a walk to the world's end
John Sutcliffe’s 2018 Spanish backpacking adventure through the Pyrenean & Cantabrian Mountains
I headed off early, stopping for breakfast at the camping site a couple of kilometres south of Liguerre, that with hindsight would have been a much better place to camp. I really enjoyed their unusual (for Spain), bacon and eggs breakfast.
Back into the forest, heading towards Arcusa, Km 535, I heard a strange noise and looking up was surprised to see a chap on a horse galloping straight towards me. He pulled up in the nick of time. The horse’s owner, who hailed from Belgium, told me the hostel in Arcusa,where I was now heading, had recently changed hands and was presently shut. He kindly gave me his phone number in case of difficulty.
Approaching the scattered settlement of Arcusaa few hours later, I saw a lady approaching with a cheery wave. 'Come on' she said, ‘we are waiting for you to run you to Paules de Sarsa’. She took me to their lovely house, offered me a glass of chilled rose wine, and then her pistol-less Dick Turpin horse rider-husband drove me the 5km to the Casa Rural at Sarsa 11.
Here I had an interesting small-world experience. Heading down for the uninteresting supper at ‘on the dot’ 8.30pm, I met an English couple, Mary and Martin, who lived in Duck Street in the old Yorkshire lead mining village of Greenhow, Yorkshire, barely a dozen miles from where I live. Martin was doing the GR-1 as a series of day walks, with his wife doing car drop-offs and collections for the various stages. I was deeply envious!
After breakfast, Duck Street Mary, kindly offered to run me to Las Bellostas, at Km 549, saving me the 7km road walk. It saved my legs, but not much time, as we had an 800 head of sheep in front of us on their annual transhumance migration to summer grazing. We followed the sheep for about an hour, nudged along by several mangy and quite useless sheep dogs, that back in my native Yorkshire sheep farming village would have been put out of their misery with a loud bang.
I followed lovely forest tracks to Bagueste, Km 550, passing a refuge hut just west of Otin, Km 559. It was too early in the evening to make use of, so I carried on to the abandoned hamlet Nazare, at Km 562, arriving early evening.
Someone had told me that you could sleep in the tower of Nazare’s recently renovated medieval church. The stone tower, perhaps 6 or 7 metres square, was accessed by a narrow door at the top of short flight of stone steps. The door was unlocked and opened to a small dingy room with a stone floor.
A steep wooden ladder led up to a second floor made of wood. It was bright and airy with four unglazed window openings, three of which looked out onto meadows and heathland, with the fourth looking back over the roof of the adjacent church. Except for the effort of manhandling my kit up here, it was a good spot to spend the night.
The wooden floor was clean and looked like it had been recently replaced as part of the church restoration. It was bare except for a solid oak door, a relict from medieval times, that leaned up against one of the walls. The door was of solid construction with oak planks held together by oak laths and hand-made iron nails. I noticed that the planks at one end of the door were deeply weathered from exposure to the elements. It was clearly out of place up here on the top floor and had presumably been put up here by the restoration guys, perhaps to avoid it being trashed for firewood.
It was a gorgeous evening, the hills burnished with gold, as the sun slowly settled down for the night. I did the same, listening to some sacred music on my iPad, stirring some of the vibes of this ancient church, and feeling on top of the world.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by a strong wind gusting through the north-facing window, occasionally spraying rain onto my face. I fumbled for my headlamp. The bottom of my sleeping bag and some the rest of my kit, spread out across the wooden floor, was already getting wet.
The cold-front squall was strengthening, bringing with it more rain. My torchlight picked out the wooden door, giving me an idea. Abandoning my sleeping bag I manhandled the door in front of the north-facing window, leaning it against the wall at what I judged to be a ‘safe’ angle. The door wasn’t wide enough to cut out all of the wind and spray but it was a vast improvement and I was reasonably happy with the results.
It was now starting to get light and not worth getting back into my sleeping bag. I made a hot brew to warm up and then got on with boiling up some porridge. As I bent over to stir the porridge, I received an almighty crack on the back of my head. For a split second I wondered what had happened. Then it dawned on me – a strong gust of wind must have finally won the ‘huff and we puff and we blow the door down’ battle to fling it over to land on the back of my head.
Nazare – The door that landed on my head!
