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Monday, 19 January 2015

We walk the paths, the paths walk us - part the second

Walk Two: Besalú – GR2 – Santa Maria del Collell – Banyoles: Tuesday 23rd December
I'd spent so much of the intervening days revelling in the glories of the previous walk it's surprising I got any studying done at all. Predictably, Deleuze and Guattari lay untouched on the desk, like a jilted bride. To be honest, my newly-acquired maps got more attention than my books and even my homage to JB Jackson remained closeted in its computer file, uncompleted but not unloved.
The whole walk: Besalu - El Torn - Santa Maria del Collel - Sant Miguel de Campmajor - San Marti de Campmajor - Estany de Banyoles - Banyoles
 I'd planned what should have been a rougher, more substantial hike, following the GR2 across the Pyrenean foothills into the volcanic landscapes of the Garrotxa and on to the town of Olot, a distance of about 28km. Nothing overly arduous, the only concern being the limited hours of daylight, it being but a day after the winter solstice.
But there was a subtext. Olot, the Garrotxa and I have crossed paths – if you'll forgive the deliberate pun – before, back in the summer of 2005 when, on the last night of a walking holiday, my drink was spiked and the perpetrator 'took advantage' of my semi-comatose state. This would be the first time I'd gone back. It was a long time ago; I thought I was ready, I'm not sure whether I was or, indeed, still am.
The GR2 from Besalu to El Torn

Catalunya in midwinter might offer blue skies, sunshine and ideal walking temperatures during the day but it can get a bit parky overnight, more so in Besalú, a charming but touristic honeytrap. At nine in the morning, when the bus arrived, it was still below zero in the shade so I hopped in and out of the shadows, trying to stay in the first shards of anaemic sunlight.
One of the key differences between walking in the UK – or England and Wales at least – and walking in continental Europe, in terms of route-finding at least, is waymarking. One of Ms Geth's observations on completing the JoGLE was the lack of constant signposting, the likes of which are usually liberally sprinkled across most paths on the continent. I'm not just talking about the ubiquitous yellow arrows of the Camino de Santiago, or the red-and-white blazes on trees, rocks and buildings that mark out the route of Spanish Gran Recorridos; in my experience – and this is confined largely to Spain, France, Italy and Romania – most defined paths and trails are waymarked at regular intervals, unlike the less-frequent public footpath/bridleway signposts of England and Wales. What's more, these signposts will often point in a vague direction across a ploughed or overgrown field leaving the walker to consult the map.
And there's the rub. In England and Wales a map is absolutely essential, preferably at a scale of 1:25,000; in continental Europe it's an option. Personally, I like to be in possession of a map. Call me anally retentive if you want but I like to know where I am in space and I like to be able to relate my location to the landscape around me. Perhaps more importantly, the map has potential; it offers possibilities – diversions and short cuts, as will be seen later. Clearly, on a longer walk or thru-hike, maps become more or less obsolete; expensive and impractical unless you're prepared to spend time and money on mailing them ahead of you.
Another observation on waymarking, one which has always perplexed but which bugged me more than usual on this walk, is the practice of showing distance in time, not space. For example, the first signpost I encountered on leaving Besalú showed not a distance of 27 kilometres but a time of nine and a half hours. Now, the Garrotxa is rugged terrain, plenty of climbs but between Besalú and Olot the total ascent is 700 metres with just under 1000 metres of descent.
Showing distance in terms of time instead of space has numerous implications. For a start, who sets the kilometre per hour rate and upon what/whom do they predicate it? Do they take into account stops and lunchbreaks? Both of these are an anathema to me. Distance is objective and easily measured, time is subjective; intimate and personal. For example, anyone who's been on a walk with me will soon know not to ask 'how long till we get there' because my answer is invariably optimistic, often wildly so. I'd make a terrible tour guide.
Here the kilometres/hours conundrum gives the hike an added, competitive dimension: pits me, the ramblanista, against time. Any signpost telling me it's x hours to my destination is like a red rag to a bull; I don't like being dictated to and I'll do my level best to prove it wrong. 

