to the station and we start the climb.  It's a great walk up along a narrow trail, including a fairly spectacular stretch that traverses the side of a cliff. Annoyingly the trail then loses height as it descends down the side of a valley through dense box scrub before climbing up to the abandoned village of Rubies.  The views on the way up are immense with cliffs similar to those we experienced yesterday when we came through the Ribagorçana.

Above Rubies there are two gashes high in the cliff face and the westerly one is the Portella Blanca. Compared to anything else on the GR1 the climb is steep, the path very gullied and any waymarkings long washed away.  At first the path goes straight up the cliff and seems to be heading for the wrong gash but it then turns left and zig-zags its way up, emerging through a tiny gap at the top.
Looking north towards the Pyrenees

The weather is not as clear as last week and clouds obscure the tops of the Pyrenees to the north but its a lovely fresh place to be after a sweaty climb.  After another gentle climb its a long easy descent to the Hostal Roig where we pick up a taxi that takes us down the mountain to Vilanova de Meia.  The taxi driver who speaks some English runs the local supermarket and owns four brand new sunny flats.  We've booked one of the flats for the evening and make full use of the washing machine.

Although the town is small there are three bars, two of which serve food.  As is so often the case we are the only people eating in the evening and although the food is very good we think we might have been eating the patron's dinner.

Day 12 Hostal Roig to Meçaners

Last year we walked from the train station at Ager all the way to Meçaners and although the route was not quite the right one we spent part of this walk remembering the nightmare of that trip.  It was 13 hour walk and we were totally dead on our feet when we arrived.  

Today's trip was much more civilised, although following the official Catalan Walking and Mountaineering Association (FEEC) trail we followed a route which seemed a very inefficient way of getting from A to B. Again we enjoyed perfect walking weather, cool but dry, and as we curved our way around the last bit of the Montsec range (the cliffs now pointing north) the views across the valley towards the Pyrenees were excellent.  
Looking back to the Montsec Rubies

The last bit of the walk, across a scrubby landscape of evergreen oak, box and pine, was a bit dull and once away from the cliff the views were nothing special, but it was easy walking and generally downhill.
Not a place for vegetarians
The excellent case rural at Meçaners (Messaners) is in the middle of nowhere and absolutely essential for this part of the GR1 - there is nowhere else for miles.  It's very good with really nice rooms (we stayed in a sort of cave on the side of the main house) and great home cooked food with lots of local produce.  It has steak is on the menu and that's your preference, ask for it well done - mine was a sort of slightly singed steak tartare. Breakfast was as per last year - a litre bottle of red wine on the table alongside a wooden 'tree' upon which 6 or 7 varieties of home cured salami, serrano, chorizo and morcilla were strung.

Day 13 Meçaners to Peramola

Today's walk involved a bit of detective work.  We knew the route we had walked on last year was wrong (we came across some waymarks in the wrong place) but it was the one bit of the trail not included on the FEEC website.  It was a trail through woodland and there were lots of misleading forest trails to distract but after a few false starts we found the right one, plotted to route and eliminated another mystery.  It was also a nice stretch of walking.

The plan had been to walk to Peramola, get lunch and then get a taxi up to Cambrils and stay there for the night.  There was only one taxi driver in Oliana (taxis are not that thick on the ground in Spain) and I was just a bit nervous about my taxi ordering skills.  I remembered that there is another hotel near Peramola, the Can Boix, which looked really good but was off the trail. If we could get there they could order the taxi and we could go up the next day.

Peramola when we got there was as dead as a dodo - it was busy last time but that was because of market day.  We struggled to even find anyone to ask.  Eventually we spot a youngish guy leaving the town hall (I suspect he was the mayor) and asked him about the hotel.  Looking at us in our gear he was just a bit quizzical, explaining that this was one of the best hotels in Spain.  We said that this was exactly the place we were looking for and how far was it to walk.

We had another odd look when we arrived at Can Boix reception 30 minutes later but they soon warmed to us - and we had a wonderful evening.  Fantastic food, a luxury room and actually very good value.

Day 14  Cambrils to Sant Llorenç de Morunys

The best thing about staying at Can Boix (apart from a bath) was a super efficient receptionist who organised everything for us.  She cancelled (annulled) our accommodation in Cambrils and booked us a taxi (including negotiating a price) and we were able to establish exactly where we wanted to get dropped to start today's walk.  There is a dreadful bit of walking just beyond Cambrils and we didn't want to do it again.

