Monday, 10 February 2014

Hiking the GR 7 in Spain: Conclusion and tipps

I had chosen the GR 7 and my little low-altitude Pyrenean detour in Spain because I had been looking for a long-distance trail in Europe that can be hiked in fall and winter without any major snow and temperature problems. The GR 7 turned out to be the perfect solution. Because I could not find many alternatives to the GR 7 my expectations were pretty low and I was more than positively surprised by what the GR 7 has to offer. Two aspects stand out:

Landscape: I had expected lots of rather dull hiking in dry countryside. Instead I was surprised with a variety of very different and absolutely stunning landscapes. My personal highlights were the mesa-like mountains in Catalunya, the sierras and canyons in Valencia, the National Parks in Andalucia. I hiked a lot in beautiful pine and oak forests. But even the more cultivated landscapes were interesting: Flat dry Murcia with its endless fruit plantations made me aware of where most of our supermarket produce comes from. And feasting on wayside oranges and khaki was a culinary highlight.

Towns: Almost every trail town turned out to be a real little gem. Pilgrims often say that they like the cultural aspect of the pilgrimage trails but I found the GR 7 much better in this respect. The pilgrimage caminos take you into the real big towns. You often spend endless hours hiking through ugly suburbs and industrial estates to get to city centre spoiling the overall hiking experience. The GR 7 never goes through real big towns. All the trail towns are either villages or medium size towns at the most and therefore you rarely spend more than half an hour accessing the city centre on foot. Also each town has a little highlight. My personal favourites were: Olot's saint factory, Elda' s shoe museum, the absolutely stunning view onto Morella when approached from the GR 7, generally all the hill top towns in Castellon, Antequera's ornate churches. On no other trip have I enjoyed sightseeing so much.

But obviously on no long-distance trail everything can be perfect and on the GR 7 the hiking quality varies tremendously depending on which province you are in.

Montserrat mountains
Catalunya and Valencia offer by far the best hiking on the GR 7! Here the trail is almost consistently marked with red and white blazes and signposts. Except for the occasional hiccup due to new roads or wind farms you can navigate pretty well by just following the trail marking. Also you are hardly ever routed on pavement. The percentage of single file track is very high. Still not not everything is great: the trail is often badly maintained and overgrown tracks make can turn hiking into a nightmare. Plus there is the problem of the hunting reserve of Chera: a private hunting estate is blocking an entire valley and also the GR 7. No detour is signposted and for two years the local government has not been able to find a solution for locals and hikers. You will have to climb fences and trespass which I find is a Spanish disgrace for an international long-distance trail. Still, overall the GR 7 in Catalunya and Valencia offers fabulous hiking and I highly recommend this section.

You cross Murcia in only a week and here the trouble slowly starts: Trail marking disappears almost completely which is no surprise as the landscape is so flat that there is nothing to put markers on. But there are great internet resources to help you with navigation. You can download waypoints, a very good and extensive trail description in Spanish and even a rutometro. The landscape is a bit boring and mostly offers no shade at all – so avoid hiking here in summer at all costs.

Sierra Magina National Park
Next the trail splits into a Northern and Southern variant in Andalucia. I chose the Northern variant which turned out to be the real low light of the whole hike. Hardly any trail marking and the little marking that there is is often misleading or just plain wrong. There are several very long stretches of roadwalking although mostly on low traffic country roads. Except for the rather nice National Parks all you will see is olive trees – millions of them. You will mostly be hiking on dirt roads that turn into one huge mude slide when it rains. Therefore I definitely recommend choosing the Southern variant instead.

For the rest of Andalucia the two variants join again – but unfortunately the trail marking does not get a lot better. But at least you will mostly be walking in National Parks now that offer some nice scenery. Still I am surprised to see that most foreign hikers walk the Andalusian part of the GR 7 although in my personal opinion this section is not the best of the trail. If you only have limited time and want to see the best part of the GR 7 hike in Valencia or Catalunya.

Now I have a lot of tips for future hikers:

Navigation: As I have described above the quality of trail marking varies tremendously. If you want to hike the whole GR 7 in Spain I highly recommend bringing a GPS with the relevant gpx tracks. I would not have been able to hike the trail without it! The GR 7 is not even marked on most IGN maps. I have hiked the trail with the Garmin maps for Spain on my GPS and gpx tracks. As a paper backup I have downloaded the relevant 1:50.000 maps from the IGN website and pieced them together into a strip map set with the help of a graphic programme. This is a hell lot of work and it took me a week to create the 118 A4 pages that cover the GR 7 in Spain. Map download from the IGN Spain website is free for personal use.

Free camping: Free camping was surprisingly easy along the GR 7. With a little bit of planning ahead you will usually find a spot where to tuck away at the end of the day. I camped more often on soft pine duff than expected. Only the vast agricultural areas in Murcia posed a bit of a problem and needed more planning. It was not difficult to tuck myself away in the endless olive tree plantations in Andalucia, but when it started to rain the ground turned into a quagmire and camping into a very muddy experience. A lot of terrain has been terraced for agricultural purposes or for re-forestation. This is ideal for campers as it provides flat camp sites even in hilly or mountainous areas.

