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Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Fine Art of Pfaffing - Part the First: Trans Cantabrica Days 5 - 7

I suspect I shall carry the trauma of that descent into Ermua till the end of my walking days. The physical scars have all but cleared but the emotional wounds have carved themselves deep into my psyche. Still, a valuable lesson learned, never follow a path that looks like it might deceive, that will tempt and lead you down a dead-end track. But I am always an Eve, my spirit willing but my flesh easily led. In any case, if you don't stray, you'll never know what lies beyond the confines of the straight and narrowĤ. In the words of the legendary Buck's Fizz: 'Something nasty in your garden's waiting/Patiently, till it can have your heart/Try to go but it won't let you/Don't you know it's out to get you/Running/Keep on running'.

Image of Virgin Mary, Ermua
Ermua and Eibar lie deep in a steep, wooded valley that forms the main corridor of communication along the coast between Donostia-San Sebastian and Bilbao. Eibar is much the larger town, Ermua a sort of overspill. There's just too much going on in too small and narrow a space. The road and the railway are hemmed in; horizontal is not an option, there's very little sense of sideways so everything must go up. Apartment blocks, supermarkets, offices, the effect is overwhelmingly claustrophobic and I feel bad about not liking the place though it takes me a good two hours to leave as waste precious time searching, in vain, for gas cannisters - bear with me on this, it will become a major distraction.
Preparing for fiesta, Eitzaga
I'd planned a relatively short hike south out of the valley of the river Ego (I kid you not, if ever there were a geomorphological feature named for me, that is surely it) and into the adjacent comarca of Durangaldea but which your correspondent immediately - and quite predictably - began to refer to as DuranDurangaldea.
I know, there is no hope and there is no cure. I'm more or less condemned to a life of OED (Obsessive Eighties Disorder).

Aixola urtegia
The ola de calor that seemed to have arrived alongside my train in Irun a few days previously was scaling the thermometer and it was another day of sweat and sweary words; even a relatively gentle climb of 250m along the GR121 to a small reservoir elicited a steady flow of both. The reservoir offered a good half hour of respite, level walking in the shade and I eschewed the kind offer of the GR121 to climb a hill (are you kidding?) and followed the pista around the lake. But all good things do come to an end and sure enough the track began to ascend, to the small town of Elgeta, its industrial estates simmering under the heat of the mid-afternoon sun. It was siesta time, the place was shut. A four or five km hike along a main road brought me to my overnight destination: Berrio-Aldape, a small hamlet - if that's not a tautology - in possession of a hotel and bar. Within a few minutes of arrival my overnight stay had extended itself.
The valley of the Rio Ego is deep, steep and narrow, the valley of the Durangaldea is high, wide and handsome, an extensive declivity backed by the fine, ridge-backed mountains of Udalatx and Anboto which, once I'd crossed the watershed, suddenly emerged. I had arrived, here was where the coastal hinterland ended and the Montes Vascos began.

The sublime and magnificent Udalatx
Strange how the smallest of settlements can attract a noisy throng; my rest day, Sunday, coincided with the final of the Campeonato Manomanista between Aimar Olaizola II and Mikel Urrutikoetxea.  Clearly I know absolutely nothing about Basque pelota, aside from the fact that two men - gender equality has not yet reached this sport - strike a squash-sized ball against a wall with their bare hands and fists. On the one hand, it's a bit like squash, on the other, it's nothing like it. But even when the commentary's in a language whose complexity has thus far utterly defeated me, I can tell a fighting comeback when I see one. Urrutikoetxea was cruising towards an easy victory until the veteran Olaizola II (his ninth appearance in thirteen years, having won the title four times - you can see I've done my research) fought back to close to parity. Olaizola had the momentum and the experience but he inexplicably threw it all away with two careless shots which handed victory Urrutikoetxea. And then, impresseive alacrity, the throng dispersed and I went off to listen to Forgotten 80s.

