European mountains seem a secret

Pyrenees: Rugged beauty, isolated villages draw visitors away from too-civilized heights.

Destination: Spain

March 04, 2001|By David Gonzales | David Gonzales,Universal Press Syndicate

Stretching the length of the French-Spanish border from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the Pyrenees have long had the reputation as the last undiscovered mountains of Europe.

Much has been written about the tax-free shops and ski resorts of the tiny enclave of Andorra, but the rest of the Pyrenees has been largely ignored by foreign journalists and guidebook authors, leading one to believe the balance of the range is untamed, uninhabited and forbidding.

This is certainly true of the highest reaches of the Valle d'Aran, a remote valley in the Catalonian Pyrenees. At altitudes of 6,500 feet to 8,000 feet, hikers wander through a stark landscape of silvery lakes and crenelated peaks, where snows cover the trails even late into the summer, and lashing storms can roll across the landscape with little notice.

But if one descends just a few thousand feet, the walking becomes far more civilized. Following well-trod trails through grassy pastures, one can quickly hike from village to village, each one a compact jumble of cobbled streets and slate-roofed homes clustered around an elegantly steepled 12th- or 13th-century church.

The valley's lower slopes, however, are not without their perils. You may be assailed by a snarling shepherd's dog. Or you might be beset by its conversationally starved owner, as happened to me while walking last summer between the villages of Vielha and Moncabau.

Rounding a turn in the trail, I surprised a small dog, which leaped to its feet, barking ferociously, its teeth bared. Its owner, who'd been resting nearby, jumped up, too, baring his own single front tooth in a broad grin.

Mountain shepherds are not known to be the most effervescent people, especially in places like this. Until the Vielha tunnel was completed in 1958, the only ways in or out of Aran were high mountain passes, sealed most of the year by snow. The centuries-long isolation was so complete that valley inhabitants developed their own language -- Aranese -- still used today.

This shepherd, apparently, had had enough of isolation.

"My name is Felipe Cuny Castet," he announced. "Many Germans walk by here in the summer. And many French. Also many English. Few speak Spanish. But then, you are American. You live close to many republics that speak Spanish. Do you know how many republics speak Spanish? I will tell you. Nineteen."

I followed Felipe's oratory for a minute; then his speech accelerated and I couldn't keep up. When his sheep had moved far up the slope and out of sight, Felipe asked how I'd return to Vielha. Would I descend to the valley floor or go back the way I came, on the high trail? I'd take the high trail, I said.

"Aah!" said Felipe, delighted. "You like the altitude!" And he scrambled uphill after his sheep.

Many others apparently like the high trail as well. As Felipe revealed in his rapid-fire soliloquy, tourists outnumber shepherds in the high pastures of Aran.

Since the end of Spain's isolation with Francisco Franco's death in 1975, the Pyrenees have attracted steadily increasing numbers of hikers, skiers and sightseers looking for a more "genuine" mountain vacation than they might find in the Alps. Compared with Europe's most famous range, the Pyrenees still have a bit of wildness, the villages are still rustic, and prices for food and lodging are low.

Not surprisingly, the Pyrenees' newfound popularity is bringing rapid change. Highways have been enlarged, ski resorts built. Some villages are swelling, with new hotels and apartments creeping ever higher up the hillsides.

For centuries, the Pyreneans resisted invasion. Now, tourism is succeeding where Charlemagne failed in the eighth century. But, as Felipe made clear, the new faces of tourists are not unwelcome. And there are still vast areas of wilderness in the Pyrenees where a hiker may not see another human face all day. One can still find a village seemingly suspended in time, all but untouched by the outside world.

That the world beyond is only now intruding into the Pyreneans' lives is a testament to the range's bulk and severity, which long presented an insurmountable barrier to even the most rapacious kings. When Frankish emperor Charlemagne invaded northern Spain, his retreat back over the Pyrenees proved disastrous when local warriors wiped out his rear guard.

Even in the 20th century, the Pyrenees' steep, hidden valleys resisted conquest. In the Spanish Civil War, fleeing Republicans were smuggled through the Pyrenees to France. A few years later, Jews and resistance fighters escaping the Nazis fled in the opposite direction to Spain. In both wars, local Pyreneans did the smuggling. It was how they sneered at the French and Spanish governments, which they'd always distrusted.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.