 But I never got to beat the clock. The GR2 climbs gently out of Besalú on earthen tracks and paths through scrub and woodland; nothing too strenuous. I'm moving freely and easily, though not quite with the speed and rhythm of the previous walk. Maybe this is because of the path; navigating requires more attention and I have to concentrate more on where I put my feet; the mind has to focus on the terrain, it doesn't have the luxury to wander at will.
After a few kilometres of meandering the GR2 follows a gently undulating forest road and I immediately pick up speed. In many respects this is, for me, a perfect walking surface; it doesn't afford the views of the Rocacorba hike but it does allow me to just walk. Pure hiking: the act of putting one foot in front of another is all that matters. This head-down, quick-stride, light-footed way of walking induces a trance-like mood: I eat up the kilometres, the kilometres eat up me.
It cannot, of course, last. I defy one detour into the woods, stick two fingers up at a sign which wants to take me down a steep path towards a stream then all the way back up again when all I want to do is remain on the earthen road. What sort of hiker have I become? One who eschews the delightful idiosyncrasies of the footpath for the uniformity of the well-worn track? I'm not so sure. When I have no option but to follow the GR2 it makes a delightful, sensuous and sinuous ascent through oak trees to the Coll Salom and an even more delicious descent the other side; a thin but firm path along which I hopped, skipped and ran so that by the time I reached the small village of Sant Andreu del Torn, ten kilometres out of Besalú, I was well ahead of the clock. I'd get to Olot well before nightfall.
At Sant Andreu del Torn the GR2 plods straight on, into the Garrotxa proper and across rougher, more demanding terrain. It'll slow me down, but who's to say that's a bad thing. 'What's the rush, Ramblanista?' I hear you sigh, in exasperation. 'Chillax. Take some time to dawdle and get jiggy with it.'
Can't hear you? Won't hear you more like. I crave distance, insufflate it as it were a line of the finest cocaine. 
El Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool
I have a map, ergo, I know my place. I have a map, ergo, I am now mistress of space. I don't have to stick to my guns. What happened at Sant Andreu del Torn continues to unnerve me. Was my decision to turn south along an asphalt road based on a subliminal reluctance to return to the scene of a crime? To avoid traipsing, increasingly traumatised, through a landscape I might forever associate with violation rather than volcanicity? Or was it, as I told myself then and am still trying to persuade myself now, the lure of the pastoral vale that unfolded itself to my left? Easier on the eye, easier on the emotions.

It was, at least superficially, a good choice. Unencumbered by the constraints of a narrow valley, the warm sun shone on and around me, like the halo of a sainted pilgrim. A kilometre further on there was another decision to be made, though this one was a no-brainer.
The shrine of Santa Maria del Collel was an unexpected surprise. I suppose I took its presence as a sign, not so much divine revelation as divine justification but I don't think it really works like that. My personal Virgin Mary – Our Lady of the Clenched Fist – would've met the situation head on: kicked it hard and where it hurts rather than creeping away with her tail between her legs. 
Santa Maria del Collel. The car wasn't worth nicking
What do they say about the perils of taking the line of least resistance? The road, not particularly bothered by motor vehicles, eased over a low wooded col and passed by the delightful aldea of Sant Miguel de Campmajor then hit the main drag. Another long slog against the flow of traffic beckoned, though without the danger of walking in the dark. In hindsight I might have been a little less cautious and trusted my luck to tracks leading up to the ridge on either side but they looked muddy and uncertain. Eventually I managed to find a deviation, sneaked off the road to join one of the network of trails that surround the old spa town of Banyoles and its lake. See what I mean about having every hike handed to you on a plate? 
Whaddya know? If there wasn't a Girona-bound bus waiting for me in the town centre, all ready to go. Looks like the gods and goddesses of perambulation were smiling on me, their bastard lovechild, once again. What had I done to deserve their munificence? 
Back home, cradling a large gin and tonic, I spread out the map and, as is my wont, mentally reviewed the day's walk. Step-by-step, recalling the emotions, the highs and the lows - metaphorically and literally. Friday I'd been up with the gods and goddesses amongst their lofty peaks, shoulder to shoulder with the surrounding hills, looking down; today, whether by accident or design, I'd confined myself to the valleys, looking up. Contrasting perspectives but each constantly shifting in colour, shade and hue; being-always-on-the-move, not just step-by-step but day-by-day means no one perspective dominates. There's always more than one point of view; a different way of walking, a different way of seeing.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

