The rain started somewhere in the night and didn´t stop. The land could use it so we only complained a little while we dismantled and packed our wet tents. Like most mornings, especially while camping, it all took a bit longer than expected and miraculously just before we were ready to head off the last drops fell down. I lingered a bit, it was such a beautiful place and there had been so little time to wander around yesterday. All over the land around the lime ovens, installations made out of natural materials were slowly changing shape, falling apart, decomposing, growing into something else. I hadn´t had a chance to talk to the people running the art centre yet but now there was, or maybe there wasn´t because I was supposed to walk but I took it anyway.
It was 10.30 when I left, walking the last bit of yesterday´s walk in return. Nothing looked the same though. Colours were darker and dimmer, the sounds were different, the smell of the burned vegetation in the part of the forest that had recently burned down due to a forest fire smelled far more intense than it did yesterday. What was most shocking though was that the Montserrat mountains had disappeared completely. Not a single peak was visible. Our goal was nowhere to be seen.
In Navarcles I had a double deja-vu. I sat on the same bench I sat on yesterday and stared at the water. No fishermen on the opposite side today, only a young man who looked as if his girlfriend had just left him and he didn´t know what to do. He stood on the riverbank like a salt statue, staring at the water just like me. A runner passed me, singing loudly. He ran across the bridge, passed the immobilized young man on the other side and disappeared out of sight. I checked my map, ate some figs. A runner passed me, singing loudly. He ran across the bridge, passed the immobilized young man on the other side and disappeared out of sight. I walked off before he would do his third round. A completely new road lay ahead after Navarcles.
The path followed the river Seu. Lush vegetation, bamboo bushes and big trees. Confetti on the trail in the middle of nowhere, who had been celebrating what here? A convent with closed doors, cameras checking if I wasn’t trying to get in. A big conference complex in front of it, with the photo of the founder on the wall of what once was a big factory, hence the name la Fábrica. I made a stop next to a young birch wih dead leaves. My hand almost fitted around its bark.
Walking up, out of the valley, I saw some glimpses of Montserrat again. The noise of the highway, that must have started somewhere barely audible and had quickly gotten louder, took over the sound of the water. I crossed a big road and civilisation was back. Allotment gardens, houses, a quite messy environment, dogs barking.
I entered Manresa at what I could only imagine to be the ugliest part of the city. Factories, warehouses, gigantic fastfood restaurants, big parking areas. No beauty without ugliness. And I bet loads of people loved hanging around here and didn’t spend one second wondering about the aesthetics of this place.
Into the center, across a metal bridge. Through a big door into a beautiful spacious hallway. Up the stairs, into the apartment. On the sofa. I had arrived. We had. Again.
The sky looked like a thick grey blanket but in the far distance orange sunrays pierced through it. I had slept under a layer of plastic on an improvised bed of hay behind the two towers. The camp on the other side was still quiet, some people were waking up slowly. I decided to walk ahead and make the most of the day. Fig breakfast on the road, beautiful views of the mountains we had already walked through behind of me. Two huge black dogs running as fast as they could through a field into the forest. Montserrat was clearly visible today but looked so unreal with the dramatic clouds hovering above it.
The small mountain inbetween me and Manresa was a bit of a climb but nothing compared to the mountains we had encountered in our first days. I followed the red and white of the long distance walking trail and spend some time on the top looking at the shiny city at my feet.
A sign told me I was walking on a Camí de la Sal, via salinaria, an old salt road. It was a hot day, I was sweating. Salt.
I carried the last oak tree through the Carrer de les Alzines, the Oak Road into Sant Joan de Vilatorrada. The magic of coffee, the ugliest church I had seen so far, the beauty of old abandoned factory buildings, a gravel road leading through fields and fenced properties, fruit trees everywhere. Two thirsty men asked me if I knew where they could find water and I explained them where the nearest stream was.
The northern outskirts of Manresa. Big highways and of course the yellow M. I had spotted it on trash aside the road earlier already. Funny to see a MacDonalds again. I ate plums and grapes and apples and figs instead, still walking on the old salt road that led me past the Parc de l’Aguila. A big lake, I thought about swimming but it wasn’t allowed.
The industrial area of Sant Fruitós de Bages was defenitely the ugliest place I’d seen in a long time. It is interesting to walk through those areas though and enjoy all the crazy visual distraction. Nobody was walking. People drove their cars up to the doors of the megastores and plunged in to buy more things to stuff their houses with.
Navarcles. A lovely old bridge crossing the river, imprints of dog feet in the concrete, houses built on the edge of a natural stone wall. A lovely river walk, still under a grey sky.
