Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park

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We said goodbye to Torla, and a big hello to Ordesa and Monte Perdido!  The parking lot was full of Spaniards decked out in fancy (read: never worn) hiking gear, most of it a bright, bright red, which I imagined was just a bit of homeland fanaticism.  We wore all the clothes we brought with us, mixed and matched with no particular fashion goal in mind, just warmth, and even then, the weather took us a bit by surprise.  But when we started on our trip, we enjoyed mild temperatures and beautiful autumn colors.

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After a couple of hours of hiking, we chose this spot at the Gradas de Soaso to set down our packs and break for lunch.  We may have gotten odd looks walking along the trail with a bottle of wine, roll of Principe cookies, and juice boxes spilling out of packs, but we quite enjoyed our picnic on the rocky banks of the Rió Arazas.  In case you’re concerned about the apparent lack of nutritional value of our meal, we also ate wedges of tortilla española, bits of bread with jam, cured meats for Phil, and I had a random mix of fruits and veg.  The wine we brought across the border was especially worth its weight!

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We wound our way up the trail, passing by more and more falls, before being spat out into the Circo de Soaso, which offered us huge, expansive views of the Ordesa Valley.  We went on for another hour or so to La Cascada Cola de Caballo, where we admired yet another incredible waterfall.  Most of the hikers were only in the park for the day, and turned around here to start the four-hour-long return.

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Before leaving Torla, Phillip and I had secured a reservation at the only open refugio in the park, and after a few minutes to take in our surroundings, we started our ascent, por clavijas.  For the non-Spanish-speakers among us (myself included), “por clavijas” means that we scaled the mountain on steel “pins” which stuck out from the mountainside in areas where the climb was too steep.  We were aided by a chain bolted into the rock, but at times we were climbing straight up the face of the cliff with almost nothing underneath to catch us in case we fell.  Nothing plush and fluffy, anyway.

We arrived at the top unscathed and after another half-hour of walking we caught our first glimpse of the Refugio de Góriz, where we’d be spending the night.  It was nearing dusk when we finally checked in, and we happily unstrapped our backpacks and slipped into our standard issue pink crocs: a bit of relief for our tired feet, a way to keep the refuge clean of muddy boots, and who on earth would think to steal a pair of these ugly things (theft prevention!).

With a few cookies left in our pockets, we bought tiny cups of coffee and sat down to read and write and warm up.  Slowly but surely, the refugio started to fill up with more and more Spanish hikers, just in time for dinner.  All seventy or so of us shared the two tiny communal rooms of the refugio for a couple of hours, before heading upstairs to sleep early.  By the time we turned in, everyone else in our dorm was already knocked out.  In the dark, lighting our way with head lamps, we tiptoed past thirty snoring Spaniards (not an exaggeration) to our spot.  We slept on the second of three tiers of beds, long planks with ten thin mattresses and ten woolen blankets.  It wasn’t my most comfortable night of sleep, but it was one of the more interesting ones.

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But before we went to bed, we stepped outside to brush our teeth and found snow!  And in the morning, even more had fallen and we got to see Ordesa Valley in a whole different way on our hike back down.  Most of our fellow dorm-mates planned to climb Monte Perdido, and we would have joined them if only we had been equipped with more than just jeans and sneakers.  So we bade farewell to Góriz and started our descent through the snow, past great herds of Pyrenean chamois, all the way back to where we started.

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Tired but invigorated, I really felt lucky to have had the chance to explore this part of the Spanish Pyrénées.  A week before, I had no idea that I’d be in Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, and now I count it among my best adventures.  Hasta la próxima, Ordesa!

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Torla

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Once we finally crossed the border into Spain, we noticed two things: the Spanish side of the Pirineos is just as beautiful as the French Pyrénées, and gasoline is about twenty cents less per litre than in France.  Welcomed into España with such good news, we got really excited about spending the next few days exploring Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido.

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Our destination for the night was the tiny town of Torla, deep in the Ordesa Valley.  We made a reservation at the refugio in town and explored while the sun set.  It was quiet and we saw only a few other travelers on the streets, so we tucked into our bunks, setting our alarms for a (relatively) early start the following day.

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We didn’t know if we’d be spending the night in the mountains or back in Torla, so we stopped by the supermercado to load up our packs with a variety of non-perishable snacks.

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I never thought I’d say that one of the best croissants I’ve ever eaten was in Spain, but qué sorpresa!  In the back of the supermercado they had racks of fresh bread and pastries that were being rolled out right as we were walking in.  When we first bit into these, they melted in our mouths and quickly gained us the attention of a friendly, but hungry admirer.

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We took one last moment to enjoy the warmth of a coffee before trekking into the mountains of Ordesa.

Due south

Part of what my TAPIF contract guarantees me is an obscene amount of vacation time.  Just about a month into my placement, I was packing my bags and putting away my cahiers for two weeks of freedom.  About time!  We decided to take advantage of the last few warm days of the year and drove south, our sights set on the Spanish Pyrénées (or rather, the Pirineos).  TomTom encouraged us to take a creative route down unpaved, winding one-way roads, but by some miracle (pun) we arrived in Lourdes, one the strangest places that I have ever visited.

Our reason for making a stop at the most religious place on earth didn’t require much spiritual reflection.  We’re passing through, so why not?  Though Rick Steves has called it home to the tackiest souvenirs in Europe, we still wanted to visit Disneyland’s weird pious cousin, come hell or holy water!

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It was an odd experience slipping through crowds of people in prayer, past long rows of spigots filling up identical Our Lady of Lourdes water bottles (available for purchase further up the road).  It was a very interesting phenomenon to witness, though I think my own moment of divine intervention came when I found a very nice croissant just out of town in Arras-en-Lavedan.  Heavenly.

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From there, we caught our firsts glimpses of the Pyrénées.  Incredible landscapes and fresh, clean air.  We breathed in deep and chanced upon a cute mountain lodge with coffee and homemade cheese.  The route we were meant to take, along a shear cliff, was inexplicably barred, so we had to do a bit of backtracking before continuing on our way to Spain.  Despite the minor setback, the views of the Pyrénées simply could not be beat.

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