Buck

Autumn is creeping into the Weald. The trees haven’t turned brown yet – I don’t suppose I’ll see that before I go – but the leaves are beginning to fall and there’s a whiff of cold in the air, mingled with the damp, rotting smell of mushrooms. From the top of Turners Hill you can see for miles, sometimes all the way to the high hills of the South Downs on a clear day. Not so much at the moment, with the Weald mist of early autumn settling in on an almost daily basis, but every once in a while.

DSC_0096

England truly comes into its own at this time of year. It’s a season of green forests, Scotch mist and crows calling overhead. Acorns adorn the oak trees, the hedgerows are full of blackberries of varying tastes and conkers grin from their spiny shells in the horse chestnut trees. The pheasants have moulted and are roaming the country roads and fields, looking in a very sorry state, robbed of their handsome gloss and tail feathers. For so foreign a creature – most of today’s birds are descended from eighteenth century Chinese imports – the cork-ok of the pheasant is as much a part of the English country soundscape as the crow or the woodpigeon. It’s a soundscape I miss dearly in the silence of the Extremaduran plains.

DSC_0063

Leaving the road for a while, I wandered along a winding country lane and went blackberrying in the verges. Over the distant drone of a bandsaw from behind the barn, a pair of buzzards called to each other. A phone was ringing in the farmhouse. It was a reality check, a ‘Moment’, as I call them. I wonder what it’s like to live on a farm, out here in the old country. Sometimes I think that I’m isolated here, but at the very least I live on a main road. Farms like this one are so far out that any experience of mine pales in comparison. The phone had stopped ringing by the time I’d come to my own conclusions, and I ate a few more blackberries. I swallowed them rather than chewing them, because if I don’t then one of the pips always manages to get itself wedged in my molars.

DSC_0106

I thought I’d run a short distance, regardless of the endlessly clinking two-pence coins in my camera bag. I didn’t get far up the hill before I stopped, because a sixth sense told me the noise might flush something up ahead. Sure enough, there was something up ahead, and it hadn’t heard the coins at all: a young roe deer buck, grazing at the edge of the woods.

DSC_0129

It was just one more of those ‘why didn’t I bring a longer lens’ moments. After my trip to the Farne Islands, I really should have been better prepared on that count. These days, however, I’m not so fussed by the photos. The buck continued grazing idly as I crept down the hill towards it, either completely unaware or completely uninterested in my presence. After a minute or so it found a fallen tree and busied itself with scent-marking, scraping its horns repeatedly on the branches.

I must have been within fifty yards or so, close enough to see the white circles on its nostrils, when it finally caught my scent and saw me. It didn’t bolt at first, but stared at me for a few moments. I think it was more curious than frightened. Eventually it made up its mind and tore away through the grass, leaping through the tussocks and over the fence back into the copse from which it had come. I followed it, but could not find it. I sat on a stile at the corner of the field and wrung the water out of my socks as the rain came down. Sheltered under the oak trees, I waited out the drizzle barefoot.

DSC_0139

After a quarter of an hour, I put my socks and shoes back on. They were still wet from the thick grass and squelched on each footfall, but I didn’t really care anymore. In the Weald a lot of the footpaths run over old watercourses, where thick slabs of stone jut out of the earth. One such dark gully ran down from the corner of the field and I followed it, soaking in the sound of the wind in the trees overhead.

A short way ahead I stopped to check the white balance settings on my camera, and – there it was again. That sixth sense. I looked up and, sure enough… there it was again. The roe buck, at the bottom of the gully, looking right back at me.

DSC_0144

He held my gaze for a little longer this time, and when he scampered off, it was a little slower than before. I felt so alive. Mum said she saw a muntjac on her morning run the other day. I know I heard them in the woods when I was working here in the summer. I’d sure love to see one; they’re one of the oldest kinds of deer in the world. There’s something more primal still about the roe deer, though. They were here long before the muntjac, the sika and the fallow, perhaps even before the mighty red. I’ve had brief encounters with them in the mountains of Spain and the forests of France, and seen them many more times in passing from trains, grazing away at the forest edge in some field or quiet garden. Bambi was a roe deer, in the original story by Felix Salten. Having watched the bold curiosity of the young buck this morning, it makes perfect sense.

