GR1 Week 9: Picos Finale…but the trail continues

“And being here, I have been part of all this, caught and thrown like sunlight on water, have entered into all around me”- Norfolk Song Line

Total KM hiked: 1175

Reinosa- Branerosa- Cervera de Pisuerga- Priorio- Marana- Puerto de Tarna- Bezanes

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Celebration at Puerto de Tarna, the end of the GR1.

More pictures from this week on Instagram here  . I had to make the account private temporarily to block spam. But it is open for viewing again now.

Week 9 has been a week of two parts, the first a cause of despair and the second a cause for celebration. Starting with the first, the vote for the UK to leave the EU (aka ‘Brexit’) has shocked and dismayed us beyond measure and inevitably cast a shadow over our last week on the GR1. This is not a political blog, and other than saying that Brexit is against everything we believe in, I shall not dwell much on our specific thoughts on the matter. It would be an omission though not to talk about how it affected our hiking and motivation. Week 9 finished on a high note however, when we reached the pass of Puerto de Tarna and the ‘official’ end of the GR1 trail….although our hike is far from complete yet.

We learnt of ‘Brexit’ (I really loathe that word!) about mid morning on the 24th June. We were high on a pass, the mist was clearing and birdsong rose from the sunlit woodlands below. We had brought some tins of beer up with us, hoping to celebrate our relief at a remain vote, but instead they were our first defence against despair. After getting a 3G signal we checked the news online, before dumping our packs on the trail and crumpling to the ground, it was one of the most shocking moments of our lives.

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24th June, a very dark day-  having the technology to keep in touch with the world can be a curse.

Over the following hours and days, I kept thinking I would wake up any minute and everything would be ok, but as time passed, it all stayed horribly real. The time before ‘Brexit’ started to seem like another lifetime, we had always understood the freedom and opportunities being part of the EU provided and never took them for granted. The prospect of their loss (not to mention all the other issues as well) made us feel trapped and more at odds with our own society than ever. It was hard to keep our motivation as we alternated between raging, sadness and silent periods of turbulent thoughts. Tea breaks turned into long stops of despondency when we just sat, feeling adrift and could not summon the mental enthusiasm to carry on. This was a shame, as the trail was so, so beautiful, but it was difficult to connect and feel joyful, although we were still greatly relieved to be far away from the epicentre of things. Local bars featured heavily at the start of the week too, as we sat brooding over beer and silently envying the locals, whose lives went on unchanged, and whose country had not just pushed the self destruct button.

By lunchtime on Day 64 (2 days after Brexit results) we had ground to a halt in the village of Rusega, sitting listlessly in the square and wondering if we should just quit for the day. A couple of kilometres further on was a large lake and local beauty spot, popular for picnics and wild swimming. We hiked on there instead, found a spot by the water’s edge and took the rest of the day off to read, eat crisps, drink beer and swim. We realised how little time we actually allow ourselves to relax when hiking, so it felt like a much needed treat. In the glare of afternoon light, I went for a swim, stepping into the warm shallows before plunging into the cold, blue, translucent water. As I swam towards the sun, the wind picked-up and transformed the lake surface into thousands of silver wavelets. Maybe it was the shock of cold water or just the joy of swimming in the wind and light, but it lifted my spirits and jolted me out of the Brexit-induced malaise. Next morning I was focussed and ready to hike again (we both were), and determined to pursue our journey to Santiago with the positivity and optimism that had already carried us so far.  We tried to re-focus our minds on the things we could do, not on what may have been lost or taken away. 

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The mountains of Cantabria beckon as we head west out of Reinosa towards the sunset.

Week 9 promised us much as the GR1 neared its finale, reaching its highest elevation and traversing the  passes and valleys of the Picos Regional Park. For both of us this was the most eagerly anticipated section of the trail and it did not let us down. The rewards were hard won at times though, the Spanish summer was upon us and by 9:30AM it already felt uncomfortably hot. The heat required several pre-dawn starts to complete ascents of passes, followed by long midday breaks to sit-out the heat, often in shady churchyards or porches. There were moments that certainly required a degree of self transcendence, notably slogging up steep, boggy gullies in 28 degree heat with flies (drawn to our sweat) buzzing around us like crazy. At such moments it was best to detach, let the body get on with it and allow the mind to go ‘elsewhere’. On Day 66 the heat was high as we climbed the Collado de Mostagerosa, and with the blood roaring in my ears, I thought I might actually pass out. Barry, on the other hand, came plodding stoically up the gully behind me, a classic case of the hare and the tortoise! 

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On the road at dawn to avoid the 30+ degrees heat as we hike into the Picos.

