Walking in southern Catalunya’s Els Ports mountains
Mary describes some of the walking routes in southern Catalunya, an easily accessible area with remarkable diversity and beauty. With a warm climate throughout winter, this region makes an excellent area to escape the UK's rainy weather for a quick break.
I was edging along a ribbon track across a landslide of loose scree stretching away for 400 feet below me. Gingerly, I heel-toe, heel-toed my way across, stepping cautiously, holding my hiking poles aloft to avoid their spikes dislodging any of the small, even stones that felt as if they would slip in a single mass.
After a relentlessly wet London winter, I had been longing for a reliably warm, sunny, mountain hiking trip, without snow, so it was a pleasure to stumble on Cicerone’s ‘Mountain Walking in Southern Catalunya’, which promises exactly that.
Steep streets and the smell of wood smoke told me I was in the right place when I hopped down from the bus. The roads wound uphill at helter-skelter angles, resembling mule paths recently concreted over. It was dark and chilly. At 8pm, there was no one to ask for directions. I couldn’t have been happier. The Catalan pueblo of Paüls was undoubtedly a mountain village in winter.
Paüls lies in the Els Ports mountains, two and a half hours south of Barcelona, easily accessible but little known. Although it tops out at 1442 metres on Mont Caro, the arid limestone massif largely escapes the heavy snowfall that can restrict winter hiking in the Pyrenees, a few hours’ drive to the north. The Parc Natural dels Ports protects the whole massif; its varied landscapes are criss-crossed by three GR long-distance trails – the GR7, GR8, and GR171 – and peppered with refuges. I was there to test it out with a few days of circular walks and day hikes.
Facing the village is the humpbacked Montaspre ridge, ribbed with tiers of pale limestone cliffs and lanced by deep gullies and shining pinnacles. It is Walk 2 in the guidebook written by Philip and Vivien Freakley. Looking up at it, I felt excitement and fear – often the prelude to a good hike – plus the conviction that the Freakleys must be fitter than me.
I set off in sharp winter sunshine, through cherry orchards, already green in March, and olive groves with a few hoary trees, their trunks corkscrewed around empty space.
The road runs between drystone walls to the foot of the ridge, where it bridges a small barranco (ravine). A short walk to the left, a concrete path leads upwards flanked by fields of bare earth and yellowed grass; the tree mix changed from olives to scrub oak and pine as I ascended. Paüls stretched out on the opposite hillside, a handy benchmark to measure altitude gain. After 15 minutes or so, the soft, ochre walls of everyone’s dream mountain farmhouse appeared – lacking running water or electricity, structurally unsound but shaded by a huge Spanish oak, with a small meadow in front. It had a water cistern, surprisingly full, and a stone picnic table with seats for walkers. Nobody easily tempted by foolish real-estate projects should linger here.
From this ruin, the path wound upwards to meet a broad forest track. A few minutes along it, a small cairn on the left indicated a narrow footpath into dense pines.
Any hint of farmland was soon left behind. The track emerged onto a grassy shoulder with cliffs below; miles of pine-spattered limestone ridges stretched eastwards.
Here, I wrongly began to believe that I was nearly at the top.
The Montaspre ridge’s cliffs are like theatre balconies, steeply raked, each one so dramatic it felt as if I must finally be in ‘the gods’.
The col, when it finally came, was a quiet experience after so many steep climbs and dramatic openings, a short stretch of easy path slipping over the top of a low rise.
On the way there, I passed vertical drops, walked under cliffs that would have been sufficiently dramatic on their own, and saw a family of ibex bounding down them, confidently finding a stairway of narrow ledges on descents that would surely kill a human.
Shortly after my traverse of the scree, a jogger in a red vest and black shorts came bouncing lightly towards me, carrying nothing but a water bottle and a bundle of posters. These turned out to be waymarkers for the following weekend’s 120km run, when a couple of hundred people would tackle these twisting paths between cliffs and pound across the scree.
The col opened onto a huge vista of bare limestone and low scrub, with more typically ‘Mediterranean’ views of the plains and sea, completely unlike the well-wooded north side.
