Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Hiking the Pyrenees Day 8


Hiking the Pyrenees Day 8

It was an oil painting come to life, and I was doing everything I could to capture it with camera and memory.

Watching the road
A great morning view

My night in the village of Beget was uneventful, which is exactly what you want when you’ve been hiking all day in the heat and just want to sleep. After having dinner, I hit the hay quite early, wanting to get plenty of rest in before the next day of hiking. I had to be on my game now, more than before, as I was tired of walking down the wrong damn path. My phone was charged and I was going to check my GPS more often, take my time and check everything before choosing a direction. The sound of the nearly river helped me drift off and when I rose it was still a little dark. I packed up my tent and got everything in my bag, ready to head off into the morning. I wasn’t going to wait for David this time, nor anybody else in fact – the path was mine today and if I ran into people, or they hiked at the same speed, then that would be fine. I was the first to leave our little encampment, which had grown since I went to bed. It was myself, David and the Basque couple, but there were also the 2 people I saw at the bar yesterday, the couple hiking the GR in the other direction. David’s tent was a small, one-man affair with a just enough room for his bag to go inside, and the Basque guys had a 2-man tent to share. The other couple however, slept apart and quite differently. The guy had a tiny little tent, no bigger than a coffin really (length, height and width!), and his partner was left out in the elements with only a sleeping bag to protect her, her face sticking up out of it. It was a little off-putting to be honest – not something I expected and a little scary. Their boots and backpacks were also just left outside. Although weight is always a consideration, I would rather carry an extra kilo than wake up to a wet face, bag and boots. Also, who would happily leave their partner open to the elements while they had a tent? I got my things together, put on my (dry) boots and shouldered my (dry) backpack and headed off. Even though the town had pretty much been empty when I arrived, it was most definitely a ghost town now. I snapped a few pics of the beautiful and very distinctive 12th century church of San Cristóbal on my way out and carried on along the path to Molló. The church was built in the Romanic style and has the tall, square bell tower and curved apse that is particular to churches in the mountains of Catalonia and Andorra. I made a mental note to come back to this special little place when I could spend more time here.

The church in Mollo
Horses in the fields
The hilly streets of Mollo

I left Beget, following the path that wound its way up through the forest, along a small river, and went up and up. It was getting warm and I was starting to sweat already. There was nobody else around, just a few farm houses and a lot of trees. The path crisscrossed the road, sometimes following it and then, for some unknown reason, it ducked into heavy shrubs and muddy paths that were uneven at best, only to come back onto the side of the road, making everything much longer and harder than it had to be. I thought about just staying on the road instead and making life a little easier on myself, but decided I needed to follow this path 100%, just in case. The path eventually led away from the road and didn’t go back, so I was happy about that – who knows where I would have gone to. The trail started to get steeper and I found myself puffing a little in the humidity, but after some time I came to clearing on top of a rise. This is where I decided that I would have breakfast, as I found a bench overlooking the direction I’d just come with some great views. This part of the country was much greener and wetter and I hardly remembered my first days on the coast; dry and hot with nothing but scratchy plants and rocks. I made my morning muesli of oats and powdered milk, munched on an apple and drank some water, enjoying the small things in life. The Basque couple arrived at this point but didn’t stop, they just kept steaming up the hill, walking sticks clicking away. I can only remember her name, Haizea, as it is such a strange Basque name – so hard I couldn’t even say it after she told me, and got her to write it down eventually (along with her email address so I could send them some photos). I finished my breakfast and left, knowing that Molló wasn’t that far away. I followed the curvy road, with the town in my sights, I came across an interesting sign. It talked about the great exile, or ‘retirada.’ Between January and March 1939, upwards of 85,000 and 95,000 people fled the civil war in Spain, hiking and crossing the Pyrenees, from Molló in Catalonia (Spain) to Prats de Molló in France. These people had fled for their lives, carrying whatever they owned, sometimes dumping their bags along the way so they could finish the hike… also, they were doing it during winter! A very sad story for many people – if only more people had more patience and understanding for refugees, as I’m sure many countries have a story like this so how can they judge and deny these poor souls? I bumped into the Basque couple again when I got into town at 11:15 and we sat down for a bit and had a chat while we got some water into us from the local fountain. I shared some of my peanut butter, which neither of them had ever seen before but both loved. We set off together, but I knew they would push ahead very soon, and so didn’t worry. I’d see them sooner or later, most likely in Setcases.