We walk the paths, the paths walk us - part the first

You know what it's like. Some days you trip out of your tent, albergue or, as has been the case with me most of this year, en-suite hotel room, with a hop, skip and a jump and before you've got to the end of your tenth rendition of 'The Final Countdown' you've hoovered up half-a-dozen kilometres. It's like walking on air, as if the twin concepts of distance and destination have been inverted and the benign gods and goddesses of perambulation have granted you the gift of eternal wandering.
Other days you can't get into a rhythm for love nor money; every stride is an effort, as if those malicious god and goddesses of perambulation are up to their old tricks again, tweaking the law of gravity so it feels you're walking across a field of treacle. Why do they hate you so much?
Sometimes there's an obvious reason: the weather, the state of the path, the company you keep and/or being less-than-parsimonious with the gin and tonic the night before but there are days – we've all experienced them – when there's no logical explanation.
In her excellent trail-walking blog The Big Trip, 'German Tourist' (aka Christine Geth) documents some of the problems she encountered during an unhappy JoGLE (John O'Groats to Land's End) hike during the autumn of 2011. She concludes that the UK is not particularly amenable to long-distance trail-walking (or 'thru-hiking', as current parlance has it) for a number of reasons, two of which are the difficult terrain and the frequency of stiles and gates, both of which lead to a dramatic drop in her daily mileage. She writes:
'The combination of cattle, a lot of rain and no forest turns a huge part of British trails into one huge mud pool. Especially notorious are cattle gates: Because there is a lot of animal movement the area around them is generally one big dirt pool. But of course the gates are usually locked and you can only open it by stepping right into the deepest part of the dirt pool.'
There are, undoubtedly, a girt humungeous cohort of hikers who might take issue with Ms Geth's observations; gaitered mudlarks who feel a deep and sensuous pleasure in traversing a bog, knee deep in a cocktail of oozing slime and sticky clay. I'm not one of them; not sure I ever have been but it's only in the past couple of years that I've come to realise it's the nature of the path that's important to me; not just its gradient or type but it's consistency: I'm one of those walkers who likes to get her head down and go; if you start me up I'll never stop. Although I continue to walk regularly in the UK these are generally day or weekend hikes, certainly not long-distance expeditions or thru-hikes; for these I jump on the train to Spain (there's another issue here about the landscape of my beloved Wessex landscape perhaps not performing in the way that it did, say, five years ago but that's another story).
During a recent Christmas-avoiding trip to Girona I interspersed periods of study with excursions into the surrounding Catalunyan hills. I made three, in total, and as I laboured up a steep track at the beginning of the final trail it occurred to me that each hike had, in its embodied, perambulatory essence, been quite different to the others whilst the context – the weather, terrain and conditions underfoot - had been remarkably constant: blue skies; temperatures in the high teens; good, firm often paved tracks and a landscape Mediterranean forest, woodland and scrub.
Each hike had its own character and personality; a quality that went beyond distance but was a complex and often heady combination of emotion and affect which, together, served to create a mood that was constantly changing, never the same from one stride or vista to the next. Motion begets emotion, this mood might be compared to the moods created by landscape artists or even poets (think Wordsworth's Prelude). But I'm no painter nor poet; I am, so they tell me, a geographer. Yes, I know the former doesn't preclude the latter but how to represent emotion and affect is an integral – if not the integral – part of my research. The painting and the poem serve geography well (or is it the other way round?), but how to capture the dynamism of the moment, the constant being and becoming. What follows in this and a second post is a preliminary attempt at doing just that.

Walk One: Friday 19th December: Banyoles – Rocacorba – Canetd'Adri – Sant Gregori – Girona (40km)

Talk about flying out of the traps. I'd been in Girona barely 48 hours and already procrastination was doing my head in; instead of getting into bed with Deleuze and Guattari I purchased an Institut Cartogràfic de Catalunya (ICC) 1:50 000 map and spent all evening poring over it, gin and tonic at close hand. Yes, I know, that thesis ain't gonna write itself but what's the point in sitting in a student bedsit, writing about writing, when you get out in the field and actually do it?
The plan was to head straight for the high ground; follow an asphalted track up to the peak of Puig Sou in the Muntanya de Rocacorba from Banyoles, a thirty minute bus ride from Girona. I left late, didn't start out from the Estany de Banyoles, a lake surrounded by wooded hills with a backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees, until eleven-thirty; a typical pre-hike dawdling dilatoriness. It would mean a long slog in the dark later on, but these things never bother us at the time; out in the field we are always in the moment. Nothing else really matters. 
Estany de Banyoles. Canigou in the background

The sulphur Font Pudosa just outside Banyoles. The adjacent spa is now a crumbling ruin; it's one of thise places you smell before you see...

The road from Banyoles up through Pujarnol to Rocacorba climbs 880 metres in 14 kilometres. It's a constant climb, twisting in its later stages, but never steep. After three months of relatively sedentary existence teaching and studying I'd assumed I'd be out of shape and would struggle to crest the first hill but I practically scampered up the mountain, even, at times, breaking into a trot: it took me a little under three hours to get to the top. 
Who goes up ...
Clearly I wasn't as unfit as I'd thought but, equally clearly, there was more to it than that. Much, much more – whoever said hiking was a simple, straightforward task has never been on a walk with me.

Firstly, this hike – this set of three hikes – was a bit of an unexpected bonus. I'd intended to spend just a few days in Girona, each with my head down in a book, before heading backreturning to Somerset for Christmas until I was politely informed I'd be better off staying put: Christmas would still be Christmas without me, probably even more so. Suddenly all bets were off. I extended my trip to ten days – ample time to study and hike; the gods and goddesses of perambulation were looking favourably on me again.
And who can blame them. 
Secondly, I'm not generally a winter hiker. Walking yes, hiking no. In Wessex, past October, the fields are too muddy, the paths too slippy and waterlogged; winter slows me down and I don't like it. Maybe I'll nip out of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, pound the minor roads and take on the traffic in driving wind and rain but the longer treks are saved for the summer. I hadn't anticipated the Catalunyan climate being so favourable in late December; it seemed a crime to sit inside staring at a screen. What am I saying? It seemed like a crime? It was a crime: I had to get out.

