Pyrenees to the Garrotxa: April 2007

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Report for our one-week independent walking holiday from Inntravel, set in Catalonia towards the south-eastern end of the Pyrenees chain.  NB: Inntravel now seem to call this walk "Foothills of the Pyrenees".

Getting There

The route passes through the Garrotxa Volcanic Natural Park with many dormant volcano cones and craters.  You walk from one small family-run hotel to the next, covering about 70km during the week.  Walking notes are provided by Inntravel.  Your baggage is carried round by road for you, so all you need to carry is a waterproof and the picnic lunch provided by each hotel.

A laborious journey to get there.  Easyjet flight to Barcelona, shuttle train from the airport to Barcelona Sants, Barcelona’s main station (€2.50), then a two-hour slow commuter train ride to Ripoll (about €7, yes €7), then a taxi to Mollo (arranged by Inntravel).

It was raining on the drive up to Mollo, and a spectacular thunderstorm rolled around the village when we arrived.  Fortunately the clouds blew away by early evening, and we enjoyed fine weather for the whole of the week’s walking.  Our waterproofs spent the whole walk at the bottom of our daypacks.

The first night was spent at the excellent Hotel Calitxo in Mollo.  We'd stayed here on a different walk some years ago, and the owners were just as welcoming and helpful.  Pleasant atmosphere, comfortable room, and excellent fare in the dining room – including fillet steak.  Word of warning – we asked for medium steak, and although a beautiful big tender piece of meat, it was raw and cold inside.  Not just pleasantly pink, but completely uncooked.  I gave up eating raw meat shortly after the invention of fire.  We asked the hotelier to cook it some more, but it came back little different.  There were just two other couples staying here.

Mollo is a pretty little village at an altitude of about 1150m on a ridge between valleys with stunning views all around.  See Photos 1.  The old church is worth a look. There is a small shop in the centre of the village.

Days 1-3

Day 1: Mollo to Beget, 11km

Some steepish ascents and descents on the first day, following the GR11 long-distance footpath.  After a drop down to the river in the valley to the east of Mollo, there is a pleasant ascent up the other side.  I saw a nuthatch in the trees to the side of the track, and we passed horses, sheep and cows in the pastures.  Spectacular views of the snow-capped high Pyrenees behind us, shining bright in the sunshine.  A relaxing picnic lunch by the side of the path near Can Pujol, with a good view of the Rocabruna Castle on the hill opposite.

An old watermill (Moli d’en Sorolla) by the side of the path is worth exploring.  Shortly thereafter you have to cross the stream (the Rocabruna river) – rather alarming, with most of the stepping stones under water at this early time of the year (late April).  We managed to stay dry.

The path descends down the long valley towards Beget, an ancient and picturesque village of well-restored old stone houses and an 11th century church.  Vehicles cannot get into the centre of the village over the stony tracks and narrow stone bridges designed for pack-horses.  We stayed in the Hostal El Forn, a bar and restaurant.  The four guest bedrooms and an apartment are in a separate building a few yards away.  There was just one other couple staying here.  The breakfast room has a good view over one of the streams that flow through the village.

While breakfast the following morning was excellent, dinner that evening was not.  I made the mistake of opting for one of the stews on the dinner menu.  With so few guests, I should have realised that it would have been reheated from the freezer.  I was awoken at 2am by volcanic rumblings, not from the Natural Park, but from my stomach.  I’ll draw a veil over the next two hours – suffice it to say that our medicine chest was raided for Immodium.  Fortunately they did the trick, and I was able to enjoy breakfast and the next day’s walk.

Day 2: Beget to Can Pei at Oix. 12km

A pleasant start to the day having a final look at the village before crossing one of the old stone pack-horse bridges and walking along the road down the valley for a kilometre or two before turning off onto a farm track.  This leads to the bottom of a steepish ascent through trees to the col at Collada dels Muls at 650m.  A few meters further on is the remains of a farmhouse with a great view down the Hortmoier valley.  A good spot for a rest and lunch.

