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Monday, 24 July 2017

Pride comes before a fall: Deep Catalunya,Part One

Monday 5 June - Friday 11 June
Olot - Joanetes - Olot - Camprodon 
Mare de Deu de Cabrera. So many summits in this part of Catalunya are topped by edifices dedicated to the Mother of God. This website catalogues many of them.
It all went wrong, in a sense, from the second day when I fell, quite literally, arse over elbow, but perhaps the whole project was doomed to follow a trajectory I'd neither anticipated nor hoped for. What had been intended as a more-or-less continuous thru-hike through the hills and mountains of Catalunya turned out, in the end, to be little more than a walking holiday, albeit one that lasted over six weeks. I say 'wrong', but there is, of course, no binary 'right' or 'wrong', no fixed way of going about things; going askew, being lead astray by the pernicious deities that guide the psychogeographer's booted feet is surely to be celebrated.
Isn't it? Rembember, I am, by trade, a pilgrim; I follow, every summer, linear paths that converge on a city of spiritual significance, the destination enlivens the landscape, adds a another veneer of meaning. But the summer of 2017 was to be quite different, no fixed geographical objective but a series of landscapes through which to pass and dwell. It was an experiment, of sorts, I wanted to see whether I could make the transition from pilgrim to thruhiker, as if the two, as some hardened trekkers argue, inhabit entirely different ambulatory spheres.
Familiar ground: the journey began along a branch of the Camino Catalan, a via verde along the old Girona to Olot railway line. Soon, however, the yellow arrows of the Camino de Santiago would be replaced by the red and white flashes of the more secular grand recorrido network of long-distance paths.

As has become my custom, I took the train and bus to my point of embarkation - or perhaps, given the fraught emotions over the six months that preceded the trip - the point of release. The Eurostar to Paris and then the afternoon direct train to Barcelona, alighting at Girona then taking the bus to Olot, a town that's beginining to feel like my second home; chances are it will be my home within the next twelve months. 
The plan was to take a gentle afternoon hike to the wonderful and wonderfully good value Mas Rubio guesthouse and then explore the hinterland to the west of the Garrotxa volcanic zone, including the formidably iconic cliffs of Puigsacalm (pronounced: puj-sa-cal-m). 
Puigsacalm (1515m), in rain and shine: much, much more than a lump of lofty limestone and marls

But my first port-of-call was the Santuari de Mare de Deu, a thin slice of flat limestone that rises somewhat precipitously in the hills of Collsacabra. It's a bit of a slog from Joanetes, first a steep climb out of the Vall d'en Bas on a zig-zagged track that winds its way through the cliff which form the base of the Serra de Collsacabra.

It was hiking the via verde along the Cami de St Jaume last summer that I became aware of Catalunya's distinctive topography. At valley level the characteristic scrap-and-dip-type landscapre creates an impressive repertoire of geomorpholigical features, from up above wave after wave of splintered cliffs and densely-forested slopes marches from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean littoral. 
This is what I mean. A forested piedmont topped by crags around 20-30m in height which in turn give way to a gently undulating plateau ...

... from which rise the peaks of the Serra de Cabrera (1307m, above) and the Cingles d'Aiats (also 1307m, below.

It's a fairly easy three hours' hike to the foot of Cabrera but at the last moment, for those who hesitate with heights, there's a sting in the tail. A brisk climb up thirty-or-so metres of bare, knobbly rock. Your correspondent, who has her 'moments' in situations like these, came perilously close to turning back but she persevered and was rewarded handsomely. 

(above) One of the two paths up to the Santuari de Cabrera clambers quite precipitously up the steep buttress at the end of the plateau through a series of steps and ledges. There is, I soon learned, a gentler approach but this produced the best views (Agulolla de la Tuta (1142m) below)

The short, sharp ascent levels out equally abruptly to a meadow beyond which is the Santuari de Mare de Deu, intact but deserted and locked-up today.
Santuari de Cabrera: is it a church? Is it an hotel? Not even the internet seems to know
From the santuari, the ridge narrows and the path crosses a slender platform of bare rock with steep but not deep drops on either side. The perfect place to cure a person uncertain at heights.
If you insert 'Santuari de Cabrera' into a popular internet search engine you'll come up with 'about' 55,900 results, many of which details routes and walking experiences in the area. But on a Monday in early June I was the only hiker in town and, despite having purchased an excellent 1:25000 Editorial Alpina map, negotiating the network of paths back down the mountain required my full attention. With the asphalt road in sight, I let my concentration slip, congratulated myself on my navigational prowess and forgot to focus on my feet.
I've never fallen before. Not properly, arse-over-elbow-flying-through-the-air rather than a stumble or a slip. It can't have lasted longer than a split-second but I'm still trying to picture the image of my brief, uncontrolled flight. Mercifully, I was carrying a light pack but the impact with the ground still knocked the proverbial stuffing from me. I picked myself up and dusted myself down; no bones broken, a mild state of shock. 
It took a while for the pain and discomfort to set in, I'd twisted my knee and had to tread gingerly for the remainder of the hike. But the full extent of the injury didn't really manifest itself until the following morning when I awoke with stiff limbs and dull pain in my ribs.
In Kafka's Metamorphosis, despite waking up to find he has been transformed into an insect, Gregor Samsa refuses to adjust his life accordingly. Mr Samsa, of course, did not have access to a computer and after consulting the internet and my #InvisiblePilgrim, who just happens to be a nurse as well as an academic, it became apparent that I had bruised or cracked my ribs and that as a consquence all bets were off.
Well, perhaps I was a little Samsa-esque in my response, blithely assuming that after a couple of days of light walking without a full pack I'd be fully restored to health and normal service would be restored. However, an afternoon hike through the Garrotxa soon suggested otherwise, camping was out of the question so I left my gear at the hotel and after the morning-after-the-night-before UK election hubris, jumped on a bus to Camprodon and the higher peaks of the Pyrenees proper. 

An afternoon's recuperative hiking in the Garrotxa volcanic zone: it was already becoming apparent that #DeepCatalunya was something of a misnomer and that the Garrotxa would become the sun around which the next six weeks would orbit.

Deep pastoralism

Path of the Day
It wasn't a good idea. I'd spent hours poring over topographical and geological maps planning my trip when I could've been writing my thesis. Like so many supposedly good ideas, they got flushed down the pan of personal history; #DeepCatalunya and its author were both beginning to fall apart apart at the seams.

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