The hike was supposed to resume the following day - Monday, day 7. The intention was - note how often those two words, 'intention' and 'was', appear alongside one another - to purchase a gas canister in the town of Elorrio, about four kilometres away down in the valley, then head up into the mountains. There was a sports/hiking shop in Elorrio, just as there had been in Eibar, but as in Eibar they didn't sell gas for camping. I was directed to the nearby town of Durango - whence Durangaldea - so I checked in to a hotel and hopped on a bus. The heatwave had scaled another notch on the thermometer and the sky was cloudless, if the streets had been any busier we'd have been fighting for the shade. Eventually, the elusive gas cannister located in an out-of-town hyperstore. It was too late and far too hot to do anything else than return to Elorrio and plan a route for the following day.

The Basilica de la Purisima

I fell in love, quite unexpectedly, with Elorrio and would gladly have stayed another day or two. It's a pleasant town of some 7,000 inhabitants with a casco antiguo and old streets. Had I arrived the day before I'd have been able to partake in its dia de orgullo - Pride. For a town of its size that's pretty impressive but as it was over and done I had to console myself with the stunning interior of the Basilica de la Purisima Conception; I've no doubt the Virgin Mary was as present in the Pride festivities as she was in the church
The elusive gas cannister

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Sting in the Tail: Trans Cantabrica Day 4

Deba to Ermua (27km)

It was always going to be a momentous day, forsaking the camino for the GR121 that would take me to Ermua and towards the mountains. A bit like leaving a long-term lover and taking up with a floozy half your age; talk about a mid-life crisis! But there you go, I’m playing fast and loose with my footpaths, don’t want them to get complacent.

Am I sounding like an ageing rock star already?

In the end the momentous element of the day’s hike was not spurning the camino but negotiating a way down into Ermua, a descent that’s still giving me the heebeegeebees, two on. It wasn’t a lack of signage of the part of the GR121 that did for me, it was my own lack of judgement. All the same, I can’t help thinking that the yellow arrows got their revenge.

In Deba I had a room in a pension that was as comfortable and spacious as anything I’d experienced thus far. It even had – I kid you not – a minibar, from which I did not partake. Anticipating the heat I was away before eight and moved relatively easily up the first cuesta of the day, 245m to the Ermita de Calvario. Not as easily or quickly as the half-a-dozen other pilgrims I came across but I’m not in a race. Not yet, anyway. At the ermita I met a Spanish pilgrim of roughly my age and agreed wholeheartedly with her philosophy of poco a poco – little by little, although I’d shouldered my rucksack and strode on while she was still resting.

Poco a poco. Slowly and steadily, more tortoise than hare. That wasn’t the way I went about it on the Camino Francés back in 2012 but for now I have to bide my time, especially in this heat, which is going to get worse. Another 100m of ascent, another, reciprocal 50m of descent the other side, to the hamlet of Olatz where, contrary to the guidebook, the bar is open. Breakfast was dry so I order a slice of melon, an asparragos pintxo and a ubiquitous Coke with ice.

This is the most mountainous, up-and-down section of the camino as it passes through the Basque Country and one of the guidebooks warns against walking it alone yet is seems to me that compared to the Francés, the Camino del Norte attracts more solitary pilgrims. It’s a more intimate route, though in its later stages, as it approaches the junction with the Francés, there’s a growing sense of trepidation as she or he prepares to do battle with the hordes.

The crux of this stage of the camino is the 300m climb to the Collado de Arnoate. Yes, I know that’s only a thousand of your British – or North American – feet but I’ve been stuck in a classroom since January, I’m not fit. And it’s very, very hot – as if I haven’t reminded you already. On the steeper sections of this ascent I resemble a drunken mountaineer ascending the Death Zone on K2, except that I’m crawling a little slower: poco a poco. Nevertheless, I’ve made the ­collado – the pass – in reasonable time; this stage of the walk had been worrying me, not just the distance but the amount of ascent – just over 1500m. Even in the mountains proper I might not have to climb so much and this was one of the reasons for leaving the camino, I was fed up of being told what to do and where to go, of going up then coming down, over and over again. In the mountains – in theory – there will be just one big ‘up’ followed, after a delightful stroll along a ridge, by just one big ‘down’. That, to me, makes more sense; we’ll see how it pans out in reality.

At the collado the yellow arrow points downhill to Markina, another rompepiernas, apparently. I’m probably just a little too smug as I carry on, gently uphill, now following the already family red-and-white blazes of the gran recorrido number 121. There were no tears at the divorce, just a tender farewell; in any case, both the Camino de Santiago and I know we’ll be back in bed together ere long.