DSC_0145

I read in a magazine once that encounters like that are what you call ‘RSPB moments’. Granted, it was the RSPB magazine, so they would use the tagline, but it’s what I’ve come to associate with such close encounters. There are Moments, when you open all of your senses to the world around you in that instant: the ringing of a telephone, the organised cluster of objects on your desk that tell a few stories and none at all, the never-ending sound of your own breathing. And then there are moments grander still, like an encounter with a wild animal. There is a power in nature I get from nowhere else, and it feeds me still. BB x

Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

DSC_0256

King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

DSC_0263

Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

DSC_0266

Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

DSC_0274

You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

DSC_0284

Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

DSC_0303

The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

DSC_0311

Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

DSC_0312

‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

DSC_0314

Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x

Release the River

I’ve been known to set out on the odd ridiculous adventure from time to time. Traversing Spain from north to south was one. Dana was definitely another. If the truth be told, I’m frankly surprised it’s taken me until my third week to get up to any hijinks out here in Morocco. I guess my sense of duty to a host family that would rather I spent more time with them than adventuring got in the way.

Nonetheless, the heart wants what it wants. And today what it really wanted was a decent ramble. And that’s exactly what it got.

The plan – if there ever was one – was to take a taxi as far as Martil and follow the coast to the hills to the south. Maybe we’d make for the mountains, or maybe for the coastal road. A man with a plan would have known. Fortunately, I had in my companions, for the first time in a long time, two such people for whom the total absence of a detailed itinerary was not a problem at all, if not a cause for celebration.

DSC_0002

Tetouan isn’t exactly a village, but it does have some gorgeous views

 

We were in Martil for half seven in the morning. My host family had tried to dissuade me from such an early start the night before, claiming that there would be nobody up and about at such an hour on a Sunday morning. As it happens, there were plenty of taxis bound for Martil, and we had a full cab; truly, as there were eight of us crammed into that 1970s Mercedes at one point.

Martil proved to be a false start, not because of the enticements of the Mediterranean, but because of the river. After passing a minor tributary, a mere feint of the Oued Martil, we found our way blocked by the real deal. It was much too deep to ford ‘Vietnam style’, even for brazen adventurers like the three of us, and despite making eyes at a lonely fisherman and his boat on the spit of sand that was just not quite long enough to be a bridge, we eventually had to accept the fact that we had nowhere to go but backwards.

DSC_0006

Checking a decent map beforehand wouldn’t have been such a bad idea…

 

Down, but definitely not out. We tracked down a grand taxi that could take us to Azla, a short distance down the coast. That the taxi had to return to Tetouan to get to Azla – the only bridge for miles being a stone’s throw from my street, of all places – was a little facepalm-inducing. But our cheery taxi driver set us down in Azla without a catch, proving that they’re not all of the bad sort Arch and I encountered in Oulad Berhil, and, choosing the dry riverbed for our guide, we set off inland.

DSC_0019

Dry rivers are and always will be the very easiest of roads

 

The first half hour was nothing short of a Boy Scout adventure. The dry riverbed made for easy going until the bamboo walls that lined its fringes crept in and over and we ended up trekking through a bamboo jungle. Alex made the smart move to turn this to our advantage, taking a long and sturdy cane for a makeshift hiking pole. If we hadn’t followed suit, I suppose the going would have been significantly more difficult further on. Thank goodness for boyish tendencies.

