Showing posts with label Western Europe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Western Europe. Show all posts

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A hike through Western Europe: Conclusion

Heat wave in Spain
Let's start with my two usual questions. Did I like this hike? Yes, I liked it tremedously. But it was a hike full of surprises and extremes. And I have not learnt that much in a single trip since hiking the PCT. Although I had spent a lot of time planning this hike I encountered a lot of surprises. The biggest one was that I had very much miscalculated the time needed for it and I have written a separate post about this topic. But you learn from your mistakes: I will definitely plan my next hiking trip in Europe differently and allow a lot more time. I was also surprised by the health issues I encountered and still need some time to figure out how I will deal with the tick problem in Europe and my new hay fever. For the first time in my hiking career I have also had foot problems. The strange noises in my knee have disapperead though now and I hope that the pain in the Achilles tendon will soon do so, too.

What I liked a lot about this trip was the tremendous variety I have encountered. I have walked at all altitude from beach walks to high mountain passes of almost 3,000 metres. I have been on perfect single file trail through forest and have pounded seemingly endless roads. I have hiked through the most spectacular mountain scenery in the Pyrenees and dreadful suburbs and industrial areas in Spain. I have woken up with my tent covered in snow in April and have suffered through heat waves in Spain. But one thing was constant: I have never eaten so well on a trip!

Would I recommend this hike to a friend? Yes, absolutely! Europe is a great hiking country and I can recommend it to anyone. But here is my conclusion in a bit more detail:

Freezing in April
Route: I would change very little of the route I have hiked, but I would allow at least 3 more weeks for it. Given the time frame I had the route was too long and I would have been better off shortcutting a bit in Germany. If I had had more time I would have substituted parts of the Camino with a hike through the Picos de Europa in Spain. My route through Germany this year has been nice, but if I had to chose I think that the route I had hiked through Germany last year has been better. My route through France has been excellent and the very best part has been the mountain range from the Vosges, down through the French Jura and the Chartreuse to the Vercors. I will definitely be back in France to do some more hiking. My hike through Spain has been very difficult for various reasons. I found the Spanish Pyrenees a bit too hard for my liking, but would probably enjoy them with a longer time frame. The Spanish Caminos were the worst hiking on the whole trip, but at least it has given me the pilgrimage experience.

Camping in France
Gear: After so many miles of hiking I do know what gear to bring and so there were no big surprises. As usually my Thermarest delaminated and all my Platypus bottles broke. A tent pole broke too but could be repaired. I have gone through 3 1/2 pairs of shoes and 3 pairs of socks. The rest of my equipment is still more or less intact. But I want to mention that this trip will make me change to major gear items: I have used a Tarptent Rainbow and it has became my default tent now. Its freestanding mode has been great when I had to use it inside shelters. It has been proven to be very windstable as well.  And of course it is very roomy. This trip has also made me change from down to synthetic in sleeping bags. I have carried the BPL 240 quilt and it turned out to be one of the best purchases I have ever made. I have used this quilt in weather from -5 to 35 Celsius. I wasn't cold even in the unexpected spring snow storms and had good ventilation in the heat. Synthetic can be so much more abused than down and is therefore much better suited for my long trips through different climates. I also became addicted to a new piece of gear: my smartphone. It has been incredibly useful for doing research on the way. And I became addicted to my daily internet fix before going to sleep. I'll never leave home without one any more.

Miscallaneous: I had to learn that couchsurfing is difficult in Europe, especially in the big touristy cities. For places like Basel or Geneva I had to send out more than 10 requests to get one invitation, whereas in other countries usually my first or second request gets accepted. But hosts here seem to be so overrun by backpackers that many don't even bother to answer any more. Finding a host turned out to be so time consuming that I gave up on couchsurfing in Spain.
Long-distance hiking in Europe is unfortunately a very lonely thing. Although you'll meet plenty of day hikers or people out for a weekend, it is very rare to find like minded long-distance hiker along the way. The only place were I met some was in the Pyrenees on the GR 11 where you'll meet hikers going from coast to coast. Of course there are plenty (and very often too many) people on the Caminos, but they are pilgrims on a very different mindset than long-distance hikers.
Hiking in Europe is not more expensive than hiking in the US or Australia. I spent my normal average of 10 EUR per day on food and ate very luxuriously with that. The only other big expense with accommodation, especially in Spain. In Germany I stayed mostly with friends. In France I stayed almost always in my tent because camping was easy and the weather was fine. But stealth camping along the Caminos in Spain was a bit difficult and CS unsuccessful. Therefore I stayed almost twice a week in a cheap pension. But overall this hike has not cost me more than a thruhike of the AT or PCT.