Hasta luego, Camino del Norte
On my IGN 1:50,000 map – not the best map series I’ve come across – the ridge is broad and undulates, more disniveles but this time with a purpose. I had to trace the course of the GR121 on to the map from a webpage and I didn’t do it very well; although I was never in danger of getting lost I never really knew where I was, especially as pines and scrub often obscured the view. Quite suddenly, mid-afternoon, a bank of cloud came in from the sea leaving a fine but not impenetrable mist at about 700m. I was vaguely aiming for Monte Urko, a prominent peak of 790m high above my destination of Ermua (pronounced Erm-wah) but when I finally arrived at the road beneath the summit I found a path which circumnavigated it. It might have been easy to go up-and-over, so to speak, as my desvio ended up with a tricky passage above a steep slope which required a bit of scrambling and had a chain to hold on to – just in case! Not a fatal abyss but you’d end up in A&E if you missed a footing. Back on the ridge and another steep, laborious descent beckoned.

And all would have been mundane and quotidian had I not decided to play the cocky dilettante and follow the road instead of a path which split in two with one route clearly going down to Eibar, the larger of the two towns and a couple of kilometres down the valley. I pressed on, assuming my track, already petering out, would take me to Ermua. I should have got the message when thick gorse and brambles began to obscure the thin trail but I carried on regardless, over-estimating my innate sense of direction. The slope got steeper, the vegetation got thicker, I was wearing shorts: a bit of blood does no harm and the pain gave me a bit of a heady rush. Pretty soon it became clear that this was no path, or least, hadn’t been used as such in years but by then I’d reached the point of no return. To turn back would have been to expose my legs to even more lacerations as well as having to pick my way up a very steep slope through the thick and spiny undergrowth. For a brief moment I was stuck in fit of hopeless despair but I knew I had to keep going; there would be a path, at some point.
And there was. Cue tears of relief; still a good 200m above the rooftops of Ermua but out of the thigh-ripping flowers. But the evening – for it was now well after six – had one more sting in its tail. The path I joined led down to – you guessed it – Eibar. By the time I’d reached level ground blood and lacerations laced my calves and thighs; when I paused to clean them up with cold water for about two minutes the stinging pain was absolutely unbearable. But you know what? As I made along the main road that links the two towns I began not to care.

A Hike of Two Halves - Trans Cantabrica Day 3

Zarautz to Deba (22km)

Ah, day three already, and no longer a Trans Cantábrica virgin. The realities of walking, day in, day out – as opposed to poring whimsically over maps in the comfort of the college staffroom - are becoming all too apparent. However much you prepare - study the route, anticipate the weather and the terrain, what you experience in the field never quite concurs with what your imagination conjured up. Sometimes it better, sometimes it’s worse; usually it’s a bit of both.

As, indeed, was the case today. Big time.

To say the Camino del Norte is a coastal path is a bit of a misnomer, like acclaiming ‘The Final Countdown’ for its legendry riff and ignoring all the other facets which make it the greatest song in the history of all music. Ever. While the path does follow the coast it doesn’t hug it, deviating inland to compensate for the rugged littoral contours; in some ways it resembles the UK’s South West Coast Path though in many ways it doesn’t. On both trails, however, there is a good deal of disnivel – gradients. Not girt humungeous ascents, just a series of inconsistent and often interminable ups and downs of between 100 and 200m. It might not sound like much but over the course of a day during a recently-arrived heatwave, it takes its toll.

Sounds like I’m getting in the excuses already. I’m not. Unlike the UK’s South West Coast Path the Camino del Norte benefits from an excellent infrastructure: hotels, pensiones, albergues, bars and restaurants. Something for everybody, as my father would say. So you can, more or less, walk the camino any way you want, you don’t have to follow the 20 – 25km stages the guidebooks recommend. Most of us do, however, and because I’m spending the first week travelling in relative luxury, I’m eschewing the albergues in favour of more up-market accommodation. I’ve booked a room in a pension in Deba, so to Deba I must go – or forfeit my thirty-five quid.

