a walk to the world's end
John Sutcliffe’s 2018 Spanish backpacking adventure through the Pyrenean & Cantabrian Mountains
For the return to Spain, I flew to Barcelona, overnighting in the Hotel Moderna in the old part of the city, later enjoying a splendid seafood paella. I was in good spirits and feeling optimistic and, so far, happy to be back.
My kit was basically the same except that I had swapped my lightweight Osprey 58 rucksack for the heavier Aether 70 that I had used on the last stage of my Cape to Cape walk. The big advantage of this was the robust waist belt that took some of the weight off my shoulders. It was to be a good decision.
An early morning train took me back to Lleira where I was met by Jordi, who had rescued me from the bridge ten days earlier. We managed a quick lunch, later to be joined by Pili his partner, before I caught the ALSA bus back to Ager.
I was feeling good and looking forward to the next day’s walk, described in my guidebook as one of the highlights of the GR-1.
Slipping out of the B&B just after 7am, I found the bread shop closed but, knocking on the door, they let me in. It was a hive of activity, with hot ovens and trays of freshly cooked bread piled everywhere. The lady pointed to a stool, I think more to keep me out of the way, and I sat watching the bread-making show with a freshly squeezed juice and a delicious bocadillo (Spanish sandwich) and a coffee. Could you imagine walking into a bread bakery, unannounced, in the early hours in England to a rustled up breakfast?
I made my way through the still empty town and across the bright green fields, interspersed with olive groves. The hamlet of Corca, at Km 376, is perched on the steep valley side just above a sinuous arm of the Canelles reservoir that snakes its way into the mountains. From here a good path continues northwards becoming increasingly precarious as valley strangles the arm of the lake on the approach to the Noguera limestone gorge. It is impressive with the path following a narrow ledge cut into the wall of the canyon. A steel cable, bolted to the limestone, provides a reassuring handrail for the faint-hearted, and for guys like me lugging a bulky pack that occasionally catches on the side-wall nudging me to the edge of the precipice.
Noguera Gorge with path
My leg was holding up but it was still not 100% and was beginning to play up. Once through the gorge, an elderly couple that I had talked to earlier in the day offered me a lift for the remaining 7 kilometre road section to Puente de Montañana. The river that runs through the middle of the town is the border between Catalonia and the more ‘Spanish’ province of Aragon, and has a frontier feeling to the place. I had planned to overnight in a B&B, I found one of the places closed for their rest day, and the other temporarily shut. A small bar was open but no longer doing accommodation, so I ended up camping next to the river in a small grassy recreational park, a lovely spot with trestle tables. After pitching the tent I headed back to the bar for a meal. Inside and flowing out onto the pavement was a crowd of noisy Catalan teenagers out on a canoeing adventure weekend.
The day got off to a good breakfast back at the bar with fried eggs and toast smeared with tomato and garlic, then dribbled with olive oil – a delicious Catalan specialty that I was getting to really enjoy. Set up with this and a strong coffee buzz, I was feeling very pleased with my decision to have another crack at the GR-1.
A road walk took me the 5 kilometres to the restored village of Montañana. From there the GR-1 climbs an escarpment following an ancient drove road through abandoned ancient fields and scattered ruins, another sad reminder of changing times and values.
Up to now I had found the way-marking of the resumed route to be pretty good, but then I came to a field packed with contented grazing goats where I struggled with the path blocked by brambles. I heard what I took to be a human voice, and spotted a lad half hidden in the trees that bordered the field. This pan-like character, who I had disturbed apparently talking to the goats, told me that the GR route from here was now completely overgrown. He directed me instead to a track that would take me to Sarroca de Montesma to rejoin the GR-1. I arrived there just after 6pm (Km 407)
I had counted on finding a water supply in this abandoned hilltop village, as well as perhaps a rat-free 7 ruin for the night’s lodging. I was surprised to hear voices coming from somewhere, and then I came across an old woman, bent almost double with age, who shuffled along with the help of a well-polished stick. Another lady then appeared from a dark alleyway and then a chap peered out from the upper window of a dilapidated building. It was really sad; the whole place was a time warp, falling apart around the three remaining occupants.
We chatted for a while, for I sensed an interesting tale hidden here amongst the ruins. Eliza, who spoke with a strong regional accent that I struggled to understand, had lived here all of her life. Her main task in her closing years had been looking after a multitude of cats, of which a striking black, white and ginger stripy variety predominated.
After chatting for a while and filling up my water bottles from a hosepipe, Eliza directed me to an abandoned but still-standing house where the ancient wooden door was, she said, secured with bailer twine. Heading off through an archway up the rough cobbled alleyway I found the door, unpicked the bailer-twine lock, and pushed open the ancient creaking door. It was dark and dingy inside, but once I got used to the subdued light I found myself in a wide passage way cluttered with a collection of items that included a three-legged chair, a rusting enamelled bathtub, a free-standing toilet pot and various farming implements.