A hike through Western Europe: Facts and Figures

Length of hike: about 4.500 km
Thereof alked alone: 4.500 km
Duration of hike: 172 days from 01.04. - 19.09.2012
Thereof rest days: 14
Thereof rest days due to illness: 2
Nero days: about 20
Average daily mileage including rest days: 26,12 km
Average daily mileage excluding rest days: 30, 41 km

Number of nights in my tent: 125
Number of nights in free shelters: 10
Number of nights in youth or pilgrims' hostels: 9
Number of nights with friends in Germany: 10
Number of friends visited: 4
Number of nights in hotels, guesthouses or holiday apartments: 12
Number of nights with Couchsurfing hosts: 6
Number of Couchsurfing hosts visited: 3

Equipment failures: 1 broken tent pole, 1 delaminated Thermarest, 2 Platypus bottles with holes, 3 ½ pairs of shoes, 2 pairs of socks

Number of resupply packages sent from Germany: 4

Illnesses: Diarrhea because of Antibiotic treatment of Lyme disease, temporary deafness because of hay fever

Most scenic part: France from Vosges to Vercors
Ugliest part: Spain Camino del Norte
Positive trail surprise: Germany Elisabethpfad
Negative trail surprise: Spain GR 11 in the Pyrenees

Best learning success: Gerald's lessons about German forestry
Scariest experience: Nightly encounter with geocachers
Most dangerous animal encounter: Tick bites

The Pilgrimage experience: Hiking the Spanish Caminos

When I had planned my route through Western Europe I had chosen the Caminos very reluctantly. I knew that it would not be stellar hiking, but I had never been on a pilgrimage trail in all my hiking career and thought it was about time now. So what do I think of the Caminos - now that I have hiked on three of them for over a month? As you might have guessed: I did not really like them.

A63 on the Camino Primitivo
To understand the crux of the Caminos you have to go back to the Middle Ages, the time when they developed. Back then pilgrims wanted to get from their home town to Santiago as quickly and as safely as possible. Beautiful or spectacular landscape did not interest them - they just wanted to get from point A to point B. They chose the easiest routes in the easiest terrain and went from one big city to the next one. And this is exactly were nowadays motorways, highways and railways are built! So naturally hiking the Caminos nowadays means hiking on or near busy roads. Even when much effort is taken to route the Caminos off pavement you will almost always be within sight or earshot of motor traffic. You won't see much spectacular scenery either. So if you want to hike in nature or are looking for great landscapes you are wrong on the Caminos. But what are the pilgrims looking for then? What is the pilgrimage experience?

Hostel in Santiago
Most pilgrims like the sense of community, the sharing with other pilgrims. People, who would normally enjoy their holidays in hotels and apartments are now sleeping in dormitories with up to 50 other pilgrims. There is no privacy, sometimes bed bugs and always people snoring. But pilgrims find that so attractive that they get up at 5 am and start hiking before sunrise to secure a bed in these hostels before the others arrive! These pilgrims' hostels are very cheap, but the majority of pilgrims is not on such a low budget that they could not afford better accommodation. Hardly anyone is cooking, but the cafes and bars along the Camino are full with pilgrims for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The advantage of this run to the hostels is that you have the Camino all to yourself after 5 pm....

Cast off sticks
The pilgrim community feeling reminded me very much of the trail communities on the AT. But because the AT is longer and harder the friendships forged there tend to more intense. Compared with the camaraderie on the American trails the pilgrim community seemed just like a poor copy to me and with more and more people on the Caminos the morale seems to get worse and worse.With everyone and their mother now hiking the Caminos you see a lot of inexperienced hikers out there. I have never seen that many huge and ill-fitting backpacks before. Everyone  has a shell attached to the backpack. Instead of using modern lightweight trekking poles most pilgrims carry wooden sticks. I have even seen people dressed up in medieaval clothes to be more authentic pilgrims. And at the end of the trail these wooden sticks are left behind everywhere. My hostel and the pilgrims' office in Santiago were full of cast off sticks and at Santiago airport they even had a special trash can for them because some pilgrims try to take them on the plane which of course is not allowed.

