Earlier this year, Chris was in an accident that totaled his car (RIP, Subie) and left him grappling with physical therapy for months. We had made plans to backpack around the national parks in North & South Dakota, which had to be abandoned after his physical therapist recommended he “take it easy.” Easier said than done for Chris, especially as our two week vacation loomed closer.
After we heard the news, we decided to find a place where we could take in some scenery and escape the crowds, but that was still fairly flat and accessible for Chris. As soon as he suggested Europe, I was completely on board. Within days we had our tickets booked to Barcelona.
The Pyrenees mountains are the dividing line between France & Spain. Along this rocky border lie multiple national parks and quaint ski towns. We were also really interested in the culture of the area: there are clearly influences of years of Spanish and French rule, but also the very different regions of Basque and Catalonia that are nestled across country lines. There are more than four official languages spoken in this area, but we definitely recommend some limited working knowledge of at least Spanish and/or French. Another feature of the Pyrenees are the multiple coast-to-coast trails that weave through the mountains and villages. The most popular, the Camino de Santiago, is a religious pilgrimage that draws hikers from around the world.
Leg one: Barcelona > Jaca
We boldly decided to rent a car for our two weeks in the Pyrenees armed only with a Michelin guide to navigate with. The first day of our journey took us from the Barcelona airport to the sleepy town of Jaca. In the winter, Jaca is a bustling ski town but in the summer, it’s a quiet refuge for travelers along the Camino and a small community of locals. We quickly fell in love with the Spanish pace of late mornings, afternoon siestas, and dinners at 11:00 pm. The food was INCREDIBLE. We ate enough pan con tomate and pulpo a la gallega to feed us for ten lifetimes.
Near Jaca was the Parc Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido. To get to the park, we drove into the small town of Torla and hopped on a coach bus that would take us the rest of the way. Cars aren’t allowed on the roads because they can only fit one vehicle at a time. Bus drivers correspond on radios and coordinate their placements to make sure everyone gets in and out of the park safely. There were a few times I looked out the window and couldn’t believe how close we were to the edge of a cliff.
Once in the park, we hopped on the main trail that everyone else seemed to be taking. Armed with a free map in Spanish and enough snacks for the day, we made our way up a gently sloping trail. For miles we followed a row of waterfalls until we finally reached a spectacular view of the cliffs of Ordesa.
Another morning we woke up and decided to explore the Camino de Santiago, as we saw the trademark seashell markers in town and knew it must be nearby. We drove a few miles north to the town of Biescas, and from there found the official trail, the GR-11. Unfortunately Chris’ injury flared up a couple of miles into our journey and forced us back to the car, but we still got to enjoy some spectacular scenery:
The best part about Torla, the GR-11, and the Parc Nacional was how close we were to Jaca and a home cooked meal at the end of the day. Hiking in Spain in the summer is brutally dry and hot, so it was wonderful after hiking all day to go back to our apartment, shower and rest until the sun went down, and then choose a restaurant on one of Jaca’s side streets to grab an incredible meal (and wine, of course). Spain’s relaxed pace definitely made us feel like we were on vacation.
After a few days in Jaca, we had to say goodbye. We were actually a bit devastated to be leaving that little city behind. The people were so friendly, the food was wonderful, and the scenery was incredible. But we pulled ourselves together and prepared ourselves for the next leg of our trip…. Pamplona!