Into the Basque
Old wives once claimed troubles came in threes. The second day of our walk from Burgos province into the Spanish Basque country suggested they weren’t far off the mark. It dawned grey and stayed grey, with low cloud drifting around the mountains. We set off later than was wise and lost a half hour after taking a wrong turning. No sooner were we back on track than I was assaulted by a barbed wire and lath gate that sprang with such force from its retaining loop that I didn’t have time to stop it gashing my right shin. Would it scar? Would I need stitches? “It’s nothing” said my wife, who’s an ex nurse and doesn’t waste much sympathy on the walking wounded. We soldiered on, labouring up a steep incline towards Zalama, the summit after which our previous night’s accommodation was named. The cloud became thicker and thicker. “I’m sure it’s lifting”, I said hopefully at the slightest sign that the sun might triumph. No such luck. Visibility dropped to around ten metres. Aware that we were at risk of wandering off track we hummed and hawed and came to the reluctant conclusion that we must return to the valley and ask Graeme and Mari-Cruz to call us a taxi to our next accommodation.
Day 3. A rest day. I suspect Cheryl would have liked to saunter locally but it was my birthday and I was calling the shots, so we zigzagged up to the mountain saddle called Portillo de Brena in glorious sunshine and retraced a bit of the route we had missed the previous day. We didn’t need a guide. The dog from Casa Rural Gailluretan, where we were staying, came all the way. He’s a Labrador called Pintxo, though he’s more a rib of beef than a tapa. Hawks circled overhead as we picnicked on an airy ridge. The views were enormous. A sublime way to forget the passing of the years.
Day 4 and there were 23kms to cover. Up to the Portillo de Brena saddle again and after a brief respite on the level a narrow, rocky track that demanded something close to scrambling. We had been warned that the weather might sock in again but wreaths of cloud were rarely thick enough to obscure the views of the Embalse de Ordunte reservoir. On what seemed an endless descent to the valley we passed civil war trenches, where Republican soldiers defended the corridor to Bilbao against Franco’s ultimately victorious forces. We splashed across fords as the track led down through mixed woodland of oak, yew, chestnut and holly. Boar, deer and pine marten inhabit these woods, but while we heard a crashing in the brush we saw nothing. In the hamlet of Mollinedo we followed a suggestion in our walking notes and phoned Jose-Vicente, patron of the excellent Posada Calera, who arrived by car in minutes and spared us a hot, tedious slog along a road. Our notes described the Posada as a “bustling roadhouse”, which did it scant justice. It was immaculate. At dinner time Jose-Vicente overcame his lack of English by presenting us with a pictorial menu on his tablet. We chose white asparagus, steak and flan (creme caramel). Following his recommendation we broke with convention and ordered a bottle of delicious, chilled local white, a blend of Alberino and Riesling grapes. He threw in a dish of strawberries and cream.
Day 5 and the 20kms were supposed to take 5hrs – but by now we had accepted that the very ambitious walking times shown in our notes were beyond us. It began with a brisk walk on a flat road along the Valverde to the village of Trucio La Iglesia, whose tiny bullring now serves as a car park, and a steep climb to an open, airy hilltop above the tree line where mares and foals ran wild. Somewhere en route we lost our way in a eucalyptus forest and lost an hour describing a full circle – but the views from the top, the most impressive so far, compensated for our frustration. Another long descent was punctuated by one of those odd encounters sometimes experienced on foot. Pausing to check the route we struck up a conversation with a young couple in their front garden near Mercadillo. Turned out they had both lived and worked in London – she in Pret a Manger – and, in an area where relatively few do, spoke fluent English. Our reward for the final, boring stretch along a busy road was an enthusiastic greeting from Mila at the Agriturismo Lezamako Etxe, a superb B&B in a large house fronted by a huge lawn and backed by fields of sheep. Mila brought us big dish of fresh fruit. Our room wouldn’t have disgraced a four star hotel. Dinner was at a nearby restaurant. We were delighted that we had opted to spend two nights there before the final push into Bilbao – but outrageous fortune intervened. Cheryl woke on the second morning feeling sick. Too much sun was her theory. There was nothing for it but to ride into town with Mila’s daughter as she transferred our man bags. A shame, we agreed, but a minor disappointment that would soon be rendered insignificant by memories of grand landscapes and genuine welcomes.
Go to onfootholidays.co.uk. The price of a 7 night itinerary is £670 (216 prices). That includes two nights in the Posada at the start, 6 evening meals (some with wine) 4 picnics, walk notes and maps, but not the extra nights we spent after rest days. Flights are extra. The walk is graded medium – hard but we felt it was mostly the latter. I think at least 1hr should be added to the walking times in the notes, which are calculated without stops (but it’s possible they may be adjusted upwards by the operator for future bookings – so best check before setting off). At any rate, I recommend setting off by 8.30am at the latest on all but the first day, as you’re likely to be on the trail – with plenty of time to stop for time for picnics, photos etc., for 8-9hrs. Against that he fact that the Spanish eat late gives you plenty of leeway at the end of the day.