Snaking across it, I passed a drinkable water source at Pou Sec (‘dry well’ in Catalan), which was clean and clear. Water is a key concern in these mountains as the limestone terrain means there is often little to be found.
Going slowly on my first day, I was relieved to complete a descent that the guidebook describes as ‘dramatic’ and ‘clever’ in the last hour of daylight.
Walking in Els Ports
Poor phone signal, aridity and isolation all need to be taken into account when walking in Els Ports. All usual mountain-walking precautions apply; there are few villages, and any you do see will be a long way down through rugged – and unreadable – terrain.
I met only four people over the course of the week. What’s more, two of them are mentioned in the guidebook: Margie Laird and Robert Weller, who tested many of the routes. What are the odds on that? Quite high, I suppose, when there is hardly anyone around. Summertime is a different story: the Els Ports fill up, and Paüls is a popular base.
The only real bar to winter walking is the wind, which can be fierce and make the peaks dangerous. But there are plenty of low-level paths on wooded routes, and high winds increase the chance of seeing vultures.
When it’s too windy for the peaks, walkers have two choices. They may opt to go down the coast to the delta of Spain’s biggest river and the bird sanctuaries of the Parc Natural del Delta de l’Ebre. The GR92 coastal path hugs the shore between l’Ametlla de Mar and l’Ampolla (Walk 30 in the guidebook). The delta is a good choice, as long as one gets it right (unlike me) and avoids its bleak centre, a semi-urban flatland of small industrial units prettified with orange trees beside the pavements. Better still is to head to the north side of the range, to Horta de San Joan, where a 16-year-old Picasso spent a year recovering from illness at the home of a friend and fellow student. The story of how the city kid became besotted with sketching rural life is traced in a small museum.
Horta de San Joan
Horta de San Joan is in the Terra Alta, an undulating plateau boasting a network of a dozen waymarked paths that offer blissful walking (or cycling) through a spacious landscape of fields, edged with gorse and pines. Compact hilltop villages every few miles were portrayed in Picasso’s cubist sketches. I ambled out without much of a plan, piecing together a circuit from the excellent signboards, enjoying the easy strolling with an empty mind and admiring scenery as perfect in its way as the dramatic views higher up.
Two magnificent plugs of rock dominate the town: the Roques de Benet, beloved of rock climbers, whose soft colours change hourly; and the pinnacle of San Salvador.
The huge frozen wave of sediment layers tilted upwards at almost 90 degrees is reached across almond groves and scaled by means of a steep climb.
The deserted convent of San Salvador is visible for miles, exerting a magnetic pull on the landscape. Picasso thought it so fine that he promised to restore it as an artists’ retreat if the Republicans won the Civil War. As I stood in the vast portico, a vulture flew past the doorway and more than 20 circled above a nearby ridge.
Vultures are ever present, an exciting feature of the region’s skies; even from a great distance their sheer size is compelling. So when I saw a poster for the vulture feeding station at Observatorio de Aves, Mas de Bunyol, the only question was how to get there. Early in the morning, a taxi took me to a carpark on the outskirts of Valderrobres where I met José Ramón Moragrega. We drove towards the mountains and walked the last 500 metres, before diving into an underground tunnel which serves as the front door of the observatory-cum-guesthouse to avoid disturbing the birds.
Find out more about the Mas de Bunyol vulture observatory.
Numbers vary with the wind: 800 is the most he has ever fed; 300 or 400 is typical. Big carrion birds like vultures have a hard time finding food since 2002 legislation to counter BSE requires farmers to burn or bury carcasses.
A memorable trip
Everything about the Els Ports is a surprise – from the huge vistas, high cliffs and deep crevices in its intricate landscape, to the simple fact that they are there at all. With so many beige patches of mountainous land on maps of Spain, the Els Ports are easily missed. They are well-worth getting to know, remote but not distant, and infinitely varied.
In their book the Freakleys thank, first and foremost, the Catalan walking clubs that maintain and waymark the footpaths, for giving them ‘the confidence to venture into some very steep and complicated terrain’ – sentiments I share and would echo. It only remains to thank the Freakleys for sharing the secrets of the Els Ports in English.