Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

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King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

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Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

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Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

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You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

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Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

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The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

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Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

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‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

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Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x

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Release the River

I’ve been known to set out on the odd ridiculous adventure from time to time. Traversing Spain from north to south was one. Dana was definitely another. If the truth be told, I’m frankly surprised it’s taken me until my third week to get up to any hijinks out here in Morocco. I guess my sense of duty to a host family that would rather I spent more time with them than adventuring got in the way.

Nonetheless, the heart wants what it wants. And today what it really wanted was a decent ramble. And that’s exactly what it got.

The plan – if there ever was one – was to take a taxi as far as Martil and follow the coast to the hills to the south. Maybe we’d make for the mountains, or maybe for the coastal road. A man with a plan would have known. Fortunately, I had in my companions, for the first time in a long time, two such people for whom the total absence of a detailed itinerary was not a problem at all, if not a cause for celebration.

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Tetouan isn’t exactly a village, but it does have some gorgeous views

 

We were in Martil for half seven in the morning. My host family had tried to dissuade me from such an early start the night before, claiming that there would be nobody up and about at such an hour on a Sunday morning. As it happens, there were plenty of taxis bound for Martil, and we had a full cab; truly, as there were eight of us crammed into that 1970s Mercedes at one point.

Martil proved to be a false start, not because of the enticements of the Mediterranean, but because of the river. After passing a minor tributary, a mere feint of the Oued Martil, we found our way blocked by the real deal. It was much too deep to ford ‘Vietnam style’, even for brazen adventurers like the three of us, and despite making eyes at a lonely fisherman and his boat on the spit of sand that was just not quite long enough to be a bridge, we eventually had to accept the fact that we had nowhere to go but backwards.

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Checking a decent map beforehand wouldn’t have been such a bad idea…

 

Down, but definitely not out. We tracked down a grand taxi that could take us to Azla, a short distance down the coast. That the taxi had to return to Tetouan to get to Azla – the only bridge for miles being a stone’s throw from my street, of all places – was a little facepalm-inducing. But our cheery taxi driver set us down in Azla without a catch, proving that they’re not all of the bad sort Arch and I encountered in Oulad Berhil, and, choosing the dry riverbed for our guide, we set off inland.

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Dry rivers are and always will be the very easiest of roads

 

The first half hour was nothing short of a Boy Scout adventure. The dry riverbed made for easy going until the bamboo walls that lined its fringes crept in and over and we ended up trekking through a bamboo jungle. Alex made the smart move to turn this to our advantage, taking a long and sturdy cane for a makeshift hiking pole. If we hadn’t followed suit, I suppose the going would have been significantly more difficult further on. Thank goodness for boyish tendencies.

The river took us deep into the Riffian countryside, well away from the beaten track. The river valley itself was an explosion of colour for late June: the glittering stream came to life after a couple of kilometres or so, where great bushes of flowering pink lined the water’s edge and dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies of all descriptions flitted about the water, including some of the most beautiful pennant-winged specimens of the latter that I’ve ever seen. The locals – we met with just a few on the road – were cheery enough, though more than a little bemused, I suspect, at the sight of three wayward adventurers heading deep into the hills with bamboo-cane poles. The scenery was suitably African, at least, and it was really rather hard not to whip out the camera at every turn.

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‘Man is in proper Africa, fam.’

 

We stopped here and there where shade allowed. Man can’t tan like a boss all day, not even with a regular lathering of sun lotion. The valleys of the Rif, it should be said, are a great deal kinder on the shade front than Wadi Dana. After following the river and the road for a couple of hours we reached a turning point and – bravely or foolishly, who knows – cut across country to keep our westward bearing. Keeping west meant a very steep climb in the burning sun, but where in Dana we were long since out of water reserves by the time we began the ascent, I still had a two-liter bottle and a half to myself this time, and the going was a good deal easier for it.

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Alex and Victoria – and, in the distance (that little white strip to the right), the road

 

The mountains, our waymarker, turned out to be a great deal closer than we’d thought once we got to the top. In another couple of hours we could have made it to the slopes. But we were already halfway through our supplies by this point and Tetouan, visible in the distance, seemed a much more sensible destination. We did nab a killer panorama from an abandoned watchtower of some description sat atop the hill we’d fought so hard to summit, which made the climb all the more worth it.