In San Sebastián I added a couple of kilometres to the day’s total by following the seafront; a worthy detour. On this stage the camino has been rerouted to follow the coast so the first four km to Getaria is gloriously level; time to build up a rhythm, get the juices flowing. From Getaria the path ascends 120m to cross the headland then descends, quite steeply, into Zumaia. In the village of Askizu I come across a group of young kids decked out in Basque t-shirts; one is playing the accordion, the rest are singing. Culture and landscape – there’s a subject for a thesis, mine, actually – suffice to say here that the Pais Vasco doesn’t feel like Spain. That begs the question, of course, as to what does Spain feel like? And, indeed, what is ‘Spain’? These are the issues over which I ponder as I wend my way up and down the disniveles. Except when I’m composing songs for my debut album which I sing to myself when I’m in a good mood.

So far, so good. The climb up from Zumaia to Elorriaga is 200m but the camino gives you four kilometres to do it. Third coke of the day at an impromptu mobile café where the camino arrives at a popular picnic area. It’s only 9km to Deba, surely it’s all downhill from here.

If only. I pass the time of day with a fellow pilgrim (for the time being I’m considering myself more pilgrim than hiker) then descend back into the valley. This is supposed to be the rompepiernas ­– ‘leg-breaker’, a term I now realise applies more to going down than going up. My piernas remain very much intact, however, it’s my mind that’s starting to give. Inland, the path becomes tedious, entering a pine forest and encountering the A8 motorway; it’s not really doing anything and it doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. Not to worry, Itziar is only a kilometre away, and surely Itziar is Deba in the same way that Donostia is San Sebastian?

Yes, yes, yes. I know that in many respects Donostia and San Sebastian are two quite different concepts, one Basque, the other Castilian, but they do, at least, occupy the same physical place. Itziar and Deba do not. Deba is another four kilometres away; worse than that, there a bit more up and then a lot more down, 275 metres, all of it very steep. If you want to know what a rompepiernas really feels like, go walk the last 4k into Deba, which includes the most precipitous trip to school I’ve ever seen and outside lifts so that the good citizens of the seaside town and ascend and descend to their hearts’ content without wearing away their precious knee joints.

I’m ashamed to say I cursed the yellow arrows time and time again on this final tramo. I was so effing furious, ranting on at it for not following the Gran Recorrido trail that took a more direct route to Deba. But that is the philosophy of the camino, it exists for itself alone; a means, not an end.
Today's earworm: 'I'm a rock, but I'm ready to roll' by Approval Needed (a sneak preview from next year's new album - 'The good old days just gone up in smoke')


Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Trans Cantabrica - Day 0 to 2

'My baby takes the morning train' sang Sheena Easton in her 1980 hit, 'Nine to Five'. I'll hazard a guess that whoever Ms Eason's 'baby' was, he - or maybe, perhaps, she didn't have to spend the night walking around St Pancras waiting for the 05:40 Eurostar to Paris. I feel I got to know the station's night-time declivities just a little too intimately.
It's a god-forsaken hour but it at least allow me to arrive in Paris with enough time to conduct my ritual derive across the city to one of the south-bound stations; this time Montparnasse where I caught the midday service to Irun, leaving at 12:23 and arriving 18:11.
Why take the train when I could have caught a plane and saved time and money. Well, (1) because I could and always do, because it's a much more civilised way to travel and I like to do slow and (2) because when you've added up trains/buses/tubes to the airport and two hour check-ins there really ain't much in it.