So that first walk, unanticipated and unlooked for, was loaded with an intense feeling of liberation. Not just in the sense of being out-in-the-field but in the sense that I'd emancipated myself from what I consider to be the banalities of the run-up to Christmas. My emotions were heightened, the landscape became my conniving accomplice; we'd eloped, skipped through the boundaries of the quotidian and the routine and found our promised land.
No wonder I felt a little frisky!

I was on fire, the landscape responded. Ascending, vistas opened and closed, revealed themselves in different shades, colours and tones. Contours sharpened then, around the next bend, suddenly blurred and, occasionally dissolved; each step a new dawn and new creation. Each stride like going to the same party but in a different dress.
Or maybe no clothes at all. 
'What's another Year' sang Johnny Logan in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest, receiving a stunning seven sets of douze points. 'What's another summit' might be my apt, less insipid riposte. You've seen one top-of-the-hill, you've seen them all, after a while only a few stand out (pun intended). 
What's another romanesque chapel ...
People – hikers in particular – get precious about their peaks. The minimalists like them pure, no physical presence to celebrate the triumph of elevation. They cuss the cairns and crosses that litter so many summits, probably cuss anyone who has the temerity to be there as well on a hot summer's afternoon. I have my moments of misanthropy but there's nothing I like more than seeing others out in the field, liberating themselves.

But its not only us outdoorsy folk who have our eyes on the hills and our nemeses got to the top of Puig Sou before us, built a fence to protect their aerials and antenna, effectively sealing off the top ten metres from the rest of the world. Not so much a forbidden mountain as a proscribed prominence. 
But do we have to get to the top? Stand astride the uppermost elevation as if the extra couple of centimetres might make all the difference, bring us closer to God's right hand? From the ridge the mountain drops away sharply; to the east Banyoles so tiny and insignificant I could, if I so wished, stub it out with my heel, like a cigarette. Talk about perspective and power, altitude and attitude. My megalomaniac moment passes, to the north and west the Pyrenees float over wisps of thin cloud; I'm here, up high, but there are higher things above me. It's Canigou that grabs my attention, looming over the French border. More of that mountain anon.

The geeks might have appropriated the very top but they weren't the first to appreciate the privilege of height. The Church was there before them, in the twelfth century, to be precise, And, like shoppers at Waitrose, it realised that quality is better than quantity, form infinitely preferably to function. It chose not the highest point of Puig Sou to build the Santuari de la Mare de Déu but the most dramatic: a girt, humungeous anvil-shaped hunk of rock that, with the addition of its chapel, looms larger than the summit itself. It's all about presence and performance: the telecommunications station is at 992 metres, the Santuari 929. Does the Blessed Virgin Mary really care about that missing 63?
Somehow I doubt it.

A straightforward ascent, a more complex return to the horizontal. A path, steep and rocky, zig-zagged down an almost precipitous slope till it eased out into an russet-earthed cart track and metamorphosed into a metalled road. Straight back down to earth; I'm at that age when you have to start worrying about my knees as well as twisting my ankle but this was one of those trails where a false step could've sent me tumbling to the valley below; an untimely but not ignominious end. 
... must come down
I was never going to win the war against the onset of night but at least I'd secured a first strategic blow against the darkness, beaten it to the village of Canet d'Adri from where it was all tarmacadam till Girona. 
She'll be coming down the mountain ...
The problem with both the ICC's maps and the Catalunyan roads is their insistence on you, the traveller, knowing exactly where you are in distanced-space: the dreaded kilometre post on the ground and its equally portentous equivalent on the map. It didn't take long to work out that 13 km of walking separated me from the outskirts of Girona, then another five to my student digs. Normally this might've taken the edge of what had, to that point, been an exhilarating hike but if anything the long plod along increasingly busy highways served only to accentuate and enhance its pleasures. Head down, stride after stride, the mind at four kilometres an hour, by the time I'd got home I was buzzing with the effervescence of magnesium reacting with water.

Narcotics? Who needs them.
I still haven't found what I'm looking for ...

