washingtonpost.com

CheapTrek

By Michael H. Brown
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 23, 1998; Page E01

Butterfield & Robinson, which bills itself as the "premier organizer of luxe biking and walking trips," offered a six-day walk in the Pyrenees this summer at a per-person cost of $2,850, excluding air fare. Last summer my wife, teenage daughter and I took a three-week hiking trip to the Pyrenees for a little more than $600 each, or $28 a day--less than 17 times the price of the yuppie hike.

Along with the price tag, of course, the accommodations differed considerably. Butterfield & Robinson promises "genial, family-run country hotels," "Michelin-starred dining" and an omnipresent van to bring in refreshments and carry out purchases. Ours was not a four-star tour. Not even a half star. We slept most nights in a tent, cooked our own food and transported everything on our backs.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the Butterfield & Robinson way of doing the Pyrenees; it sounds great. But we couldn't afford it. Backpacking was not chichi, but it worked for us. And I bet there might be other families out there who would like to experience the beautiful and surprisingly isolated mountains of Spain without paying a pricey tripmeister.

But beware. In addition to cost and comfort, the do-it-yourself approach differs in another way from the organized walking tour. The Butterfield & Robinson Web site assures prospective customers that "we plan each trip as you would plan it yourself, leaving nothing to chance." Last summer in the Pyrenees, chance was our constant companion.

We arrived at the Portella de Baiau--a 9,000-foot pass in the Pyrenees between the principality of Andorra and the Catalunya region of Spain--just in time to be clobbered by hail. It was gray, windy and cold, our second day out, and the climb up the Andorran side of the mountain had left us exhausted. As I looked down into Spain, I could just make out the red-and-white trail markers disappearing over an expanse of wet scree--rocks too small to be stable but big enough to crush a leg if disturbed. I wondered if we could make it. I also wondered exactly why we were trying.

Our family is in the shrinking stage, and on this trip it was down to 14-year-old Cate, the youngest of five children, and her two middle-aged parents. The three of us were following a footpath that runs from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. It's called the GR 11--for Gran Recorrido in Spanish or Grande Randonnee in French--and is part of a network of long-distance trails snaking through Europe. We had joined it the previous morning in Andorra and were headed west, though with no expectation of getting near the ocean. Just how far we would go in the 19 days before our flight home from Barcelona, we didn't know--somewhere, I was desperately hoping at this particular moment, beyond the Portella de Baiau.

Outside magazine adventure types we definitely are not. My wife, Margaret, and I are in our fifties; her knees have all the strength of spaghetti, and I'm a veteran of two back operations. That leaves Cate the only unhobbled one in the crew. What we do have going for us is a good bit of long-distance hiking experience, mainly in the United States but also a previous summer in the French Alps.

But let's be clear. It was an incredibly slow rate of descent, not skill, that allowed us to get down from that pass without breaking anything. Wet and hungry, we tumbled late that afternoon into an overnight shelter perched about a mile below. The little structure was precarious enough that it was secured to the mountainside by cables. Like the Alps, the Pyrenees are dotted with refuges of varying size and sophistication. This one, definitely on the low end of the scale, contained nine bunks and was made entirely of metal. I felt as if I were inside a giant Campbell soup can.

But what the one-room hut lacked in visual charm it more than made up for in warmth--and, it turned out, in camaraderie. Andre, a delightful Belgian, and his teenage son, Pieter, arrived soon afterward, and after dinner we played cards as lightning and thunder crashed around us. First, we taught our new friends the game of hearts, which Andre soon pronounced a mindless enterprise. He and Pieter retaliated by teaching us a Flemish favorite of theirs, the name of which, not to mention the rules, I never truly mastered and have since completely flushed from my brain.

That evening of fun and laughter, especially following a day best described as challenging, helped answer the second of the two questions I'd asked myself back at the pass: Why were we doing this?

Simply put, backpacking allows a slow-paced, intimate look at Europe, both the people and the geography. Yes, it is cheaper than any other mode of travel through the Continent, but the real advantage is that your feet take you where you can't go otherwise. One day, after a 3 .5-mile walk along an old pista made of huge rocks literally sticking out of a hill, we reached the hamlet of Lleret in time for the lunch of bread, cheese and fruit that we had purchased that morning in the village of Tavascan. Lleret appeared to be abandoned; the buildings, all made of stone, were largely dilapidated, and the only living creatures in evidence were the dozen emaciated cats watching us a little too intently as we ate around what was, at least once upon a time, the community well.

Suddenly, a young man appeared, nattily dressed in sharply creased trousers and a sports shirt. He proceeded to give us a local history lesson, explaining that some of the stone structures around us dated to the 1600s. How many people still live here? I asked. "There are nine," he said, before pausing to think. "No, eight."

The young man spoke English, but he was one of the few people we encountered who did. Luckily, my wife speaks French and some Spanish. Without one of those languages, a Pyrenees hike could be difficult. Except for Europeans from outside the region, almost no one we met in the mountains spoke English. We didn't see one other American on our trip and, judging by the reaction we got, not many of the locals had either.