After Navarcles the landscape was open again. Black trees and fields were the sad remains of a forest fire that had raged close to here not so long ago. The saddest sight. Montserrat was in my back now, the goal for today was a small detour but a worthwhile one. El Forns de la Calc, the lime stone ovens, now turned into the artist residency CACiS, with a focus on land art, ecology and performance.
When I stopped for a final break, the rest of the group passed me in cars. They hadn’t made it all the way. I followed in their tire tracks and found them 15 minutes later in complete silence on the mount covering and surrounding the two ovens. Everybody was staring down into the pit that functioned as a chimney in the old days. At the bottom a woman was lying in a huge nest made out of sheep wool. One of our group members entered the nest and spent what seemed to be a small eternity in her embrace. They were radiating happiness.
There was a beautiful energy in the air and I wandered around a little before pitching my tent. Remains of installations made out of natural materials were decomposing, changing shape and function. In the forest big red ladders made out of branches stood against tree trunks, other trees seemed to be growing through red wooden chairs, built in a similar way as the ladders were.
It was already turning dark.
We settled in and gathered around the long dinner table outside of the stone building. A feast meal had been prepared for us, there was wine, there were stories, lots of laughter and gleaming faces. We were tired and clean (showers!) and in good company. Life can be so easy from time to time.
For a moment I felt sad about having to leave tomorrow morning early already. It was a magic place and it asked for your time and attention. But what's the use of worrying about being somewhere else in the future when you only exist now?
The group is changing all the time, getting bigger and smaller and bigger again. People leave and new people join, people return or promise to return and will in the last days. Every day there are goodbyes and welcomes. Some people skip a day here and there and drive with our transport car, some people just join for a day, but there are still a few people who walked the complete route so far.
Not that it matters we don´t all walk the same distance. It isn´t about who walks most or fastest. The route is made of all our communal footsteps, every walk is just as valuable and is part of the bigger whole.
Today is the first time in 12 days we don't have to get up around 7 or even earlier. We are staying at camping el Paradis where there is a swimming pool and a restaurant. We sleep our way into the morning, we dream of walking. When we wake up and go for a swim we are asked if we want to eat paella. Some questions are easy. When I walk into the restaurant to order a cold beer just before lunch, the two women cooking ask me to come into the kitchen and they proudly show me the paella in process. My Spanish is suddenly fluent. A big pile of the same water creatures we saw swimming in the aquamarine lake we swam in earlier this week is waiting to decorate the beautiful dish.
But first Jordi gives us a talk about cooperatives. I embroider honeycombs on my suit while listening, trying to translate the language I don´t understand into lines and patterns that might catch the meaning. The afternoon flies by. I wouldn't mind hanging around the pool all day but there is some walking to be done still. At 6 we gather, when the day is at its hottest, and walk to the astronomical observatory. 14 kilometers, more than 3 hours, the air is heavy, it is humid.
The sky, which has been clear most days, is covered in clouds now. It is a bad day to look at the stars. We arrive in the dark, accompanied by a dog (another one) who decided to join us somewhere halfway. It start to rain.
Inside the observatory we bump into the sun. It looks like an enormous yellow beach ball. The man who shows us around has a halo of enthusiasm around him. He starts a projection and we are being sucked into galaxies.
He takes us up, opens the roof, the telescope is impressive but can’t show us more than the naked eye can today. I sit outside and stare at the dark shape in the far distance. Montserrat.
We drive back by car. Big hare are caught in the beams of the car lights.El Paradis is wet and dark. We sleep and dream of stars.
And the sun rose behind the Santuari d´el Miracle. No miracle, just beauty. Silence, only broken by the churchbells earlier at 7. A small oak tree was planted. A miracle might be needed there. It suffered during the 10 day walk but hopefully the energy and love of all the people carrying this small tree through the mountains will give it strength.
Another walk today, to Paradise. Camping Cal Paradis. But for now paradise is here. In a cup of coffee on a silent Sunday morning. In taking some time to write. In being slow while the group is already on the road.
I didn´t read the book that was on the table of my cell. But I looked at the landscape from my window. I carried a small oak tree on my back into the church of the monastery, where in the middle of the huge glittering altar piece a big oak tree starred, the one that marked the disappearance (yes, disappearance, not appearance strangely enough) of the Holy Virgin two young shepherd boys had seen here more than 500 years ago. It was the miracle the monastery, or maybe the location, got it´s name from. The oak didn´t survive and the monks have been trying to replant an oak tree at the same location but until now they haven´t succeeded.
My tree sat beside me on the wooden benches of the small chapel where the monks sang the Vespers. I didn´t read the book I got handed out there either. I embroidered small stitches on the back of my suit jacket.