Friday, 26 September 2014

One Hundred Hours of Solitude: Walking the Ruta Jacobeo del Ebro

The Camino Jacobeo del Ebro and the overall greater scheme of things (
It’s often said – erroneously, I believe – that the memory of a goldfish lasts only three seconds. In this respect – and probably in this respect alone – they have something in common with the hiker and pilgrim who, I would suggest, have a memory of span of between twenty-five and thirty kilometres. This might explain how, after spending a day toiling across the parched plains of southern Catalunya under a blistering sun, cursing the earth beneath my feet, I’d get up the following morning, pull on my boots and do it all over again. I’d already forgotten the curses I’d uttered – often quite loudly – when I lost the yellow arrows and my vociferously-expressed incredulity when, often out of the blue, I came across them again. I must have deliberately overlooked the cries of despair when, having crested a slope in the anticipation of finding civilisation on the other side, there was just more of the same – a dusty, bone-dry track lacing its way across an arid landscape in which fellow pilgrims – and, indeed, any evidence of human existence – were conspicuous by the absence. Solitude and sweat were my constant companions, along with the ever-present, sweltering sun.
The Camino Jacobeo del Ebro is part of a network of caminos in Spain, France and beyond that, sooner or later, hone in on Santiago de Compostela. The 220 kilometre-long path runs from the delta of the Rio Ebro at St Jaume d’Enveja to the municipality of Fuentes del Ebro in Aragon, some thirty kilometres east of Zaragoza. Here it joins a branch of the Camino Catalan and follows the valley of the Ebro to Logroño and the Camino Francés; from there it’s another 620 km to Santiago and further 80 to Finesterre. The end of the world, the end of the road.
With the Camino Francés increasingly resembling a pedestrian autopista and a concomitant strain on the infrastructure and accommodation, pilgrims and local authorities are increasingly turning to and promoting alternative routes. The statistics are encouraging but don’t expect that to translate into a greater pilgrim presence; even on the much more popular Camino del Norte I could walk for an hour or more without meeting another hiker. On the Camino Jacobeo del Ebro I was utterly alone.
With only three weeks between teaching stints I decided to forsake arriving in Santiago and pursue the paths themselves, a walk without end. Only a few days into the hike I began to regret this and toyed with the idea of swapping six weeks of summer school for going all the way. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that the lure of filthy lucre won out but only after promising I’d never compromise myself again.

I’d intended to arrive at my starting point – the town of Tortosa – via a convoluted route from Bristol that would include a night train from Paris to the border town of Latour du Carol but an SNCF strike meant I had to jump on one of the few trains running from the Gare de Lyon and spend a night in Perpignan. The early morning service to Barcelona was still running but I had to hang around for a couple of hours for my connection which took me along the Catalunyan coast, arriving in Tortosa late afternoon.
And here the gods of fate who preside over the plight of the pilgrim decided to compound my poor judgement by playing tricks with me. In hindsight I should’ve spent the night in Tortosa and started out first thing Sunday morning but I was so desperate to start walking I started there and then; assuming that given my enthusiasm I could cover the 22 kilometres to Benifallet before nightfall. I was right, but that was only half the story because I somehow managed to contrive losing my guidebook between getting off the train and partaking in a very tasty snack in the station cafeteria. I swear I scoured every square metre of the station, the train and the cafe, not just once but twice, without success. In the end I put its disappearance down to divine intervention and set off – who needs a guidebook anyway, the Virgin Mary and my inner geographer would guide me. Which they did, it’s just a shame my inner logistician hadn’t turned up.
It was well after four; the sun was still fierce and I was about to learn lesson one of the Camino Jacobeo del Ebro – there is no shade. After a couple of kilometres, at El Raval de Jesus, I got to grips with lesson two – there is no water. Or very little, at least: the fountain was dry. But there was a running fuente five kilometres further on in the hamlet of Aldover (no accommodation) then four kilometres later, at the old station in Xerta. There is accommodation in Xerta and I was offered a room in a very plush hotel for €70, in hindsight I should have snapped it up.
I should mention here that for thirty kilometres out of Tortosa the Camino Jacobeo del Ebro follows La Via Verde de las Terres d’el Ebre, an old railway line that has been converted into a metalled cycle path and is particularly popular at weekends. Sharing a path with cyclists wasn’t a problem here – probably because I was in a minority of one – and had the important benefit of supporting a limited infrastructure. I should also mention that the Camino Jacobeo del Ebro sometimes shares a common path with the GR99 Camino Natural del Ebro. It’s also important to note that the GR99 does follow the Ebro whereas the Camino often doesn’t!
It was with this in mind that I’d booked accommodation in the town of Benifallet, not realising that the Camino passes through the Antigua Estacion de Benifallet then heads north whereas the GR99 turns off the Via Verde to Benifallet itself, another five kilometres distant. The detour, much of which is a long plod beside a busy road, is exacerbated by the fact that one must walk a couple of kilometres along the west bank of the Ebro to cross the bridge and then retrace one’s steps on the other side of the river.
Thus it was almost dark by the time I reached my lodgings, the Hotel Pepo, having walked 27 kilometres in five hours. I thoroughly recommend the Hotel Pepo with the proviso that it does require that infuriating desvío: the welcome was very warm and friendly and the food was fantastic, the buffet breakfast being both ample and tasty. At 60 it was the most expensive accommodation I stayed along the Camino but it was well worth it.
There is, as it happens, a cafetería and pensión at the Antigua Estacion de Benifallet but when I arrived, after seven in the evening, there was no sign of life in either. It does appear on various hotel-booking website so I guess if you make a reservation someone will turn up and attend to you.

