“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that Goddam mountain.”-Jack Kerouac
Beget-Albanya- Figueres- Cap de Creus
Perhaps it is best to start week 9 with the ending…and a few statistics! We did indeed reach the Mediterranean at Cap de Creus, 62 days after we left the crashing Atlantic surf at Cabo de Higuer. We did not, as we had hoped, walk every step of the way. With key gaps in Aiguestortes and Andorra to backfill, and having taken a more direct route to the coast via Figueres, our estimate is that we walked 420 out of 508 miles. We plan to return in the near future to complete the gaps in Aiguestortes and Andorra. Of the 61 nights on the trail, we spent 32 camping free in the wild, 15 in campsites, 4 in refugios, 8 in hotels, 1 in a bothy and 1 in a cave.
It was hard to know how we would feel on finally reaching Cape de Creus, but before that we had work to do, not least a traverse through the lonely Sierra de Garroxta natural park. The weather too, had a final challenge in store!
A ruined farmhouse emerges from the scrub.
Day 55 began with a long descent through steep, wooded limestone country where a sign told us we had entered the Sierra de Garroxta Natural Park. Despite being so close to the Mediterranean coast, the Sierra Garroxta is surprisingly remote, with few roads and fewer people. In fact, the area as a whole has suffered depopulation, and it was the remnants of lives lived in this landscape, now reclaimed by forest, that was both interesting and poignant as we hiked through. This section of GR11 seemed little trafficked too, sections of trail were badly overgrown.
A deserted farmhouse emerges from the undergrowth.
Hiking down to the hamlet of Beget, the GR11 followed ancient mule trails linking abandoned farms, sunk deep in the yellowing autumn oak woods. The mule paths were often cobbles or laid stone, worn smooth by centuries of use, and sometimes carved through solid rock where crags jutted across the track. The farms themselves loomed suddenly at turns in the trail, rising desolately from the boxwood scrub that was consuming them. The black, staring windows and the sense of lives not long departed, made these isolated ruins both spooky and sad.
Walking through the centre of Beget.
The hamlet of Beget, impossibly pretty, but not quite real in its renovated perfection, was a lunch-stop before we plunged into the dark green heart of Garroxta. Ahead lay a 30km section with no roads, food or accommodation. The trail would take us deep into wooded valleys between tilted limestone strata, along surging rivers and past ancient chapels and abandoned villages. As we walked out of Beget there was rain in the air, but we took little notice, we were focussed on covering some miles before nightfall.
The tilted limestone scenery typical of the Sierra de Garroxta.
Sitting in our tent that night, far into the Garroxta, the sky was prematurely dark from low cloud, thrushes clamoured in the bushes and the stream, a mere trickle, murmured nearby. At nightfall, boar shuffled in the leaves on the forest edge, we heard their rumbling breath and the hoot of an owl. We felt a long way from anywhere, just us and the animals, in that dark wildwood valley. Before we fell asleep raindrops began pattering on the tent.
River next to out camp, swollen to a flood after 24 hours of rain.
Day 56 and I woke and listened to the rain on the flysheet, vaguely aware of another sound that was not there before. Coming to my senses I realised it was the river. Barely a stagnant trickle the night before, it had become a swollen, soil-stained torrent. And so the rain continued, grey curtains sweeping in ceaselessly, warm moist air from the sea pushed over the sierras and snagging on the limestone crests. Jays and the calls of other woodland birds were the only other sounds of life, an occasional brightness outside raised our hopes, only for the rain to come back more intently than ever.
That section in the Garroxta was long and remote, we did not want to get cold and wet, so the only sensible plan was to sit it out. The enforced enclosure when we had been into our stride and made good progress was frustrating. We slept intermittently and read out loud to each other to pass the hours, we chatted about the Zen Koan ‘Mu’ and wondered, if we were stuck here in Garroxta for long enough, if we would break through its timeless paradox! By evening the river was breaking it’s banks and I became worried that it would block our route out the next day. We trudged out to check, and thankfully the narrow bridge was still a metre above the torrent. Before nightfall the boar returned and we gratefully returned to the tent, glad to slip inside warm, dry sleeping bags and to forget to damp, darkening forest outside.
Sign for the deserted hamlet of Talaixa.
Barry takes Bassengoda! The last of the ‘proper’ col climbs.
Day 56 and a miraculous blue sky, we lost no time packing up our soggy camp and setting off with renewed zeal to clear most of Garroxta by evening. The day passed along trails of mossy-green, filtered sunlight, on slippery limestone paths in the shade of holm oak woodland. By lunchtime we were ready to tackle Bassegoda and Principi, the last of the ‘proper’ cols, and the 700m climb from the valley floor took us about 3 hours. It is hard to fully convey the joy, and relief at accomplishing this last big climb. Over the previous 8 weeks on the GR11 we had climbed the equivalent (excluding gaps) of about 3.5 Everests, that’s about 31,000m…or 31km upward(!), and had frankly had enough of hills!
The rain came again as we reached the col, and I went down ahead to a farmhouse to get the key for the little refugio we planned to stay in that night. The trail led down endless zig-zags on slippery limestone and, probably going too fast, I slipped on a rocky outcrop. I fell heavily with the weight of my pack, and landed with such force on my upper thigh that I felt the rock thud through to the bone. Barry was some way back, and it was too painful to even call out, so I lay clutching my leg until I could breathe again.