The first day isn't the hardest, that comes on day two or three or even later. On day one the body doesn't know what's hit it; wrenched from its quotidian routine in a classroom in the centre of Bath to the undulating coastline of the Basque Country with its heady Atlantic swell. The body obeys, straight away - it helps that it's been in this situation before, is always half-expecting it. It's only a 200 metre climb from Hondarriba to the Ermita de Guadelupe but the legs are protesting already. Don't fret, recalcitrant limbs, only another 38 days and 800km to go.
I chose to start the Trans Cantabrica hike with three days along the Camino de Norte for several reasons, the most pertinent being that it would serve as a brief 'warm up' for the trials and tribulations of the mountains - if, indeed, I get there. Back in the good old days of cricket, touring teams from Australia would play half-a-dozen matches against county sides as a pre-requisite to the first test. Alas, neither the Australians or I have that luxury nowadays: three days and then I turn inland towards the Montes Vascos.
There is a potential flaw in choosing the Camino del Norte. It's a far more intimate experience than the Camino Frances, it's all to easy to fall in with fellow conspirators and before you know it you're on the outskirts of Santiago.
But it's a good, well-marked path; all you to do is walk and follow the yellow arrow. Simple, isn't it?
Not on your nelly! I was hacking along at a fair speed (remember, this is day one, appearances can be deceptive) until a steep road took me back to seal level at Pasai, a narrow inlet that leads to a busy port. A ferry takes passengers across the river, a journey of only five minutes but enough time for a group of a dozen Basque senior citizens to regale us with a sea shanty. That doesn't happen on the ferry across Weymouth harbour.
I could sense Donostia-San Sebastian as being just around the next cove so I lowered my guard. Fatal mistake, a series of precipitous steps took me up the cliff and along a path that undulated frustratingly for another two to three hours. I lost my legs, they refused to perform as expected - with the stamina of a long-distance athlete - and stammered like an ageing freight train.
Which is perhaps what I've become. But you know what? All was forgotten on arriving in Donostia-San Sebastian. Shame my windowless room was more prison cell than cheap pension.  

Today's earworm: 'I should be so lucky' (in Spanish - 'Que tenga tanta suerte')

Faded glory. Isn't that the cliché always rolled out when describing seaside resorts which, according to some travel correspondents, have seen better days. On the evidence of today's walk through the city, Donostia-San Sebastian (so good they named it twice) has never had it so good. It has a splendid seafront that seems to stretch for miles and reminds me of that Donostia-San Sebastian of the Jurassic Coast - the people's republic of Weymouth. There's an old port, which, although not much of a bona-fide port nowadays, still looks and feels like a port: i.e. hasn't been sanitised for the dread heritage industry. And bars, so many effing bars, with so many desirous pintxos; don't talk to me about food porn.
A stiff stroll up to Monte Igueldo with its theme park that might have been dragged kicking and screaming from those dog-end years of the fifties, sixties and seventies (i.e. before history began). The Camino follows the main highway along the coast for a couple of km before deviating onto minor roads and paths of variable surface-quality, always undulating, never offering consistency.
Today was a stop-and-start day, I never got into a rhythm though I half-expected that. My rucksack was too low, rubbing on my hips but one of the (many) beauties of my little Berghaus baby is that you can do more things with straps than a dominatrix in her torture chamber. I pulled here, pulled there and before you can spell fandabidozi all was right with my posture; it's amazing what a difference it makes, for the remainder of the day my rucksack and I were one and the same thing: you couldn't see where one began and the other ended.
And that's it should be. Love me, love my rucksack.
An attempt to purchase a cod tortilla at a backwater inn were rebuffed with a simple 'no' so it was bananas all the way to Zarzautz. I was toddling along at my own pace when a fellow pilgrim caught me up, Manuel from Venezuela (via Madrid).
It's a difficult one, to walk alone or along with another(s). I like my own company and to be honest I'm a bit of misanthropist with mild narcissistic personality disorder, sometimes I'm not just a nice person to be with.
But you know what it's like when you meet a Venezuelan, you just have to start talking about Chavismo and politics, straight away: it's obligatorio.
So Manuel and I passed the five kilometres to Orio in deep conversation, a very pleasant way to distract me from creeping exhaustion (see what I mean about day two being harder than day one). Manuel is travelling to Santiago without money; if he were doing so on the Camino Frances I wouldn't rate his chances but on the Camino Norte I think he'll do it. He was going to check in to the albergue in Orio but it wasn't a donativo. I offered to pay for his bed but he wouldn't hear of it. No me preocupa, it didn't bother him; little seems to, he is far more liberated than me in my pensiones, carrying an expensive, very lightweight tent. We were about to take our leave of the albergue when Manuel asked the hospitalera, Xochitl, where she was from. When she said 'Nicaragua' and I said I was well-acquainted with her country, will be going there this Christmas, her eyes lit up. Cue invitations to befriend on Facebook and a quite emotional farewell buen camino; we were only there fifteen minutes.
I walked with Manuel to Zarzautz, we parted in the shade on the edge of time, I signed his Venezuelan flag and said I hoped to meet him somewhere along the road to Santiago. In some ways, my encounter with Manuel is one the little miracles that seem to happen - to me, at least - on the way to Santiago. He was a breath of fresh air, had such a refreshing attitude to life. And he laughed at my jokes, in Spanish. Nobody's ever done that before.
But Manuel and Xochitl posed a problem, they reminded me of the camaderie of the Camino Norte, set me wonderinf whether I shouldn't stick with it.
I hobbled the final kilometre to my hotel, where the room has windows. It's been a very hot day and the 23km I walked feels more like 33. Tomorrow it's 22km to Deba, a relatively short stage. But the forecast is for temperatures in the high twenties.
I shouldn't moan, but I do.