Clearly I had to retrace my steps back to the Camino and the Antigua Estacion de Benifallet where, mid-morning, the cafetería was open and doing a roaring trade. As it’s a disused railway line the gradient is gentle though constantly upwards. The path passes through cuttings, over bridges and into tunnels, some of which are quite long and require a torch (some are lit by solar energy; the lights come on when you enter but often go off when you’re only halfway through). In the morning and evening there is shade but around about midday the sun is fierce. Four kilometres beyond the Antigua Estacion de Benifallet the Camino passes the old station of Pinell de Brai: no refreshment or water here or until the Camino leaves the Via Verde at La Fontcalda (10 km from the Antigua Estacion de Benifallet). There is a posh-looking restaurant here and a bar but I couldn’t find the hostal.
Here the camino divides. One can follow the road or, as I did, take the path that leads up a narrow gorge with rocky crags on either side. After half an hour’s walking the landscape opens out to give stunning views of surrounding mountains but from here to Gandesa is a tough 300m of ascent through olive groves and dry scrub; at times I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. There is no water, the bulldozed track is rough and there aren’t many places to comfortably stop and rest until a sort of picnic area suddenly emerges where the slope eases off. Here I fell asleep! It’s a bit embarrassing – only 20 km and I was already knackered; the final few kilometres into Gandesa were largely uneventful but any ascent, no matter how short, brought forth a stream of foul expletives from my dry mouth.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking; you’re not really enjoying this, are you? Why on earth carry on? Lying on my bed in the comfortable Hotel Piqué (I think I paid €28 for a single en-suite – like all the hotels on this route, excellent value), watching Midsummer Murders, the thought never crossed my mind.

In praise of feet

DAY THREE: GANDESA – BATEA (13km – but I probably walked 18)
Gandesa, a pleasant town with a population of about three thousand, is the capital of the Terra Alta, a wine-producing meseta that’s hot and dry in the summer but cold and windy during the long winter months and into spring. It’s worth a couple of hours’ exploration, particularly for its association with the Civil War. The Centro de Estudios de la Batalla del Ebro tells the story of one of the biggest and bloodiest battles – closed Mondays, natch.
From here shelter really is at a premium and a day’s water must be carried. In between towns there is very little in the way of human settlement, just the occasional farm or finca. Even this early on in the walk I realised that my original intention to walk 30 km a day was both unrealistic and impractical so I settled for a gentle stroll over the ridge to Batea. It turned out to be more exacting; this was the only day when I had trouble with the otherwise excellent signposting. From a quiet, asphalt road out of Gandesa I followed a dusty farm track to the right, as encouraged by a yellow arrow. After thirty minutes walking the path petered out and, without a guidebook or map, I turned back, intending to follow the minor road all the way to Batea.  I should’ve stayed on that road but instead, a kilometre or two further uphill, took a rougher, less-used metalled road to the right. This brought me out at a line of wind turbines that crested the ridge and a sign which pointed to Batea but in the opposite direction to that in which I was certain Batea lay. If I’d managed to keep hold of my guidebook I’d have realised the Camino divides, the right branch heading north to Vilalba dels Arcs then taking a sharp left to turn back to Batea. It’s a convoluted loop and adds at least 10 km to the stage; it’s probably worth the walk but I’d promised myself an easy day and that’s what I was determined to have.
I spent an hour so prevaricating, questioning my gut instinct – I did ‘know’ in what direction Batea lay but I wasn’t absolutely convinced. I walked 2 km along the road I assumed led to Batea, saw neither a soul nor vehicle to confirm my convictions so turned round and retraced my steps, back to the offending signpost. Here I consulted the map on the excellent WalkingPilgrim website which showed I should I have gone with gut instinct all along.
Back along the road but eventually the asphalt petered out, dissolving into an array of farm tracks. There were no arrows, I hadn’t seen any for several kilometres but in the distance I caught sight of a farmer arriving at his finca. Not only did he point me in the right direction – I’m pleased to say my inner geographer had been right all along – he watered and offered to feed me: a true Good Samaritan.
Whaddya know? Shortly afterwards I came across one of the offending arrows; more four-letter expletives, this time out of sheer incredulity. A two-hour trek through cultivated fields led me back to the road and soon Batea loomed in the distance. There is an albergue municipal here but I’d booked the Hostal de l’Anton - €35 for a spacious ensuite was exceptional value. I ate in the hotel, the bars seemed to be full of men and magazines featuring scantily-clad women littered the tables. I’m certainly no prude but it’s not the sort of ambience in which I prefer to enjoy my evening meal and a cold beer or two.

