A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 06 July 2014 by John Richards
The Pyrenees. Entry 276.
I don't know what it is about the Pyrenees. Compared with our favourite parts of the Alps (the Dolomites, and the southern French Alps where we had a sensationally successful holiday last June, reported in these pages), our few visits to the Pyrenees have left me feeling slightly underwhelmed. To be fair, I have only visited the Pyrenees on three occasions, most recently ten years ago, so when Margaret and Henry Taylor's excellent new book on the Pyrenees was published by the AGS as part of the 'Mountain Walks' series, I felt it was high time we returned.
One of the problems is that the only airport adjacent to the Pyrenees served by our local airport, Newcastle, is Girona (and by Ryan Air, too!). This means that it is exceptionally easy for us to reach the eastern Pyrenees, but the central and western Pyrenees, which are arguably richer botanically, and are certainly better served by high passes, are pretty inaccessible. And here we hit another snag about the Pyrenees. It is a very long, thin range, and it is exceptionally difficult to make fast progress from east to west, especially on the Spanish side. As a result, we completely missed out on spectacular Pyrenean specials such as Ramonda myconi, Saxifraga longifolia, S. aretioides, S. media, Iris xiphoides, Fritillaria pyrenaica, and we only saw Lilium pyrenaicum from the car on a main road.
Also, we are getting no younger, and increasingly dependent on botanising by means of short excursions from the (hire) car. Eight hour days in the hills are a fairly distant memory, not helped in my case by a sore back and stiff hip. Even were I willing to ride in cable cars (and I am not), few seem to run in the Pyrenees in summer. Compared to many parts of the Alps which are so miraculously well served by high road passes, it is not easy to reach high alpines in the eastern Pyrenees.
Of course, there are exceptions. One, on the French side, is Err Puigmal, easily reached from Mont-Louis, where you can drive to nearly 2000 m and excellent high alpines are less than half an hours walk distant. We visited this site in 2004, and reported it to the Taylors, who mention this in their book. However, we didn't want to repeat ourselves, so instead we followed the Taylors' recommendation and decided to visit Nuria, on the Spanish side. Nuria is only reachable by rail (or foot), so we booked three nights self-catering accommodation at the intermediate station on the rack-and-pinion line, Queralbs. We were put off staying at the barrack-like monastery/hotel, not least by the price. Originally, the plan was to make two days visits by train, but we were also put off a second visit by the cost of the short rail journey (16 euros each), and the indifferent weather.
It turned out that our accommodation (Fontanalba, recommended) commanded a superb view, not least of the railway and the station. In the second picture, taken from the station, the houses on the hillside are Fontanalba.
Nuria stands at almost 2000 m altitude, and excellent alpines are encountered immediately. It is an extraordinary place, and far too popular even midweek in term time (we were there on June 26th). However, as always, you can soon walk away from the crowds, and as Henry and Margaret show, there are many excellent walks. Unfortunately, we were rather hampered by the weather. It did not rain all the time, but it was not warm, and some of the showers were vicious. This rather put us off one of the longer walks, and my hip was not having one of its better days. Consequently we managed to miss most of the 'specials', although I did see a solitary Androsace vandelii high on cliffs south of the lake.
Here is a view of the site from the west.
One of the striking aspects of the botany at Nuria is that some plants that are difficult to find elsewhere, are abundant and accessible. A good example is Linaria supina which is common just to the west of the hotel.
There is also a lot of Daphne cneorum.
Cytisus purgans is abundant.
As is Vicia pyrenaica.
I think I was most impressed by Saxifraga pubescens. This is arguably the most desirable of the mossy saxifrages, and in its usual guise 'Snowcap' is deservedly popular on the show bench. I had not seen it in the wild before, and was surprised to find it fairly common at Nuria, often growing with S. exarata. S. aquatica was common too, in wetter places.
