GR11 Week 2: Navarra to the foot of the mountains (full blog post)

grassy uplands

Sorting out our food resupply for the week on our hotel floor…trying to pack as many calories into as lighter weight as possible!

Week 2: Burguette- Obara- Orchagavia- Isaba (4 days)

Total distance walked by end of week: 157km/818km

Altitude gain (this week): 2100m

(Note: we had hoped make the pictures larger but it is proving tricky on our small tablet without a mouse. If you click on them they will enlarge).

On day 9 we left Burguette refreshed after our stay in Hostel Burguette where Ernest Hemmingway once stayed. It was a bit of a strange village, often indifferent locals, awkward opening hours for shops and little choice of good snack food….just the ubiquitous ‘set menu’ in the restaurants…not ideal for hikers and Camino pilgrims.

resupply burguette

We were heading out into the forest of Irati and the vast limestone country which runs to the foot of the Pyrenees. As we left town hundreds of swallows and martins swirled in the bright streets, casting their shadows on the walls.

Martins on wires

The shadows of migrant swallows and martins on the walls in Burguette

Another treat was our first sighting of an Egyptian vulture, one of Europe’s fastest declining and charismatic species, gliding above the town. The GR11 was kind to us as it rose gently over the terrain of forest and scrubby pasture, where free-ranging ponies and cattle grazed. With deep green forest stretching to the horizon and the sun already hot, we stopped for a tea break, gathering water from a cattle trough to boil.


Waiting for the kettle to boil while birdwatching over the open scrubland.

With towns few and far between we have to be inventive with our water supply for drinking, cooking and washing. This varies with the terrain and weather but we use streams, cattle troughs, puddles and fuentes (piped springs). It is often a judgement call, but we mostly filter our water with our ‘Sawyer mini’ dialysis filter and, in cases of high risk, treat it with chlorine dioxide tablets.

barn in landscape

Barn in the typical limestone country of Navarra.

One of the unique aspects of a long distance walk is the way in which we can see and feel the landscape change, and with changes in geology and climate come changes on the flora and fauna. As we left the sea and humid Basque hills behind and climbed into the limestone karst, the meadows and verges were filled with flowers and alive with the buzz and whirr of insects. That evening we camped by the trail in an area of abandoned pasture, grasshoppers singing in the grass around us and choughs circling from the limestone crags above. The evening was stormy and we lay and watched the clouds building on the skyline, backlit by the last rays of the sun.

reading at camp

Our camp amid the wild scrubland with views to distant crags.

Day 11 dawned cool with a heavy dew. The route ahead lay up and along the exposed limestone ridge of the Sierra ‘Alano, a stage which might be tricky if the cloud came down. By the time we reached the small hamlet of Hirriberri I was chilled to the bone, and we found a small, warm cafe where we lingered over tea.  Hat and gloves on (yes, this is Spain in August!) we started the long ascent to the Alano ridge, and once up followed a torturous path over broken, slippery limestone for over an hour, before emerging to open views from the ridgeline. Barely a trail at times, it was one of the toughest 5km we had walked so far, and we collapsed, exhausted to cook noodles with fabulous views of the limestone crags.

lunch on limestone crags

Lunchtime atop the Alano crags

The hiking became easy as we walked across the high plateau, red kites foraged the grassland in the emerging sunlight and we passed a few other GR11 hikers, mostly going in the other direction.  Unlike other more travelled trails, there are few gathering places on the GR11 where hikers tend to congregate. On such a long journey it always a pleasure to swap trail stories and glean tips about conditions ahead, but on the GR11 this happens rarely.  With the sunlight came superb views of the jagged Pyrenean spires to the east, now suddenly much closer, more magnificent, but also daunting. The sunlight did not last for long, a chill wind brought roiling clouds up and over the plateau and we descended rapidly to camp for the night in more sheltered pastures.

cold morning_1

Cold morning, day 12, looking back towards the Sierra d’Alano and checking the GR11 signpost for the descent to Ochagavia.

What the above picture does not tell is the misadventure of the night just passed. We camped low in pasture to avoid wind/cloud, only to be woken at 11pm by the clanging bells of a large herd of cows! Not wanting to be surrounded or trampled, we packed up in the dark and set off down the trail! It was pitch dark and fine rain flew in our torch beams as we squinted to see the GR waymarks that would guide us down the steep forest slopes. We passed more cattle in the dark, their eyes shining, and we kept our distance to avoid spooking them. By some miracle the waymarks were good and frequent, but the limestone trail was treacherous, we descended, blindly sliding and tripping for 1.5hrs before finding a flat field to pitch in. As we set-up hundreds of shining eyes watched us…but it was only sheep this time…what’s the worst they could do!

teabreak at muskilda

Bleary-eyed, but in good spirits after our crazy midnight hike, we make tea to warm up and take stock at the small chapel of Muskilda. The kit surrounding me is all we are carrying for 10 weeks and allows us to be completely independent.

