Hiking the Pyrenees Day 6

"When you're hiking like this alone, everything is more."
Good morning Albanya!
Narrow streets in Albanya
Stone houses in Albanyà

Albanyà to Sant Aniol d’Aguja (17kms)

I walked into Albanyà at 5:30pm, hot, sweaty and sore. By this stage, my legs were aching and I felt I was about to collapse if I didn't reach my campsite and drop my pack soon. When I see the end of the hike, like coming into town or reaching the place I’m going to stay for the night, I can push myself that little bit extra, giving myself motivation and make it. When I got to Albanyà, I followed the signs to the campsite, as I figured I’d get a real shower and bathroom tonight. The campsite was more than 1km out of town and it was nearly too much for me, my mind and body were starting to give up. Today had been mostly up and I was tired, but I made it to the campsite – as soon as I saw it, I nearly turned back and started walking to La Vajol. I heard the people before I saw them, and there were plenty of them. Cars everywhere in the parking lot, there was a field opposite the main site, and this too was full of vans and tents. I walked into reception, knowing this was a bad idea – not just the fact that the Covid pandemic was still going on, but also because it was so noisy I didn’t think I’d be able to get any sleep. Hikers go to bed early so they can get plenty of rest and then start early – first to bed and first on the trail was my motto. Anyway, a bit of Wi-Fi and civilisation never hurt anyone, right? Wrong. It was just over €20 a night for 1 person and a tent, which I think is outrageous considering all you’re doing it taking up a 4m² piece of ground. There was Wi-Fi, which was pretty much the only saving grace, and a bar. Mask on, I walked to the tent area, trying to avoid the large crowds of French, German and Spanish tourists running, playing sports and generally mixing and making a lot of noise. I found the quietest place I could, I set up my tent, changed clothes and went to the bar for a beer. The service was terrible but my ice cold beer finally came out. It didn’t last long and I wasn’t comfortable sitting at the bar area, which backed onto the swimming pool. The pool was very crowded too – I was hoping for a swim, but there was a ‘waiting list’ to get in. It was far too covidy anyway. I waited for the waiter to come back so I could pay, but he never did, nor could I find anyone else. I walked off, doing what they call in Spain a ‘sinpa,’ or ‘sin pagar’ (no pay). I didn’t feel guilty. A band had just got up on the stage, adding to the cacophony, and I knew it was way past leaving time.

The old church
Sant Pere d'Albanyà
Only up today!
Careful where you step

I left the campsite that shall remain nameless, even though it supposedly had a good name and reputation in the area (maybe because it was the only campsite here). I trudged back into the village, hoping to get something hot to eat and some peace and quiet away from the holiday hordes. It was just too damn noisy after nothing but me and the silence of the mountains for days. It was even hard talking to people at this point, like I was out of practice making words. To be honest, sometimes I go a whole weekend without talking to anyone, and don’t mind it at all. The village of Albanyà is small, but the centre is very beautiful with its stone square and church. There were 2 bars in town, one closed for some unknown reason, the other had terrible service. I sat down and asked for a beer and some bravas. I waited 10 minutes for the beer and 40 for the potatoes – I did talk to the staff, but they were useless. The first excuse was that they had a big reservation (the bar was nearly empty though) and couldn’t do any food. I proposed some tapas, nice and simple, and they agreed. Then after 15 minutes I asked about my food, and they replied that they had to turn the oil on. 30 minutes later, the waiter said he’d check with the kitchen. I finally got my food and a second beer, but I wasn’t happy. So far this place was shit – I was happy to leave in the morning. The table next to me had a couple there, drinking pints and shots, smoking and listening to shitty music on their phones. I would have asked them to tone it down a little, but the guy was red-faced and drunk, and I thought against it. Sometimes you just have to put up with crap. I went to collect my phone, which was at 3%, and discovered that they couldn’t even charge a phone properly, so it remained at 3%. I paid up, told them I wasn’t happy with the service (to which they didn’t apologise for) and went back to camp, trying to block out the noise and crowds still playing paddle, splashing in the pool, and generally just annoying me. I ran into David, the hiker from this morning, and he was camping next to the river. In hindsight, that probably would have been better, and definitely cheaper. We had a quick chat and said we’d meet upon the trail the next day.

