Week 23: Mi Vuelta a España

30/01/23 – 05/02/23 221 km

I left Tiebas before 8 o’clock. It was still dark, but I had no choice, the Albergue in the next town didn’t open until February so I would have to complete two stages in one day. I hadn’t done a fifty kilometre day since Galicia and I knew it would be a struggle, as I raced against the clock to arrive before sundown.

The morning was spent following a woodland path that contoured around the base of a mountain to my right. To my left I had spectacular views over the valley floor that stretched all the way back to Pamplona. The sun was out and after the previous two weeks I was starting to believe that I may have survived the worst this trip had to throw at me.

After about twenty kilometres the path turned southeast into the hills where I was forced to climb up to the snowline once more. I was still on the northern side of the mountain at this point therefore, due to the absence of direct sunlight, the snow was still relatively firm. Although difficult, especially when I hit ice, progress was not impacted.

Things changed dramatically when I reached the peak and started to descend into the valley on the southern side. There the snow had thawed rapidly and the path had been converted into a bog. With each step my shoes collected an increasingly thicker coating of mud and after a few kilometres it felt as if I were carrying a sack of potatoes on each foot!

I had slowed down so much that I was beginning to worry about arriving before it got dark. Eventually I broke out of the valley and after crossing the Río Aragón I entered Sangüesa where I stocked up in the first supermarket I had seen since Pamplona. I was in Aragón now, my twelfth region (I forgot to mention Navarra in last week’s blog).

The sun was low in the sky by now but I still had eleven kilometres to go. So I headed out of town and onto a vast open plain that reminded me of the Patagonian Steppes. The sun was setting by now and I could see the different colours reflecting off the snow peaked mountains to my left. As the light faded the wind picked up and temperatures dropped rapidly.

The final hour was spent climbing up a narrow path, in the dark, to the village of Undués de Lerda where I spent the night in a freezing cold Albergue with a young couple from Huesca. They had planned to sleep in their car but decided it was too cold. I half expected to wake up to find them back in their car!

The next morning started with a long slow climb up to around 850m. The snow had turned to ice overnight and every step was perilous. My shoes had done well over a thousand kilometres by now and were like a pair of slicks. I struggled to keep my balance.

Once at the peak the descent was even harder (how many times have I said that…). A combination of worn shoes, a heavy pack and a weary body made any progress near impossible. Although I didn’t fall, largely thanks to my walking poles, the abrupt force of each slip had put so much pressure on my left hip that I knew I was going to feel it the next day.

Fortunately, as I descended, the ice gave way to muddy paths. Despite the issues this had caused yesterday it was preferable to falling. After fifteen kilometres I entered the abandoned village of Ruesta. The derelict buildings had long since been overtaken by the vegetation and the whole place had an eerie feel.

Around the twenty kilometre mark, roughly halfway, I dropped into another vast plain where I would walk for the rest of the day. With eighteen kilometres to go, I felt a massive pop in my hip which left me reeling in agony. I knew it was a matter of time before something gave out, I had hoped it would be after I arrived. My pace slowed to a crawl and I had to stop every five minutes in order to summon the strength to continue.

I arrived in Arres as the sun set. I completed the final 200m climb along a snow covered track up to the village in the dark. I could barely walk but I had made it. As soon as I arrived I got the key for the Albergue from the local bar and told the owner that I would probably be staying for two nights.

When I woke the next morning I could hardly move, let alone walk. I still didn’t know what I had done to my hip but at the time I feared that it may be terminal. Fortunately I was in one of the best equipped Albergues of the whole trip. The host had left a whole cupboard full of food, which you could use at your leisure. Payment was made by donation. I hope I left enough!

The next day, although still in pain, I knew I had to leave. I made my way out of the village as the sun was coming up and walked for an hour along a narrow track covered in deep snow. Eventually I arrived in the village of Puente de la Reina de Jaca where I stocked up for the next few days. Whilst grabbing a coffee I was warned by every single local not to head up into the hills. If only they had read last week’s blog…

I had to walk twenty kilometres along the road first east and then south as I slowly climbed up to San Juan de la Peña, a monastery which had been carved into the mountain itself. I knew the road well as it marked the start of the route I used to ride on my motorbike when I made my first forays into the Pyrenees nearly a decade ago.

The climb was long and arduous but after four hours I found myself at the top, 1220m above sea level. It was freezing and the snow was nearly a metre deep. They had warned me. Needless to say I plodded on and soon I was rewarded as I dropped into the sun baked southern slopes. After what felt like an age, I was back walking in the sun on solid ground. It didn’t last though! As I dropped down into the shaded zones I was once more on bog and facing the same issues as the previous day’s. At least my hip was holding out.

Just when I thought the day was over, I had one more challenge to overcome. Out of nowhere I was hit with a bout of food poisoning. It came on so fast that I had no choice but to throw off my bag as I simultaneously evacuated the contents of my bowels across the path. It was only when I had finished, that I realised that I had neither toilet roll nor wipes. The only thing I had at my disposal was an abundance of snow. I will let you fill in the blanks.

When I finally arrived at the Albergue in Ena I was greeted by someone whom I can only describe as the strangest person of the trip so far. She took an immediate dislike to me. After spending the whole evening evading questions, I managed to glean that she had been staying in the Albergue for quite some time. I suspect she was homeless. That said I still could not work out why she was so rude to me. We spent an uncomfortable evening in silence, punctuated only by my frequent trips to the bathroom.

Needless to say I was out at the crack of dawn the next day. I was still feeling weak from yesterday’s illness but not yet brave enough to eat. The ground was frozen solid and temperatures had plummeted over night. My hands were so cold I could barely manipulate my fingers into my gloves. The pain was palpable.

I plodded on for two hours feeling miserable until eventually the sun’s rays broke through the trees. It wasn’t until I swung off my pack that I realised that my towel, which had been hanging off the back to dry, had frozen solid. It must have been -5°c at best. Finally I arrived at a clearing where I sat basking in the sun’s rays until I had warmed sufficiently to continue.

At the halfway stage I arrived at La Peña Estación where I ate lunch. It was a strange little town that appeared to have grown around the reservoir. After eating I climbed away from the water and back into the hills. This time however, it was different. The snow had all but disappeared and for the first time in months, I felt as if I were back in the Spain that I remembered.

The rock formations were stunning and the top afforded a vast panoramic view over the plain I would be dropping into. That night I stayed in the village of Sarsamarcuello where I shared the Albergue with an Argentinian called Elbio. He was the first real walker I had seen since Pamplona. We spent the evening in the local social club, drinking beer whilst the old boys were smoking – inside!

Before leaving the next day, I warned Elbio about the squatter and headed off towards Huesca. I stopped briefly in Laorre for breakfast before plodding endlessly through open farmland. The sun was beating down, I could hear birdsong all around me and the air was filled with the stench of the muck spreaders. It reminded me of The Fens – glorious!

I arrived in Huesca with time to spare and made sure to stock up in the supermarket as everything would be closed the next day. As I sat down to eat my dinner I received a message from Elbio reporting that the squatter was still in residence. He also informed me as to why she had taken such offence to me. Apparently she thought I was a member of the Taliban. I’m assuming it was the beard…

I left Huesca early the next day and completed another boring day’s walk across open farmland. After the previous few weeks, I wasn’t complaining. The only thing to note was that my hip was causing me issues again. The pain came on strongly after twenty kilometres and although I managed to struggle on for another five I knew I would have to stop. Fortunately after nursing a coffee for over an hour in the village of Antillón I eventually managed to summon the strength to carry on to Pertusa where I stayed in yet another Albergue.

Nine more walking days to go!

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