Afterwards we enjoyed a simple and tasty dinner at the Casa d´Espiritualitat. It was announced as a silent dinner but nobody was silent. Somehow it is hard for people to be silent, even at a place like this.
We retrieved to our cells, it was silent there but when I opened my window the outside world entered. The restaurant that is part of the complex hosted a big group of people and almost until midnight loud voices could be heard.
And of course there is never complete silence. When the voices died out and everybody had gone to sleep, the crickets took over. A lovely sound always.
I read my own book. The Very Lowly. A Meditation on Francis of Assisi, by Christian Bobin: "We live in cities, in professions and occupations, in families. But the place we live in is not really a place like that. The place we really live in is not the one in which we hope - without knowing what we are hoping for - the one in which we sing without understanding what makes us sing .... The nature of the cricket is to love its song and take so much pleasure in it that it does not look for food and dies singing."
The trail is copied in the scratches and bruises on my arms and legs. Nothing too crazy, not too much blood being shed, no big injuries. Just getting stuck in a blackberry bush, slipping on loose stones during a descent, taking a short cut going down a slope in a dense forest, unavoidable to walk days on end without the landscape leaving some traces. After 7 days the multitude of minor wounds can be read like a map.
We are walking through an area with a long smuggling history. Picasso was intrigued by it when he stayed in Gosol. Writers wrote stories about it. From Spain to France and the other way around. From here to Andorra and vice versa. It isn´t something from the far past. It is of all times. I heard a story about somebody we met during our walk who used to go on skis to Andorra in winter to exchange goods. But some stories can´t be told in detail, or maybe they can but only long after they took place.
I carried chicken I smuggled out of the big pan that contained our main course yesterday. Not an illegal act really, there was loads of it left. Some bread as well. Maybe the man running the refugio we stayed at would have had a good purpose for it, maybe not. Anyway, I thought feeding a hungry walker on a long hot walk was a very good purpose.
What we learned yesterday and today is: if a man living in a remote place in nature tells you about a scenic alternative route that isn´t on the map but not too difficult to find, don´t take that route. It will be difficult to find and probably far more strenuous than the less beautiful but easily walkable and well marked route on the map.
We learned the hard way but we managed to find a way down through the spooky forest. I walked behind a smiling mickey mouse on a yellow rain cape - first rain on the walk - which made it even more sinister.
After that it wasn´t too complicated. Fourteen kilometers to Sant Llorenc along the GR. Bautiful landscape with mountains in our back and in front of us. The lushness of a valley with a river running through it.
I was tempted to take a bath twice. The first time I found a small pool in the river under some big rocks, flowers and butterflies everywhere, dragonflies in metallic blue. I walked on to find a waterfall and if my longing to be at the endpoint in time and have an easy late afternoon wouldn´t have been so present, I would have taken off my clothes to stand under it. But when not too long after I crossed a bridge I saw four of my fellow walkers floating naked in the water coming down with quite some power from a small natural dam formed by rocks in the river and two of them sunbathing on those rocks, their feet in the water, I didn´t hesitate.
We arrived at the hostel just outside Sant Llorenc tired. Seven days of walking without a resting day are taking their toll. Still our tired feet managed to get us to the medieval village center to see a performance by a group of 4 young poets in the inner courtyard of the convent. If I understood the introduction well, they had a mission to keep the older Catalan poets alive and to create new poetry (in new ways) as well. They partially improvised and it seemed to be inspired by our walk. I caught a word here and there, but mainly listened to the sounds while embroidering lines and shapes on my suit jacket. Somehow I believed I was capturing what they were saying, translating without really knowing what was being said but also without really knowing what I was embroidering.
The car brought us back, we drank a last beer and fell in a deep sleep. Tomorrow we have the morning off. Time for some loitering. For a swim in the municipal pool. For a slow coffee on the village square. For me it means time to work. The group´s leisure time is my writing time. But I love my work, otherwise I wouldn´t be here.
Twelf people in a bunkbed and no heavy snorers among them. You could almost call it a miracle. At 7.13 the sun appears behind the mountains but before I catch it, the big mountain on the right already does. The meadow lights up, breakfast is served. I drink the worst coffee I had in years but it doesn't matter.
A bit of a climb today, we mistake a yellow cross (don't go here!) for a yellow line (go here) and end up having to do a risky climb to get back on the track. We keep an eye on each other and I shout to my neighbour: "If I fall down and die, plant one of the trees on my grave." He asks: "Do you want a text with it?" And I reply "No text, just a tree."
