“Tomorrow I propose a day of fun” our host declared one balmy evening. So the plan for the next day would be a trek with the dogs up the side of the mountain followed by a trip to the local village to see the medieval festival where of course much merriment would be had and much Catalonian sausage (botifarra) would be eaten.
The next day dawned and we rose to an endless blue sky and a temperature already surpassing what could only be deemed a heatwave in the UK. And so by 9am we had harnessed up the dogs (and ourselves), left the house and were on our way to the foot of a Spanish mountain named Mare de Déu del Mont, allegedly taller than Ben Nevis.
Now let me take a moment to introduce you to the dogs. They are both beautiful male huskies, very energetic and excitable about EVERYTHING. In short they are the new loves of my life. Caesar is your typical husky colouration with faint beige patches over each eye and a white tip to the end of his tail. He eats whatever he can find and particularly loves cheese. He was the first one to greet us when we arrived and instantly fell in love with Peter. Spartacus is much darker with piercing blue eyes looming out at you from the murky grey of his face and a narrow white blaze. He is in charge and very suspicious of food just in case it might have medication in it. He and I have developed quite a bond.
So the idea is that the huskies take you up the hill. A simple enough concept but I was not prepared for just how energetic they are, particularly in the extreme heat. They quite literally drag you up. And I am very grateful that they did otherwise I am fairly sure I would not have made it. Our party of 4 set off up the narrow trail with the 2 humans attached to huskies already way off in the lead. As we marched through the undergrowth 2 things occurred to me, the first how beautifully exotic the place was and the second was that it was perfect habitat for snakes.
Ophidiophobia is the fear of snakes and not just a fear but a true phobia. For those of you who are lucky enough not to be cursed with a phobia let me explain what it feels like. There is a constant dread that you might come across that which you fear and in more likely places that dread increases to something akin to paranoia. For example walking through snow I am very happy as I know snakes will not abound. Walking through a forest in Catalonia (the Spanish snake hotspot) as the day is heating up and undergrowth is offering perfect dappled shade with snake sized hidey holes at every turn I am less than happy! The anticipated dread leads to surges of adrenaline, increased heart rate, ridiculous imaginative scenarios playing through your head and increased sensitivity in most of your senses. I find it very difficult even to touch a photo of a snake and this is with years of exposure to the slithery ones in order to try and control it, for a phobia can never be cured, only controlled.
However I digress. I had one saving grace and that was that I was now attached to Caesar who I was reassured would alert me to any wildlife he found by doing his best impression of an Arctic Fox pouncing on a Lemming. And so we continued on our steep ascent and believe me it was steep! Rocks crumbled as we attempted to scurry up the side of the trail and the trees hid what was ahead so you never quite knew what was round the corner of this scorching green labyrinth. We would occasionally come across a fork in the trail which Caesar always knew the right way to go but the brief respite where he had a little think allowed me enough to time to take a quick swig of water, maybe snap a photo and let the others catch up. Half an hour in and we were already exhausted. All but the dogs who were still raring to go. And there were no stout wooden signs emblazoned with several charity and organisation logos claiming this track as theirs and guiding you on like in the UK. We followed the occasional red dot that would be sprayed on a rock or tree and the navigational “talents” of our host.
In Spain you seem to come across little fountains of water with taps attached dotted along trails, in villages and wherever you look really. It’s certainly necessary and I loved the sense of community that seemed to come from it. To cover their backs there was a notice at each one stating that the quality of the water could not be guaranteed by the local authority but unlike Britain I’ve been told that this part of Spain doesn’t operate in the same health and safety ambulance chasing lawyer centric way and I have to say it’s very liberating. So we all stopped at the first fountain to re-fill our bottles and the dogs bounded straight in to the collecting pool at the bottom, Caesar disturbing two frogs as he went. And then the march continued at its relentless husky pace until the dense undergrowth opened up into chalky plains at which point we were astounded to have our first glimpse of the incredible view. All except Pete who was in the middle of one of his stories and was too busy jabbering away to have noticed. I told him to look right and that soon left him rather speechless. Below us stood miles and miles of lush forest covering the backs and shoulders of all the mountains we could see whilst the sky shimmered with heat and a blue so intense you could make jewels out of it. You could see all the way across to the ocean on one side and on the other the naked spines of yet more mountains. Photos could not do it justice. Across the valley there was a lovely clearing below us with just a few trees and a lovely open patch of meadow sat on top of a broad low peak. Further down the forest swallowed the surrounding sides again and it struck me what perfect wolf habitat this would make until alas I spied a farm building. That parasitic way we seem to colonise every last piece of land we can find does frustrate me some times.
