Pyrenees – Summer 2018

May 14. Woke on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees in Bielsa after a cold night. I had stayed in a nice place and took my first shower in two weeks. I had a lot of writing to do and spent until noon trying to catch up on my blog. I happened to check my credit card purchases and panicked when I didn’t recognize the Amazon book charges. Turns out that all Amazon charges are shown as books, so after some time looking at the credit card charges, I realized they were mine after all. It seems that every summer I end up having to close a credit card account due to fraud.  Murphy’s law has seen my debit card eaten by ATM machines on the first day of my trip to Georgia and half way through another trip in Latvia.

I headed down to the rustic village around 1:30pm, taking photos of the shuttered homes and beautiful city hall. Sadly the museum was closed. The national park building was open and I learned about the parks in the area. Bielsa was bombed heavily by the fascists during the Spanish Civil war, forcing the common folk and republican soldiers to walk over the rocky passes to safety. La Bolsa de Bielsa, which I perused at the hotel, showed images of old women and men, barely shod, picking their way across the rocky ground near Bielsa, some even carrying sheep on their back and aided by a walking stick. I loved the quaint town and wished I could spend more time there, but wasn’t certain what was ahead and decided to push on.

At the national park building I learned of Valle de Pineta, a beautiful valley framed by a waterfall only a few miles from the village of Bielsa. From the end of the road in Pineta I went on a hike to discover pine trees, alpine air, melting snow banks, and waterfalls. I stopped at a small church at the end of the road and was struck by how tiny and enclosed it felt, rocks all around. Very easy to imagine praying there. I was going to walk to Llanos de Larri, as had been recommended by the kind receptionist at the hotel, but it was still very cold (45F) and I wasn’t inspired to walk in that weather. So I read every sign I could find (helped me start getting used to Spanish after speaking French for 2 weeks), then stopped at the refugio on the way down. I inquired and they said it was 15 Euros per night to stay, and that meals were 12 Euros. Looked good, but a bit lonely as there weren’t yet hostelers there. Too early in the season. I didn’t want to be the only person in a big mountain hut. I’d rather be outside, to be honest.

From there I drove down the mountain, visiting the places recommended as I headed down the mountain: Guitián, Tella, Aínsa, and then down along the Ara River to find a place to camp for the night. Guitián is situated in a lush hanging valley high above a dry arroyo marked by dramatic canyons of red and purple rock. The road was pretty sketchy, and several times I drove through tunnels that look like they’d been hand dug into the rock (and probably had). I passed shepherd’s stone huts, and found out that sheep products (wool and sheep cheese) provided the main economy in days gone by. Now Turismo Rural has replaced those industries. I was greeted by a dog who barked viciously from on high, but when I approached him on foot, he cowered and ran away. Like some people, I thought. A man was talking to some young people, and one of their mothers was trying to get a boy of about 7 to cooperate.

The mother and son turned to walk home, balancing a scooter in either hand. I came around the corner to see her kneeling in front of him, his hands outstretched, touching her face. A sweet scene. In all these mountain towns, people greet strangers like me with “hola”, which is an informal greeting and not nearly as stuffy as Buenos Dias. I like these people. I headed back down the windy narrow road to my next destination. Tella, a tiny village of about 10 homes, grew out of a remote hermitage. What a drive – 5 miles up a windy dirt road. I passed a Neolithic dolmen on the way up, and wondered if that was why three hermitages had been built nearby. Probably so. I’m sure the people thought the dolmen was magical. In the small village, I learned some of the local folklore and herbs, and then walked outside to find a woman coming back from a walk with what sounded like Tremontia. I asked her what she used it for, whether it was good for los pulmones (lungs). She said it lowered cholesterol. Smelled like the wild oregano that I’d been given in Selcuk, Turkey (and later gathered myself) when I’d gotten a cold. A few cups of that brewed and it knocked it right out. I started walking from the village to the three hermitages, a 2 km route, but decided I had too much more to see, so after a 45 minute walk around town, and the road out of town to La Fortunata (that’s how people probably went in days of old – a 4 km walk to the river), I headed back down the hill, getting stuck behind a very slow car.

