Climbing a Basque mountain

I’ve been hiking in Spain’s Basque region for three days now, and now I’m facing the most challenging hike of my trip.

I and a few volunteers from my group are going up and over the Sierra de Toloño in La Rioja, Spain’s most renowned wine-producing region. At nine miles it’s not as long as my daily hikes along the Hadrian’s Wall Path or the East Highland Way, but the 1,100-ft. elevation gain followed by a 2,100-ft. descent should be a pretty good workout.

If you have good enough scenery you never notice you’re exercising, and this hike certainly fits the bill. Starting along a dirt road high in the Sierra, we stroll through dark, damp forest. When we peek through the trees we see the morning mist is still veiling the summit. Here and there the land is scarred by new roads. Locals supplement their income with small-scale logging, a right they’ve had for centuries. Charcoal burners used to work up here too, slowly burning wood to create charcoal for the Basque region’s forges.

One legendary charcoal burner is still celebrated every year. Olentzero is a drunken old charcoal burner with a dirty face, a pipe clenched in his teeth, a beer gut, and a big sack of toys he brings for the kids. Sounds like the embarrassing uncle everyone has to put up with at family functions. Olentzero is a Basque figure. Most of Spain gets their presents from Los Reyes, the three kings.

%Gallery-124283%Sadly, no belching old charcoal burner shows up to distribute gifts, and we continue up through a mountain glade where a herd of cows stand munching the thick grass. To the south we see our first big goal, a series of rugged stone peaks and a saddle-back that’s the easiest way to go up and over the Sierra before descending into the Ebro River Valley.

Leaving the cows behind, we enter another forest and climb a series of steep switchbacks. It’s not long until we’re out in the open again, scrambling over rocks as we spot a crumbling ruin in the distance.

This is the Monastery of Santa María de Toloño, built in the ninth century on a promontory overlooking the Ebro valley. The view is spectacular. Stretched out below is rich farmland covered by vineyards as far as we can see. The Ebro snakes lazily through the vineyards.

“The Ebro is the southern boundary of the Basque Country,” our guide declares. Many Spaniards would disagree with this statement. In fact the Basque cultural region has no clear boundaries. Like with most cultures, it’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins, and this tricky task is made all the more difficult by sectarian politics.

Politics left its mark on the monastery too. It was destroyed during the First Carlist War, a fight for the throne from 1833 to 1840. The Carlists supported Carlos, while the Liberals supported Isabella II. The Basques threw in their lot with Carlos because of his conservative support for the Catholic Church, but the Liberals won and dealt harshly with them. The monastery was one of the casualties, and now only one wall remains standing. Civil wars being messy things, some Basques fought on the Liberal side too. Apparently they weren’t able to save the monastery.

Leaving the monastery, we make a steep descent into the lowlands. The river valley is mostly flat with a few huge outcroppings of rock, each with a castle or fortified church on top and a cluster of houses around them. They look like islands in a sea of vineyards.

No wonder this region has been fought over so much. Who wouldn’t want to live on an island in a sea of wine?

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.