Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Up the long path to Catalonia

There is a place were the yellow and red ribbons of the Catalans flutter in the high sunshine round a statue of the Virgin. This is the story of how we got there and of the fireworks that followed.

We reached the Pyrennees by train mostly, a track bound journey split only by the Channel, but at Tarascon the rails stop and at last the paths point up. So we teetered off with our big rucksacks sometimes hitching and sometimes walking, down the road and up the valley, through the empty village with its boarded up cafe to the foot of the zig-zaggy road which on average at least aimed up the hill towards Spain. We slowed the pace to a plod on the steep grades, hands on hips and leaning forward to avoid being nailed to the cross of the big sacks. Then at the end of a 1500 mile search for sunny hills the sky darkened to a deep grey and it began to rain. Not just a shower, but a persistent hill rain we both knew from the sacred ground of the West Highlands - this was definitely not in the plan. The drizzle seeped through us until we reached the hanging valley at the top of the zigzags where we camped. To the south, lightning flickered around the hidden peaks that we aimed to reach the next day. It did not look promising.

But the morning and the day that followed were flawless. Guinness ripped open the tent door and my eyes opened to the darkness of the flap against the hard stars. He groaned and coughed and retched and spat the stove into life filling the tent with the odours of meths fumes and powdered milk. The smell drove me deeper into the sleeping bag and when eventually the steaming bowl was placed on my chest I could only demure and reach for the tea instead. “I’ve put in apple flakes to give it some taste.” My dirty look made no impression but once the tea was down and the fur was out of my mouth I could stand outside for both the oats and the apple flakes. There was enough light from the stars to make the head torches pointless and when I did turn it on it seemed intrusive, bouncing light off the weird shapes of the beehive shepherds huts of the Orris de Pujol. We had considered spending the night in them from the safe distance of a Glasgow pub but close up they were sheep fowled and spooky. By the time I had finished the oats, his impatience was the only thing not packed and he boiled slowly as I bumbled into my climbing clothes and threw my gear into my sack. But when I eventually shouldered the pack he beamed broadly at me. “Are ye right?” Aye, I was right. Today had been a long time coming.   

We walked up the deep, blue shadowed valley at dawn as the pink light touching the spires above turned to bright white and scrambled up shallow rock ribs to a snow filled cirque. We stopped and snacked on cheese and bread while still in the cool shadows and watched the sun slowly flood the snow bowl. Then we unstrapped the axes, shouldered the packs and struck out across the snow. We climbed over our first, tiny bergshrund onto the face of Montcalm which continued at a comfortable angle of rock and grass for a  couple of thousand feet before easing out to the granite boulder field of the summit. The air was thin and the rocks glared in the sun making the top hard to obtain but at last after five hours we were there on the summit of Montcalm complete with its fibre glass bear and bear cub. You wonder who thought that one up.

Then we were off -  the usual story of a summit hard won and quickly discarded - down the back of the hill to a high stony col and then slowly up the narrow ridge of Pic d’Estats before crossing at some undefined point into Catalonia and Spain. On the summit, we flew the Saltire in the sun and carried out our usual ritual of Calvinist handshakes but the experience was different to all those other narrow places we had aspired to in our own country. Here the sun shone with an anger and the people who came before had erected crosses and a tiny statue of the Virgin, all decorated with yellow and red ribbons. There were plaques and photos and prayers. The Catalans celebrated their summits while we revel in the dourness of our hills decorating them with either funereal cairns or strictly functional trig pillars. 

But you can only stay for so long and take so many photos before you have to leave and we quit Catalonia after less than an hour. Our route led back over Montcalm and at the col we met a large family of Catalans dressed almost entirely in black. There were young boys and girls, middle aged men and even an old woman. Perhaps a funeral party perhaps carrying a plaque to the summit for a newly lost brother but whatever the reason the grandmother had trekked to a height of 3000 metres in the heat of August. We could only exchange puzzled greetings and pass on by.