The track carries on down the side of the valley, reaching the bottom after an hour or two.  The track passes through a gorge between vertical rocky cliffs at Grau d’Escales – the wind funnelling with increasing strength as you near the gap, and fading away to nothing as soon as you turn the corner after it.

A hot trudge up the valley beside the dry, stony riverbed to the hotel Can Pei, a converted stone-built 17th century farmhouse at about 400m altitude, with seven guest rooms, just a kilometre short of the pretty old village of Oix (pronounced ‘Osh’).  We clearly arrived during siesta, as there was no-one on duty at reception.  We had to ring a bell loudly and shout before somebody appeared from the owner’s house next door.

The old stables have been converted into the dining room.  We began to realise that the Catalans don’t really do vegetables – for example they just serve meat with an oniony dressing on top.  But pleasant enough even so.

Day 3: Oix to Olot. 13km or 20km, depending on how enthusiastic you are

After a detour through the pretty village of Oix, there is a long slog uphill to the Coll de Rodoreda at 650m, then a long descent into the next valley over.  The countryside was heavily wooded (like most of the week’s walk) meaning only rare views out through the trees to the surrounding scenery – which mainly consisted of tree-covered mountains…..  The tracks became increasingly broken and washed away by the winter’s rains, sometimes with steep-sided metre-deep gulleys running down the centre of the track.

On reaching the valley bottom at Plana Oliva after a particularly hazardous descent, we decided to duck out of the afternoon section which consisted of another slog up to a col on (according to the map) even worse tracks.  We therefore followed the road along the valley floor and then some farm tracks into the village of Castellfollit de la Roca.

The afternoon had grown hot and we were weary.  We dived into a bar on the main road for refreshment.  The very helpful barman advised us that the next bus to Olot was not for another six hours, then did his best to get a taxi for us, but without success.  Taxis are like hen’s teeth here.  He then offered to drive us the 10km into Olot, as he had business there himself.  He even dropped us off outside our hotel, where we gratefully showered him with cash for his kindness.

Olot is a large sprawling town.  The Hotel La Perla is a modern hotel, with comfortable rooms and a good dining room.  There is a Mercadona supermarket (closed Sundays) round the corner.

Days 4-6

Day 4: Olot to Santa Pau. 13km.

This day takes you through the heart of the Volcanic Park.  You pass many cones and craters – not always evident under their coating of trees.  The paths and hillsides of ash and clinker are spectacular.  These volcanoes have been active over the last 2 million years.  Though it’s been over 11,000 years since they last erupted, they are only designated as "dormant", not "extinct", so could theoretically go off again....

Tip: We made the mistake of doing this day’s walk on a Sunday.  The Park is a major tourist attraction and there were lots of other visitors.  We recommend that you time your trip to hit the Park on a weekday when you’ll have the place more to yourself.

This day’s walk is quite moderate – mainly flat apart from where the path climbs up and down a volcanic cone or two.  We skipped the first one (Volca de Croscat), but climbed the second (Volca de Santa Margarida).  This is well worth the effort, as you can stand on the crater rim and look down onto the church at the bottom of the crater.

A couple of km further on, the Volca de Rocanegra shows how an eruption has blown the side out of the volcanic cone, and shortly thereafter you enter the delightful medieval town of Santa Pau at about 450m altitude, and the Hotel Cal Sastre.  The town’s cobbled streets are laid out in apparently random fashion, without regard for the needs of the internal combustion engine.  Many of the houses bear a date of around 1780 on the lintel over the front door – when they were rebuilt after a disastrous earthquake.

The idiosyncratic old hotel has delightful grounds with a great view down the valley.  Guests are invited to help themselves if the bar is unmanned, and note down what you’ve had in a book on the counter.  Dinner was not served in the hotel on the day we arrived – we were provided with a voucher for dinner at a restaurant in the town.  Breakfast was taken on the hotel’s terrace in the sun.

