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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!

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