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See that massive expanse of white in the haze? That’s Tetouan

 

From there, it was a mere two hours downhill to Tetouan and a well-deserved shower. The family still couldn’t really take it on board that I’d walked home from Azla – I like to walk, OK? – but I guess they’re getting used to it by and by. It’s been almost three weeks since my first day at Dar Loughat and I haven’t used a taxi since day one. Like I said, man likes to walk. Man will always like to walk. Man was born to walk. And if man gets the chance, man will walk his way to Cape Town one day. BB x

Take Me to the River

The world doesn’t look particularly different at twenty-two. So much has happened since last year, but what’s changed? I’ve been so busy for most of the year that I’ve hardly had time to look. I’ve been binging on Doctor Who lately, and with all of that timely-wimey stuff in mind, I thought I’d pen down a few things that I’ve seen and heard over the last 365 days.

Paris got hit by an earth-shattering terrorist attack, and then a flood six months later. Brussels got attacked shortly afterwards, as did numerous other cities in the Middle East (most of which overlooked, perhaps because Europeans weren’t directly involved). IS obviously wasn’t satisfied with all the fear and blew up Palmyra. It’s a rough world we live in. The migrant crisis is deepening, UK is currently considering leaving the EU and mogul, ‘kill the women and children’, human-seesaw Trump is genuinely the Republican candidate for the US Presidential elections. That may or may not have something to do with all of this. There’s also another plane vanished without a trace, this one flying between Paris and Cairo. We lost a lot of actors to cancer, including Alan Rickman, and also the West African black rhinoceros to boot – but in all the xenophobic madness that’s plaguing the world right now, that’s a loss that most people will have ignored.

There’s a change right away: Ben’s been reading the news this year.

Yesterday was my first shot at getting out and about in Morocco and I seized it by the horns. It was also the first real day of summer, pushing 36°C from 11 o’clock onwards. Summer Ramadan is a challenge on a whole new level. Thank goodness the plan was to spend most of the day in the shade of a canyon.

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Now if Wadi Dana had been this lush and green…

The Moroccan north is nothing short of spectacular. In truth, most of Morocco will blow you away, but the Rif is rather special, even for a seasoned Sierra-trekker like me. Imagine the Pyrenees, sprinkle them with red earth, plant them with cedars and remove the high-rise ski resorts and you have a basic idea of the Rif. You might also care to throw in a few monkeys if it’s to your fancy, though a surprising number of folks wouldn’t.

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Thank God I brought my trunks on a whim

Turn off the road near Talambote and you’ll find yourself in a breathtaking valley of cedar woods and stark, red cliffs, set against a blue, blue sky. Heaven incarnate. There’s a small car park and a couple of bathrooms at the point where a river tumbles out of the mountains, carving its way through the rocks over a series of waterfalls. Akchour and the Bridge of God lie just a couple of kilometres upstream.

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Talassemtane’s pretty amazing, but the party starts south of Tetouan!

The route there is not exactly what you’d call linear; you have to ford the river at least two or three times. And whilst the weather might be sweltering at this time of year, the water rushing down from the mountains is anything but. There are a couple of stepping-stone paths and a few lines of conveniently-placed sandbags,but unless you feel like risking the adventurous, straight-out-of-a-Conan Doyle log bridges, it’s sun’s out, guns out, shoes off. I usually need a seriously good excuse to strip, being white bread through and through, even though I tend to tan pretty well, thanks to the Manchego in my blood (mmm… manchego). Well, a swim is as good an excuse as any.

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Throw me the idol!

The water is cold. It’s not as cold as that pool in the riad we stayed in over in Chaouen, but it’s still bloody cold. After about fifteen minutes in the river my jaw is shaking uncontrollably and I’m having to bite my tongue to talk, which is hardly the most efficient way of going about it. But the water is so clear you can count the stones on the riverbed two metres down. And somewhere up in the trees high above, troops of macaques patrol the cliffs. I only had a fleeting glimpse of them this time, but I’ll be back. Hey, I can’t help it; I lived with two anthropologists last year. It did my obsession with primates no good whatsoever. Get up close and personal with our distant family and tell me you don’t feel some kind of connection on a deeper level – it’s in the eyes. You can tell they’re thinking.

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Barbary Macaque in the Cedar Forest, Ifrane National Park, Morocco (2015)

They must be. If you aren’t buying it, visit the Rock. The Gibraltar macaques know all the tricks to relieve tourists of their munchies: smash and grab, puppydog eyes, even a rudimentary pincer movement. But here they’re free, unfed (and thus unspoiled) by tourists and wary enough to be considered natural. And that’s beautiful.

