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Alpine Adventure in Isaba, Spain

I’ve always been drawn to Alpine landscapes, starting with a brief stay in the Black Forest of Southern Schwabia, and continuing today with my adopted home in Vermont.  IsabaSo when we were planning a trip to Northern Spain, the Pyrenees just had to be on the list.  The Pyrenees mountain range straddles the border of Spain and France running between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.  Small isolated villages straddle the imaginary border on both sides, and a patchwork of trails meander through many of them.

On the French side, there is a major trail running the whole distance called the GR10, and on the Spanish side, a similar path is called the GR11.  Many other small offshoots of these trails wind through the area as well.  Hiking the full trail requires about a month and a half, and it’s critical to have good maps and guidebooks.  The best guidebooks I found were the Cicerone guides, written by a Paul Lucia, a recently deceased man who spent many years walking and documenting the trails.  These can be hard to find, as they are out of the U.K., and they don’t seem to print many, but the search is worth it.

While it was our original intent to make a multi-day trek along the GR11, several things got in the way.  First, it was too early in the year (early May), and most of the snow was still on the mountain tops,.  Peaks that might have otherwise only required a sturdy pair of boots, would require ice and snow gear as well.  Second, we weren’t there long enough and while there are parts of the trail that lend themselves to village hopping, the section we had targeted didn’t, and we weren’t on holiday long enough to make lugging camping gear worthwhile.

Roncal SheepThus it was that we ended up choosing the less strenuous approach of basing ourselves in the town of Isaba, and doing day trips from there.  Isaba sits at the top of the famous Roncal valley, up a scenic road following the river Balagua through several other small villages (including Roncal, the valley’s namesake), and only a few kilometers from the French Border at Pas d’Arlas.  The town clearly has a thriving tourist trade, with a large parking lot and tons of small pensions called casas rurales offering rooms.  Since this was neither ski season (there is a ski resort at the French border up the road), nor yet high hiking season, it was mostly us and the locals.

Isaba is a charming and romantic village, with narrow cobblestone streets, Alpine style houses with lots of stone walls, exposed beams and brightly adorned flower boxes.  Little bodegas selling wine and staples sit alongside bakeries, butchers and fromageries.  Language and cuisine aside, you could drop this village into Alsace or Bavaria and no one would be the wiser.  We stayed at one of the casas rurales, called Catalangarde, which was perfectly picturesque, had a balcony overlooking the town, and was otherwise well appointed.

The first morning we hiked west out of the town on the GR11, which was well marked, as well as having a detailed map where the path crosses the main road in town.  The trail led through a beautiful mountain church (San Cipriano) and then onto a series of fairly steep switchbacks for several kilometers.  As we neared the top, we turned the corner and before us lay pristine alpine grass meadows dotted with grazing cows, rolling hills, and spectacular views of the snowcapped On the GR11peaks of the Pyrenees in the distance.  I couldn’t imagine a more perfect spot for a picnic of bread, wine and cheese picked up at the shops that morning.  On the way back down, a church service was going on, and while we’re not particularly religious, a local service in such a setting was somehow satisfying.

The next day, we headed up the road by car towards the French Border.  While the pass was actually closed due to snow, we managed to climb pretty close, affording us spectacular views looking back down the valley.   Pastures were dotted with sheep, and farms advertised the famous Queso de Roncal, made fresh just steps from the source.  Our final hike in the area came recommended and was accessed on the road back to Isaba in a “Rest Area” for lack of a better term.  This loop hike only took a few hours, but was flat and afforded great views of the surrounding mountains and countryside.

In the end, our trip to the Pyrenees was as much about relaxing as hiking.  The hiking was breathtaking, and it would definitely be worth spending more time on the trails.  However, the town itself was the star for me, with its medieval charm and character, and a slow pace that’s just part of a daily life in the mountains of Spain.

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