Week 4: Mi Vuelta a España

19/09/22 – 25/09/22 178km

Thankfully when I awoke on the morning of Day 19 all my kit had dried and after packing my bag I made my way downstairs where I was spoiled rotten at breakfast. The highlight being enough takeaway sandwiches and pastries to get me through the next few days.

With a sense of foreboding I left the hostel and made my way into thick fog, where I embarked upon an endless climb out of Morella. For the majority of the ascent vision was restricted to under 10 metres. However, as I approached the end I paused to catch my breath and turned back to see where I had come from. Wow! I was met with one of the most spectacular views of the trip so far. Morella was floating on top of the cloud I had just walked through. It was a magnificent sight and one I imagine that drove fear into the advancing armies of yesteryear!

Finally the path levelled out and as I spent the next few hours dodging herds of cows and the occasional bull, I was beginning to feel as if I was the only person in Spain walking the GR 7. A thought that was reinforced by the unkempt nature of the trail which culminated in my having to run the gauntlet through thick bramble bushes. I still wear the scratches.

Around midday I collapsed and ate lunch on a rock. That afternoon I was fortunate enough to see more deer including a herd of around 20. I can now recognise their call from a mile off! With 30km under my feet I finally arrived in Ares de Maestrat where I had decided to sleep that night but it was still early and after being convinced that it would not rain I decided to carry on. It was here I realised that I had lost one of my socks. I was absolutely gutted.

Needless to say as soon as I set off from the village black clouds enveloped the valley through which I walked and the heavens broke. To compound matters, whilst desperately searching for a hostel in the next village, simultaneously walking and using my phone, I had taken a wrong turn and was now around a kilometre off course. Thank goodness I had just pinned my location to Armand, as it was he who noticed my error! After retracing my steps I finally made my way into Benassal to find every hotel and hostel had closed for the winter season – it was still September!

Regardless, I banged on the door of the nearest hotel and the drunken proprietor duly opened. However, after hearing the cost I told him I’d rather sleep on the street. At this point he told me there was a hotel in the next village, another 2.3km away. After a quick call I was in. The rain was coming down hard now so I ran off into the night, only stopping to hide in the shadows as the cars raced past!

The reception was staffed by two guys from Colombia and after regaling them with my exploits in their homeland ten years earlier I was offered a free breakfast and a considerable discount. Another example of the generosity of others, I was feeling blessed. It was only when I came down the next day that I realised I was an extra in a Saga holiday resort!

After leaving the hotel, full from another buffet breakfast, the first stop of the day was Culla where I could stock up on supplies in the supermarket. It was closed. At least there was a water fountain, even if it was hidden behind a cage. The village was clearly preparing for the annual bull runs. Fully stocked with water I exited the village and descended into a vast valley with the sound of thunder nearing ominously. Thankfully I had just finished putting on my waterproofs as the heavens opened once more. This made the descent perilous as I slipped on the loose rocks. The ascent on the other side wasn’t much easier.

As I arrived in the next town the skies cleared and after destroying a sandwich I decided to continue to an official campground where the bar owner had informed me that I would find a covered picnic area. On arriving at the campground I was met by three locals who advised me that I was more than welcome to set up my tent…as long as I’d asked permission from the relevant authorities a week in advance.

I told them I had confirmation in triplicate and set up my tent. A decision I would soon regret. It did not rain that night but due to the damp nature of the forest, the tent was soon saturated and I had a strong feeling of deja vu. I slept poorly and broke camp before the sun came up using the light of my head torch. I was soon rewarded with a spectacular sunrise and what I think was a stag. I then walked 13km to the nearest village and took a room in a hostel and began the laborious task of drying out my kit once more.

After a lie in I left the hostel around 9am and had a lovely chat with a local man who had come out to pick apples. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he was a hundred years old! Then, as always when you leave these mountain villages, I began the long climb. Again the path eventually levelled out before dropping into a dense pine forest. Here I lost the trail amongst the fallen trees and in my attempts to regain the trail fell cutting my knee. It’s at these moments that you realise just how vulnerable you are as a solo walker out in the mountains.

The forest eventually ended after a knee crunching descent and for once I had time to relax in the town before the supermarket reopened at 17:30. So I grabbed a coffee and watched a group of old men play cards. Again there was no chance of accommodation so I decided to continue to the next town. A decision that was rewarded with torrential rain. On arrival in Montan I was informed that today was a local fiesta and again I would not be able to secure a bed so instead I made my way to the nearest picnic area and set up my bivvy on a table. At least it had a roof.

I was getting used to the endless barking by now, however I wasn’t prepared for the stray dog that appeared out of nowhere. After I finally convinced myself she was harmless I managed to fall asleep only to be awoken by an almighty explosion at midnight. I guess it was the fiesta, at least the barking had stopped! I got up early and thankfully had cleared my kit away before the first villagers made their daily pilgrimage to the local fountain. Who knows what they would have said had I still been sleeping on the table!

After a quick breakfast I set off and ascended into the clouds making my way along a forest trail surrounded by rock with a remarkable purple hue. Throughout the morning the path continued to rise and fall gently until I arrived at a secluded village that appeared to be self-sufficient. I ate lunch on one of their dilapidated benches surrounded by cats!

I was walking with real intent that day as I would be spending the next two nights in the same hotel. I would use the Friday to sort my gear out and then after 24 long days I would finally be reunited with Cristina on the Saturday. I could not wait! The approach to the hotel, located in Toras, took an eerie turn however, as the final few kilometres of the day’s walk passed through the scene of a recent wildfire. It was incredible to be so close to the devastation. I could still smell the embers smouldering.

After washing everything I owned I made my way to the bar to order a proper coffee. It was then that I received a panicked call from Cristina. She was on her way to surprise me a day early but her car had broken down. After contacting her insurance company she gave me the bad news, she would not be able to come. We were both devastated.

Just as I had given up hope she called me one last time to say that she’d decided to come after all. I am so glad that she did. We did absolutely nothing but it will forever be one of the most amazing weekends of my life! A massive thank you to everyone we shared the hotel with, especially the two Dutch bikers who ‘bought me a coffee’!

Sunday was incredibly difficult. The crush of Cristina leaving so soon turned me into an emotional wreck. As I left Toras and made my way through Bejis the landscape became increasingly bleak. This once fascinating environment now felt like I was journeying through purgatory. For the first time in years, I cried that afternoon. I had been so busy these last few weeks that I hadn’t stopped to realise just how much I’d missed her.

As tough as it was, I forced myself to carry on. That night I would sleep in a refuge around 1,200m up. It was the first time I had felt cold since setting off and I had to sleep wearing my thermal trousers. Something that wasn’t helped by the absence of a window!

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