Water: I hardly ever carried more than 2 litres of water but this amount might be misleading for future hikers. I was hiking in dead winter and although I had mostly pleasant temperatures it can not be called hot. Hiking here in spring or fall you will definitely need more water. Almost every day you will pass through a town or village where you can stock up on drinking water. Even in little villages you will find a water fountain or at least a water tap although you might have to hunt around for it. There are springs and piped water along the way but unfortunately you cannot rely on the IGN maps in this respect. Half of the time the springs shown there did not exit whereas other springs were not marked. But usually you will pass farms in regular intervals and in an emergency you can ask for water there.

Dogs: Spain is dog country! There are dogs everywhere and wherever you go you will be greeted by a barking concert. Spanish people often have little compounds in the middle of nowhere. These are used as sheds for tools and machinery, growing vegetables or raising chickens and goats. These compounds are usually fenced in and guarded by dogs. Their owners show up only once a day for feeding. Although I am a real wuss when it comes to animals in general and dogs specifically I was not afraid of Spanish dogs and have not had a single frightening dog incident on the whole GR 7. The big and aggressive dogs are either fenced in or on a chain. Free ranging dogs were always bigger wusses than myself. They come running after you and bark like crazy but usually only turning around and looking at them makes them run away!

Internet: Spain is wifi heaven! Even small towns usually offer free wifi somewhere, usually from the ayuntamiento (city hall). Every single hotel I stayed in had free wifi. On top of all that you can get data very cheap with a prepaid SIM card. There are various cheap providers but to give you an example: I used a prepaid SIM card from tuenti for which I paid 6 EUR plus tax for 1 GB of data valid for a month. Phone calls are also cheap which was useful for making hotel reservations.

Ares del Mestre
Hotels: Spain is a cheap country for Western European standards which allowed me to stay a lot more in hotels than I normally do on a hike. On average I paid around 25 € for a single en suite room including wifi and satellite TV. Usually there is no breakfast. Another nice gimmick is that Spain has a very late check out time: You can almost always stay till 12 noon. I never had a bad hotel experience. Every single hotel oder hostal was very clean and had decent bed and bathroom facilities. Being such a Southern country Spanish hotels are not really prepared for the cold. Usually there is no central heating and if there is it is not working well. Rooms are heated by the air conditioning which can take a while. The biggest problem however is sound proofing. As Spanish hotels are always tiled and not carpeted sound travels far. Be prepared to hear the person next door snore... If you are sensitive to noise definitely bring ear plugs. As I hiked in winter it was easy to find accommodation and prices were at their lowest. You might have to pay more in warmer months. I speak Spanish and could call ahead to make a reservation. If you don't speak the language use which can even result in lower online prices. Except for the very little towns most hotels along the trail can be booked through there.

Dangers and annoyances: My biggest annoyance were overgrown trails. Because Spain is such a dry country everything is prickly and out to scratch you. Hiking in shorts is often not a very good idea. Hiking in winter I did not have a heat problem but I think this would be a huge problem in warmer months. I had several days of rain which had the unpleasant effect that the trails turn into mud slides. Hunting is a big sport in Spain and especially on weekends you'll be passed by dozens of hunting dogs and hunters. The dogs are not interested in you but you might want to take care that you are seen and recognized as a hiker. I wore a neon orange cap that made me look like an idiot but better a idiot being alive than a dead hiker.... Sometimes you have to cross cattle country but luckily Spanish cows are very peaceful. They usually ignore you and I did not have a single cow incident on this hike. My other animal „friends“ are ticks and I am happy to say that I did not have a single tick bite in Spain. I guess it is just too dry for them. Overall I found Spain to be a very safe country. Just keep in mind that there are not many hikers and locals often don't know what to think of you. Spain is in deep recession and a quarter of the population is unemployed. Economical reasons force people into a subsistance lifestyle again. Old abandonded farmsteads are inhabitated again and you'll see some interesting characters out there like truffle hunters and shepherds.


Amy L said...

Christine - your comment "Catalunya and Valencia offer by far the best hiking on the GR 7" gives us something to look forward too. Some day we will pick up where we left off (Elda) and walk north. Thanks for writing such a useful summary. Amy & Jim

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine. My husband and I (we are Canadians) would like to hike a 5 day portion of the GR7 in Sept. 2014. We don't camp. Is there a route in Catalunya or Valencia that has ~ 15 km stages and goes from town to town where we could stay in a small hotel or the equivalent of a bed and breakfast?

German Tourist said...

As I have usually camped I am not fully aware of all the accommodation options along the trail. But if you want to do only 15 km stretches finding accommodation at the end of each stage will be difficult. If you can do about 30 km you should be fine. I recommend having a look at John Hayes' blog because he did not camp either and usually mentions the hotel he has stayed in:

Anonymous said...

There is a list of accomodations for the GR7 on my website:

Even if you plan to stay in hotels every night, you should still bring emergency bivouac gear (tarp/stakes/ground pad/lightweight sleeping bag), just in case the hotels are full or closed or you get tired.