The beauty of the Picos de Europa has startled us both, and the GR1 has treated us to a fine cross-section of the landscape, combining the drama of the high peaks with the intimacies of meadows, ancient woods and some unexpectedly traditional scenes of rural life. Hiking and camping-out each night places us perfectly to see the landscape at its best, and for us, best is usually the hours before and after dawn. In these hours we have ascended through meadows glittering with dew and into the early sunlit peace of oakwoods. In fact, the way the morning light falls through the oakwoods has been one of the greatest joys of this hike and something I am at a loss to know how to describe and do justice. As the Persian poet Rumi said, “there is a difference between light and the words that try to say light“. Emerging high above the still-shadowed valleys, the sierra crests in hard outline against the pale sky, the world feels remade and strangely hopeful in a way that no other time of the day does. After 69 days on the trail, this appreciation has not dulled, I still stand looking over the morning world and cannot believe it, just the fact of being there, so starkly alone, as if we are the first ones to see it and there is a chance to begin all over again.

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Shortly after dawn on the Collado de los Lobos (Col of the wolves).

The quote at the top of this post perhaps best describes these culminating days on the GR1. Taken from one of the Norfolk Songline stones that dot the Norfolk Coast Path and Peddars Way trails, it comes as close as anything to describing the immersion of body and mind into our environment that comes with a long distance hike. Indeed to experience this ´state´, even temporarily, is one of the main reasons we hike. More than immersion, it also suggests a merging with all around us, absorbing what we see and being absorbed by it. There is probably a hint of Zen Buddhism in there! In Week 9 the GR1 was distilled almost to perfection, mixing the stark skylines of the jagged Picos with mellow river valleys full of hay meadows, deep shade and clear amber streams where trout hung in the shadows.

Against the big backdrop of landscape though, it was the details that stay in our memory; the silhouette of a doe and her fawn on a quiet trail, the lemon scent of broom and its blazing yellow flowers, the mossy veteran oaks gathered in quiet groves and the haunting echo of the black woodpecker in the morning forest. We had also entered the realm of the bear and the wolf, although we had little hope of seeing either. This did not stop Barry from examining every scat on the trail and checking each muddy patch for paw prints. Mostly he found the usual signs of boar, badger, marten and deer, but one scat at least was a good candidate for bear.

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Long, easy mountain paths with the maginificent backdrop of Pena Espiguete.

More than elsewhere on the GR1, we have glimpsed the remains of a still active rural culture. Unlike the abandonment of Aragon, or the holiday home villages of Catalonia, the remote villages of the Picos are still inhabitated by people working on the land. The hay-cut has begun in earnest over the past 10 days and we have seen people still working will small tractors, pedestrian mowers and even some older chaps scything! Outside the village of Priorio I watched an older couple cutting their hay meadow and turning the cuttings by hand. I waved and the woman waved back, lifting her hand so it caught the sunlight, a fleeting gesture than nonetheless seemed to hang in time. I walked away feeling unexpectedly sad- something to do with the distance and differences between our lives (her, so rooted in time and place, me a rootless, disaffected escapee from a decrepit British seaside town)- and how a simple gesture can momentarily and magically bridge such a divide. On more than one occasion, being careful not to idealise their lives, I wonder what it must be like to actually belong somewhere. Shortly after we arrived in Orkney in 2008 to begin our married life together, I was told by someone that ´you´ll never fit in here¨. Those stinging, unfounded words have chased me down the years since. I think it would take a lot of trust to try and ´settle¨ anywhere again. But, all travel is indeed a search for home as the old saying goes.

This smaller scale, less intensive farming farming gives rise to an intimate landscape of meadows, lanes, woodland and scrubby river corridors, with everything blending together to form a continuity and quality of habitat that is rare to see these days. The villages sit within this fabric and it is sobering to think that many of the old folk have lived in them all their lives. In the evenings, groups of elderly ladies, wrapped in shawls and using walking sticks, wandered out onto the country lanes to sit and chat under the poplar trees, the breeze riffling the leaves above. Sometimes women joined them from other nearby villages too, drawn to these places as a common focal point for socialising.  Fewer people seem lonely here where family and communuity structures are still more intact. The men seem to prefer the bars, gathering to play cards and sip Rioja or just watch the soaps on the TV. We were treated to some great hospitality, notably in Marana, where we were encouraged to help ourselves to a huge communal pot of tapas (spicy potatoes and fish) and were each bought a complimentary glass of chilled, fruity Rioja.

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The locals were very obliging as we did a spot of laundry at the vilage Fuente in Las Salas.

