“Henceforth it is in another elsewhere, that reveals not its name, in other whispers and other plains, that you must, lighter than a thistle, disappear in silence, and return to the winds of the road“. – Nicholas Bouvier
Total Km hiked: 1005
Villanueva de Valdegovia- Boveda- Salazar- Quintanilla de Pedrosa- Corconte- Reinosa
Spectacular landforms in the limestone country on Day 58 (Salazar to Quintanilla de Pedrosa), our favourite day on the whole GR1 so far.
Pictures from Week 8 on Instagram here
On the 15th June we returned to the small village of Villanueva de Valdegovia where we had left the GR1 a couple of weeks before. After 24hrs on a ferry across Biscay and several hours bus ride in torrential rain from Santander, we finally set foot on the GR1 in late afternoon under beautiful rain-washed skies and warm sunshine. As we climbed the hills behind the village, the forest was jangling with the song of Serins and the trailside was awash with flowers……in our absence summer had arrived. In limestone country, thin soils create a particularly rich flora that in the last week, has become a highlight of our whole GR1 journey. In many ways it was as if we had never left, so familiar has our trail life become, but the time at home had had its stresses and we had bought some of that ‘baggage’ back with us. Not least of this baggage was the unwelcome reminder of the shameful way our country is conducting itself over Brexit, which for all its so-called ‘greatness’ seems far less civilised and mature than the European neighbours it seeks to distance itself from. We await the outcome with trepidation. Climbing on gentle paths that afternoon however, I felt all tension slipping from me: the smell of sun-warmed herbs, the drama of rainclouds clearing over the crests, the quality of the light, the utter peace, it was truely a balm to the soul.
I said we were able to slip back into our trail life pretty easily, and this was evident on our first night as we set up the Hubba Hubba and made dinner on a hidden field terrace. We were back in our element again as we crouched in the long grass to eat and listed to the sounds of evening- dogs barking in the village below and cowbells clanging methodically on the open slopes above. We blew up our Thermarests, shook out the sleeping bags and lay back in the long dusk light to listen to the churring cricket-song, sleep came almost immediately.
I am always aware of how much freedom this way of life grants us, the GR1 gives us nearly all we need- somewhere to sleep each night, water from the gushing village fuentes, a purpose, direction and daily inspiration. The hiking life can be addictive and many long distance hikers return again and again to the trail. I think this is partly because it offers such a profound shift of perspective and is a way of living that is hard to come back from. Obviously trail life is not for everyone, it is physically hard, can be grotty, dirty and lonely at times too. It depends on what we value, and for us it is the freedom, time together and living simply and close to nature. Going back to the UK was a shock to the system on many levels and we are not sure how or where to ‘fit in’ again, or even if we want to. There are many people however, who do find a way of living within ‘the system’, who, without fanfare or abstract idealism, work hard to make the world a better place and I have a lot of respect for that. I suppose we have not found our niche yet and the ‘distancing’ we seek when hiking is partly intentional. In an important way, I see our trail life as a way to try and recreate aspects of the life we had during our days on Orkney. Living on a tiny island for 4 years under sweeping northern skies, set a very high bar for our quality of life. Since we left in 2013, we have been trying to re-find our place in the world. For the time being at least, life on the trail gives us space to breathe, think and live closer to our ideals.
For the most part this week the trail has been a delight, packing-in impossibly picturesque villages, hermit caves, rock-cut tombs, dramatic limestone scenery, gentle valleys and continual bird, plant and animal life. On lanes and forest trails, by streams and tumbling stone walls, we have walked through a mesmerising and fragrant display of vetches, bugloss, orchids, trefoils, wild rose and honeysuckle. Every patch of land is a haze of wild, tangled colour. In the moist woods, there is an almost luminous green verdure, ringing with the shrill of cicadas, that reminds me more of rainforests in Central America than temperate northern Spain!
Mornings were most special as the fields sparkled with dew and forests streamed with the rising heat. Often we would walk for hours until we saw or heard another person, time slowed to the languid beat of a buzzards wings, it was as if we had the whole daybreak world to ourselves. Roe deer barked from overgrown meadows and, surprised by our presence, watched us with bright alertness, before bounding powerfully away across fields, growing small in the landscape under broad blue skies. Most of all it was the deep, peaceful ‘lostness’ of the land in this region that affected us most. There is an endlessness to Spain and it’s landscapes that fires the imagination and gives us room to expand. Looking out from a high crest in the clear light of morning, the knowledge that the land goes on, sierra after blue sierra, almost without end, is a great consolation. This consolation has something to do with space to escape into and of all the unknown places which remain, remote or unnoticed for those prepared to seek the lonely paths and discover them.
