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Wednesday, 4 May 2016

2016: The Summer of Sweat/El Verano de Sudor

It was fellow blogger and landscapist, Eddie Procter who pointed out the inverse relationship between studying the landscape and actually getting out, into and across it. Books, dear reader. So many of the effing things they seem to breed overnight, and copulate with the myriad of papers, articles and theses on pilgrimage and the Camino de Santiago.

Enough already! Just another six weeks of teaching the sons and daughters of the Wessex Bourgeousie how to pass exams - as opposed to actually 'educating' them, now there's a radical concept - then it's the train to Spain for a long summer of ambulatory onanism on and off the Camino, doing - and not doing - fieldwork for my PhD.

Not doing? Who am I kidding. Fieldwork is permanent and never-ending; I've been at it since I popped out - feet first - from my mother's womb and I shall not cease till I've uttered my last words. Which will be geography-related, natch. Sex, love and death? Sex, lust and geography more like.

It's a summer of three halves. First up, a TransCatalunyan north-south hike over the eastern Pyrenees along the GR83, from Prades to Olot in the Alta Garrotxa before turning eastwards to follow the old railway line - now a via verde, La Ruta del Carrilet - to Girona. The highlight of this trek, I hope, will be the ascent of the sacred Catalunyan mountain, Pic du Canigou. I've had my eye on this shapely protuberance since a family holiday back in the mid-1980s when, as my mother never ceases to remind me, I negotiated the family car and folding caravan around the Parisian equivalent of the North and South Circular whilst parents and siblings were safely snoozing in the back: seems like I slept for the following 48 hours. 
During that holiday which, by dint of having taken place in the 1980s, must obviously have been idyllic, my father and I set out to climb Canigou. We were hopelessly under-prepared and fortunately the heat got the better of us long before we could get close enough to the mountain to put ourselves in potential danger. Fifteen years later I spent a hiking holiday in the French Pyrenees many years later but a crocked knee prevented an ascent: in more recent years I've taken to travelling to Spain by train and whenever I take the eastern route Canigou looms on the horizon, taunting and tempting - unless I'm misreading the signals and it's giving me the finger. The final straw came when I spent the Christmas of 2014 fart-arsing around in the Pyrenean foothills, on every hike Canigou watched and followed me like the eyes of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow that hung over my childhood bed. 
The GR83 Camino del Canigou ( It's tempting to follow it all the way to Mataro but I have business to attend to in Girona - like looking for a place to live next year.
It seems appropriate that in this summer of pilgrimage I preface it with a personal perambulation. My mother and father introduced me to hiking from a very young age, climbing the dazzling limestone of Derbyshire's White Peak; following treatment for prostrate cancer and a stroke, my dad, though still sound of mind, is increasingly immobile so I shall climb Canigou in a thoughtful, unhurried manner and the remember the hills we did - and didn't climb.

You know what they say: pray for the dead, but walk like hell for the living.

La Ruta Carillet (
When I first came up close and personal with the Camino de Santiago, in 2012, it was along that pedestrian motorway that is the Camino Frances; it was a mixed experience, much of it spent in glowering anti-pilgrim mode and I swore I'd never hike it again. Talk about famous last words, in mid-July I'll be plodding along it once again, not just to Santiago but all the way to Finisterra, the end of the world.

Once again, working out where to begin's been harder than actually walking the effing thing. Indeed, this summer's perambulations have gone through as many permuations as a Rubik Cube and what started out as a TransEspana expedition has had to be reshaped for academic purposes. I shouldn't complain, I've still got a good seven-and-a-half weeks on the road and I've spent so long reading about the Camino I can't wait to set foot on it again: I'm already dreaming of the ubiquitous yellow arrow.

Or maybe hallucinating's a better description. 

Via Podiensis: Arthez-de-Bearn to St-Palais

Via Podiensis: St-Palais to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

I'm not quite sure why I finally opted to start the Camino on the final stages of the Via Podiensis from Arthez-de-Bearn in the French Pyrenees-Atlantiques rather than the traditional departure point of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the mountains; St Jean is, after all, only four days down the road, what's one hundred kilometres between old friends? Something about wanting to delay encountering the crowds or my inner anti-pilgrim making herself known already? I have to speak with my fellow peregrinos and peregrinas as part of my research; I do hope she's not going to embarrass me.

The Camino Frances: The Road to Perdition or Highway to Hell?
Don't get me wrong, I do understand how fortunate I am to possess both an inner Catalan and an inner Basque but at times I feel like Mary MacGregor who, back in 1976 - the summer of dry heat and dust - found herself torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool. And I know full well that loving both of them is breaking all the rules.

But this is the Summer of Sweat and that's exactly what I'm gonna do. 

I've managed to convince my PhD supervisors - for they are indeed plural, a geographer and a theologian - that I'll be returning from my Camino sojourn weighed down with a rucksack full of data so heavy I'll need to take a break before I come back and crunch it. And do you know what? They bought it! 'No need to rush back, Sian', they said with a smile. Anyone would think they didn't want to see me again. 

I am, dear geographically-inclined reader, a victim of cruel and hapless circumstance. Not content with pissing about with my gender and sexuality, the gods and goddesses of fate have taken great pleasure with toying with my academic leanings. Knowing full well that I am, by nature, a woman with a lusty, physical disposition, they promptly plucked me from the comfort of my earth and dumped me in a discipline labelled 'cultural geography'. I still haven't got a clue what I'm doing but I've worked out that if I say the right words - i.e. Deleuze and Guattari - I get a knowing nod and everythings alright with the world.

Well, do you know what? This summer they can do one. I'll be zippin' up my boots, going back to my roots. Yeah. To the place of my birth, back down to earth. Anboto, Alluitz, Txindoki, Untzillatx, Udalatx; it's only been a year but I miss you so much. I'm coming back to your kaarst and sparkling limestone. I'm coming home.