Of course none of us falls down. And it wasn't really that dangerous. But when I continue walking I can't help thinking I hope I haven't challenged faith. Or the gods. Even when I don't believe in them, they might believe in me. And it would make a great story if I would indeed fall down a mountain during the Grand Tour and the small tree I grew out of an acorn from the forest in the Netherlands where I grew up and have been carrying every day would end up feeding itself on my body and marking my last resting place.
The name of the mountain we climbed slipped my mind but it is part of the Cadi mountain range. From the top there is a beautiful walk all through the Pas dels Gosolans. It is de Route des Bonhommes, the Cathars moved through here centuries before we did. We pause at the Pedraforca, the double (forked) mountain but we see it from the wrong angle and even when we continue we never catch a glimpse of the front or the back and therefore in my mind it is still shaped like a big unsplit rock.
The flower the Dutch call monk's hood and is cultivated in gardens grows in the wild here, so far I've mainly seen it at higher levels. There are cows everywhere, lucky beasts compared to their brothers and sisters in big barns, confined to grazing in boring fields with barbed wire fences - if they are lucky.
Up and down, there is no other way. Going up to go down again. Even when you want to stay at the top. You can, as long as you want, but as some point you want to know what lies ahead.
The refugi where we slept asked for staying in its amazing surroundings. Paradise I called it yesterday, but I wondered what the proprietor thought about it. Living at the top must be lonely and boring at times. There is a price to pay always, nothing is perfect but if you want (and of course there is some luck involved there as well) you can get quite close.
Now and then I stick my hand in my left pocket to feel the stone that is hidden there. It is good to carry a token that keeps you safe and sound, a memory of where you came from and will possibly return. A friend gave me this stone she found, it is shaped like a heart. She jokingly said: "You will carry my stone heart!" and I do, every day again. A small stone heart that reminds me of her big and warm heart. Even on days when I walk alone, it is never just me. People walk with me in my mind. And in my heart.
It is a beautiful walk through the valley. After the first hard climb it is easy wandering now. Hours flow by, the feet just keep moving. At some point the Pedraforca finally shows its double nature. Some more hills, some more up an down. Some narrow paths along ravines where I think about Picasso walking here to reach the same village I am aiming for, accompanied by mules carrying his supplies and his lover and muse, Fernande. She almost fell down when the mule slipped, maybe even here.
Just before I catch the first glimps of Gosol, I find an old completely dried flower arrangement hanging from a tree. The kind people put on graves. At the foot of the tree there are some branches that look like they might have formed a cross. What happened here? I will probably never know.
Our home for tonight is a former mill. We eat salad and sausages and potatoes and there is wine. We shower and walk again. To the village to watch a movie. L´homme perdu. About a man who tries to live in the world on his own terms. Who lives in a shelter in the woods, kills a wild pig, baths in streams, steals food from peoples´garden and tools from their sheds. Who builds his own house in the forest until he is discovered and runs - no, rides away, on a bike he stole as well - to move into an abandoned house. He is as lonely as we all are but he decides to live in his loneliness. To let go, to be lost. He is a happy man.
When I walked through France in 2015 the attack at the Bataclan took place. I asked myself then if it made sense to walk while horrific things are happening in the world. If I shouldn't be doing something more useful.
Last Thursday the Ramblas in the city where I live and had left that same morning turned into a bloodbath. I am reading the news every day after having arrived in again another idyllic place.
If heaven would exist it might look like the place where we ended today. Prat d'Agilò, at the foot of the Cadi mountains. The only way to get here is by foot and it isn't easy. Stale blue skies, majestic mountains, the sound of cowbells. Horses wandering around, fowles practising their first jumps. I sit in the fields and stare. So much beauty.
If heaven would exist it might look like the place where we ended today. Prat d'Agilò, at the foot of the Cadi mountains. The only way to get here is by foot and it isn't easy. Stale blue skies, majestic mountains, the sound of cowbells. Horses wandering around, fowles practising their first jumps. I sit in the fields and stare. So much beauty.
Is it naive to say we have to be reminded from time to time that the world is a beautiful place? Would it make a difference if we would spend more time in nature? If we would slow down more? I don't know if the answer is in the walking but I know I walk to find the right questions, I walk to know I can trust the world. It is the only home I've got, with all its terrors, its disasters, its magic and its wonders. It is all part of the same thing.
While writing this it has turned dark already. The stars are popping up. The mountains have turned black and small now the focus is on the sky. The dog that came with us all the way from Pi is still trying to convince me I have to throw away his stick. I thought he belonged to one of the new people who joined the group today but he didn't. He just chose to walk with us for 16 kilometers and is unstoppable. I figured we weren't the first group he chose to become friends with and the enthusiastic welcome by the man who is running the refugio confirmed it. The dog is a regular visitor and probably knows the route back and forth better then anybody else. I was welcomed just as warm, with pink comfortable slippers, a cold beer and a big smile.
