a walk to the world's end
John Sutcliffe’s 2018 Spanish backpacking adventure through the Pyrenean & Cantabrian Mountains
The small town of Salinas de Anana, Km 949, is an incredible place that has produced salt since Roman times. Salt was a highly prized commodity in the ancient world – the word ‘salary’ being derived from it. Here, salt water pouring out from the numerous springs 24, is conveyed by wooden channels to a series of evaporation pans that are supported by higgledy-pigledy arrays of wooden trestles. The boomtown atmosphere reminded me of a prosperous South American mining town. The GR-1 skirts around the valley overlooking the salt workings, making for a fascinating approach to the town.
Salt evaporation pans at Salinas de Ana
The Anana Palace is a splendid restaurant that overlooks the salt pans, a perfect spot to tuck Mediterranean prawns from Huelva, followed by a delicious steak. I had to wait for the kitchen to get into gear and used the time to route-plan over a cold beer. The manageress then tried to find me a bed in the towns convent, but was told but you had to be visiting on ‘religious business’ to be admitted. It was a shame as a night out with the nuns could have been very interesting!
After the pleasant break, I headed off mid-afternoon, with the drizzle slowly clearing. A pleasant walk took me to the small town of Espejo, Km 955, where I got a room at the modern youth hostel. A group of cavers from the Pais Basque Caving Club were also staying there and I was invited to join them for dinner and later for a few drinks at a riverside bar, rounding off a good evening exchanging caving tales.
A walk through the woods took me to the impressive Monastery of Angosto, Km 964,
The lovely old bar, adjoining the monastery, was just opening as I passed so I popped in for a cold beer and a plate of olives before continuing on through splendid oak woods.
I was told the monastery had now just two resident monks and that yesterday’s Convent of San Juan of Acre at Salinas had just three nuns. What will happen to the wonderful buildings, currently maintained by the church, in a few years time, I wondered. Perhaps, if tourism ever develops in this off-the-beaten-track area, some could be converted to youth hostels, for walkers and retired geologists, and for stopovers for people on their way to heaven!
After taking on water from a spring in the lovely village of Valpuesta, I camped next to a river close to some man-made caves at Km 976. It was a lovely summer evening and I watched some local farmers working in the fields until the light started to fade and the birds settled down for the night.
I emerged to find the tent drenched with heavy dew. I tried to dry it off in a tree but was not helped by the lack of breeze. It was cold and damp and again I missed my thermal top, now hopefully safely back England.
The GR-1 took me right past the entrances to the caves that had been hacked out of the soft limestone by hand some 4 centuries earlier. Small coffin-shaped burial cavities had been cut in the floors, and windows cut in the cliff face to let in the light. I found them a bit creepy and didn’t hang about.
Caves with coffin holes at near Valpuesta
I headed off to Boveda, Km 985, where I had a late lunch at a casa rural. There wasn’t much on offer so I tried some pig’s cheeks that I really didn’t enjoy, as they stuck in my throat, almost making me throw-up.
I then set off on the long climb over the watershed into Castilla y Leon enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. I had really enjoyed my walk through Basque Country but it was now time to move on to the next province Burgos.
The GR-1 enters Burgos by the 900m-high Puerto de la Horca (Pass of the Gallows), a grim-sounding spot, at Km 989. The GR-1 then makes for the national monument at the San Pantaleon de Losa church, perched high on the cliffs at Km 995. I camped just below the cliffs at about 7.30pm after covering a paltry 18 km for the day. My campsite, a small patch of grass located at the intersection of two tracks, was uncomfortably visible, being located fairly close to some farm buildings; it was the best I could do at this late time of day.
I had a very strange and disturbed night. First, at around 3am, I was awakened by a flashlight scanning the area surrounding the tent. I kept quiet to see what it was about, believing at first it was probably a hunter stalking the nocturnal wild boar. The light didn’t go away for some time, but kept moving around. The torch-bearer eventually moved on, and I dropped off back to sleep. I was then awakened by the rattling of my pans just outside of the tent. This time there was no torchlight, and thinking it might have been a fox or a dog I clapped my hands and shouted. The rattling continued, ruling out dogs and foxes. It might have been a roaming hedgehog on the hunt for food.
All seemed in order the next morning until I got on with the task of packing up and getting the porridge underway. When it came to adding powdered milk I couldn’t find my spoon, and ended up shovelling the cooling porridge into my mouth using a fork. Up and about I had a good search around in the grass for the spoon but found no trace of it, despite several careful searches. The spoon was part of an MSR titanium set that I had had for many years, and carried for 1,250 miles 4 years earlier from Cornwall to Cape Wrath. I would miss it for the remainder of the Spanish walk.
After another search for the spoon I headed off up the track to the church, passing a farmyard. It struck me that there was something odd about the place. The windscreen of a scruffy car parked in the yard had been carelessly stuck in place by some sort of epoxy resin – a careless thoroughly botched job. The rest of the yard was a mess with a badly written notice ordering you to keep out. A number of mangy half starved-looking sheep were penned up in the bright morning sunlight, apparently without water. I had an overwhelming feeling that last nights torch-bearing visitor was the master of this mess and had waited until I was asleep to snoop around. Had the wretched bloke nicked my wretched spoon, I wondered – a more likely possibility than a kleptomaniacal hedgehog!