The river took us deep into the Riffian countryside, well away from the beaten track. The river valley itself was an explosion of colour for late June: the glittering stream came to life after a couple of kilometres or so, where great bushes of flowering pink lined the water’s edge and dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies of all descriptions flitted about the water, including some of the most beautiful pennant-winged specimens of the latter that I’ve ever seen. The locals – we met with just a few on the road – were cheery enough, though more than a little bemused, I suspect, at the sight of three wayward adventurers heading deep into the hills with bamboo-cane poles. The scenery was suitably African, at least, and it was really rather hard not to whip out the camera at every turn.

DSC_0032

‘Man is in proper Africa, fam.’

 

We stopped here and there where shade allowed. Man can’t tan like a boss all day, not even with a regular lathering of sun lotion. The valleys of the Rif, it should be said, are a great deal kinder on the shade front than Wadi Dana. After following the river and the road for a couple of hours we reached a turning point and – bravely or foolishly, who knows – cut across country to keep our westward bearing. Keeping west meant a very steep climb in the burning sun, but where in Dana we were long since out of water reserves by the time we began the ascent, I still had a two-liter bottle and a half to myself this time, and the going was a good deal easier for it.

DSC_0046

Alex and Victoria – and, in the distance (that little white strip to the right), the road

 

The mountains, our waymarker, turned out to be a great deal closer than we’d thought once we got to the top. In another couple of hours we could have made it to the slopes. But we were already halfway through our supplies by this point and Tetouan, visible in the distance, seemed a much more sensible destination. We did nab a killer panorama from an abandoned watchtower of some description sat atop the hill we’d fought so hard to summit, which made the climb all the more worth it.

DSC_0050

See that massive expanse of white in the haze? That’s Tetouan

 

From there, it was a mere two hours downhill to Tetouan and a well-deserved shower. The family still couldn’t really take it on board that I’d walked home from Azla – I like to walk, OK? – but I guess they’re getting used to it by and by. It’s been almost three weeks since my first day at Dar Loughat and I haven’t used a taxi since day one. Like I said, man likes to walk. Man will always like to walk. Man was born to walk. And if man gets the chance, man will walk his way to Cape Town one day. BB x

Pilgrim

That’s the first time I’ve ever walked twenty kilometres to get home after a night out. Suffice to say, I also sincerely hope it’s the last. Talk about a walk of shame…

Why did I do it? Because I could? Very possibly. I think it was more the thought of sitting shivering in the dark until the nine thirty bus that made me decide to walk the distance. It certainly wasn’t stinginess on my part; the Almendralejo bus fare is a paltry 1,31€. Perhaps I thought I could beat the earliest bus back to Villafranca on foot. That’s vaguely logical… in a very roundabout-Ben-way-of-thinking. But then, it was five forty-five in the morning. I don’t think I had any real sense of what I was doing. I just remember saying to myself “Alright, let’s do this” before marching off into the darkness like a low-budget Leeroy Jenkins.

As the crow flies, it’s just under twenty kilometres from Almendralejo to Villafranca. I had to take a detour to cross the motorway, so I reckon I clocked just over that. At night the distance looks deceptively close; the twinkling orange lights of the polígono merge with those of the hospital in the middle of the two towns, presumably so situated for industrial accidents in the field. Most of it is traced by the Via de la Plata, the pilgrim road to Santiago from Seville, so it wasn’t exactly a challenging hike. It’s also probably the first time I’ve been sincerely grateful for the vast, empty flat of the Tierra de Barros: navigation is as easy as pie when the nearest hills are a good forty kilometres behind your destination. 

The whole walking-at-night bit didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d put that down to a six a.m. lack of awareness too, but then, it never has. Of all the things that frighten and frighten horribly in this world, I’ve never been afraid of the night. I learned a long time ago to consider night as just another shade of the day. It’s the same world, only somebody turned off the lights. No deep-seated fears of a shadowy assault or mugging either: I do believe that even the dullest criminal mind would have more sense than to be lying in wait in the countryside in the small hours. The countryside is safety. It always has been, in my eyes. In fact the only mildly unsettling thing in the whole walk was the occasional startled growls of the caged dogs in the farmsteads that dotted the early stages of the route. Alsatians, most of them. It’s a popular breed here. I remember saying to myself “Why can’t you people just keep cats?” and not for the first time. 