When I said the trail has been a delight this week, there have been some exceptions. The 175km section from Miranda to Corconte had only one proper shop for 7 days of walking and very few bars, so we had to carry a lot of lightweight food to get by. Mainly this involved couscous and soya protein for dinner, and by day 2 we were already sick if it. Maybe it was because we had been home and eaten lots of tasty stuff over the past 2 weeks, or maybe it was the 2 months of eating this same stuff on the GR1 previously, but even after a 20 mile day, it was nauseating. Either way, it was a hungry week, we always seemed to be on the edge of running out and the few bars we did go past did not serve food. A bit of trail serendipity happened on Day 58 though when we walked into small village to hear the blaring horn if the panaderia van…5 minutes later we sat in disbelief, eating fresh baguette and chocolate pastries on the village green. It was a Sunday morning and locals were out with their children, greeting each other cheerfully and eying curiously the two ravenous scruffbags in their midst.
We had been expecting hot weather on our return, but for the first three days at least, the region lived up to its rainy reputation. On Day 57, our second day back on the trail, we arrived in the village of Boveda at lunchtime, just as curtains of rain engulfed the valley ahead. We made noodles in the shelter of a sports hall, but as it persisted, soon decamped to the local bar where we sat for two hours until the flashing telly and fug of cigarette smoke got the better of us. It was late afternoon and with the rain still steady, we headed to the small church with its large, arcaded porch, still hoping to head out again that evening.
As Barry slept wrapped up in his sleeping bag, I enjoyed the pattering rain and watched the mist swirl over the conifer forest. I love these enforced periods of respite, sheltering from rain, when there is time to notice things, and also the way that this time for noticing opens up ever deeper levels of noticing- almost limitless levels in fact. In the details of life around us we may find a window to the whole universe. As the smell of woodsmoke drfited down from the chimneys, a black redstart landed on the iron railing nearby, flicking its tailing and regarding me with a quick, bright-eye. Beyond the porch, a blackbird, it’s feathers beaded with raindrops, tugged at worms in the turf and, as the rain stopped, swifts descended to chase one another over the rooftops. By 6pm everything was dripping and sodden, so we decided to stay in the church porch that night, laying our mats out on the dry, clean flagstones.
We might have expected a quiet night in this tiny village, but at 11pm, 3 dogs were barking (including a gruff Alasation and a yappy Jack Russell), a cow was bellowing, a donkey braying and a woman seemed to be angry with her goats. Just as we were getting grumpy too, the church-bell above us stirred to life and eleven mighty clangs reverberated down the tower, threatening to dislodge shards of peeling ceiling plaster onto us. We turned in our bags to face each other and just burst out laughing…it was a ludicrous cacophany. It did quieten down eventually but the mighty bell still clanged it’s way through each hour of the night.
Rain while hiking is one thing, and by mid morning on Day 58, we had done a good job of staying dry, but the GR1 going AWOL is another. Add these factors together and things can quickly fall to pieces. As in other places, some sections of the GR1 in Castille y Leon are virtually abandoned, so few people walk the trail for any length and local authorities are not interested in maintaining it. This has been a problem on ocassions and Week 8 was quite bad at times, requiring us to bushwack through prickly thickets, scratching our legs badly and wasting a lot of time. On Day 58, after miles on great tracks, the trail just disappeared into wheat fields…soaking wet, waist-high wheat fields! We have cynically come to call this sort of occurance ‘GR1 Fun’, so when Barry hears me call it out from the trail ahead, he knows to expect a rough time. There was plenty of cussing (mainly from me) as we got drenched, stumbling through the wheat, with legs being grated red raw by the hard stems.
By the time we emerged by a small chapel on the road we were both feeling dispirited, especially since there was no prospect of being able to dry our shoes/socks/clothes on the trail ahead. We took shelter in the chapel, hanging the wet things on the window grilles, and wrapping up in our down jackets as the rain came down again. Barry made tea and came to sit down beside me, cheering me up in that way he has of always seeing the bright-side and focussing on what is important. He pointed out the swallows dipping across the fields to catch insects, “Isn´t it amazing how they can still see the insects in the rain” he said. As on so many occasions, he is the one reminding me of all there is to notice and appreciate in the world around us.