Plenty of yellow arrows lead the pilgrim out of Batea, down the hill and onto a metalled road heading to Nonaspe. After a kilometre or two a clearly signposted track forks to the left and now there is nothing – absolutely nothing – until the pig farms on the outskirts of Fabara. Wisps of cloud promised some respite from the sun and at one point I thought a storm might be brewing but no dice. The first half of the day’s walk was probably the best so far, the path wound and undulated through olive groves and fruit trees with great vistas all around. The surface was smooth and sandy, walking was a joy. Then the landscape changed: badlands, stony earth, up and down, up and down. The heat became oppressive and I lost all sense of distance, expecting Fabara to materialise at the crest of every ridge. Slowly signs of habitation emerged, telegraph poles then the ubiquitous pig sheds. Finally, right on the outskirts of Fabara, shelter, a bench and a fountain.
More expletives, out of respite and relief.
There is no hotel, albergue or pension in Fabara, the Pensión Can Oliver is conspicuously closed. However, Teresa Martin offers lodging in a very clean and spacious apartment on the edge of town. Exceptional value - €20 for a room and breakfast; you can use the kitchen and there are laundry facilities. Teresa is very friendly (you can find her email address on the Mundicamino webite). I shared the flat with a vet from Zaragoza and enjoyed a pleasant and interesting breakfast conversation. Fabara feels like a one-horse – or should that be ‘one-pig’ – town; there’s a small supermarket, a pleasant bar/restaurant and even a school but I felt as if I’d walked into a spaghetti western, I expecting clumps of weed to blow across the street on the hot, dry breeze. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to add that Fabara is home to the Virgilio Albiac Painting Museum.
A couple of hours out of Batea the pilgrim crosses the border, leaves Catalunya and enters Aragon. Suddenly the waymarking changes; you leave behind the clear blue and yellow signposts with their precise direction and distances and now have to negotiate a Camino which, although still waymarked, directs you past a series of occasional yellow arrows painted on rocks and trees. Now and then you’ll come across signboard confirming you’re still on the Ruta Jacobeo del Ebro; I never lost my way but I had to stay on my toes.

A hard day. Unremitting sun, dry earth, stony tracks and undulation after undulation after undulation. No landscape is ever ‘empty’ but this came pretty damn close. The Camino climbs to the heights of the Sierra de Caspe and there follows a very pleasant stroll over the plateau, with vistas unfolding on all sides. Presently the track descends into a lush, green valley and there is, joy of joys, shade. You think this is the Ebro? Wrong! It’s the Rio Guadalope, a tributary that flows into the nearby Embalse de Mequinenza and in any case, the valley is soon left behind in an ascent to the plateau that overlooks Caspe. The town is tantalisingly close but the castillo and the mill you pass after winding through fincas and smallholdings are not the real thing; you don’t see Caspe until it’s immediately upon you – or rather, at your feet. A path by the cemetery leads through an industrial estate but the climb is rewarded with a spectacular view across the landscape, down to Caspe below and over to the reservoir to the north.  The viewpoint is marked by an ironwork dedicated to pilgrims; I’ve been walking five days and I ain’t seen one yet!
The walk into the centre of Caspe is still a long one. No albergue but plenty of hotels and pensiónes, all ‘competitively-priced’. I stayed in the Hotel Mar de Aragon, €25 for a single ensuite, down by the station. The restaurant was good, friendly service and also reasonably-priced. Several even cheaper lodging options in town; Caspe has a substantial Islamic population and it’s easy to find hearty, filling kebab parlours.

I don’t usually do rest days and Caspe didn’t really have much of cultural or historical appeal to warrant a prolonged stay but I was knackered and I needed to write up some notes as well as rethink my plans. That I wouldn’t be able to walk all the way to Burgos was clear but with judicious use of public transport I could possibly get there by a combination of boot, bus and train. I did intend to relax and do very little walking but, as happens in most ‘rest days’, I ended up exploring the town in the heat of the afternoon sun: it was about 38 degrees!

