Hiking in Northern Spain – Part 1

Burgos bliss and an English garden

The once a day train from Bilbao stopped to let us off at Redondo. A Spanish Adlestrop, legions of crickets substituting for the birds of Oxfordshire. It had taken 2 hours on metre gauge track to shake off the remaining industrial eyesores on the edge of the Basque city and trundle through a bucolic, lush green, early summer landscape. The single fare was a bargain €6.50. We heaved our bags on to a platform that was all of ten metres long and apparently in the middle of nowhere.Olga's posada - El Prado Mayor The train guard looked bemused. “We’re going to walk from here back to Bilbao”, I told him with my very limited Spanish. “With your suitcases?” he asked. I tried to explain that they would be transferred between overnight stops. We followed the instructions provided by tour operator On Foot Holidays and wheeled them down the narrow road in blazing afternoon sunshine, wondering if we could possibly be in the right place. Then, round a bend, the village of Quintanilla del Rebollar came suddenly into view, and the first substantial house, as our notes promised, was El Prado Mayor, the delightful Posada Real, a stone building with wooden balconies dating from the end of the 16th century. The posada is not in the Basque Country, where we were heading, but in the province of Burgos. Our room had bare stone or plastered walls and a small balcony. A hoopoe flashed by the window. Swallows perched on wires. House martins busied themselves beneath the eaves. In the Posada garden were raised beds of peas, broad beans, lettuce, onion and artichokes. We wandered in the village, in hot sunshine. From the garden at Olga's posadaOn its fringe was a twin towered building, originally a free school funded by a villager who, like many others, crossed the Atlantic in the 18th century to make his fortunes. Now it serves as the interpretation centre for the Ojo Guarena Park. Olga, who runs the Posada, had given us the choice of salmon for dinner or duck from the neighbourhood. It had to be the duck. Dinner was morcilla, black pudding (Burgos style) with rice, carrot and onion soup with little orange, the duck confit with baked apple and a cinnamon stick. For dessert my wife chose ewe’s cheese with membrillo (quince paste). I had ice cream flavoured strongly with heather honey. Olga’s pride in local produce was palpable. Thus at breakfast there was her rhubarb compote, a fruit and nut cake and local yoghurt. It was a blissful place to begin a long and often tough hike.

Espinosa mansionDay one of the walk and the sun soon burned off the early mist. We walked through gorgeous farmland, sometimes between pastures, sometime through oak woodland. The undulating terrain was fairly undemanding but 20 kilometres takes it toll on the feet. It was a great time of year for wildflowers. The verges were brightened by splashes of gorse, great tumbling confections of hawthorn, aquilegia, purple vetch and dog rose. We stopped for pintxos (Basque for tapas) in Espinosa de Los Monteros, named after an order of nobles who guarded the kings of Spain for some nine centuries until it was dissolved in 1931. Their handsome mansions, emblazoned with elaborate coats of arms, are dotted all over town. At a paleteria we bought right buttery cake called sobaos pasiegos – the town is famous for dairy based desserts – and speciality biscuits oddly called Italianas. Graeme's gardenHigh on the mountain slopes here was still the odd patch of the snow that has arrived late – in March – after a mild winter. Graeme greeted us at Casa Zalama, the guest house he restored from a wreck with his partner, Mari-Cruz. What brought him to this remote village? Love, he says. He was a gardener and a folk rock singer in Brighton. Mari-Cruz was studying there. She is Basque, from Bilbao. He mother remembered escaping bombs that fell on her village in the civil war “as if it was yesterday”. She herself recalls the time when even the most harmless conversation in the obscure Basque language could land you in serious trouble. They opened Casa Zalama 16 years ago. It’s lovely garden is redolent of England – with wisteria, lupins, azalea, laburnum. They get a lot of guests coming to or from the ferries between England and Bilbao. We feasted on Mari-Cruz’s green bean bake and chicken casseroled in wine with dried fruit and steeled ourselves for day two, which would begin with our first serious climb.

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Roger Bray

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