A new way of walking in the Pyrenees. On the Senda de Camille

Cet article est également disponible en: French

Lescun with Pic d'Ansabère in the background

Lescun with Pic d’Ansabère in the background

 

Do you prefer walking in a straight line or going round in circles? Until recently most of the long-distance treks in the Pyrenees were linear. The big three, the Pyrenean Way (GR10), the Spanish Senda Pirenaica (GR11) and the Pyrenean Haute Route (HRP), which have been around for over 30 years, all stretch from coast to coast. Then came other trails like the Cathar Trail and the Chemin des Bonshommes. All linear trails, at least in principle.

But if you wanted to walk in circles, ending up where you started, you more-or-less had to plan it yourself. In recent years this has changed. The FFRP (French Ramblers Association) has brought out a guide to circular cross-frontier walks in the eastern Pyrenees (Ariège, Pyrénées-Orientales). And Brian Johnson is working on a guide to circular walks for Cicerone.

But perhaps the most interesting initiatives have come from Spain.

They are all circular walks with nights in staffed hostels. Most importantly they offer central booking facilities. You also get a dedicated map (1:25,000) and a souvenir tee-shirt.

I’ve just come back from walking the Senda de Camille with two friends. It was great!

 

My Senda de Camille. Click to see on Wikiloc

My Senda de Camille. Click to see on Wikiloc

Senda de Camille: six days mountain hopping

This new circuit seems to be little known outside Spain. Most of the time we were the only non-Spanish walkers; we didn’t meet any Anglophones following the circuit, though there were a few British hillwalkers with other destinations. (Incidentally, the Senda de Camille joins up the GR10, GR11 and HRP so can be used for transiting from one to the other.)

Lescun to Linza

Lescun valley

Lescun valley

 

We started in Lescun, in France – though you can start anywhere – and were soon bathed in brilliant sunshine, albeit with dew on the grass. Higher up, we bought cheese from a shepherd in his mountain hut.

 

Near Puerto de Ansó

Near Puerto de Ansó

 

The Puerto de Ansó pass, the highest point of the day (2084m), is also the border with Spain.  The Linza hostel was still serving lunch when we arrived at 15:30. We settled for beer.

Linza to Borda Bisaltico

This day was the longest on the trek, taking 8h30 plus breaks. Many people walk an hour and a half more, to the Gabardito hostel, but we wanted to limit the damage. Instead of walking on the road from Linza to Zuriza we followed a GRT on the other side of the river.

 

Faja de Mazandú as seen from the Petraficha valley

Faja de Mazandú as seen from the Petraficha valley

 

The most spectacular scenery is after Zuriza, where the Senda de Camille briefly joins the GR11 before sneaking through the leftmost of the two gaps in the white wall, the Faja de Mazandú. This was the only place where we saw sarrios (also known as rebecos, isards, Pyrenean chamois). (This was the only disappointing thing about the walk: the lack of wildlife. We saw many marmotte holes but only heard very occasional whistles and didn’t see any of the animals themselves. There were a few vultures and eagles. Perhaps late June or September would be better times, when there are fewer walkers.)

 

Looking back from the Paso de Tatxeras

Looking back from the Paso de Tatxeras

 

By the end of the day, water was in short supply and we were glad to be walking in forest. At the Puente de Santa Ana there was plenty of water to be seen in the river below but it was inaccessible.

 

Left: in the forest on the Solana de Lenito. Right: river Aragón Subordán as seen from the Puente de Santa Ana

Left: in the forest on the Solana de Lenito. Right: river Aragón Subordán as seen from the Puente de Santa Ana

 

Borda Bisaltico to Lizara

We stopped in at the Gabardito hostel on the edge of the forest for coffee before continuing uphill.

 

The Dios Te Salve hut (God saves you) on the plateau

The Dios Te Salve hut (God save you) on the plateau

 

A lazy stroll across hills strewn with cows and sheep

A lazy stroll across hills strewn with cows and sheep

 

Collado del Foratón. The Lizara hostel is just off the picture in the valley to the right.

Collado del Foratón. The Lizara hostel is just off the picture in the valley to the right.

 

The clouds seen here thickened in the evening with the first clap of thunder waking us up just after midnight.

Lizara to Somport

 

Lizara hostel. The Senda de Camille passes through the canyon seen on the right.

Lizara hostel. The Senda de Camille passes through the canyon seen on the right.