The car ride home was nothing short of a dream. Why? Because Omar, our guide, spoke Spanish. As did Mika, as did Jennifer. As did I. I can hardly tell you how amazing it felt to be speaking Spanish again after what feels like ages, even though it can only have been ten days, tops. It made returning to Arabic on Monday morning all the harder, but it was worth it for the high. Send me back to Spain. I can see the blue skies, I can see Paradise.

The Corrs have a new album out. White Light. I’m in a very happy place. And now I’m not booked out this August, I might just get to see them after all. BB x

Griffonheart

Sometimes, when a bird flies low over your head, you can hear the rush of wind through its wings. Swifts do that, from time to time. Swifts and pigeons. It’s a quiet, singing sound like a sudden release of breath, over and gone by the time you’ve worked out where it came from. Now try to picture the same scenario with a nine-foot wingspan. The result sounds something like a gale, a genuine roar of wind, every bit as impressive as those giant wings. This is Monfragüe and this is a griffon, truly one of the most spectacular creatures on the planet.

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I don’t really know what it is that attracts me to vultures so much. They’re not the most attractive creatures on the planet. Their heads are snake-like and feather-bare, their eyes are cold and sinister and they spend their entire lives feeding on dead things. If birds are supposed to sing, vultures sound like they have a bellyful of iron filings when they make a sound – and that isn’t often. But for some reason, I’m obsessed with the damned things, and always have been.

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Extremadura is a very special part of the world, but doubly so if you’re as much of a bird nut as I am. The immense blue skies are almost always dotted somewhere in the middle with a black speck wheeling round and round on the thermals: kite, eagle or vulture. I grew up in the south of England where the largest soaring bird you’re likely to see is a rook, and I still remember the sheer thrill of seeing my very first vulture when I was about nine years old. For me they represented Valmik Thapir’s India, of cliff-forts and desert kingdoms. To see them wheeling lazily about the Spanish sky was like something out of a dream. And so the love affair with the griffons began.

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Since then, they’ve got me stranded in the mountains, terrified my little brother, warned me of thunderstorms and – in quite possibly my favourite travel anecdote to date – they even got me arrested by the Spanish military police. I kid you not. Apparently photographing vultures isn’t a believable excuse for wandering about the countryside alone at fifteen without one’s passport…

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(Not even for results like this…?)

If I’d had any idea what kind of scrapes my passion for vultures would get me into, I wonder whether I’d have had second thoughts. Somehow I doubt it. Something tells me I’d have found my way to the same spot sooner or later.

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There are four kinds of vultures in Europe, and all four of them can be found in Spain – if you know where to look. The griffons are the most obvious and by far the most numerous, nesting in colonies that can number as many as a thousand strong. The other resident is the far rarer black vulture, recognisable by its sheer size alone; fully-grown adults measure three metres from wingtip to wingtip, making them one of the largest birds in the world. The Egyptian vulture is a smaller summer visitor from Africa, where they eat ostrich eggs by smashing them open with stones. But it is the fourth and final that is the most famous: the lammergeyer, a golden-bodied, diamond-tailed king of the skies that feeds almost entirely on bones. I’ve only ever seen one once, at an incredible distance, whilst in the French Pyrenees some seven years ago. It remains one of my greatest dreams to go chasing after the legendary quebrantahuesos, ‘the one that breaks bones’.

Like I said, I’m hooked on the creatures.

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I have to admit, they do have some seriously menacing eyes…

Dad was in a grouchy mood and didn’t let us stay very long. Must be something to do with the distance from Villafranca to Monfragüe (which, I should point out, is as beautifully in the middle of absolutely nowhere as are all of my favourite destinations). I could happily have spent five hours and more just stood atop the castle with the vultures wheeling about all around me, or sitting under the cliff and watching them plummeting out of the sky and onto the rock in a fierce rush of thunder.

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Needless to say I will be back. Everyone has their vice. Some like their drink, some like their fast cars, others have difficulty sitting still. I have this peculiar fascination with vultures and I’m not even close to understanding them. Yet. BB x

Adventures in Cow Country

Good morning Cantabria!

