From the soaring Pyrenees range to golden Mediterranean beaches, Catalonia is ripe for all kinds of outdoor pursuits. While most travellers would be more familiar with the bustling capital of Barcelona, few visitors make it as far north as the region of Val d’Aran (or the “Aran Valley”), but its relative isolation – it is only accessible by road – is a major part of its draw.
Catalonia’s northernmost outpost, Val d’Aran is located at the western end of the Pyrenees, with 3,000m-tall soaring peaks that face the Atlantic (rather than the Mediterranean). Dotted with plentiful historic sites, quaint villages and plenty of nature, Val d’Aran is also home to Spain’s biggest – and arguably best – ski resort.
SKIING AND SNOWBOARDING
Situated between altitudes of 1,500m and 2,510m, the ski resort of Baqueira Beret is the only Spanish ski resort located on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees, meaning it has the advantage of guaranteeing an abundance of good quality snow, with a ski season that lasts until early April.
Located 13km from Vielha (the capital of Val d’Aran), Baqueira-Beret actually consists of 3 interconnected ski resorts: Beret, Baqueira, and Bonaigua. The resort is the most prestigious in Spain, patronised by many celebrities, including the Spanish royal family. Thanks to its high status, the resort’s sprawling slopes – it’s the largest ski area in Spain at 2,166 hectares – are meticulously maintained and groomed by snow technicians (the slopes close by 5pm to allow technicians enough time to groom the entire resort before the next day).
The lift system at Baqueira-Beret, including gondolas, chairlifts, rope pulls and conveyor belts, is able to transport an impressive 60,000 people per hour up to the slopes.
Thanks to its topography, the resort caters to skiers and snowboarders of every level. Beginners are well catered for in the Beret (as well as Baqueira) area, which has a number of gentler slopes accessible via conveyor belts. Numerous ski and snowboard schools (as well as board rentals) operate in the area, and there are about 500 instructors throughout the resort.
With 153kms of piste (in a total of 99 runs), the biggest variety of slopes cater to intermediate skiers, with 41 blue and 37 red pistes of 124 skiable kilometres. For experts, there are 15 black runs (18km) of significant length. There are also off-piste areas, which are generally accessible to those equipped with skins or splitboards.
There are also 3 customised ‘ski safaris’ catered to experienced skiers, including the 4-hour Blue Safari (25.3km), the Red Safari (37.1km), as well as the advanced Black Safari (23.1km) which takes just over 2 hours. Thanks to the easy connectivity between the 3 peaks, skiers can ride from one point to another without needing to repeat a run. There are also cafes and toilets located at several points on the slopes, so you don’t need to return to base for lunch. Owing to its status, accommodation in Baqueira (the closest town) generally tends to be in the 4-5 star category; there are also several small villages dotted around the area (like Salardu or Arties) that cater to skiers. Out of season (by early April), everything is closed.
Thanks to the relative isolation, the people in Val d’Aran have also managed to preserve their local language – Aranese, which is a variety of Occitan, a language spoken in southern France – in addition to Catalan and Spanish. They’ve also retained their traditional architecture, which consists of classic stone and wood houses with slate roofs.
Val d’Aran’s spectacular landscape of sky-scraping peaks and tumbling slopes is dotted with hill villages, many of which, like Unha and Salardú, hide exquisite Romanesque churches.
Just an hour’s drive south from Vielha is Vall de Boí, a valley that contains the densest concentration of Romanesque (12th – 13th century) architecture in Europe. The nine UNESCO-listed churches scattered in the area are known for their murals, including Sant Climent in the village of Taüll (with its impressive image projection), San Joan in Boí, and Santa Eulàlia in Erill la Vall. The Romanesque Route 1 is a walking trail that connects these villages along a 16km loop. The area is ideal for a day-trip from Val d’Aran.
Just before Vall de Boí lies Aigüestortes National Park, the only National Park in Catalonia, dotted with jagged rocky peaks over 3,000m and a multitude of majestic lakes and waterfalls. Plenty of walking trails and rugged hiking routes traverse this majestic park, where hikers may encounter wildlife like chamoix, marmots and bearded vultures.
With single and multi-seater sleds, and a team of about 60 dogs, Montgarri Outdoor offers dog sledding excursions. You can zip through the white Pyrenean landscape, with the silence broken by panting dogs and the musher’s commands.
Starting from Pla de Beret (near the ski resort), guided tours start from 30 minutes onwards. There are also options for mushing lessons as well as night sled excursions to the pretty refuge of Montgarri (1,654m) about 7km away. On a clear night, you can enjoy a starry sky as you glide quietly through the forest, with a hearty dinner waiting at the refuge.
Snowmobile tours are available for both day and night excursions, covering pretty much the same areas as dog sledding (around Beret). No permit is required – guides will take riders along exclusive snowmobile routes.
A popular activity in Val d’Aran is snowshoeing. You can tackle the trails with a good map of the area, or go with a guide. A number of operators offer snowshoe tours that take you along quiet snowy tracks to frozen lakes, pine forests and ancient refuges.
A popular 4-hour return trail starts from Pla de Beret through woodland and along the banks of the Noguera Pallaresa River to Montgarri, where meals and accommodation can be arranged. There are also night snowshoe tours lit by the light of the full moon.
Val d’Aran is ideal for exploring on hiking excursions. These range from easy day hikes along the periphery of Aigüestortes National Park to multi-day hikes like the 150km Camin Reiau (Royal Path) which were used by the Romans to connect the villages of Val d’Aran. For trail details, visit www.senderismovaldaran.com.
Val d’Aran’s mountainous landscape is ideal for mountain biking (BTT), with a variety of routes ranging from easy trails to downhill rides and multi-day tours. These include the scenic Arties-Garòs-Arties (5.8km/1.5hrs) and the Route Era Roda, a 210km (205 days) route where cyclists have to post photos of the route to mark their rankings. For more on BTT routes, check www.bikingvaldaran.com.