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Friday, 9 October 2015

That was the summer that was: TransCantabrica - Stage Two, Deba to Elorrio

It was always going to be a momentous day, forsaking the camino for the GR121 that would take me to Ermua and towards the mountains. A bit like leaving a long-term lover and taking up with a floozy half your age; talk about a mid-life crisis! But there you go, I’m playing fast and loose with my footpaths, don’t want them to get complacent.
Am I sounding like an ageing rock star already?
In the end the momentous element of the day’s hike was not spurning the camino but negotiating a way down into Ermua, a descent that’s still giving me the heebeegeebees, two on. It wasn’t a lack of signage of the part of the GR121 that did for me, it was my own lack of judgement. All the same, I can’t help thinking that the yellow arrows got their revenge.
In Deba I had a room in a pension that was as comfortable and spacious as anything I’d experienced thus far. It even had – I kid you not – a minibar, from which I did not partake. Anticipating the heat I was away before eight and moved relatively easily up the first cuesta of the day, 245m to the Ermita de Calvario. Not as easily or quickly as the half-a-dozen other pilgrims I came across but I’m not in a race. Not yet, anyway. At the ermita I met a Spanish pilgrim of roughly my age and agreed wholeheartedly with her philosophy of poco a poco – little by little, although I’d shouldered my rucksack and strode on while she was still resting.
Poco a poco. Slowly and steadily, more tortoise than hare. That wasn’t the way I went about it on the Camino Francés back in 2012 but for now I have to bide my time, especially in this heat, which is going to get worse. Another 100m of ascent, another, reciprocal 50m of descent the other side, to the hamlet of Olatz where, contrary to the guidebook, the bar is open. Breakfast was dry so I order a slice of melon, an asparragos pintxo and a ubiquitous Coke with ice.
This is the most mountainous, up-and-down section of the camino as it passes through the Basque Country and one of the guidebooks warns against walking it alone yet is seems to me that compared to the Francés, the Camino del Norte attracts more solitary pilgrims. It’s a more intimate route, though in its later stages, as it approaches the junction with the Francés, there’s a growing sense of trepidation as she or he prepares to do battle with the hordes.
The crux of this stage of the camino is the 300m climb to the Collado de Arnoate. Yes, I know that’s only a thousand of your British – or North American – feet but I’ve been stuck in a classroom since January, I’m not fit. And it’s very, very hot – as if I haven’t reminded you already. On the steeper sections of this ascent I resemble a drunken mountaineer ascending the Death Zone on K2, except that I’m crawling a little slower: poco a poco. Nevertheless, I’ve made the ­collado – the pass – in reasonable time; this stage of the walk had been worrying me, not just the distance but the amount of ascent – just over 1500m. Even in the mountains proper I might not have to climb so much and this was one of the reasons for leaving the camino, I was fed up of being told what to do and where to go, of going up then coming down, over and over again. In the mountains – in theory – there will be just one big ‘up’ followed, after a delightful stroll along a ridge, by just one big ‘down’. That, to me, makes more sense; we’ll see how it pans out in reality.
At the collado the yellow arrow points downhill to Markina, another rompepiernas, apparently. I’m probably just a little too smug as I carry on, gently uphill, now following the already family red-and-white blazes of the gran recorrido number 121. There were no tears at the divorce, just a tender farewell; in any case, both the Camino de Santiago and I know we’ll be back in bed together ere long.
Hasta luego, Camino del Norte
On my IGN 1:50,000 map – not the best map series I’ve come across – the ridge is broad and undulates, more disniveles but this time with a purpose. I had to trace the course of the GR121 on to the map from a webpage and I didn’t do it very well; although I was never in danger of getting lost I never really knew where I was, especially as pines and scrub often obscured the view. Quite suddenly, mid-afternoon, a bank of cloud came in from the sea leaving a fine but not impenetrable mist at about 700m. I was vaguely aiming for Monte Urko, a prominent peak of 790m high above my destination of Ermua (pronounced Erm-wah) but when I finally arrived at the road beneath the summit I found a path which circumnavigated it. It might have been easy to go up-and-over, so to speak, as my desvio ended up with a tricky passage above a steep slope which required a bit of scrambling and had a chain to hold on to – just in case! Not a fatal abyss but you’d end up in A&E if you missed a footing. Back on the ridge and another steep, laborious descent beckoned.

And all would have been mundane and quotidian had I not decided to play the cocky dilettante and follow the road instead of a path which split in two with one route clearly going down to Eibar, the larger of the two towns and a couple of kilometres down the valley. I pressed on, assuming my track, already petering out, would take me to Ermua. I should have got the message when thick gorse and brambles began to obscure the thin trail but I carried on regardless, over-estimating my innate sense of direction. The slope got steeper, the vegetation got thicker, I was wearing shorts: a bit of blood does no harm and the pain gave me a bit of a heady rush. Pretty soon it became clear that this was no path, or least, hadn’t been used as such in years but by then I’d reached the point of no return. To turn back would have been to expose my legs to even more lacerations as well as having to pick my way up a very steep slope through the thick and spiny undergrowth. For a brief moment I was stuck in fit of hopeless despair but I knew I had to keep going; there would be a path, at some point.
And there was. Cue tears of relief; still a good 200m above the rooftops of Ermua but out of the thigh-ripping flowers. But the evening – for it was now well after six – had one more sting in its tail. The path I joined led down to – you guessed it – Eibar. By the time I’d reached level ground blood and lacerations laced my calves and thighs; when I paused to clean them up with cold water for about two minutes the stinging pain was absolutely unbearable. But you know what? As I made along the main road that links the two towns I began not to care.
I suspect I shall carry the trauma of that descent into Ermua till the end of my walking days. The physical scars have all but cleared but the emotional wounds have carved themselves deep into my psyche. Still, a valuable lesson learned, never follow a path that looks like it might deceive, that will tempt and lead you down a dead-end track. But I am always an Eve, my spirit willing but my flesh easily led. In any case, if you don't stray, you'll never know what lies beyond the confines of the straight and narrowĤ. In the words of the legendary Buck's Fizz: 'Something nasty in your garden's waiting/Patiently, till it can have your heart/Try to go but it won't let you/Don't you know it's out to get you/Running/Keep on running'.

