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Best for scenery: Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici
Deep in the Pyrenees, where Spain rises to meet the rest of Europe, the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici is northeastern Spain’s most beautiful corner. ‘This park is like Yellowstone, Canada and the Alps, rolled into one and in miniature,’ says Josep Maria Rispa, who’s been a park ranger here for 20 years. ‘You have the best in alpine scenery but within a small area.’ Entering the park from the southwest, the valley of the Riu de Sant Nicolau, carved by ancient glaciers, climbs into the park’s inner reaches. At 1,600 metres above sea level, the trail – accessible at this point only on foot, or by taxi from nearby Boi – passes the pristine freshwater of Estany de Llebreta. ‘Of around a thousand lakes in the Pyrenees,’ says Josep, ‘almost two hundred are within the park’s borders. Nowhere in the Pyrenees – nowhere else in southern Europe, in fact – is there such a concentration of lakes. This is the park of the waters, a paradise of lakes.’ Estany (the Catalan word for ‘lakes’) and aigüestortes (‘winding streams’) are what give the park its name. Beyond Estany de Llebreta, the valley climbs to a rugged plateau watered by clear mountain streams and home to semi-wild horses. Valleys narrow and rise ever deeper into the park before finally reaching remote Estany Llong, 2,000 metres above sea level and a 90-minute hike beyond the last taxi drop-off point. Here, in the park’s heart, there is a sense of standing between two different worlds. Past the mountains to the west, Atlantic weather prevails, but to the east the climate is Mediterranean. ‘You must respect these mountains,’ says Josep. ‘They’re beautiful, but it could snow here, even in summer.’ He points out a pine tree that somehow survives up here – at 600 years old, it predates Columbus. In the distance beyond are the jagged granite shards of the Agujas Perdut (Lost Peaks) – mythic natural fortresses around which white clouds swirl and said to shelter an invisible lake. Even after two decades of seeing it, Josep is silenced by the view – all of Catalonia, stretched out at the mountains’ feet.
Private vehicles cannot enter the park, and the hike from the park’s entrance to Estany Llong takes three-and-a-half hours. Returns by Jeep taxi into the park from Boi cost £8; Estany Llong is a 90-minute hike beyond the last taxi drop-off.
Where to eat
At the top of the village of Taull, the well-regarded El Caliu does creative salads and mountain dishes such as stuffed lamb (mains from £8).