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Cabezón de la Sal is a simply gorgeous mountain village sat in a cleft between the hills of Santillana and the Escudo de Cabuérniga, a mighty ridge stretching in a straight line all the way to the Asturian border. What makes it so immediately different from the south is the layout of the town: if anything, it’s more English than Spanish. Where small two-story flats hold the monopoly in the town centre, semidetached houses dominate almost everywhere else. Long gone are the snake-like rows of white houses with barred windows and marble porches; the Cantabrian norm is stone-brick dwellings with wooden roofs and quaint, upper-storey balconies. It’s charming, if a little alien to a habituated southerner like me.

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There are buses – apparently – but it’s the local train service that holds sway here. Quiet, comfortable and cheap at the price, Cantabria’s FEVE provides a reliable alternative to Extremadura’s LEDA – provided you arrive in town before ten to nine at night, that is.

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‘Let’s go to Potes,’ says Kate, ‘for a little walk.’ So off we went to Torrelavega, that city of burgeoning factories and towering flat-blocks that I passed through twice four years ago in the early days of my trans-Iberian adventure. In the sunlight, Torrelavega looks…

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…well, I’ll not beat about the bush. Torrelavega is not exactly Paris. If Cabezón is a more rustic version of Villafranca, Torre is the Almendralejo equivalent in Kate’s neck-o’-the-woods. But like Almendralejo, it’s got its own charms. One of them goes by the name of red velvet sponge-cake.

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We arrived in Torrelavega looking for the bus to Potes, but the bus station proved singularly unhelpful, and a quick browse of the internet told us that the bus we were looking for left not from the bus station, but from the Palomera office by the train station we’d just left behind. In a scene which echoed the night before (albeit in slow motion), we half-ran back to the station… but there was absolutely no sign of the bus. Or any bus. Or even a bus stop, for that matter. Unless the Potes bus is a mystical bus which flies through the air and receives its passengers from the balcony of the Palomera offices on the second floor, I declare that bus stop to be an enigma. The city of Atlantis and the fabled kingdom of Shangri-La have captivated the imagination of man for centuries. Now I shall brazenly add the Palomera bus stop to that box of unsolved mysteries.

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Thinking on our feet, we dabbled with the idea of catching the train into Asturias in search of the equally mysterious inland bay of Gulpiyuri, but after all of that faffing around with the Potes bus we’d just missed the only practical train to Llanes by five minutes. As though calling out from a memory, Santillana del Mar came to mind and I decided we would grab the next train back to Cabezón and strike out for the coast via the Town of Three Lies. Public transport has as its advantages, but as a species, we should never forget that it was learning to walk on our own two feet that got us where we are today. And so off we went.

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The strangest thing about this last-minute change of plan was that it meant retracing my steps almost pace for pace from that ridiculous adventure, now some four years ago, right down to getting off at the very station where the driving rain turned me back to the shelter of Santillana del Mar. But for a few forks in the road, I had the entire route embedded in my mind as though I’d walked it ten times over rather than once. Perhaps that’s fate. She’s been playing a long game with me.

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It felt decidedly weird coming down out of the hills into the cobbled streets of Santillana all over again. As Spanish villages go, Santillana has got to be amongst the very prettiest. It’s known as the town of three lies – being neither holy, flat, nor by the sea – but if that is so, then it’s a damned beautiful liar. As I so often find myself doing, I made sure to revisit all of the places I’d been before: the same church, the same quesada shop, the same Savage Culture boutique that I still don’t fully understand. I can’t explain it, but something about this town keeps pulling me back.

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We had a picnic lunch of peanut butter sandwiches on the steps of the Colegiata de Santa Juliana and basked in the afternoon sun. 15 degrees Celsius… not bad for Cantabria. In all the bad weather Spain’s north coast has been having of late, I must confess I think myself bloody lucky to have landed a whole twenty-four hours of glorious sunshine in the one day I had to explore the place. I could hardly have asked for better: better weather, or better countryside, or better company.

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Leaving Santillana behind, we climbed steadily northwards across the rolling hills to the coast. Along the way we were misled by the Arch-Deceiver that is HERE Maps, which tried to convince us that what looked suspiciously like an overgrown stream was actually a main road, and we were caught up in a high-speed chase with a tractor, like an extremely low-budget Cantabrian version of Need for Speed. The stereotype lives: Cantabria truly is a land of green hills, of cows and of tractors.