It had rained all night and was very misty in the morning, but as we drove up a very bendy (and long road) to Cambrils the weather cleared.  We only managed to walk from Oliana to Canalda last year and Juan had said that we had missed out the best bit, and of course he was absolutely right.  Just past Canalda (and a strange security place not marked on the map - a Spannish mini GCHQ?)) and after another inconsistency between the FEEC route and the waymarks the route crosses two lovely gorges which seemed to funnel icy wind directly down from the Pyrennees.  On the side of one them are caves that used to be lived by the Moors and in another a waterfall which you have to walk behind to avoid getting soaked.
Waterfalls on the way to Sant Llorenç

The walk down to Sant Llorenç de Morunys itself from the pass is along a steep and initially unpleasant forest road but it got better and the walk into the town was excellent.  Again the town was nicer than I remember and for once we were able to get inside the church - early Romanesque, stunning and with some lovely cloisters.

We stayed at the Hostal Joan (slightly strange place), the same place we stayed last year and they greeted us like long lost friends.  Not quite the same as the Can Boix but the meals came in much larger portions.

Day 15 Sant Llorenç de Morunys to L'Espunyola

The last day was the toughest of the whole trip.  The FEEC break the trip into two stages: Sant Llorenç de Morunys to Pont Llinars and Pont Llinars to L'Espunyola and estimate a total walk time of around 14 hours.  I missed the first stage last year and in a thick mist messed up the second stage.  Using the same logic applied when I walked the E4 and I figured that if I started early enough, I could make it and it was still dark when I left Hostal Joan at 6-20.

Sneaking out of town, but annoying a few dogs on the way, I was soon climbing the Roca de Guixers immediately to the east.  It's a lovely path and after about 90 mins I had climbed over 600m.  Surprisingly the trail suddenly turned into a road and followed it almost continuously down the valley (with an annoying inconsistency between the FEEC route and the waymarks) for the next 6 km. Crossing a river near some very smart houses close to the hamlet of Valls the route once again turned onto a forest path, climbed over a shallow pass and dropped down into the very pretty Llinars valley.  At least the stretch on the road made for fast walking and I reached Pont Llinars just minutes after Christine had arrived from Sant Llorenç de Morunys by taxi.

If you want to do just one of the two sections than do the second one, it's a really nice walk. After a tough walk south along a valley (lots of ascents and descents) and past what Juan believes is the most beautiful church on the whole of the GR1 (the perfect Romanseque church of Sant Pere de Graudescales) the route turns east and starts a big climb. After 600 metres of ascent it levels out and crosses a beautiful meadow, almost Alpine, and yellow with tiny daffodils.  After another short climb the route follows a path along a beautiful ridge; firstly on one side with views across plain to Montserrat and then the other with views to the snow capped Pyrenees and then, for the first time on this Prepirineo section of the GR1 a narrow open section of the ridge where you could see big views to both the north and south.  The ridge also includes the only genuine exposed bit on the whole of the GR1 - a short stretch not to be recommended for those with a nervous disposition.
The only scary bit on the GR1

Last year in the rain and mist we missed the turn-off south and got into a terrible mess.  No problems this time and the walk down was no anticlimax.  Firstly the route almost doubled back on itself following a lovely path down alongside the ridge to Capolet (possibly a rich man's playground - the fields were full of huge Daliesque installations); across a plateau and descending, past a waterfall, down a second ridge. By the time I reached the bottom I had walked 38km and climbed 2,400m - and possibly caused permanent damage to my knees.
Cal Majoral to a bottle of fizzy stuff
We stayed our last night at Cal Majoral - a stunning boutique hotel, a ex-transhumance hostal, located about a kilometre to the east of L'Espunyola.  It's a hard choice but I think I would nominate this as my favourite GR1 hotel - certainly winning on the food front.

Postscript

Jordi the owner of the hotel kindly gave us a lift to Gironella next morning where we caught to bus to Barcelona.  Once in Barcelona I realised I had left my passport at the hotel (a consequence of my exhaustion and the exhaustion of Jordi's daughter-in-law, mother of a very active toddler, who forgot to return post-registration).  Jordi was expecting my call and all he wanted to know was where to bring it and was there to hand it over when we arrived at the airport in the afternoon.  A wonderful service.












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