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Catalan Pyrenees

Catalan Pyrenees

The Catalan Pyrenees is a land of rich landscapes full of contrasts, with spaces of natural interest, special protection reserves and protected areas; some Romanesque architecture declared World Heritage; and valleys full of history. Its excellent gastronomy and hundred-year-old festivals and celebrations make the Catalan Pyrenees an unrivalled tourist destination.

To the east, the Tramontana northerly wind caresses the bronzed coastline of the Albera mountains. Inland, volcanoes punctuate the Garrotxa landscape. Towering above the sanctuary in Nuria, the Pyrenees soar to almost three thousand metres in height. The Cadf and Moixero ranges, as well as the Pedraforca massif, conceal natural alpine treasures as if they were secluded on an island. Catalonia's highest mountain peak is Pica d'Estats, reaching 3,143 metres. A stone's throw away lies Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, a paradisiacal landscape of lakes. And, to the north, Val d'Aran lays bare to the plains of Gascony. From Cap de Creus peninsula to the views over Aneto, the Catalan Pyrenees boast a rich diversity of landscapes.

The climate varies from valley to valley, from the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean where the mountains meet the sea to the Atlantic winds that sweep the clouds as far as Val d'Aran. Mention must also be made of the snow capping the lofty peaks for six months of the year. The sunlight, temperature, precipitation and human activity determine the rich flora and, with it, the fauna.

The Pyrenees were also populated of old. Testimony to every era is profuse, from the dolmens and menhirs in the Albera mountains to the latest reservoirs. What's more, the history of the land came into being there. Romanesque churches dating from that time still survive to this day in virtually every town and village. And modern times are manifested in an exuberant culture, brimming with legends, gastronomic delights, song, dance and popular festivities. In the pages that follow we endeavour to whet your appetite. We cannot aspire to anything more, as the entire repertoire is endless. A land steeped in character, the Catalan Pyrenees were coveted by those in pursuit of a relaxing or adventure-fuelled break. The mountains are strewn with trails, snow sought out by skiing enthusiasts in winter, walls for climbing, and rivers to explore by kayak. From beginning to end, the Pyrenees abound in an infinite array of tourist attractions. With majestic peaks rising to three thousand metres, cliffs, scree, snow drifts, hundreds of lakes, waters churning into spray and foam or drifting lazily, meadows, forests of black pine with an undergrowth of bilberries and rhododendron, fir and beech trees, the izard, the capercaillie and a gliding bearded vulture, the National Park boasts a rich and unique high mountain landscape which attracts thousands of visitors year on year.

Over five hundred million years ago, the folding commenced which was to form the Pyrenees mountain range. Nevertheless, it was the force of the ice which was to shape the mountains and valleys of the National Park. The mighty glaciers descended through the valleys for tens of kilometres, reaching several hundred metres in diameter and gouging steep-sided crevices into the landscape. The final throes of the ice age ended ten thousand years ago. When the glaciers melted, they left behind deep cirques and u-shaped valleys with flat floors and vertical walls. On every shelf, lagoons bear testimony to the glaciers' presence. The National Park is home to hundreds of lakes, a concentration not found elsewhere in the mountain range.

Early on, vegetation took root in the empty spaces. Birch, oak and aspen, as well as beech, red pine and fir trees climbed the hillsides. Black pine spread even higher with an undergrowth of bilberries, rhododendron and juniper berries, while the higher peaks gave way to meadows carpeted with gentiana, carnations and buttercups. The water violet took root in the peat bogs. Houseleeks and saxifrages grew amidst the scree while moss and lichen sprang up on mountain summits and smooth stone walls.

Each area also has its own fauna. Izards inhabit the mountain summits and open ridge tops. Ptarmigans hide in snow-covered hillsides while golden eagles, bearded vultures and vultures sweep through the sky. The shrill whistle of the marmot is often heard in the fields. In the woodlands, where wild boars and roe deer lurk, the tapping of the woodpecker or clucking of the capercaillie at mating time can be heard. Otters prey on trout in the rivers.

The high and unforgiving terrain meant few people set foot there, except shepherds who brought flocks there to pasture every summer for centuries. Huts bear testimony to their passage. Woodcutters and hunters also ventured there, and the development of hydroelectric power at the beginning of the last century brought forces to dam the lakes and extend the pipes to direct the water downwards to the hydroelectric plants. Such frenzy gave rise to the need to protect the high mountain landscape. Therefore, Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park was constituted by decree in 1955, the only park boasting said status in Catalonia, which was reclassified by Law 7/1988 on 30 March 1988 by the Government of Catalonia.

The National Park sits astride the counties of Alta Ribagorga to Pallars Sobira, taking in the counties of Pallars Jussa and Val d'Aran; covering a surface area of 40,852 hectares of which 14,119 hectares correspond to the park and the remaining 26,733 hectares to the buffer zone. As its name suggests, it is split into two main zones: Aiguestortes in Alta Ribagorga, with an entry point via Vail de Bof, and Sant Maurici in Pallars Sobira, with an entry point via Vail d'Espot. Each zone has a park information centre.

The Aiguestortes zone features pinnacles rising above three thousand metres. In addition to Punta Alta, mention should be made of the crest line linking Comaloformo and Besiberris. The valley receiving the most visitors is the valley stretching from Vail de Boi and following the Sant Nicolau River. It can be accessed on foot or by taxi and it takes you to Llebreta Lake and the plains where the river meanders and branches off into many streams and torrents, hence its name "Aiguestortes", which means "twisted waters". The valley continues towards Llong Lake as far as Portarro d'Espot pass, where it changes basin and moves to the park's eastern valley slope.

The Sant Maurici zone can be reached by taxi from Espot or on foot. Sant Maurici Lake is surrounded by meadows and woodland. It lies at the foot of the towering pinnacles Els Encantats, a highly fragmented calcareous rock formation. Legend has it that the mountains represent two hunters who turned to stone for not having attended Mass. The track leading to Sant Maurici Lake continues upwards to the Amitges lakes beneath the mountains of the same name, which draw many climbing enthusiasts. Another entrance to the park from Pallars Sobira is found below Bonaigua pass and climbs to Gerber Lake amid a luxuriant woodland of fir trees.

Access to the park can also be gained via Pallars Jussa above Vail Fosca. A cable car ascends from Sallente reservoir to Gento Lake. The descent can be made on foot, first by following the tracks of the old narrow gauge railway, which transported goods to the reservoirs; then, the path descends straight down to Sallente.

In the Val d'Aran zone, mention should be made of the Montardo summit, which is easily made out. However, Gran Tuc de Colomers surpasses its height by one hundred metres and stands at 2,963 metres. The pinnacle towers above a large cirque where the streams cascade from one lake to the other (over sixty lakes) before spilling into the Garonne River.

Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park is a gorgeous area, a natural Jewel, a prodigious combination of stone, water and vegetation. At the same time, it constitutes a fragile environment suscoptiblo Id the ha/aids posnd by so much tourism. Activities likely to leave any traces are to lк; avoided I hose wishing lo stay ovornighl should

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