Steve Sertis, Perth WA
After completing the section of the Camino between Sarria and Santiago de Compostela, most of the group headed, via Barcelona, toward the first village in the Spanish Pyrenees— Setcases. Setcases is a small secluded village nestled in a valley below the picturesque mountains. Its history dates back to 965 A.D. and it gets its name from the seven houses built lower in the valley by the seven sons of a shepherd, after they were taken by surprise by the first snows higher up, where they would graze their sheep. We stayed in a quaint family run hotel on our first night before beginning the trek up to the ridgelines. The air was cool and fresh, and given the ambience of the village, walkers could easily be forgiven for thinking they were about to embark on a skiing trip.
The first day lived up to most expectations in terms of the difficulty but certainly exceeded them with absolutely outstanding views. The 13km trek (note I use the word trek rather than walk) soon began to ascend steeply on a rocky trail following the GR11, which is known as the ruta Transpirenaica in Spain. The GR11 is part of the extensive GR network of paths, tracks and trails in Europe. Once at the top of the ridge, at 1900m, the trail became a narrow earthy trail that meandered through open fields with colourful flowers and splendid green and bushy conifers. The panoramas were breathtaking.
Upon reaching the town of Mollo we soon realised that three of the group, who had been walking confidently in front of the rest of us, had not arrived at our hotel. About three hours later they arrived a little worse for wear, tired, sore and bruised after battling through blackberry bushes while ascending back up to the ridgeline. They had spotted a village, assumed it was Mollo and headed for it. All three never strayed far from the group for the remainder of the trip!
The second day a 14km walk saw us cross the border, leaving Spain behind and entering France. After setting foot into France we retreated about 50m and had lunch on the Spanish side. My first welcome to France was when my phone beeped with a text message; “Welcome to France, your call rates are…” Of course when we sat down to have lunch I was very courteously welcomed back into Spain with another text message; “Welcome to Spain, your call rates are…” Not really the welcome I was expecting but it served me right for having my phone on (at least it was silenced).
I was a little more nervous heading into France because although I had learnt Spanish in the year leading up to the trip, I hardly knew a word of French. Consequently after spending around two weeks in Spain, I was constantly saying “Si, I mean oui”.
Something we all found difficult to adjust to was the late starting and dining hours. As keen WA bushwalkers, we were used to starting early and arriving at our destination my mid-afternoon. Here, it seemed we had to add two to four hours to everything. Breakfast started between 8am - 9am, not 6am or 7am, walking started at 9.30am -10am not at 7.30am and dinner was at 8pm or much later. It was summer and the daylight hours were very long. On day three it meant we didn’t start walking until 10.30am when it was already more than 25°, which made the walking harder. But with plenty of water, lots of shady breaks with fabulous views and some very bad jokes at lunch time, we got into the next town around 6.30pm. Now that sounds preposterous, given that we only covered 12km, and would be unthinkable if we were at home. However, given the sun is still up at 10pm, we didn’t really have a cause for concern. In any case, those that opted not to walk on any given day simply took a bus or taxi to the next town and had plenty of time to see the sights and experience the local offerings.
What also made this walk interesting—and a little confusing—was the different markers we had to follow on any particular day. On parts of the trek we followed the GR10 and GR11 red and white markers, other parts had just yellow markers, while others had a combination of red and yellow, red and blue or yellow and white. In addition we had to watch out if any of these colours were in the shape of an X, because we weren’t to follow that route under any circumstances—unless the notes said you had to—and here and there they did!
This walk was very different to the Camino, where we had become accustomed to a café every few kilometres—“Café con leche por favor!” Only on day four did we pass through another village. Those that expected a coffee were, however, disappointed. Nevertheless the lunch spot in the village square of Reynes, under a shady tree on a warm day right in front of the local church, was splendid. We became a little concerned though when the church bells rang a number of times, immediately after which several cars made a simultaneous and seemingly determined and rushed exodus through the village square. We couldn’t help thinking that they knew something that we didn’t.
Our final day was one of the highlights, when we reached the Mediterranean at the town of Banyuls. Although not a long walk that day for most—only the two intrepid members of the group walked the full 22km—it was very rocky and the descent in parts was steep. In fact many commented on the abundance of rocks underfoot. Readers that have visited the shores of the Mediterranean will know that most of them are strewn with pebbles and not the sand to which we are accustomed. It was of no surprise then that upon reaching the shoreline at the end of a technically tricky walk, one walker looked at the beach and exclaimed “more bloody rocks!” Naturally, on a high after reaching our destination, we all burst out laughing and I noticed some locals turn their heads. We celebrated our achievement that afternoon and well into the evening with drinks on the terrace of our hotel overlooking the sea.
Thanks to Peregrine Travel Centre for organising this itinerary.
For a detailed account of hiking the length Pyrenees on the GR10 go see the related article in this section.