5. Salardu to La Seu d'Urgell
Salardu lies to the north of a vast wilderness in the centre of which sits the Parc Nacional d'Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, a car free idyll of peaks, lakes and woodland. We were rather taken by the idea of this traffic free national park - the town of Espot appeared to be the nearest point of entry so we set off. The road climbed steeply through a succession of ski resorts until we reached the Port de la Bonaigua. We parked up and after chatting briefly to a pair of British motorcyclists (who had, needless to say, enjoyed their ride over from Santander) we decided to climb the ridge to south of the col. There wasn't much of a path and we soon found ourselves scrambling over clumps of heather and gorse. At the top the immediate view was across the a secluded valley - an enticing glimpse perhaps of the terrain between Salardu and Aiguestortes. In the distance snow topped peaks completed the picture - overall though it was slightly disappointing, and we wondered whether we were suffering from mountain view fatigue, as it didn't seem worth the 30 minute climb. We stumbled back down to the car and continued on our way.
It soon became apparent that in our search for a view we must have been looking in the wrong direction: the view east was amazing - and not just the view, the road itself (the C142) was a work of art! It really has no right to be there, as it climbs up what appears to be a vertical granite wall at the head of the valley - like most of the roads we encountered in the Spanish Pyrenees it is actually quite wide but it is dwarfed by the scale of the valley. It must have taken a serious amount of engineering to get the road up to Bonaigua - the switchbacks seem to go on forever.
Espot is a pleasant tourist town that sits to the east of Aigues Tortes and which, despite its main business, still manages a rustic charm, mainly as a result of the ancient (and apparently working) barns that cling to the hill behind the main street. We arrived in time for a late lunch, a ludicrously cheap meal memorable chiefly for the superb goat herders soup I had (one of those thin garlic laced soups the Spanish do so well) and the wild boar stew that Antony had. I say this meal was memorable but Antony may not recall it so well as the meal came with a litre jug of wine and seeing as I was driving, he set about polishing the thing off.
A further 3km up the road is as far as private cars can get although jeep taxis can continue into Aigues Tortes. We followed the trail (which is actually part of the GR11 long distance path), initially alongside a river, then through dense woodland which offered occasional glimpses of the peaks to the south. It was easy walking (after Antony's lunchtime exploits it needed to be) and alongside the path notice boards pointed out some of the more interesting wildlife of the park. We were rather taken by the desman, a web footed, snorkel nosed mole that eats fish and lives at 1800 metres. Unsurprisingly they are rarely seen. We finally emerged alongside the blue waters of Estany de Sant Maurici. What we saw of the park was stunning, the rugged snowy crags, cascades, rivers and forest are beautiful and it was with some reluctance that we returned to the car.
It was a pleasant drive to Le Seu d'Urgell (hereinafter referred to 'Le Seu') in the early evening and the scale of the Spanish Pyrenees continued to impress: we passed through a pair of steep sided canyons carrying some fearsome looking rivers (rafting seems a popular pastime) and crossed yet another watershed. It was about 8pm when we arrived in the tree lined Passeig de Joan Brudieu, slightly startled by the change from strong sunlight to dappled shade - the plane trees cunningly trained to roof the wide avenue. The Rough Guide had been very good with its recommendations for accommodation up until this point but they surpassed themselves with the Hotel Andria which sits in its own quiet courtyard just off of the Passeig, ivy clinging to the walls, cracked marble floors, paint flaking off the shutters... the 1950's AA sign hanging outside sums the place up. We spent the evening in a selection of Le Seu's bars sampling the beers (we found somewhere selling Leffe!) and tapas, concluding the evening at about 1 am in a tiny bar whose proprietress didn't seem too bothered by the presence of her small daughter. It was surely a school night - ahh those crazy Spanish hours!