We were going back centuries as we trudged up the steep Pyrenean mountain path which led to a blasted granite doorway into France. In fact the country and its delights could only be guessed at as we peered into cloud boiling up towards us – along with a surly Frenchman and the tap of his stick before he emerged from the mist.
Travellers have been using “puerto de Benasque” in the Pyrenees since the Middle Ages. In the bad old days, groups would assemble at the foot of the pass at a “hospital” before setting out for fear of bandits – like the ones decked out in red belts in Jorge Mayoral’s amazing collection at the Hospital de Benasque below.
The hospital – from the Latin hospitalia, a place where strangers and pilgrims were looked after – still exists even though it is now a Swiss-style hotel, much in demand for skiing.
It’s the fifth to have stood at the bottom of the pass – the first founded by the King of Aragon Alfonso 11 in 1172 – the other four were swept away by avalanches.
It was September and we were parking down the road in our VW campervan exploring the area beneath the imposing Maladeta massif, which includes Spain’s third highest mountain Aneto, having arrived a few days earlier by ferry in Santander.
It is as if the Ice Age happened yesterday, with giant boulders tossed about and chilly tarns and scree, where marmots sit bolt upright on rocks and whistle loudly when they see our two Jack Russells.
Overnight temperatures dip to two degrees – we are at 1,750 metres above sea-level, 400m higher than Ben Nevis – and at dawn the dogs whine miserably until a sleeping bag is thrown over them.
A half-converted campervan isn’t the last word in luxury but it seems so when you consider that Coast presenter Nicholas Crane slept in the open during his incredible 17-month journey from Santiago de Compostela to Istanbul.
You could spend weeks exploring the peaks – with Vignemale, Perdido and Posets all over 3000 metres – or passes and lakes in the two national parks. We visit Posets Maladeta and Ordesa and Monte Perdido.
For those without crampons there are plenty of well-signed routes, but you can easily go off piste, as we did one day scrambling up through a forest of contorted pines following an animal track and then a 45 degree dry river bed before connecting to a “proper” path.
Up top we were alone apart from large white butterflies which sail above us. The light is intense, and the air always carries a little warning edge, a touch of frost, letting you know who is in charge.
Government cuts mean that some of the huge campsites have closed, but nobody seems to mind us parking one night at Monte Perdido, in a field surrounded by placid dun-coloured cows with thick leather collars and bells.
When we arrived from Torla, stopping on the way to look at an abandoned village – one of three along that road alone – we started up the mountain in the rain.
The sheer abundance of an amazing variety of plants – pale yellow delphinium, aconitum, sea holly, pale blue scabious – at the end of September kept my mind off the toil.
There are views right down the Pineta valley, waterfalls spouting, snow on the ridges and the clanking of cow bells.
Coming back to the Cantabrian coast for a bit of well-earned relaxation was as much a revelation as the mountains.
There are so many different landscapes and beaches, some like the playa de la Maruca, where gnarled limestone meets the sea.
There is the long sandy playa de Berria around an hour’s drive from Santander and closer still the playa de Ajo, where a friendly couple told us the authorities positively welcome surfer dudes and camper vans.
In all taking the dogs abroad was a pleasure. The vets here and in Spain know all about pet passports and as long as they are vaccinated in good time there shouldn’t be a problem.
Arriving at Brittany Ferries’ terminal in Portsmouth was like attending the friendliest of dog shows. The dedicated dog deck is the top deck, with enough room for a blustery stroll.
Our trip was enlivened by a horde of whale watchers as the ferry crossed the Bay of Biscay.
“There guys, a blow!” shouted one, sending everyone scuttling to the rails. And then came two separate blows and a brief sighting of a fin whale.
A fitting end to a trip steeped in nature.
• Factfile: Brittany Ferries offers up to seven sailings a week from Portsmouth and Plymouth to the northern Spanish ports of Bilbao and Santander.
Fares start from £209 for car plus two people. Taking your dog is a doddle thanks to a choice of pet-friendly cabins and kennels.
For more information or to book, visit www.brittanyferries.com or call 0871 244 1400.
Brittany Ferries can also arrange hotel and holiday accommodation in Spain, with a wide choice of hotels, Paradors, cottages and campsites. See www.brittanyferries.com/holidays or call 0871 244 1444.