Possibly the best view of the hike so far!
Just me and the photogenic cows
Hills didn't even slow this guy down!
Family portrait

I did lag behind, but it wasn’t because I was unfit. They were clearly fitter than I was, but I was also taking photos. That was my excuse anyway! I did get some gorgeous photos of this part of the hike though (in my honest opinion), as it was hard not to – I was high up, climbing way up to 1,865m at the highest point for the day, all the way from 531m at Beget. From my vantage point I got a 360 degree view, from the green hills of the Garrotxa area to the magnificent Pyrenees. The trail was easy to follow as it was basically a giant dirt road, but it was steep and only went up. Somehow, I didn’t struggle, even though the sun was beating down on me and it was very hot. I met some quite friendly cows along the way too. I say friendly because they let me pass without panicking too much, as well as letting me take some close up family photos. There were dozens of baby cows, most hiding behind their mothers, and even a bull or two. I just couldn’t get over how beautiful it was up here – the green of the grass slightly lighter than the trees, the deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds. It was an oil painting come to life, and I was doing everything I could to capture it with camera and memory. A guy on a mountain bike stopped to say hi before rocketing up the hill, leaving me to eat his dust. I passed another guy coming down, who also said hi but stopped to chat. His name was Javi and he was from Terrassa of all places – the next city from Sabadell where I lived. We chatted about the trail, recommended a few places to camp, a few places not to, and we got on very well – all in Catalan! He was carrying everything, just like me, and he must have had about 17kgs on his back too. He had a smartphone with the maps on it, charging on his backpack with solar panels (I noted that for next time), but what surprised me was he was only carrying a 500ml plastic drink bag! He asked me if there was a fountain at the next stop as he’d already run out of liquid. I assured him there was, but also warned him about the last leg or two of the journey and how scarce the water was. How he was doing this on such little water I didn’t know – I carried about 2.5L on me and filled up when I could. He told me he’d lost loads of weight since starting, showing me how lose his backpack straps were and that he couldn’t make them any tighter. I wished him luck and kept going, me heading up and him going down. I was making good time and wasn’t finding it that difficult! Had I found my hiking legs today? The trail wasn’t rocky, slippery or covered by trees, just up; so I put my head down, stuck it into 1st gear and didn’t stop till I got to the top. I love the phrase, “Don’t stop till you get to the top.” It was a favourite saying of a past hiking buddy of mine, Steffie from Stuttgard, when he hiked together in Chile and Argentina. Happy days.

Green hills leading into the mountains
Breathtaking views!
Such cute little cows
The stone houses of Setcases

I must have got a little distracted by the view and the cows (and taking photos), because I over-shot the turn off a little. I bumped into 5 Catalans who were coming down from another path and I asked them just to make sure. I’d gone maybe 4kms too far, but I wasn’t lost. They pulled out their paper map (yes! Nothing like a real map) and I saw where I was and where I needed to go. If I had kept going, I would have detoured onto a smaller section of the GR-11 and gone past the Collada Fonda to another refuge higher up, rather than end up in Setcases. No big deal. I turned around and starting the downward trek from 1,800m down to 1,270m. The only thing that worried me were the clouds that were shaping up - big, black and nasty. There was a storm coming, and coming my way. I tightened the backpack and quickened the pace a little, confident that I’d make it before the rain hit. I knew it was eminent though, the wind was picking up and by now was blowing worse than me on the uphill in 35c heat. As I turned a corner and started going down, I could see Setcases nestled in the valley. I jogged the last 30 minutes into town as the storm wasn’t going to wait for me. I arrived in Setcases an hour later than expected, but still, 5pm wasn’t too bad, and 30 minutes before the storm. I ran into Haizea and her boyfriend in the little supermarket in town where we bought a few things for dinner. We also grabbed a couple of beers and enjoyed them outside under some cover while the storm let rip finally. She was a Basque language teacher in a town near Bilbao, but she spoke English too. He, on the other hand, couldn’t speak English and it was hard to understand his Spanish too. They’d been planning this hike for some time, going from West to East so they’d be home when they finished, but Covid had complicated things. Unable to hike, they’d borrowed a static bike from her dad and cycled every day at home. I could tell they were fit, and although she was quite thin, she was no whimp! The guy didn’t look much either, but he was your typical, tough Basque mountain type, and he carried their shared tent and most of the heavy stuff. I also found out they’d done some hiking in Nepal as well (I was there back in 2013), and they agreed that hiking this trail was harder. Fancy that!

