The ancient village of Queralbs has long been one of the most attractive gateways into the Pyrenees for hikers. At the northern edge of Catalonia's Ripollés region, it's accessed on the steep and spectacular cremallera (rack railway) line from Ribes de Freser, which eventually leads up to the popular ski station of Vall de Núria. Only six kilometres from the French border, iconic mountains surround the valley on every side - Puigmal (2913m), Infern (2896m) and Noufonts (2864m).
Many years ago, I first caught the cremallera up to Queralbs. Most of the weekenders that make their way up to the village end up taking the cremallera upriver to Vall de Núria. But I'd heard about a circular hiking route, which leads to a refuge in a remote valley called Coma de Vaca, and then across the hairline of the mountains on the border down into the Núria valley.
It only took a couple of hours and a half on the RENFE from Barcelona up to Ribes de Freser, but by the time we'd got to Queralbs - there were three of us, an English cabaret songstress, an Israeli cartoon illustrator, and me - it was already late afternoon. To the west the sun was preparing to dip the other side of the mountains. Over a thousand years old, Queralbs proudly calls itself el poble mil-lenari and has a pretty romanesque church, Sant Jaume, dating back to the tenth century. But otherwise, this stone-cald village with its wooden balconies spilling with bougainvilla, is little more than a pretty and comfortable sleep-over for outdoorsy people destined for Núria. We had a bit of rabbit stew, knocked back a few bottles of Moritz and a couple of shots of Pacharan with farmers in the local bar, and then headed out towards the hiking path.
The road out of Queralbs was full of noisy city people zipped up to the eyeballs in microfleeces and gortex, and clicking on the cobbles with their walking sticks, obviously on the way back from Núria. It was my second trip into the Pyrenees and I was suprised by just how organized the Catalans were for the elements. We had sleeping bags, but other than that very little. Two of us were even wearing Havaiana sandals.
We headed along the Freser river, north-east. Soon we found a decent spot on the banks of the river, sheltered away from the sendero. It was a beautiful grassy knoll, and the rushing river here spilled into pockets ideal for bathing. We had a dip, set down our sleeping bags. There was no need for a fire. It was a bright, balmy summer night. In the morning, nice and early, we continued climbing, happily alone, with only echoing footsteps to be heard. It was a steep climb on a zigzagging path above the river, heading deeper into pine forest. Giant-horned Spanish Ibex (a kind of mountain goat) and chamoix (a cross between goats and antelopes) scratched their way across rockfaces to our east. Eagles drifted between the peaks of Noucreus and Fossa del Gegant (Grave of the Giants!), which mark the Franco-Spanish border.
By the afternoon we were up in a totally different landscape, which could have been Snowdonia or Scotland. A grassy valley spread out before us, either side of a stream. Up here the mountains were bare, the dismal but magnificent khaki green reminiscent of the Celtic north-western edges of Europe. A solitary wooden hut stood alone in this picture of remote, cold beauty. This was the Coma de Vaca refuge. The valley and the refuge appear in the Catalan author Angel Guimerá's novel Terra Baixa, and Coma de Vaca is sometimes nicknamed Manelic after the protgaonist of the book, a shepherd.
The refuge at Coma de Vaca, even by Pyrenean standards, is wonderful. Refuges in the Pyrenees are usually run to a very high standard - almost like hostals - by volunteers. This one, built in the early 90s by the Generalitat de Catalunya, is a handsome, eco-friendly stone/pinewood construction; it's warm, cosy and always remarkably well-stocked, thanks to a helicopter which daily brings supplies. It's not like your freezing bothies in the Scottish highlands.
Before dark, the valley filled with an eerily advancing canopy of mist funneling down from the mountain pass below Pic de l'Infern (Hell's Peak). After another (much, much colder!) bath in the river, we enjoyed a noisy dinner and a bottle of wine packed in between other hikers . This is one of the things I have always enjoyed about hiking in Catalonia. At the end of a long hike, if you stay in a refuge, the evenings are very social, the food is hearty and good and you end up meeting a lot of strangers. I've never found Catalans more friendly and open than at the end of a day's hike in one of these marvellous refuges out in the mountains.
From Coma de Vaca it's a half-day hike west to Núria. To get there, you follow one of the most spectacular routes in the Catalonian Pyrenees. At some points there are vertiginous scrambles, aided by rope-handles, which make it a daunting walk for less exdperienced ramblers. The views of the Freser valley between the immense finger-tips of the mountains, are extraordinary. The chance of seeing some exciting wildlife is good too. Up here, you can see the quebrantahuesos ('bonecrusher' - a lammergeier or bearded vulture). Their white plumage dyed ochre-red by the earth they rub themselves on, these giant raptors are rarely found below 1000 metres' altitude. They drop bones from high up in the air to break them open on the rocks below, and then swoop down with their powerful 2.5 metre-long wings to the bones to peck out the marrow.
Another remarkable creature found up here is the marmota. My first experience of these chubby groundhogs was walking along this route, when I saw them climbing up on rocks and whistling to warn each other of our advancing human presence.
The story of the marmot in the Pyrenees, as so often is the case, owes itself to fallacious human intervention.
Although a primitive species of marmot (marmota primigenia) existed in southern Europe during the Quaternary Ice Age, as the continent warmed and the icesheets melted, they disappeared for good. Two forms of marmot - marmota marmota and marmota latirrostris - continued to survive in the Alps and Tatra ranges, but none in the Pyrenees. It was human hunters that them to the mountains here. During the 20th century hunters faced competition from eagles for their preferred trophy-prey, the Chamoix and Ibex. So marmots were introduced from the Tatra mountains, essentially as easy bait for raptors, so that hunters could carry on enjoying the pick of the highly-prized bovids. The first colony of marmots was released in the French Pyrenees in the 1940s, but rapidly spread all over from there to Aragon and Catalonia, in particular to the sun-facing highland meadows, where they like to sun themesleves on the tops of rocks, have a good view of approaching predators and can burrow down deep into the ground for protection.
I was so overcome by excitement on seeing marmots for the first time - I had no idea they were common in this area and hadn't expected to see one - that Coma de Vaca ('Cow-Valley') became forever etched on my mind as the Valley of the Marmots.
By the early afternoon we had reached the Núria valley and were peering down at the reservoir beside the gargantuan ski and leisure centre that dominates the meadow. Here, families were out riding horseback, canoeing on the reservoir and walking on the numerous trails. Tired out, we decided to take the cremallera down-valley. It's a dizzyingly beautiful ride along the banks of the Núria river back down to Queralbs.
Since that trek I've been explored many other corners of the the Catalonian Pyrenees. Its a region of phenomenal natural beauty, whether you go to the lakes of Aiguestortes, the stone villages of the Puigcerda or the snow-capped peaks of the Vall d'Aran. But few areas can rival The Valley of the Marmots in the late summer sun.