The Refuge of Bassegoda and our lunch spot
Up to 1,400m today
Stone houses in the middle of nowhere
House in the mountains

I was up early and feeling very refreshed, which was a surprise. I must have been exhausted as I fell asleep as soon my head hit the pillow and didn’t wake up till it was 6am. My legs had recovered and felt like new, and even my back and shoulders were good. Some nights I did go to bed worried, thinking that I’d sprained a muscle or something, and that I’d have to cancel the trip, but I was lucky throughout the whole trip. I left the campsite under a beautiful sunrise. I stopped in the middle of the complex to appreciate the sight and take some pics, before leaving via the main gate with no intentions of ever coming back. I’m not sure where David was, I didn’t see him as I passed the river and started the morning uphill leg. I stopped for breakfast after about 2 hours, as I like to walk and wake up a bit before I stuff myself with muesli. I was very happy with this morning's progress – I’d hiked uphill constantly for 2 hours and made 6kms. Only 11kms more to go! Shortly after finishing breakfast and packing up, David came charging up the road. We ended up hiking for the better part of the day together, chatting about the GR and other unrelated things. I guessed he was in his 50s, but you probably wouldn't believe it as he had tanned skin and was just pure wiry strength. He told me that he is never in a hurry to leave in the mornings; I found out that sometimes he left half an hour after me but always seems to catch up, and not seem tired at the pace. I quickly realised that this man was an awesome hiker – fit, strong, knowledgeable and experienced. So far I was very proud of myself, physically and mentally. I’d tanned and toned up, my legs were looking half respectable after such a long confinement. The bag was getting easier and more comfortable to carry and although every day was tough, I was making it and getting into a good rhythm. Remember that 21kms is a half marathon and I was doing between that and 30kms nearly every day, fully loaded with everything I needed for the hike. I felt like a Roman soldier, as they had to carry everything for battle - pilum, armour and shield - as well as various other tools for the camp. The average Legionary is thought to have carried between 30 and 45kgs while marching for up to 30kms a day. Although I complained a little, I was nowhere near this - that and I never had to fight anyone at the end of it.

The view was all mountains today
Puig de Bassegoda
Backpacks at rest
The Refugee de Sant Aniol d'Aguja

David and I stopped for lunch together, after hiking for nearly 2.5 more hours and climbing up over 1,000m for the first time on the trail. From here on in I knew it would just be getting higher and higher. When I got my fuet, bread, peanut butter and water out, thinking what a feast I had, David offered coffee, tea and even chocolate! We sat at the Refugi de Bessagoda for a good hour, enjoying coffee and things that I never thought to pack due to weight and environmental issues (melting chocolate, squashed bananas etc). I don’t know where he had room for all these things – he had a tent, sleeping roll, hiking poles and all this food – he even had an umbrella! He swore it was useful but I thought it a bit ridiculous (but didn’t say). His bag must have weighed a tonne! David also told me that he was a tour leader on hiking trips, and that he’d done plenty of hiking, including the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. He also told me that he’d been unemployed since the pandemic, as tourism is pretty much non-existent now as there hadn’t been any foreign travel for months. He’d decided get out and do some hiking, just like me. He started from Cap de Creus on the Tuesday, just like me, but he always seemed just a little bit ahead – leaving later but arriving earlier. I’m really happy that we met – it was good talking to someone who loved to hike, and although we talked, he was a man of few words, but all of them meaningful and wise. Something he said to me while we were having lunch together really struck a chord and I won’t soon forget it: “When you're hiking like this alone, everything is more: when you relax you really relax, when you drink water it tastes amazing, when you eat everything tastes better.” I couldn’t agree more – this chocolate was the best I’d ever had, even if it was melting in my hands, and when I drank my water, it was the best, most refreshing taste in the world. I also knew that this experience, hiking the GR-11, was for me and me alone. Although I liked sharing experiences, travelling with someone, a road trip or even a day hike, I felt this was what I’d been wanting to do for years, and I was happy doing it alone.

