Updated: Feb 24, 2021
It was an oil painting come to life, and I was doing everything I could to capture it with camera and memory.
My night in the village of Beget was uneventful, which is exactly what you want when you’ve been hiking all day in the heat and just want to sleep. After having dinner, I hit the hay quite early, wanting to get plenty of rest in before the next day of hiking. I had to be on my game now, more than before, as I was tired of walking down the wrong damn path. My phone was charged and I was going to check my GPS more often, take my time and check everything before choosing a direction. The sound of the nearly river helped me drift off and when I rose it was still a little dark. I packed up my tent and got everything in my bag, ready to head off into the morning. I wasn’t going to wait for David this time, nor anybody else in fact – the path was mine today and if I ran into people, or they hiked at the same speed, then that would be fine. I was the first to leave our little encampment, which had grown since I went to bed. It was myself, David and the Basque couple, but there were also the 2 people I saw at the bar yesterday, the couple hiking the GR in the other direction. David’s tent was a small, one-man affair with a just enough room for his bag to go inside, and the Basque guys had a 2-man tent to share. The other couple however, slept apart and quite differently. The guy had a tiny little tent, no bigger than a coffin really (length, height and width!), and his partner was left out in the elements with only a sleeping bag to protect her, her face sticking up out of it. It was a little off-putting to be honest – not something I expected and a little scary. Their boots and backpacks were also just left outside. Although weight is always a consideration, I would rather carry an extra kilo than wake up to a wet face, bag and boots. Also, who would happily leave their partner open to the elements while they had a tent? I got my things together, put on my (dry) boots and shouldered my (dry) backpack and headed off. Even though the town had pretty much been empty when I arrived, it was most definitely a ghost town now. I snapped a few pics of the beautiful and very distinctive 12th century church of San Cristóbal on my way out and carried on along the path to Molló. The church was built in the Romanic style and has the tall, square bell tower and curved apse that is particular to churches in the mountains of Catalonia and Andorra. I made a mental note to come back to this special little place when I could spend more time here.
I left Beget, following the path that wound its way up through the forest, along a small river, and went up and up. It was getting warm and I was starting to sweat already. There was nobody else around, just a few farm houses and a lot of trees. The path crisscrossed the road, sometimes following it and then, for some unknown reason, it ducked into heavy shrubs and muddy paths that were uneven at best, only to come back onto the side of the road, making everything much longer and harder than it had to be. I thought about just staying on the road instead and making life a little easier on myself, but decided I needed to follow this path 100%, just in case. The path eventually led away from the road and didn’t go back, so I was happy about that – who knows where I would have gone to. The trail started to get steeper and I found myself puffing a little in the humidity, but after some time I came to clearing on top of a rise. This is where I decided that I would have breakfast, as I found a bench overlooking the direction I’d just come with some great views. This part of the country was much greener and wetter and I hardly remembered my first days on the coast; dry and hot with nothing but scratchy plants and rocks. I made my morning muesli of oats and powdered milk, munched on an apple and drank some water, enjoying the small things in life. The Basque couple arrived at this point but didn’t stop, they just kept steaming up the hill, walking sticks clicking away. I can only remember her name, Haizea, as it is such a strange Basque name – so hard I couldn’t even say it after she told me, and got her to write it down eventually (along with her email address so I could send them some photos). I finished my breakfast and left, knowing that Molló wasn’t that far away. I followed the curvy road, with the town in my sights, I came across an interesting sign. It talked about the great exile, or ‘retirada.’ Between January and March 1939, upwards of 85,000 and 95,000 people fled the civil war in Spain, hiking and crossing the Pyrenees, from Molló in Catalonia (Spain) to Prats de Molló in France. These people had fled for their lives, carrying whatever they owned, sometimes dumping their bags along the way so they could finish the hike… also, they were doing it during winter! A very sad story for many people – if only more people had more patience and understanding for refugees, as I’m sure many countries have a story like this so how can they judge and deny these poor souls? I bumped into the Basque couple again when I got into town at 11:15 and we sat down for a bit and had a chat while we got some water into us from the local fountain. I shared some of my peanut butter, which neither of them had ever seen before but both loved. We set off together, but I knew they would push ahead very soon, and so didn’t worry. I’d see them sooner or later, most likely in Setcases.
