Paul Bloomfield explores Catalonia's Montsec mountains on foot and by kayak
"Turquoise." "No, teal." "That water is turquoise." "I told you: it's teal. " Pause... and just when I thought it was settled: "Turquoise."
As wrangles go, it was hardly world war three. But since our debate about the colour of the water was conducted while negotiating a narrow bridle path etched into near-vertical cliffs plummeting 500m into that teal-turquoise-blue-green channel below, it was possibly not as crucial as keeping our eyes on the trail. Particularly since peckish vultures circled overhead, ready to feast on the unfortunate remains of any less sure-footed hikers.
If the exact hue of the river was in dispute, the grandeur of the canyon certainly wasn't., a narrow gorge slicing through the wide, vertiginous sweep of the Serra de Montsec range in Catalonia's wild west, is a highpoint – literally and figuratively – of Lleida province.
Carved through the mountain by the Noguera Ribagorçana river, the gorge isn't just a thing of beauty: for centuries it was the main route through the range from north to south, and today it forms the border between Catalonia and Aragon.
The important ancient trail near the valley floor was flooded when the Canelles dam was built in the mid-20th century, and a new path gouged from the rock high above the new water level. It was a bright May morning when a companion and I joined local guide Jaume Marvà to traverse this dramatic track, part of the GR1 long-distance trail.
From the boat drop-off nearnorth of the gorge proper, the path climbs briefly as the rock walls rapidly close in. Intimidating though these cliffs appear, they're far from inhospitable; Jaume pointed out clefts where bearded vultures, golden eagles and peregrine falcons nest.
Upwards and onwards we strode, glancing back over our shoulders to admire the jagged ruins of the Castell de Girbeta silhouetted against distant, snow-capped Pyrenean peaks.
"The tower was built in 1070 by Christians undertaking the conquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors," Jaume told me. "It guarded this important route into the rest of Spain – though it was another half-century before the mountains were taken by the Christians."
After half an hour the canyon widened and the path wound beneath a reminder of even older human habitation: gaping Cova Colomera.
"This cave is still being studied by archaeologists, who have discovered neolithic remains inside," Jaume told me. "Indeed, there are more than 70 caves in the Montsec area, many decorated with ancient rock art."
A little further on, the new hanging bridge of la Maçana spans the gorge; here the path splits, one branch crossing into Aragon and leading on to the refuge at Montfalcó ('Falcon Mountain'). We continued on the Catalan side instead, admiring paragliders riding thermals overhead and pausing to sniff wild rosemary lining the track.
The day was rapidly heating up, and the shade provided as the path snaked into aromatic pinewoods was welcome, particularly as the trail began a long ascent. Finally we emerged from rocky scrub onto a ridge topped by the medieval Ermita de la Mare de Déu de la Pertusa chapel, where we perched to drink in the panoramic vistas.
To the north rose rust-streaked cliffs; to the west, the glistening Canelles reservoir (Catalonia's largest lake); and below I traced the wake of a lone kayak emerging from the gorge – a tempting trailer for our afternoon activity.
After a hearty lunch of escudella amb pilota (traditional mountain soup with pasta and meatballs) and butifarra sausage, based on an ancient Roman recipe, the kayak sat a little lower in the water than I'd like. But that extra ballast was soon forgotten as I paddled across the reservoir with adventure guide Joel Mirón, the extraordinary shade of the water even more striking at close range. My craft skimmed across the still water with easy strokes, the elephant-skin wrinkled rock walls funnelling us into the canyon.
From this perspective the rock-top eyrie of La Pertusa seemed even more dramatic, the cliffs more daunting; no wonder rock-climbers flock here. "Legendary American climber Chris Sharma pioneered one of the world's toughest routes here last year," Joel told me. On this warm spring afternoon, though, we had the place to ourselves.
The only sounds were the gentle splash-and-drip as our paddles dipped in that mineral-tinged water, and the florid trills and warbles of birds darting above. North we forged, tracing the morning's route in reverse, beneath steps bolted into the rock forming the Aragonese path, and under the bridge of la Maçana into the gorge.
Here I leaned back in my craft and drifted free, gazing up at electric-blue sky framed tightly by the tall rock walls, speckled with circling black dots betraying birds of prey soaring high on thermals – though in this timeless spot I wouldn't have been surprised if Joel had identified them as pterodactyls.
The firmament above Montsec has more than just avian life to draw the attention, as I would soon discover. Thanks to its clear air, low population and minimal light pollution, the area has been designation a Unesco Starlight Reserve – a wonderful place to experience the wonders of astronomy. So late that night I headed just a few miles east of the gorge to Montsec Astronomical Park, an observatory dedicated to bringing the wonders of the universe vividly to life for novice stargazers.
Sadly, the evening brought clouds and rain, so the huge telescope remained covered. No matter: in the central dome cinema, after a lively 3D film introducing basic astronomical concepts beginning with the big bang, an astonishingly sophisticated computer-generated simulation carried us deep into the cosmos. Through time and space we were whisked, to distant stars as they were born and died, showing how constellations fit together and bringing the vastness of the universe into sharp focus – a fitting end to a day showcasing the galaxy of activities and attractions in Lleida.
Words and photos by Paul Bloomfield
>> Montsec Activa offers activities including hiking, kayaking and paddle-surfing.
>> Joel's company Zenith Aventura rents kayaks, runs via ferrata sessions and provides training and tandem flights on hang-gliders and paragliders.
>> Parc Astronòmic Montsec is open to visitors till 2am during spring and summer.
Disclosure: Paul Bloomfield was a guest of the Catalan Tourist Board. He has full editorial control of the review, which is written in his own words based on his experience of visiting Catalonia in the early summer of 2017 for Greentraveller's Guide to Catalonia. All opinions are the author’s own.