 

Walking up the canyon to the Caseta des los Forestales

Walking up the canyon to the Caseta des los Forestales

 

The Caseta des los Forestales was a surprise: a hut looking like a mosque and inside it bundles of damp sleeping bags, some containing walkers still only just grasping the idea that they were still alive after a difficult night. They had been camping when the storm broke and had to pack up and run for shelter.

 

Plana Mistresa just above the Caseta des los Forestales, a great place to camp… in good weather

Plana Mistresa just above the Caseta des los Forestales, a great place to camp… in good weather

 

Ibón de Estanés

Ibón de Estanés

 

The clouds breezed in and out all morning, revealing and then hiding the lake.

Somport to Arlet

Uncertain about the weather, we walked faster than necessary so we had time in the evening to climb up to the Col d’Arlet pass. And also time to swim in the remarkably warm lake.

 

Arlet hostel and lake, seen from the Col d’Arlet

Arlet hostel and lake, seen from the Col d’Arlet

 

We thought that the food here was the best on the Senda, and the views were the most spectacular. After dinner the clouds rose from the valley.

 

After dinner, cloud watching

After dinner, cloud watching

 

Arlet to Lescun

It rained in the night and by morning we were surrounded by grey mist. It continued to rain, hard, all morning. The wind blew cold. So by the time we arrived at the Col de Pau we were shivering, fingers numb, ears tingling. And then the rain stopped, and we had a picnic. We arrived in Lescun after 4.5 hours walking – the guide suggests over 7 hours!

War of the worlds

The Senda de Camille is also interesting for what it represents: a vigorous attempt to use bears as a marketing tool. But there is more than one view on the matter.

The circuit is named after Camille, the last truly indigenous male bear to live in the Pyrenees. Since 1996 a rewilding initiative has seen nine bears reintroduced from Slovenia. From a low point of about five, the population has increased to around forty.

According to ecologists, bears are an asset for nature conservation, and can also be beneficial for tourism. It is indisputable that bears are part of the Pyrenean heritage, as witnessed by the festivals in the Vallespir.

On the other hand, according to some shepherds the co-existence of bears and pastoralism is not possible. What we have is an open-air zoo which needs costly intensive management to even exist. The presence of bears in the Pyrenees is an intellectual concept which breaks down when faced with the reality of the terrain.  Recently 209 sheep died after being chased over a cliff [Spanish report from El Mundo]. The mayor of Ustou (Ariège) has signed a by-law symbolically banning bears from his commune.

After several years with little overt conflict, the issue has resurfaced. More on bears in the Pyrenees.

Senda de Camille:  a concise guide

The walking season is from June to September. It would be possible to do the trek a little earlier or a little later but snow might cause a problem in some zones. Also the Arlet hostel  is only open from June to September (although there is a free dormitory out of season).

I asked for GPS tracks to be sent to me beforehand and received a file with not only the tracks and multiple variants but also the free huts and other points of interest. Most people do the walk in an anti-clockwise direction.

Access: You can start from any point on the circuit. All the refuges except Arlet are accessible by car. The Somport hostel is accessible by public transport from both France and Spain. If you wish to start at Lescun ask the bus driver to let you off at the Pont de Lescun which is about an hour’s walking from the hostel. Supplies can be bought at the Somport hostel and the Lauzart campsite/hostel at Lescun, with a more extensive range available in the village itself.

You are given a welcome pack at the start:

  • an excellent 1:25,000 map with the routes highlighted
  • a guide with details of all the alternative possibilities
  • a map holder which has the advantage of identifying you to other walkers
  • a good quality sheet sleeping bag. This is blue and has a logo enabling you to identify fellow trekkers in the dorms. It is bulkier and heavier than my silk version but not to be sniffed at.
  • a pass book, like the Way of St James Credencial, to get stamped at each hostel
Pass book

Pass book

 

At the end trekkers are given a tee-shirt.

The walking times given on the official Senda de Camille website are reasonable for experienced hillwalkers. As for safety, with around 20-25 walkers doing the same stages, there will always be someone coming along to help if something goes wrong. In Spain the route is marked with green and yellow waymarks but in France it is more difficult to be certain you are on the right track at junctions with multiple options.

Costs. At about 42€ per night for bed, breakfast, evening meal and a picnic it would be difficult to imagine a better value walking holiday in the Pyrenees. But if you really are strapped for cash you could potentially stay in the free huts, of which there are many between the staffed hostels. These huts are very basic, literally four walls, a roof and a concrete floor.

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One Response to “A new way of walking in the Pyrenees. On the Senda de Camille”

  1. Tom Wheeler says:

    Thank you Steve. I really enjoyed reading this especially since I will be walking part of this in around 20 days.

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