Climbing a Basque mountain

Spain, Basque, hiking
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.

Salt, wine, and wealth in Spain’s Basque region

Basque, wine, Rioja, wine tasting
In the modern world we don’t give much thought to salt. We casually pick some up in the supermarket or tear open a packet at a café, but in the past salt was a vital and sought-after commodity. Everyone needed it for preserving food and as a source for iodine. Nobody could live without it and those who controlled its supply became rich and powerful.

The Basque region of Spain was a major supplier of salt thanks to a strange legacy dating back 220 million years. The remains of an oceanic deposit of salt lie close to the surface at Salinas de Añana. People have been digging up salt here for at least 5,000 years. Our hiking group is visiting this valley. We see pipes channeling saline water onto platforms, where the water evaporates and leaves behind a salty crust. The water has 250 grams of salt per liter. By way of comparison, the Mediterranean has only 40 grams per liter. The Dead Sea has 350 grams per liter and is so salty you can float on it.

The salt is ultrapure and highly prized by top restaurants. Despite this, international competition from more affordable brands has led to a decline in business. Fifty years ago there were some 5,500 salt platforms. Now there are only 45. Yet the workers at Salinas de Añana have carved out a niche for themselves and are hoping their traditional extraction process will get the valley named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

%Gallery-124223%Leaving the salt valley behind, we follow the old Salt Trail through rolling fields punctuated by forest. We circle Arreo Lake and come to Fontecha, a town made rich by salt. Back in the Middle Ages, salt meant wealth, and wealth meant power. Two huge towers glower over the little town, erected by rival families from the money and influence the salt trade gave them. Sadly, both are being worked on and are closed to visitors. Instead we stop for lunch at a terraza, the outdoor seating of a local café. Sitting at terrazas is a favorite pastime in all regions of Spain. Sip some wine, talk to friends, and watch the world go by. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon or relax after a hike.

More wine comes that night when we visit Bodega El Fabulista in the hilltop town of La Guardia. This is in La Rioja region, where Spain’s best wine comes from. An employee takes us down into the cool cellars, where vaulted stone ceilings shelter orderly rows of oaken barrels. The air is a constant 11-13°C (52-55°F) and 85% humidity. The barrels are made of various types of oak to lend the wine distinct flavors. The amount of time the wine is left in the barrels is critical for its rating: crianza wine spends a minimum of 12 months in oaken barrels, reserva needs 15 months, and gran reserva spends 5 five years in the winery and at least two years in the barrel.

This is all very interesting, but I’m getting anxious to sample some good old Spanish vino. I have some more waiting to do because as we stand glass in hand, the wine temptingly close, we’re treated to another lecture. This time it’s about tasting wine. When a waiter opens a bottle for you and pours out a little for you to check, there’s no need to actually drink some. Smell it to make sure it hasn’t turned to vinegar, and look at it to make sure no bits of cork are floating in it.

Next we examine the wine’s “crown”. If you tip the wine a little while holding it over a white surface, you can examine its edge. The color tells you how old it is. Young wine has a purple edge. As the wine ages it gradually darkens, until with gran reserva it looks brown. Finally we’re allowed to taste it, and everyone holds forth on their observations about its accents and flavors and subtlety. I suppose I could too, but I know very little about wine (I’ve always tasted it to check it, and until now I had no clear idea what crianza meant) so I’ll spare you the pontification and just say that to my uneducated palate, Rioja wine, especially that from El Fabulista, is delicious.

Wandering through the narrow, winding streets of this medieval town we see that wine, like salt, meant wealth and power in the old days. Many houses are adorned with ornate family crests, and the town gives off an aura of money and social standing. Rioja wine is drunk all across Spain. While the salt from Salinas de Añana has become a specialist product for connoisseurs, Rioja has a major market share in a country that demands quality 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.

Hiking and politics in the Basque region’s Grand Canyon

Basque, horse, horses
“The Basques have the oldest history in Europe,” says Dr. Alberto Santana, historian and co-founder of Aunia, a Basque cultural magazine. “We have been here since the Stone Age and have the most distinct language in the world. There are some 6,000 languages in 12 language families. Basque is in a family by itself.”

The Basque language, Euskara, is the heart of Basque identity, he tells our hiking group. In Euskadi a Basque is a Euskaldunak (“one who owns the Basque language”) and the Basque region is Euskal Herria (“the land of those who speak Basque”). Yet only 28% of Basques can actually speak it. At a corner shop in Orduña, where we’re staying as we tour Spain’s Basque region, I only find books in Spanish, including a cookbook on Basque cuisine.

The Basques straddle the border of Spain and France, an independent people who have never had independence. Santana’s statement that they can trace their heritage back to the Stone Age isn’t nationalistic chest thumping; it’s the prevailing opinion among archaeologists and linguists. The theory is borne out by the language itself. For example, the word for “knife” is aizto, which translates literally as “stone that cuts”.