Besides the dogs, the soundscape of the early morning Tierra de Barros was really quite magical: roosters crowing, ravens croaking, the tinkle of a pipit overhead and, from somewhere far across the plains, the lonely cry of a stone-curlew. All of this as the sun rose dim and yellow into the clouds on the horizon. My feet might be punishing me two days later, but I don’t regret that walk for an instant. I just don’t think I’ll be repeating it all that soon. It’s a bit like that Spain north-to-south adventure of mine a few years back: it was there, it had to be done, and I did it. Now I can move on.

I don’t think I even stopped for one second to consider what I’d do if it started to rain. The forecast for the weekend was set to bucket it down. I guess I forgot all about that. That I will blame on my fatigue. If it had rained, I’d have been well and truly drenched, and in my best clothes, no less. Why is it that I’m always wearing my best clothes when I set out on these ridiculous adventures? At any rate, it did; a royal thunderstorm hit on the following night, sheet rain, lightning and all the works. Luckily by then I was holed up in my apartment with a cola cao and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor on TV. Someone up there likes me.

I’d like to think that it’s due to foolish misadventures like this that I get to see a side of Spain that most modern travelers simply pass over. You could be forgiven for thinking that Spain, like much of Europe, was fully humanised a long time ago: the sweep of olive plantations and vineyards in the Tierra de Barros certainly gives that impression. But all you have to is close your eyes and listen: the world survives on the fringes. The stone-curlews of these tilled fields and the mournful plovers that ply the once-pristine sands of the raped Costa del Sol hark back to an older Spain, one more ancient than even the oldest of the moorish forts that dot the distant hills. It puts me back in touch with that world to hear them again, just as though I were playing a record from a forgotten world.

It’s not a purely avian nostalgia. As I arrived on the fringes of Villafranca I saw another scene from a bygone age: a muddle of tents positioned about a small campfire where a couple of ragged-looking men stood cooking a light breakfast. Spain’s native gypsies (if such a term is not a misnomer) are a heavily romanticized lot and were mostly squeezed out if their old ways by government programs decades ago, but this new generation of travelers – Romanians, mostly – have taken their place. When I say tents I don’t mean the bright canvas of a modern traveler, nor the UNICEF-stamped donations you might encounter in a war-torn country. These ones might have been cut out of a picture book from the 1930s. Situated on the very fringes of the town, hidden from sight by the town’s waterworks, it’s the very definition of a gypsy encampment. And I thought such echoes had long since faded into history.

You don’t see them in Villafranca proper. The only encounters I’ve had with them so far have all been in Dia supermarket, where they are instantly recognizable by their clothes, by their language and by their complexion; a rich, ochre-brown, marbled like the soil. I’d like to get to know them, to know why they’re here, where they came from and what other stories they might have brought with them, but the townsfolk only have dirt to say on their account. And in my propensity for romanticising the underdog, am I really any better?

Seeing the Romanian encampment made me think of home for some reason, but I was really too tired by then to dwell on it for long. It was purely because I was still moving that I didn’t collapse from fatigue; on the two occasions I paused to get my bearings my head began to spin and I very nearly dozed off. It was only later that night, when sorting through my music collection and The Land Before Time‘s Whispering Winds came on, that my thoughts took me home again. I cried. Profusely. I always do when I hear that one. Damn you, Don Bluth, for producing a film that still brings tears to my eyes some twenty years later. Damn your genius.

Many auxiliares use the holidays to go home to be with their families. Some of my closest friends out here have done just that. It’s a very sensible move, but it’s only when I stumble over such memories that I remember how vulnerable and human I really am. Whispering Winds is on my iPod for exactly that reason; 1608 times around I can put my weaknesses aside and soldier on alone, but there’s that 1609th song that’s there to remind me that neither home nor family is ever truly put aside.

