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Deep in the high and dry Catalonian pre-Pyrenean hills, Neil Pedoe walks old shepherds’ paths between medieval mountain villages in search of the magical Fifth Lake.

the serene setting of the cinquelacs trail

Picking my way carefully up the last few metres of steep rocky path, all I can hear is the metallic tapping of my walking pole and the sound of my own breathing in the clean mountain air. At the top I climb one of the lichen-spotted boulders littering the rocky outcrop for a panoramic view of the mountains. 

This is the 1,200 metre-high Serra de Peracalç, the second summit of the five-day El Cinque Llac (literally, ‘the Fifth Lake’) hiking route through Catalonia’s Pyrenean foothills in Lleida in northeastern Spain. And it’s only day one of my trek.  

Looking down on the route from above, it’s easier to appreciate its role in this rugged landscape. I can see now that, incredibly, the surface of this remote path is made of individually placed, rounded stones – it’s paved. What’s more,it seems the path’s sole purpose is to provide a direct link between the tiny and practically deserted mountain villages I can see from where I now stand. 

According to my guide, Mireia, this route and many that we will walk this week were once vital trading routes between these mountain villages and the outside world. Now all but deserted, partially overgrown and crumbling, these ancient paths and the tiny medieval villages which they connect feel as if they are on the verge of being completely assimilated into this landscape in the foothills of the Pyrenees. But not quite. 

It’s apt that local family hotel owner Mireia, the driving force behind the Cinque Llac route, is an archaeologist by training. The whole itinerary feels like a walk through a once-thronging but now peacefully depopulated landscape: a spectacular museum after closing time. From the restored sections of trails to the barely inhabited villages and the cherished preservation of Catalonian culture in each of the route’s guesthouses, the sense of experiencing an almost extinct way of life is palpable when walking this route. 

 

In the shadow of the peaks

There’s a real sense of exploration and discovery on this trail, accentuated by the steady pace at which you unravel it on foot. There are some 65 miles to walk over five days, and about 6,000 metres of vertical to go up and come down. The route is certainly not a stroll in the park, but as long as you can walk steadily for six hours a day, then there’s nothing too technical in this mid-mountain trail, which maxes out at 1,557 metres. 

Despite the moderate physical exertion needed, the scenery payback is astounding. Each modest summit delivers breath-taking views of limpid lakes, deep ravines with soaring striated rocky cliffs and ancient oak forests – always with a clutter of Pyrenean pyramid peaks crowding the horizon. If my first night sampling Pobla de Segur’s own Ctretze craft beer and tapas at the lively Café la Union is the perfect Catalan acclimatisation, then the ideal way to walk it off is the next day’s steady four- mile climb.

The serene setting of the CinqueLacs trail.jpg

Looking back south from beyond the village, hill ranges slide in from each side like scenery boards on a stage. In the foreground perch the crumbling walls of Montsor and beyondcurves the Sant Antoni reservoir.  Less than an hour later we cross the rocky Peracalç ridgeline, with the village of the same name behind us and the Pla de Corts plain beyond like a tiny patchwork kingdom. 

A few minutes after leaving the rocky ridge on the ancient paved path we drop into the cool, silent shade of a Scots pine and boxwood forest, the pine needles on the trail muffling our footfalls. Our destination for the day is the ancient walled town of Peramea, a cluster of tiled roofs hugging a rocky outcrop, with a 12th century church perched above. Here we meet Jaume, our guide to Peramea and the host for the second night of the tour in his family home, traditional town house Casa Parramon. 

We meet Jaume’s welcoming mother, too, who prepares us a delicious spread of tapas, local cheese and wine pairings on a roof terrace that looks out high above grazing cattle, towards the distant peaks.

 

Plain as day

After the first few gentle miles over the northern edge of the Plat de Corts plain, the second morning’s hike takes us over La Serra hill and down through woodland to the river Ancs beyond. The trail down this shadowed side of the ravine winds through three distinct forest ecosystems - holm oak laden with iridescent green moss, then pine and eventually deciduous woodland. 

After cooling our feet in a secluded rock pool just below the village of Selui, we leave the river behind and start climbing – on and up to the flat summit of Colladadel Clot d’Andol, some four miles and 500 metres of vertical gain. Higher up and well above 1,000 metres the terrain flattens into high pasture, where herds of native Pyrenean brown cattle greet us with inquisitive stares.

A steep climb later and we crest the ridge of Serraspina mountain, a spot made infamous in the witch trials of 1548 in which women ‘confessed’ to meeting the devil at the high crossroads between Flamisell and Biterna valleys. 

Pausing to take in the wonderful lake country.jpg

The devil is not in evidence today but this spot at 1,528 metres gives the most outstanding views of the high Pyrenees to the north that we’ve seen so far, the late afternoon autumn light picking out their south-facing slopes in bright, pale pastel hues. Immediately to the north are the southern slopes of the Aigüestortes and Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, further west the shoulders of the Pyrenees’ highest peak, the 3,404 metre-high Aneto. 

By now, on the third day of walking, the routine is becoming familiar. I fill up my bottle with water and pack the wholesome and appropriately rustic picnic lunch which is provided by each night’s accommodation, then head for the trail. 

Following the old path from Beranui we cross the cultivated pocket of the Mont-Ros Plain, then immediately start climbing to the hill-top village of Castell-Estaó at 1,100 metres.   

 

Ghost valleys

The next few miles of contouring trail on the sunny side of the valley give a real taste of what life must have been like before the road was built. Above and below us are painstakingly built terraces which would have been constantly worked by villagers from the communities of Castell-Estaó behind us and of Antist further along the trail. 

