Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The chronicles of Nuria

Ours is the place on the right

We can only take so many cities before we need the great outdoors to relax in. So after Nice and Barcelona we started looking for the nearest mountains. We did not have to look far as up at the top of Spain are the Pyrenees. Finding somewhere to go in the Pyrenees was a bit harder, mainly because of train problems. We found a scenic trip on the Eurail map to the centre of the Pyrenees but when we used the Eurail website to map out the trip the train went well into France and then back down to turn a 2/3 hr trip into 10. Even going into a train station came up with the same result, the operator could not get the station we wanted (that showed a direct line from Barcelona) to go straight to it, again wanting to go up into France and back down to it. I left some queries on Lonely Planet for some alternative locations and started looking for hotels/hostels. Most were full or actively discouraging booking by saying the mountains were too far from them. In the end we settled on a place called Nuria, but they were all booked out, and then Queralbs just down from Nuria (also all booked out) and then Ribes de Freser (success, we found an apartment as cheap as a hostel).

This ended up being just what we were looking for, Ribes de Freser was a tiny town at about 900m above sea level with a cog train up to Queralbs (1100m) and all the way through to Nuria (1900m). Also lucky was that our Eurail passes gave us 50% discount on the cog train and our accommodation was half the price it would have been in either of the other two towns for an apartment that included a fully decked out kitchen, washing machine and living room. Luxury for us used to our 1 room hostels. The town was not very touristy and consequently hardly anybody spoke English and shops closed for a siesta from 1pm to 5pm and closed completely at 8pm while restaurants did not open for food until 8:30pm. We did find a health food shop that had gluten free products so I stocked up on bread and cereal.

The language issue was really weird because this area of Spain is known as Catalonya, so while 3/4 of South America spoke normal Spanish, and we had learned a smattering of the essentials, here in this part of Spain they spoke Catalan which was completely different. I think they want to secede like Western Australia. Well our good luck was holding up as we landed in this normally sleepy town during a fiesta week just as they were putting up colourful streamers across the buildings and hanging rugs outside their balconies.

The map

No free walking tours here but they did have a tourist shop with some maps, including one that had a list of special fountains in the town called 'Ruta de les Fonts' (route of the fountains) done a bit like a treasure hunt, so we set out to find them. It was harder than it looked, the map was not very detailed and they were often tucked into little back areas or high spots and one was even behind some bush on the main road. We did find about six of them. Starving to death we did have to stretch our appetites until about 9pm before we could get a meal. We stocked up from the supermarket and cooked in our kitchen for the rest of the week.

The next day we decided to do the recommended and lovely 3.5 hour long, 900 metres up Queralbs to Nuria walk, taking the cog train to Queralbs. The walk drifted its way lazily up mountains, along rivers, through bush and even beside the train line at times. This was a relaxing, even if sometimes strenuous, walk up to Nuria. It is quite amazing when you emerge from the bush to see the man made lake and manicured gardens of this resort/sanctuary nestled in the Pyrenees mountains.

We made it!
Amazing 360 degree views
The day following this trek we decided to cog train it up to Nuria and check out what mountains would be nice to hike up from there. Well we get to Nuria and after visiting the information desk Elizabeth unfortunately finds out that the tallest mountain in this area is the Puigmal. Nearly 3000m high that becomes our quest for the day, unfortunately the labelling of the track was a bit dodgy and we initially took the wrong path. This petered into nothing and we had to backtrack, one hour down the drain. We found the right path and started again, what followed was another 2.5 hours virtually all of it uphill, the last part nearly straight up on gravel. It was hard work but the view from the top was amazing, panoramic mountain views all the way around. On the way down, as it was getting late we came across dozens of Pyrenean chamois, a type of deer found in these mountains. By the time we got down it was a good 6 hours of mountain trekking, which combined with the day before had left us with jelly legs.
Pyrenian chamois (I think)
Why do all these
mountains have a
cross on top?

Brilliant atmosphere
The next day every step on our 2 floors up or down our apartment was excruciating, so we had an easy day soaking in the atmosphere of the village, which spent the day celebrating. This day ended up being a public holiday for them and there was dancing and music going all day. We went down at one stage and they had these massive 5m caricatures of a boy and girl dancing together winding through the streets. Unfortunately I forgot my camera so I cannot show you how cool they actually looked. At night they had an orchestra playing with some type of community dance going on. A very relaxing stay indeed.

Epilogue: The train we took to get to Ribes had as its last stop La Tour de Carol, the very stop we were trying to get to right at the beginning. But since this was in France there was some miscommunication going on (French railways don't seem to like to give out information to their neighbours - Switzerland, Spain & Italy all had problems booking us trains to anywhere else in France other than Paris) . Leaving Ribes we actually took this train through the Pyrenees and then transferred to another train to get to Carcassonne, our next stop. So we could have got there the short way all along, if we knew the train, luckily for us these other places did not even look half as good as the place we ended up :-)

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