Extricating myself from under the door I waited for a minute or possibly longer to see if the lights would go out and I would keel over. Nothing happened. It was a hell of a blow and I am certain that with a slight change in angle or direction it could have easily done me in. As my daughter-doctor pointed out it might have been weeks before they eventually found me at the top of a church tower – the last place you would look for a missing walker. The headline in my local Yorkshire paper, might have read, ‘After an intensive search in the Pyrenean foothills the remains of the missing Yorkshire backpacker were found on Wednesday at the top of Spanish church tower, apparently killed by a falling oak door. There is no explanation of how this might has occurred but foul play is not suspected.’
I figured it out over breakfast. Some time in the middle of the night I had got up and taken a pee into the brambles from the lee-side window, rather than take up the challenge of climbing down the wooden ladder in darkness. Perhaps the door incident had been disproportionate retribution for this irreverent behaviour! It was all a bit strange. It had been a beautiful evening and there was no earthly reason why I had should not have camped in the lovely meadows surrounding the church. Half an hour after getting whacked the wind dropped from near gale force to a slight breeze, and the sun came out. That was also a bit strange, I thought, as I headed off.
Overgrown track leaving Nazare
I reached the small village of Nocito, Km 576 at about 7pm, and put up the tent in a ‘formal’ but empty campsite, the first of my trip. After a shower I made my way to the café. The food was pretty rubbish and the constant bickering of the owner, directed at his two Bulgarian helpers, drove me nuts. The requested rare steak was served a grim grey colour so I sent it back and got a ‘serve you right’ chilled one from the fridge as replacement. I left it, saying I would have it tomorrow, that being my planned day off. This was my only really disappointing meal on the whole Spanish trip.
I spent most of day writing an update on the walk. The weather was looking dodgy and I moved into the ‘refugio’ (shelter) that was part of the campsite – a small cell-like room with a raised wooden platform for my inflatable mattress and sleeping bag. I wanted an early start the next morning and wanted to avoid packing up a wet tent.
For lunch I got the chap to recook yesterday’s steak, for which I was charged the price of another steak! Several groups of people pitched up for a pre-ordered lunch and the owners rantings moved up a couple of notches, so I cleared off as soon as I could.
Later in the day, I checked out the route leading out of the hamlet in readiness for the next morning 12. Walking back I passed another bar, called O’Tozal, and checked it out. It was a world of difference so I returned there to eat supper later on that evening. I was invited to sit with a large group of Basque chaps on a lads weekend away from home, joining them for a delicious lamb stew supper. They laughed when I told them about the bad-tempered chap from the other place, for which, they said, he was quite notorious in the district.
After a splendid evening, a middle-aged man in a wheel chair, said hello and invited me for a nightcap. He was called Josan and accompanied by a young lady. Conscious of the late hour and the long walk ahead tomorrow I declined. Paying the bill the owner explained that Josan had been involved in an accident some 11 years previously. He and a group of other young men had just left a bar in the early hours when they were hit by a drunken driver, found later to be drugged up to his eyeballs. Two of Josan’s companions were killed outright, and Josan had lost his sight and would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Que mierda, I thought, wondering how on earth I hadn’t spotted he was blind on the first encounter.
I headed off early, glad to be on the move again. The weather now looked more settled and the sun was out. From here, the path was well marked with wine-coloured plastic labels pronouncing the ‘Camino Natural de la Hoya de Huesco’ 13. I made it over the two good passes and on to Lusera in just over 4 hours.
Joining a dirt road, I was offered a lift by a chap in a beat up Land Rover who took me the last few miles to Arguis where I was lucky to find a bed at the Hostal Barbacana 14. This once peaceful village had been turned upside down by two major tunnelling projects for the adjacent motorway, and the hostal was doing a roaring trade with workers, serving over 120 lunches on weekdays.
Later that evening I was very surprised when Josan appeared at the hostal accompanied by another young lady. He had correctly guessed he would find me here, which amazed me.
I slept fitfully, awakened by recurring claps of thunder. The next day’s walk looked challenging, and concerned by the weather I got up and went over the route again some time in the middle of the night.
I needn’t have worried, for it was a splendid walk starting with a long climb through superb pine and then oak forests, opening onto paramo (wild moorland) country some three hours later at the top of the1,200m pass. I stopped at the grassy summit to photograph some enormous mushrooms that I was grieved to leave, having no way to cook them.