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The last time I wandered these hills, the skies were iron-grey and I could only see as far as the next range of hills for the glowering rainclouds. I can’t have known it at the time, but I was seriously missing out. After abandoning the path and freelancing our way up a hill, Watership Down fashion, we were treated to what must be the most awe-inspiring landscape I’ve seen since I first stepped onto the plains of Caceres.

For once, I had the full works on me, so you can enjoy the view three times over, with the wide-angle 18mm…

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…and the macro 200mm…

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…and the telephoto 500mm.

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Sadly, the Nikon-compatible Sigma 500mm doesn’t come with an in-built autofocus motor, so it won’t be the powerhouse it has always been for rapid-fire avian photography, but at least I got some use out of it this weekend.

It was a beautiful view and all of that, but it was an equally beautiful dead end, so we had to climb back down the hill, cross the cow-fields and roll under a possibly electrified fence in order to get back to the road down to the sea (we didn’t check to find out – not when we were so close to our goal). After a very long and very winding road down one last hill, we made it – at last – to the sea.

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Extremadura has so much to offer, but there’s one thing it really lacks: the sea. You don’t notice until you think about it. Discounting Uganda, I’ve never lived more than an hour from the sea (much less in the UK) so Extremadura is the most inland location I’ve ever had to deal with. To see the Atlantic in all its cold fury once again was a real sight for sore eyes. The storm-force winds and murderous waves of the previous week are gone, but the waves still put on a formidable display for us.

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We spent about an hour by the sea, Kate and I, watching the waves pounding the shore and snacking on Cantabria’s finest delicacy, quesada pasiega. Yum yum. There’s a little ermita built into a cave in the cliffs which we didn’t get the time to visit, but I doubt it would have looked any more impressive up close than from afar. Imagine living in a place like that, with the sound of the Atlantic roaring all about you, twenty-four hours a day. The focus you would have to have – or learn to have – borders on the superhuman. Little wonder, then, that it is what it is. I wonder how an estate agent might describe it?

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It’s getting to that time of year when the sun starts to set later, but sunset was already fast approaching as we turned back for Santillana at about six o’clock. In the gloom of the oncoming night, we finished off the quesada on the banks of the Saja river by moonlight and killed time by making for Rudagüera, the next stop along the Cabezón line… and then legging it back the way we came when it became apparent that it was a little further than we’d thought (one last flick of the claw from HERE Maps) and that we’d probably miss the next train.

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Back in Cabezón, after a drink at a local hunters’ bar, complete with mounted boar heads and numerous black-and-white stills of hunting men of old stood proudly over the carcasses of Cantabria’s once widespread brown bears, Kate took me to visit one of her favourite eateries, El Paraíso. At 2,45€, I thought a ración of patatas bravas would be enough to fill a corner after so much walking (we crammed in about thirty kilometres today, all in all), but I forgot…

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We’re in the north. In my experience, northerners in any country seem to have a much better idea as to what constitutes a decent portion size. Maybe it’s the climate. Who knows? In my earlier traveling days, food was the last thing I was prepared to fork out for. How things have changed since then! Coming back from that Spain trek dangerously underweight four years ago has left a profound mark, and these days food is the one luxury I’m prepared to spend on, and spend well. A long day’s walking deserves a long night’s eating, and I think I did pretty well on both fronts.

So, all in all, it was a very successful trip, albeit a very brief one! I was lucky enough to get a BlaBlaCar on the way back that didn’t mess me around. Better yet, he was no more and no less than a gaditano. Oh, to hear that accent again after twenty-four hours and more of people pronouncing their s’s…! You have no idea how happy it made me.

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Cabezón de la Sal to Villafranca is still a bloody long way to go, but where the bus took all of nine hours, Rafa made it for me in six. In those six hours, taking in the windswept, snowy heights of Reinosa, I was treated to the finest conversation BlaBla can offer, up to and including:

  • Franco’s suppression of the education system
  • The legacy of al-Andalus
  • An anthropological history of Cadiz
  • The true nature of corruption in Spain
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • Gibraltan Spanglish
  • The rationality of England’s outside stance on the EU
  • Podemos and the total absence of a government at the moment
  • Why and how dubbing came to be one of Spain’s biggest businesses (and blights)
  • Piracy in the Old Mediterranean
  • The Growth of the Spanish film industry

I could go on. There were at least five or six hours of it. And all of it in Spanish, and in the very finest gaditano. Talk about a workout… and politics! The eighteen year-old me would never have believed a word of it.

