“You are standing up on the seat of your swing and sailing higher than you really ought to, with that bold, planted stance of a sailor on a billowy sea….you fly into the sunlight and pause there brilliantly for a moment….I remember those first experiments with fundamental things, gravity and light, and what an absolute pleasure they were” – Marilynne Robinson (Gilead).
Ager- Puente de Montana- Linguerre de Cinca- Paules de Sarsa- Rodellar
Total kilometres hiked: 504
Week 4 pictures on http://www.Instagram.com/wildpilgrims and Instagram feed on blog homepage.
Entering the great cleft of the Mont-Rebei gorge with the Pyrenees far beyond.
Week 4 on the GR1 marked an important transition as we crossed the border from Catalonia into Aragon. Obviously it was cause for celebration and reflection on the journey so far, but the transition also marked a few other changes (good and bad) that we had not expected. Perhaps the most unexpected was that the dog encounters (see week 3 post) suddenly dried up! Most places we would have expected there to be dogs, either didn’t have them or had just a single (more docile) one- long may it continue!
By the end of week 4 we had walked nearly 300 miles, close to one third of the hike. Looking behind at the rim of the eastern horizon, it was satisfying to think we had come that far (and beyond), and looking ahead to the west, to know that we were headed to that horizon (and beyond!). Although not completely free of constraints or attachments, I like to perceive that our time as long distance hikers is bounded only by horizons….albeit guided by the sinuous line of the GR1 between them. Under this big blue bowl of Spanish sky, we feel as free as we’ll ever be to create each day anew. The only real limits out here are those imposed by ourselves, and the freedom of the hiking life throws these into stark relief- it generates a powerful self awareness about our moods and mindset that we cannot evade or blame on anyone/anything else (although we do have a go at blaming each other sometimes..!) In the cold, dewy mornings of slanting sunlight, the day lies before us, unmade and hopeful – each day is a chance to begin again, to rise high or sink low, depending on us alone and the potential we can bring to it.
As I explained in the last post, at the end of week 3 we had a mini crisis after becoming burnt-out, and had decided to skip a two day section. On Day 21 we were sitting in a cafe waiting for our bus to Ager (were we’d rejoin the GR1). A lady must have spotted the scallop shells on our bags and came over to ask excitedly what we were doing. ‘Estamos caminado desde Mediterranean a Santiago y Finisterre’ I replied (thank-you Google translate)….we chatted a bit more before she left us, it was clear the journey to Santiago was important to her. A few minutes later she returned with a receipt for 4 Euros…she had paid our bill in recognition of our journey as pilgrims! I was speachless as she kissed me and then Barry on both cheeks and said goodbye. Primarily I felt unworthy of this gesture, but soon also realised its importance. Here we were, feeling a little bit glum and having a crises of confidence about the journey, and a stranger comes along and affirms her confidence in us! She seemed to have no doubt we would make it to Santiago. I have kept that totemic receipt as a reminder of her kindness and confidence for the times of doubt ahead. Such kindness is indeed a blessing, and was one of many small, but greatly appreciated kindnesses we were shown by people in Catalonia.
Back on the trail on Day 22, there was a GR1 treat in store. Leaving Catalonia would take us through the mighty chasm of the Mont Rebei gorge, a suitably spectacular finale before we entered Aragon. We were up and packing while the owl was still hooting and the stars dissolving. By 07:30 we were hiking into the canyon, hoping to make the most of the cool hours, and enjoying the glory of nightingale song in the grey dawn light. We climbed high above the cobalt blue reservoir, spying tiny hermitages clinging to crags, before the great limestone walls of Rebei gorge finally lay before us. Framed by the walls and far away, was the white-wilderness of the Pyrenean summits, while in the foreground on a low hill in centre view, was a solitary castle tower. The scene had the stark beauty of the arid mountain country of Aragon, and has to be one of most the classic views on the GR1. The walking, although tough, was genuinely rewarding, always new angles of rock and river, lit by sunlight, to catch our eye, and soon the raptors (Griffon and Egyptian vultures, Lammergiers and Booted eagles) were soaring.