I don't want to seem too downbeat about Nuria. We saw lots of 'basic alpines' in great form making great swags of colour: Rhododendron ferrugineum, Saxifraga paniculata, S. aizoides, Viola biflora, Valeriana pyrenaica, Linaria alpina, Trifolium alpinum, Pulsatilla alpina apiifolia, P. vernalis (mostly over), Hepatica nobilis Myosotis alpestris, Polystichum lonchitis, Leucanthemopsis alpina, Rosa pendulina, Viola tricolor, Silene acaulis, Trollius europaeus, Cardamine raphanifolia, Dianthus deltoides, Gypsophila repens, Gentiana verna, G. acaulis, Iberis saxatilis, Sempervivum montanum, S. tectorum, S. arachnoideum, Antennaria dioica, Veronica fruticans, Pedicularis comosa, P. pyrenaica, Potentilla neumanniana, Potentilla fruticosa and many others. There are also some Pyrenean 'specials'such as the spectacular umbellifer Xatardia scabra, Lonicera pyrenaica, Jasione crispa, Aconitum compactum, and the yam Dioscorea pyrenaica. There was a lot of Pinguicula grandiflora. Primula integrifolia was quite plentiful, as was the Pyrenean form of P. latifolia (cynoglossifolia), and on cliffs at the end of the lake I found the hybrid P. x muretiana growing with both parents, sadly finished flowering. I was delighted to find the little fern Asplenium septentrionale which is a local rarity near here in Northumbertland, and which was successfully introduced from Greece by the MESE expedition.
The fact that we didn't see more was down to the weather, to the fact that we stupidly started on a wrong (and very testing) path for the first hour, and that, as explained earlier, we didn't go back a second day. But what we did do the second day was to try another, untested site, Vallter 2000.
Vallter 2000 is a ski resort only about 10 km east of Nuria, but to drive there from Queralbs it is necessary to travel south to Ripoll (a traffic nightmare), east to Camprodon and north through Setcases, a journey of about an hour, especially if you get lost in Ripoll. The final car park (attached to a large, and in late June totally deserted ski station) is at 2120 m, but you drive through some attractive areas first, including defiles with waterfalls and splendid Pulsatilla alpina ssp. apiifolia.
At one stage great masses of white flowers were seen growing through juniper, which proved to be the endemic Saxifraga geranioides, another excellent 'mossy' which was new to me.
After parking, we walked west, to the left of a piste. The walk was steep to start with, but at about 2280 m altitude we started to see a lot of flowers. Like Nuria, this is mostly a schistose area, and parts are very obviously acidic, so that the little azalea relative Loisleuria procumbens occurs.
One attractive little plant that we did not see at Nuria was Androsace laggeri.
Primula integrifolia was even more abundant than at Nuria, and in full flower.
There was also an intriguing dwarf form I had not seen before.
There were excellent forms of Erigeron uniflorus with aster-sized flowers.
However, the crowing glory of this area was undoubtedly the gentians, of which we saw six species (including the large yellow G.burseri). At the ski centre, G. verna predominates, sometimes in a distinctive 'Maltese Cross' form.
However at 2300 m, Gentiana brachyphylla appears, often colonising the piste.
In rocky areas, there are both G. acaulis and G. angustifolia. The latter has a different 'jizz', with longer pedicels, longer, narrower leaves, and more reflexed calyx lobes. This photo is from later in the holiday, on Col D'Agnes.
However, the crowning glory was G. alpina which was abundant on wet 'lawns' beside the rushing stream where it often grew with Silene acaulis. This distinctive species is rare in the Alps, but widespread in the Pyrenees. Two summers ago we met the same gentian community (brachyphylla and alpina) far to the south on the Sierra Nevada.
I returned to the centre by another route, descending from the north, and here, by the edge of a scree, I unexpectedly found several patches of one of the Nuria high alpine 'specials' the wonderful Senecio leucophyllus.
At this point, my day was made perfect by a Lammergeier which soared above the valley for the best part of 20 minutes. The accompanying photo is appalling, but just about recognisable. A great thrill, anyway.
Vallter is well-worth further exploration. The area north-east of the centre is limestone and probably would reward a walk. As it was we saw many lovely plants not otherwise mentioned here: Ranunculus pyrenaeus and R. aconitifolius for instance, Erysimum helveticum in a good form, Saxifraga aquatica, Potentilla crantzii, Gymnadenia nigra, and the meadows lower down are full of orchids including Burnt-tip, Neotinea ustulata, as well as Paradisea liliastrum.