A picturesque day
Moss on trees
The Sant Aniol river
The suspension bridge

David and I set off together, but I quickly lagged behind. I stopped to take photos here and there, which sometimes was a cover story for having to stop and get my breath back to be honest. It was still all uphill, as it had been all morning, and my heart was beating away like a congo drum. This was a good workout today! It was zigzagging up on the side of a mountain, and parts were very rocky, with loose rocks that were a little too much like scree for me. I had to be very careful, as I was back-heavy, a little tired of leg, and if I fell I’d go right down to the bottom! The views were amazing though. I was hiking around the base of Bassegoda at about 1,100m. I did come to a junction, which would take me to the peak of this mountain, but by this stage I just wanted to stop. Finally, after some time of going up, it levelled out and started going down – from 1,100m at the trails highest today down to 440m at Sant Aniol d'Aguja, my place of rest for today. I came into Sant Antoli around 4pm after descending for and hour and a half along a path with lose rocks covered in leaves. I nearly fell a few times here and really didn’t want to twist my ankle. I made it ok and in one piece, but when I did get there I was a little shocked at what I found. Before I actually saw the church, I ran into loads of tourists, most heading in the opposite direction to me. No surprises here, but they were loud and they were many. They’d just come to see the waterfalls here and were making their way back to the carpark, which wasn’t far away. They had no shirts on, girls with bikinis on and flip flops, some of the guys with just speedoes (swimming trunks) on, loud portable speakers and every group had a dog or two as well. In Spain they have a name for people like this, who drive to somewhere a little remote and then ruin it with noise and numbers – they’re called pisapins or excursionistas, and they don’t travel in small, quiet groups either. I got to the refugi and dumped by bag. The area was still full of people, but they were leaving, so I figured that within an hour to an hour and a half, I’d have to whole place to myself. There was no sign of David though – maybe he’d kept going to avoid this mob, as he did have a knack of avoiding crowds.

Sunset on Bassegoda
The 10th century church
Sant Aniol d'Aguja
My camp for the night

The monastery of Sant Aniol d'Aguja was founded by Benedictine monks in the 9th century, the first abbot getting permission from the Frankish King Charles the Bald. The building that you see dates back from the 10th century; it’s very small and secluded, which adds to its beauty and mystery. When I got here, there was no peace – the crowds of pisapins were everywhere. To get to the small church you need to cross a short suspension bridge, and these monkeys were bouncing around on it, taking selfies, yelling and carrying on, even though there was a sign that stated that “this is a bridge, not an attraction.” There wasn’t a stated limit to how many people were allowed on it, but I waited till some of the kids got off before I crossed. I bided my time for a bit, had a snack and waiting for most of these people to leave before heading to see the waterfall myself. I wasn’t sure what was waiting for me, but I got changed for swimming and grabbed a towel. A short 3 minute walk and I was there – now I know why everyone comes here. The water of the basin was a deep green colour and the whole pool was shrouded by the surrounding forest. It was like a secret spa hidden in the mountains. There was a small waterfall, and as fast as it was flowing, it seemed not to disturb the water that much. I slipped in, instantly feeling the freezing water reach up from my toes, shooting its way up to my heart and lungs, which both nearly stopped working all together. Stifling a cry, I quickly swam out a bit to where I could dunk my head under and came back up feeling a little more accustomed to the cold. I made my way to the waterfall for a quick shower and back massage, but found the water was coming down so strongly that it was impossible to stay there long without drowning! It wasn’t long before I had to get out though, as it was so cold my arms had started to get stiff. I laid in the sun and enjoyed the feeling of blood returning to my extremities, along with the silence as I was the only one here now. Finally! When I got back to camp, David rocked up. He told me that he’d put his backpack down and then charged up the peak of Bassegoda! What an animal! We set up camp and chatted while we made our respective meals. I found out that David is 56, but he’s in very good shape. His uncle has hiked nearly all of the Pyrenees and his younger brother runs tours along the Pacific Crest Trail. The mountains run in their blood, that’s for sure. We had dinner, drank the cool water of the fountain and chilled out before going to bed. What a day it had been – a tough day hiking and even the guide says ‘considerable difficulty owing to the length and ascent’, so I was happy to have accomplished it. What a pleasure it was that we got to camp, just the two of us, in this absolutely stunning location. This is what it’s all about.

Extremely cold but beautiful
Sant Aniol d'Aguja - a magical place.

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. July 2020.

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