I laughed when he asked me if I wanted a cold beer. I had already drunk that beer when I walked today's walking day virtually in May but then it came in a glass, now it came in a can. And it tasted so much better today than it did then. You can imagine how it feels when you sit down after a long walk up the mountain and take the first sip from your beer but you can't taste it if the beer only exists in your imagination.
We lost some people today. Franco had to go see a doctor in Barcelona because his ankle hurted too much after three days of walking. Imma needed a few days of rest before coming back. I am not surprised. This first part of the 18 day tour is the hardest part and only on day 9 we will get an easy day with a 7 km walk. No resting days.
Other people join. We are 12 today (plus a dog of course), after a start with 14 and a short walk with 17 people.
To makes things easier this morning we skipped the first couple of kilometers from Bellver to Pi, being driven there with the car after coffee and croissants, yoghurt and peaches and big slices of ham at the breakfast buffet in the hotel where we slept in a soft bed after having used the turbo shower. I am being treated well and I enjoy it a lot, although I can get just as much but a different kind of pleasure out of sleeping at the edge of a forest in my sleeping bag after having eaten a cold tin of chickpeas and waking up with the sunrise.
Two of my trees went missing. The people carrying them went home yesterday and left them with the bags in the transport car. I didn't know. I hope they won't be crushed. The two we carried today are sort of ok, but the twin tree seems to have focused its energy on only one of the two trees that grew out of the acorn. My fellow tree-carrier, who is carrying it in the small backpack, originally on his back but since day 2 on his chest, "like a baby" as he said, was worried. He wants it to do well and it touches me to see how he cares. They got some new soil today and fresh mountain water.
Water comes out of the rocks everywhere. Cold spring water, a weary walker's wet dream. Sometimes there is a tube sticking out of a stone wall, sometimes it is caught in a basin, sometimes it just flows down from the rocks. And sometimes there is a stream with big boulders and small pools and we can fill our water bottles first and then float around for a bit. How nice it would have been to take little samples of all the water we passed, stuck our feet in, ate our food next to, dipped our tired bodies in. A water walk. Although I wouldn't be surprised if I'm not the first one thinking this.
After the villages of Pi and Nas there is only forest and narrow paths. I leave the group behind when the speed gets to slow for my itchy feet. Big pine trees block some parts of the trail, the sun is burning. But when I arrive it is only the middle of the afternoon and all I do until dinner at 7.30 is nothing in the best way possible. There is music after dinner, a young singer-songwriter. I can't sit inside while the mountains change colour though. And there is work to do. There is this to write. And maybe this is just as unreal as the story I wrote after having imagined to make this walk.
All the lights are switched off now. The dog is resting next to the door. Upstairs my fellow walkers are asleep in the giant 15 person bunkbed. If the cows wouldn't still be walking around there would be complete silence. A cowbell soundtrack for the nightsky spectacle. New moon, too dark for a little midnight strole but my eyes wander from star to star. And if this would be a perfect day there would be a shooting star to finish things off. So there it is.
"Now, to be properly enjoyed, a walking tour should be gone upon alone. If you go in a company, or even in pairs, it is no longer a walking tour in anything but name; it is something else and more in the nature of a picnic. A walking tour should be gone upon alone, because freedom is of the essence; because you should be able to stop and go on, and follow this way or that, as the freak takes you; and because you must have your own pace, and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl."
- Robert Louis Stevenson
We didn´t manage leaving at 8. When you´re in a group, the person who is ready is the one who determines the moment you start.
I understand what Stevenson means but there are different ways of walking. I didn´t mind the delay, when you are on your own your pace is being influenced by a lot of things you didn´t decide on yourself as well. Unexpected extra time, the possibility to drink coffee and browse through the newspaper before finally leaving at 9.30. To somehow lose the group shortly after we started and ending up making a solo walking tour anyway. Not planned but pleasurable. In another way than walking in a group is.
No mountains today. But 28 kilometers to walk. I walk fast, I get distracted by a huge old empty farmhouse I could imagine living in and I miss the sign I should have followed. The group is far behind, I decide to continue the road I am walking on and catch them later when our routes will meet again. I walk the big road that leads to Puigcerda, the only safe pathway is through the cropless fields on the side. Cars rushing by, not the nicest view but it doesn't matter as long as I am walking.