I won’t be seeing home until August. I won’t have time to do so until then, since the third and final leg of my year abroad across the Strait begins almost as soon as I’m done here. Fortunately my parents are coming out to visit me in a couple of weeks, so I don’t have to. I won’t deny that I’m looking forward to having a car at my disposal – being in Europe’s bird capital and relying on public transport is nothing less than tortuous – but more than that, I miss my parents. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. There’s only four of us left; my family is precious to me, no matter what impression my aloofness might give.

A lot of things have happened over the past year. Some good, some not so good. Now that I’ve got the time, I’m retreating for a couple of days to the one place in the whole world that makes me truly happy. It’s a place that has answers… of a sort. My rock, my cradle, my very own Shangri-La. BB x

Adventures in Cow Country

Good morning Cantabria!

DSC_0069

Cabezón de la Sal is a simply gorgeous mountain village sat in a cleft between the hills of Santillana and the Escudo de Cabuérniga, a mighty ridge stretching in a straight line all the way to the Asturian border. What makes it so immediately different from the south is the layout of the town: if anything, it’s more English than Spanish. Where small two-story flats hold the monopoly in the town centre, semidetached houses dominate almost everywhere else. Long gone are the snake-like rows of white houses with barred windows and marble porches; the Cantabrian norm is stone-brick dwellings with wooden roofs and quaint, upper-storey balconies. It’s charming, if a little alien to a habituated southerner like me.

DSC_0292

There are buses – apparently – but it’s the local train service that holds sway here. Quiet, comfortable and cheap at the price, Cantabria’s FEVE provides a reliable alternative to Extremadura’s LEDA – provided you arrive in town before ten to nine at night, that is.

DSC_0080

‘Let’s go to Potes,’ says Kate, ‘for a little walk.’ So off we went to Torrelavega, that city of burgeoning factories and towering flat-blocks that I passed through twice four years ago in the early days of my trans-Iberian adventure. In the sunlight, Torrelavega looks…

DSC_0089

…well, I’ll not beat about the bush. Torrelavega is not exactly Paris. If Cabezón is a more rustic version of Villafranca, Torre is the Almendralejo equivalent in Kate’s neck-o’-the-woods. But like Almendralejo, it’s got its own charms. One of them goes by the name of red velvet sponge-cake.

DSC_0087

We arrived in Torrelavega looking for the bus to Potes, but the bus station proved singularly unhelpful, and a quick browse of the internet told us that the bus we were looking for left not from the bus station, but from the Palomera office by the train station we’d just left behind. In a scene which echoed the night before (albeit in slow motion), we half-ran back to the station… but there was absolutely no sign of the bus. Or any bus. Or even a bus stop, for that matter. Unless the Potes bus is a mystical bus which flies through the air and receives its passengers from the balcony of the Palomera offices on the second floor, I declare that bus stop to be an enigma. The city of Atlantis and the fabled kingdom of Shangri-La have captivated the imagination of man for centuries. Now I shall brazenly add the Palomera bus stop to that box of unsolved mysteries.

DSC_0088

Thinking on our feet, we dabbled with the idea of catching the train into Asturias in search of the equally mysterious inland bay of Gulpiyuri, but after all of that faffing around with the Potes bus we’d just missed the only practical train to Llanes by five minutes. As though calling out from a memory, Santillana del Mar came to mind and I decided we would grab the next train back to Cabezón and strike out for the coast via the Town of Three Lies. Public transport has as its advantages, but as a species, we should never forget that it was learning to walk on our own two feet that got us where we are today. And so off we went.

DSC_0096

The strangest thing about this last-minute change of plan was that it meant retracing my steps almost pace for pace from that ridiculous adventure, now some four years ago, right down to getting off at the very station where the driving rain turned me back to the shelter of Santillana del Mar. But for a few forks in the road, I had the entire route embedded in my mind as though I’d walked it ten times over rather than once. Perhaps that’s fate. She’s been playing a long game with me.

