Saturday, 7 December 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Morella to Chelva

Ares del Mestre
My stay in the lovely hotel in Ares was the best so far on this trip. The two young owners bent over backwards to make my short stay pleasant and I ate the best potaje (sort of stew or soup) ever in their restaurant. Alas I had to leave early next morning - in light snow and freezing temperatures. But I promise this is the end of weather complaints for a while because the weather has improved drastically and the forecast is good.

The landscape remained quite spectacular the whole stretch. Like Morella Ares is an old hilltop city with seemingly endless terraces around it. I was soon wondering why there were some oranges on the dirt road. This was far too high for orange trees and far too many oranges to be leftovers from other hikers. I soon found the solution: farmers feed the bad oranges to their sheep (which seemed to enjoy their vitamin rich food). At the end of the day I was to dip down into another beautiful valley - and then of course to climb up again. Unfortunately I was a bit short on water when I came across the ruins of a farm on a ridge. No farm without water but there was no stream or spring. But I found what looked like a cistern and it was still full of water. Someone had a plastic bucket attached to some rope and carefully I could lift up the container. The water was surprisingly clear but I nevertheless treated it because there was God knows what floating in the cistern.

 Descending into the valley I encountered a rare sight: other hikers. We stopped to chat and I got a lot of news. They came from the town of my next resupply, Montanejos. They confirmed that there is a supermarket, but it is of course closed midday and only reopens at 5:30 pm - which is sunset now. Even more surprisingly it turned out that they were renting out rooms in town for 15 €. With their phone number I was now ready for all eventualities. No matter when I arrived in Montanejos I would find food and accommodation. I hiked until it got pitch dark but found a nice and cosy campsite underneath pine trees. I urgently needed to catch up on sleep as I never sleep well in hotels.

Next day more high altitude hiking, great views and another hilltop town which is aptly named Vistabella. When walking through town to find the water fountain a car stopped next to me. Two young guys asked me if I would like a lift to St.Juan which was next on the GR 7. I appreciated this offer from fellow hikers but of course I declined because my thruhiker ethics demand connecting foot steps. And it was a beautiful day for hiking - until the trail marking disappeared and I got sort of lost. Bushwhacking through abandoned terraces I came across a Spanish man in a track suit and a cheerful dog. He patiently gave me very good directions to St. Juan and asked me suddenly if I didn't wonder what he was doing here. I just hoped that his presence didn't have any indecent background but was soon relieved. He was out here to hunt truffles! He had trained his dog to find them by rewarding him with sausage pieces. The truffle season had just begun and prices were still very low: 300 € for a kg of truffles which could go up as high as 900 € per kg! The man was unemployed and finding and selling truffles was now his main income. He proudly showed me today's catch. An hour later I saw another truffle hunter - either a sign of lots of truffles or high unemployment...

Campground at St. Juan
 St. Juan de Penysgolosa is yet another monastery but it comes with a nearby free campground and an information centre. It was too early to camp and the water was turned off anyways so I hiked on. The trail now drops down 500 m to Villahermosa del Rio but what I had not seen on the map  is that it follows a dramatic river gorge into the valley. It was a pity that it was getting dark and I could not really appreciate the scenery. Just before sunset I came across another person. I was surprised to see another hiker so late in the day but despite a big backpack this man was not a hiker but the inhabitant of one of the "Masias" or farmhouses coming back from a shopping trip. For him it is 2,5 h into town and almost 3 h going home. He didn't mind walking in the dark as he knew the way like the back of his hand.

Villahermosa del Rio
But I didn't and therefore started to look for a campsite. I ended up underneath an olive tree on a terrace next to the trail. Next morning I was still mentally preparing to get up when someone passed my campsite with a flashlight at 6 am in the morning. This is two hours before sunrise! I have no clue who that might have been as I have not been discovered. Villahermosa was almost deserted when I arrived before 9 am and so I pressed on to San Vicente. It even rained a tiny little bit so I sought shelter in yet another old monastery, St. Bartolomeo and had a very early lunch. A guy from the local ayuntamiento came by to see whether this official picnic area was ok and was quite surprised to find a German hiker. He seemed to be quite enchanted by my hiker elegance, called me "guapa" and even asked for a kiss. (I declined). He was harmless and left quickly by car whereas I hiked on to San Vicente. I was actually quite elated by that incident. Three weeks ago I had been hassled on a bus by some teenagers for my dirty and smelly hiker outfit and now I had advanced to being a desirable "guapa". It seems that not all is lost for me....