Bourg Madam, in the Lidl I bump into four friends who I contacted earlier to say I will be in Puigcerda and who wrote me they don't know if they can enter the city with all the police controls. My mistaken road led me to them anyway. I take a picture of them in front of the olive oil. We say goodby three times. When I walk through Puigcerda I see what they meant. Long lines of cars, waiting to be checked or waved through.
I am not sure if the small roads are busy because it is a Saturday or because people are driving alternative routes to avoid the police controls. Or because they all come from the golf course where the parking area is as crowded as the Barcelona beach on a sunny summer's day.
I find the Segre again, we drank from its source the day before, just after we wondered if we would be able to cross the border without problems. It was a tiny stream there, here it is a proper river. I walk along the river, loose my way again and end up in a field where three horses give me an unexpected performance. A black one, a dark brown one and a light brown one. All carrying a big bell in a different size. All moving their heads rhythmically up and down to graze and in sudden bursts of energy from left to right to get rid of the flies. Amazing sound.
When I follow them walking out of the field I find the path. The Segre on my right, the mountains far in the distance on the left. It is getting late, 25 kilometer, 26, 27. The campsite is there after 28,5. No trace of the others though. The others who read the info in Catalan I received last minute and not the extended online programme I had used as a guideline.
One quick phone call, one cold drink and a short drive by car later I found myself in a Bellver hotel lobby. Not a bad ending for a day with three wrong turns.
The mountains are gorgeous. I already mentioned them yesterday, determining our movements, our state of being. They wore us out on the first day already but at six in the morning the will to walk, the eagerness to move on, to see more, to get tired again, is back. The world is new and we are new.
We. I haven´t walked in a group for a long time, it is so different from walking on your own. Comforting and challenging at the same time. But so early in the morning I am alone with the mountains.
Breakfast, packing, gathering, starting. We are high up already but there is a long way up again. I can see where we have to go from here, a small pass inbetween mountain tops. Just put one feet in front of the other and you will get there at some point. And we do.
We reach the other side of the mountain and in the small valley the news reaches us that it might not be so easy as we thought to reach Err, our goal for today. We have to cross the border between Spain and France, which normally isn´t a problem but after yesterday´s terrorist attacks in Barcelona (and as I hear later in the day, in other places in Catalunya as well) the border controls are strict. Our transport car apparently had problems and most of the people in the group only carry an identity card which normally is sufficient but now people are being asked for their passports. We discuss, continue or go back and skip the part going through France? Some people suggest a vote. Should we stay together as a group? Should the people who don´t want to return the way we came from and take a train from our startingpoint to Puigcerda and continue from there go the way we planned to walk and join the rest later?
I can´t follow all of the discussion (in Catalan) but I express my wish to continue. I don´t know what to do if the group decides we have to stay together and return. I am part of the group but what does that mean?
Somehow during the discussion something shifts. Where first the risk of getting stuck halfway seemed to determine the decision, now people start to realise the authorities are limiting our freedom of movement and are spreading fear and we shouldn´t bough for that. The only way is forward. So on we go. And when we reach the next top we can see France.
There wouldn´t be any problem getting there, but we didn´t know that then. And I don´t think we even noticed when we passed the border. The trees looked the same, the cows made the same sounds. At some point the language changed but not much. Catalan isn´t confined to country borders.
But before we got there we passed the highest point. We could see two countries from there, one behind us, one in front of us. And it was there I saw a big black dog and I remembered something I had almost forgotten.
Quiero que a mí me entierren
Lejos de esos lugares falsos
Donde la gente al año viene
A depositar sus llantos
Quiero que mi tumba sea
Cubierta de espinos altos
De zarzas grandes y espesas
Abrojos y salvajes cardos
Que brote a sus alrededores
Hierba para los ganados
Y que descanse a mi sombra
El perro negro cansado
“ I want to be buried/Far from those fake places/Where people come all year/To shed their tears ….. I want my grave to be/Covered in the thorns/Of big and prickly blackberries/Hawthorns and wild thistles … All around/Grass for lifestock will sprout/And in my shadow/A tired black dog will sleep."
The black dog in the only poem known written by Caracremara, the last Spanish guerilla fighting Franco. More about him in one of the coming days.
Down into the valley, filling our water bottles at the source of the river Segre, going up again and even when Err seemed near it took forever to zig-zag down. We had dispersed, allowing differnt walking speeds for the group to fall apart in smaller groups. But at the campsite we reunited. To all sleep under the same sky as our fellow human beings elsewhere who are really restricted in their movements.
I see the world waking up. Mountains turning from black to blue to pink. Sun touching the ridges on the left, lighting up the grey and green, turning it a bright dark yellow. Cowbells, some animals are grazing so nearby I can hear the sound of their teeth pulling out the grass. A chamois on its way down.
