On the Trail

In the morning, our younger son – the “trail boss” – inspected the daypacks and relocated extra water bottles to his pack. We ate toast and jam and fruit, drank tea and coffee, and met Miguel, a newly minted Catalan architect, who would transport our bags.

We began – heading downhill – and stopped 100 feet later. While we waited for the young people to climb back up to buy a walking stick (carved from a tree branch with a compass in the top end), I made the first notes in my tiny notebook. Around us on the terraced hillside, lettuce, potatoes, and tomatoes grew in little gardens, black plastic between rows like in all places with cold soil. Bees worked the vetch, tiny blue butterflies flew over the Queen Anne’s lace, and wild roses bloomed white rather than pink. Stone houses tipped above us spoke of a far earlier time.

We began to follow hillside paths of stones or rock slab, or country lanes and little tracks (obvious or marked with cairns). The route followed the top of the Collsacabre – a high plateau – through grazed-grass meadows (often protected by electric fences with gates) edged with tangles of malva, red poppy, yarrow, purple salvia, phlox, and snapdragon. Sometimes tall box grew along paths, common like salal in the Northwest.

We walked through abandoned and still occupied farmsteads with classic Spanish stone masias (farmhouses), and past sheep and cows wearing musical bells. In warm sunshine, below Cumulus clouds, swallows swooped everywhere.

I relished the day, and thought improbably about Virginia Woolf, writing about a London winter evening. In “Street Haunting” she says: “For the eye has this strange property: it rests only on beauty; like a butterfly it seeks colour and basks in warmth.”

The trail boss called lunch in a meadow, bread and cheese, apples, chunks of sweet Spanish flatbread called coca (from the Rupit bakery where it’s baked in long loaves and sold in exactly the length you want). Almond cookies. Then naps with hats over faces.

Twisting around a pass, the vista changed to reveal in the distance the Pyrenées with tattered snow patches. Up and down we trod, then through the cool of a forest with sparse bracken beneath an oak leaf canopy.

We found a little crèche tucked up high in a nook formed by two huge rocks, part of a set of “enchanted rocks” – story-high boulders completely covered with moss. Fairies or wood sprites seem very close – the complicated Roman gods never took hold here – but nearly every other imaginative deity seems possible.

We learned this first day to love the Route Booklet. Its incredibly detailed directions – combined with markings from Europe’s Gran Recorrido (a system of footpaths that follow historic communication routes, well-signed and with small red-and-white or yellow stripes on trees or paths or stone walls) – led us to La Mare de Déu de La Salut and its hostal – our high point at 3000 feet.

Nearby, was a small cave-like structure around a font, a shrine where flickering, tall, colored votive candles made just enough eerie light to see painted tiles – a madonna in this local setting with recognizable fields, forests, and rocky hills. From the hotel’s balcony, we could see the distant Mediterranean, and after dark, the lights of cities below.

A cold wind harried the Catalan flag outside our window.

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