Hot Springs in Montanejos
I was now coming to Montanejos, my next resupply stop. Of course it was already late in the day but the supermarket only reopened at 5.30 pm.anyways. The weather was so good that I did not want to stay in town despite the tempting 15 € offer from my trail acquaintances. Montanejos is a spa town but I had not realised that there are free open air hot springs. Just as you enter town I saw the sign "Hot Springs 25 degrees" and had to take a look. And for sure: the river water was pleasantly warm and almost turquoise. A beautiful spot and I was tempted to jump in. But the air temperature was close to 0° degrees, I did not have a towel or a swumsuit and I had no clue how many suitors I would attract by skinnydipping.

After a quick shopping stop in the well stocked supermarket I headed out into the night in the hope of a quick campsite. Of course it was all uphill but with my new headlamp I finally found a nice pine tree campsite on top. Next morning I surprised two early day hikers who could not believe to see someone already ahead of them. This is another breathtaking stretch of trail as you are walking on top of a narrow gorge. Especially with the early morning sun the views were incredible and the trail tread was great. But it did not stay that way...

This is trail!
You soon drop down again and the descend was a bushwhacking nightmare. First I could not see any trail. Only a tiny cairn indicated something. There must have been some sort of trail 5 years ago but it has not been maintained ever since. This is a very steep slope and I was basically bushwhacking through waist-high blackberry bushes and other prickly stuff. (My legs still looked horrible three days later...). You finally end up in a dry creek bed which was at least marginally better before another reroute takes you up again - and down to the train station of Bejis where you can follow a flat and nice rail trail. Heaven and hell are close together on the GR 7.

The climb up to Bejis is another lunatic GR 7 attempt to get the trail off the road. Instead of following the road the GR 7 climbs up a totally overgrown hill where I got stuck again in blackberry bushes. A stretch of 500 m took me almost an hour because I got so stuck I could not even turn around and just go back to the road. After that I was so fed up that I roadwalked to the next little village instead of taking the trail - I could not take any more bad  surprises.

Hilltop village
The next obstacle was the hiker's most deadly enemy in Spain: a new wind farm. These wind parks spring up everywhere and their access roads destroy all old trail marks or treads. Usually a wind farm means you are going to get lost for sure and this one was no exception. First of all the trail deviated from my GPS track and started to bushwhack up a hill in order to avoid the wind farm access roads. Unknown trail reroutes are worst when you encounter them shortly before dark when you need a campsite soon. I had no clue where the new trail would take me and the ground was totally rocky and steep. I hiked faster and tried to escape the noisy wind turbines, but to no avail - there were dozens of them. Finally the trail emerged onto an access road and then all trail marking disappeared. It was dark now, no campsite in sight and I could just try to head in the right direction with the help of my GPS. Luckily I passed an old abandoned settlement and that meant flat ground on terraces. In the end I found quite a good pine duff campsite with only one drawback: the wind farm's logistic centre was only a couple of hundred metres away. The whole night long patrol cars were coming and going but at least the night was almost wind still so that the wind mills were mostly silent. The whole area was dotted with ripped off plastic from the wings which did not induce much confidence into the safety of wind farms.

I was now ready for a rest day and another day's walk brought me eventually to Chelva and its Hotel La Posada. I seem to be the only guest... But the heating is working, there is a good restaurant next door and a supermarket in town. A good place to plan the rest of this trip and my return to Germany in 7 weeks.


Juan Holgado said...

Good Christine.At last the spanish sunny weather came to your joy.
I spent the night in the St Joan Monastery in the open refuge with a wooden floor.
Now you are going to cross the Turia River and getting to the Requena plateau. Still with good weather.

John Hayes said...

Glad to hear that you are safe and sound. That's a wonderful stretch of hiking you have just come through, I remember it well from a couple of years ago, all those hill top towns, stunning. Great description.