"Pyrenean foothills, please; one way"

As our train jolted to a halt at yet another dusty and deserted station, I stirred from a restless doze, blinking and squinting.  Either side of the Barcelona to Lleida railway line, dazzling sunlight flung mirages across the arid, gently rolling contours of Spain's Catalonia province.  As my eyes wandered lazily over the scene, I wondered if I had stumbled onto the set of an art-house movie.

Skip the train journey; take me straight to the mountains

I imagined a haunting melody from a gralla (the traditional Catalan double-reed wind instrument) sending shivers of suspense along the platform.  The movie's hero was probably alighting right now, adjusting his sombrero cordobés and scanning the desolate scene.  His shirt sleeves would be rolled up over tanned, muscular forearms, and he would be expecting something or someone... Would his lover appear; long, dark hair fluttering as she drove a 1920s car through the parched olive groves; or, with a faint creak from tired hinges, would the barrel of a gun appear menacingly from a shuttered window?

Before the plot could unfold, our locomotive grumbled heavily and tugged us onward.

The seven-hour train journey from Barcelona was an unexpected hitch; the consequence of a vague plan not quite coming together. We had been given the name of a bus company that ran from Barcelona direct to Salardú. They departed at 7am from the Plaza de Universitat, which had given us time to doze at the airport before taking the first train of the day into the city where we searched for the bus' pick-up point.

Starting our search before first light, we accosted passers-by, saying, Where is, in Spanish and pointing to the bus company's name written on a piece of paper. We continued while the sun rose, large and red, framed by the imposing fronts of the city buildings, but gave up half an hour after the scheduled departure time, dashing to the underground railway terminus in time for the first train heading west.

The train had trundled placidly across the jumble of points towards the edge of the city. However, it soon became apparent that a placid trundle was about as much vigour as we could expect, so we settled down to catch up on lost sleep. As the hours rolled by the miles failed to fly. Frustration, boredom and strange imaginings took turns to haunt our tired minds.

It was a branch line all the way with a distinct back-country feel. There wasn’t a single stop that could boast buildings that looked safe, let alone serviceable. In fact, the view framed by the train’s dusty window extolled all that is best about Spanish life: Siestas.

The enduring image was of builders downing tools as the sun’s heat intensified, finding a pleasant patch of shade, settling down beside a ready supply of wine and, somehow, never making it back to work that afternoon, or even that week. Some stations had no roofs.  There were no doors; not even on the toilets, which offered a view of passing trains to anyone too desperate to sit out their journey with crossed legs.

Our planning had been deliberately minimal and, with three weeks to play with, we were free to go wherever the wind blew us. We had no firm itinerary, nor did we have any goal so important that it would ruin the trip if we failed to reach it; though we did harbour a quiet ambition to climb Pico de Aneto, the highest point in the range at 3404 metres.

We intended to follow parts of the GR11, criss-crossing the border and picking off 3000 metre peaks along the way. We’d brought a week’s supplies and were aiming to restock in Luchon then Benasque. But our first objective was to reach Salardú, where we would start the climb to the French border.

We started to take an interest in our surroundings again as the Pyrenean foothills began to unfold on either side. Winding through Sierra del Montsec, the line hugged steep, barren hillsides, plunging sharply into tunnels, then abruptly shooting out again.  Exiting each tunnel was like entering a fresh refrain in an overture that heralded the approach of the mountainous wilderness.

Eventually, we crossed onto our large scale map.  We could then follow our progress as we meandered around shimmering, copper-blue lakes and through dozing towns, counting down the miles till the end of the line.

Alighting on the dusty platform at La Pobla, we brimmed full of optimism. As we watched the last passengers leaving the platform we sensed the solitude of the mountains.  Our exhaustion from the journey was swept away by an invigorating wave of enthusiasm.  We were within eighty miles of Salardú and could easily hitch there before nightfall.

For months, we had excitedly anticipated arriving in Salardú, which is everything a mountain town should be.  A cluster of slate roofs and spires lie peacefully ensconced in a triple layer of seclusion: first, a natural band of trees, then gently rising, open fields, and finally a ring of high mountains, which climb majestically on all sides.

I know all this from pictures in our guide book.  Unfortunately we were in the awkward situation of being sufficiently dusty and dishevelled to deter people from picking us up, but not so grubby and exhausted looking for them to take pity on us and drive us wherever we wanted to go.

We never made it to Salardú, which became the first of our goals to be quietly re-written.

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Links to other chapters:

Chapter 1: Pyrenean foothills, please; one way

Chapter 2: Lovers and fishermen

Chapter 3: Visions and vistas

Chapter 4: Shattered dreams

Chapter 5: The mountain gods

Chapter 6: Catching the drips 

Chapter 7: Ghosts on the col

Chapter 8: Teeth of the storm

Chapter 9: Stealing the solitude

Chapter 10: Voulez vous!

Chapter 11: The yellow goblin

Pyrenees photo album

Railway line to La Pobla de Segur

The line to La Pobla twists through the Pyrenean foothills

Hey, that's my photo!  See my message on the Pyrenees home page  

Recommended reading

Long distance walks in the Pyrenees

The guide book used by the Backpacker Diaries author.  It is one of a series of trekking guides from Chris Townsend, which cover mountain ranges on several continents.  It is currently out of print but copies are available via the link below.

Walks & climbs in the Pyrenees

Since the first edition in 1978, this book has become the authoritative guide to the range.  The new edition incorporates many revisions and includes more than 170 day walks, multi-day walks, climbing routes and mountaineering ascents.

The Pyrenees

A resource book covering the finest walks, treks and climbs in the High Pyrenees from the Cirque de Lescun, on the edge of the Basque country in the west, to the Carlit massif and the Cerdagne to the east of Andorra.

Through the Spanish Pyrenees: GR11

The GR11 is a high-level mountain trail following tracks and footpaths.  Affectionately known as "La Senda" (The Track), it crosses the Pyrenees from coast to coast on the Spanish side of the border.

Salardú - everything a mountain town should be

Salardú - everything a mountain town should be

Hey, that's my photo!  See my message on the Pyrenees home page 

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