Yes, dear reader, I ‘cheated’. Took the early bus 8 km up the road to the village of Chiprana where I was reunited with the Rio Ebro; we hadn’t seen each other since I huffed and puffed along its banks on the way to Benifallet, one week and 140 kilometres ago. Here, though, the Ebro is as much reservoir as bona fide river, lying placid and still; exerting an eerie calm over your correspondent as she circled the village looking for a way out. Take care here to follow the Camino and not the GR99, the latter is much longer though maybe more pleasant.
The Camino straddles the main road then dives into the arid badlands again, as if it were a fugitive on the run. That’s just how I feel. It’s on this stretch that, for the first and only time, the trail peters out, the track coming to a halt at a field of ploughed, bone-dry soil. For fifty metres or so I’m utterly lost, no arrow to follow, no rutted track to satisfy my soul. Where do we go, where do we go now? But the disorientation is mercifully short-lived; there, on a pale sandstone rock, is a beautiful yellow arrow. More expletives, this time of thanks and gratification.
Ever onwards, to the literal and metaphorical oases of the salt lagoons of Chiprana, an important habitat for plants and birds now protected as a nature reserve. I should have stopped to explore but I was keen to get on and I am, after all, a hiker, not a sight-seer! Here I saw, in the distance, a solitary figure in the landscape who I assumed to be a fellow pilgrim; when we got up close and personal I realised he was a shepherd.
The Camino now follows a completely straight track for a couple of kilometres, under or close to a line of pylons. This interminable stage reminded me of the dreaded 17.5 km across the meseta between Carrión de las Condes and Terradillos de los Templarios on the Camino Francés. I hated it, big time: more curses and expletives. At the end, at a junction, I rewarded myself by sitting on a pile of water pipes and slugging on warm water. Back to the road – I stopped to watch a van pull up and lift a dead wild boar from the gutter – on a track that is stony and uneven and soon passes by a quarry/cement works. It’s not fun, neither is the rather circuitous descent into Escatrón nor the gentle climb up to its centre. I could have stopped for the night here, there is a pension but it was early. Instead I stumbled into a bar and ordered my favourite – patatas bravas and albondigas. Never have they tasted so good.
And now I compounded my morning’s sin of catching the bus with an outright lie. The bar’s clientele, clearly not accustomed to a middle-aged Englishwoman resembling Europe lead singer Joey Tempest’s androgynous twin sister – yes, the hair is getting blonder and blonder – are curious as to where I’ve come from and where I’m going. I, on the other hand, am becoming accustomed to these short of questions and the inevitable looks when I tell them that (a) I’ve walked from Tortosa and (b) I’m walking to Burgos. They regard with a mixture of awe and incredulity: why would on earth would you want to do that?
I have no answer.
When I ask them whether many pilgrims pass through they shake their heads: ‘now and then’ – more then than now, I think though Teresa back in Fabara told me there’s a small but steady stream. Here, in Escatrón, I tell my audience I’m actually walking all the way to Santiago and for a minute I think they might fall at my feet and kneel in admiration. But the lie backfires on me almost immediately as I make the wrong choice for the final leg of the stage to Sástago. I have three options: one, follow the GR99 along and around the meander, a longer walk probably quite bbut less height gained; two, follow the ‘official’ camino that passes the other way and take the path that goes by the Monasterio de Rueda which is a jewel in Aragon’s crown but is also, I’m told, closed; or three, just follow the road as it hairpins it way up and over the hill then down into Sástago below. Because I’m angry and thoroughly fed-up I stupidly choose option three and spend the next couple of hours hurling expletives at passing cars, lorries, coaches, the landscape and whoever devised the route of this godforsaken path. Spirits are momentarily revived at the viewpoint overlooking the Ebro and the beautifully sinuous meander in which Sástago is ensconced. That does make it all worthwhile but on the steep descent the loose stones have me cursing again.
I’d booked a room at the only hotel in town, the Hostal Monasterio de Rueda. I’m not in a good mood; perhaps it’s infectious because the guy behind the bar doesn’t look too pleased to see me either. I can’t complain about the room, a plush ensuite (€30) with good views though the password for the wifi refuses to let me online. From the hill above the town looked remarkably pleasant but on foot through its streets I found it empty and oddly depressing; I’m too tired to make a full exploration and once I come across the bus-stop my mind is more or less made up. An early bus to Zaragoza then on to Santander to follow the Norte, Liebana and Vadiniense. For mountains, coastline and greenery; away from the heat and the dust.

As the bus wound its way across the Ebro plain towards Zaragoza I experienced mixed emotions: the usual Catholic guilt and a sense of shame – as if I was creeping away with my tail between my legs. Strangely, failure wasn’t one of them and the landscape I’d have walked through didn’t have much immediate appeal. And the next day, when I set out from Santander to Santillana del Mar, I more or less put the Ebro experience behind me; because I wasn’t going all the way to Santiago it didn’t really matter.
Now, three months later and planning a coast-to-coast camino for next year, I’m considering returning to the Ebro and doing it in its entirety, starting at the delta. It was my second camino and probably too much of contrast to the Francés, especially in terms of climate and infrastructure; what I immediately appreciated about the Norte was the company and companionship. But I like walking alone, and I equally enjoyed not being with other pilgrims, mixing with locals instead. It goes without saying that a good knowledge of Castellano would help enormously, Catalan might help, too. Don’t expect much in the way of albergues, though the hotels and pensiónes are excellent value. Perhaps the most important thing is to be prepared for long distances between towns with absolutely nothing in between, especially water. Once you’ve started out on a stage you have to see it through. Or turn back.
¡Que tengas Buena suerte!