DSC_0119

It felt decidedly weird coming down out of the hills into the cobbled streets of Santillana all over again. As Spanish villages go, Santillana has got to be amongst the very prettiest. It’s known as the town of three lies – being neither holy, flat, nor by the sea – but if that is so, then it’s a damned beautiful liar. As I so often find myself doing, I made sure to revisit all of the places I’d been before: the same church, the same quesada shop, the same Savage Culture boutique that I still don’t fully understand. I can’t explain it, but something about this town keeps pulling me back.

DSC_0130

We had a picnic lunch of peanut butter sandwiches on the steps of the Colegiata de Santa Juliana and basked in the afternoon sun. 15 degrees Celsius… not bad for Cantabria. In all the bad weather Spain’s north coast has been having of late, I must confess I think myself bloody lucky to have landed a whole twenty-four hours of glorious sunshine in the one day I had to explore the place. I could hardly have asked for better: better weather, or better countryside, or better company.

DSC_0160

Leaving Santillana behind, we climbed steadily northwards across the rolling hills to the coast. Along the way we were misled by the Arch-Deceiver that is HERE Maps, which tried to convince us that what looked suspiciously like an overgrown stream was actually a main road, and we were caught up in a high-speed chase with a tractor, like an extremely low-budget Cantabrian version of Need for Speed. The stereotype lives: Cantabria truly is a land of green hills, of cows and of tractors.

DSC_0146

The last time I wandered these hills, the skies were iron-grey and I could only see as far as the next range of hills for the glowering rainclouds. I can’t have known it at the time, but I was seriously missing out. After abandoning the path and freelancing our way up a hill, Watership Down fashion, we were treated to what must be the most awe-inspiring landscape I’ve seen since I first stepped onto the plains of Caceres.

For once, I had the full works on me, so you can enjoy the view three times over, with the wide-angle 18mm…

DSC_0150

…and the macro 200mm…

DSC_0153

…and the telephoto 500mm.

DSC_0154

Sadly, the Nikon-compatible Sigma 500mm doesn’t come with an in-built autofocus motor, so it won’t be the powerhouse it has always been for rapid-fire avian photography, but at least I got some use out of it this weekend.

It was a beautiful view and all of that, but it was an equally beautiful dead end, so we had to climb back down the hill, cross the cow-fields and roll under a possibly electrified fence in order to get back to the road down to the sea (we didn’t check to find out – not when we were so close to our goal). After a very long and very winding road down one last hill, we made it – at last – to the sea.

DSC_0237

Extremadura has so much to offer, but there’s one thing it really lacks: the sea. You don’t notice until you think about it. Discounting Uganda, I’ve never lived more than an hour from the sea (much less in the UK) so Extremadura is the most inland location I’ve ever had to deal with. To see the Atlantic in all its cold fury once again was a real sight for sore eyes. The storm-force winds and murderous waves of the previous week are gone, but the waves still put on a formidable display for us.

DSC_0188

We spent about an hour by the sea, Kate and I, watching the waves pounding the shore and snacking on Cantabria’s finest delicacy, quesada pasiega. Yum yum. There’s a little ermita built into a cave in the cliffs which we didn’t get the time to visit, but I doubt it would have looked any more impressive up close than from afar. Imagine living in a place like that, with the sound of the Atlantic roaring all about you, twenty-four hours a day. The focus you would have to have – or learn to have – borders on the superhuman. Little wonder, then, that it is what it is. I wonder how an estate agent might describe it?

DSC_0201

It’s getting to that time of year when the sun starts to set later, but sunset was already fast approaching as we turned back for Santillana at about six o’clock. In the gloom of the oncoming night, we finished off the quesada on the banks of the Saja river by moonlight and killed time by making for Rudagüera, the next stop along the Cabezón line… and then legging it back the way we came when it became apparent that it was a little further than we’d thought (one last flick of the claw from HERE Maps) and that we’d probably miss the next train.

