Pure air, pockets of crisp snow and a faded rainbow display of fluttering prayer flags.
All that’s missing is a yak. It’s unlikely that a hairy specimen will come lumbering over the horizon though as this is The Pyrenees.
Our ascent through the partly rocky, partly grassy gorge to the Refugi d’Ulldeter was one of those climbs where it was difficult not to beam like a particular cat. The warm sun drew the brightest colours from shy alpine flowers whilst recent rainfall meant a musical mountain stream beside our path gushed haphazardly toward the sea. It was perfect walking, even if the air at 2000 metres was being mean with its nutrients.
Despite the threat of an afternoon thunderstorm, we stop at the Refugi for a coffee; more out a yen to see what it’s like inside rather than the need for a caffeine boost.
It’s exactly what a refuge should look like; warm, wooden furnishings, a stove, dead things with horns on the walls, robust tables you squeeze behind with a satisfied grunt, a bar and a shoe rack of Crocs. Okay, I didn’t expect the shoe rack of Crocs.
It’s inviting enough on a sunny, summer day. When the snow is swirling and the wind is doing a ‘I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in’, you can imagine never wanting to leave its cosy embrace.
The bill for the coffee snaps us out of the love spell.
“€2.50 a coffee? That’s expensive.”
“It’s the same as Barcelona,” the barman defends the price tag. There seems to be a yin and yang thing with the Catalans in this part of their world. Most are generous in the extreme, others come across a bit like the mountain air at this altitude.
I take a long and deliberate look out of the window before turning back to the barman. That’s not La Rambla I can see out there.
We leave the Refugi and the scenery changes, levelling out across a long meadow which at first glance seems a sea of green. Closer inspection reveals it to be full of flowers – gentian blues, saxifragas and yellow pasque flowers bending toward the sun.
As we swap the grassy plain for rocky scree someone in the next valley decides to start pounding on a ceremonial drum with mucho gusto. It’s only 10am and the thunderstorm isn’t due to roll into town until mid afternoon, by which time we plan to be firmly ensconced in a friendly bar in Setcases.
The one thing that’s predictable about the weather is its unpredictability.
Blue skies are replaced by bruised skies and the Rodgers and Hammerstein scenery becomes more Ingmar Bergman. The world shakes and rattles as apocalypse now descends. A couple of pre-emptive spits quickly become a torrent as we hastily transform summer togs into waterproof ones.
By the time we squish our way to an exposed Coll de la Marrana we are waterlogged and can’t read walking directions or write notes. Apart from that little problem, being in the midst of an explosive thunderstorm at the top of The Pyrenees is nothing if not dramatic. In truth, nature blowing off steam is exhilarating.
As we try to decipher our route forward, two more drenched souls arrive at the col from the slopes of Bastiments, obscured behind a black shroud.
“Que mal día,” one shouts above nature’s howls, smiling broadly. They’re local walkers and know the area well. They point out the indistinct route we should follow across a scree slope. With trousers refusing to relinquish their unwelcome icy thigh hugging, we set off across bleak terrain. France is nearby but we don’t hang around to try to see where. The weather might be impressively operatic but we’ve had enough of the drama. We want Rodgers and Hammerstein again.
Our path eventually leads us down to a plateau where a melodic clanging acts as the signal for the apocalypse to head elsewhere. These tin bells are normally cow accessories but on this occasion they belong to hefty horses who share a grassy jaça (high pasture) with a herd of chamois; known as isards in these parts. If you’re British tell me ‘Eddie’ didn’t pop into your head there. The ‘Eddies’ blend into the scenery so competently that it’s only when one skips across the hillside that we spot them.
The storm has passed and bulbous heavens are replaced by a ‘The Simpsons’ sky. The cool is replaced by warmth and our lightweight walking clothes are already starting to dry. Ahead, a wide gorge descends spectacularly in long, grassy steps to the valley floor way below. Whilst we are in sunshine, down there it is still as black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat.
Happy to let the lower valley calm down, we rest awhile on a flat outcrop. There is nobody else on this trail save for curious cart horses, drooling bovines and unconcerned sprightly chamois. I’ve never seen anything quite like this blend of wild mountain scenery and tame high pastures.
It is an unusual and inspirational landscape and I’m grateful that we have been privileged enough to see it showing off some of its more flamboyant outfits.
Buzztrips was walking the Ulldeter area to update route directions for slow holiday specialists Inntravel.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+