So that was Spain - hot and full of tourists.  
Our descent reversed the ascent - down the rocky face of Montcalm, over the snowfield, down the rock rib and then a quick jog down the valley to the tent. It was hot and still in the valley and I had fantasised hard about the stream by the tent. It had been freezing when I collected water the previous night but now it would be just right. I reached the tent first, trotting happily down the path and dumped my rucksack at the tent door. By the time I reached the stream I had stripped to the waist and was seductively removing my sweaty bandana for my date with the wee burn. It was still cold. In fact it was way too cold for anything other than a token immersion of the top of my head. Luckily, Guinness was far enough behind to miss the pathetic spectacle and I was able to get away with a quick “very refreshing” through clenched teeth. The tent was packed away and we headed down laden once again with huge sacks. Our new smiles and suntans made them more bearable but no lighter.

We veered off from the zigzags to follow a path down through the woods. The late sun dappling the path ahead and the living greens of the leaf canopy above. We reached the road as the sun dipped behind the hill and the shadows brought out a horror of clegs - massive horseflies with green eyes. We still had shorts on and had to resort to waltzing down the road together, turning in circles and slapping clegs from the others legs. So it was that as the first car came round the corner  we were slapping and stamping and leaping about with our huge rucksacks on and screaming ”Die ya wee numpty” at the surface of the road. I stuck out a speculative thumb but was greeted by a look of horror from the young woman in the car as she accelerated passed. You could not blame her. When we heard the next engine we got our act together, smoothed down our hair and smiled. The white Renault van screeched to a halt and we piled in the back. The guy driving had very little English so while Guinness tried to chat to him in pidgin I concentrated on the big wolfhound which had got up of the floor of the front passenger seat. It kept making a low, throaty growl when I moved so I adopted the policy of shrinking and staying very still. After a long mile or so it seemed to succumb to my limited charms and jumped over the seat and laid its head on my lap. Nice doggy. Very nice doggy. Any move still resorted in a growl but I was more concerned about the latest insect experience of the day which were making themselves obvious on the dogs head. Eleven scratchy miles passed and we were dropped in the middle of Tarascon outside a cafe.

“Nice guy” said Guinness as the van departed. “I’d love a wolf hound.”
“Aye, right enough” I replied wiping the slobber off my bare leg to look for fleabites.  

We drunk the two best beers that have ever been drunk and headed for the campsite. I was dead beat and with good reason and my feet were beginning to throb so badly that I swore I could hear them. Bed seemed like a good option.  

But Tarascon was in the grip of a summer festival and the day was not over.  As we neared the campsite we realised that entire town was blacked out and suddenly we were in the middle of a huge, silent crowd. From the direction of the wee castle on its rock in the middle of the town came a booming voice with a long stream of French in which I thought I caught the words “Star wars” or even “Sterrrgh Werrrghs” Then the music started and the Force was definitely with us. A single stream of sparkles flew up from the castle ramparts and ended in the most almighty bang and then all hell let loose. If fireworks are your thing  then the Tarascon Festival is the one for you. Never mind that it’s a poky, wee French town - they are more than happy to send their entire annual budget up in smoke in one balmy August night. It was awesome. The whole thing lasted an hour and was accompanied by a bizarre soundtrack which was lost on us tourists. “Look Skywukerrrrgh ... Obee - wchann Kenobee... Le Force” The show got even better when the big rockets started falling to earth and set fire to the scrub on the castle rock. Pretty soon there was a good blaze going right under the castle walls and it looked like this was the start of a night to remember. Then the sirens started and fire engine appeared and a wee guy could be seen flitting about in the light of the flames battering at the burning bushes. The hero of the hour but the surreal commentary still continued
 “Crhann seuluu...bang.. Derth Vederr ...bang”. What a night - we decided to go for a beer.   

And so it was that at somewhere around two in the morning we got reached the campsite with a half empty bottle of a last very expensive biere and a tricolour to go with our saltire. It was a fine tribute to the Auld Alliance that had required Guinness to swing from it with all his weight before it gave way. The French had actually padlocked the ropes so we had no choice - have they no sense of tradition?

So that was Tarascon and the wee, winding path up to Catalonia. It was a good start.

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