Picking my way through the shambles, I reached small courtyard that led to a walled roofless balcony that looked out over the beautiful countryside now bathed in golden sunlight. The stunning view more than compensated the surrounding mess and the place clearly had overnight potential. Looking at the beautiful orange sky I thought I didn’t really need a roof, with the waist-high wall of the veranda to cut off the stiff breeze. I decided to settle for this ‘room with an amazing view’.
After a soup I settled down, laying out with my sleeping bag on my inflatable mattress, having swept the stone flags with an ancient broom fashioned from twigs. I stargazed for a while, but woke up later with a sharp shower sending me scuttling inside to sleep amongst the junk but with a roof.
On making my way to bid farewell to Eliza, I was surprised to find her talking to the young goatherd from yesterday. My timing was perfect for I arrived precisely at the cats feeding time. Hearing the rattle of the food bag they emerged from every nook and cranny, jumping down from windows, ledges, and walls, until there were well over a dozen. They were very shy and stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of this bearded intruder, some arching their backs and others running off to reappear from somewhere else.
Once again he gave me valuable advice on the route. He strongly advised me at following the guidebooks route, as it was overgrown with brambles, and to take instead a series of minor roads to the next village, Castigaleu where I could rejoin the GR-1. Armed with this valuable advice I headed off into brilliant sunshine, stopping after an hour to update my diary sitting on a comfy, and nicely dried mature manure heap, from which vantage point I watched a group of contended cows munching hay, happily and vigorously clanging their cow bells. I shared their happiness enjoying the lovely morning sunshine and a snack bar.
Castigaleu’s sole bar, where I had counted on some food, was closed, so I scavenged something from my pack. Leaving the town, with my head up in the clouds, I took the wrong turning, heading off to the south to towards Luzas, instead of following the guidebook’s recommended shortcut to Laguarres.
Back on track, I watched ominous as black clouds gathered on the horizon. Opening claps of thunder added urgency to the visual warning and I speeded up as best I could to try to beat the threatening downpour. The road, with a slight downhill gradient, was marked with numbered kilometre posts and I timed myself between these in a downhill ‘sprint’ hoping to beat the rain. The sky turned almost black and the air felt heavy, as if the rain was about to explode around me. I began to think I wouldn’t make it, and then, rounding a bend, I was surprised to find my turn off to Laguarres, signposted at just half a kilometre away.
A large raindrop splatted my head as I entered the village, and seconds later the heavens opened as the deluge began. There was no time to scramble for waterproofs. I spotted a small group of parked cars at the end of a narrow side street, outside what looked like a bar. Somehow I managed to run down the fifty or so metres to the bar escaping a thorough wetting with just seconds to spare.
The barman, with long curly grey hair, bore a striking resemblance the 17th century physicist, Sir Isaac Newton. The raindrops, now mixed with hailstones, bounced off the road under an amazing display of purple lightening. Looking up at the sky, Sir Isaac asked where I planned to spend the night, suggesting a friend’s Casa Rural B&B just around the corner. An phone call secured me a bed for the night and then I settled back to enjoy the rest of storm from the cosy shelter of the bar. Chatting over a beer, I resisted the temptation to ask the physicist a question about the electrical storm going on outside, or the nature of gravity or the splitting of white light by a glass prism.
This morning’s walk followed the north-facing terrace of the Rio Isabena, very easy countryside that made for a welcome change. I called in at the small village of Capella, Km 445, at around 4pm, where I got scolded by the bar-woman for the temerity of asking if I could have something to eat. (Catalan bars have flexible time but I was now in Aragon, - another world ) Later on, another thunderstorm exploded around me leaving me soaking wet with icy cold rain. I was heading to a fairly large town where I planned to overnight and so I didn’t mind all that much 8. On the way down I disturbed a wild boar hiding in the undergrowth during its day-time siesta. It charged off into the corn, moving a yellow swath, but tantalizingly remaining hidden from sight 9. It must have been a youngster.
I reached the town of Graus, Km 452, about 7pm and headed into the multi-star Obisbo, the first hotel that I came across. I was dripping wet, with my hood in place and black shiny jacket and shining over-trousers, I must have scared the living daylights out of the young lady in charge of the reception. Estefennie said that they didn’t have a room as there was some event was on in town, but she kindly phoned around and eventually found me a very comfortable room at the Hostal Lopez.
I reckon I had earned a good feast after my 22 Km slog and a jolly good soaking and so, after warming up in the shower, I followed Estefennie’s advice, returning to the Obisbo for a splendid meal. It was a great opportunity to celebrate completion of Section 6 of the walk. Section 5, coming up next 10 was described in my guidebook as one of the best on the GR-1 and so I was really looking forward to it. I was ready for anything!
Heading off to a fine morning after the storm, and fully stocked up with supplies, I was again feeling in good spirits.
A steep climb up to 900m left me feeling the weight of the recently taken on supplies as I made my way to the abandoned hilltop village of Crustan, Km 458, with its stunning Romanesque church, surrounded by homesteads in various states of collapse, half-hidden in brambles. A splendid moorland ridge walk followed this. I talked to Jordi, agreeing to meet up at Pano, Km 471, later in the day.