Beautiful views today
That storm was chasing me
End of Day 8 in Setcases

We decided to stick together and find a place to camp for the night. I was worried about David though – I hadn’t seen him all day and the storm didn’t reassure me very much. We camped on the edge of town, right at the start of tomorrow’s leg leading to Nuria. We chatted over dinner but all of us were tired and wanted to sleep. Our spot was good though, the sound of the river to help us sleep, fresh running water for drinking and washing up and the cover of trees in case it rained. I knew we’d start the day together tomorrow, as these guys got up early just like me, but then as always, they’d speed ahead. The sun set in Setcases and there was no rain or even wind, the storm had already moved on. I never did see David again, and I have no idea where he was, but I knew that with his hiking experience, he’d be safe. That's the way of the trail; you meet people and then you say goodbye... In the morning you always say 'have a good hike' (un bon camí) and maybe you'll see each other again, maybe not. I went to sleep content after a great day’s hike, even though we were a man done. I’d done 23kms (plus about 4kms extra) and met some great people along the way though!

Beautiful end to a great day
The beautiful village of Setcases

Remember to also follow me on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/myuncletravellingmatt

MyUncleTravellingMatt. July 2020.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Hiking the Pyrenees Day 7


Hiking the Pyrenees Day 7

Again, the kindness of strangers had very pleasantly surprised me.
Sant Aniol is a magical place
Just me and the birds
The refuge at Talaixà

Sant Aniol to Beget (15kms)

I went to bed, tired but feeling very happy and stratified with what I’d accomplished. I ate a big bowl of instant noodles, padded with some pasta sauce and tuna – probably more than 1 serving, but I wolfed it down. My body needed everything it could get to make up for today’s hard work, as well as for tomorrow’s promise of more. I had already started to notice that I was losing weight. I wasn’t sure about the actual numbers, but I know I was losing density in certain areas (as my backpack needed tighter straps nearly every day) as well as toning up in other areas. I still think that sugar has a lot to do with gaining and losing weight – I wasn’t drinking coffee (milk and two), soft drinks or really eating anything sugary, so combined with walking a half marathon every day in summer temperatures, I was looking lean but in a good way. I woke up during the night for the bathroom and stumbled out of my tent at around 1am, grabbing my headlamp as I left. I didn’t need the torch at all as the stars were on full brightness tonight – and there was no shortage of them either. The whole sky was carpeted in white twinkly stars. I thought about ducking back in and getting my camera and trying to get some long-exposure night shots, but it was cold and I was very sleepy still. Getting up on the morning, I regretting not taking those pictures a little, but to be honest I was also glad that I’d slept more and didn’t spend hour or so outside, shivering and trying to get that one good shot out of loads of blurry or darks ones (as I didn't have a tripod). I got up a little late and started breakfast immediately so I could then just pack up and start. David was just getting up and taking his time – by 8:30 when I was ready to leave, which was about 2 hours later than normal, he wasn’t quite ready to leave. I knew he’d catch up to me if he wanted to, so I said goodbye for now and started the day’s hike. I was a bit anxious to start as I knew that the longer I put it off, the later in the day I'd arrive. I also wanted a bit of a head start on the hiking machine that was David.

The morning was all up hill, but worth it!
Not a bad way to start the day
Camping at the refuge
Església de Sant Martí de Talaixà