I did lag behind, but it wasn’t because I was unfit. They were clearly fitter than I was, but I was also taking photos. That was my excuse anyway! I did get some gorgeous photos of this part of the hike though (in my honest opinion), as it was hard not to – I was high up, climbing way up to 1,865m at the highest point for the day, all the way from 531m at Beget. From my vantage point I got a 360 degree view, from the green hills of the Garrotxa area to the magnificent Pyrenees. The trail was easy to follow as it was basically a giant dirt road, but it was steep and only went up. Somehow, I didn’t struggle, even though the sun was beating down on me and it was very hot. I met some quite friendly cows along the way too. I say friendly because they let me pass without panicking too much, as well as letting me take some close up family photos. There were dozens of baby cows, most hiding behind their mothers, and even a bull or two. I just couldn’t get over how beautiful it was up here – the green of the grass slightly lighter than the trees, the deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds. It was an oil painting come to life, and I was doing everything I could to capture it with camera and memory. A guy on a mountain bike stopped to say hi before rocketing up the hill, leaving me to eat his dust. I passed another guy coming down, who also said hi but stopped to chat. His name was Javi and he was from Terrassa of all places – the next city from Sabadell where I lived. We chatted about the trail, recommended a few places to camp, a few places not to, and we got on very well – all in Catalan! He was carrying everything, just like me, and he must have had about 17kgs on his back too. He had a smartphone with the maps on it, charging on his backpack with solar panels (I noted that for next time), but what surprised me was he was only carrying a 500ml plastic drink bag! He asked me if there was a fountain at the next stop as he’d already run out of liquid. I assured him there was, but also warned him about the last leg or two of the journey and how scarce the water was. How he was doing this on such little water I didn’t know – I carried about 2.5L on me and filled up when I could. He told me he’d lost loads of weight since starting, showing me how lose his backpack straps were and that he couldn’t make them any tighter. I wished him luck and kept going, me heading up and him going down. I was making good time and wasn’t finding it that difficult! Had I found my hiking legs today? The trail wasn’t rocky, slippery or covered by trees, just up; so I put my head down, stuck it into 1st gear and didn’t stop till I got to the top. I love the phrase, “Don’t stop till you get to the top.” It was a favourite saying of a past hiking buddy of mine, Steffie from Stuttgard, when he hiked together in Chile and Argentina. Happy days.
I must have got a little distracted by the view and the cows (and taking photos), because I over-shot the turn off a little. I bumped into 5 Catalans who were coming down from another path and I asked them just to make sure. I’d gone maybe 4kms too far, but I wasn’t lost. They pulled out their paper map (yes! Nothing like a real map) and I saw where I was and where I needed to go. If I had kept going, I would have detoured onto a smaller section of the GR-11 and gone past the Collada Fonda to another refuge higher up, rather than end up in Setcases. No big deal. I turned around and starting the downward trek from 1,800m down to 1,270m. The only thing that worried me were the clouds that were shaping up - big, black and nasty. There was a storm coming, and coming my way. I tightened the backpack and quickened the pace a little, confident that I’d make it before the rain hit. I knew it was eminent though, the wind was picking up and by now was blowing worse than me on the uphill in 35c heat. As I turned a corner and started going down, I could see Setcases nestled in the valley. I jogged the last 30 minutes into town as the storm wasn’t going to wait for me. I arrived in Setcases an hour later than expected, but still, 5pm wasn’t too bad, and 30 minutes before the storm. I ran into Haizea and her boyfriend in the little supermarket in town where we bought a few things for dinner. We also grabbed a couple of beers and enjoyed them outside under some cover while the storm let rip finally. She was a Basque language teacher in a town near Bilbao, but she spoke English too. He, on the other hand, couldn’t speak English and it was hard to understand his Spanish too. They’d been planning this hike for some time, going from West to East so they’d be home when they finished, but Covid had complicated things. Unable to hike, they’d borrowed a static bike from her dad and cycled every day at home. I could tell they were fit, and although she was quite thin, she was no whimp! The guy didn’t look much either, but he was your typical, tough Basque mountain type, and he carried their shared tent and most of the heavy stuff. I also found out they’d done some hiking in Nepal as well (I was there back in 2013), and they agreed that hiking this trail was harder. Fancy that!
We decided to stick together and find a place to camp for the night. I was worried about David though – I hadn’t seen him all day and the storm didn’t reassure me very much. We camped on the edge of town, right at the start of tomorrow’s leg leading to Nuria. We chatted over dinner but all of us were tired and wanted to sleep. Our spot was good though, the sound of the river to help us sleep, fresh running water for drinking and washing up and the cover of trees in case it rained. I knew we’d start the day together tomorrow, as these guys got up early just like me, but then as always, they’d speed ahead. The sun set in Setcases and there was no rain or even wind, the storm had already moved on. I never did see David again, and I have no idea where he was, but I knew that with his hiking experience, he’d be safe. That's the way of the trail; you meet people and then you say goodbye... In the morning you always say 'have a good hike' (un bon camí) and maybe you'll see each other again, maybe not. I went to sleep content after a great day’s hike, even though we were a man done. I’d done 23kms (plus about 4kms extra) and met some great people along the way though!
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. July 2020.