DSC_0261

Back in Cabezón, after a drink at a local hunters’ bar, complete with mounted boar heads and numerous black-and-white stills of hunting men of old stood proudly over the carcasses of Cantabria’s once widespread brown bears, Kate took me to visit one of her favourite eateries, El Paraíso. At 2,45€, I thought a ración of patatas bravas would be enough to fill a corner after so much walking (we crammed in about thirty kilometres today, all in all), but I forgot…

DSC_0276

We’re in the north. In my experience, northerners in any country seem to have a much better idea as to what constitutes a decent portion size. Maybe it’s the climate. Who knows? In my earlier traveling days, food was the last thing I was prepared to fork out for. How things have changed since then! Coming back from that Spain trek dangerously underweight four years ago has left a profound mark, and these days food is the one luxury I’m prepared to spend on, and spend well. A long day’s walking deserves a long night’s eating, and I think I did pretty well on both fronts.

So, all in all, it was a very successful trip, albeit a very brief one! I was lucky enough to get a BlaBlaCar on the way back that didn’t mess me around. Better yet, he was no more and no less than a gaditano. Oh, to hear that accent again after twenty-four hours and more of people pronouncing their s’s…! You have no idea how happy it made me.

DSC_0323

Cabezón de la Sal to Villafranca is still a bloody long way to go, but where the bus took all of nine hours, Rafa made it for me in six. In those six hours, taking in the windswept, snowy heights of Reinosa, I was treated to the finest conversation BlaBla can offer, up to and including:

  • Franco’s suppression of the education system
  • The legacy of al-Andalus
  • An anthropological history of Cadiz
  • The true nature of corruption in Spain
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • Gibraltan Spanglish
  • The rationality of England’s outside stance on the EU
  • Podemos and the total absence of a government at the moment
  • Why and how dubbing came to be one of Spain’s biggest businesses (and blights)
  • Piracy in the Old Mediterranean
  • The Growth of the Spanish film industry

I could go on. There were at least five or six hours of it. And all of it in Spanish, and in the very finest gaditano. Talk about a workout… and politics! The eighteen year-old me would never have believed a word of it.

Needless to say, my faith in BlaBlaCar is restored and I’ll be bound for Cadiz proper at some point to make good on that drink I’ve been offered. If I am to live up to the title of ‘Él que va conociendo al mundo’ that I’ve been given, BlaBlaCar is a damned good way of going about it.

DSC_0164

But last of all, I’d like to air high-five my good friend Kate for putting me up (and putting up with me) for two nights and a day in Cantabria. Yours truly is not the most pleasant company in a city, but in the countryside where he belongs, he’s just as insufferable, if only on the other side of the positive/negative spectrum. Kate’s seen me at my lowest in Amman and probably at my highest – quite literally – in the life-giving paradise that is Cantabria. Thank you, Kate, and I hope to return the favour when you’re down in the south! The adventure never ends. Not really. Not ever. BB x

PS. You can read about her side of things here. It’s a lot more tongue-in-cheek than mine.

Ned Stark was Wrong

Two weeks ago I saw the first martins wheeling about over the bus station. Last week the first swallows began to arrive and the lonely stork on the chimney of the old factory was joined by his mate. This weekend the chiffchaffs have finally joined in on the dawn chorus and, whilst it’s hardly been what you’d call wintry around these parts, today suddenly feels decidedly spring-y. The sun is blazing away in a sky of cloudless blue and everybody is out in the town square, soaking up the good weather and generally having a good Sunday of it.

The truth of the matter is, quite honestly, that winter has simply not come this year.