Descending through steep woodland towards the infamous 10th century Devil’s Bridge, which spans the 50 metre deep Sant Genis Gorge, we stumble upon the crumbling walls of the Sant Genis de Bellera monastery the bridge was built to serve. First founded in 840, and then used as yards for livestock in the 1920s, this once important site has been all but reclaimed by the land and woods it once kept a lofty watch over. Towards the end of the day’s walk we descend into the Manyanet valley to the village of Xerallo, known as the ghost of the Pyrenees due to its now-abandoned cement factory. It’s an eerie spot. 

Two miles further up the valley we arrive in Esglésies, at the cobbled heart of which is the fourth night’s accommodation in the 16th century Casa Batlle, where owner Pepita welcomes me to balconied apartments overlooking a large flagstone courtyard. 

As with almost every day of this week-long walk, a new morning brings a new climb, this time hiking up through the village of Esglésies and beyond the treeline to the flat, high pastures of Prat d’Hort, where cattle and horses graze. From here we climb up to the Els Plans del Mont and the Comillini mountains. We come across the dolmen known as the haunted house for its shelter-like construction. Apart from its air of ancient mystery, it has incredible views to the northern peaks.

Once across the river in Cadolla, we have one more valley to hop as we head east through Naens and down into the ravine which leads to Senterada, where Mireia’s own home and guesthouse, Casa Leonardo waits for us, close to where the Sarroca river joins the Flamisell river heading south.

A grocery shop and guesthouse, Casa Leonardo was originally built by Mireia’s family to serve the community during the construction boom in the early 20th century. Closely reflecting the rest of the local economy, the business closed in 1977 – only to be reopened by Mireia and her husband in 2001. It’s not hard to imagine how life once was here because Mireia and her family have preserved and stocked the shop as if time has stood still, with beautifully curated pictures and artefacts. 

The beautifully restored shop at Casa Leonardo.jpg

 

The lake, at last

Crossing the Flamisell River in the cool morning, the sun still too low to hit the bottom of the ravine, we head east on our last day of walking, heading for the heart of the Pla de Corts plain in search of Moncortès Lake, the long-awaited fifth lake the Cinque Llac route is named after.

Surrounded by a buffer of reeds and ringed by rising woodland and terraces on all sides, the fifth and final lake is a serene, peaceful spot. Sitting on the pier that juts out between a pair of photogenic poplars, I look into the green, cloudy waters, which reach an astonishing 80 metres deep in places, and contemplate how apt the phrase ‘still waters run deep’ is for this magical location.

From the lake our route heads south, completing the circle as we climb the same Escales de Peracalç path we followed on the first day. Stepping back into the streets of La Pobla de Segur, there’s a huge sense of satisfaction, but we’re not done quite yet. The last night of the itinerary ends at Claverol’s Casa Churchill. It’s wonderful to arrive - not just for the sunset view over Sant Antoni reservoir from the terrace, cradling the cool beer offered by my final welcoming host Andrew. Nor just for the pure satisfaction of finishing the route. If anything, the strongest feeling filling me after this spectacular, historic and culture-filled route is one of gratitude; that I have discovered such a gem of a region that I’ll be back to explore time and time again. 

 

Splendid isolation

Until 1911 the Vall Fosca – as well as its inhabitants’ rural way of life – were preserved in almost perfect isolation, only accessible to the outside world and its influences via cart tracks and the ancient trails we are walking. But when the second industrial revolution came to Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia’s cities they needed electric power. The result was Spain’s first hydroelectric power station at Capdella, completed in 1914. 

The new road linking the station to La Pobla de Segur and the world beyond opened up and changed this valley forever. Temporarily it bought in thousands of workers but ultimately it paved the way – literally – for the depopulation of these valleys, as a whole generation headed for better wages and bigger dreams in the cities.

 

Catalonia's stunning cuisine.jpg

Travel info:

Health & safety

Take and drink plenty of water, follow route instructions, carry a map and check weather forecasts.

 

What to pack

Walking poles, trousers, sunscreen and hat, walking boots or approach shoes, a fleece or mid-layer. 

 

Our trip

Neil was hosted by Pirineu Emoció (pirineuemocio.com) the Catalan Tourist board (catalunya.com) and El Cinquè Llac accommodation owners.

Pirineu Emoció offer a five-day Cinque Llac walking holiday from £530 (based on a group of four) including return Lake Train travel from Lleida to La Pobla de Segur, six nights half-board accommodation, lunches, insurance and luggage transfers.

 

Getting there

Neil flew with Vueling from London Gatwick to Barcelona, from £26 each way, and then took the AVE high speed train, from £12 each way (renfe.com) from Barcelona Sants to Lleida-Pirineus and the Lakes Train to La Pobla de Segur terminus.  

vueling.com

 

Where to stay

Casa Leonardo, Senterada; A fine country-house hotel, brimming with charm and hospitality

casaleonardo.net

 

Casa Churchill, Claverol; Charming rural house with friendly hosts

casachurchill.cat

 

Casa Fasersia, La Pobla de Segur; A comfortable town centre boarding house with lake views and hearty food. 

canfasersia.com

 

Casa Parramon, Peramea; Authentic restored farmhouse in medieval Peramea with breathtaking views of Pla de Corts plain.

casaparramon.net

 

Casa Macianet, Beranui; Restored casa, rural townhouse in an authentic Vall Fosca walled village. 

casamacianet.com

 

Casa Batlle I Casa Mossèn Batista, Les Eglésies; The oldest farm house in this beautiful village in the heart of the Bòssian valley.

casabatlle.com

 

Catalonia map.PNG