From Tella I headed to Aínsa, a pretty city whose old town is perched on a hill overlooking the intersection of the Ara and Cinca Rivers. The old town is proud of the remains of an 11th-century castle on its western border. I walked along the keep, surveying the surrounding landscape. It was definitely warmer and more arid than Bielsa. As the light faded, I headed to Janovas, where I had thought to sleep. It looked rather creepy and deserted, and the thought of bumping along a dirt road didn’t appeal. I ended up doing just that trying to find Muro, another place that had been recommended to me. My search led me into a huge rock quarry where I barely had enough room to turn around and back to the main road. I finally decided on Fiscal, a small village on the Ara River, where I found a place to sleep near the Fuente de Mollinero (miller’s spring). I went to sleep to the sound of rushing water.

May 15. I decide to walk around Fiscal before exploring the surrounding villages of Borrastre, San Juste, Ligüerre de Ara, Javierre de Ara, and Janovas. Along the river’s edge I find an antiquated wooden building that seems to funnel water and discover that it is a fulling mill moved from Janovas to escape destruction when the Ara was to be dammed. Fulling is a step in wool cloth production which involves the washing of wool to eliminate oils, dirt, and other impurities, as well as use of the power of water to turn wool into felt. The villages downstream from Fiscal along the Ara River, particularly Janovas, had been hard hit by a decision to dam the river in the 1950s by a private electric company. They threatened the village folk, attempting to drive them away with ever increasing threats. But the town folk of Janovas were stubborn, and held on in the face of brutality.  The corporation removed teachers by the hair (literally), pulled students out of classrooms, burned the roofs off the homes and the church, and finally cut off the town’s water and power. Because of protests by local citizens and environmentalists, the dam was never built.  Nevertheless, Janovas had become a ghost town. Finally, in 2016, they were given the go ahead to rebuild their town. Huge river rocks are strewn everywhere. The church has no roof, and its frescoes are disintegrating due to the elements and covered in graffiti. It is a tragic sight. But the villagers want to come back. Stone by stone, they are trying to reconstruct their lives. They wrote an impassioned plea asking visitors for donations to help rebuild their community. They have constructed a large outdoor table where they can eat as a group, their first communal project. I hoped against hope that next time I find myself in this beautiful part of the world, strewn boulders will be transformed into houses.

I had planned to go back to Boltana, another town recommended by the hotelier in Bielsa. I asked the woman at tourist information for help. She insisted on speaking the fastest Castilian I’ve ever heard. It was 2:30, and time for her lunch, so she sped through 10 minutes of historical overview before turning me loose. I caught about 1/10 of her diatribe. I walked up the precipitously steep hill behind the tourist information office and explored the ancient town marked by narrow streets. Like Ainsa, the families of Boltana were important and many had coats of arms (escudos), a mark of nobility and landed gentry. I took many photos of these coats of arms and door lintels, then walked up the hill to the castle Castillo de Boltaña and hermitage. This region was strategically important, so castles were built in many regions to guard passes and rivers, with an ever-present view of the Pyrenees. Not surprisingly, both Ainsa and Boltana sported castles.

I had seen a monastery on the other side of the Ara River and wanted to see the church. I crossed the bridge, ate some lunch, and went in to discover that it had been converted into a hotel. And a beautiful one at that. Just for fun, I asked what it would cost to stay the night. I was shocked at the incredibly reasonable rate of 80 Euros per night (100 Euros to stay in the old part of the monastery), with an additional 25 Euros for a buffet breakfast and an hour spa. Whoopie! Although I’d just stayed at a hotel 2 nights before, I decided to treat myself. And what a treat it was. I walked into the 16th century church in the monastery interior, then found a quiet corner near the outdoor pool to read. I had an hour long spa treatment and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I went from jet to jet, trying them all, then sat in the steam room for a spell. Later that evening I met the rowdy Irishmen that I’d seen when checking into the place. They were hanging out in the bar and in the bar who were on a a kind of road race from Madrid to San Sebastian, dubbed the Bubble Gum Run. I was a happy camper. I worked on my blog, then bedded down to a lovely sleep.

