Days 33-41: Rodellar- Arguis-Bolea- Loarre- Riglos-Murillo de Gallego- Biel-Sos del Rey Catholico.
Total Kilometres Hiked: 670
Pictures from week 5 on Instagram Here
Week 5 on the GR1 has been long, tough and varied, slicing a cross-section through some of Aragon’s classic landscapes, from the canyons of the Sierra de Guara, to the plains of the Hoya de Huesca and the towering red cliffs of the Mallos de Riglos. The days have been long and often very remote, with plenty of tough climbs thrown in. If challenging weather spiced things up a bit mid-week the same could not be said for our food. With no ‘proper’ shops for days and days we seemed to eat an endless cycle of bread/cake/biscuit, and so unwisely fell into having ‘food fantasies’, which only made us hungrier! There have been rewards this week of course, but they have certainly had to be earned and it has been fairly demanding both physically and mentally.
It would be impossible to write about week 5 without first mentioning the sumptuous, down-filled, dream cloud that is my new sleeping bag, a Western Mountaineering Ultralight. Weighing-in at just under 850g and rated down to -5°c, it will keep me much warmer for less weight and bulk than my old Rab Alpine 600. We got our Rab bags back in 2012, and they have had a lot of use, but they were never as good as we’d have expected for their rating. They were not warm enough when it counted and seemed strangley sweaty the rest of the time?! We had hoped to squeeze another hike out of them, but nights on the GR1 have been colder than anticipated, going down to freezing, and I have often been cold at night.
A sleeping bag is one of the biggest investments for a lightweight hiker-camper, and I had already spent a lot of time researching the right replacement, seeking that elusive balance between weight/warmth and quality/price that suited. The WM Ultralight is a classic bag, handmade in the US and with almost flawless reviews, so I was not too worried about the choice, the trick was getting it out to Spain. Luckily, I found a small shop in the UK which stocks the bag and they organised to get it couriered to our first re-supply stop in Rodellar. So far I am delighted with it…in fact it feels too nice to sleep in really, and the 850 fill power down has kept me toasty ever since. Barry sleeps warmer than me, so he is using my old Rab bag for the time being (it had more loft left than his), and we’ll sort something out for him later to spread the cost (ouch!). He might consider a superlight down quilt instead of a conventional bag (increasingly popular among lightweight hikers), and I’ll do a specific blog on this later on.
On Day 33 we left our cozy chalet in Rodellar before the twin temptations of comfort and convenience could get their claws into us. It had been such a welcome break and we both felt refreshed and rested (not to mention clean and well fed!) as we climbed up out of the canyon of the Mascun to the derelict village of Nasarre. In the coming days, derelict or semi-abandoned villages would be a regular feature of the walk as we crossed landscapes gradually being reclaimed by nature.
Apart from popular hot spots such as Rodellar where we see day- walkers at weekends, the GR1 continues to be the loneliest trail we have ever walked. We see no-one on the trail from one week to the next, in fact, given the remoteness and tumbledown nature of it in places, I wonder when the last person before us actually did walk it….maybe it was the guidebook author a couple of years ago! Waymarking improved a lot though as we travelled west through the ranges of the Sierra de Guara, the GR1 coinciding for several days with the regional route ‘Camino Natural Hoya de Huesca’ and a branch of the Camino Santiago. Being on part if an ‘official’ pilgrim Camino also meant that we enjoyed some additional benefits such as water fuentes and small benches by the trailside and recognition/understanding from locals in the villages. Interestingly, people seem to identify with the idea of walking as a pilgrim on a Camino to Santiago, whereas walking long distance on the GR1 elicits little response. I think this is a cultural thing, where walking a Camino as a pilgrim is understood because it is a tradition, but long distance hiking as a way to travel and experience is not.
After traversing the length of the Sierra de Guara Natural Park, we ascended a smaller range (the Sierra de Gratal) on Day 35, on a stunning blue day of sunlight and far-seeing views. A tough, steep climb to a high col rewarded us with magnificent views of the Eastern Pyrenees, and we sat in a warm dell at the top to recover from the climb, eat snacks and dry our tent and sleeping bags (still damp from the night’s condensation). The Pyrenees were gradually growing more distant from us (they are less wide in the east), and we could see the line of snow-capped summits starting to dwindle down into the lower Basque hills. This fact of geology marked an important point in our journey, we had nearly finished our traverse along the exterior ranges and would soon start our descent to the plains and the half-way point of our walk.
