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.

Favorite hiking spots near Madrid

While most people come Madrid to sample the cuisine and see the art museums, Spain has much more to offer. Just an hour from the capital Madrid is the Sierra de Guadarrama, a chain of rough mountains wreathed in pine forest. While the strange rock formations of La Pedriza are perhaps more impressive, the Sierra de Guadarrama is the favorite getaway spot for madrileños because it’s so easy to get to and provides a variety of hikes for all fitness levels. Even out-of-towners will be able to get there and navigate the trails with no trouble.

The hikes start at the little town of Cercedilla, which can be reached by bus from Madrid’s Moncloa station or by train from Atocha station. Both take about an hour. If you want to stay overnight, several hostels and pensions offer cheap accommodation and the little local restaurants serve up traditional food at small-town prices.

First stop should be the visitors’ center just 2km (1.2 miles) uphill from the station. Here you can get a free map (in Spanish, but easy to understand without any linguistic knowledge) and advice on current conditions. There are also the usual nature exhibits to tell you a bit about the land you’re about to see.

From here you can branch off onto one of many trails. Cercedilla is at the head of the dead-end valley of Fuenfría, surrounded on three sides by the Guadarramas. Unlike many trails in Spain, the ones here are actually well marked with color-coded spots on trees and rocks. Various hikes go up the sides of the valley to viewpoints on the surrounding mountains. There’s also a dirt road that loops around the valley high enough to give excellent views and easy access to the peaks. The sides of the valley are sheltered by pine forest, but once you get up towards the peaks you’ll be exposed to the elements. Be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and if the weather is at all cool don’t forget some warm clothing. Wet weather gear is necessary sometimes too!

Beau Macksoud of the English-language hiking group Hiking in the Community of Madrid recommends Los Miradores, marked as the orange trail on the map.

“It’s not super difficult but has great views. It’s about 9 km (5.5 miles). Also, if you want to change your path for something more challenging, it crosses with other routes.”

%Gallery-106170%The trails range from short loop hikes you can do in an hour to all-day slogs that will test even the most fit. Most have a marked change in elevation that will get your heart pumping, and don’t forget to explore the bottom of the valley and its sparkling stream.

The Sierra de Guadarrama played a key role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The forces of the Second Republic, an uneasy coalition of liberal, socialist, communist, and anarchist parties, defended Madrid in a long siege against the fascist and Catholic forces of General Franco. The mountains were the city’s northern bulwark, and you can still see a string of concrete bunkers that protected the passes and valleys of the Guadarramas. Most aren’t fenced off and are safe to explore.

The Guadarramas are the scene for most of the action in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, considered by many to be the classic book on the war, although George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia gives a more realistic view of what the war was really like.

So if you’re headed to Madrid, set aside the wine and art museums for a day and head to the mountains!

Spain almost has lyrics for its national anthem

Spain is one of the very few countries that doesn’t have lyrics to its national anthem; Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kuwait and San Marino are others. When I first found out, I wasn’t surprised and it made me laugh.

Few locals seem to have strong sentiments about this. When I asked my Spanish friends, reactions were mixed — some laughed about it, others were embarrassed but didn’t really dwell on it. Spain is quite ‘whatever’ when it comes to things like this — I suppose there are more important national issues at stake.

Set to a tune from the 18th Century, its words were unanimously abandoned when Spanish dictator Franco died (1978). Since then, all Spaniards manage to muster is a ‘la la la la’ when they win a national or international championship/trophy. Quite embarrassing when you have to hum from a podium because your national song doesn’t have any words.

So three months ago the government along with the Spanish Olympic Committee (SOC) launched a competition for the lyrics and they have received about 5,000 entries. The decision will be announced on December 19 — I can’t wait to see the country react to the decision. Madrid is bidding for the 2016 Olympics, which is a good excuse to sort itself out as soon as possible,

These random eccentricities of Spain is what makes me love the country.

[Via CNN]