Decompress from summer in Spain's Pyrenean lodges
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TENDER STANDS OF DUCK MEAT fall from the bone into a mound of mushroom-flecked risottocourse three of dinner at the Estany Llong mountain refuge, in Spain’s Pyrenees. Digging into plate after plate of Catalan delicacies in a stone cottage a half-day’s walk from anywhere doesn’t match my idea of mountain trekking, but after summer’s toll of trail running, biking, and kayaking, the pace here seems unbeatable. We’ve spent the past four days dawdling down valleys streaked with rhododendrons, ending each day at a different communal refugi (Catalan for “shelter”) in Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici national park, part of Spain’s 250-square-mile system of wilderness reserves along its border with France. The 37-mile Carros de Foc (“Chariots of Fire”) loop connects nine fully staffed lodges, each less than ten miles from the next, with trailheads in every park border town. Pack light (water and a change of clothes) and do the circuit, or pick one spot to park it for a week of serene rejuvenation before the snow falls and the chairlifts fire up back home.
1 | Refugi Josep Maria Blanc
Perched at the tip of a peninsula on the deep-blue Tort de Peguera lake, this 60-bed timbered retreat frames 360-degree views of the surrounding 8,000-foot mountains. Hot showers and access to nearby peaks make it a good base for day hikers. Four miles from Espot; bunks, $15; meals, $6$18; www.jmblanc.com
2 | Refugi D’Amitges
One of the highest refuges in the circuit occupies a commanding position at the base of the Agulles d’Amitges, two fanglike granite spires that guard the head of the Ratera valley. In addition to the red table wines stocked by the other refuges, Amitges also supplies aged Penedès. Six miles from Espot; bunks, $15; meals, $6$18; www.amitges.com
3 | Refugi Ventosa i Calvell
Hikers descending from Collet de Contraix are first met with the sight of a 200-foot waterfall plunging into Estany Negre (“Black Lake”) beside this rustic stone cottage with space for 70. The showers are cold, but four-course meals, long pours of cavasparkling wineand access to 9,892-foot Punta Alta ease the pain. Three miles from Caldes de Boí; bunks, $15; meals, $6$18; www.refugiventosa.com
4 | Refugi Estany Llong
Tinkling cowbells in nearby meadows lend a pastoral feel to this 47-bed refuge, set among the shady black pines of the Sant Nicolau valley, in the lower reaches of the park. The tumbling Sant Nicolau river provides the perfect backdrop for dinner of Catalan-style salads and roast duck. Nine miles from Espot; bunks, $8; meals, $6$18; 011-34-973-299-545