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Friday, 13 November 2015

That was the summer that was: TransCantabrica - Stage Four, Areatza to Espinosa de los Monteros

Viejo Camino Bilbao to Guenes

Viejo Camino Guenes to Nava de Ordunte

Viejo Camino Nava de Ordunte to Espinosa de los Monteros

I still remember the first time the landscape - my own, intimate, landscape - failed to 'perform'; remember it as though it happened only a couple of weeks ago. 

It was, in fact, the long hot summer of 1988 (isn't it always the effing nineteen-eighties, I hear you yawn, to which my response would be, bear with me, it will all make sense in the end). My then partner had disappeared for the weekend - to where I can no longer recall - so I was left kicking my heels in Bristol. I had two options, to play the poodle-haired, glam rock barfly in the city's late night pubs and clubs or take off for my beloved Dorset. I've never been particularly good at fidelity so I'm not quite sure why I found myself on the train to the south coast with a return ticket to Maiden Newton rather than the fleshpots of Weymouth. The plan was to walk from Maiden Newton up to Powerstock Common and sleep out amongst its ancient, coppiced woodland. For reasons I still don't quite understand, Powerstock Common and its environs have always been a sacred, sensual space: ethereal, enchanting and fizzing with performative vitality. It was, and still is, a place of excess energy: 

‘I’d come and lie here in the clearings, in the meadow; I’d sink deep into the bracken and let its spores swathe me in a sleep of delicious and dangerous dreams. It was a hot summer and the heat fuelled the agitation within my mind. But here, I discovered a state of being I’d never experienced before and I realised that this was my spiritual homeland and that here, in this spot, on this rotten tree, was its point of origin.
‘Something happened here, a long, long time ago; long before I was born, perhaps in those first effervescent days of creation. All I know is that I was here, and I was involved. Before I discovered this place last summer, I knew exactly what to expect: the old furnace, the well, the bushes of deadly nightshade. I was lured by the scent of the bracken, a plant so heavy with seed it smothers every living thing that passes beneath its fronds. And, not for the first time, I succumbed, quite willingly, to its attractions. I danced like a madwoman through the grasses, drank from the bubbling broth of streams and let their delicate juices go straight to my head, fire my heart so I set the earth alight beneath me as I twisted and I spun, like a dervish, through the wood. I picked a barb from the blackthorn and thrust it deep into my flesh, an arrow of desire. The blood flowed and I imbibed until satisfied, then it flooded the forest, bringing love, light and life, where there was once only death and decay.’ 
                        María Inés de la Cruz, 'Our Lady of the Orchards' (Liberty Press 1997)

But that day the landscape failed to perform, we circled each other not like lovers in the throes of a tiff but as indifferent exes for whom the passion was all spent. Depression set in; I curtailed the walk and found the nearest pub where I got slowly drunk before spending the night on the station platform and heading right back to Bristol. 

It was a long time ago but I can remember it as clear as yesterday, even the couple who gave me the eye as I stirred from the bench. I was dejected, worried that the thrill had gone and would never return; that the landscape and I would exist only in the past tense.

That wasn't, of course, the case. Indeed, some twenty-seven years later I find myself two-fifths through a PhD exploring this intimate, spiritual relationship with landscape, though more in Spain than Wessex. As relationships go it comes with a hefty price-tag, but still we soldier on, together forever, as Rick Astley once sang. 

A couple of years ago, when I came across Nick Papadimitriou's eclectic Scarp, I discovered that I wasn't alone in experiencing this fleeting ambivalence - and for me, it was the ambivalence that drove me close to despair:

The following day I returned [to Hertford Heath], against my better judgement, back to Hertford Heath, intent merely on getting the maximum mileage out of my six-month travel pass ... This time I took the train north from Liverpool Street, along the Lea Valley. The sense of triumph I'd felt the previous day had evaporated. I felt ill and old; my head ached, my thoughts diffused; I wondered what I was trying to achieve. Looking out at the landscape I even doubted Scarp's existence.
Nick Papadimitriou, 'Scarp' (Sceptre 2013:235)

I mention all this not to bulk out the blog but to illustrate how I felt for the next six days, with the exception of a delightful two-day hiatus at the Hotel Osabaerna in Murueta from where I made a day-trip to Bilbao in search of maps and where I was looked after splendidly by Araiz and Mikel. I'm not quite sure whether it was their hospitality or a general ennui which kept me off the trail; probably more of the former than the latter. I left Areatza with the intention of following the road back up to the car park from where I'd been 'rescued' the evening before then follow a series of trails clearly marked on my map along a ridge and down into the town of Zubair/Orozco. Needless to say it didn't work out like that, a thin path up an ankle-twistingly rocky ridge petered out and I had to turn back on myself, follow the road for the remainder of the day. An LED display in Orozco, informed me it was forty degrees Celsius; when I eventually crawled over the threshold of the Hotel Osabarena I was little more than a filthy mess of sweaty flesh. Dear Araiz, she immediately offered to wash my clothes (and never charged me for it) before thrusting a cold beer in my hand. 

Sunday lunch with Araiz and Mikel at the delightful Hotel Osabarena

I wasn't having much luck with maps - or rather the lack of them. My foray into Bilbao was largely unsuccessful; I'd assumed it would be relatively easy to locate IGN maps of the local area but I came back on the bus with a couple cycling guides for the Saja Natural Park - and I wasn't even sure I was heading in that direction. Perhaps that's why I found myself, two days after leaving Murueta, staring at a yellow arrow of the Viejo Camino de Santiago. No, not just staring, gazing lovingly and, when I was sure nobody was looking, dancing little pirouettes of joy. Talk about a moth to a flame, talk about being stuck in a comfort zone: more of that anon. 