The trail shifted yet again into a pine forest, again very different to the ones I’m used to (and no Lemurs like the one I spent the last 5 years working in) but it was still astoundingly beautiful however at this point we were a good two hours into the trek and I had given Caesar to Pete for the final stretch. The ascent and the mid day heat minus the pulling power of the dog really slowed my progress and before long every single step was the result of strenuous effort and sheer determination. I was very grateful for the shade the old trees afforded but the temperature had reached 34 degrees Celsius and I was fairly sure I was melting.
Suddenly a cheer went up as we looked above us and spied the road which signalled our destination; a restaurant. A restaurant on top of a mountain! The side of the mountain which we had just scaled was the steeper wilder side but the other was a little more tame and had a road meandering all the way down it. I could imagine the old Top Gear crew hurtling down it in their muscle cars with the smell of their breaks mingling with the scent of the forest.
So we settled down on the terrace of the restaurant and awaited our well earned food (mostly botifarra) which we would devour instantaneously. I couldn’t take my eyes off the view which was made all the more awe inspiring by a group of hang-gliders who were making the most of the thermals. One set off just as we arrived and seemed to be circling onward and ever upward until it seemed as if he would reach the sun like Icarus.
To ensure we did not bake to death atop that most glorious but sun trapped of terraces we decided it was time to start the descent. The huskies, now rested and watered were very keen to get going too. And so we followed the road down the opposite side of the mountain with the huskies determinedly dragging us every step of the way. Within ten minutes my knees were shaking and I was drenched in sweat with the effort of holding Spartacus back. We eventually came to a very narrow turn off from the road and back on to a tiny trail. This part of the track looked more desert like than anything else with beige rocks crumbling as we stumbled ever downward, rough brush and thistle like plants and just the occasional tree. Our host described it as a comedy trail as people would often fall over on it, particularly those attached to an impatient husky. We would tell the dogs “wait” very sternly at the top of each small ridge of rock in order that we could scramble down it first and then allow the dogs to follow. This track being so treacherous reminded me somewhat of a line in a poem by B. Paterson describing an Australian landscape: “The wild hop scrub grew thickly and the hidden ground was full of wombat holes, and any slip was death…through the stringbarks and saplings on the rough and broken ground, down the hillside at a racing pace (they) went.”
We eventually stumbled into a clearing (for which my knees were overjoyed) and came across on old ruin of an ancient church or monastery. We had a brief explore but we’re sad to find that none of what stood was actually original. However it was still interesting to look around and it was wonderfully cool and shady. We re-filled our bottles at another of the well placed tap fountains and quietly discussed whether a random stranger in a sleeping bag through the trees was supposed to be there and whether she was actually alive or not. Thankfully she was. And then down we headed once again until we had looped our entire way around one side of the mountain and back to the forest trail on which we had started. By this point we had been going for well over five hours and I knew I had to pace myself as we still had at least another hour to go.
Trekking through the jungle of exotic Catalan forest the going got a little easier finally and I started imagining what hiking in other places along our travels would be like (along with my usual making friends with animals fantasies based around “The Jungle Book”) And then finally after seven hours we saw the entrance to the car park, stumbled in, all rather breathless and stood for a moment looking back up to the peak of the mountain, very pleased with our achievements. But the question remained, would we have enough energy to go to the festival tonight? Or host replied with a celebratory fist pump and affirmation that of course we did! So we drove home, rested up for all of half an hour and then went straight back out into the local village of Besalu.
It’s such a stunning village and was at that moment buzzing with energy and medieval vibes. Banners had been put up everywhere, there were people in costumes, flags being waved, marching bands and extra stalls outside the normal shops selling (amongst other things) the most beautiful buffalo milk cheese ever! It makes me sad to think that I ate it all so quickly and it’s now gone. We had a mooch around the village, soaking up the atmosphere, eating whatever we came across and making a few purchases from the stalls. We meandered through the crowds amongst the tight and narrow little alleyways until they suddenly burst into rather large squares filled with crowds watching some of the events. However exhaustion really was setting in after the days excursion so we did what all the local Catalans do…we ate! We came across a stall that did a great deal; 9 Euros for the local delicacy of tomato and bread, botifarra with anniole, a drink and your choice of dessert too. And the portions were huge! The bread alone was the size of a large dinner plate and the idea is that the tomato is not served sliced but rubbed all over the bread after it is slightly toasted with the addition of some oil. Dusk fell around us as we ate outside underneath a beautiful tree with the balmy evening air still feeling incredibly warm. We eventually decided to call it a night as we would be able to come back for the second day of the festival tomorrow (one ticket allowed you entry for both days) so we slowly made our way back through the town and passed over the most impressive thing about Besalu, the bridge over the river which is a stunning sight. Friendly lights twinkled to highlight our way as it was by now pitch black and we made it back to the car and back home.
A really packed and fun day which I was so glad to have experienced. Needless to say we all slept very well that night.