The Pyrenees and the Scenic Railways

The Pyrenean Passage Crossing Mountains on Spains Scenic Railways

Imagine yourself settling into an historic carriage, sipping coffee or wine and looking out at the vista. This is what it’s like on luxury week-long train journeys that hark back to the golden days of railway travel.

Prickly pear cacti line the tracks and deserted wooden villages slide by as the train moves on. This is secret, rural Spain.

1. The Pyrenees of Lleida

The Pyrenees form a natural boundary between Spain and France, crisscrossing the border in an intricate pattern of peaks and valleys. For many people—including 13th century Cathars seeking to establish a Christian religion that was separate from Catholicism, World War Two servicemen escaping into neutral Spain and British Mandate Palestine, or modern day hikers exploring the snaking ridgelines of this magnificent mountain range—the Pyrenees have been a source of inspiration, refuge, and adventure.

For many visitors the Pyrenees are best known as a winter ski destination, but hiking in the Pyrenees is also a treat. The mountains of the Pyrenees are spectacular year-round, with their deep glacial valleys, icy blue lakes, and cascading waterfalls. As you make your way across the Pyrenees you will pass by charming hamlets, and explore lush forests, glistening lakes, and wildflower-filled meadows.

Hikers can expect to encounter a variety of wildlife, from birds to chameleons and ibex. The Pyrenees is home to numerous rivers and waterfalls, and is dotted with picturesque villages where hikers can stop for a bite to eat or soak their weary feet in a thermal spring. The GR1 trail passes through some of the most idyllic landscapes in the Pyrenees, including the stunning Vall de Boi and the secluded village of La Seu d’Urgell, which is home to an old cinnabar mine.

As you hike the Pyrenees, take in the pristine surroundings, learn about the region’s rich history, and practice your Spanish and French (however dodgy they may be). Sit down for evening meals in huts and enjoy a glass of wine with other trekkers. Embrace this magnificent mountain range, and by hike’s end you will have created memories to last a lifetime.

2. The Pyrenees of the Basque Country

The western Pyrenees are a landscape of spectacular massifs, lakes and rivers. They include France’s southwestern corner (Bastille-de-Gavarnie, Cirque de Gavarnie) and Spain’s Basque Country (Lanzarote-Ataun-Lourdes, Pyrenees-Basques).

A rugged mountain range that defines the boundary between France and Spain, the western Pyrenees have played a major role in the history of both countries and Europe as a whole. The range’s high wall of peaks is punctuated by deep valleys, creating an extraordinary scenic setting.

One of the best ways to experience the Pyrenees is by train. Spain’s high-speed AVE trains zip through the mountains, bringing you close to their summits and giving you plenty of time to gaze at the peaks that make up the Pyrenean passage.

The most famous of the passes is Col de Pailheres, which sits on the border between France and Spain and culminates at 2,001 meters above sea level between the valleys of Ger and Aspet. The hike to the pass is a bit steep but is easy to manage and rewards hikers with some of the most breathtaking scenery in the entire Pyrenees.

Another iconic Pyrenean hike is along the ridges and lakes of the Cirque de Iraty. The area is a popular summer destination for hikers, but it’s also worth visiting in winter. With trails blazed through the snow-covered forest, the Cirque de Iraty is an awe-inspiring place to explore.

During the Holocaust, the region was a haven for Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi-occupied France. Jeanne Agouau, a shepherdess from Aulus-les-Bains, was among those who helped a group of Jews reach the Catalan border in December 1942. The group of nine were escorted by the shepherdess and her father, who volunteered to guide them across the mountains so they could escape into Catalonia and continue their journey to America.

There are many hiking trails in the western Pyrenees, ranging from short, half-day excursions to multi-day treks. The most popular are the section of the Haute Randonnee Pyreneenne, or HRP, that crosses through the mountains between Lescun and Salardu (Stages 2 and 3 in the Cicerone guide). A lesser-known but equally beautiful hike is along the ridges of l’Etang de Lers and the lakes of the Bassies cirque near Soule.

3. The Pyrenees of Catalonia

The Pyrenees of Catalonia aren’t just mountain scenery. They cradle ancient villages, the only volcanic area in Spain, and a cuisine that includes stews, cured meats, and goat cheese as hearty as Grandma’s. It is these elements that attract winter skiers and snowboarders to the peaks of the Val d’Aran; lure summer hikers to the lakes, valleys, and climbing terrain of the Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes; and draw autumn mountain bikers to the rugged ridges of Cerdanya and the soaring summits of the Maladeta massif (Spanish: “Accursed”) where, as legend has it, a 13th-century sect of Christian Cathars sought refuge and found their final rest. The mountains were also a natural boundary that prevented invaders from reaching Spain and a barrier that monarchs, rulers, and politicians used to their advantage in the centuries that followed.

You can explore these peaks and mountainous regions with a host of tour companies that offer guided hiking, trekking, cycling, horse riding, and kayaking trips. You’ll also find a number of hotels, gites, and b&bs that cater to hikers and cyclists. Many of these accommodation options are located in small rural towns and villages where you’ll experience a way of life that is often lost in the modern world.

It is helpful to have some understanding of Spanish or Catalan when traveling in the Pyrenees and to be prepared to use your GPS to navigate and a map to track your location as most people speak only Spanish or French here, though English is often understood as well. It is recommended to bring a basic translation tool and app so you can communicate with locals.

If you’re interested in learning more about the region, I can recommend books that cover topics like the history of Catalonia and its architecture as well as the rich folklore that is woven into everyday life. The locals are warm and welcoming and it’s easy to fall in love with the landscapes, small villages, and cuisine of this magical part of Spain. A visit here is like a step back in time and you’ll come away feeling enriched.

4. The Pyrenees of Spain

A natural wall between France and Spain, the Pyrenees have shaped the history of both nations. The mountain range is home to dozens of ski resorts, national parks with long hiking trails, and some of the most breathtaking scenery in all of Europe. For some, like the 13th century Cathars who challenged Catholicism, it was a sanctuary. For others, like World War Two servicemen and Spanish Civil War civilians looking to escape Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall,’ it was a treacherous barrier that could only be crossed through hidden passes.

The peaks of the Pyrenees are formed from massive granite and gneissose rocks, as well as layers of limestone. The cirques (deep valleys with steep sides) found here are the result of glacial activity. They form from a central ridge that runs north to south, with a number of subsidiary massifs. The ridge also contains a number of tectonic faults that produce elongated peaks and ridgelines.

Hikers and skiers are especially drawn to the pristine mountains of the Spanish Pyrenees. Often, you can find a trail that takes you right to the top of the mountain. Many of the peaks of the Pyrenees reach over 3,000m (9,800ft), which makes them one of the highest mountain ranges in Europe.

One of the best ways to see the Spanish Pyrenees is on a scenic high-mountain train ride. The Vall de Nuria Rack Railway is a wonderful way to experience the snowcapped mountains without having to drive and deal with the risky road conditions in winter.

The Pyrenees are also a popular summer destination. It is not uncommon for people who live in Barcelona or Girona to head out to the Pyrenees during the summer for a few days of skiing, hiking, cycling, visiting local festivals, teaching their kids about rural life, and even to rent second homes here.

The best time of year to explore the French Pyrenees is during the spring and summer months when you can enjoy hiking, biking, mountain climbing, and other activities while still avoiding the colder weather that tends to hit later in the season.

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