Today's earworm: 'Severina' by the Mission - for a long time I thought they were singing about 'Cellar Vino' which was, I think, an adjunct to Verdi's in Weymouth.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Alpha and Omega - a beginning and an end

If you start me up,
If you start me up, I’ll never stop
Never stop
It had, until a couple of weeks ago, been my intention to hike the Pyrenees via a combination of the Haute Route and the Spanish GR11 but at the last minute I changed my mind. I did so for a number of reasons, some physical, some logistical, but what really swung it was the realisation that I wouldn’t be able to complete the walk from end to end, from the start to the finish.
With ‘only’ 40 days to walk and a lack of physical preparation, I was never going to be able to hike from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. At first that didn’t faze me, I’m walking the breadth of Spain from Cape to Finisterre next summer so it shouldn’t have mattered. But I still needed a start and an end, even if the thought of ending a walk brings on an attack of the screaming abdabs – the longer the hike, the more difficult it becomes to bring it to an end. And you can’t just pluck any old random place to begin or end; it must be a place imbued with meaning – personally and/or spiritually ‘sacred’.
So I chose to begin in Roncevalles for the obvious Camino de Santiago connotations. I’d been there in May 2012, there was a link, it joined up some dots (and boy, do I have an almost obsessive desire to join up dots). The final tour de force was to be the summit of Canigou in French Catalunya. For the Catalans, Canigou is a sacred mountain and I share their veneration; its alluring contours always hold my gaze whether from the train from Paris to Barcelona or the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. Many years ago my father and I set out to climb Canigou but got lost nowhere near the summit, defeated by the heat and poor map-reading skills (on my part, I wasn’t a geography tutor back then). I made another attempt about fifteen years ago but this time storms held me back. Once again, I vowed to return.
But Canigou will remain unclimbed and Roncevalles will not be revisited. Not this year, anyway. I changed my mind, decided, at Irun, to turn right instead of left. My inner Catalan would be disappointed but my inner Basque would be in seventh heaven. Like Ultravox’s Vienna, until 2012 Irun meant nothing to me but subsequent visits – or rather, subsequent ‘passing throughs’ – have transformed it into a place with accumulated meaning. In 2012, having completed the Camino Francés, I took the train from Santiago to Irun and, whilst killing a few hours waiting for the bus to Paris, came across a sign pointing towards the starting point of the Camino del Norte. You don’t know how close I came to tearing up my bus ticket and setting out for Santiago all over again. It would have dealt with the ‘problem’ that’s had me at its beck and call ever since, what we might call, somewhat pertinently, the ‘Rolling Stone syndrome’ – if you start me, up I’ll never stop. To do so, of course, might have set in train an infinite hiking loop which had a permanent destination but was utterly without end – until impairment or death intervened. Every time I arrived in Santiago, I’d start all over again. From another point of origin, along another camino de Santiago, hiking into infinity and beyond.
I was back last year, a night stopover en route from Oviedo to London (by train, of course); I chose a ropey hotel with a hideously orange room but somehow that only served to cement Irun’s presence in my psyche as a ‘significant’ place. Irun is, of course, a frontier town, and even in these days of Schengen these borderlands still retain a curious allure; landscapes of transience and ephemerality. I’m a rootless creature with an inherent mistrust of allegiance and fidelity; if I belong anywhere it’s in these always in-between places.
So, that’s start point but where to end? Hiking the Pyrenees one has a choice of routes and it’s perfectly feasible to switch from one to the other depending on one’s mood and preference. There are no such well-defined, ‘official’ trails across the Cordillera Cantabrica. The network of Gran Recorridos (GRs) offers possibilities, a combination of these will take me as far as the Somiedo National Park and Pico El Cornón.
