Taull and Ainsa, Spain
Time to move on, we headed inland past Barcelona and north to the Spanish Pyrenees. The Pyrenees is a range of mountains in southwest Europe that forms a natural border between Spain and France. Reaching a height of 3,404m/11,168ft altitude at the peak of Aneto, the range separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of continental Europe and extends for about 491km/305miles from the Bay of Biscay (Atlantic Ocean) to the Mediterranean Sea.
What a change in the weather! By the time we got to the Pyrenees it was 14C\57F and we were wearing our t-shirts, shorts and flip flops! Big change from the temperatures we had been experiencing on Costa Brava, France and Italy!
What a special place the Pyrenees turned out to be. Not that we didn't think it would be great, we just didn't know what quite to expect. Firstly, the Spanish Pyrenees mountains remind us a bunch of the Canadian Rockies. Very dramatic and rugged looking with beautiful aqua-blue lakes full of ice-cold water from the snow melt run off.
We drove by these wonderful lakes and ended up a major dam that was suppling water to all of them. The Presa de Escales was built in 1955 and holds water back from the Noguera Ribagorzana River. The dam is quite impressive with a height of 125m/410ft and 200m/656ft long. It is one of the larger dams in Spain and is at an altitude of 823m/2700ft.
Our first stay in the Pyrenees was in the village of Taull which has a population of 262 people, easily five times that number if you count all the cows! Taull was about a 4-hour drive from Palafrugell, (not including stops at the famous Auto-grill truck stops) and we gained about 2000m/6627ft of elevation along the way. It had a great Bavarian feeling with amazing views of the valley that it occupied. It borders one of Spain's National Parks (Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici or roughly translated, park of crooked rivers, as It had over 200 lakes and countless streams). Margo booked a perfect boutique hotel (Hotel Santa Maria Relax), recently renovated old stone building with exposed rustic beams and a slate roof. It had a very homey feel and awesome food! Paco and Sonja have poured their hearts into this oasis in the mountains!
Taull is also home to two outstanding UNESCO-listed Catalan Romanesque churches, Santa Maria de Taull and Sant Climent de Taull which has a 7-story bell towered that we climbed to the top for amazing views.
The area was filled with amazing hike trails. We studied the hiking map, got some expert advice from the National Park rangers and decided on trail along the river of Sant Nicolau. It was a beautiful 4.5-hour round trip hike that took us to two picturesque lakes, a wonderful waterfall and of course cows with big bells around their necks! We also enjoyed lunch in one of Spain's Refugee cabins. These cabins are like the back-country cabins that the Alpine Club manages in Canada or the 10th Mountain Division cabins in Colorado. Spain does an amazing job of protecting its National Parks. One of the most significant ways they protect them is not allowing any private vehicles to drive into the parks, so we had to bus up to the trail head. It was all well worth it!
We of course had to check out the local ski area called Boi Taull. It has 15 lifts and 52 pistes (runs). I am sure it looks much different in the winter. We had a chance to wonder around the ski area and saw the summer interns mowing the lawn!
I needed a wake-up break on the way to our next destination, so we stopped for a short hike up to a little old church and back.
Our next stop was the medieval hilltop town of Ainsa, a couple of hours west of Taull. From the top, we had commanding panoramas of the Pyrenees mountains, particularly the rock bastion of La Pena Montanese. The hotel we chose was in the middle of Ainsa's ancient square, right in the thick of the action! After getting to know the manager of the hotel, she gave us a tour of the property and explained that many of the of restaurants and hotels on the square were private residences in early 1900s. This included the hotel we were staying at. She then gave us a tour of the basement which is a bodega (wine cellar). In the bodega there is a large vessel made of stone (the size of a small car) where grapes were dumped (through the ceiling, from upstairs outside) and then the owners would stomp on the grapes to start of making wine. This was a very common practice for families to make large quantities of wine in their basement, nothing like that going on in my basement when we were kids!
With the Pyrenees at our doorstep we had to seek out an adventure to burn off some of the calories from the amazing food we had been indulging in! We had an hour drive to the trail head, which we both thought was the highlight of the day! Check out the narrow single lane road pictures below. The Anisclo canyon hike was nice as well. It was 6 hours round trip and ran along the Anisclo canyon with great views of waterfalls, creeks and sheer mountain cliff walls all around you. The entire hike was also in a National Park, specifically Parque National de Ordesa Y Mont Perdido. Mont Perdido (Lost Mountain) is the 3rd tallest mountain in the Pyrenees standing at 3,355m/11,007ft.
The drive to the trailhead:
On the way home from the hike we stopped at Fanlo, an ancient hilltop village with a magnificent view, with very interesting rock formations on the way:
Unfortunately, we had no views of Mont Perdido on our canyon hike, so we needed to set our next day’s hike to an area that would give us views of this beast of mountain here in Spain. We set out on a 3-hour round trip to hike of the Llamos La Larri to enjoy views of Perdido. We hiked up next to streams and raging waterfalls and then took a different route down through shaded meadows. The views of Mont Perdido did not disappoint, it was a giant from where we stood!