The French side of the Pyrenees has its own east-west path, the GR 10. We chose the Spanish side because the weather is supposed to be drier, and we had not hiked in Spain before. The chain spans about 260 miles, but the GR 11, with its twists and turns, covers almost twice that distance--obviously far too much for a three-week vacation.

Initially, I thought we would start at the Mediterranean and see how far west we could go. But a little pre-departure research indicated the mountains' most dramatic scenery is in the middle--from Andorra west to around the Spanish city of Jaca in Aragon. That became our general target area.

Our exact starting point was dictated by a simple calculation worked out after we arrived in Barcelona: What spot on the GR 11 would be easiest to reach by public transportation? The quickest and simplest seemed to be a four-hour bus ride to Andorra la Vella, Andorra's capital. The coach was punctual, comfortable and rocking with piped-in 1960s American music. From the capital, we took a bus and taxi to the village of Arinsal on the GR 11.

Besides transportation, maps were the other critical piece of logistics left for Barcelona. In what proved to be an act of laughable optimism, we bought 11 large-scale GR 11 maps--enough to take us from Andorra to the Somport pass north of Jaca, a distance of 185 miles.

The brutal reality is that our grand total turned out to be 86 miles, barely enough to get us out of Catalunya and into Aragon. One reason is basic: We're slow. Another was the terrific midday heat. The initial wet weather was followed by a week of blistering sun and humidity that made it difficult, if not foolhardy, to walk in the early afternoon, a lesson we learned too slowly. When we oozed into the village of Boldis Subira about 3 p.m. one sweltering day, every shutter was rolled down tight, and not even the cats were out.

The third reason was illness. While making a 3,100-foot climb one afternoon, Cate came down with a fever. The next morning, on the way down to the dusty town of La Guingueta d'Aneu and what we knew from the guidebook would be a hotel room, her temperature was up to 103.5. The next day the patient was greatly improved, and we went by taxi to a hotel in nearby Espot, an attractive ski town on the edge of Sant Maurici National Park. After two more days of recuperation--and restaurant meals--Cate was as good as new, and we were on our way again.

Except for that timeout, plus two nights in refuges and one in a village inn, we slept in our tent. Camping is generally allowed along the GR 11, Mother Nature being the only barrier. You need a water supply and a few feet of passably flat land, conditions often not readily at hand. One evening when they were proving particularly elusive, an elderly shepherd let us use his pasture. He made no effort to hide his amazement at the idea of human beings flying across the Atlantic.

Another time, after a long, steep, sometimes-hand-over-hand climb through thick shrubbery--"We were in hell," Margaret insists now, with a conviction just this side of hysteria--we came out on a sparkling stream running through a carpet of soft, dry grass. It would have been a fine sleep anyway, but the pitter-patter of gentle rain on the tent fly after we were snug in our sleeping bags made it more so.

The one place with a no-camping rule was the national park. There we stayed in the Refugi d'Amitges, a stone building at 7,800 feet with a marvelous view and a welcomed assortment of wine and other refreshments. All 66 bunks were taken by the time we arrived, but the staff let us bed down on the dining room floor. That was fine with me, because the dormitories were jammed and dark, not an inviting combination.

Like most large refuges, this one served meals. But mindful of the beating administered to our finances in Espot, we retired to the self-cooking area along with a couple of dozen other guests, most of them in their teens and early twenties. We carried a backpacking stove able to burn gasoline, diesel or just about any other liquid fuel. That particular night we dined on chicken soup and pasta while watching the sun's reddish orange reflection sink slowly below the jagged gray peaks that surrounded us.

A week before our scheduled flight home, Margaret and I got out the maps to figure out where we should end the hike. The choice seemed clear. The medieval city of Benasque was a five-day walk away and had bus service, the last such opportunity for a good while. Our decision was endorsed the next day by a young man we met on the trail. Speaking English, he gave us a helpful rundown on Benasque's bus service and other attributes.

"You are Spanish?" I asked as we were parting. "No, Catalunyan. My passport is Spanish," he replied, providing further evidence of the region's fierce spirit of independence.

We walked into the old Aragon town of Benasque Thursday evening, and had a wonderful end-of-hike celebration dinner--lamb, fresh green salad and flan. What we celebrated was not just survival but also the dividend paid by our bare-bones travel mode--namely, intimate interaction with the land and its people.

I remember walking into the village of Areu after a night of heavy rain. The kind, elderly woman who ran the grocery told us to dry our tent and other gear in the local playground, and inquired with concern about what else we needed. For me she even had some motherly advice: Be "tranquilo." She had a point.

Mike Brown is a freelance writer in Arlington.

DETAILS: Pyrenees Trekking on the Cheap

GETTING THERE: We flew Air France from Washington to Barcelona, the closest major Spanish city to the Pyrenees; the airline is currently quoting a round-trip fare of $676, with restrictions. From Barcelona, it's about a four-hour bus ride to Andorra.