That afternoon was long and hot, a Lammergier circled us in silence before drifting across the dry crests, and by early evening we stood on the southern edge of the Sierra Gratal, looking out across the blazing plain of the Hoya de Huesca far below. This high plain is mainly a grid of agricultural land, broken by mesas or flat plateau of crumbling sediments, reminiscent of the American West. Further out lay great lakes where, in autumn, thousands of cranes gather on their migration, a specatacle that was a highlight if our winter trip in our campervan here. The deep winter light setting against brooding purple mountains, while thousands of shining white cranes streamed in to the lake at sunset, trumpeting to each other, is something we will not forget. But, that evening on the GR1, there was no such light, only a white glare and a building heat as we descended steeply on a loose, gravel trail, finally arriving at a small hermitage 3km before the village of Bolea. We had gathered water from a stream on the way down, and made a peaceful camp below the Ermita walls, birds called from the dry scrub around and the light clarified as the air cooled. By bedtime the sky was cloudy and later the rain came.
Living essentially outdoors, we are always dealing with the weather in some way, but Day 36 had a new factor to throw at us- wind- a gusting, relentless howling headwind that swept across the open landscape and turned the cereal fields around into turbulent oceans. It was ironic that our easiest day in ages (only 14km and negliable climb) was made the most fatiguing by this crazy gale that came from nowhere. There was a novelty value in it initially and were sustained by a sort of stoicism in facing it down and just pushing forward, but by lunchtime the gusts were getting scary, and blowing us off balance.
After 14km of slogging we arrived in the village of Loarre desperate to be done with the gusts and the glare, only to find the hotels full! It was a bank holiday weekend. We regrouped in a bar, and after a large plate of egg, chips and salad each, mustered the resolve to plod up above the town to the campsite…which had cabins…. half an hour later we arrived to find that they were all full too. We could not risk the tent in such a wind and I was ready just to lay down on the ground behind a wall somewhere, when the owner shook some keys and said ‘there is a caravan’. And indeed there was a caravan, a sagging, slightly mouldering ’70’s affair, decked out floor to ceiling in melamine and finished off with brown stiped curtains….a veritable palace for two very weary hikers. He plugged in the electric and waved goodbye, we collapsed on the old foam matress (so comfortable!) and lay listening to the wind, wondering at the workings of a benificent universe.
Next morning the wind was still howling and there was no question of hiking (a bonus rest day, hurrah!). As Barry slept on, I lit the gas stove and made a cup of tea, just sitting in the peace and quiet of the morning. This early hour, before the day starts is my favourite at home, I always get up before anyone else to enjoy it, but it is lacking in our hiking life and I miss this time for reflection. Strangely, when we hike there can seem too little down time to just relax and ‘be’, we are always ‘doing’, and the mornings in particular are a fine-tuned process of packing up, with few excess minutes, save a couple for sipping tea (such is the value of the cool, early hours for hiking). The aim for the day now we had the time, was to organise our food resupply, do some internet/email stuff, wash our clothes, air the tent, sterilise our drinking bottles and repair any kit. Resupply was sorely needed, the last shop at Rodellar had been very limited and we were desperate for something healthy and a few more flavours….it was not to be.
The holiday weekend meant there were no buses to bigger towns (and thus to proper supermarkets) for 3 days. We had been banking on this as we had another large-ish food supply gap coming up. Waiting was not an option, so the choice narrowed to the small bakery in Loarre which sold a few other bits on the side….the same limited, bland, unsuitable stuff that we’d been chewing on like cardboard for the last week. The upshot was another five days forcing down sweet tasteless cake, dry biscuit, stale bread and cheese triangles…on hot afternoons this carby, congesting stuff was very unappetising. Inevitably this led to conversations between us as we hiked about food we’d rather have, and for amusement we played a form of virtual ‘supermarket sweep’…if we had 5min to rush round a supermarket at home, what would we grab? I’d go for salmon, coleslaw, salad leaves, vanilla yogurt, Barry opted for the ingredients of a roast dinner! Then we talked about our favourite type of food, which is Mexican, reminiscing about the jumbo sized burritos we used to get from a small catina in Cambridge on a weekend. All this led to however, was even more craving and rumbling stomachs.
Later that afternoon, clothes drying, kit mended, ziploc food bags littering the table waiting to be repacked, I sat in the caravan, enjoying the warmth of a beam of sunlight falling across my legs. Barry was in the bar doing emails, and I just sat watching the shadows of the trees wildly flailing as the wind gusted stronger than ever. I realised what a long time it seemed since I had been able to just watch the weather from inside, to spectate, without being immersed in it, and what a simple pleasure this watching was.