After about an hour or so of fairly hard up-hill hiking (it is always hard in the morning first thing), I reached the plateau at Talaixà. I decided to stop here for a drink and quick break, dumping the beast at the signpost on the trail. There was a small, unmanned refugi here that was quite pretty; I had a look inside and there were bunk beds, blankets, bed rolls and lots of maps and information – quite a good little set up, all relying on honest and responsible hikers. While filling up my bottles, I started chatting to a Spanish couple who’d camped on the front lawn which had an amazing view. From here you could see across the mountains of the Garrotxa area and some beautiful places were only a handful of hours hiking away – Castellfollit de la Roca and Besalú. The couple weren’t doing the GR, only a few days hiking and camping around the area, but it was nice meeting someone new. I started off again, walking past the roof-covered refuge and uphill towards the Església de Sant Martí de Talaixà. I took a few photos and continued along the trail, but soon found that I was going the wrong way – the path and signals just stopped. I wandered around a bit more, getting frustrated by not finding the path and eventually going around in a loop and ending back at the church. I was angry with myself now and decided that I would have to go back to the refuge and check the signs again. A whole hour wasted. I could see where this day was headed – waking up late, setting off late, already lost once and now I was tired and sweaty without having really gone anywhere. If only I'd known at the time how bad my day was going to get. I got back to the refuge and met another couple just as I was checking out the sign. They were a Basque couple and were heading the same way as I was – they were doing the whole GR-11, from Cap de Creu to Cabo Higuer, and although they'd left 2 days after me, they'd caught up already. They looked professional and in shape, so I decided to go with them for a bit. It quickly became apparent that they were much fitter than me and soon they were ahead of me. In my defence, they weren’t taking any photos at all, not even on their phones, whereas I was completely addicted to snapping a million pics of the same mountains. They sped off, sticks propelling them along faster than I cared for. That was another thing that I didn’t have on this hike, hiking sticks, but I had enough gear hanging off me and I never really used them anyway.

Some beautiful country scenes
Green fields
The bridge where I lost the trail
Stone houses in Oix

Just after losing sight of them, I slipped and fell. Although I didn’t hurt myself, apart from bruising my pride a little, the fall wasn’t exactly graceful with a 15kg back on my back and a 2kg camera in my hand. It took me a bit to get on my feet, check everything was ok and then head off. I didn’t realise it at the time but my sunglasses had dropped when I tripped – I realised this about an hour later when the sun started to get really strong and go straight for my eyes. I struggled on, hand shielding my eyes, and followed the path, not enjoying the day at all. At least it was downhill, I guess. I came to a river and crossed a wooden bridge over the river Llierca, then followed the signs to the left. The day was hot but I was mostly protected from the sun by overhead trees, but that did little for the sweat that poured off me. The path became rockier, but offered nice views to one side. I doubted the direction a little, as it seemed too downhill and I started to get suspicious – I had a love-hate relationship with the little red and white marks of the GR-11. I craved to see it, never lose sight of it, and when I hadn’t seen it for some time I missed it but instantly got angry at it for disappearing on me. Upon finding it, there was always a mix of emotions – joy for being reunited the path and not being lost, like seeing an old friend again after so long, but also hate for the bloody sign that had left you wandering lost for an hour. Maybe this was just me? The path levelled out and it became more pasture land rather than mountain pass, so I knew I was heading into a town. The town ended up being Oix, a pretty stone place but completely empty. I was happy to arrive somewhere and headed straight for the church and the water fountain that my keen eye had spotted from the road. I drank what I could, filled up my bottles and drank some more, washing my face, neck, arms and legs too while I was there. There was nobody around to judge my shower habits, and frankly even if there had been I wouldn’t have cared – it was extremely hot and I needed to cool down. I sat for a minute thinking. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to be in Oix, or if I was, I should be passing through on my way to Beget. I left my backpack on the bench in front of the church, confident that nobody would want to steal its dead weight, and went to have a look at some signs at the entrance of town. Again, the signs were confusing – I was on the GR-11 it seemed, but Beget was 3 hours away in the direction I’d just come from. Something was wrong. I had a quick look around town, searching for someone to ask and found 2 guys doing some work fixing the paving on a side street. They told me, after checking with each other and some guy that happened to be walking past at the time, that I’d made a wrong turn at that bridge – I should have turned right, not left. So I had been right all along, but as my GPS wasn’t reliable and with nobody to check with on the trail, I now I just had to deal with it. What a day so far. Was my luck going to change or was it only going to get worse, I wondered.

