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In autumn 2021 and 2022, work and family commitments led me to repeatedly criss-cross the Pyrenees from Berlin, Strasbourg or Brussels to Spain. I chose the train, using either TGV cross-country via Lyon, or night trains from Paris. Our family group of adults and teens went by rail from Barcelona for a short break in the volcanic landscape near Ripoll, then on to Ribes de Freser and the Núria rack railway, and then finally home to Berlin the slow way, meandering through the Pyrenees, and picking up the couchette train from Latour de Carol to Paris.
Most visitors to out-of-the-way Spanish regions use cars (and planes if coming from abroad), but this is one area where the journey is definitely part of the prize. The central Pyrenees route rivals Switzerland for scenery, and beats it on price, but the practicalities of travel are not always as straightforward. Here’s our story of hikes in the wilderness, Romanesque Churches, and good-value gourmet food- helped by being a little train-savvy.
Hiking in La Garrotxa Volcanic National Park near Ripoll
The engineering and rolling stock are world-class. It’s an electrified single-track line with numerous passing loops, village stations serving local communities. It’s a mountainous zig-zag through extraordinary feats of construction, from precipitous gorge to viaduct to tunnel and back again, with picture windows. There’s also a rack-railway to a hilltop resort. But the timetable requires a bit of background knowledge and forward planning.
4 times a day, a train leaves L’Hospitalet de Llobregat terminal platforms for Latour de Carol. (Several others go almost as far as the border, see timetable here: https://rodalies.gencat.cat/en/horaris/.) It picks up passengers in the subterranean stations of central Barcelona. The train category is Rodalies, the Catalan equivalent of the Cercanías found elsewhere in Spain, used to denote local stopping trains with a separate ticketing system from regional, “medium-distance” or high-speed. (RENFE isn’t so much a rail network as an intersecting set of fiefdoms, each denying knowledge of the others’ existence). To see this 166 km international route in context, you need a copy of the European Rail Timetable:
When is a Rodalies not a Rodalies?
The Rodalies vending machine at the suburban station where we board our connection doesn’t serve such exotic Pyrenean destinations, so I queue for the counter, where I am sent back to struggle with a different machine. The train has no reserved seats or refreshments, but in defiance of its ticketing category it is otherwise pretty well-equipped for the €12 3-hour ride, with toilets and luggage racks. It’s far from a commuter sardine-can.
But first, you have to find it. The incoming train is late into L’Hospitalet (this is Catalonia’s least reliable route, as even the heavily-used section as far as Vic is single-track). Rather than displaying an estimated delay, the information screens erase the service completely every few minutes, as though they are programmed to mentally cleanse themselves of trains which are supposed to have already left. Each time, this entails a panicky run to the barriers (which we cannot exit without forfeiting our tickets) to shout over to the station manager for an update. There is charm amid the chaos – we find a traditional line-side café with outside tables, serving good-value tostadas and coffee. While stocking up on sandwiches and water for the journey, we discover that among the friendly and chatty patrons is our driver, so all is well.
We proceed after him down the long platform to the “front train”, which slips in and reverses out of the platform almost unnoticed since the majority of passengers board in Sants and Plaça Catalunya. We stow our luggage and get nice window seats in the empty carriage. One of our party boards en route at a smaller, more central station, where there is no confusion over platforms – though they did have to spend their delay minutes in the rabbit warren, wondering which train in the endless commuter procession would be displaying our unusual destination.
Dawn in La Garrotxa
2 hours from Barcelona is Ripoll, the mediaeval home of Catalan Braveheart Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred The Hairy) who both founded the monastery and repopulated the region. Way too busy to shave.
From the adjacent bus station we head towards Sant Joan Abadesses and the heart of La Garrotxa, where we explore dry-stone villages, waterfalls, and the remnants of fortifications from when this was the 9th century battleground of Christian and Muslim empires.
Bus times here: http://www.teisa-bus.com/en/rutes
Roman bridge near Ripoll
14 km further north by train is Ribes de Freser, a stunning town at the confluence of 3 rivers. The Barcelona train stops down in the valley, from where it is a 15-minute walk uphill to the centre. Being both luggage-laden and rail enthusiasts, we make this short hop on the rack railway. This 90-year-old mountain train departs from a shed on the main line platform, called “Enllaç” (or “Connection”). There is often half an hour or more between the two trains though, so “Connection” is a bit of an optimistic name. We cause great confusion by trying to buy a ticket to the first stop on the line, rather than the full tourist package. It’s a shame to see a scenic line with such potential not fully exploiting its ability to get people from A to B.
