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Tuesday, 1 December 2015

That was the summer that was: TransCantabrica - Stage Five, Espinosa de los Monteros to Reinosa

Where were we? That's right, the busy little hub of Espinosa de los Monteros, on the Viejo Camino, back in my comfort zone. I was, unsurprisingly, the only pilgrim in town, the only hiker in the village; the previous day I'd come across a local and shared a short conversation. Short because I just didn't feel in the mood; whether by choice or circumstance, I'd become a solitary creature and when my trajectory brought me in contact with others I kept my distance. My interlocuter expressed surprise at seeing a pilgrim on the road and expressed surprise when I said - for at the time this was still my intention - I was heading all the way to Santiago. I met with less incredulity the following afternoon, following a short day's stroll from Espinosa de los Monteros to Quintanilla del Rebollar where Olga, the owner of the beautiful Hotel Posada Real Prado Mayor for she, too, was a camino junkie and produced a wonderful book detailing the history of the Viejo Camino/Camino Olvidado. She also treated me to a couple of free beers; that I'd only hiked ten kilometres didn't make them any less welcome. Olga served up a fantastic evening meal, with home-grown produce and even though I opted for the budget breakfast the following morning I got more than I can eat. West of Espinosa, the Camino follows the valley and the one-passenger-train-a-day railway, a pleasant, gently-undulating and well-marked hike; in many respects, Espinosa marked an emotional turning point, I was now beginning to feel comfortable enjoy myself - no longer 'out of place'. 

Seven kilometres out of Quintanilla the camino takes a right turn and climbs a couple of hundred metres to cross the Sierra de las Rozas. It is, in a sense, a futile climb, merely adding a few kilometres to the day's stage, but then again, the same might be said of the whole Trans Cantabrica project; I was walking for the sake of walking, a means without an end. I was happy in my valley, didn't fancy even a gentle uphill so I toyed with following the road through to Pedrosa de Valdeporres but the camino casts a spell on those who follow it, reveals untapped levels of determination. 

Being spoilt at the Hotel Posada Real Prado Mayor

It was an unpleasant climb, not steep but dogged by clouds of flies honing in on my sweat. At the collado, for the first time in all my many hours and days on the various caminos, the yellow arrow let me down. To the left a bulldozed track led down into the valley but the arrrow pointed to a faint path leading to the right. U2's 'I will follow' might have been my earworm that day; I did as I was told and ended up with another dose of lacerations and torn flesh as the path and the yellow arrows petered out and I was forced to wade through gorse and bramble down to the longest railway tunnel in Spain, the 7km Engaña Tunnel: not so much disused as never-used.

The Engaña Tunnel

The end of the line

In 1925 work began on a railway to connect the Atlantic port of Santander with Sagunto on the Mediterranean, by 1930 most of the line had been completed with the exception of the final 60km through the mountains to Santander, including the Engaña Tunnel. The Civil War delayed the project until 1941, when construction resumed using penal labour, most of whom were Republican prisoners. Most were freed by decree in 1945 delaying work until 1951. The tunnel was inaugrated, still incomplete, in 1959, at the cost of an unrecorded number of lives. The whole Santander-Mediterranean project was abandoned in 1961, still 39km short of its destination; rails were never laid in the Engaña Tunnel and although the abandoned track is now used as a via verde, the tunnel itself is now bricked off. 

A little off-asphalt relief

The thorn bushes had delayed me and put me in a bad mood - again! I paused to take a few photos then hot-footed it down the via verde towards Pedrosa, trying to cover the six kilometres in one hour; I failed but did come across the only other hiker I met on the Viejo Camino, a woman from Madrid of about the same age as me, what is it about mad dogs and middle-aged women? We swapped stories, she was carrying out a recce and wasn't at all impressed by the lack of infrastructure, couldn't even locate the casa rural she'd booked for the night; it was mid-afternoon, Pedrosa de Valdeporres was a ghost town.

The narrow gauge Bilbao-Leon FEVE railway; my constant companion

I left her to it and tried to pick up the trail of the disused railway, I got across the viaduct but at that point, not for the first time, the Viejo Camino vanished from the face of earth and I followed the road for the remainder of the day, first the seven kilometeres to Soncillo, where I wished I'd stopped, then another 2.5km up the nacional to Quintaanaentello, where I'd booked a room that was a little overpriced. 

With a couple of welcome exceptions along hot and dusty farm tracks, asphalt was my companion for the next couple of days. None of the roads I trod were particularly busy but the regular passage of vehicles slowly ground me down and provoked an afternoon of existenialist self-interrogation. Not about the act of walking itself, but rather the apparent futility of just following the road, an uncertainty exacerbated by every car and lorry that passed me by, as if they were taunting me. Their air-conditioned comfort up against my toiling sweat; being there just felt like being in the wrong place. 

Campsite at Arija by Embalse del Ebro

The views across the Embalse del Ebro to the north did their best to alleviate the confusion but their influence was being diminished by the opening up of vistas to the west, the Sierra de Peña Labra and the mighty Pico de los Tres Mares. It was like a hypnotist dangling her watch before me: you will succumb to the lure of the mountains. Walk this way.

The Sierra de Peña Labra and the mighty Pico de los Tres Mares

At Villafria I ignored the yellow arrow directing off-road and uphill and carried on into Reinosa to ponder my next move ...

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