Friday, May 01, 2009
Lost in Spain
"I'd love to go hiking when I come to visit," I said before I went to Valencia.
"Okay, I'll see what's going on over the weekend," said Marion.
When I arrived, it was all arranged. We would be joining a group consisting of folk from the local social networks Marion belongs to. The information about the hike in question was on the internet. Not too bad, Marion said. They had rated it as 'medium' difficulty, and with only one climb of any real significance, it looked to be fairly easy going, even for one of such advancing years as myself.
We were taken to the meeting point by one of Marion's friend's, Carlos - an entertaining, quirky and colourful character who won me over by producing a rakish eye patch decorated with a skull and crossbones, which he wore at intervals during the hike. He also intrigued me by having tiny brass musical instruments in the door pockets of his car. I couldn't help wondering what kind of cacophony he might make if left alone in a traffic jam for any length of time.
Apart from Marion and myself, there was a third lady for Carlos to escort, much to his delight, and this was the fabulous Claudia, a Dutch girl, who is half Croatian and also lives and works in Valencia. She was fun, friendly and truly lovely, but that aside, her gift for languages amazed me. She seems to absorb them like a sponge, and speaks fluent Spanish, English, German and Croatian in addition to her native Dutch. I think she also mentioned that she can get by in French and Italian as well, meaning she probably speaks them quite competently. To listen to her and Marion nattering in Dutch, and then switching effortlessly to Spanish for Carlos and English for me was a treat to hear. I'm still struggling with the Dutch part, let alone anything else!
Anyway, to get back to the point, we arrived at the meeting point, a tiny hamlet called El Molinar, after a stomach churning drive through the mountain passes. The scenery was breathtaking - except that I didn't dare breathe, given that my breakfast wanted to up and away to the hills itself.
We all piled out of the car, and I watched fascinated as this entirely Spanish group (excepting Marion, Claudia and myself) greeted each other. This involved wildly enthusiastic encounters in which everyone was thoroughly kissed and hugged. And I do mean everyone. Me too. Given that I didn't know a soul there, I found this - how can I say - quite special?
Then we set off. The hike was a guided one, and there seemed to be at least three people with walkie talkies co-ordinating the group and trying to keep everyone on track. They were very busy and very earnest about it, which should have given us confidence. Still, the misgivings began after we had scaled the first steep climb. In theory, this should have been the only one. We all arrived breathless and sweating profusely at the top of the hill, thankful that the exertion was over for the rest of the walk. Not so.
After some intense discussion amongst the guides, we took off again up a new path, but within minutes, we were called to about turn and go in the opposite direction. Rather odd, we thought. In the meantime, Carlos kept up a one man entertainment programme as the resident gnome and cheer(ful) leader. Every time we turned a corner, there he was - apart from the group, sitting on a rock, striking a pose or simply grinning from the path above. I got to be quite disappointed if he wasn't there. And then he showed us proudly that he was wearing his own name - a sprig of Rosemary tucked in his pocket. His surname is Romero, at least that is what I gathered, but of course, given our communication constraints, I could be wrong.
The scent of Rosemary and Thyme overwhelms you in these mountains. It is everywhere and all embracing - a wonderful fragrance that stays with you long after you have left. I shall forever associate Spain with Rosemary, or is it the other way round...?
But I digress. Within a short time, we were climbing again. Not just a gentle, advancing years type of climb, this. It was a seriously energetic, stretching-all-the-unusual and unused to -bits-of-us climb. And the muttering had begun. Even young Claudia was moaning. The guides were still earnestly doing their guide thing, dashing to and fro and talking feverishly into their walkies, but it was beginning to become clear. They didn't know where we were. We were in fact, lost!
We had scaled the heights of the mountain but now they didn't know how to get down. We started again on one track, and then had to double back again to an even worse one. What do to when in doubt is, naturally, to have lunch. So we did - all crowded on to a rocky crevice, hopelessly uncomfortable, when just a short time ago we'd seen a lovely grassy field that would have been perfect. The mutterings became open mutiny now.
Nevertheless, the guides were determined. We had to take the line of most resistance. Before long we were on the edge of a precipice, being told we had to climb down it. At this point I nearly had an attack of crinkly mouth disease, but then realised I'd be on my own with my temper, and that wasn't such a grand place to be. Besides, no one else would understand me (being Spanish and all), and they were all being so incredibly stoic. There was nothing for it. I would have to slip and stumble my way down this rock face despite its vast avalanche forming potential. As it happened the only avalanche was a human one.
Astonishingly, there was only one casualty on the way down, and that was a minor injury, but I thought wistfully of the optimistic portrayal of this walk and thought that 'not for the faint hearted' would have been a better description, and 'wear good boots and bring strong stick plus good dose of courage' should have been the advice.
When we all finally tumbled on to the road at the bottom of the rock face, there was still a problem. Do we go left or do we go to the right? The guides had given up pretending they knew where we were, and were now desperately consulting their GPS programs on their mobile phones. The only snag was that none of them seemed to believe the evidence before them, and they were arguing the toss about which way to go even when their on-board computers were unequivocal. Eventually, dear Claudia settled it for us by marching off in pursuit of her own GPS voice, and miraculously, everyone else followed.
An hour later, Carlos appeared beside us, more like an angel now than a gnome. He'd marched on ahead to collect the car and driven back to save us poor damsels the pain of the final kilometre! Bless his heart.
As we 'post-mortemed' the whole adventure on the way back, I realised that despite everything, I'd really really enjoyed the day. It was absolutely the highlight of my weekend. The scenery had been spectacular, the views of olive groves and tiny farms tucked into the hillsides were imprinted on my memory, and the company had been great and the good humour infectious. The fact that the hike itself had been an organisational disaster no longer mattered, and probably - in the end - made it all the more memorable!