More Marmots (and some cider)

Trip Start Sep 14, 2011
Trip End Sep 26, 2011

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Where I stayed
Santuari de Falgars
What I did
The ascent (or not) of Pic del Aligas

Flag of Spain  , Catalonia,
Friday, September 16, 2011

It was warm enough overnight to sleep with the window wide open, even at nearly 2000m asl and we woke up to a clear blue sky.  CC was first up and went for a stroll in the early morning light. Crossing the stream he walked towards the old chapel a short distance from the hotel and noticed something at the edge of the trees on the mountain slope. Thinking at first that it was a Roe Deer he had a look through his binoculars and saw that it definitely wasn't. His first thought was Chamois and subsequent checks confirmed this, although in Catala it is an Isard. Having neglected to bring a camera with him he debated popping back to the hotel to get JD, this being the first Chamois either of them had seen, but the chance of a single wild animal known for speed and agility staying in the area for 10-15 minutes, especially as a few more people were beginning to appear, seemed somewhat remote, so he opted to try to get a little closer, by walking along the edge of the stables and then hopefully using the chapel as cover.

A movement nearer to the trees alerted him to the presence of a couple more Chamois and a quick scan with the binoculars revealed a couple more, so he changed his mind and headed back to the room. Fortunately JD was already up and dressed so we hurried outside but a check of the area where the Chamois had been was unsuccessful. However a quick check along the slopes of the mountain soon resulted in several animals being spotted, so we moved towards them to get a better look. We soon realised that there were a lot of Chamois, perhaps more than 50 in all, spread out over a considerable area of hillside, mostly in what looked like small family groups of two or three and although the light wasn't great, we were able to get one or two reasonable photos.

We were definitely ready for breakfast after watching the Chamois so it was back to the restaurant and another buffet with plenty of choice, including some hot food. At only around €70 per night for two the Hotel Vall de Nuria seems inexpensive and an ideal way for reasonably lazy people to get into the high mountains.

Of course if you visit this part of the world, then it's the mountains that are the main draw and we really wanted to get away from the development and into the higher areas. Despite the fog last year we'd noticed a sign pointing to a trail to the Pic de l'Aliga, starting from close to the Albergue Pic de l'Aliga. There's a cable car from near the station up to the Albergue and we were surprised to find that the price of this was included in the ticket from Ribes de Freser. By now the sun was above the ridges and the whole area was bathed in warm sunlight with numerous butterflies on the wing and all in all it looked like a good day for a stroll.  

Having ridden the cable car to the Albergue, we had a look in the area where we'd seen some small mammals last year, whilst we were eating our lunch in the fog. We'd assumed that these were Marmots but they were much smaller than the real thing. Unfortunately we couldn't see any, so still don't know what they were.

The signpost to Pic de L'Aliga points across a boulder strewn pasture, so we set off, quickly finding some more Marmots that were out enjoying the sun. We walked steadily for a while in pretty scenery across a slope leading down to a stream until the path reached the stream higher up the valley and sort of petered out. It was at this point we decided to consult the rather good 1:25,000 map of the area that we'd bought in the shop in the hotel complex. Experienced mountaineers should probably stop reading here.

The map showed out mistake clearly. The track we should have been on did not go anywhere near the stream. Looking up hill we could see what looked like a path higher up and we picked out a route up the slope avoiding the worst of the boulders and crags. We decided that a couple of skeletons that we passed were probably not other walkers that had also missed the correct path. The teeth didn't look right.

About twenty minutes and three or four drink stops later we hauled ourselves up the final steep grassy slope and onto a much more promising looking path, where we decided to sit and enjoy the views for a while (actually, get our breath back). A huge shadow passed by and we glanced up to see a Griffon Vulture circling very close overhead. Then another appeared, and another until there were about 30 birds searching for thermals and filling the sky just above us. With the lovely weather conditions this was ideal for photographs and JD got several that were pleasing.

The vultures drifted up slope, presumably towards the Pic de l'Aliga so we followed them, albeit not quite so effortlessly. Ten minutes further, the path started to peter out so we had another look at the map and spotted our second mistake. We'd turned the wrong way and followed a spur of the path that ended up nowhere interesting.

We turned back and finally got to a point where, using the map as it is intended, we were confident that we were in the right place and understood where to go next. We glanced up the valley to the north and saw some pretty impressive looking thunderclouds building up and heading our way. There was not much debate. We set off back towards the albergue.

When we got back to the signpost we looked at in with the benefit of experience and decided that it was, at best, misleading. The route it suggests is appealing because it crosses the upland pasture where the marmots live, but this is not the way to go. You need to head left of the sign, up the rocky, steeper, slope where you will eventually find the proper path (there’s a wooden signpost higher up that you might be able to pick out) and of course you could look at the map and try to do it properly.

There were several groups of people setting off from the albergue as we approached it, who seemed oblivious of the impending change in the weather. We had waterproofs with us but didn't like what we were seeing. We weren't confident that everybody else did. As we reached the wall of the albergue the rain began. By the time we got to the building it was teeming down, so we went into the cafe for drinks in order to sit it out. Most of the people we'd passed in the previous 10 minutes were not far behind us and some were rather damp.

After 30 minutes, sitting it out was looking like less of an option. Although sun-kissed slopes were visible not far away, the initial downpour had turned into steady rain, though the temperature remained high enough for waterproofs to be unappealing. There is not much uncovered walking between the albergue and the hotel, just a couple of minutes between the cable car station and the mountain tram station, so we jumped in the next cable car and made our way down.

Our arrival the previous day was greeted by a horde of people on the platform awaiting the down train. We planned to take the same train down so although we had almost an hour to spare we collected our bags, found a seat and sat down to wait. About 10 minutes before the train arrived another large group or perhaps several groups appeared and we shuffled down the platform a bit where there was more room. The train pulled up and we had a carriage with plenty of room to sit down and stash our bags, but the two carriages nearer the station looked to be crammed with bodies.

Our next stop was the lovely Santuari de Falgars, where we had stayed for a couple of nights in 2010. This remote and peaceful little hotel, perched on a ridge overlooking the upper reaches of the Llobregat and miles away from the next dwelling is a place that most people will either love or hate.

Check in is very informal and we were gratified to find out that we were remembered from our previous visit. We were given another lovely, simple room at the end of the house, overlooking the forest that sits astride the ridge but didn't mess about there for long because we were thirsty from the drive and remembered that the charming bar sold French cider. The weather was only slightly moist so we took our cider, olives, anchovies and crisps to sit outside in the hotel courtyard where we soon made the acquaintance of a couple of new arrivals, a pair of kittens that had apparenly been abandoned there a few days earlier. How Blanquetta, the hotel's resident dog, felt about this was not recorded.

Sitting around not doing much at Falgars is quite addictive and a couple of hours had soon passed, playing with dogs and kittens. We were even becoming quite hungry, despite the mound of olives consumed by CC. We were staying on a half-board basis, it being rather impractical to drive to the nearest restaurant and if you fancy an alcoholic drink, foolhardy too, so we returned to our room to get ready for dinner.

Our memories of excellent meals at Falgars were justified. We were brought a huge tureen of courgette soup that was much nicer than it sounded and contained about eight servings, followed by pork loin with green beans and a choice of desserts, washed down with a carafe of wine. After dinner it was back outside for a while to listen to a chorus of Tawny Owls calling from many parts of the forest, before a refreshingly early night.
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