See what I mean? Fantastic Basque landscapes and the Ikurrina. That ridge is almost pornographic.

I'd intended to follow the GR123 to Ramales de Victoria from where I'd pick up a series of Gran Recorridos to take me to Potes, in the heart of the Picos de Europa. Mikel kindly gave me a lift a couple of kilometres down the road to Laudio where I picked up the trail. It was steep and I'd been late leaving - again. My rucksack had been carefully packed, the only concession to luxury my tablet; it wasn't particularly heavy but I soon realised I was carrying too much for a mountain traverse; on any of the caminos I'd be fine but the constant ascents and descents might become a struggle. Might become a struggle? Were becoming a struggle already; if it wasn't for the heat I might have coped but even before I'd got halfway up the first ridge it was clear I was running out of water and this was limestone country, in the middle of a heatwave. I was aiming for the enticingly measured Ganekogorta (999 metres, couldn't the surveyor have displayed a little generosity towards this fine mountain) but had to quit a kilometre short. It was another kneebreaking descent, exacerbated by dehydration and a worry of finding any sort of water supply. Back down in the valley a hosepipe in a semi-deserted hamlet sufficed and I plodded on, back on the asphalt, all the way to Zubiete. 
Happiness is a yellow arrow

On that steep, never-ending descent I was already cogitating. The heat was set to continue, water on the tops was scarce so I'd have to carry a good two litres, maybe more. The pack was in danger of becoming a burden. I wasn't enjoying myself; the scenery was fantastic but we weren't engaging with one another, I might as well have been passing through in a car. As a student of the Camino de Santiago I am, of course, well-versed in the complex spider's web of paths that lead, directly and indirectly, to Santiago de Compostela. It's a dynamic network, every year seeming to bring a new route, often for reasons more commercial than spiritual. Some 'purists' bridle at this, I'm quite happy to have another way to walk, another excuse not to stay sedentary and in any case, pilgrimage has always had an economic function. 
Crossing the border
Although the Viejo Camino or Camino Olvidado de Santiago - old or forgotten Way of St James - is one of the more esoteric, less frequented routes, it's also more 'bona-fide' than most. It runs from across northern Spain, through rather than over the mountains, to join the Camino Frances in Villafranca del Bierzo, just before the climb up to Galician border at O Cebreiro. It had always been on my mind but now to follow it - not necessarily all the way to Villafranca del Bierzo, seemed the best course of action. I left my hotel in Zubiete the following morning and enjoyed a pleasant, easy stroll out of the Valle de Gordexola to the adjacent Valle de Ayala. At Sodupe I encountered my first yellow arrow in a fortnight, a smile burst out all over my face. Simple pleasures, dear reader, and simple minds. 

But the next few days weren't particularly happy and the landscape and I were still at odds with one another, drifting in and out of love. Worse than that, there was an antipathy which slowly metamorphosed into darker, more malevolent emotions as I drifted through Balmeseda in the drizzle and then passed into the emptying-out hinterlands of Castille y Leon. Here we might say depression set in; the path, though reasonably well-signposted, followed the backroads, through vacant industrial lots to the echo the futile barking of dogs protecting homes whose owners might never return home. The valley proceeded westwards, the gradient gently increasing; to the north and south rose scrub and scarp, dry to the bone and, to my mind, hostile to anyone who might attempt to deviate from the road. It was 1988 all over again, the landscape trying to shrug me off.
The Empty Lands

The sense of depression deepened and then, as the track wandered away from the main drag into a landscape of sparse and spartan settlement I was overcome by a sense of loneliness and isolation; for first time in as long as I can remember, I began to feel vulnerable. An irrational fear precipitated by a landscape in which neither I, a pilgrim, or the path itself, were a natural fit. There were villages, right enough, but I passed through them with a blink of an eye; it was a rolling, agricultural scene dotted with woodland but arid and as inhospitable as I've ever come across. Perhaps it was because there were no inns, albergues or hotels in which to stay; perhaps it was because I was reluctant, as a woman of a certain age, to make my first wild camp. I was carrying a tent and all the necessary camping accoutrements, why should I have been phased by a night under the stars? 

Landowners along this part of the Viejo Camino have tried to ward off potential pilgrims by erasing or painting over signs, ironically they have only drawn attention to the arrows but even so at one point I decided to make a longer detour by following the road and not cutting across-country. As darkness beckoned I set up camp by an old church in the tiny hamlet of Iris, yet still I was too nervous to pitch my tent and I slept under the stars in a sleeping bag on my blow-up mattress. The following day I lost the path and, consumed by anger, risked a minor injury negotiating a steep cutting which led back to a main road. 
Damn! I could have sworn the guidebook said the camino passed this way but I can't see a yellow arrow for love not money. Epic trying-to-throw-hikers-off-the-scent fail!
Everything and everyone was against me now, a cafeteria that served only coffee and not anything that might have constituted a much-needed breakfast; the woman behind the counter seemed surly and I sneered back then panicked when I thought I'd lost my all-important Iphone. The terrain eased out into a dry, intermontane valley through which stormed a nacional (trunk road). The sun made its presence known, the heat cranked itself up and the track just went on and on and on. I carried on scowling and swearing at inanimate objects until I arrived at Espinosa de los Monteros, a bit of a one horse town aggrandised by being pretty much in the middle of nowhere. And when I got there, guess what? That's right, it took me the best part of an hour to find the hotel I'd booked, for which I'd forked out a girt, humungeous 62€. If it didn’t get better soon, I’d be on my way home.

Impromptu, nervous, wild camp

Home? Who on earth was I trying to kid? I didn’t have a home.
The Road went ever on and on


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