San Pantaleon Church
The Romanesque chapel that crowns the rocky summit, is regarded as one of the great works of this period and according to my guidebook lies right on the GR-1. The church, like all the others I had passed, was locked, so I really have no idea what the fuss was about. The track on my Garmin then led me, lemming-like, to the very edge of a very high cliff. I could find no sensible place down and so was oblige to head back down the track, muttering a few rude words. After stopping by the campsite for another hunt around, I continued on the walk.
Checking me out!
After stopping in field to eat something, surrounded by fine looking cows, tended by an enormous contented-looking bull, I met a Spanish couple heading east for a days walk on the GR-1. Stopping to chat, the lady, pointing to my bare legs, said she had come across several ticks that same morning. Later in the day, taking a brief breather on a bank, I scanned my legs and found two of the wretched things. I dabbed one with methylated spirits, wondering if it would have any effect, before heading off to the next village, Peresotas, Km 1006.
The ticks worried me and I regretted posting off my long pants. Entering the village I spotted two young lads riding their bikes in shorts, accompanied by an out of control Labrador. I asked if their parents were around.
‘Oh ticks, we get them all the time’, their mother said. The father then headed into the house returning with a tube of Vaseline and a pair of tweezers. He smothered the larger tick with blob of Vaseline and after waiting for a minute lifted the tick off with the tweezers. I was impressed with the simplicity and effectiveness of this process. They then gave me a tube of Vaseline and the tweezers that I really appreciated. (The smaller tick had apparently dropped off after the dunking with meths)
The next village, Salinas de Rosio, Km 1016, must have once had some fine looking stone houses, but many are now slipping into decay with caved-in roofs and collapsing walls. A local bank, the Caja de Burgoss had erected a small community shelter in the village square – a simple roof over a concrete floor, on which stood three benches. In my mind, I quickly rearranged the two of the benches to make a bed for the night. First though, I filled up my water bottle at the village fuente (spring) and washed my feet in the lovely cool water. Several large carp swam lazily up the long stone trough below the fountain to check out my intruding feet.
Later on an elderly chap and a lady from the village wandered down to the shelter. The man had been born here some eighty years earlier, and they were now the village’s sole permanent residents. After a natter they headed off to their separate homes, and I knocked up a packet soup, livened up with garlic, dried tomatoes and mushroom, adding a few slices of chorizo, whilst listening to some John Williams Spanish guitar music in the late afternoon sunshine.
After a comfortable night on the benches, I headed off early to the village of Quintanillas de Pienzo, Km 1024, stopping to ask a couple if there was a bar in the village for a coffee. ‘No’, they said, ‘but we can make you one’.
I was invited to sit on the bench overlooking the green, whilst the lady headed back to their house to make the coffee. Talking to them a new plan began to emerge. I was getting fairly low on food and, following their advice, I decided to head into the nearby town of Medina del Poma, about 8 kilometres to the south. We phoned a local taxi but he was busy and then Jose very kindly offered to run me there.
On arrival Jose took me on a quick tour around the town, pointing out the landmarks before dropping me off at the El Olvido hotel. It was a beautiful town and the hotel he recommended was a great place. Before he left we shared a plate wonderful acorn-fed Iberico ham 25 and an icy cold beer before he headed back home.
After a shower and late lunch I headed off to the Santa Clara convent with just an hour to look round before the 6 pm closing time. It was a lovely place. As I was leaving, a group of 20 or so nuns started unloading a large delivery of household and kitchen stuff, boxes of cutlery, crockery, furniture, and bed linen etc. The nuns, closely guarded by the mother superior, were very excited, laughing and giggling with joy at their surprise mid-year Christmas. I waded in to help them unload the boxes. One of the nuns was from Guayaquil in Ecuador where I had once lived, so we swapped a few memories.
After the visit I roamed the town, again picking up too many supplies, before making my way back to the hotel after what had been a splendid day. Tomorrow I would soon be back on the walk but now it was beer and grub time.
The taxi arrived promptly at 8.00 am to take me back to the village green in Quintanilla. My new friends had headed off earlier for a family matter in Bilbao, so I sat alone on the same bench planning the day’s route.
An open bar in Torme, Km 1032, was a pleasant midday surprise. I ate three mind-blowing pork crackling tapas washed down with an icy cold beer before heading off to Salazar, making a memorable jump across a water-filled ditch with an expected face-down soft landing.
Puente Dey "God's Bridge"
I reached Puente Dey, Km 1049, just after 5pm after a lovely walk through the woods. The town’s name, meaning God’s bridge, refers to the natural limestone bridge over the river. I had spotted a possible campsite down by the bridge, and with that sorted I was ready for a good feed. I found one of the two bars open, and tried without success to negotiate a few slices of ham. The young lad in charge, aged about 20, said he couldn’t do that as his mum wasn’t there and he couldn’t do it without her. I offered to carve the ham myself but then he said he might not be able to find it. Another group of locals started to laugh at this silly exchange. After a chat they offered to take me back to their house at Villaves, about 5 kilometres away. We had only just met but I was happy to accept the impromptu invitation rather than risk the exposed campsite down by the bridge.
24 The salt is derived from circulation ground water that comes into contact with salt domes, called diapirs, that are squeezed into the sedimentary rocks.
25 Iberico pigs are acorn-fed and the ham is amazing, and outrageously expensive
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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a walk to the
John Sutcliffe’s 2018 Spanish backpacking adventure through the Pyrenean & Cantabrian Mountains