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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.

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