Needless to say, my faith in BlaBlaCar is restored and I’ll be bound for Cadiz proper at some point to make good on that drink I’ve been offered. If I am to live up to the title of ‘Él que va conociendo al mundo’ that I’ve been given, BlaBlaCar is a damned good way of going about it.

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But last of all, I’d like to air high-five my good friend Kate for putting me up (and putting up with me) for two nights and a day in Cantabria. Yours truly is not the most pleasant company in a city, but in the countryside where he belongs, he’s just as insufferable, if only on the other side of the positive/negative spectrum. Kate’s seen me at my lowest in Amman and probably at my highest – quite literally – in the life-giving paradise that is Cantabria. Thank you, Kate, and I hope to return the favour when you’re down in the south! The adventure never ends. Not really. Not ever. BB x

PS. You can read about her side of things here. It’s a lot more tongue-in-cheek than mine.

Tractor Beam

Andalucia and Extremadura have plenty in common. They’re both southern, they’re both gorgeously hot and sunny most of the time and the language in both of them borders on the incomprehensible. So you can understand why I applied for both when I got myself into this auxiliar malarkey just over a year ago. My third choice, unmentioned since my very first blog posts back in May, was Cantabria. Land of cows, snow-capped mountains, green hills and tractors. The Iberian Alps, the Spanish Yorkshire. About as far away from the dusky south as you can get. So what in Creation drove me there this weekend – besides a frustratingly slow bus?

I’ll put it like this. You can’t keep a good man down, and you most definitely can’t shut up a wanderer in his house for long.

Besides hopping down to Olvera for Carnaval, I’ve done no traveling since Madrid back in the first week of January. That’s only a couple of months back, granted, but compared to the madness of last term, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing of late. In any case, I got a bad case of itchy feet last week and, watching the weather forecast, I made a spontaneous decision to visit my dear friend Kate in Cantabria – on the other side of the country. She’s working as an auxiliar up there and we’ve got much the same setup, right down to the state/private school split. If you haven’t already been keeping up with her adventures, check them out over at Langlesby Travels. Besides being jolly good fun, it makes for a lot easier reading than most of my biweekly outpourings!

I’d planned on two full days up north, as for the first time since I started trawling the site last year there was a super-convenient BlaBlaCar bound for Santander at midnight on Thursday, meaning I’d be in Cantabria for seven o’clock in the morning. It was just too good to be true…!

And so it proved. After a fourth BlaBlaBlunder where the driver changed his mind and shifted the drive six hours earlier, bang in the middle of my afternoon classes, any hopes of arriving early were dashed, so I resigned myself instead to one day in Cow Country and one whole day on the bus. Thanks, BlaBlaCar. I feel like it’s important to point out that as a system it’s by no means foolproof, as so many headstrong young things would have you think. It’s done me some very good turns and I do believe it really is the way forward, but it’s screwed me over in equal measure. You win some, you lose some. In that sense, perhaps BlaBlaCar is a good metaphor for life.

The journey began, as they so often do, in Mérida, where I found myself on the Roman bridge, scanning the reeds for a ridiculously early little bittern. Villafranca and its endlessly repetitive surroundings lack a viable soul spot, which Mérida offers in the ever-changing Guadiana. Mérida may always seem to be lacking something, but the river has never let me down. There’s something beautifully elemental about rivers. This one in particular is never the same. The first time I saw it, the river was playing host to several families of purple gallinules, frolicking about in the reeds. A month later the whole stretch was clogged with water hyacinth. Three weeks after that, half of it had been siphoned off and the rest was being heaped onto the banks by a team of gumboots. This weekend, the river was barely ankle-deep, with only the deepest stretch in full flow – only to be magically restored to life two days later. Oh Guadiana, you baffle me.

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What gives, Guadiana?

The journey north was fairly uneventful. I spent almost all of it trying to read Cavell’s Moghul, but more often than not staring out of the window at the changing scenery and, before sundown, came to the conclusion that Cáceres province truly is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. If you don’t believe me, visit Plasencia. If Spain has an Eden outside of Doñana, it may be found there.