Image of Virgin Mary, Ermua
Ermua and Eibar lie deep in a steep, wooded valley that forms the main corridor of communication along the coast between Donostia-San Sebastian and Bilbao. Eibar is much the larger town, Ermua a sort of overspill. There's just too much going on in too small and narrow a space. The road and the railway are hemmed in; horizontal is not an option, there's very little sense of sideways so everything must go up. Apartment blocks, supermarkets, offices, the effect is overwhelmingly claustrophobic and I feel bad about not liking the place though it takes me a good two hours to leave as waste precious time searching, in vain, for gas cannisters - bear with me on this, it will become a major distraction.
Preparing for fiesta, Eitzaga
I'd planned a relatively short hike south out of the valley of the river Ego (I kid you not, if ever there were a geomorphological feature named for me, that is surely it) and into the adjacent comarca of Durangaldea but which your correspondent immediately - and quite predictably - began to refer to as DuranDurangaldea.
I know, there is no hope and there is no cure. I'm more or less condemned to a life of OED (Obsessive Eighties Disorder).

Aixola urtegia
The ola de calor that seemed to have arrived alongside my train in Irun a few days previously was scaling the thermometer and it was another day of sweat and sweary words; even a relatively gentle climb of 250m along the GR121 to a small reservoir elicited a steady flow of both. The reservoir offered a good half hour of respite, level walking in the shade and I eschewed the kind offer of the GR121 to climb a hill (are you kidding?) and followed the pista around the lake. But all good things do come to an end and sure enough the track began to ascend, to the small town of Elgeta, its industrial estates simmering under the heat of the mid-afternoon sun. It was siesta time, the place was shut. A four or five km hike along a main road brought me to my overnight destination: Berrio-Aldape, a small hamlet - if that's not a tautology - in possession of a hotel and bar. Within a few minutes of arrival my overnight stay had extended itself.
The valley of the Rio Ego is deep, steep and narrow, the valley of the Durangaldea is high, wide and handsome, an extensive declivity backed by the fine, ridge-backed mountains of Udalatx and Anboto which, once I'd crossed the watershed, suddenly emerged. I had arrived, here was where the coastal hinterland ended and the Montes Vascos began.

The sublime and magnificent Udalatx
Strange how the smallest of settlements can attract a noisy throng; my rest day, Sunday, coincided with the final of the Campeonato Manomanista between Aimar Olaizola II and Mikel Urrutikoetxea.  Clearly I know absolutely nothing about Basque pelota, aside from the fact that two men - gender equality has not yet reached this sport - strike a squash-sized ball against a wall with their bare hands and fists. On the one hand, it's a bit like squash, on the other, it's nothing like it. But even when the commentary's in a language whose complexity has thus far utterly defeated me, I can tell a fighting comeback when I see one. Urrutikoetxea was cruising towards an easy victory until the veteran Olaizola II (his ninth appearance in thirteen years, having won the title four times - you can see I've done my research) fought back to close to parity. Olaizola had the momentum and the experience but he inexplicably threw it all away with two careless shots which handed victory Urrutikoetxea. And then, impresseive alacrity, the throng dispersed and I went off to listen to Forgotten 80s.

The hike was supposed to resume the following day - Monday, day 7. The intention was - note how often those two words, 'intention' and 'was', appear alongside one another - to purchase a gas canister in the town of Elorrio, about four kilometres away down in the valley, then head up into the mountains. There was a sports/hiking shop in Elorrio, just as there had been in Eibar, but as in Eibar they didn't sell gas for camping. I was directed to the nearby town of Durango - whence Durangaldea - so I checked in to a hotel and hopped on a bus. The heatwave had scaled another notch on the thermometer and the sky was cloudless, if the streets had been any busier we'd have been fighting for the shade. Eventually, the elusive gas cannister located in an out-of-town hyperstore. It was too late and far too hot to do anything else than return to Elorrio and plan a route for the following day.

The Basilica de la Purisima

I fell in love, quite unexpectedly, with Elorrio and would gladly have stayed another day or two. It's a pleasant town of some 7,000 inhabitants with a casco antiguo and old streets. Had I arrived the day before I'd have been able to partake in its dia de orgullo - Pride. For a town of its size that's pretty impressive but as it was over and done I had to console myself with the stunning interior of the Basilica de la Purisima Conception; I've no doubt the Virgin Mary was as present in the Pride festivities as she was in the church
The elusive gas cannister

1 comment:

  1. Great. Those thorns remind me of the week I spent in Spain last week, and where the path that exists on the map is barely present on the ground. Difference is, I didn't realise the tips of the thorns broke off under the skin, and they all got infected. I had to see a nurse in my Aunty and Uncle's village of 200 people to get them picked out. I was lucky someone was more concerned than I was about the huge purple swellings that made walking painful...