The south-facing slopes of the Spanish Pyrenees are heaven for lovers of the great outdoors, with stunning scenery providing the backdrop for a wide range of adventurous activities all year round
The small town of Sallent de Gallego lies high in the Spanish Pyrenees, a few miles from the French border. Apart from the fact that it is home to a modestly furnished but particularly good restaurant favoured by the King of Spain, there is nothing remarkable about its quaint streets and generally quiet demeanour.
Nothing, that is, until you come to a bar, tucked away in the corner of a small square. Right outside the door is a man-made climbing wall extending two storeys up the outside of the building. Can you imagine the furore if someone attempted to do that in the UK? The nanny state would mobilise waves of apoplectic planners and health and safety officials. The hapless perpetrators would be condemned as irresponsible and the drab champions of political correctness would trumpet that the ‘Spanish way is not our way.’ But what is the Spanish way?
To my mind, the Spanish way acknowledges the grandeur of the scenery, accepts the challenge of the mountains and celebrates the simple joy of being a part of nature. The Spanish way expects us to take responsibility for our actions and would laugh us out of court if we tried to blame others for our own foolishness. The Spanish way is enthusiastic, encouraging and tolerant. The Spanish way is simply more fun, and that, above all else, is why I love the Pyrenees.
The Pyrenees form the border between France and Spain. Although less well known than the Alps, the scenery is just as spectacular, with the higher summits rising above 11,000 feet. While I was there, the weather on the south-facing Spanish side was perfect, bright and sunny with light winds. It had apparently been that way for the past three months.
I was based in Formigal, a small ski village in the Aragonese Pyrenees, 370 kilometres northwest of Barcelona. Although it was mid-March, there was still more than enough snow to provide good skiing and boarding. Midweek was relatively quiet but the weekend was busy with Spanish skiers determined to extend their season for as long as possible. With a top elevation of almost 8,000 feet and 50 kilometres of marked runs served by an excellent lift system, Formigal is an ideal base for beginners and families. The nearest airports are Zaragoza (transfer time: approximately 1.5 hours) and Pau in France. Both are served by low-cost carriers from the UK.
The abba Formigal Hotel is superbly situated within easy walking distance of the town centre yet enjoying glorious views over the surrounding area. The rooms are comfortable and spacious, some with their own terrace and commanding views. Family rooms accommodating three and four people are available. Facilities include a gym and superb pool. Ask at reception for information about summer activities such as climbing, hiking and rafting.
Other winter activities include snowmobiles, dog sleds, hiking, ice climbing and ski racquets. Having never tried ski racquets (snowshoes) before, I thought I’d spend a leisurely afternoon sauntering along pine-fringed tracks in the sunshine. Not so. Our guide Inaki (pronounced Yakki) took us straight to the top of a nearby 7,000-foot peak by what can only be described as the direct route.
Racquets are basically plastic frames that strap to the bottom of a normal hiking boot by way of a hinged binding. Their purpose is to spread your weight over a larger area, but in very soft snow you can still sink in up to your thigh. Even with the help of ski poles, it can be quite a strenuous activity. In our case, we had to battle our way up steep snow slopes followed by a near vertical gully. Had the snow been harder it would have made a respectable winter route, requiring ice axe, crampons and a certain amount of resolve to reach the summit.
Summer activities include hiking, horse riding, mountain biking, paragliding, rafting, caving, canyoning… in fact, most outdoor pursuits are available in the region. The nearby Ordesa National Park is the oldest national park in Spain, and the base for some of the best rock climbing in Europe.
The diverse landscape houses a number of SPABs (Special Protection Areas for Birds). We were fortunate in seeing a rare lammergeyer circling majestically above the valley one evening as we headed for Jaca, capital of the Aragon region. Jaca is an important stopover on the pilgrimage route to Santiago, and the whole town is marinated in history. The Romanesque cathedral erected in the 11th century is genuinely awesome.
When you really do need to unwind, there are a number of health spas in and around Formigal. A recently refurbished five-star spa in nearby Panticosa provides a unique opportunity to relax body and soul in a sumptuous, if somewhat antiseptic, environment.
One of the most surprising features for me was the quality of food and wine served in local restaurants. If you haven’t yet experienced fillet steak wrapped in bacon on a bed of baked apple with mushroom ice cream, you’re a gastronomic lightweight – trust me.
For something a little bit different at a price that won’t break the bank, the Aragonese Pyrenees are well worth considering. They're less than two hours' flying time from the UK, the standard of food and accommodation is excellent, and the scenery will stir your soul.