Quiet streets in Oix
The church in Oix
The Romanesque church in Beget
The beautiful village of Beget

It was now nearly 3pm and it was really hot. I also had a 3-hour hike to do, at least. I just couldn’t do it, and I knew it. I’d have to wait till it got cooler or I’d be collapsing on the road somewhere. I’m tough and stubborn, but I know my limits too. I walked around town for a bit, checked out the church and took some pictures, then decided to sit under a tree near the road and wait. I thought I’d stick my thumb out at passing cars, just in case anyone was going to same way and could save me backtracking too much. I didn’t have much luck – the very few tourists who passed by either didn’t stop or told me they were going somewhere else. I have no problem with people not stopping for hitchhikers, but I was tired, loaded down with a big backpack and clearly a hiker just looking for a break. I ended up seeing some of the people that turned me down later on in Beget – they were probably scared of Covid (even though I wore my mask while asking for rides). What I don’t like is abuse – one French driver stuck his finger up and swore at me while he sped past… there is no need for that at all. After about an hour, I was just about to shoulder my load and do the extra miles as punishment (because let’s face it; I’d been silly and this was my own fault), when 2 vans stopped and asked me where I was headed. I told them Beget, and I was told to get in. Success! I had a good chat to the driver, a German guy called Manu, who was living ‘The Van Life.’ He told me how he’d been working in Oz for 10 years (that’s why I speak English well, he said, and he did!), then had to leave because of a visa issue and returned to Germany. He got his superannuation (private mandatory pension fund) from his work in Australia and started his own company back home. Then COVID-19 hit and screwed everything. Sound familiar? The German government looks after its people though, and because his company closed down, they gave him a nice chunk of money, so he got a van and hit the road. He didn’t take me all the way, but got me up the big hill that I was dreading in the afternoon heat. He and the other van, driven by a Spanish guy and his girlfriend, stopped on the top of the hill to make camp, and I got out to walk to last hour into Beget. I was eternally grateful for the ride as well as very happy to meet a fellow adventurer like Manu. Again, the kindness of strangers, even during the days of Covid, had very pleasantly surprised me. God love hippies and their vans!

Beget - one of the most beautiful villages in the country
The gorgeous village of Beget
The exodus during the Civil War
The last 'democratic' mayor before Franco

I got out of the van and continued along the road for a bit before re-joining the GR-11 path. Although I hadn’t followed the path 100% correctly, I had walked the same amount of kilometres, if not more, just in the wrong direction. I hadn’t cheated, just deviated a little and made a new friend along the way. I was quite angry with myself for being so stupid though, but there was nothing I could do and so moved on. I thanked Manu again, wished him good luck with his kitted-out Mercedes van turned mobile home, and left with a smile on my face. It took me about an hour to reach Beget and I was the happiest many alive! Beget has to be one of the most beautiful villages I have ever seen in Catalonia – all stone, from the cobbled streets and little bridges crossing the river, to the cute houses, which even had slate roofs. All stone but very enchanting. I found a fountain, had a quick drink and washed my face and head to cool down, then tried to find the bar and a place to sleep for the night. The owner at the Hostal el Forn was very friendly and I knew this is where I would be having a beer and maybe even a meal tonight. I charged my phone at the bar and sat down for a beer and some chips, savouring their salty flavour with the smooth liquid. The Basque couple turned up not long after me (they'd been swimming in the river) and so did a few other hikers who were going the other way. I found out from the owner that Kilian Jornet had come through here on the GR-11 – he only stayed for 3 hours for a quick sleep before leaving at about 4am. He had carried nothing but the tinniest backpack, maybe a 5L one just for water, and ran all the way. He did the whole GR-11 in 8 days, whereas most people do it in 35 or even 50 days. He had a full support team though and although I couldn’t do it in anytime near his, I think I could shave off a few days and do a lot more hiking if I didn’t have to do or carry everything myself. I waited for David and he finally arrived, strolling in at around 6, but I didn’t tell him what had happened to me out of embarrassment. He didn’t stay for a beer unfortunately, instead going straight to camp; a nice place I’d been told about by the hostel owner. I had enquired about a room, as a bed would have been a luxury, but I passed on it as it was €65! The food was also expensive there, an no option other than a 3 course menu, so it was pasta and tuna for dinner again. We camped right by the river that night, listening to the sound of running water before sleeping like the dead!

Early to bed and early to rise
Camping by the river in Beget

Remember to also follow me on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/myuncletravellingmatt

MyUncleTravellingMatt. July 2020.

Hiking the Pyrenees Day 8

  Hiking the Pyrenees Day 8 It was an oil painting come to life, and I was doing everything I could to capture it with camera and memory. Wa...