Pico El Cornón
From Pico El Cornón it is, as the crow flies, about 60 km to Pedrafita do Cebreiro, another border town, straddling the frontier between Galicia and Leon. It’s my intention to end the hike here, another dot to join, another landscape loaded with personal meaning. In June 2012, after four weeks of hiking the Camino Francés I practically skipped up to O Cebreiro, the ‘Gateway to Galicia’.
O Cebreiro might be just another mountain pass (though all mountain passes should be celebrated for their individual character and personality) were it not for the pilgrims’ way. Maybe it’s the effort required to gain the 1293 metre pass that lays the hiker/pilgrim open – perhaps even vulnerable – to emotional turbulence but on that warm June morning I was pommelled from all sides. In the church is a beautiful but simple statue of the Virgin and Child but outside, at the summit of the pass, an exquisite and, quite frankly, dangerous vista of the Cordillera Cantabrica unfolds at one’s feet.
Dangerous? The Camino Francés by-passes the mountains until the very last minute, when it has no option if it’s to get to Santiago. It crosses the meseta on a trajectory that it crushingly flat and without curves, the pilgrim’s inner hiker’s gaze is drawn north to the horizon. At night, tossing and turning in the noisy albergue, her dreams are full of mountain scenes that are almost erotically charged; the chaste pilgrim channels her sexual desire to the ridges, precipices and lofty peaks. The spirit is willing but the flesh is not quite as weak as she imagined, she sticks to the camino, the mountains will come later. 
Basque Mountain Porn: Anboto in the Montes Vascos
 At O Cebreiro I burst into tears. Looking east, across the sierras stretching back to the horizon, it suddenly dawned on me how far I’d walked and for a several seconds I struggled to come to terms with the emotion. I was joined by an Irish family, a father and his two twentysomething daughters; it soon became apparent that he’d recently lost a wife and they’d recently lost a mother, like so many pilgrims they were walking not to escape absence but to come to terms with it: we walk into the sunset but we don’t run away. You don’t have to be a cognitive behavioural therapist to imagine how much their overheard conversation racked up the emotions. O Cebreiro etched itself deeper into my memory, like a groove on a vinyl record from the Good Old Days; it became another dot that would need to be joined up whenever I returned to hike in Northern Spain.  Talk about having an inner anal-retentive! Must all dots be joined up, belong to a network of emotion and affect? Can they not exist in splendid isolation? A place to pass through which leaves no trace of itself in the psyche? Let’s come back to that later. 
The Camino del Norte from Irun to Bilbao. It joins the GR123 near Markina-Xemein
The first few days of the hike will follow the Camino del Norte from Irun to San Sebastian/Donostia along the coast to Deba. Here I intend to join GR123 – La Vuelta a Bizkai; this trail will take me into the Basque Mountains in a southerly meander and, in a roundabout way, lead me to the start of the GR74 – the Corredor Oriental de Cantabria.
But there are a lot of ifs and buts to be addressed, as well as dots to be crossed. Unlike the Camino de Santiago, the route is littered with uncertainties. And no yellow arrows, replaced by flashes of red and white. 
The GR123 Vuelta a Vizcaya. I hope to follow the southern, inland route, against the arrows, from Ondarroa to Concha                               
The GR 123, GR 74 and GR71 through Cantabria to Potes.          
I’m catching the first Eurostar out of St Pancras next Monday morning, it leaves at 05:40 so I have no option but to catch a train from Letchworth Garden City on Sunday evening. Rather than hang around waiting for the station to open I thought I might walk from a random place – if there exists such a concept as random place – through north London in the late night and early morning. The plan is to take the train to Gordon Hill – a place with which I have no known association – and head off on foot from there.
Hang on. Didn’t Gordon Hill play for Manchester United in the seventies? Doh!