You can check train times and prices here. Ribes-Vila station is in the heart of the village: https://www.valldenuria.cat/en/winter/rack-railway/timetable-prices/
On the way up, the main line train arrives exactly the right number of minutes late for us to hop straight on board. On our way back down, we make a virtue out of a necessity, and build in a lunch stop at Bar Gusi opposite. They serve salads and plats combinats featuring croquettes, lamb, and calamari. It’s good-value family fare, which would probably be considered retro chic in Barcelona (and cost twice as much).
Ribes de Freser
We start by exploring the railway museum on the platform (with its Swiss-built locos!) which is included in the train fare, and then walk across the square to our charming hostal, the Porta de Núria. It’s a delight to meander down the narrow streets and riverbank footpaths, clambering up rocks to the viewpoints, and sampling the delicious sourdough from Robiró, a traditional Catalan baker’s. https://www.fornrobiro.cat/
There are widespread and prominent separatist symbols in the region, and one river bridge is bedecked with yellow ribbons. Spanish is widely spoken, but a little Catalan goes a long way.
For dinner, we try Restaurant Els Caçadors, with its slow food, local mushrooms, seafood, mountain stews and roasts, as well as vegan options. Every evening we explore the backstreets, and vow to try something new, but somehow our steps take us back around that corner, and by 9 o’clock we have again fallen prey to the Hunters. https://www.hotelsderibes.com/en/restaurant-ribes-de-freser
Viewpoint above Ribes
The valley rises to the summit ski resort at 2000 metres. There is no road access, so if you miss the last train back, it’s a long, lonely walk down a mule track back into Spain, or onwards into France, watching out for brown bears and Hairy Wilfreds.
Rack railway to Núria
The budding naturalists in our party show up their parents on this walk. Amazingly, they don’t even need a phone signal to come out with extraordinary facts that we later have to humbly accept.
“Look – a chamois!”
“Is it? I’ve never seen one, but I’ve heard of chamois leather.”
“No, that’s from a goat, rupicapra rupicapra. This is rupicapra pyrenaica.”
“Ah yes, of course.” I like to think I sound wise when translating Latin: “The Pyrenean mountain goat.”
“No, it’s an antelope. A goat-antelope.”
“And see down by the stream, there? That’s a marmot.”
“Aren’t they extinct?”
“Yes, they all froze to death here about 12,000 years ago.”
“I see, so…?”
“French hunters reintroduced some after the war because they wanted to hunt chamois and the eagles were eating them all.”
“Oh. Erm, did you know the groundhog is also called “marmota” in Spanish?”
“Ye-eah. You’ve told us that before!”
Skirting the reservoir, the return train departs from Núria ski resort and sanctuary (former prison)
Hiking around the summit, there are many well-signed routes with timings
Not the end of the line
All too soon, it’s time to travel the final 30 km up through beautiful Toses (which hasn’t seen the need to change its name post-Covid despite being Spanish for “you cough”) to the French border. Note the Catalan name La Tor de Querol-Enveig. If you’re checking an index, it’s filed under “T” in Spain, “L” in France!
Here the wide Iberian-gauge tracks meet both the European standard gauge from France (which extends rustily as far as Puigcerdà) and the 1-metre narrow-gauge branch line to Villefranche, connecting for Perpignan. This “Petit Train Jaune” (or “Tren Groc”), colourfully inspired by the Catalan flag, is a tourist and local-need service run in all weathers by SNCF, though there are only a couple of round trips per day, and on our October afternoon visit it was rarer than the mountain goat:
An early-evening couchette all the way to Paris starts from €35 (or you can reserve a private compartment) – all the practical details are here: https://www.seat61.com/trains-and-routes/paris-to-barcelona-by-sleeper-train.htm
Leave, or go to Spain? So many options.
The night train gives you the French half of the dramatic scenery, and you can open the window and savour the landscape, even after dark, in a way you never could by any other means. Someone else does the driving, you stop in the villages, go through as well as over the earth, and can lounge on your bed too. It’s worth remembering the train has no dining car, and the washing facilities are basic. Bring your own picnic, and extra water.
Next morning I decide not to risk a wet shave with a razor as we rock & roll through the Paris suburbs, but after all, what was the point of the journey? We’ve spent days in a 65-million-year-old mountain chain of orchids, eagles, bearded vultures and brown bears in search of defrosted marmots and Wilfred The Hairy. (Don’t tell anyone what I just saw in the train mirror!)
Many thanks Matthew for this great article.
Follow his often quirky remarks on life on twitter.
Would you like to read more travel stories? Why not try Helen’s great adventures around Europe in the Summer of 2022.