At the edge of civilization: Torla and the Pyrenees

Rick Steves missed this one on his best of Europe list. The tiny Pyrenean-style stone village of Torla, Spain has quickly become one of my favorite places in the world.  Torla is tucked away from civilization in a glacial valley in the Spanish province of Aragón and was quite appropriately chosen as one of Europe’s 10 Coziest Mountain Villages, managing to retain its sleepy hamlet charm despite an influx of tourists in the summer. Its popularity stems mainly from its prime location as part of the  larger Ordesa-Viñamala UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the nearest town to the stunning Ordesa y Monte Perdido Natural Park, a tranquil mountain paradise of carved valleys, pine forests, and tremendous waterfalls.

I was driving to Torla from Bilbao, about 4 hours to the west, but there are shorter routes from Pamplona (2 hours),  Zaragosa (2 hours), and Barcelona (3.5 hours).  I began my drive at 5am under an ominously overcast sky. In Geneva the sun would have already woken me, but as I drove the sky only seemed to grow darker until it soon began to rain. I continued down the long, gloomy stretch of highway from Bilbao towards Pamplona until the road began to climb steeply, snaking up and around the mountains into a grey abyss. By 7am, still with no sign of sunrise, my stomach began to growl. I pulled into a tiny a gas station in hopes of finding some breakfast and coffee and took a seat on a stool at the small bar next to a few of the regulars -bikers and truckers passing through. I instantly forgot all my worries about the weather as the bartender, a tough looking young woman with tattoos peeking out from under her black cutoff tee, brought me a freshly-baked chocolate croissant, perfect espresso, and a big glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. All for 5 euro. My love for Spain newly avowed, I shook my head in amazement and took the mini back on the road.

Around 8am a single ray of light pierced through the clouds, illuminating a hilltop to my left.  An hour later, the sky had cleared and the clouds seemed like a distant memory. A warm sunny day has a way of instantly transforming the world into a place where anything is possible. Combined with the uniquely thrilling feeling of going on a solo adventure into the unknown, this was about to erupt into a day of hiking like no other.

Resisting the urge to pull over and take pictures every 5 minutes, I arrived in Torla’s charming maze of narrow streets of  by 10am. I checked-in to the fabulous Albergue Monte Perdido guesthouse, slathered myself in sunscreen, and was back out the door by 11am with strict instructions on the best plan for my day from the adorable caretaker, a Spanish version of my Oma. She sent me straight down the road to the Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, Spain’s first protected area and an undisputed highlight of the Pyrenees. From there, she told me to walk to the end of the parking lot and then keep walking straight onto the trail, and do not stray from it. Plans made, all I had left to do was find some snacks to power me through a full day of hiking. To my relief there a small restaurant on one side of the parking lot as I pulled in offering enormous cheese sandwiches for the trail.

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Feeling invincible now with my water and food, I decided the clincher would be to find a map, so I ducked into the information office just before the trailhead. While reviewing the map, I overheard the ranger explaining his favorite hike to the couple in front of me – it sounded incredible. The couple was wearing flip-flops and bathing suits and I felt confident that if they could survive the hike, I should have no problem. As they left, I asked the ranger about my original hike – straight out to towards the 3355m limestone summit of Monte Perdido in the centre of the park and back again, 3 hours each way. He said it was pretty, but I could tell his heart lay elsewhere so I asked if he could explain the hike he had just recommended to the flip-flop couple. His eyes lit up, but then he looked around skeptically and asked if I was hiking alone? I said I was, and he told me the trail was too steep to do alone. I clarified that the directions were very easy to follow, and his concern was the physical demands of the hike. I made him draw out the path anyway, a 22km, 8-9 hour hike that climbed straight up the valley wall and then slowly descended again to meet the other trail under Monte Perdido before heading back along the valley floor. A loop around the entire valley sounded too good to pass up, and as the longest day of the year there was no fear of it growing dark before I finished. I stared out over the river where the trails diverged, and after a short internal debate I decided to go for it, making sure to stick closely to the flip-flops ahead of me, and commited to turning around if at any point I felt unsafe.

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I found myself in the middle of three other groups of hikers, a lovely bunch of Spaniards who were more than happy to keep track of me as one of their own. The climb was steep, a series of constant switchbacks leading straight up, but compared to the sheer cliffs of the Swiss trails this felt comfortable. Just over an hour later, we reached the top. A beautiful lookout platform capped one edge of the plateau with breathtaking views stretching down each side of the valley. The hard part of was over and the rest of the trail was a slow downhill slope to the valley floor.

The sun was high overhead and it felt gloriously hot in contrast to Geneva, where I had been wearing a jacket to work every day leading up to the trip. As I made my way along the narrow dirt trail it felt like I was walking through a slideshow of hikers’ dreams, flipping from dramatic views, to pine forests carpeted with a rainbow of wildflowers, to turquoise waterfalls flowing into a glacial river, to herds of cows grazing in boulder-strewn fields…Ordesa quickly became one of my favorite places in the entire world.

In the midst of the flowers I sat down and pulled out my cheese baguette. Looking around, I noticed that almost every rock was draped with a human basking like a cat in the sun, expressing my sentiments exactly – this was heaven. A while late, with the full strength of my willpower, I continued on and began the descent to the valley floor, catching glimpses along the way of the robin’s egg blue river stretching out far below. The final 100 meters of the trail led across a beautiful grassy meadow studded with boulders, before joining a path that followed the river back to the parking area.  As I approached the meadow I began to notice that some of the boulders were moving…it turned out that many of the boulders were actually mother cows and their calves, slowly grazing their way across the meadow and completely oblivious to us-it was like I’d never left Switzerland! I watched the group in front of me choosing between their desire for cow selfies or safety, eventually settling on the latter and carefully picking their way through the widest openings. I followed their lead.

On the other side of the cows was a beautiful waterfall gushing from under Monte Perdido and flowing into the crystal clear blue river. Hypnotized by the beauty of my surroundings, I found a warm flat rock at the edge of the stream, stripped off my socks and boots, and succumbed to mother nature, the sun caressing my face and icy water bathing my feet, completely at peace with the world and myself.

Some time later, with great reluctance, I peeled myself off my rock and slowly put on my boots, imagining the 3 hour hike back to the pradera. And once again I was blown away by the scenery, equally as spectacular as the views from up above but completely different. An immaculate stone path led me along one side of the river while waterfalls poured down all sides of the mountain creating a network of small streams that flowed under and around me until they found their way to the river. The path changed to a wide dirt trail that wove in and out of breathtaking viewpoints along the edge of spectacular waterfalls. The open fields became pine forests, the trail now covered in soft pine needles with a gentle dappled light coming through the canopy. I followed this stretch all the way back to the pradera.

One of the best feelings in life is the satisfaction of reaching the end of a physically exhausting experience and the anticipation of a reward. My reward was to spend the evening in Torla relaxing with some wine and home-cooking in one of the traditional taverns. After a heavenly hot shower, I wandered through town to inspect the menus del dia posted on the walls outside each restaurant. In the end, with my eyes already closing, I opted for a casual tapas spot and collapsed into a chair while the waiter brought me a frosty mug of beer and massive pile of Aragonese salad, a local speciality that includes just about everything one could imagine – lettuce, tomato, egg, asparagus, corn, cheese, ham, salmon, olives, and a few other surprises. This seemed a fitting end to a wonderful journey. Feeling like a cat who just caught a mouse, I crossed the street back home to my room and fell into a deep contented sleep.

 

 

 

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