Peril and Paradise in the Pyrenees

When we consider Europe’s great mountain chains, it is The Alps that generally come to mind. Their majesty has inspired novels, movies, poems and works of art too numerous to mention. But what about The Pyrenees, the distant relative mentioned only in passing. Why do we so rarely hear anyone speak about the mountains that divide France and Spain and circle Andorra? Last month I had to good fortune to learn the answer—traveling them is not for the faint of heart.


My initial introduction to these piercing peaks came when I crossed the French and Spanish borders with a short stopover in tiny Andorra to see what this mysterious place was all about. The excursion added another three and a half hours to my drive, but I didn’t care. This would put the notch for fifty countries visited on my belt and frankly there was no stopping me.  Literally!

The mountain roads were so high at an elevation of over 2000 meters that I was too terrified to stop for most of the fifty-nine kilometres of the steepest switchbacks I have ever encountered. When I felt my eyelids droop for a nanosecond, the drama intensified tenfold. Somehow a knee-high guardrail inspired little confidence against a plummeting Nissan and I still had forty-nine kilometres to go. In a list of defining characteristics of the Pyrenees, Wikipedia tells us that they are known for “the rarity and great elevation of passes.” Too bad I had missed those seven critical little words in my trip planning research.


Our next rendezvous, driving to the mountain village of Benasque from Besalu, was equally beautifully and thankfully less traumatic. This time, the Pyrenees held me captive for over one hundred kilometres but the difference was a two-night stay in a charming inn nestled amongst them. Knowing there was a rest at the end of the many, many tunnels made the effort worthwhile.


The Hotel Selba D’Ansils was a remarkable find, chock full of antiques and stunning natural beauty, it also has friendly owners who are enthusiastic about sharing their passion for the area. Luckily for me, Rafael took the time to pore over the map of the valley’s vast network of hiking trails. It was on his advice that I decided on the easiest trail because he told me it was also the most beautiful. All I had to do was drive the A-139 all the way to the point where the Pyrenees put an abrupt halt to road traffic and I would be in the Parque Natural Posets-Maladeta.


I will be forever grateful that Rafael encouraged the my decision on this particular trail because as I watched scores of professionally-outfitted hikers descend the mountain, my courage melted like the last remaining glaciers in the Pyrenees that I had come to see. Sturdy hiking boots, hiking poles, and all weather gear were among the numerous items I appeared to be lacking.  The razor sharp rocks of the trail itself were incisors ready to gnaw the flesh from my bones. Regardless, I persisted.


Midway through the three and a half hour hike, the clouds parted and the sun brushed the landscape with gold. Electric blue wildflowers popped into view and the snow-covered peaks shimmered with diamond dust. It was, without a doubt, the hardest I have ever had to work for a beautiful natural experience in my lifetime—but the feeling that accompanied the accomplishment was worth the hours of steering wheel-gripping stress that preceded it.


Sir Edmund Hillary I am not, but my hiking boots have climbed Machu Picchu and the peaks of New Zealand. Too bad I hadn’t brought them! I hadn’t realized that two days was far too short to enjoy this natural playground. If you have the opportunity to visit, take more time. Stick around and rest under those star-studded skies and ponder your place in the world—after all, you may have just come very close to losing it.

-Jennifer Burge


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