Cosy by candlelight in Bassegoda refuge.
That night we had the small refugio of Bassegoda all to ourselves. It was basic, with no running water, just a kitchen table, hearth and wooden bunks upstairs, but it was a pleasure to have space to spread out and dry our kit. Hikers from the night before had made a fire and the embers and hearthstones were still radiating heat. After the autumnal dampness of the last few nights, we were so grateful for the comfort and well-being this small, warm space gave us. That night it felt like a luxury to close the door on the cold night, spread our roll- mats on the wooden bunks and read quietly by candlelight. On the GR11 our needs were very simple and it took very little to be happy and content.
Later that night I was woken by an eerie wailing which, after a few minutes I took to be drunken singing. Possibly a drunk shepherd…who else would be up there at that time? I leapt up and ran down to check the door, only to return and find Barry leaning out of the window and beckoning me to listen. It was perfectly still, and far beyond the waves of dark sierras, maybe 40km east, lay the sodium glow of ‘civilisation’ on the coastal plain. Then, right below and clearer now, an unearthy bellow….it was a red deer stag in rut, and so close we could hear him rustling the dry leaves underfoot. We returned to our sleeping bags leaving the window open. Cold air and moonbeams spilled over us, and we lay listening in wonder to this tormented, antlered beast as he gradually retreated into the night.
Sunrise in the refuge kitchen.
Day 57 and the sun rose above dark clouds on the horizon, sending orange sunbeams slanting across the tree-tops and straight into the kitchen of the refuge. I had risen early to make tea and update our trail journal, the gas stove roared quietly and it was so incredibly peaceful, perhaps the most perfect morning of the trip.
The refuge was perched on a platform above the forest, and as the day warmed, we sat out drinking tea and watching the mist curl and dissolve between the trees. Birds came alive, the cackle of a blackbird, the ‘doink doink’ of a nuthatch, the faraway call of scops owl…and above it all, a delicate waning moon. Suddenly a silver gleam in the corner of my eye, and I leapt to my feet shouting and pointing, ‘the sea! THE SEA!’ And indeed it was.
We had always speculated about when we might see it first, and knew it would be some inconspicuous moment when least expected. It was a momentous occasion, so another pot of tea was brewed and we sat contemplating that enigmatic gleam.
Distant sea-gleam. Our first glimpse of the Med.
Greeting the morning in front of Bassegoda refuge.
Listening to the forest wake-up.
Looking back at Refugio Bassegoda in its sweet isolation.
That morning at Bassegoda refuge was our last real ‘wild’ morning of the trip, and there could have been non better. As we hiked out on tracks and latterly roads towards the coastal plain, thunder and low-swirling cloud closed-in and overtook the Garroxta behind us. It was hard to stomach the intrusive proximity of cars again, the violence of speeding metal, the muggy heat, and finally the commercial sleaze of the coast. The nearer we drew to the Cape and the end of our simple trail life, the more mixed and confused our feelings became. Our emergence into ‘civilisation’ again made all those feelings more acute. In this sense, finishing the GR11 was was never going to be easy or simple.
Doggedly trekking to the coast. The Sierra de Garroxta fading into the blue-distance.
Barry rounding the Cape on our last GR11 morning.
Day 62 and to our relief, after the tacky morass of the coastal towns, Cap de Creus was rather beautiful with its convoluted rocky coves lapped by glittering water. On that final morning, the trail snaked between sunlit olive terraces towards the lighthouse, and we were pleased that we would end somewhere more fitting to the spirit of the journey.
Celebrating in the classy ‘wildpilgrim’ way….plastic cups and cheap bubbly.
Inevitably it was strange finally arriving, and the lack of a definite marker stone (that we could find) could have made things a little anti-climatic, had we not come prepared with our own celebrations. Barry produced the bottle of cheap bubbly and I popped the cork, we clinked plastic mugs to honour the journey and sat reminiscing.The trail had allowed us to live out an ideal for 2 months, a life of simplicity and fulfilment close to nature, a truly blessed time of freedom, and it was hard to let it go.
Larking about by the lighthouse.
The moment Barry unveils his new, slim-line hikers body! And the obligatory dip in the Med of course.
The most important of our finishing rituals at the Cape was delivering our ‘quest’ stone from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. Sometimes rituals are important, and so it was here, because as the stone sank into the sunlit ripples, there was a release of something, perhaps it was the weight of our expectations, but it was a closure that felt significant for both of us. In the absence of any official monument or recognition at the end of the GR11, it is up to each hiker to find their own meaning and closure for the journey they have undertaken. For us, as I suspect for others that finally make it here, the journey accomplished was as much one of the mind as of the body.
End of the Quest, delivering our stone to the Med.
Our scruffy exuberance by the lighthouse attracted a few curious looks from the well-groomed day trippers, and more intently so when Barry started to sing. We felt like we’d just come in from another planet, and so, both liberated and feeling happy and sad, we sang our favourite song from our GR11 trail days….. ‘I sat upon the setting sun….and never wanted water once…..no never, never, never…..” (Cat Stevens).
Many thanks to readers who have made it this far with us. There will be some follow-up blogs shortly and new adventures for ‘wildpilgrims’ coming in 2016.