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Friday, 16 October 2015

That was the summer that was: TransCantabrica - Stage Three, Elorrio to Areatza

One day soon I'll learn how to draw the route on the map

She's got legs
And she knows how to use them
Thus sang the bearded wonders ZZ Top back in their homage to the shapely limbs possessed by some members of the female sex. I could never work out whether the trio's 1983 hit was tongue in cheek or not, let's give them the benefit of the doubt and agree that their lyrics are laden with postmodern irony. Let's imagine that when they composed those lines they had in mind my lacerated, sunburnt limbs beginning to accrue sinew and muscle. And let's suppose that they eschew the white stiletto for a chunky Vibram sole.

Always a Virgin Mary, obvs. But Urkiola is a sensuous syncretism of paganism and Catholicism

The Santuario de Urkiola, an enchanted oasis of green amongst the stark whitewashed lustre of the Basque Mountains

It's all very well singing the praises of our chunky calves and thighs but what happens when they, like the water in Mallorca, don't do what they ought to? Tuesday's plan couldn't have been clearer, to join the GR123 and follow this around 'the back' of Anboto into Urkiola Natural Park where I'd reserved a room at the Hotel Santuario (which I highly recommend, though you won't find it on any internet hotel booking site). I thought I'd left early enough to avoid the worst of the heat but by the time I'd located the track out of Elorrio it was already 31 degrees and it wasn't yet nine o'clock.

I more or less knew right then that it wasn't going to work but I felt I should persist a little longer. It wasn't just the heat, of course. Picture, if you will, a three-way Venn diagram in which each of the circles represents (i) inclement weather (including excessive heat) (ii) weight of rucksack (mine is just about tolerable for thru-hiking purposes) and (iii) corporeal harmony (or lack thereof; turns out I walked the whole of the #TransCantabrica with a very slight limp): that morning I found myself slap-bang in the intersection of all three.
After an hour’s toil I capitulated, returned to Elorrio and took the bus to Durango and then the Puerto de Urkiola. Call me a cheat if you will, if I hadn’t resorted to public transport I might have melted on the mountain and trickled into the clints and grykes of the limestone like a sliver of molten lava returning to earth. 

The cave of Mari, the Lady of Anboto has her main dwelling. Legend says that it is usual to see her in the mouth of the cave, on days of good weather, combing her pretty blond hair with a comb of gold in the sunshine. It is not rare either to see her spend nights as a great ball of fire in the sky above Anboto or toward other places of the Basque Country where she possesses dwellings like the nearby Oiz or Aizkorri. Depending on where she is found there will be good or bad weather.

Now, several months later, when I think back to my brief sojourn in Urkiola, the memories are shot through with images of lustrous white rock, shimmering under a hot sun. And against this almost overpowering backdrop lay the sylvan folds of the Sanctuario de Urkiola, a Tolkienesque refuge of bucolic sanctity surrounded by the bombastic piety of these cathedrals of rock. I say ‘almost overpowering’, but not quite wholly; it didn’t intimidate or send me into paroxysms of faux deferential ‘I-am-not-worthy-ness’. I am the land, the land is me; we are one and the same thing. I don’t fear the liminal immensity of the mountains for they are a reflection of myself.


Blood on the rocks: it's mine, almost an Aztec-like offering to Mari (see below)

And in Urkiola I don’t just become the landscape, I become the Basque landscape; with every step along the trail the earth beneath my feet oozes into me, dripping with the fricatives and palatal glides of Euskara, the Basque tongue. I want to say Euskara is a thing of great beauty but that would run the risk of you misunderstanding what I mean by ‘beauty’ because it’s nothing like your orthodox notion of prettiness, nor do hackneyed clichés like ‘rugged splendour’ do it justice, rather its sensual appeal lies its idiosyncrasies, a language full of nooks and crannies. They’re like the dimple in your lover’s cheek, the part of her/him that really turns you on. Listen as I run these place-names past you: Unzillaitz, Udalaitz, Elgoin, Anboto, Aitz Txiki, the language charges the landscape with erotic energy and when I climb Anboto the next day, with only a light daysack on my back, it’s like electricity sparking of the rocks as I scamper up the mountain’s steep slopes of whitewashed limestone.  