The only downside of the walk was that we hit the gorge on a Saturday morning, which by 10am meant that we were sharing the narrow, rock-cut ledge (no outer handrails and a vertiginous drop) with lots of day-walkers. A few seemed versed in the dangers of the footpath, but most tottered along, immersed in taking pictures and talking (often very loudly), oblivious to the yawning chasm inches away. It was also the day of a local Ultramarathon (trail running is very popular in Spain), and we were passed by small groups of these superhumans in snazzy lycra, strapped with energy gels. Many had already been running for 10 hours (i.e. half the night as the run began at 12 midnight), and were hoping to complete a 90km course! Remarkably, most seemed in high spirits and some happily stopped to have their photo taken by us….truely they are in another league.
Clear of the gorge by mid afternoon, the heat had really set in for the remaining 8km road walk to Puente de Montana and the Aragon border. If it felt like an oven then what will May and June be like? My hands, which blistered and bubbled painfully in the first week from a reaction to sunlight, started reacting again, so, like Barry, I also wear cycling gloves to protect my hands now. We retreated into our own worlds as the lonely miles dissolved under our feet, and since it was easy terrain I tuned into my mp3 player and selected an edition of Melvin Bragg’s ‘In our Time’. I still find this juxtaposition intetesting- hiking a remote road between shattered cliffs and rumbling river, sun glaring down, sweat trickling- yet plugged-in to high culture….in this instance a truely erudite discussion of the Bhagavad Gita- how to ‘be in the world but not of it’. To me, this juxtaposition is not really about contrast or opposites- I believe discussions of spiritual epics, art, philosophy, literature, belong out here just as much (and perhaps more so), than in the abstract, sophisticated halls of academia. They are aiming for an expression as true and undefiled as the river, the rocks and the sun.
OK, back to hiking again. If the GR1 had traversed some lonely country in Catalonia, our time in Aragon will take it to another level still. Aragon contains vast swathes of arid sierras that ripple out from the main Pyrenean chain, and which were much more populated in the past. The legacy of depopulation of this landscape, is the presence of many abandoned villages, farmsteads and field-systems. The GR1 takes us deep into this land and will show us places few, if any, get to see or bother to see. It is secret Spain at its most interesting and poignant.
Day 22 ended in the semi abandoned village of Montanana, with its imposing church glowering from a crag and a kettle of vultures rising against the approaching rainclouds. We were heartened to see our first GR1 information board in the village, noting historical sites and the vision for the route. Interestingly the signboard stated the original vision (never realised), which was for a complete sea-to-sea trail, ending in Finisterre. There was a strange power in seeing Finisterre mentioned- over the past weeks it has hovered, mirage-like, on the horizon, and sometimes seemed to disappear altogether when things got tough. Seeing it written down, albeit from this far-off place, gave it a reality that was thrilling and motivating….mythical Finisterre, pagan route to the sun, the edge of the (then) known world, it does exist! …and lies waiting…
We camped above Montanana with views down over the church, roofs and lanes. A few houses had been renovated and we caught wafts of rock music and incense smoke on the wind. Soon the rain came and we rested deeply to the sound of its pattering.
Rest was indeed needed, Day 23 was tougher than we had imagined, although it started well enough. As we hiked up and away from Montanana, the trail took us along ancient tracks between stone walls and overgrown field terraces with untended olive and almond trees grown wild and gnarly. The mist kept shifting and the sun would light the colours and textures of stone, wood and old autumn leaves, the dew sparkled, we glimpsed buildings with vacant windows. It was sad, fascinating and beautiful.
We are always amazed that heritage like this is given so little attention, the focus being on the churches and castles (which can seem cold and impersonal). The field terraces alone are a remarkable achievement, the achievement of ordinary people over generations. We would love to know how they lived here, what life was like, when they left and why. This would be far more interesting to me than the dry repertoire of dates and abstract architectural terms on grander buildings that people flock to. This heritage of normal, working people is an under-recognised aspect of the GR1 ‘Sendero Historico’ as it is elsewhere.
