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Santa Engracia, An Unusual Village High in the Catalonian Pyrenees, Spain
The Pyrenees mountain range stretches from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, spanning a total of nearly 305 miles. A natural border between France and Spain there are 49 peaks at 3,000m and above, the highest being Pic D'Aneto at 3.404m (11,168ft).
Santa Engracia is a tiny village set way up high, at a 1000m, in the Catalonian Pyrenees. I've visited three times in all and find it the perfect base from which to hike the trails that criss cross the higher slopes.From here you can walk all the way north to France if you wish to! Or take the grand routes west and end up in Basque country!
The high Pyrenees is a haven for those who like the outdoors - climbers, bird watchers, naturalists (not naturists!) and those who love the idea that when people and mountains meet something great happens.
You can also 'stay local' and get to know the life the locals lead by visiting the many small communities that thrive here. It really is a spectacular part of the world, dominated by orangey-pink gold rock formations, home to eagles, ravens and vultures. If you prefer getting away from it all, far from the madding crowds, but still feel in touch with civilisation, then this is the place to come.
How To Get To Santa Engracia
By far the best way to get to Santa Engracia is by train from Barcelona, via Lleida and the town of Tremp. Once you reach Tremp you can either get a taxi (15 euros) or walk the 12km up the mountain track. You'll need a meal before you attempt the latter as most of the route is uphill but the advantages - beautiful scenery, slow pace, pollution-free - are clear. Plus, if you're into Nature then expect some spectacular flora and fauna to come your way.
On certain days you can wake up early in the morning and, once the wooden shutters are fully opened and eyes adjusted, come face to face with an unbelievable blue, often graced with the presence of an eagle or vulture, come to take a look at you.
I love these starts to the day. Breakfast outside in crisp, clean air whilst raptors wheel overhead and the mountains stretch as far as the eye can see.
Ordinary days for the lammergeiers and eagles become extraordinary days for the likes of me.
This area of Catalonia is renowned for its well preserved ancient churches and ermitas - hermitages - many of which date from 6-8th century and are known as Romanesque in design.
The church in Santa Engracia sits precariously above a sheer rock face and is in fact in desperate need of repair. It's a humble little place of worship, beautifully built, but is only open the locals say, a few times a year, on important festival dates.The tower and bell are still intact. When the sun sets you get a subtle tone of silver on the stone, that gradually changes to gold.
I'm not religious in the orthodox sense but can appreciate the history of such places of worship and prayer.
Filling the Water Bottles - Ready For The Mountains
It's a beautiful day, the sun is up early and the temperature is a reasonable 14 degrees celsius. Perfect weather down here in the cool of village shadows, but mustn't forget that higher up temperatures may be a good ten degrees higher at midday. Plenty of fresh water from the natural spring should help stave off dehydration.
Guide To The Pyrenees
Here is a link to a useful site should you be travelling to the Pyrenees:
What To Take With You On A Day's Climb
First of all, be safe. Do not go hiking/walking in bad weather at the wrong time of year. Let someone know where you're going- write it all down - and give them your approximate time of return. Leave a mobile number just in case.
- Lightweight Rain jacket, warm zip sports jacket, shirt, t shirt, hat, gloves, strong walking boots/shoes.
- Enough snack food to keep energy levels high.
- A main meal - sandwiches, pasties, pasta dish, fruit (bananas,apples).
- Enough water in strong bottles or containers/flasks.
- Compass to help get your bearings if you stray off trail.
- Detailed map with clear routes marked.
- Dictionary or glossary of local language - you don't want to stray into hunting territory or military ranges.
- Sun Cream.
- Have a planned route in mind and try to stick to it.
- If in a party stay together, always know where your group members are.
- Optional - camera, binoculars, sunglasses, sketch pad, notebook.
Santa Engracia and the Tremp Valley
A half hour out of the village you look back having climbed up along what we call Golden Ridge to an outcrop of sculptured rock. From there the vista opens up, the village recedes and you begin to realise that this is what the big birds must experience each time they take flight, only on a much grander scale.
Nothing To Spoil The View
The higher we climb the better the view. It may be hard work going uphill but the beauty of it is you get to see different perspectives, you're rewarded with breathtaking panoramas that words hardly get close to describing.
Temperatures rise too! The body starts to heat up. Those breakfast calories are burning up at quite a rate! This is turning into one of the best workouts you've had for ages.
Remove your jacket and thermals. Take on water, nibble a snack. Keep telling yourself that a mountain side always looks a much bigger challenge from a distance than it is in reality. Once you're actually up there walking, the mountain doesn't seem so big. That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it!
Snow on the Peaks: When To Climb
Mountains above 2300 metres or so keep most of their snow til August or September. In October the first of the winter snow appears and climbing becomes more dangerous. If you want to climb the highest peaks in the Spanish Pyrenees you should make the attempts in the snow-free months. Be sure to book in advance if you need accommodation in hotels, hostels and refuges (smaller hostels on the mountain ranges)
Pic D'Aneto .. 3,404m (11,168 ft)
Monte Perdido ... 3,355m (11,007 ft)
Pic du Marbore.. 3,248m (10,656 ft)
Pic du Tallon... 3,144m (10,315 ft)
Cirque du Marbore 3,006m (9,862 ft)
Mountains Near Gurp
Not far from Santa Engracia is a tiny community - Gurp - which has a church, a farm or two, an abandoned ermita and a ramshackle house that sells wild honey. Behind this village the grey orange mountains rise. You follow a cliff path tunnelled out of the sheer face where once shepherds kept their sheep and, during the civil war, the guerra civil, brave locals fought the advancing Fascists, in 1936-38. You can find bits of shrapnel still scattered about the place.
All images by chef-de-jour unless otherwise stated.
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© 2013 Andrew Spacey