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Hiking the Pyrenees - Day Zero

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

Finally we were out of lockdown!
The house that Dali built.
Figueres, the home of Dali.

So, it was July and we’d come out of confinement. I’d also put in a few practice hikes in a couple of weeks, so I felt that I was ready to embark on my dream of hiking the Pyrenees. The GR 11, also known as the “Ruta Transpirenaica” in Spain, is part of the extensive footpath network of trails that run along the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. There is also one of the French side, called the GR-10. The official route, roughly 840kms, is split into 45 parts or ‘etapes,’ one for each day, making it easy to take on the enormous task. I say official, as many people do it in less time – I read that one guy did it in 23 days - Killian Jornet smashed it in 8 (but he’s a freak!). At the end of each section, there is usually a hostel, campsite or refuge to stay at, where you can sleep safely and stock up on water. But not always – there are wild camping spots too, or unmanned refuges with nothing more than running water. Although I knew that I’d come across towns along the way, most of the way you need to pack for 2-3 days’ worth of food and carry enough water to last you through the day. This is as well as carrying a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat if you chose to camp it as I was planning. As it was Covid, I was assuming that most places would either be closed or have reduced capacity. The trail can be walked in either direction – from the Basque Country in the West to Catalonia in the East, or visa versa as I would be doing it. Why was I doing it this way? Well, reason number one was the fact that I was living in Catalonia – it was closer to get to the starting point and I also wanted to see more of the country here. Another reason was the sun – as you do most of your hiking in the morning or early afternoon, you want the sun at your back; hiking from West to East would mean the sun always in your face. The official guidebook, which some of my students bought for me when they discovered that I would be doing the hike, also states that the Eastern and Central parts are tougher because of the steepness of the mountains and also the hotter, drier weather. If you’re not really physically fit, you probably should start with the gentler rises of the West Coast. So, I was starting from the toughest side, the driest side… but it was closer, it was Catalonia, and I knew I would toughen up on the way. Let me get this straight from the start though – as much as I’d love to hike the whole 800km mountain range, as always there were time restraints. So, my plan was to hike for 12-14 days, starting from the most easterly point of Spain, Cap de Creus, and finishing up somewhere around Puigcerda or Andorra.

The only remains of the Medieval Fort - the Galata Tower.
The Dali museum.
The Dali museum, closed unfortunately.

I’d packed my backpack, having bought some new gear, and was ready to hit the trail. I had a new tent, new sleeping mat and some cooking gear, and my new Swiss Army knife that was a recent Christmas present. Although weight is a big factor here (you don’t want to be lugging around a ton of shit on your back like Reese Witherspoon in the 2014 movie), the tent weighed 2.6 kgs which wasn’t exactly light. To go lighter, cutting down to 1kg or less, you have to spend a lot of money and also get a smaller tent. I wanted my 2-person tent, to keep my things in if it rained, and also to be able to sit up in it. The sleeping mat didn’t weigh much at all and I knew it would be 100% worth it! As for something for the walk, I’d packed mixed nuts, chocolate, fuet (Spanish salami) and a tub of peanut butter – that would be my lunch and snacks. For breakfast it was going to be muesli with powdered milk. Dinner would be whatever I could buy along the way, bread, pasta, tuna and cook it. I’d top up my supplies every few days, but even doing this, and carrying 3L of water with me, my pack was around 15 to 17kgs at a guess – I never actually weighed it out of fear. My first day was just getting to the start and to get a little used to carrying everything I needed on my back. I caught the train from Sabadell to Barcelona, changing at Sants to get the medium-distance train to Figueres. Leaving the house and walking to the station I felt a little giddy – I was finally starting this adventure that had been a dream of mine for years. I knew that I wasn’t going to complete the hike, but a decent chunk of it and I was excited! There’s nothing like starting a big trip! I was also doing it alone.

The cathedral.
People watching in Figueres.
Blue and white of Cadaques.

