“I’m on the top of the world, looking down on Creation…”
I don’t normally break out in spontaneous Carpenters’ songs, but the Ordesa Valley is really something to shout about. Known as the ‘Spanish Grand Canyon’, it’s every bit as imposing as its larger namesake in Arizona, but considerably less crowded and touristy. We’re spending the day walking along the valley floor, then climbing the cliff to complete a circular route and hopefully maximise the views.
It’s towards the end of October, and the weather couldn’t be better. The sky’s a clear, sharp blue and there’s just the suggestion of a frosty nip to the early-morning air. Packing the sandwiches I’ve hastily assembled from provisions bought in the nearby town of Torla the night before, we leave the Hotel Ordesa and drive the short distance to the carpark to start the walk.
We’re surprised by the number of cars in the car park – this is supposed to be the off season – and there are quite a few people heading for the path. We haven’t been able to find out prior to the trip about the official attitude about dogs in the national park – in the French national parks they’re not allowed at all – and we’re relieved to see information boards showing that Monty’s welcome, as long as he stays on a lead.
We have a smallscale map of the route and a walk book with us, but we’re still relieved to see that the path is very well-defined and clearly signposted. In fact, for the first half a mile or so, the path is suitable for disabled access. The sun streams through the trees, highlighting the autumn colours.
The first stage of the walk seems surprisingly crowded, and then we notice how many of our fellow hikers are slung around with professional-looking camera gear. Despite the polite little notices (translated into three languages) urging walkers to stay on the path, many of the photographers are diving into the woods to capture the light effects of the sunlight, or immortalising interesting fungi on tree trunks. We didn’t realise, but apparently this area of the national park is as rich a hunting ground for wildlife and landscape photographers as Yosemite is for Ansel Adams. Monty gets very excited and starts trying to dive into shot whenever someone points a camera vaguely in our direction. As we’re moving at a fair pace, we soon outdistance most of the crowds while I ponder on the correct collective noun for a pack of photographers – a paparazzi?
Although the path’s started to climb and turned more stony underfoot, it’s still easy to follow. We’re climbing up alongside a river, and pass a number of spectacular waterfalls. One in particular looks man-made, as though it’s coursing down concrete steps, but on closer inspection the steps turn out to be great shelves of naturally-carved rock. Monty’s far too interested in where the dull roaring noise is coming from, and I haul him back as he sticks his head through the protective railings.
We’re seeing fewer and fewer fellow hikers now as we climb deeper into the forest. Up ahead, there’s just one group of three people, and they’re making slower progress than us so we’ll soon be past them. As we draw level, I see why they’ve set a slower pace – one of the hikers is swinging himself along happily and expertly on aluminium crutches, his wasted legs trailing beneath him. Considering we’re now pretty high up and covering some difficult terrain, this is impressive and we both stop complaining about the steepness of the climb and move on feeling humbled.
Every so often, there’s a gap in the trees and we catch glimpses of the most incredible views. The slopes flame with autumnal colour, and distant waterfalls tumble like silver ribbons.
After a couple of hours of climbing through the forest, with only the occasional snapshot of a view, we emerge into a natural amphitheatre, with a shallow river flanked by towering cliffs.
So far, we’ve been following signposts to ‘La cola de caballo’, or Horse’s Tail, and it looks like we’re arrived – the waterfall really does look like a white horse’s tail flowing over the rocks. Just above us is the Brèche de Roland, a gap in the mountains marking the border between the two countries – we’re now only a few hundred yards from France. Legend has it that the brèche was made by Charlemagne’s nephew Roland, as he cleaved the mountains with his sword.
After a brief stop for lunch, we cross the river on stepping stones. Monty leaps easily from one shallow stone pillar to the next, forcing me to hop awkwardly as I try to keep my balance, but we both reach the other side safely. The path’s starting to climb again now, round the shoulder of the hill, and we seem to be the only people left. Straddling the path is a sign warning us not to attempt this path after 1pm in the winter; a quick check of my watch shows 1.30pm but we decide to press ahead anyway. The extremely treacherous and steep descent needs to be attempted in the daylight, but with another seven hours to go before nightfall we feel we’ve got a good margin for error.
After a short, steep ascent the path flattens out again and winds through the forest. It’s getting cold now, and we’re glad of the thermos of coffee we brought from the hotel. Now we’ve got some height, there’s a fantastic view back down the valley we’ve just climbed.
Birds of prey soar above us as we climb, breaking the splendid isolation with shrill cries.
The drop to our right is completely sheer, plummeting straight down in an unbroken line for hundreds of yards. I keep a tight hold on Monty’s lead, but the surface we’re walking on is broad and safe and he’s getting tired now and happy to stay close to me. The path is deceptive, twisting and turning ahead of us – we can’t see how we’re going to get down such a sheer drop as we’re now almost directly above the carpark.
We reach a viewpoint, jutting out over the cliff and bordered by a sturdy wall – then, apruptly, the path turns downhill. It’s incredibly steep, like walking down a flight of stairs, and the recent wet weather has left a loose shale of stones and leaves. Mike and I look at each other in horror – according to our walk book, this section should take us an hour to descend, and an hour of this loose, uneven surface will be very hard work. In the event though, it’s not too bad – we soon find a rhythm, and the path soon loses the steps and descends by tight little zigzags instead, which are easier on the knees. After a brisk 45 minutes of descent, we emerge, slipping and sliding, into the woods above the carpark.
The whole walk has taken six and a half hours with a short break for lunch, and although the majority has been easy going, it’s been very hard work in places. We’re pleased to see that the visitors’ centre in the carpark is open, and we collapse gratefully on the picnic benches outside for hot drinks and pastries. Monty sags into a heap and is instantly snoring; we rouse him gently to get back in the car and cover the short distance back to Torla for dinner.