%Gallery-124109%While they may still talk about stone tools, the source of Basque wealth was iron. Basque foundries fueled the Spanish Empire. Basques were Spain’s great shipbuilders too.

He goes on to list several important Basques. Two names stick out. Juan Sebastián Elcano captained Magellan’s ship after the famous explorer was killed in the Philippines. It was Elcano, not Magellan, who circumnavigated the globe. The South American leader Simón de Bolívar came from a Basque family. Dr. Santana then talks about the sufferings of the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War, especially the infamous bombing of Guernica, leveled by the Luftwaffe. The slaughter was immortalized in Picasso’s famous painting.

“What about ETA?” a man in the audience asks after Dr. Santana finishes his lecture.

ETA is a terrorist group fighting for Basque independence. Formed in 1959, they’ve killed more than 800 people. People like Diego Armando Estacio and Carlos Alonso Palate, two Ecuadorians killed when ETA set off a bomb at Madrid’s Barajas airport in 2006. Talking about Basque history without mentioning ETA is like talking about Irish history without mentioning the IRA.

Santana pauses for a moment, obviously choosing his words carefully before saying, “ETA is a radical and violent organization formed by students during the Franco dictatorship. At that time giving a lecture like this one was illegal. I would be arrested. Now ETA is nearing its end. It’s leaders are looking for a way to end it. You will probably see its end this year.”

Indeed, I’m hiking through the Basque region at a critical period in its history. Local elections are being held across Spain. In the Basque region Bildu, a separatist party, is the newcomer and potential game-changer. It was legalized only last month. Many Spaniards believe it has ties to ETA and much of the public is strongly against it being allowed to run. The courts decided to legalize it, perhaps in the hope that with political representation, Basque nationalists will turn their backs on ETA.

Today we’re hiking far away from politics, or so I think. We ascend a steep slope, passing flocks of long-haired sheep and stout horses grazing on rich grass. While Basque ports made their mark on world history with whaling and shipbuilding, most Basques made their living as farmers or herdsmen. It’s these towns and villages that preserved the Basque language and traditions, and it’s in the rural areas where you’ll hear the most Basque spoken today.

Besides a couple of hikers sharing a bottle of wine, we see nobody. After a further climb we’re treated to a stunning view of the Nervion Canyon, a sheer drop of 2,000 feet. The canyon widens out to the north, opening onto rolling cultivated fields and little villages of red-roofed houses.

We head south, where the walls of the canyon close in on each other, finally meeting. The sheer gray rock looks impossible to climb, but in the shade of one overhang a couple of hundred feet down we see a herd of goats sitting away from the sun’s glare. In the air we see Griffon Vultures wheel and dive.

These are the largest vultures in Europe and they favor these high pastures, hoping to feast on a dead sheep or goat. When we stop for a picnic, one member of our group stretches out for a rest on the grass some distance from us. The vultures circle lower and lower above him. They must realize he’s alive because they never land to pick at his flesh. He continues to enjoy his vacation and I miss out on a chance for Gadling’s Photo of the Year.

As we continue, we come to a pair of man-made walls about two miles long. They form a giant triangle, mirroring the natural triangle of the canyon, but instead of ending at a cliff, they end at a deep pit.

“This is a lobera,” our guide Josu explains. “When wolves were common here the people from all the villages would beat drums and pots to scare the wolves into this space. They’d fall into the pit and could then be killed.”

Wolves still roam the mountains not far from here. Like in the U.S., there’s an ongoing controversy between farmers, environmentalists, the government, and pretty much everyone else about how to handle the predators. Should they be protected? Farmers worry about their flocks. Should they be hunted? Hikers worry about people prowling the countryside with guns. Should they be kept away entirely? Environmentalists say this species needs to spread to survive.

Like with human politics, the politics of nature has no easy answers.

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.

Hiking through Spain’s Basque region

Basque
Most tourists who visit Spain stick to the central and southern parts of the country–Madrid, Granada, Seville, Barcelona, and the Costa del Sol. They generally skip the greener, more temperate north. If they head north at all, it’s to stop in Bilbao in Spain’s Basque region to see the Guggenheim.

Yet the Basque region has much more to offer. In Spain, it’s an Autonomous Community, something more than a province and less than a country. The Basques have never had their own nation but have a fierce sense of independence. With a distinctive culture and unique language, as well as a deep history and beautiful landscape, the Basque region rewards those who want to see more than the usual Spanish sights.

I’ve joined Country Walkers to hike through Spain’s Basque region and even pop into the Basque region of France. Every day I’ll be hiking through a different part of this varied landscape, meeting farmers, priests, chefs, and historians, while sampling the local cuisine. That’s the sort of tour Country Walkers offers: hikes every day, and then plenty of local cuisine and wine to get rid of the bad effects of all that unnecessary exercise.