DSC_0733

Maybe I’ve been in the north of England for too long, but it stills feels like I’ve been cheated of a season out here. Extremadura is, as its name suggests, a land of extremes: of fiercely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. There are people in Villafranca who remember whole years when it never rained at all. It has rained here, but not often; about four or five times since I arrived, all in all. And whilst the presence of the cranes is a sure sign that it’s winter somewhere, it looks a great deal more like spring right now. The cherry blossom is already in bloom, over a month early, which is more than can be said for the unseasonably early arrival of the migrants. I think I’ll head on down to Tarifa next weekend to check on how things are going in the Strait. If spring has come early anywhere, it’ll be there for sure.

Which reminds me, I really must go looking for the cranes before they leave.

DSC_0736

To celebrate the gloriously early return of spring (alright, so that wasn’t really the reason), a local friend and our would-be guide, Jesús, threw a barbecue gathering in his casa de campo out in the vineyards of the Tierra de Barros. A casa de campo is a real Spanish boon that I’m still struggling to translate. Country house might work, but that conveys a sense of grandeur that most such buildings – merely glorified sheds where your average town-dwelling Spaniard stores his produce, spare furniture and ‘all the shit that doesn’t go anywhere else’ – simply do not have. Ask a Spaniard to show you their casa de campo and you’ll quickly see why Spanish houses are so ludicrously tidy.

DSC_0650

A common mistake that foreigners make is that these are dwellings in their own right. Far from it. They’re almost all two-room bungalows, equipped with sofas, plenty of chairs and a kitchenette, purely for the purposes of hosting summer gatherings like the one Jesús held yesterday. The locals will pay regular visits to their campo, especially during harvest season when they’re more practical than pleasurable, but most of them would never stay in one. It’s simply not done. Would you sleep in the tool-shed?

DSC_0646

Jesús had invited a fair crowd, with an equal balance of Spaniards and guiris, the latter representing England, Wales and three American states. The Almendralejo crew, in all but name. I had the audacity to avoid them almost entirely last term, stopping by only twice, for fear of being sucked into an English-speaking failure of a year abroad (I speak enough English for my job). That was poorly done indeed. Quite unlike the infamous all-English compounds in many a Spanish town, the Almen lot are very much half and half. As the most fluent of the guiris (a title the Spaniards themselves have given me and which I cherish above all other compliments), I get more than enough practice in my grandfather’s language as the ultimate go-between and little could make me happier.

DSC_0655

Although, that said, the copious offerings of grilled chorizo, crackling and manchego cheese on offer yesterday did a damned good job of it.

DSC_0660

No campo gathering would be complete without una vueltecita, or stroll. Jesús’ casa de campo is just off the Vía de la Plata, the lesser known northbound Camino de Santiago and the old road from Seville to the silver mines in the Asturias. We didn’t stroll particularly far, but then, you don’t have to; the Tierra de Barros is so vast and flat that you can see for miles in all directions. It’s hard to imagine when you compare it, but the village of Hornachos, sat astride the high Sierra which shares its name, is as far from Villafranca as Walmer is from Canterbury. Twenty seven kilometers, or fifteen miles, there or thereabouts. And you can see one from the other. It’s that flat.

DSC_0672

We didn’t find any unicorns (don’t ask) but we did find two very excitable dogs and an emu. And a characteristically gorgeous sunset over the olive trees.

DSC_0700

Andalucía, that dusky southern beauty, might have stolen my heart years ago, but honest Extremadura is doing her hardest to win me over and very nearly succeeding. If I end up returning to this land of endless steppe, of Kings and buses named after Zeus’ lovers and home of quite possibly the hardiest of all of Spain’s assistants (I maintain that you have to be at least a few screws loose to choose Extremadura as your home for a year), it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

DSC_0717

Carnaval is coming, but it’s not here yet, and before that yawns our second five-day weekend; the best we get by way of a ‘holiday’ besides Christmas and Easter compared to the French assistants (a necessary sacrifice, I suppose, for being in a superior country). I’ll sign off before the Spanish blood in me goes to my head. BB x