Day 58 ended with a search for a suitable camp spot near the village of Villamor. We entered a fenced area of hill land and were about to opt for a nice spot when ¨el torro¨ lifted his head from the shrubbery. He eyed us steadily, nose ring glinting as we made a rapid retreat…it is not often that I see Barry move so decisively! In the end we had to camp in the bushes on a roadside verge, but apart from the evening flurry of traffic back to the village, it was a quiet road and no-one seemed at all bothered by us being there. This is one of the great things about Spain, the general live and let live attitude, which affords great freedom for campers like us, and something which we value and respect by leaving no trace of our stay. It was a perfect early summer evening, the gentle crooning of two turtle doves (one of Europe´s most threatened birds) drifting on the breeze, the repetitive piping of a tree frog and echo of an Oriole in the poplars by the river and, later at dusk, a churring Nightjar on the heath. All of this on an unremarkable roadside in rural Spain. There is an unchangingness about things out here, in the pace of life and in nature itself, that makes much of the world´s freneticism seem a little misguided.
Over its subtle and sinous course, the GR1 has spoiled us not only with nature and landscape, but with the string of remote and beautiful villages that dot our days. In Week 8 every village we passed was a stunner and, nomadic as we are at the moment, I found myself dreaming about living in just about every one of them. Rural depopulation means that the villages are very quiet now, some are partly abandoned and literally falling down, others are seeing a revival and the old houses are being renovated. The juxtaposition between the crumbling and renovated can be very picturesque, wooded balconies entwined with wild roses and sagging red-tile roofs next to skillfully re-pointed stonework. There has been a surge in renovation for holiday homes and on weekends and local fiestas the villages come alive, but outside this time there may just be a few older poeple remaining, like a chap we saw yesterday in Busnela, tending his beans and roses in a tatty straw hat. Despite the depopulation however, there is a civic pride in these villages (and indeed in Spain in general) which is heartening in world that increasingly does not value expenditure on these things. This week we have whiled away many teabreaks in small village squares and greens, each with dedicated picnic areas, water fuentes, flower arrangements, shady trees and children´s swings and slides. Often too they will display local artifcats from the past, mill stones and agricultural implements as a reminder of the rural culture. In the tiny hamlet of Sobrepena we rested from the midday sun, listening to the trickle of the water fountain and watching redstarts feed their young under the eaves of a barn…it was like going back 60 years….but in saying this I do not mean to imply regression. These points of civic pride, especially in these quiet villages and towns, make no sense economically, but it makes a big impact perceptually and, I think, still makes a tangible contribution to quality of life and community that the depressing, narrow calculations of ´austerity politics’ willfully fails to undertstand.
Week 8 ended in the town of Corconte on the shores of a huge natural lake. It was a boiling hot day and walking into the afternoon heat we nearly reached the limits of our comfort despite using our solar umbrellas. The last couple of kilometers were on tarmac and by 2pm the road was radiating the heat back at us and there was no shade to be had anywhere. We were spurred on soley by the thought of a cold beer and a magnum icecream in the little bar. Just before Corconte we passed into the province of Cantabria, the sixth province we will walk across on the GR1 after our traverse of Catalonia, Aragon, Navarra, the Basque Country and Castille y Leon. Following Cantabria only two provinces remain, namely Austuris and Galicia. At Corconte the GR1 pretty much disappears again, and a 20km road-walk in 29 degree heat to our resupply town of Reinosa was not a viable option. Following the suggestion of GR1 guidebook author John Hayes, we caught the local bus around the reservoir late that afternoon and were soon chilling in the cafes of Reinosa having also bagged a palatial hotel room for a bargain 45 Euros.
So ended Week 8, which despite some challenges, was our joint- favourite week of the GR1 along with the Sierra de Guara in Aragon. Pehaps it was the sheer relief at being back or the thought that we came close to loosing this precious freedom, but we returned to the trail with a renewed sense of appreciation and a resolve to make the very most of our time upon it. It is indeed a journey of gifts.
Catch-up with us in Week 9 as we traverse the highest section of the GR1 through the Cantabrian mountains and Picos Regional Park, before reaching its ´official´ end point on the pass of Puerto de Tarno- although our wild pilgrimage does not end there. With temperatures reaching 35 degrees (!) today we are hoping to get the rain back!