Two lashings of thunderstorm harangued me on the 700m descent, but the low mist cleared from time to time with glimpses of the broad plains surrounding the Bolea, Km 615, where I was now heading.
And down to Bolea
I thought Bolea was one of the nicest small towns of the whole walk and the weather being unsettled I made for the Casa Rufino securing a room at the ‘knackered greybeard’ friendly rate of €20. I also ate a splendid meal there, – roasted asparagus followed by a delicious lamb stew, to which I persuaded them to add extra spot of garlic. Dessert was a huge plateful of the wonderful cherries that I had spotted on the way in through the bar.
I spent the morning catching up with emails and route planning, and in no particular hurry headed off at about 12.30 pm. I took shelter from a sudden downpour in the small village of Anies, sharing the doorway but a with another chap who was talking to a woman who rattled on for some time about some construction work he was apparently supervising. When I pulled out a sandwich from my pack he asked if I would like a bottle of beer to go with it, and then headed off round the corner to produce an icy cold beer from his workmen’s stash. These incredible acts of kindness were very special in my walk across Spain.
The downpour passed, I headed off but making a big mistake by going straight on into Loarre, at Km 625, instead of heading up the valley side to see Loarre Castle. I later learned this was reckoned to be one of the best medieval fortresses in Europe, standing guard over the towering rock buttresses, and kicked myself for missing it.
Rain was threatening when I reached the town, but a kind lady allowed me to ‘camp’ in her basement/garage for a small tip.
Slipping out of the house early and leaving the town I was unable to find any GR markers and followed my own ‘intuitive’ route that landed me into horrid gorse and bramble tangle. Half hidden in the undergrowth I spotted a green and white paint marker – not the familiar red and white GR’s colours, but I decided that any paint in a storm would do. Following a succession of these green and whites markers through horribly overgrown paths, I finally connected with a path bearing the wine-coloured Camino Natural waymarkers. From there, it was plain sailing along lovely forest paths and tracks leading to a spectacular descent through the fine gorge down to the climbers mecca of Riglos, at Km 642, a small village perched just under impressive cliffs.
Descent to the climbing mecca at Riglos
I had been monitoring the build up of black clouds until the heavens opened just a few kilometres before reaching the village. After a few opening spots I was enveloped 15 in a curtain of torrential thunder rain. I had taken the precaution of readying my waterproofs and whipped them on in no time. Arriving at the village, I sought refuge in El Puro pub, dry beneath the waterproofs but dripping from head to foot. The pub was heaving with wet rock climbers who had been driven off the cliffs by the threatened thunderstorm 16. There was also a group of Guardia Civil de Montaña, or Mountain Police – young men who had been undertaking training on the cliffs from a few grey beards. They seemed a good crowd of blokes and I made several bar friends.
Later on I called Josan, agreeing to meet up later that evening. The weather cleared and the sun came out again as I headed off to Murillo, 5 km away, Km 645, where I secured a room in the hostel. I met up with Josan and two friends later in the evening, just in time for last orders. We had a splendid evening during the course of which I think I may have invited Josan’s lovely minder to join me on the walk, but got just a laugh and a giggled response.
Back in the hostel, I landed back to reality with a bump on discovering that my waterproof jacket was nowhere to be seen. Bugger, what a way to end a memorable evening!
The disappearance of my waterproof jacket sealed the decision to make this a rest, or rather a ‘searching for the jacket’ day. I remembered hanging it up to drip-dry in the Puro bar at Riglos after taking shelter from yesterday’s downpour.
Heading off at 9am, it took me just under an hour to for the climb up to Riglos in splendid morning sunshine, and without the heavy pack it felt like I was floating up the mountain. I found the El Puro bar was locked and shuttered when I got there. Enquiring in another bar that was doing a brisk trade with the rock climbers, I was told that the Dominicana, who ran the Puro single-handed sometimes had ‘flexible’ opening times. I made myself comfortable and I took several coffees whilst waiting, watching the lads sorting out ropes and all the paraphernalia needed for these daunting 300m routes. The bar was then invaded by several dozen excited French school children, who later headed off up into the hills on some walking excursion. A handful to look after, I thought, in this potentially dangerous terrain.
The Puro opened around midday just as the first climbers started their routes. I got my jacket and a hug from the Dominicana before heading off back down to Murillos with the morning all but gone, but enjoying the lazy pack-free start to the day.