Nuria. 2117 meters up in the sky. A silent, beautiful world. But when we arrived here yesterday people were glued to the tv inside the hostel. The attacks in Barcelona had just happened. The outer world enters quickly. Sirenes and people screaming and running. Our phones start ringing, there is no escape.
It is the first thing I think about when I wake up in my bed and walk outside. These extremes. This amazingly beautiful world in which the most terrifying things are happening. I am lucky to be here but I am there as well. I read the messages of friends who can't go back to their homes or were at the place of the attack just a few minutes before it happened.
But these mountains don't know anything about that. Or maybe they do, maybe they know more than I do.
We walked here from Queralbs, a group of about 14 people, carrying walking sticks and small backpacks and the 5 small trees I grew out of acorns from the forest where I grew up in in the Netherlands. Most of the people are from Catalunya, the first language is Catalan. I am handicapped but it doesn't matter. I mix English and Spanish and use hands and feet.
I wasn't sure if other walkers would be willing to carry my trees but it was quite the opposite, they seemed quite eager. I carried one myself and one we planted just outside Queralbs on an open spot in small forest close to a stream.
We weren't the only ones on the well-marked narrow trail. I must have been greated with a 'hola' or 'bon dia' about 300 times during the 8 steep kilometers up. The train followed roughly the same route, announcing its passing with the old-fashioned sound all trains made in the past.
We stopped for a bath in the river. I embroidered a winding blue line on my suit jacket. We walked on, slowly, eagerly, turning around from time to time to look back at where we came from. The higher we walked, the more impressive the views.
And suddenly there was a big lake, embraced by an enormous building, surrounded by mountain tops. Nuria. A former religious center, until times changed. In the 21st century it has turned into a tourist center with a hotel and an entertainment park in the back. A petting zoo where animals are kept within fences.
We don´t stay there long. We don´t belong there. Only long enough to watch a performance by two artists on the edge of the lake, our tired legs stretched out on the stony beach.
The road to the hostel is steeper than the mountain path we walked all day. It is ok, we persevere, because we know a warm meal and a soft matress are awaiting us. And an even more beautiful view than we experienced so far.
We are tired. And it is only day 1.
“Of all the trees in the forest, none occupies quite the space in our collective consciousness as the oak. At once both mighty and ancient, the oak is indeed massive in stature, both physically and spiritually. Associated with gods and kings from the earliest tribes of Europe to the Greeks and Romans, right down to our present day nations, the oak continues to be used as a symbol of strength, endurance, and longevity.”
A lot has been written about oak trees. This quote comes from the jewelry maker Carl Blackburn who is also known for his role as a dealer of important and magnificent jewels and is one of the most recognized luxury estate buyers in the US. I don’t know why there is a page about the symbolic meaning of oak trees on his company’s website. Trees have rings. And some rings are made out of wood. But not his. It is a mystery to me. Like many things are.
I was never specifically interested in oak trees myself but somehow they entered my life the way all things enter my life. By chance and going with my instincts.
“Growing an oak tree from a tiny acorn takes a lot of time and patience” the “WikiHow to do anything” website says.
1. Harvest some acorns that are free of worms, holes, and fungus.
2. Place them in a bowl of water. Discard any that float after 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Place the good acorns in a zippered bag with damp vermiculite or peat mix.
4. Store the bag in the fridge for 45 days. Look for sprouting acorns.
5. Place the sprouted acorn, root-side-down, into a small pot filled with damp soil.
6. Water the acorn regularly as it continues to grow.
7. Transplant the acorn outside when it is 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) tall.
I didn’t do any of this. But there are five baby oak trees growing on my balcony, waiting to be taken on a walk through Spain. It makes sense now. Like most things that come into existence by a series of events do.
What I did do was this:
On a sunny day in April I walked through the woods where I grew up and felt just as much (or maybe even more) at home as I used to do in my cozy room in the house not far from the edge of the forest.
I walked along the paths that are now closed off because in the past we managed to disturb the living circumstances of the animals living in those parts of the Netherlands to such an extent that now they have to be protected from peoples’ presence. At the same time the Nature Reserve is being promoted as a great tourist location and more and more people walk and bike through there on less available sandy roads and winding paths. It makes sense to give the animals their space and privacy but it makes me sad at the same time that I can only experience “my” forest the way I’m used to by breaking the law.
I still know where my father took me to find chestnuts in autumn, where the dense corners are where I pretended to be living and tried out my survival kit, the hilltops with the best views, the path with the muddy pools on the left side where we watched salamanders, the location of the ancient grave mounts that are hidden from sight and aren’t indicated from the road, probably because human presence is unwanted there as well.