The train journey to Figueres was pleasant. The train was a medium distance, high-speed train that shot its way north at speeds of up to 150kph at times. Spain has a very decent transport system – not just in major cities like Barcelona or Madrid, but in regional areas too. In the cities you have the metro, buses, trains and even trams in Barcelona, along with cycle lanes. If you want to head out of the city, you get a medium or long-distance train and off you go – they are fast, efficient, clean and quite regular. Sometimes a little expensive, like my trip to La Rioja, but you can find good deals or just get the bus which is always cheaper. This trip was 2 hours long and only cost €12 ($19), which I think is a great deal! The seats were comfortable, plenty of leg room, air-con, only a few little bumps but there were power points for charging, so I read my book all the way. The only down-side was that I had to wear a mask the whole time. I got off in Figueres, a place that I’d driven past many times but never actually stopped at, so I was looking forward to wandering around town for a bit. My bus to Cadaques was in 4 hours, so I had given myself a bit of time for exploring and lunch before the next leg of my journey. This was also a good time to get used to carrying the heavy backpack around for a few hours… and it was heavy. So I plodded around the city, taking pics and seeing what there was to be seen. The answer to that was not much to be honest. There were some nice buildings and avenues, but pretty much the only reason people came here was to see the Dali museum. Although I didn’t go inside (it was closed due to Covid), just walking around the building was an experience. As you come up the hill, following the signs, you see a big red building topped with enormous eggs. I didn’t need any signs to tell me this was the right place. The site where the museum stands now was the old theatre, which was destroyed during the Civil War. In 1960, Dali and the mayor of Figueres decided to renovate the building and make it a museum to the town’s famous son. It was opened in 1974 and renovated in the 80s to make space for more artwork, and now covers several adjoining buildings. The eggs, a trademark of Dali, symbolise life, renewal, continuation and the future. All around the outside walls were golden adornments, like little croissants, which to me at first (and still do a little) looked like golden turds – but they were actually loaves of bread, which represent the stable food of Spanish life. Knowing Dali, I’m sure he knew that people might mistakenly think they were piles of poo.

Everyone is wearing masks.
Some locals watching the world go by.
Cadaques on the Costa Brava.
Lazy day in Cadaques.

There was a small square in front of the museum entrance and just behind the cathedral that had some interesting works by the great artist. It was hard to say exactly what it was, but it there was a dry fountain with lots of added ‘dali-isms.’ There was a bust of a Roman emperor (Hadrian by the look of it), eggs (of course), a few heads, lots of gold and other weird things. The front of the building had statues of women in robes holding bread like javelins and gold statues with loaf-hats standing on the roof. The gift shop had a lot of cool things in it, like melting clocks, egg-shaped clocks and even bread (poo) clocks. Ok, I liked the clocks, but I knew that if I bought anything, I’d be carrying it for the next 2 weeks. I had lunch on a bench in the centre of the city before heading down to the bus depot for the next leg of the journey. The area around the depot wasn’t pleasant at all – there were quite a few homeless people, some gypsies and a few drunks yelling and making a lot of noise. I guess no bus terminal is ever really nice, but I was glad to get out of Figueres frankly. Sorry Dali. The bus trip wasn’t a long one, and there weren’t many people on the bus either. We wound our way through towns along the cost and then up and over the hill that lead to Cadaques. The road was full of cars with French number plates, over here to enjoy the sun and the water as the border had just been opened. Normally at this time of year though, you’d expect the roads to be jammed with cars, campervans and cyclists, but it was actually very quiet – just the locals and some French tourist. Last time I came here in summer the police were stopping everyone from driving into the town. The bus pulled up and I jumped out, slung my backpack over my shoulders, adjusted the straps and headed off down the road, full of energy and with high-spirits. My plan was to dump my bag and set up my tent at the campsite at the other end of town, then come back to the small bay, have a swim, grab a beer and have some tapas while watching the sun go down. The problem with plans is that people usually ruin them. The campsite was closed and they weren’t very friendly about it either. Why would they be closed in mid-July? I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to keep walking and find a place to wild camp. I turned around and saw a wild boar wandering down the road opposite the campsite, sniffing around for food. I’ve never seen a wild animal like this so close to a town. I know that these ‘porc senglars’ or ‘javalis’ have been getting closer to humans, even running through the streets of Barcelona during the March-June lockown, but it was summer and there were people walking around and cars driving down the road. This not-so-little piggy wasn't bothered though – he wanted dinner and continued to snuffle around the bins before moving on.

Hello Cadaques!
Happy as a piggy in mud - literally!
Sunset time.
Not a bad view.

I hiked for a little longer along the coastal path, which took me past some pretty amazing houses with even better views. What I was looking for was a quiet beach or even a bit of forest, away from the road and the trail. What I found was perfect – it was a property, but long abandoned. There was a small, square building, which was basically no more than a shed, sitting in an olive grove, with a high stone wall surrounding the entire area. I pushed my bag over the fence, then climbed over and checked out my campsite. It was quiet, there was a stone bench to put my things on to keep them off the ground, and the view was spectacular – from here I had dinner and watched the sun set over the water. There were a few boats with people on them, enjoying the afternoon, but most of them also moved off and I was left with the breeze rustling in the trees, the soft sound of cicadas in the distance and a sky full of stars. Although I was technically on someone’s land, nobody has been here for some time. I wasn’t lighting any fires, nor was I having a party or doing any damage to the place; so I figured this was fine. Besides, I was heading off quite early the next morning – it would be my first day on the GR-11 after all!

I chose my overnight spot well.

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. July 2020.


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