Spain’s green north: driving through the Aragón Pyrenees

Eighty two million people visit Spain every year, and it’s a fair bet that most of them head south for the beaches.

But there is also a greener Spain, lofty pine-clad mountains, tumbling streams and lakes, spectacular vistas and fascinating history. 

Unsurprisingly, this green Spain lies in the rainier north; so we took a few days out in the central Pyrenees of Aragón. Travellers have been passing this way since medieval times – pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela, the shrine of St James in Galicia. You could say they were the original tourists.

The scallop shell symbol is everywhere by the roadside on the main N-240, marking the Camino de Santiago. And just a few kilometres off the Camino,  in the hills south west of Jaca, lies the remarkable Royal Monastery of San Juan de la Pena (St John of the Cliff).

San Juan de la Pena
Monasterio San Juan de la Pena
IMG_3245
Tucked under a cliff, the Old Monastery
IMG_3233
Remains of the cloister underneath the mountain

How to describe it? It’s as if a giant hand had reached down, lifted up the mountainside and tucked a perfectly-formed Romanesque church underneath it.  Dating from the 10th century, it’s also the final resting place of the Kings of Aragón. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.

A fire in 1675 meant the monks abandoned their ancient home under the cliff and built a new monastery at the top of the hill, which is pretty impressive in its own right.

Monasterio Nuevo
Monasterio Nuevo, San Juan de la Pena.

Drive up the narrow, winding road from the main N-240 to the Monasterio Nuevo, park up and buy your tickets, then take the shuttle bus down to the old site. There’s also a bus in the tourist season from Jaca up to the monastery.

Try also exploring the valleys that run up into the Pyrenees towards France. The beautiful Valle de Tena takes you from the little town of Biescas up to (and across if you want) the French border.

Valle de Tena
Valle de Tena, looking down on the Embalse de Lanuza

In the winter, skiers flock to the slopes at Formigal and Panticosa, but in the summer, it’s a place for hiking, for camping, for driving through spectacular landscapes….and a world away from the Costas.

We stayed at Camping Gavín, a mix of tents and wooden cabins set in a nearby valley and drove up into the mountains from Biescas, past the huge lake of the Embalse de Búbal, which dams the Gállego river.

Those with a head for heights should drive round to Hoz de Jaca on the far side of the lake, which boasts the longest double zip line in Europe, almost a kilometre long. Did we go for it…well, no actually. Next time maybe.

Balneario de Panticosa
The lake at Balneario de Panticosa, a spa hotel 1,630 metres up
Balneario de Panticosa
Mountains and falls, Balneario de Panticosa
Balneario de Panticosa
Spectacular falls, Balneario de Panticosa, Aragón

Turn off the main road towards the Balneario de Panticosa, a spa hotel nestling in a natural bowl in the mountains. If you don’t fancy taking the waters yourself, the lake, the falls and the stunning mountain scenery are well worth the detour.  At this point, you’re 1,630 metres up.

Return to the main Valle de Tena and keep going uphill; at the head of the Embalse de Lanuza is the pretty little town of Sallent de Gállego and its medieval Puente Romano.

Sallent
Looking up to the church and the peaks beyond, Sallent de Gállego
Sallent de Gállego
Mountains and the river Gállego at the pretty town of Sallent

Higher still is the ski resort of Formigal, which unsurprisingly is not that lively in the summertime, and then on to the French border at El Portalet and the road north to Pau.

A green reminder that there’s a lot more to Spain than just the seaside…

© Guy Pelham 2018

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