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Snow on the mountains in Castilla y Leon

Despite reassurances from the driver that we were perfectly on schedule, we still pulled into Torrelavega a full twenty minutes late – which, coincidentally, is the exact amount of time I’d factored on giving myself to get from the bus station to the train station. Sprint as fast as I did – I may not be much of a sportsman, but I consider myself half-decent over a short distance – I arrived at the station just as the last train was leaving. Last year’s BB would have cried in frustration at this oh-so predictable turn of events; this year’s BB shrugged it off and chartered a taxi. It ended up costing me almost as much to go the last few kilometres to Cabezón de la Sal as it did to come all the way from Mérida, and at least three times the train fare, but that’s taxes for you. I’ve told you before… I don’t like taxis. Period.

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The River Tagus in the plains of Caceres

At any rate, I made it to Cabezón de la Sal and, after wandering aimlessly in the dark, lost in the Alpine beauty of the place, Kate finally found me, introduced me to her friend Almu and I had my southern accent swiftly corrected. That can only mean one thing: all those weekends in Olvera are paying off. They’ll make a guiritano out if me yet.

The following day’s adventures require a post in their own right, so I’ll give them that much. Keep your eyes peeled for the second installment! BB x

Multiple Personalities

My stomach hurts from laughing so hard. The view of the night sky from the roof of the Dana Tower Hotel is really something special, Milky Way, shooting stars and all – and yet I’ve spent the last two hours face-down on my mattress choking on laughter. And all because of the wonderful invention that is Psychiatrist.

Today has been, without a shadow a doubt, the most ridiculous series of adventures yet. I’m all fired out from the mind games we’ve been playing, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg – the last of a long sequence of madcap antics since waking up at Nancy’s this morning. The family rustled up a wonderful breakfast for us in much the same line as the night before: energy food galore. Andrew and I crept away to write the family a thank you letter and packed our bags into a corner of the room to go. The family came in and served tea, and there we were, in what can only be described as a hospitable but highly awkward state of siege. We wanted to get on our way, but at the same time we kept being denied the opportunity; on our second attempt, just as we’d reached a decision, we were invited to join them for mansaf, which we couldn’t really deny, seeing as they’d already started. Then followed several rounds of ‘the Moon is in the Spoon’, which only the father of the family could get his head around, and he didn’t even play a single round with us. Another hour and a half later it was pushing three o’clock and they looked to be after a second night, which had to be postponed if we should ever get to see Dana at all. We had four oranges we could have given them as gratitude but it seemed more awkward a gift than none at all, paltry as it was. So having got them out, we packed them back into the bag and made our broken farewells before finally crossing the threshold and striking out for the road, though not before receiving another invite should we ever be in Tafileh again.

The next half hour was a world away. From the almost entirely female household of Nancy’s world we moved on to a minibus carrying half a platoon of Jordanian soldiers on their way to a wedding party, though it could just as easily have been a stag night, for all I know. It certainly sounded as much. The ringleader tried to press cigarettes on us all in turn whilst a guy in the row in front of me kept slapping his chest and yelling “sniper, sniper – best in Jordan”. Climbing aboard was a bit of a rogue move, since we didn’t really know where it was going, but it ended up to be heading our way, and it was totally worth it for the experience. When we were finally dropped off in Ar-Rashādiyya, we were well and truly worn out. The following minibus ride to Dana was notable only in that I lost any and all feeling in my legs; the driver loaded the five of us plus one of the grunts into his ride, kitted out with a very inconveniently placed sub-woofer, so that I had to endure a twenty minute drive sat sideways with my legs crushed between the dashboard, my bag and the grunt’s physique, with the driver ramming the gear stick into the small of my back every few minutes. By the time we got to Dana I felt like I’d been amputated.

Dana is beautiful, though. Maybe it’s because we’re here in the lowest of low season, but it was almost deserted. Not a modern construction in sight and plenty of scrambling opportunities; almost stone for stone the way I wanted it to be. We scrambled up the mountainside for a killer sunset over the canyon before dinner, which was well worth the extra dinars, though being stuffed to the gills with Nancy’s mansaf we were hard-pressed to do the chef justice. So to kill time (and an unusually full stomach) I introduced the team to Psychiatrist. Chaos ensued, as it invariably does with that madcap thinking game, but at least I saw it played properly for the first time. The lack of alcohol really does help.

Sounds like everyone’s kipped out. Andrew and Andreas stopped talking a few minutes ago. I guess I’d better follow suit. Early start tomorrow. My walking boots are so ready for this. BB x