If the land has been abandoned in Aragon, the GR1 seems to have been also. That signboard in Montanana village was a false hope. Later on Day 23, the trail and way-marking disintegrated- literally. For hours we bush-whacked our way along paths choked with bramble, and which led to areas where the trail had washed away completely, leaving us staring down steep and dangerous gullied-cliffs. Without waymarks I had to be glued to the GPS most of the time, we went wrong often, our legs were shredded by thorns and we made painfully slow progress. It would seem that while the initial investment was made for markers and signs, there has been no maintenance since. This part of the trail must be so little visited that there has been no pressure to remedy it.
With no sign of the trail improving in this sector, we decided to road walk the final 25km into Graus. Mostly this was a pleasure, with virtually no cars we enjoyed easy walking, fine views and bursts of nightingale song from every riverside thicket. The nightingale, rare and revered in Britain now, is one of the commonest birds we encounter- and such a privilege. Barry is particularly tuned in to the birdsong and has an experience to share….
“One morning, while hiking along a quiet lane, I stopped to listen to the light melody of the woodlark overhead. Unlike the uplifting song of the skylark, the woodlark has a more mournful cadence, but the flutey tone gives it a lightness too. From a close thicket, a nightingale joined, rich and liquid, I closed my eyes. A beautiful duet, the nightingale’s notes, like lyrics, to accompany the woodlark’s tuneful continuity. As if the nightingale sings to proclaim ‘I am alive now!’, then falls quiet, while the woodlark plays on eternally”.
“That I may catch that melting art….love and sorrow joined” – Robert Burns (Address to the Woodlark).
The finale of week 4 was our ascent into the Sierra de Guara and Canyons Natural Park. We spent a week there last November (see our Post Here), and fell in love with it. Along with walking the great canyons again and paddling the blue-green rivers, we will have the chance to visit a string of remote, abandoned villages in the Guara backcountry. On Day 29 we left ‘civilisation’ behind and climbed high onto the sierra crests to the atmospheric village of Bagueste. With no road access, Bagueste has been abandoned for at least 7 decades, and it’s crumbling ruins sit in glorious isolation on a high knoll, with a vast panorama of Pyrenean peaks. That day we had watched huge storms engulf the Pyrenees, and by evening from Bagueste, the snows glowed like embers.
The evening light deepened among the ruins as we clambered between the tottering walls, poking our heads through doorways and craned our necks to wonder at the vacant windows. It was thrilling and surreal to be so alone in that place. The village, consisting of about 12 houses, and surrounded by a network of cobbled lanes and terraced fields, was topped with the ruins of its church. The church was precarious but we crept in anyway- beams sagged, animals had got in, everything was gone except the ancient stone font and scraps of frescos smudged by rain. So much would have been played-out in there, the big moments of life and community, replaced by the wind and sunbeams and smell of animal dung. It is hard to express what an extraordinary experience it was to spend that evening at Bagueste…a highlight of our trip and our travels in general I would say. What stands out is the sense of silence- not literal, there was the wind and rumble of rivers- but the profounder silence of human departure and the inevitable, indiscriminate gnawing of time and the elements.
(There is only a small sample of our pictures from the abandoned villages on Instagram. We’ll do a dedicated post with bigger images when we get home).
While some villages die, others are reviving and thriving, not least the gorgeous village of Rodellar. We came off trail for 3 days to take a mini ‘holiday’ at Rodellar, enjoying the luxury of our own chalet, and eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first re-supply box (many thanks to our good friend Jane for organising this) and my new sleeping bag! After a month on the trail we have had to re- adapt to the luxury and convenience of such things as a tap and sink, a thermostat and even a chopping board and bread knife! It’s amazing how only 4 weeks can reset our appreciation of so much we take for granted. I had planned to talk about the sleeping bag in this post also, but I’ve gone on too long already…it’s saved as a topic for next week.
Last night, leaning out of the window of our centrally heated bedroom, the night air spilled in, the dark Sierra crests rose above and the stars twinkled remote and cold. It was hard to believe that we are usually ‘out there’ somewhere in the darkness, hunkering down in the Hubba Hubba with the hoot of the owl and the boar snuffling around nearby.
In week 5, re-supplied with peanut M&M’s and teabags from home, we will complete our journey through the Sierra de Guara, I hopefully won’t be shivering at night anymore with my new, supersonic sleeping bag, and we’ll arrive at the foot of the towering red cliffs at Riglos.