We took our leave of the caravan on Day 38, and cruised high on an easy trail above the Huesca plains, past a crumbling castle and chapel to the stunning red cliffs of Riglos. Arguably the scenic highlight of the GR1, the trail took us down into a canyon between the cliffs, the sounds of Chough flocks echoed far above and Griffon vultures threw their shadows on the walls. At one point Barry had Booted Eagle, Egyptian and Griffon vulture and Red Kite in his binocular view- not bad! The mighty Griffons with their ragged- edged wings were the real stars though, they nest in a large colony on the guano-stained ledges above. We watched as family groups lifted and circled, flying synchronously and with a grace that was surprisingly moving to watch and unexpected from such an inelegent looking bird. We were alone there, listening to the vultures wings, despite the holiday weekend, everyone else it seemed was more interested in eating and drinking in the village of Riglos, which suited us. Leaving Riglos in the heat of the afternoon, we saw a group of older people sweating and puffing uphill, they were a senior Ramblers group and the first Brits we’d met since we left the coast 5 weeks ago.
Towards the end of the week, the GR1 got lonlier still as we faced three, remote forest stages en-route to our rest and resupply stop at Sos Del Ray Catholico. Amounting to 60km total and with over 2000m of climb, they were quite tough going, and our dwindling food would not permit us to take more than 2.5 days to complete them. The forecast showed the temperatures rising and on Day 40 we were up well before dawn and hiking along a cold, damp barranco until we finally began to climb. Zig-zagging steeply through forest for an hour, this was what our early start was all about, the chance to complete the big climb of the day in the beautiful cool of the morning. The heat transforms such climbs into unending slogs, but by 08:00 we were nearly at the top, still breathing the damp air of night-time and feeling good. Soon the sun crossed the Sierra crest, and sent slanting, golden beams streaming through the trees. It was so beautiful hiking through that luminous morning forest, the pines picked-out with such vivid clarity, the zingy ozone of blue air, so high and far from anywhere or anyone. The cool, silky threads of spiderwebs hanging unseen across the trail, caught on my face and tangled in my eyelashes, I blinked them away.
By midday, the sky had set like blue enamel, the silence grew around us, unbroken, and after resting by a river, we hiked on, climbing steadily on easy tracks. By 1pm, the earth had warmed and started to radiate the sun’s heat back at us, and it became oven-like, the glare from the white gravel track was intense. Lizards skittered across the dirt, rustling into dry leaves, resting in the shade of pines, the cones were opening with sticky ‘pops’ above. I plugged in my mp3 and listened to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ in audiobook. It is not the sort of thing I would usually read, but it was utterly gripping and story of two people trudging the post apocalyptic wastes of America seemed to chime in a way with this long, hot afternoon in the Spanish sierras! It was not unpleasant though, I enjoyed the way the heat intensified the sense of silence and made everything stark- we passed the skeleton of a dead cow, it’s ribs picked clean by vultures, the remaining hide shrunken, the teeth grinning macabrely, while above on the ridegelines, as if part of another world, gleaming turbines swirled silently.
Despite wearing sunglasses, the heat finally got to us both, and with my migraine starting (triggered by the glare), we were grateful to find a small cafe/bar in the tiny hamlet of Pentilla de Aragon. Within minutes we were sipping ice cold lemon and waiting for a plate of egg, salad and chips…these abrupt contrasts of comfort are definitely a feature of long distance hiking!
So by the end of week 5 we have entered Navarre and will soon be descending to the hot plains which separate the exterior ranges from the hills of Cantabria. The half-way point of our GR1/Camino Primitivo hike is within sight and sometime in week 6 a celebration is due! The building heat continues to be a worry, it exhausts both of us and saps the pleasure frm the hiking, we will almost certainly have to hiker even earlier and later.
Inevitably there is more of a mental challenge at this stage, and we miss certain things, not least of which is Oscar our Jack Russell…who is currently enjoying a kingly lifestyle at my Mum’s. Oscar is such a big personality in our life, in a funny way he completes our ‘pack of 3’, there is a dynamic that works between the three of us when we are tigether, and his presence is sorely missed. Having him with us on the GR1 with all the dog encounters however, would have been a disaster, not to mention dangerous for him and us.
The next few days promise more strong winds too (30-40kph), but with rain behind them too. We have another 45km to Olite and our half way point and are currently thinking how to do this without getting soaked and pummelled in the process. So here goes Week 6, and we keep the faith that things usually work out better than we expect.