Later on I joined a group of London University second-year geology students to swap stories about chest-high brambles and never-ending thunderstorms. They had frequent encounters with giant ticks they said, some about a centimetre across, but saw them off with a spot of acid 17.
Feeling great after the lazy rest day, I headed off just after 7 am. The day began with a gentle climb through woodland with the Riglos-type cliff-forming conglomerates off in the distance. I disturbed a wild boar hidden in the undergrowth just off the track, but once again failed to spot it.
Biel village was some 17 km away at Km 669, so I pushed on arriving there just after 4pm. The weather looked dodgy with threatening thunder, so I stayed in the community run hostel. Whilst waiting for the chap with the key, I chatted to some local chaps in front of what had been the village school. No one could remember when it had closed, at least 20 years ago. Sadly there were now no children living in the village – in fact there seemed to be very few permanent residents. I had an acceptable supper in one of the towns two pubs, settling for garlicky goat, before retiring to the comfortable hostel that I had all to myself.
It rained heavily during the night but the morning was fine and sunny. After some of Kurt’s porridge, I headed off following the warden’s advice to cross the river by a nearby bridge to rejoin the GR–1 a bit further on. Heading off up the densely forested valley it wasn't long before I came to the first of about six boots-off river crossings that had been swollen by the overnight rain. After putting on my gaiters I found was able to keep my boots on for a further half dozen river crossings, saving some time.
I reached Petilla de Aragon, Km 686, and expecting more rain checked into the hostel, a place with ropey service but amazing views. The owner and his Dominicana partner seemed to be struggling as few people passed through these days, they said. The food was pretty dreadful which could account for it.
The lovely sunny morning was rather spoilt by finding an unappetizing and unplanned cold plate of fried eggs and bacon waiting for me on the table in the bar. Never mind, it was a lovely morning. After some time spent planning the next few days I made my way down the very steep hillside to the valley bottom and then following by a splendid semi-contour path through the beautiful oak woodland.
After passing the turn-off to the hilltop Castillo de Roita I noticed the path suddenly took on more substance; large retaining boulders had been manhandled into position to border the path on the down-slope side. It seemed like I was now following an ancient thoroughfare way that would have once connected the 10th century castle with the town of Sos del Rey Católico to where I was now heading.
Later in the afternoon I cleared a small hill and got my first distant glimpse of the magnificent hilltop town of Sos, Km 700, the birthplace of King Fernando ll who, together with his queen Isabella, had unified the northern kingdoms of Aragon, Navarre and Castile. His forces eventually ‘liberated’ Spain from the Moorish occupation, ending seven centuries of enlightenment under Moorish rule. Their daughter, Catherine, would eventually become the first wife of England’s Henry Vlll, who would become the source of his ‘Great Matter’ when she refused to agree to an annulment of their marriage.
Ancient town of Sos del Rey Católico
I got carried away and then a bit lost wandering around the narrow streets of this beautiful town, and eventually stumbled into the Plaza Mayor discovering an interesting ‘under-arches’ pub and hostel, where the landlord did me a special grey-beard backpacker rate of E20. Luckily I was just in time for a fantastic Sunday lunch.
I spent a lazy rest day in Sos, catching up with some housekeeping and posting off two parcels 18 of surplus items to my home to get my pack weight down a bit. I also wrote up some notes on Section 5 of the GR-1 for a couple of mates who were planning to do this leg in July.
The cook came in especially early to fix me a cooked breakfast and I headed off just after 8am. More thunderstorms had been forecast but they held off. Just after 10am I reached Torre de Anues, Km 710, the western limit of Aragon, and crossed into Navarra.
Into Navarra at Torre de Anues
11 Expensive, poor value, and pretty lousy food.
12 I often found the most difficult part in following the GR-1 was picking up the route in a town or village.
13 The familiar red and white GR markers were also painted along the same route.
14 Calle the Migalon in my guidebook.
15 I was amazed how quickly these storms started, from a few opening spots to full blast leaving you no time to don waterproofs
16 This thunderstorm weather was apparently quite unseasonal and at times presented a real challenge with sizzling streaks of purple lightening.
17 Geologists often carry small bottles of hydrochloric acid to see if the rocks react signifying a carbonate content.
18 Only one of which arrived in the UK!
Contact John Sutcliffe - email@example.com
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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a walk to the
John Sutcliffe’s 2018 Spanish backpacking adventure through the Pyrenean & Cantabrian Mountains