%Gallery-123934%The first day’s hike starts at Retes de Llanteno, a village so small it doesn’t even have a bar. Anyone who has been to rural Europe knows exactly how small that is. It does have a lovely little church, however, with a bell tower covered in curling vines. As we unload our gear an old man standing by the road asks Josu, one of our Basque guides, where we’re headed.

“The Tower of Quejana,” he says. “We’re taking the old mule track.”

The old man looks surprised. Nobody uses that track anymore, and in fact Josu had to go along the trail a month ago and hack away the vines.

“My father used to use that track,” the old man remembers.

Josu explains to us that mule tracks used to connect villages, but in the age of the automobile that intimate connection has been lost. People are more likely to drive to the nearest big city than visit the next village over. He’s reopening the tracks in the hope of restoring that connection, as well as attracting hikers.

The rains and rich soil have covered up most traces of his work. We duck under branches and trip over creepers. The woman in front of me stumbles, sending a thorny branch thwapping into my face, then she slips and undercuts my feet. We both end up in the mud. I pick myself up and start to remove ticks.

Soon we’re through the woods and climbing up a steep, open field under a blue sky. The contrast with the dark, damp forest couldn’t be greater. We keep climbing, up and up, until we reach a high promontory with a sweeping view of the valley below in three directions. We’re only ten miles from the sea, and I think I can detect a salty tang to the cool breeze.

This was a Celtic hill fort during the Iron Age, before the Romans conquered the region. A double set of walls protected perhaps 300 people, and its position ensured a good view over the entire region. Forts like this are found on hilltops all over Europe. I visited a Pictish hill fort very much like it in Scotland.

“See that far mountain peak?” Josu says as he points to a distant summit, “That’s Anboto, a mountain sacred to Mari. She’s an old goddess who’s very popular with the Basques.”

The Basques may still honor an ancient goddess, but they’re good Catholics too, as we discover when we explore the hilltop. Little porcelain figures of the baby Jesus and Mary are preserved under glass bowls, left as offerings by devout hikers.

Another mile or so over rolling hills and we come to Josu’s home, where his wife Begonia has prepared a huge lunch of local cheeses, chorizo, freshly baked bread, and vegetables. There’s also a generous amount of txakoli, a sparkling white wine for which the Basque region is famous. Light and refreshing, it’s a good wine to drink while taking a break from a hike.

“People talk about the slow food movement, with all the ingredients coming from local sources,” Josu says with a shrug. “We just call that Basque food.”

This is hardly unique to the Basque region. One of the joys of traveling in Spain is trying out all the local specialties. Village butchers often have game shot the day before, restaurants in small towns serve vegetables taken from the back garden, and every region seems to have its own wine.

Stuffed and a bit buzzed, we put on our packs and head out to our goal–the medieval convent and fortress of Quejana. It was built by Pedro López de Ayala in the 14th century. He ruled the local area with an iron hand, and became famous as one of the pioneers of the Spanish language when he wrote some of the first poetry in the language. He also wrote a veterinary manual for birds and was an adviser to both Castilian and French kings. The alabaster tombs of he and his relations grace the interior of the chapel, and a soaring church with a grandiose gilt altar stands close by.

A climb up the tower that defended these lands gives a good view of the surrounding countryside. The green hills and thick forests are so unlike the common picture of Spain. The tower gives some insight into more recent Spanish politics too. During the 1970s the tower was crumbling. The government was still ruled by General Franco, the Fascist dictator who was the victor of the Spanish Civil War. Franco showed a rather medieval attitude to the Basques and is the cause of many of the political tensions today. He gave money for the tower to be restored, but the top part was rebuilt not as it would have looked when Pedro lived there. Instead, it was rebuilt to look like a Castilian tower.

In this part of Europe, you can’t get away from politics even at a historic site.

This is the first in a new 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.

Terrorist bomb blast in Spanish tourist town

The northern Spanish town of Burgos, a popular destination for holidaymakers, was rocked by a car bomb early this morning. According to the BBC the bomb targeted a high-rise residential building of the Guardia Civil, injuring 46 people, many of whom are women and children.

Officials are blaming ETA, a terrorist group that seeks an independent Basque nation in Spain’s northern region. Unlike many ETA bombings, this one was not preceded by a telephone warning and seems to have been intended to cause maximum possible injury.

ETA, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (“Basque Homeland and Freedom”), has been waging a terrorist campaign since 1968, using bombings, assassination, and extortion. The group has killed more than 800 people. The Guardia Civil, who are sort of a mix between the FBI and the National Guard, are one of ETA’s favorite targets. ETA has set off bombs in other big cities and in a parking garage in Madrid’s Barajas airport in 2006, pictured here. The airport bombing killed two Ecuadorian immigrants and came just nine months after the group declared a permanent ceasefire.

ETA has targeted tourist destinations in the past and the choice of Burgos may be part of an ongoing attempt to disrupt Spain’s profitable tourist industry.