WHERE TO STAY (CITIES/ TOWNS): In Barcelona, we stayed at the Hotel Nouvel (Carrer de Santa Ana 18-20, telephone 011-34-93- 301-8274), an adequate, no-frills establishment near the Placa de Catalunya and just off Las Ramblas, the lively main drag. Our double with a rollaway and breakfast was $136 per night. On our return to Barcelona, we stayed at the more economical Hotel Jardi (Placa Sant Josep Oriol 1, telephone 011-34-93-301-5900), with a great location in the Barri Gotic and a nice price ($48 without breakfast).

In the Pyrenees, we had no trouble getting same-day accommodations in July. In the towns of Arinsal, Tavascan, La Guingueta, Espot and Benasque, we easily found rooms in small establishments that were clean and inviting; prices for the three of us ranged from $29 at a hostal to $54 at a modest hotel.

WHERE TO STAY (TRAILS): The refuges we saw varied considerably in size and comfort, from a little tin-can hut with no staff, and a note on the wall asking visitors to send the equivalent of 70 cents to a Barcelona hiking group, to large refuges that charged around $7 a night and served meals and refreshments. We had breakfast at several--always toast, jelly, a wafer or cookie and hot drinks for between $4 and $5. The large refuges have telephones, and you can make reservations by phone. For the location and telephone number of refuges in Catalunya, call 011-34-972-20-5703; for Aragon, 011-34-976-22-7971; for Navarra, 011-34-948-22-4683.

Dependence on refuges is likely to straitjacket your itinerary, and force you to make a set number of miles each day. For those reasons, plus their cost, it is at least advisable to carry a tent. Our four-person REI dome weighs about 10 pounds, but we broke up the components among the three of us.

WHAT TO TAKE: Our backpacks were our only luggage; we jammed everything we brought into them. For Barcelona and other stops in civilization, we each had long pants, jersey and sandals. Otherwise we took what you would take on a backpacking trip anywhere: first-aid kit, rain jacket and pants, gloves, wool hat, long underwear, shorts, T-shirts, sleeping bag and mattress, twine, insect repellent and water bottles.

Our kitchen consisted of a lightweight backpacking stove, three fuel bottles (which we filled at a gas station in Andorra), two pans with lids, six plastic cups (no plates), spoons, sponge and biodegradable soap. We carried a hand-pump filter and, as a backup, iodine tablets to treat all stream water we used.

WHAT TO EAT: We ate simple dehydrated food bought off the grocery shelf, not the expensive variety sold in camping stores. When we had exhausted our initial supplies, we restocked at Spanish stores. Breakfast was usually hot cereal with coffee, tea or hot chocolate. Dinner was soup bolstered with pasta, followed by tea and a candy bar. For lunch we would try to buy bread and cheese at a local market; otherwise we settled for peanut butter, honey and crackers. We supplemented our menu with liberal handfuls of homemade gorp--nuts, dried fruit and M&Ms--and had a few meals at village cafes.

INFORMATION: "Through the Spanish Pyrenees" by Paul Lucia proved accurate and helpful, and includes telephone numbers for the refuges on the trail; it is available locally from Travel Books and Language Center (4437 Wisconsin Ave., Washington, 202-237-1322). Other resources include Lonely Planet's "Trekking in Spain" and the Rough Guide to the Pyrenees. In Barcelona, the Editorial Alpina series of GR 11 maps is available from the Llibreria Quera store, Petritxol 2, telephone 011-34-93-318-0743. For more informatio, contact the Tourist Office of Spain, 666 Fifth Ave., 35th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10103, 212-265-8822, http://www. okspain.org.

--Michael H. Brown

PYRENEES WALKS: A COMPARISON

Sure, you can sign over several paychecks and hike the Pyrenees in style, but what do you really get for your money? Okay, you get a lot. We asked the author to compare his trip with one offered by the luxury outfitter Butterfield & Robinson.

Butterfield & Robinson's SIX-day trip

WHERE

The Basque Country on both the Spanish and French sides of the border

TOTAL COST (excluding air fare)

$2,850 per person

COST PER DAY

$475

ACCOMMODATIONS

Hotels with inviting Michelin ratings and room prices ranging from $95 to $156.

FOOD

Butterfield & Robinson declined to break down its trip price, but its promotional material promises "Michelin-starred dining" and a chef-prepared picnic lunch with chilled Iroulequy wine.

AMENITIES

B&R says its price includes guides, van transportation, luggage transfer and other extras such as bottled water. A spokesman: "One is paying us for putting the package together and orchestrating it."

THE AUTHOR'S 22-DAY TRIP

WHERE

Spain's Catalunya and Aragon regions

TOTAL COST (excluding air fare)

$618.86 per person

COST PER DAY

$28.13

ACCOMMODATIONS

Pastures, stream banks and other spots flat enough for a tent. Also, a few nights in informal hostals and small hotels. Outside Barcelona, $54 was the top room price.

FOOD

Tomato soup, macaroni and similar one-burner fare, supplemented with cafe stops when possible.

AMENITIES

Plenty of water (pumped, of course) but no guides, no van and precious little orchestration.


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