My goal was the hill top the area is named after. De Haarlerberg. The mountain of Haarle: 63,2 meters high. On my way back I collected chestnuts and beech nuts and acorns. I took them back to my parents house that used to be my grandparents house, the house I was born in. I drove them to Amsterdam, flew them to Barcelona, took them on a train to the Nau Côclea Contemporary Art Center in the Catalan countryside where I spent 18 days to walk the route I was going to walk in August without leaving the house. There are many ways to walk and walking can be many things. (see: www.wherewewandered.blogspot.com). Every day, while walking my route in the virtual world, I planted Cosmos Daydream seeds. A plant with the most amazing name and beautiful pink flowers.
“The “cochlea” /ˈkɒk.liə/ (Ancient Greek: κοχλίας, kōhlias, meaning spiral or snail shell) is the auditory portion of the inner ear. It is a spiral-shaped cavity in the bony labyrinth, in humans making 2.5 turns around its axis, the modiolus. A core component of the cochlea is the Organ of Corti, the sensory organ of hearing. The name “cochlea” is derived from the Latin word for snail shell, which in turn is from the Greek κοχλίας kokhlias ("snail, screw”) …..” (from Wikipedia)
Nau Côclea is housed in a rectangular building, it looks like a box in the landscape without any curly shapes. But there are snails everywhere. Snails and music. It once started as an artist residency with a focus on sound art and these days music, sound, poetry and storytelling are still of great importance there. The Organ of Corti is stimulated in different ways. And once a year Clara, the director, organises a long walk that is spiral shaped. This year I proposed a plan for it and was invited to make it happen.
When I came back to Barcelona after collecting the seeds I went to Scotland for a week and left them in my room inbetween two layers of moist cotton wool. No idea if that was a smart thing to do. I was hoping they would germinate while I was gone. When I came back it looked messy and nothing had happened. I packed them in a big plastic bag, took them to Nau Coclea and left them outside in the garden next to my frontdoor for the first days when I was settling in. When I wanted to start planting them they were covered by a layer of slugs and snails that had been feasting on them.
I planted the ones that looked still good, I watered them daily inbetween staring at my computer screen and walking virtually through Catalan mountains. At night I put them inside to keep them as safe as possible from the snails, sometimes I checked them in the dark and removed the animals that had almost managed to climb into the pots. The tiny frogs didn’t form a problem but I had to make sure not to step on them when they were jumping through the living room. I don’t know why they kept coming inside when there was a large pond outside.
At the end of my 18 day virtual indoor walk only two of the beech nuts had grown into tiny plants. The rest didn’t show any sign of progress. But when I carefully dug up the acorns some of them had formed roots. So I carried them back on the train to Barcelona.
The beech trees died. The chestnuts never grew into saplings. But five acorns turned into tiny plants and started to form small leaves.
Oak tree facts. “Oaks produce more than 2000 acorns every year, but only one in 10 000 acorns will manage to develop into oak tree.”
I left them in the care of a friend when I went to a natural farming course. It felt a bit like leaving my children behind. I had to go to the Netherlands for a week. Another friend watered them. Every time I came back, the first thing I did was to take a look at my trees.
The young leaves turned brown and I thought they were dying but new leaves kept appearing. I saved the leaves that fell off and studied them as if they were maps.
The biggest one is 25 cm. now, the smallest 8. Two of them are twins which is just as uncommon among oak trees as it is among human beings. I will plant one of those at the location where once, centuries ago, two small boys had a vision. Originally two juniper trees marked the spot where Jaumet and his older brother Celdoni saw the Holy Virgin, but after crowds of pilgrims started to visit the location the trees died. The gothic cross that was put there to replace the trees was demolished during the last Spanish civil war. Now a new cross replaces the cross that replaced the trees in the old meadow of Bassedòria, a stonesthrow distance away from the church and convent (el Santuari del Miracle) that were built there after the miracle happened.
Five trees to be taken on a walk. One to be planted at the starting point, one at the middle (at the Santuari del Miracle) and one at the final destination, Montserrat. One to accompany me on the rest of my journey (which is my life) and one that will find its own destination.
I am thinking about carrying all five of them for the whole walk but I will be dependent on my fellow walkers for that. I can only carry one myself. I have to build handy sturdy lightweight constructions to put them in. I am not sure if they will survive the walking days and I am even less sure if they will manage to stay alive after I planted them but what counts is trying and it is a route that will pass many places where miracles took place so I’ve got good hope I will manage to perform the miracle of transplanting a little piece of my childhood environment to the country I love as a trace of the thing I like doing best: walking with people.