Day 5: Santa Pau to Can Jou. 11km.

Back in real wilderness country today.  For the first hour or so you walk through fields with nightingales singing from the hedgerows.  Then a steady climb with the views back over Santa Pau and yesterday’s volcano cones opening out more and more as you rise to the Coll Satrapa at 750m altitude.  A long gradually descending ridge walk ends at a T-junction of paths near Pruan, an old ruined farmhouse with great views, and a good lunch spot.

Back on the rough path descending into a remote and unexplored tree-covered valley, then up the other side to the ridge at 634m.  A couple of hundred meters down the hillside is a spectacular view to the north from the farmhouse of Cellers.  Another couple of kilometres through wooded hillsides brings you to the inn at Can Jou.

Can Jou was an idyllic spot, with sensational views of rolling hills, valley towns and high snow-covered mountains 30km or more to the north.  It’s about 10km from the nearest public road, and is only accessible by vehicles over rough forestry tracks.  It’s run as an equestrian centre by an Englishman and his Catalan wife.  There are plenty of contented-looking horses in the stables and paddocks, and a mare with a very young and cute foal had the run of the premises around the inn buildings.

Can Jou has been an inn since the 15th century, and has been well renovated to a comfortable standard.  Life for the guests revolves around the common room, the communal tables in the dining room, and the long balcony with panoramic views and a fridge always stocked with cold drinks.  Once again, you help yourself and write down your drinks in a book for settlement on departure.  Good and plentiful food here – the communal table promotes a very social atmosphere.  We were the only walkers passing through that night – there were about ten other guests of various nationalities staying for a week’s riding, and clearly having a great time on horseback over the mountain trails.  Most of the chat around the table was enthusiastic horsy stuff, but interesting to listen to.

Day 6: Can Jou to Besalu. 11km.

The first half of this day’s walk continues through the wooded wilderness hills to the sanctuary of Sant Ferriol.  An hour or so before the Sanctuary there is a picnic table and memorial garden to three Catalans killed near the path in 1953 "in the cause of freedom".  A good place for an early lunch.  The Sanctuary is a restored 12th century stone hermitage, and is a good place for a late lunch on the bench seats in a little park in the sun.  After a look around the building, the path drops down a pleasant wooded path to the River Fluvia.  There is then a hot and dusty slog several km along a minor road beside the river, enlivened at times by deafening croaking from countless frogs in the river, by a field of poppies just as you enter Besalu, and the sight once again of the snow covered Pyrenees in the distance beyond the roofs of the town.

The Hotel Els Jardins de la Martana is the first building you come to on the outskirts of the town.  Our room was right at the front of this art deco conversion on the first floor above the front door, with a good view of the ancient stone bridge across the river.

Besalu is a small medieval town with narrow streets and stone houses.  It’s well worth spending a couple of hours poking around the shops and alleyways.

Journey Home

The next day Inntravel had laid on a taxi to take us to the rail station in Figueres half an hour away.  This was a white-knuckle ride due to the taxi-diver’s alarming driving style.  The intercity train journey (tickets provided by Inntravel) back to Barcelona Sants station was swift and comfortable.  Then the shuttle back to the airport and the flight home.

Conclusion

Inntravel’s walking notes were of a high standard this time – clear and well structured.  At nearly 10 A5 pages a day there is plenty of guidance and information, and we never felt lost.  We didn’t see a single soul once out on the trails, apart from the Sunday in the popular volcano area.  There is a lot of walking through wooded country on this trip – this means that you see a lot of trees, and the views only open out when you manage to get clear of them.  We didn’t see a single wild animal apart from birds all week - not even a rabbit.  When you look at the menus in the hotels, you’ll understand why.

Would we go again?  Probably not - the unending views of trees on either side of the path get monotonous.  Having said that, the volcanoes are well worth a look, and there are some spectacular views when you get clear of the trees, Beget and Santa Pau are very picturesque, and Can Jou was a great place to stay.

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