Ribes de Freser is a pretty little town which is famous for spa water and paper manufacture and a number of redundant stone mills are squeezed into the valley of the river Freser where even in July the melt waters from the Pyrenees made it fresh and lively as the agitated water danced over rocks and surged across gravel beds as it swept the surplus water away.
We walked along the river and came across a young couple who had obviously made the same timetable mistake as me and were now engaged in a blame share conversation that was becoming quite heated and increasingly blue!
And so we dawdled through the streets, Kim wasted some time in a shop while a spotted a poster for a dancing festival that would start tomorrow – the day after we had gone and then we found a table in the sun and ordered some beer. Nearby was a group of young people with a massive dog and I took no particular notice because it was lying peacefully in the sun and not annoying anyone. Not that is until it sniffed my pheromones and sensing my acute cynophobia stood up, arched its back, bristled its hairs and started to bark madly in my direction. I really hate dogs and they clearly hate me, I had done nothing to provoke this act of aggression and the owners had to apply a muzzle, try to calm it down and failing completely, pay up and leave. Oh boy, I really hate dogs and they really hate me!
The two hours passed surprisingly quickly and we made our way back to the train station, purchased our tickets and waited for it to arrive and leave.
The Vall de Núria Rack Railway is a mountain railway line that connects Ribes de Freser with the mountain town of Queralbs and then finally Vall de Núria. As Queralbs is the highest point in the valley that can be reached by road, the rack railway is, except for the old footpath, the only way to reach the shrine and ski resort at Núria.
The line is twelve and a half kilometres long and the first half of the line is operated by conventional rail adhesion but then it becomes so steep as it rises through one thousand kilometres that the remainder of the line is operated as a rack railway using a system of cogs that interlock with the track to ensure necessary traction to negotiate the gradient.
The journey took forty-five minutes as the electric engine purred its way along the river valley with wonderful views of forests, rocky cliffs, bubbling waterfalls, river beds strewn with sharp boulders and fallen trees and narrow mountain passes which was once the only way that pilgrims made their way into the valley and to the chapel and sanctuary at the top. Eventually the track levelled out and the train passed through a long dark tunnel before emerging into the sunshine once more and into the sanctuary of the Vall de Nuria.
This place was apparently once a favourite of General Franco and his pals and it is not difficult to understand why. Beneath the craggy peaks where black walls of bare rock were separated by gullies still streaked with winter snow are lush alpine meadows where fat dairy cows gorge themselves on emerald green grass, where bubbling streams tumble down the mountain side through rocky gorges and under stone bridges and in the centre of the valley is a blue lake where fish swim and leap out of the water and it all reminded me of that American folk song ‘the Big Rock Candy Mountain’. I liked it here, it was peaceful, it was gentle, it was tranquil and it was out of the way and off the beaten track.
There was a cable car ride to the very top where at two thousand three hundred metres the views in all directions were quite stunning, too stunning as it happens for me to be able to describe and then, as it was cooler at this elevation, we choose to walk back down and make several detours to enjoy the countryside, the waterfalls and the crisp mountain air.
Actually, the only thing that spoilt it was the hotel complex building which reminded me of Battersea Power Station on the River Thames and whose design didn’t seem to especially complement the natural surroundings but there were a couple of good displays inside about the history and the technology and we visited the sanctuary chapel and suddenly after a couple of hours it was time to go back down.
On the drive back to Campdevànol we stopped and purchased some wine and then there was a decision to be made about evening meal. The hotel restaurant had a café feel about it but Kim was confident that it would be fine so we reserved a table and after a rest and a couple of beers we returned down stairs to a restaurant that was overflowing, that was bulging, that was struggling to cope with the number of diners and we interpreted this as a very good sign. And Kim was right because the meal was exceptional and the staff, unaccustomed to English guests had gone to a lot of trouble to make us feel welcome even to the extent of translating the menu into an amusing English version just for us, which I thought was a very nice touch!