Descending from the 15th century chapel of Muskila, the rooftops and cobbled streets of Orchagavia were visible through the trees long before we finally arrived.  With a stop at the Panaderia for cake, we headed for the campground and decided to take a half day off to recover and dry out. Not long after we arrived a fellow hiker we had met way back in Elizondo- called Sybil – also arrived. A native of the tiny village of Rogart in NE Scotland, it was great to see her and swap stories. Sybil started with a mighty 20kg pack, and after sending some of it home was faring better.


Village of Orchagavia from the GR11 on descent.

After resupplying with camping gas and chocolatey snacks, we set of early on day 13 for the 20km stretch to Isaba. Again, out of character, the GR11 was forgiving, allowing us to make good time along smoothly ascending tracks through pine woodland and flowery pastures. By mid morning the heat was high and the air heady with the scent of pine resin. The tent, packed while still heavy with morning dew, was hung over Barry’s pack. We chatted at length about philosophic things and sang songs, notably ‘Don’t let it bring you down’ by Neil Young….. “blind man running through the light of the night with an answer in his hand, come on down to the river of sight and you can really understand…..”

Barry drying tent

Barry in action, the tent drying on his back!

The hours and kilometers slipped by, the sun beat down and the land was dry, distant ridges of brown grasses and scattered conifers reminded me of the endless wilds of northern California. Occasionally a raptor called or was half- glimpsed over the trees, until about 1pm when we emerged onto an open ridge to see the western flanks of the Pyrenees before us. That distant, untouchable range of just 6 days ago was now real, a mere day’s walk away. In the shade of a lone pine we sat and munched baguette, cheese and crisps, wondering at the sight before us, vultures sailed above in the blue, a honey buzzard wheeled up from the forest and disappeared into the glare.

mountains closer

Just one day’s walk away, the western flank of the Pyrenees.

There was a sense of triumph at seeing the Pyrenees so close, they are the main event of our trip, and it was a special feeling to know that we had made it here all the way from the sea, connecting up the landscapes and places as we went with the thread of our journey. It was a moment for reflection too, thinking how much the trail had cost us already in sheer effort to just get this far, the bone crunching miles up and over the hills of Basque and Navarra were nothing compared to what was to come.

Sybil soon caught us up again and we teamed up for the long afternoon hike into Isaba. The trail had a treat in store, leading us high along ridgelines of golden grasses with panoramic views of the peaks ahead.

Barry and sybil

Barry and Sybil by a GR11 marker on a golden afternoon

walking through crocuses

Walking through carpets of wild crocus

Such high and easy walking was a joy, and were it not for the lack of water we would have stayed up there to camp. Before the long and gruelling descent to Isaba we ate nuts and dried fruit, martins and swifts dipped above our heads, including our first Alpine swift, harbinger of the mountains to come.

Finding no water or camp spots on the descent, we ended up at the tiny Sanctuario Idoia in the woods above Isaba. An ancient chapel with an enclosed but semi wild garden and spring, it was a quiet oasis to pass the evening hours. Sybil and another GR hiker also decided to camp discretely there that night (there being no further camping opportunities until well after Isaba).

camp at sanctuary_1

Making camp at the Sanctuario, a temporary hiker community!

We camped just outside the sanctuary in a patch of wild grassland. Tawny owls hooted from the forest, but wild boar, squealing and snuffling, kept waking us through the night.

Day 14, a heavy dew and departure from the sanctuario just after dawn. We arrived in Isaba as the panaderia opened and sat eating warm pain au chocolate as the sun filled the valley. Barry’s toe had started to swell due to heat and extended downhill trekking.  His toe was now being pressed painfully against the side of the boot. As a result we had to consider options for spare shoes along with our usual food resupply. In a small town like Isaba a temporary fix was the best we could hope for.

So, at the end of week 2 we reached the foot of the mountains. The trail continued to test us individually and as a couple, and week 2 was certainly not an easy one. And yet, when the alarm went off at 0600, we still rose and packed in the cold dawn and still felt compelled to walk.

The more we invest in this journey, the more of ourselves we expend in it, the more we are compelled and entrained in its flow.  It is not all we would have wished it to be just yet, although the rewards build daily, but that is to be expected. With any journey it takes times to leave our everyday burdens behind, our resistances, preconceptions, expectations and fears, and to really open up to all we encounter.  The rewards of this journey will flow as we are ready and able to receive them, when we find the presence to recognise the gifts that grace our path every day.

Many thanks for reading our blog. Week 3 ‘Through the gates of the mountains to the Kingdom of Aragon’ to follow very shortly.

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