Sunday, 22 August 1943. New Zealand Sgt. Chalky White, a volunteer in the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), pilots his Spitfire over the Channel. His squadron escorts 36 North American bombers whose mission is to destroy the German fighters based at Beaumont-le-Roger airfield.
A Focke-Wulf German fighter shoots Chalky’s fighter plane down while the squadron is over Normandy. No way to come back to England, so Chalky decides to make a crash landing. An hour later, the Wehrmacht captures and questions Chalky. He punches and knocks out his guard and escapes soon after.
It’s the start of an incredible story; Chalky will cross France and the Pyrenees without speaking a word of French, German, Catalan or Spanish. He will first reach Paris, then Toulouse, and finally cross the Pyrenees into Catalonia with the help of a French guide.
Our Freedom trail Pyrenees trek follows in the Chalky’s footsteps between Mont-Louis, in France, and Ripoll, in Catalonia. To learn more about this an unbelievable story click here.
From Ripoll Chalky made his way to the the British Consulate in Barcelona, then the British embassy in Madrid. He travelled on to Gibraltar and then on to England, where he rejoined the RNZAF.
Meeting with the guide in Barcelona at 9.30am. The group will then travel by bus to Puigcerdà. Once in Puigcerdà, we will have lunch and then walk to the train jaune station in Bourg-Madame.
The train will take us to Les Planès station, where we will arrive at 17:20.
The first leg of our Freedom trail Pyrenees trek runs between the train jaune station and Planès. Planès, a small village 1520m up in a quiet part of the Pyrenees, is an excellent viewpoint for most of the peaks in the Conflent and la Cerdanya. You will want to stay forever.
We will have dinner and stay overnight in a welcoming and charming gîte d’étape in Planès. The gîte is three buildings and has an outdoor pool. The food is organic; the energy it uses is generated by eco-friendly means.
Delphine and Julien, the owners, will cook for us and prepare a packed lunch the following day.
Duration: less than one hour – Distance: 1.6km – Elevation gain: 115m
This is the toughest leg of the Freedom trail Pyrenees trek. The highest point is Coll Mitjà, at 2367m, the ideal pass – its picture should appear in every geography book. You can see Coll Mitjà from nearly any point in La Cerdanya.
The route is fairly wooded, and runs into the Parc naturel regional des Pyrénées Catalanes, an area notable for the contrasts between the high mountain and the Mediterranean climate.
We will see many twisted dwarf mountain pines, cross rivers, and climb passes which overlook the main peaks of this part of the French Pyrenees, such as Carlit and Puigmal.
We will stay overnight at Ras de la Carança mountain hut, at 1831m.
Duration: 7 hours (breaks included) – Distance: 15km – Elevation gain: 1100m
This is an easy leg compared to yesterday’s and despite its tricky descent.
The first part of is a continuous and gentle ascent to two passes. The first, Coll de Pal, is the entry point to the Mantet nature reserve. It is a wide pass which overlooks France, the ideal place to stop for a snack. The second one is the highest point of the hike, a kind of “balcony” (2350m) which overlooks the reserve and Mantet village.
Again, dwarf mountain pine is be the most common tree; it grows up to 2400m.
If our hike is in July we will see the thousands of pink blossomed Alpine rose shrubs scattered over the slopes.
At any time of year we may see isards (chamoix, in Catalan), golden eagles, bearded and griffon vultures.
Our inn will be a gîte d’étape in Mantet (1530m), a small, charming village built on the steep slope of the mountain. Only seven people live here all year round. If you want to be alone for a while, this is the ideal place.
The inn has an outdoor terrace which overlooks the Mantet nature reserve. It is the perfect place to drink a beer after the hike.
Duration: 6 hours (breaks included) – Distance: 10.4km – Elevation gain: 610m – Elevation loss: 890m.
Doubtless the best leg of the Freedom trail Pyrenees for two reasons: the scenic views along all the way up, and the moment when you cross the border and imagine how Chalky felt at escaping the Germans.
This leg is easier than the second one, although it is longer, a continuous but gentle ascent.
The path between Mantet and the Porteille de Rotja follows the western limit of the Py nature reserve, another important area in the Eastern Pyrenees due to its wildlife.
We will leave the Conflent and enter the Vallespir in the Porteille de Rotja. Half an hour later we will reach the border and leave the Vallespir. Vallespir and Conflent are French districts in this part of the Pyrenees. They were part of Catalonia before the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659)
Once in Catalonia we will join a greener landscape with steeper mountains, where meadows and woods harmoniously combine. Cows and horses graze everywhere.
Our descent to Setcases (1270m) will be in a nearly straight line, and sometimes there is no path.
Our inn in Setcases will be a charming hotel built in stone and wood. Dinners are hearty and the service is excellent and friendly.
Duration: 8 hours (breaks included) – Distance: 17.5km – Elevation gain: 920m – Elevation loss: 1200m.
Chalky followed a dirt road which linked Setcases with Camprodon, hardly used in 1943 but now paved.
We will follow a more interesting path instead, which goes the same direction but at a higher altitude, and crosses woods, meadows and streams. The path is sometimes difficult to follow because it is overgrown in places..
Then we will rejoin the Ter river in Vilallonga de Ter, a small village in the valley. From there on, the path, wide and quite flat, goes along the river and stays in the shade.
The next village will be La Roca, pretty small but built on a big rock (Roca is rock in Catalan). La Roca is classed as one of the most beautiful villages in the Pyrenees. We will cross La Roca from West to East, and then go down to rejoin the Ter river.
Our walking ends in Camprodon (940m).
Duration: 5.5 hours (breaks included) – Distance: 12.5km – Elevation gain: 370m
Chalky followed the dirt road which linked Camprodon with Ripoll. Instead, we will take a bus to Ripoll because the route follows the paved road too closely.
Our Freedom Trail ends in Ripoll. Return to Barcelona by train.
[Click on each image to see the photo in its original size]
This trek has a great variety of inns: two gîtes d’étape and one mountain hut in France, and one hotel in Catalonia. Chalky bivouacked in the mountains for some nights but we will not.
All inns offer excellent food and are located in small villages, except the mountain hut, which is isolated in a valley.
The inns will supply breakfast and dinner. The gîtes d’étape in Planès and Mantet and the mountain hut also provide a packed lunch. We have to prepare our own lunches in Setcases, a village where we can find a grocery.
Still available places for the Freedom trail Pyrenees:
– June 19 2024
– July 3 2024
– October 2 2024
– Half-board accommodation in
— Hotel in Setcases. Double/twin or single room.
— The two gîtes d’étape. 4-people dormitories.
— The mountain hut. Big dormitory.
– Packed lunch on 2nd, 3rd and 4th day.
– All transfers.
– Accident insurance while in the wilderness.
– Qualified English-speaking local mountain guide.
– Travel insurance
– Meals and drinks not indicated in ‘Included’
The guide has the right to change the itinerary at any time if deemed necessary to guarantee the security of the group
Walking gear & equipment – We send you a list when you book