May 16. At 10am I went down to a great buffet breakfast with fancy bread, cheese, meat egg dishes, fruit, all kinds of veggies (I scarfed down eggs and grilled zucchini). I lingered as long as I could, then checked out at noon and drove up the hill to Sieste to explore the small village and beyond. From there I headed into the national park region, which was dotted with beautiful hilltop towns. I was stopped by an obstinate shepherd walking his 100 plus herd of sheep in the road for 20 minutes. I knew his kind, and parked and walked for a way before turning the car around. Who knew when he’d decide to move aside. I explored Guaso and Latorrecilla on foot, walking up to the church at the top of each hilltop village (all roads lead to Rome). I was struck by the image of an old shepherdess chewing a twig and herding her sheep with interesting whistles and chants. She was the only other female shepherdess I’d seen since Turkey. I headed towards Berdún, a historical hilltop town that had been recommended to me, but decided instead to head to Biniés, where I pitched my tent on the edge of a precipice and waited for morning to see the view.

May 17. I was woken early by a pack of dogs and decided to call a group of friends who gather Wednesday nights for food and fun. It was nice talking with them and showing them the lovely view of the valley from my tent. After exploring the tiny town, where not a soul was out, and seeing the castle which is now in private hands, I headed up the Aragón river valley, passing through what looked like hand-hewn rock tunnels, listening to the crescendo of canyon wrens. At times the road was so narrow and precipitous that I feared going into the canyon below. From there I headed to Hecho, and to Siresa to see the Monasterio de San Pedro de Siresa. Unfortunately it was closed. But I was in luck. I saw a group of school kids and asked the teacher whether they were getting a tour. They were, and I asked to go too. The guide agreed, and I paid my 2 Euros and got an earful (in Spanish of course) about the history of the church and monastery. I understood about half of the presentation and took lots of photos. The wooden crucifix dated from the 11th century and had been hidden under the floorboards. Christ had his feet nailed next to each other, rather than one on top of the other, indicating that the statue had been created before the Middle Ages.

Siresa still had their fulling mill, like Janovas. This area must have been shepherding country in centuries past. Fulling mills were used to turn wool into felt. A jet of water would be directed at wool by a mechanism placed in the stream that ran along the town. Despite its tiny size, the town also hosted a communal bakery, where each woman made a unique mark on her bread to distinguish it from her neighbor’s. How wonderful that bread, a vital part of life in most cultures, was made possible by a shared oven. People sharing the means of production. Literally.

I headed back to Hecho. As I wove my way through the narrow streets, I noticed that most shops were closed, even the bakery, which would normally be open at this time of day. Suddenly a bell tolled a strange and somber pattern, one that I’d never heard before, then I noticed what I imagined was the entire town milling in their Sunday best outside of the church, which was open even though it wasn’t Sunday. The gaggle of people began to form into a long procession – it seemed that even people from surrounding villages were in attendance. The long procession snaked through the streets and across the bridge to the other side of the river and the graveyard. They were walking along a prescribed path, a sacred way. In front of the procession was a boy with incense, and behind him pole bearers carrying the coffin in which lay the 83 year old who had died in his sleep that morning. A natural death. Something increasingly rare in the US, certainly. I was hungry and looking for bread, and finally found an open bakery. I asked the woman at the counter about the deceased, and she told me about his life.

From there I headed to Pamplona, and parked near the bullring made famous by Hemingway. I wandered down the grand boulevard and colonial streets, gazing at tiny shops with lovely windows decorated festively. I bought some rich dark chocolate bars, a steal at 3 Euros apiece (the thief who broke into my car the following week in Sintra Portugal thought they were too). I spent time reading signs about Hemingway’s haunts in the city where bulls still run through the streets. Pamplona was historically part of the Basque nation, and its street signs still belie this origin. Basque language is incomprehensible to me, with many words proceeded by an X. I really loved the character and beauty of the town, and determined to return for a longer visit when I wasn’t in a rush (I had a week or so to get to Hungary for a dental appointment). From there I headed to Navarra and then into the fog bank along the sea where San Sebastián lay. I drove along the river that divides the town in two, and found a nice place to pitch my tent near a farm in a field above the sea overlooking the town.


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