The Benasque Valley, in the Spanish Pyrenees is, in a word, charming. It’s also picturesque. And gorgeous. Oh, and it has soaring peaks and waterfalls, tiny stone hamlets, abundant wildlife, dozens of alpine lakes, a smallish but excellent ski area, outstanding restaurants, stunning hiking trails, and good infrastructure. In a word, charming.
The Esera River sluices through the valley, slicing down between the Pyrennes’ highest peaks – Pico Posets to the west at 3,371 meters (11,060 feet) and Monte Aneto to the east, 3,404 meters (11,168 feet) of granite capped by the chain’s largest glacier. (Which, unfortunately, is rapidly shrinking due to climate change and expected to disappear within the next 30-40 years. See it while you can.)
Most of the valley’s ten or so villages are strung out along the banks of the river, ranging from tiny pueblos of 60 or so souls to major metropolises of 2,200. The eponymous town of Benasque is the valley’s largest, a dense cluster of stone buildings, many of which date from the 14th century, filled with ski shops, restaurants, mostly Spanish tourists, and at least one excellent shop selling locally-made sausages, cheeses, honeys, jams, wines and liqueurs.
We stayed a week over the Christmas holiday in the valley, originally intending to spend much of the week skiing at the local resort of Cerler. Unfortunately they hadn’t had much snow, and the 10 inches we got upon our arrival were scoured away by 80 kilometer-per-hour (50 mph) winds that kept the resort closed for 3 days.
When we finally got to ski, we found Cerler to be kid-friendly and comfortable, with good ski schools and accommodating staff. While it’s not a huge resort (68 trails, 19 lifts, 79 km of terrain), it’s the kind of place that is easily negotiable with children.
What to do:
The valley is a popular destination for Spaniards (and a smattering of French from just over the border), busy in winter with the ski crowd and in summer with ramblers and climbers, but relatively untouristed by those not in the know. Which is nice. You, reading this, are now in the know.
If you’re not there to ski, there are excellent hiking trails in the area, and snowshoeing seemed a popular way to get around. You can rent snowshoes from any of the mountain shops in Benasque, or at Llanos de Hospital, about 13 km up the valley from Benasque and a popular starting place for excursions.
Our favorite trails were:
Las Tres Cascadas, starting in Cerler. The circular track is a fairly long route with young kids, but quite level for the most part and offering outstanding views of the surrounding peaks and, of course, 3 spectacular waterfalls at about the halfway point. We didn’t make it to the falls, as we stopped constantly to sling snowballs at one another and build snow animals, but depending on your pace you could probably do the trail in under 3.5 hours.
The Sendero Botánico Moral – Gorgas de Alba was our absolute favorite. A loop trail of only 3.2 km (2 miles), it takes you up a ridge overlooking the valley, through lovely mixed forest, over clear mountain streams, and across a gorge where waterfalls tumble down cliff sides. The route has informative signs indicating interesting plants, trees and shrubs. Go in the morning and have a late lunch at the Hotel Turpi.
The route to the mountain lake of Remune. The full trail to the lake is pretty long for young children – 8 km (5 miles) – and moderately difficult; with young kids the full loop would probably take you a good 4 – 5 hours. Fortunately, even if you decide not to trek up to the little alpine lake there are unbelievable views and a lovely meadow where we sledded, hucked more snow at each other, and built the World’s Largest Snowball.
If you want to ski, check out esquiades.com for package deals and exhaustive information.
In summer there’s rock climbing, fishing, canyoning, horse riding, kayaking, paragliding, hiking, swimming and a slew of local festivals.
The villages themselves are worth checking out, just to wander around the old stone houses and have a peek into the village churches, most of which date from the Gothic period.
Where to Stay:
If you’re there primarily to ski, you’re obviously going to want to look for accommodation either in or as close to Cerler as possible. Keep in mind that it’s roughly a 15-minute drive from the town of Benasque to the slopes, and a good 30 minutes from the villages of Castejon de Sos or Chia down at the bottom of the valley.
As I’m forever saying, I’d recommend looking at apartments rather than hotels. We found a beautifully renovated two-bedroom, 74 sq/m (800 sq/ft) flat in a centuries-old former abbot’s house in the tiny hamlet of Chia for 560 Euro for 7 nights. Hotel studio flats of 22 sq/m (237 sq/ft) were going for more than double that price.
Where to Eat:
In Cerler there are two excellent restaurants more or less across the street from each other. Both La Borda del Mastin and Braseria el Rincon serve local cuisine heavy on meats grilled right there in the stone dining rooms, and both are highly recommended. Take your pick.
Benasque has a number of good dining options,but our pick was La Parrilla. Enormous portions of tasty Pyrenean food in a friendly atmosphere. Highly recommended.
Although I hate to do it, I must, in the gastronomic interest of future tourists, slag off a restaurant. In Benasque you’ll see all sorts of signs advertising a joint called Les Arkades. When you spot one of these, helpfully pointing you the way, turn and run. Harrowing food at horrendous prices, grim service, dark, dingy, and necrotic. Enough said.
There is exactly one restaurant in the village of Chia, and it’s frequently named the best in the valley. Casa Changastan raises its own pasture-fed cows, and is justifiably famous for its beef. The couple at the table next to us ordered what appeared to be about half a cow for the two of them to share, and their blissed-out expressions seemed to indicate that they rather enjoyed it. Our own food was fantastic. Very highly recommended.
If Cerler and the Valle de Benasque aren’t on your itinerary, you might want to revise your plans. A stay in the valley is a truly authentic Spanish Pyrenees experience, so let me know if you want to go. We’ll meet you there.