Looming gracefully over northern Catalunya, the snow-tipped Pyrenees form a mighty barrier between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. You can ski and hike throughout these mountains, making use of a range of ski centres and vast stretches of natural parkland. Imposing peaks reach more than 3400m, while fierce rivers cleave the green valleys; tucked away in the valleys and clinging to the mountains are centuries-old alpine villages, each with its own Romanesque church, collectively forming an open-air rural museum of early medieval architecture, particularly in the beautiful Vall de Boí.
The Pyrenees are easy to reach from Barcelona – Ripoll, a gateway town to the mountains, is accessible in less than three hours. The ski scene dominates the mountains northwest of Ripoll, while summer draws hikers and trekkers. North of Ripoll is the village of Ribes de Freser, where you can board the famous cremallera railway which snakes its way up to the small ski town and pilgrimage site of Núria – one of the most magnificent journeys in the Pyrenees.
West of here unfolds the formidable Serra del Cadí, which offers superb hiking and trekking around one of Catalunya’s most recognizable peaks, the Pedraforca. To the north, along the French border, is La Cerdanya, a lush, sunny Pyrenean valley that’s especially popular in the summer with outdoor enthusiasts. Cerdanya’s capital is the lively town of Puigcerdà, while just across the border sits the geographical oddity of Llívia, a Spanish town fully enclosed by France. In winter, skiers flock to La Molina and Masella, the two big ski resorts in the area.
The mountainous terrain around La Seu d’Urgell, still further west, offers some of the best trekking in the Pyrenees. White-water aficionados get their adrenalin rush in the Noguera Pallaresa valley, where churning rivers offer the best rafting in the region. Finally, in the far northwest unfolds the rugged Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, and lush Val d’Aran, one of Spain’s most chic and finest ski resorts.