One of nine in Spain, Catalunya’s largest national park, the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, encompasses soaring peaks topping 3000m and lush meadows irrigated by more than four hundred lakes, streams, waterfalls and impressive glacial valleys. Established in 1955, the park is comprised of valleys blanketed in pine and fir forests, while wild animals like the isard, a small antelope also known as the chamois, roam the terrain. You might even spot a golden eagle or black woodpecker, both common here.
Hiking and trekking opportunities abound, from easy walks around sparkling lakes to serious treks up the mountain. The Sant Nicolas valley in the west features numerous glacial lakes, as well as the meanders of Aigüestortes (Twisted Waters). In the east lies the massive Estany de Sant Maurici (Sant Maurici Lake), at the head of the Escrita valley. In the winter, you can also cross-country ski through the park, though there are no marked trails.
The park’s western sector is best reached from the Vall de Boí – to explore Aigüestortes, the approach is generally from Boí via El Pont de Suert; the eastern portion, including Lake Sant Maurici, is accessed via Espot, which lies just beyond the eastern border of the park. The easiest starting point for the higher mountains is Capdella, south of the park. If you’ll be hiking for several days at a time between June and September, you can stay at any of the refuges throughout the park. Either visitor centre can give you a list.
Vall de Fosca
The verdant Vall de Fosca, which extends just south of the park, received its name Fosca (“dark”) because it’s surrounded by steep slopes that obscure the sun. Tiny Capdella is perched at its northernmost point, and at 1420m, is the highest of the fifteen or so tiny villages and settlements that are sprinkled south through the valley, including Espui and La Torre de Capdella, which has the valley’s tourist office. Capdella makes for a good jumping-off point into the park, and is the village closest to the teleférico (cable car).
Espot, Espot Esquí and around
Espot is a cosy mountain town hemmed in by a lovely green valley, which has increasingly been built up as a tourist centre. In the winter, skiers pass through on their way to Espot Esquí (wgranpallars.com), just south of town, with nearly thirty alpine trails.
You can access the park from Espot, which lies about 7km from the Estany de Sant Maurici. Upon arrival at the estany (lake), you’ll want to get your camera out: it’s a beautiful scene, the lake fringed by wilderness and dominated by the spires of Els Encants (“The Enchanted Ones”; 2700m).
El Pont de Suert
EL PONT DE SUERT, 41km northwest of La Pobla de Segur, features a pleasant old town, a handsome main plaça, an arcaded c/Mayor and the elegant fifteenth-century Palau Abadial, a former residence of abbots. The town also receives fairly regular buses, so you’ll pass through if you’re arriving at the park from the west.
Vall de Boí
Extending just west of the national park is the lush Vall de Boí, anchored by the mountain village of Boí. The highlights of the valley are its lovely Romanesque churches, the most remarkable of their kind in Catalunya. In 2000, the churches were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, who described them as “an especially pure and consistent example of Romanesque art in a virtually untouched rural setting”. And it is this setting that leaves the lasting impression – the beautiful simplicity of the early Romanesque architecture is magnified by the utter alpine stillness surrounding them. The churches, all built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, were constructed of local materials, like stone, slate and wood – and their most striking features are their elegant belfries which, in the case of Taüll, rises an impressive six storeys. Note that many of the church frescoes are reproductions – though excellent ones, to be sure – because the originals have been moved to MNAC in Barcelona. In addition to the valley’s two finest churches in Taüll, other Romanesque beauties worth a visit are Sant Feliu in Barruera, Nativitat in Durro and Santa Eulàlia in Erill la Vall.