There are only two ways to reach this sanctuary; by rack railway, or on foot. There aren’t any roads, and the walk up in the depths of winter is an especially daunting prospect. Taking around 30 minutes on the train, the trek up is likely to take several hours, particularly when wading through the deep snow of the higher altitudes.
The train is a far less strenuous, and this relaxing method of travelling into the natural amphitheatre seems preferable. Especially if the vintage carriage being used, allowing a chilled ride through the dramatic landscape, enjoying cava, and assorted cakes served by an attendant wearing traditional, period costume.
At over 2000 feet, the only hotel sits nestled among the surrounding rugged hills, which offer many opportunities for outdoor activities regardless of the time of year.
High level trekking, and horse riding are popular from spring through to late autumn, and the oars of the flotilla of rowing boats occasionally break the mirror like surface of the small pond. Tiny ripples grow into small waves, lapping at the jetty of the boathouse, and spoiling the perfect reflections of the surrounding peaks.
When the grip of winter begins to take hold, and the first flakes of snow settle in the high alpine meadows, the horses retire to their warm stables, and the wheels that drive the chairlifts whirr into action. The rowing boats become fixed fast on the frozen pond, as scores of skiers take to the pistes of the small resort.
It is especially popular with families, and schools, the few runs are ideal for beginners, and many a Catalan probably made their first tentative downward slide on skis or snowboard here.
Snowshoeing is also a popular activity, as within a few minutes steady climb from the hotel, the busy pistes can soon be left far behind. The intrepid adventurers tempted by this form of exploring are soon rewarded for their effort with the enveloping silence of a pristine wilderness.
Marmots will undoubtedly be slumbering the winter away in their burrows, but there is plenty of wildlife still on view. Our group stood transfixed for several minutes while an arctic fox, draped in it’s snow white coat attempted to outflank several chamois. The drama unfolded before our eyes on a distant hill, the fox eventually being thwarted by the deep snow. Our guide seemed a little too blasé, when he informed us there were now wolves roaming the valley, and at least one of our group was convinced the fox was actually a larger cousin.
High overhead Griffon vultures soar on thermals in search of a carcass left by more proactive predators of the sanctuary, sharing the skies with the regal golden eagles. The silence is occasionally broken by the haunting cries of ravens circling the peaks, harrying, and goading the large raptors like a group of adolescent bullies.
Vall de Núria, having been fortunate enough to visit during both autumn, and winter has become one of my favourite destinations in Europe. Mountain wildernesses are stunning, untamed environments, and while this sanctuary tucked away in the Pyrénées has seen a degree of development, it is a wilderness for all seasons.