Pano with distant snow-capped peaks
I got to the small hamlet of Pano, Km 471, around 5 pm, after a splendid day in the hills. Pano hangs on to the top a pronounced ridge overlooking an imposing wooded valley that would be my route for the following day. Curt, the Swiss owner of Pano in his late seventies, showed me around, offering me a mattress and use of the kitchen for 10 Euros. The surrounding waterlogged woods were steep and soggy and didn’t look too inviting for camping so I took up the offer. Curt’s splendid restoration work, undertaken over a period of 10 years, with great attention paid to fine detail, was very impressive, but I couldn’t help wondering if he would see it to completion.
I called Jordi who said he was on his way. Some time later Kurt was aghast to hear several powerful mountain motorbikes climbing up some hidden trail on the far side of the valley. ‘But these are not allowed’, he said, sternly. Jordi and his two friends, covered in mud, arrived a short while later, to get a bit of a telling off from Kurt. It was all a bit embarrassing, and they didn’t stay long.
After Kurt’s comments about the lack of supply points of the route beyond Pano, I woke up in the middle of the night and started to fret about supplies. I got out my guidebook and with my headlight studied the route. Mentioning my supply concerns to Kurt in the morning, he kindly offered me a large bag of porridge oats, and a bottle of meths. Fuel supply was one of my main concerns throughout the Spanish walk and I had stupidly forgotten to fill up with meths in Graus.
The walk through the woods on Kurt’s well-maintained paths was superb and well marked, and wonderfully clear of brambles. I arrived at the tiny village of Salinas de Trillo, Km 477, at 1.30 pm where I lunched in a small bar on soup and rabbit until about 4pm. I was tempted to stay the night, but didn’t.
Salinas de Trillo
I camped that evening just by the Ermita (chapel) del Carmen about 400m north of the beautiful hilltop village of Troncedo, Km 483. My campsite, in amongst lovely oak woodland close to the chapel, was superb. After pitching the tent I headed back to the village to check out the community-run village pub, where the only other customers were the three guys who ran it (note to followers, no food is available here). We had a good evening with several beers and a bag of crisps supper.
I headed off around 9am, following a beautiful ridge walk, arriving at Tierrantona, Km 494, around 1.30pm. After grabbing a few supplies at the perfect village shop that sells just about everything imaginable, I tucked into a splendid lunch at the Casa Puyuelo, debating whether to stay the night until it was far too late to do otherwise. It chucked it down later on.
After morning porridge, cooked on the veranda, I headed off to Muro de Roda, Km 500, a splendid ridge-top Romanesque church, with some of the best views of the walk so far. (Note to followers, there is a confusing array of signs on the steep climb up to Muros, but the signposting back to Tierrantona is fine).
Heading to Muro de roda
Muro de Roda
On the way up I took another nose-dive after tripping up on an inch-wide stump hidden under an ankle-deep layer of fallen oak leaves. The fall forced the bridge of my spectacles into the bridge of my nose causing copious bleeding and twisting the spectacle’s frame. Luckily I was able to bend these back more or less into shape, but I reckoned that had I landed on rocky ground, more than just my spectacles would have been bent. (The momentum of the heavy pack can turn even a minor stumble into a headlong dive, and dual poles are key to staying upright – one of my poles was out of service at this juncture)
I passed through the Entremon gorge, Km 511, in late afternoon, finding it quite eerie with some scary drop-offs and narrow sections where my pack brushed against the rock face, pushing me towards the cliff edge above the swirling river.
Reaching Liguerre de Cinca, Km 515, at 7.30 pm, I camped just below the union-run tourist centre – a lousy sloping site with knee-deep damp grass. I was tired and it would have to do. The hotel was full of lively American youngsters on an adventure holiday, so the restaurant was closed to visitors, but I managed to wangle something to eat. Loud music from the partying youngsters kept me awake until their midnight curfew, for which I was most grateful.
7 On the assumption that the rats would have long abandoned the place for lack of food!
8 When backpacking with a small tent in wet weather, what gets wet stays wet, sometimes for days on end.
9 Editing this, after completing over 1000 kilometres I have yet to see one.
10 I walked west to east, but the guidebook followed an east to west route.
Contact John Sutcliffe - firstname.lastname@example.org
Section 1: TO SPAIN AND ACROSS THE COASTAL PLAIN
SECTION 2: PUENTE LLIERCA TO AGER
SECTION 3: AGER TO LIGUERRE DE CINCA
SECTION 4: LIGUERRE DE CINCA TO TORRE DE ANUES (NAVARRA)
SECTION 5: TORRE DE ANUES (NAVARRA) TO BASQUE COUNTRY
SECTION 6: INTO BASQUE COUNTRY
SECTION 7: SALINAS DE ANANA TO PUENTE DEY
SECTION 8: PUENTE DEY TO CORCONTE AND ON TO SANTANDER
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The goatherd, who would have been about twenty, said he lived here with his grandma, Eliza. My guess is that he earned a pittance working for one of the remaining farms. The stony soil around here did not look very fertile and I surmised that the village had started to decline following some major land consolidation.
a walk to the
John Sutcliffe’s 2018 Spanish backpacking adventure through the Pyrenean & Cantabrian Mountains