View from a ridge

Climbing Anboto

Then the next morning it all falls to pieces. Through the grey light of a drizzly dawn an SMS conveys unbelievably bad news and I spend the next day shrouded in a gloom that’s darker than the dank fog which surrounds me; I think about quitting and going home, what use I am here, alone on the hill? 

If only ...

If Anboto was the zenith, the dripping, cloud-wrapped slopes of Gorbeia were the nadir: of the whole #TransCantabrica and possibly any walk I’ve ever done. Neither the mood nor the mist lifts; the intention was not to climb to the summit but to spend the night at a refugio close by. It’s a steep, hard climb; the rain comes down harder and there’s a constant drip-drip-drip from the pine trees. The forest tracks crumble, the woodland paths mosey through dense undergrowth then traverse a rock pavement – slippery when wet. 

A dreich and dismal day

 But I have a map – more on the theme of Spanish maps in the next episode - and even in the thick mist I know where I am. Trouble is, I don’t know where the refugio is, or rather, as I reach the location where I expected it to be, the refugio isn’t there. My insistence that the refugio should be here confounds two Basques who, even though they know the mountain well, are also, briefly, under the impression that its contours have shifted. Until we ring the refugio and find out it’s 1 km away, another 200m up the slope. It would be wrong to blame the map, away from the camino and without its ubiquitous yellow arrows I have to learn to navigate again; let’s just say that the map didn’t really facilitate effective interpretation.
Fortunately my saviours from nearby Bilbao, have come by car and they offer me a lift to the nearest hotel, all the way to Bilbao if necessary. The road uncoils around the mountainside and now I really don’t know where I am. Later that evening I text my friend to tell her I’ve been given a lift off the hill by two men and she expresses some concern. The truth is it never occurred to me that fellow hikers might be anything other than Good Samaritans; we share the outward symbols of our tribe: boots, rucksacks, cagoules. Maybe I should qualify that by saying high-quality boots, rucksacks and cagoules; we recognise each other by the nature of our apparel, the connection and acknowledgement is immediate, my trust in them is absolute. But they have names, of course: Iker and Joseba, I still remember you.
Only later, in a relatively expensive but deliciously warm and dry hotel room do I unfurl the now damp and tattered map and work out my location, the spa town of Areazta. The latest news from Wells is still bad but a little less stark; the consensus is unanimous, there is nothing I can do. The hike must go on.

Bliss. And maps. Again

The day’s story in Tweets
ramblanista I was meant to be in a bunkbed in refugio/albergue up on Gorbeia (1600m), not this posh hotel room #TransCantabrica

ramblanista In fact, apart from the knowledge that I'm in this (relatively) expensive hotel room, I haven't got a clue where I am! #TransCantabrica

ramblanista Mil gracias a Iker y Joseba, que me rescataron de la lluvia y niebla en Pagomakurre, Gorbeia y me llevaron a Areatza #TransCantabrica

ramblanista Many thanks to Iker & Joseba who rescued me from mist & rain at Pagomakurre, Gorbeia and gave me a lift to nearest hotel #TransCantabrica

NotThatMrsBrown @ramblanista Is there any complimentary writing paper, sure to be a clue on there ���� #lostinspain

ramblanista @ClaireBrown2008 I'm a geography tutor and student now, the only things I can read are maps! (And I DID read the map correctly!)

ramblanista Tengo que decir que no estaba perdida, sabia exactamente donde estaba. Pero el refugio no esta donde creia estaba! #TransCantabrica

ramblanista I have to say that I wasn't lost, I knew exactly where I was but the albergue wasn't where I thought it was. #TransCantabrica

ramblanista @Graeme_SoW Turns out Albergue I was looking for was 2km south & 200m higher but not marked on the map. I'm having issues with Spanish maps

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