Just before dawn on Day 69, after walking 1165km across Spain from the balmy waters of the Mediterranean, we arrived at the pass of Puerto de Tarna and the offical end of the GR1. The pass was not a particularly inspiring place, but as the dawn flooded through the spires of the Picos, we celebrated our moment, taking the obligatory picture by the sign while a Roe deer (our sole company) barked in the forest. Of course, with over 400km still to go to Cape Finisterre, our journey is far from over, but from now on it will change as we leave the ever-lonely GR1 and join the Camino Primitivo and a steadily building wave of other pilgrims. In the past 2 weeks since returning to the trail from short break in Britain, we have seen exactly ZERO other walkers, and over the whole 9 weeks, have met no more than 6 walkers on the GR1 in total (!)- most of whom were out for a day. At the moment it is hard for those hundreds of kilometers to sink-in, were they real, did we really see and do all that? It feels more like five years than 2 months, such is the way this hike has packed in the experiences and changed our sense of pace and time.

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Time really does have a different meaning on the GR1. Here, reading amongst the flowers on the Collado de Lois while the tent dries

The GR1 has been a slow-burn. It does not have the drama or the instant satisfaction of mountain trails like the GR11, it was a different sort of journey, one of time and distance, of subtle changes and gradual realisations. By turns the GR1 surprised, delighted, disappointed and frustrated us (sometimes all in the same day!), but we gradually came to accept it for the unique journey that it was. By week 9 we had come to love the GR1, and by extension, to love Spain also. The Spain of the GR1 is not composed of the usual highlights from the guidebooks, instead it wove deeply into the fabric of an extraordinary country and took us to places that barely seemed touched by the 21st (or even 20th) century. In many villages and on rural roads we drew stares from locals as if we were the first walkers they had ever seen there. It is amazing that in 2016 in Spain we could journey further off the beaten track than we ever felt we did in more far flung, exotic places.  As such, for those willing/able to give the time and effort, such a hike opens up new territories of authenticity and experience in what we might have thought of as familiar terrain. The GR1 is not perhaps an obvious choice for most hikers, its charms are subtle, slow to unfold and cumulative, they lay in wait for those who seek all that lies beyond the simple act of walking. For us at least it has been a joy, an adventure and a privilege.

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I will be doing some follow-up blogs about the GR1 in the near future to reflect on the journey and summarise our thoughts for anyone else interested in walking the trail in whole or part. We would also like to extend our thanks to GR1 guidebook author John Hayes whose book (published by Cicerone in late 2015) first gave us our inspiration. Although aimed primarily at walkers staying in accommodation each night, his guide was an invaluable aid to our planning. It really struck us what a task it is to have produced a guide for such a long hike and welcome the fact that he has helped open the GR1 route up to English speaking walkers. From the early days when I emailed him with various questions, John has always been very generous and quick to respond with his advice. Perhaps more than the guidebook however, it was his epic GPX track of the route (used with the ViewRanger App) which was our guide and saviour (!) on many occasions.  A prolific hiker and cyclist John has his own blog johnhayeswalks if you are looking for more inspiration.

We now set our feet upon the Camino Primitivo, 350km across the wild heart of Galicia to Santiago and from there, the final 60km to Cape Finisterre. This extension fulfils the original vision of the GR1 as a coast to coast trail and is a more fitting finale to such a fine journey. I will probably not blog until we get to Santiago now (in about 2.5 weeks) as I want to focus on just the walking experience and also enjoy more time to relax on our days off 😉  These last few weeks are precious indeed and I take it as a measure of how much we have enjoyed the hike so far that we do not yet want it to end.

“Stay close to any sounds that make you glad you are alive”- Hafiz

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2 thoughts on “GR1 Week 9: Picos Finale…but the trail continues

  1. Congratulations! What an achievement!
    On a more sober note: so many of us share your shock and disappointment of the leave vote. I think, if it was held again now, the result would be very different. However, I don’t think that’s a realistic outcome. It’s taken me a while to accept what has happened. Now it’s a waiting game. I’m hoping Theresa May (who voted remain) will be next PM and mitigate as much as possible. You’re in the best place… enjoy what you’re doing and reassure anyone you meet that 48% of us still love the EU.
    Sx

    Like

    • Hi Sheila, good to hear from you and nice to know you are still keeping up with our blog. Yes, Brexit is a shambles and a disaster, still reeling from it now. Every person I have spoken to about it over here (from other Europeans, to Americans and Australians) basically says Britain must be nuts… quite. I’m afraid I cannot share any optimism about Theresa May as PM, especially given the people she has now appointed to government. The whole thing is like a sick joke, if only it weren’t so serious. We are now in the hands of the far right and the centre/left don’t seem to be able to rally themselves. Just hope the environmental movement puts up a stiff fight in the coming months. How is morale at work?

      Best wishes

      Rebecca

      Like

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