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It’s the kind of thing dreams are made of during a hot, sticky Barcelona summer. Clear mountain streams, deep cool lakes and temperatures that drop enough to need a blanket at night. And the best news is that the spectacular Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici is just a couple of hours away in the Pyrenees.
The park is characterised by crystal clear waters at every turn and is home to over 200 mountain lakes, nestled among centuries-old pine forests. Cool, mountain rivers meander through the park—hence the name Aigüestortes (twisted waters)—creating gentle streams and roaring cascades. July is the perfect time to visit, as hiking season is in full swing and the park is brimming with yellow juniper flowers, bilberries and raspberries.
The landscape was formed some 200 million years ago by the grinding and scraping of glaciers during successive ice ages
Parc Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici is one of Spain’s nine national parks and the only one in Catalunya. It straddles four regions, Alta Ribagorça, Pallars Sobirà, Pallars Jussà and Val d’Aran, taking in some of the most stunning scenery that the Pyrenees has to offer. Besides the ever-present magic of the water, the 102 square kilometres are a paradise for city folk who want to reconnect with nature. The jagged rocky peaks that reach up to 3,000 metres, lush green meadows and thick fir forests are home to a wealth of fauna and flora with many interesting alpine and northern plants and animals. The water sustains an extensive aquatic ecosystem, and the streams and lakes are teeming with trout and provide the perfect habitat for grass frogs, common toads and Pyrenean newts. Muskrats, marmots and otters prowl the banks.
The landscape was formed some 200 million years ago by the grinding and scraping of glaciers during successive ice ages, and the effects of glaciation are evident today in the U-shaped glens, hanging valleys and waterfalls. There are numerous glacial lakes to discover in the Sant Nicolas valley in the western area of the park. This sector is best reached from the town of El Pont de Suert in the lush, narrow valley of Vall de Boí, and from here you can explore the Aigüestortes rivers, including the biggest two, the Riu de Sant Nicolau and the Riu Escrita, which merge at the plain of Aigüestortes.
If you do enter the park from Vall de Boí, be sure to visit the collection of nine early Romanesque churches which were consecrated in the 11th and 12th centuries. These beautifully simple buildings, constructed with local materials, are a wonderful example of Romanesque architecture, highlighted by their Alpine setting. This is the largest concentration of Romanesque art in Europe and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The park’s other main entrance is from the town of Espot in the Vall de Espot and from here you can head to the lake the park is named after, the huge Estany de Sant Maurici, which lies at the foot of the park’s highest summit, the peak of Els Encantats. This is the park’s largest lake and a favourite spot for bird watchers, as over 25 bird species can be found here, including the Golden Eagle and Peregrine Falcon.
There are many hiking trails around the park of varying length and difficulty, from routes that take just a few hours to more serious treks that take in some of the Pyrenees’ highest peaks. For longer hikes there are hostels throughout the park that can be used for overnight stays.
There are many accommodation options in the small towns around the park, ranging from campsites to hotels and rural masías. www.aiguestortes.info/alojamiento/
WHERE TO STAY
Vall de Boi
The Vall de Boí has many pretty little towns that offer small hotels and rustic accommodation, including Boï, Barruera, Durro, Taüll and Erill la Vall.
Espot is a cosy mountain town hemmed in by a lovely green valley, now popular in the winter as a ski resort. The town is about seven kilometres from the Estany de Sant Maurici.
El pont de suert
El Pont de Suert has a pleasant old town centre with a handsome main square, an arcaded main street and an elegant 15th-century building, the Palau Abadial, formerly the residence of abbots.
THE AIGÜESTORTES PLATEAU, LAKE LLONG AND LAKE REDÓ
- Time: 2h 30 min.
- Difference in altitude: 287 metres
This classic trail is the best way to discover the Sant Nicolau valley in the western part of the park. The trek takes walkers to the Llebreta pool and the magnificent deciduous woods that surround it, then to the spectacular Sant Esperit waterfall.
The route follows the course of the river, becoming gradually steeper as it rises through forests of Spanish pine trees and crosses breathtaking plateaus, including that of Aigüestortes. On the way to Lake Llong, visit the vantage point just behind the mountain shelter. The route then skirts around the lake, crosses the Peixerani gully and finally climbs up to Lake Redó.
SANT MAURICI LAKE, RATERA AND AMITGES POOL
- Time: 3h climb.
- Difference in altitude: 740 metres
This popular trail is well sign-posted and offers walkers a complete view of the Riu Escrita valley—from the lush lower part of the valley, dominated by forests of Scotch pine, fir and Spanish pine to the higher, more sparse landscape as the route nears the Amitges shelter (2,380m).
The route passes by seven lakes and pools and is presided over by the peak of Els Encantats, the park’s highest summit. Don’t forget to visit the vantage point on the lake just five minutes from the main path near the Ratera pool. Just before you get there, you can admire the monumental Pi d’Amitges (Amitges Pine), a lone, long-surviving pine tree just to the right of the path.