The remote trails of the Andorran Pyrenees have seen refugees, smugglers and spies pass through the mountains. Today, the challenging Crown of Lakes circuit is opening up the area to hardy hill walkers.
By Joly Braime
The joke goes that Andorra is one part Shangri-La, one part Heathrow Airport. Set in the Pyrenees between Spain and France, this pocket-sized principality has two contrasting personalities. The first is that of an unashamedly brash tax haven and duty-free shopping mecca. Motoring across the border from Spain, you leave the EU customs zone and are immediately greeted by a spooling chain of vast roadside superstores flogging cut-price cigs and booze. Tobacco fields line the humid valley sides, and towns like Encamp and Escaldes-Engordany are an unsightly tangle of high-rise ski hotels and luxury apartments that by rights ought to have seen the town planners shot at dawn. But then you start to walk uphill and Andorra becomes something very special indeed. As one member of our group put it, ‘There’s just nowhere like it in the Pyrenees.’
My own introduction to Andorra’s high country came courtesy of fi ve strenuous days tramping the Coronallacs circuit – a relatively new route that takes in some of the country’s most powerful mountain landscapes. Literally translated as Crown of Lakes, it’s essentially a circumnavigation of this microstate, avoiding the more populous valleys and making tactical use of the charismatic mountain huts that dot the area. Mine was a small-group trip organised by Ramblers Walking Holidays, but you could also tackle the route independently if you’ve got decent Spanish and plenty of hillwalking experience.
These mountains are high, handsome and remarkably empty of people. The slack lift cables, scarred slopes and shuttered kiosks of the ski resorts are confi ned to relatively small areas, and for the most part there’s not another soul in sight – save the occasional marmot bolting for cover. We swam in cool mountain lakes, ate our lunch in wildfl ower meadows and dangled our sore feet in icy streams.
‘You see why I keep coming back,’ smiled Helen, one of our two guides, who’s been leading trips in Andorra for years.
The land of in-between
Andorra is well known for its skiing, but as a destination for summer walking holidays, this majestic area of the Pyrenees still fl ies largely below the radar.
Wedged between Spain and France, Andorra’s status as a border region has been central to its history. In the mid-20th century, waves of refugees crossed in both directions – fi rst Spaniards fl eeing the Spanish Civil War, then people seeking sanctuary in neutral Spain after the Germans invaded France. It was also used by various Second World War resistance networks, and there are plenty of stories of brave-hearted Andorrans guiding vulnerable travellers to safety. Uncomfortably, there are also whispered tales of refugees who picked less scrupulous escorts, and of unmarked graves in the mountains.
As you thread your way along the rugged, sometimes half-invisible trails – trying not to think too much about the vultures wheeling overhead – there’s a haunting feeling that you’re kicking at the boot heels of all those who have travelled these same paths in search of sanctuary. Though, as it happens, not all of them have sought safety – some have just been after a quick buck.
Andorran taxes on naughty things are famously low, and with cigarettes less than half the price of those in Spain or France, there’s good money to be made shifting cartons across the line on the sly.
Interestingly enough, while this cut-price vice is undoubtedly fattening Andorran wallets (both legally and otherwise), it doesn’t seem to be having a corresponding effect on the nation’s arteries. In fact, Andorra has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and the only way I can explain this is that the relentlessly hilly terrain must keep everyone fighting fit.
The only way is up
Andorra has walking routes to suit a range of fitness levels, but it’s worth being clear that the Coronallacs circuit is a challenging jaunt. In five days, we clocked up 92km (57 miles) and a fearsome 6,500m (21,325ft) of ascent. Most days featured a good 10 hours of walking, and some in the group reckoned it was at least as demanding as the Haute Route or the Tour du Mont Blanc.
In a world of plush hotels and baggage transfer vans, walking holidays can be as gentle as you like, and of course that can only be a good thing. All the same, there’s something to be said for genuinely hard tours, and it’s grand to see companies offering these kinds of trips – particularly when they’re branching out into lesser-known areas.
It’s a curious facet of tougher walks that when your lungs and legs are working hard, the everyday concerns that clutter your mind recede a little and your immediate surroundings come into pin-sharp focus. In the case of the Andorran Pyrenees, that might be the smell of wild thyme crushed under your boot heel, the delicate purple tracery of the marsh orchids by the path, or the calls of the alpine choughs overhead (which I always think sound a bit like the ray guns from Flash Gordon). Even the simplest stew tastes delectable after a long day of taxing ascent, and when you lay your head down on your bunk in the communal dorms, the dreams come easily. Until the snoring starts, that is.
The joys of hutting
‘I didn’t sleep much last night,’ said one group member drowsily, reaching for a breakfast roll at the Comapedrosa hut.
‘Oh, yes, you did,’ observed another, breaking into a grin as the snorer put two and two together and clapped their hand over their eyes in embarrassment.
I hadn’t been hutting in years, and I’d forgotten how easily people rub along when they need to. The asceticism of huts feels somehow appropriate in these high, remote places, and you have to make friends fast when you’re packed in eight to a dorm. Each ‘refugi’ on the Coronallacs was different, from the smart, Scandi-style new-build of the Refugi de l’Illa to the isolated Juclà shelter, where a handwritten sign in the dimly lit dining room proclaimed in Spanish, ‘There’s no Wi-Fi. Talk to each other instead.’
As we arrived at the huts at the end of each day’s walking, we’d generally start by stretching out in the open air with boots off and cold beers in hand. Dinners were served at long wooden tables and usually consisted of thick vegetable soups, followed by rich, oily meat stews and carafes of rough red wine.
One of the great pleasures of a group walk is that you get to share stories of everyone’s adventures, and you discover that the people sitting around you have all kinds of useful expertise in subjects like history, botany and geology.
Even if you don’t know anything at all about rocks (I don’t, as it happens), you can’t help noticing the frequent changes going on under your feet as you walk the Coronallacs trail. The look and feel of the terrain is forever shifting, and an obliging geologist in the group explained that this is because Andorra is in the Axial Zone of the Pyrenees, meaning that it displays folded geology.
The jumble of different rock types, coupled with the constant seesaw of the elevation profile, means the trail is a delight for botanists, too. My favourites were the tall yellow gentians, the dainty purple snowbells peeking from the brown grass at the melt line, and the turban-like yellow flowers of the flamboyant Pyrenean lilies.
One afternoon, as we lolled on the grass after yet another steep climb, our local guide, Spaska, prodded at an alpine pasque flower, its once-delicate white petals now warped into a dry, spiky seedhead. ‘I find this flower is like life itself,’ she said, wistfully. ‘When you are young, you are beautiful, and then one day you are like this.’
A challenging walk in the Pyrenees is full of these profound little moments, and the Coronallacs circuit is one of the best trips I’ve done in ages. The long days and fierce elevation profile mean it’s not for everyone, but if you’re hill-fit and up for an adventure, then this extraordinary route might be just what you’re looking for.
The Coronallacs trail is a five-day route, covering 92km (57 miles) in the Andorran mountains. Four nights end at staffed huts. Independent travellers need to book huts and meals in advance. You can fly into Barcelona or Toulouse.
Ramblers Walking Holidays (01707 331133, ramblersholidays.co.uk/andorra-mountain-trek) offers the Andorra Mountain Trek package from £1,360 per person (next tour leaves 24 July), including return flights to Barcelona, minibus transfers and six nights’ full-board in hotels/ mountain huts.