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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!