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
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