Hiking in the Pyrenees
If you are thinking of hiking in the Pyrenees, be aware of the wonderful diversity of landscapes found from one valley to the next. There is no one-shot – one-size-fits-all ‘Pyrenean Experience’. Every valley offers its own unique flora and fauna, history, culture and gastronomy.
The Pyrenees from east to west.
The Pyrenees rise as a row of jagged white teeth grimacing at the skies. They form a natural border between France and Spain and have been a historical crossing point for pilgrims, refugees, resistance lines, smugglers and witches throughout history. At times freedom meant a tortuous hike northwards through misty forests into France. At other moments it meant a 3000 metre high scramble over icy ridges southwards into Spain. Although many associate the Pyrenees with France, the greater part of the land mass, and the majority of Pyrenean villages, lie on the Spanish side.
Any experience hiking in the Pyrenees initially depends on the physical geography of the land. The Pyrenees rise sharply from the Mediterranean in the east and then run some 412 km to the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Here they gradually run out of steam and soften into the green, mediaeval Basque landscapes of northern Navarre – and in particular the Baztan and Bidasoa valleys. Those with enough time, stamina and grit can spend 7 weeks hiking in the Pyrenees along the GR10 which stretches up and down some 866 km or so from Hendaye in the west to Banyuls in the east. The whole walk is beautifully described and rigorously documented by Steve Cracknell in his book: The Pyrenean Way.
Hiking in the high Pyrenees
For those with less time to spend hiking in the Pyrenees you have no option but to narrow down a couple of places – or bases – from where to explore their majestic natural beauty and curious cultural diversity. This is no easy task. Apart from the greener farming landscapes of the Basque Pyrenees to the extreme west, the central Pyrenees are, on the whole, formed of steep-sided glaciated valleys, with fast-running rivers leaping their way southwards over bouldery river beds. Small stone villages huddle on the lower slopes along the river’s edge: humbled by the towering granite tors and silvery mountain peaks that muscle their way skywards out of vertical forests of beech or pine. Here the hiker can typically find small village hostels with family restaurants serving local, home-made food. Leaving the villages behind you, continue your drive northwards (upstream) as the scenery becomes increasingly rocky and dramatic. Relatively few roads climb over the Pyrenees to straddle France and Spain and the driving is not for the faint hearted. More often than not the road comes to an end in a glaciated cirque at the valley head. Leave the car here and, depending on the entrepreneurialism of the local tourist board, you should find a series of marked hikes and trails. In summer, the majesty of the mountains unfolds around you. This is the land of the giants. Granite fists reach out to you, mountain crests glitter in the sunlight and waterfalls crash down ravines, breaking their journey with the odd interlude through a summer meadows full of wild flowers. In the winter, the roads (if lucky) reach only as far as the villages. Here, most hikers are safer to explore the mountains over the rim of a café con leche through the window of a village bar. Some of the more beautiful Pyrenean valleys in the high Pyrenees are those of Ordesa, Hecho, Benasque, Vall de Nuria.
Hiking in the Basque Pyrenees
However, those whose idea of hiking in the Pyrenees ideally includes a greater insight into local culture, traditions and architecture are better to head westwards into the Basque Pyrenees of northern Navarra. The Bidasoa and Baztan valleys have escaped glaciation and their V-shaped valleys are softer-sided. The valleys are covered in oak and chestnut groves with a patchwork of fields and dry stone walls reaching upwards towards rounded grassy ridge tops, cropped by free-roaming Potxoka ponies. The summits here are generally lower (some mere 1300 metres). Hiking is safer and easier, and scattered mountain villages offer welcome landmarks (not to mention mountain inns serving cold beers and famous Basque food). In these Heidi-like landscapes, the hiker is accompanied by the sound of sheep’s bells and is surprised at every turn by an isolated homestead, a medieval bridge, a water-mill or a shepherd herding his flock back to the fold.
Not only does this area offer great natural beauty but it also preserves its ancient traditions and medieval farming practices. It has been protected by its intricate lie of the land, an inscrutable language and the Basques’ pride and umbilical love for their land. These Basque valleys of the Baztan and Bidasoa rivers should equally not be missed by travellers seeking a truly unique experience of hiking in the Pyrenees.