The famous Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) runs across the top of Spain from France, ending in Santiago de Compostela (northwestern Spain, just above Portugal), where the tomb of St. James the Apostle lies. We have crossed the trail several times in our visit to the Spanish Pyrenees. For believers it’s a pilgrimage equal to visiting Jerusalem. The trek is 775 km/482 miles from Roncesvalles on the border with France, so is a physical challenge as well as a spiritual goal. If you haven’t seen it, check our Martin Sheen’s movie “The Way”, where he travels to France to retrieve the body of his estranged son, who died on the pilgrimage. Martin ends up doing the journey himself, to understand both himself and his son. It’s a good show and has spectacular scenery of northern Spain. We plan to hike one part of the Camino while in San Sebastián (next stop) and visit Santiago in September (by car!)
Foodie Alert! Our “last supper” in the Pyrenees was described as a “gastronomic theatre” at a restaurant right on our square called Callizo. 22 courses, give or take! Yes, really. Some were just a mouthful but each one was amazing!
The show started with us in the wine cellar with us joining two other couples, one from Barcelona and one from Toulouse, which is just over the border in France. We were gathered around a large table, which was like a big television screen showing illuminated images of local food, landscape and architecture on the tabletop, ending with a place setting when we were being served (not real dishes)! Who thinks of this stuff? I will describe some of the more interesting dishes or at least interesting in how they were presented. We started with cold garlic soup and smoked paprika paired with a delightful local Macavo white wine.
This was followed by radiquero cheese, that was served in the shape of burnt candles on the candle labra, it looked just like burnt out candle, but tasted awesome!
We then ventured to the kitchen where we enjoyed cava (Spanish champagne) with a unique presentation of gold "per se" sturgeon caviar and lemon perfumed, on our hand! It was served this way because the body has a perfect temperature to be serving the caviar and yes you could smell the lemon perfume! Margo said she didn't even think she liked caviar; this could become a very costly habit for her. Also, notice the chef’s name on his jacket "Magoo", yes, we trusted chef Magoo to prepare our special dinner!
We then headed over to our dinner to feast on copious more courses. It included, the presentation of the "bread of Ainsa", felt a little like we were in church!
Then we got down to business with glazed pork belly with oyster sauce, followed by sweet salad and bitter spice with turnips and beetroot, with a little dry ice for added drama!
Had to have more veggie's and it came in the way of a soup, vigil vegetable soup with chickpeas from Lierta, long almonds and a Benabarre saffron followed by "Magras con Tomato" lean tomato served on a rather interesting plater!
Where's the meat? Next it was wild rice with grilled squab and mushrooms and then juicy Valle de Chistau lacquered lamb! Delicious!
Ok we are ready to explode but wait there is more! Down to the cellar for 4 courses of cheese! One of the cheeses was wrapped in cotton candy and was sitting in a pine tree.....that is how I always serve my cheese!
It was time to waddle upstairs to our table and call it a night, or so we thought! We arrived back to our table that was covered with a piece of parchment type paper, I thought we might be heading for some doodling with crayons and our coffee, that was not the case. The presentation began of their version of "Crepillos" which is a local dish made of borage leaves, almonds, aniseed, coffee and of course chocolate! Judy, one of our servers started by applying different types of fruit sauce and honey in several abstract designs on the paper around the chocolate vase holding all the ingredients noted above. She had added some dry ice to the chocolate vase which froze the chocolate solid and added some effect with smoke rising out of the vase! With detailed instructions from Judy, Margo lifted the chocolate vase about a foot of the table and dropped so it would shatter on the paper and all the contents would explode all over the fruit sauces and honey! Then we had to go to work to devour all the contents on the paper. It was difficult work, but we knew what signed up for and did our best to clean things up!
Patrice, the gentlemen from France asked us if we would join him and his wife and the couple from Barcelona for petit fours and coffee. What the heck, we had been there for 3 hours, let’s keep this party going! We enjoyed chatting all be it mainly through Google Translate as none of the couples spoke each other’s language (French, Spanish, English), it was a blast! Yes, that is cotton candy hanging from the light fixture!
What an amazing experience with delicious food, great wines and wonderful company!
We caught a few hours of sleep before we packed up and headed to San Sebastián the next morning. It was a fast 5 days in the Spanish Pyrenees, but well worth the diversion, especially our “last supper”.
And finally, the pooches of the Pyrenees. We met Noosa in Aínsa, who was named after a town on the east coast of Australia in Queensland and had travelled from the Netherlands to Spain for vacation. We told her owners that Margo had been to Noosa many years ago when Suncor had operations in the area, and that “Noosa” was also a great yogurt made in Colorado! Vinny was the king of his corner, everyone walked around him. Good thing it was cool as he had quite a coat. Bamba was one cool pup and had his own van!