Another locked church
I had first thought that people hike the Caminos out of religious reasons but this is mostly not the case. Although most pilgrims are on some sort of spiritual quest, very few do it with a Christian motivation. And the official church is definitely not helping them: Almost every church along the Caminos is locked. There are no masses, prayer services or any other spiritual guidance offered to pilgrims from the official Spanish Catholic church. There are only very few exceptions like the hostel of Padre Ernesto in Guemes or the German pilgrims' meeting in Santiago. The Catholic church is continuously losing members in the Western world and here is a chance to win some back. Thousands of hikers flock to Caminos looking for spiritual enlightenment and the Catholic church does not seize this opportunity and basically just ignores them. (If you are looking for a more spiritual experience try the lesser known pilgrimage trails in other countries. I myself have hiked the German pilgrimage trail "Elisabethpfad" on this trip and found it a lot better than the Spanish Caminos. Almost every church was open, the one and only cheap guidebook was a mixture of prayers, historical anecdotes and trail descriptions and of course there were also pilgrims' hostels.)

Coffee stall on the Camino Frances
To me in the end the "pilgrimage experience" seemed just to be a cheap hiking holiday with the Camino offering the comfortable logistics of cheap accommodation, luggage transport and menus del peregrino (pilgrims' menus in restaurants). I guess that you can still get a lot of the Caminos if you don't know any better hiking. And I have tremendous respect for all those overweight and/or out of shape pilgrims who struggle but make it to the end. They will find a sense of achievement, some enlightenment and trail friends. And if the Camino sparks their interest in hiking - more power to them. But you will find all these things in a much purer and intense form on other long-distance trails.

Bottom line: If you are a new to hiking the Caminos might be a good and easy way for you to get started. But if you have already hiked other more nature oriented long distance trails you will most probably be very much disappointed with the Caminos.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Tips for hiking in France

On this trip I have hiked 1 1/2 months all over France and consider it a great country for long distance hiking. There are several reasons for that: 

Trail marking on the GR 7
France is a centralised country and that reflects positively on the trail system. All the long distance trails called GR (Grand Randonne) are uniformly marked with red and white stripes and numbered. One central organisation, FFRP is overlooking them and publishes the relevant guidebooks called topoguide. IGN publishes maps for the whole of France in various scales and there is one overview map with all French long distance trails that is fantastic for planning purposes. When you have decided on your route you can easily mailorder the appropriate guidebooks and maps. But it gets even better: on GR-info.com you can download all those trails as a gpx track for free! All this is almost perfect but there still are some flaws. The topoguides are in French only but I would still recommend them even if you don't speak French. They contain all the maps, give hiking times and use universally understandable pictograms for town services plus addresses and info on gite d'etapes. Unfortunately there aren't topoguides for all trails and they are difficult to obtain along the trail. Maps are sold almost everywhere but mostly 1:25000 scale only which is too detailed for long distance hiking. You have to carefully plan ahead or ship the maps/guidebooks to yourself, otherwise you might find yourself without decent maps. The gpx tracks I mentioned have to be treated with a grain of salt, too. Although some were very accurate, others were rather vague with too few track points and some hopelessly outdated. Especially on the GR 7 there have been major reroutes that were kilometres off the gpx track! 

Public water hydrant
Stealth camping was incredibly easy in France and I never had a single problem. The GRs generally avoid big cities and there is usually so much forest around that you don't even have to do a lot of pre-planning. Only Southern France posed a bit of a problem but only because the ground was so rocky and the vegetation so dense. There are lots of other advantages for the wild camper like the availability of water. I am not talking about natural water sources here that vary depending on the region. But in France almost every little village has a public fountain or at least a water tap. Sometimes those are elaborate old fountains, sometimes it is just a plastic hose our even a hydrant. And by the way, the cemeteries have water taps, too. So if you pass through a village you can almost be sure to find water without any problems. 

Unfortunately, another one of my little tricks did not work that well. Although French churches do have electrical outlets for recharging your devices most churches are locked nowadays. Only less than half the churches I have tried were open. 

No electrical outlets here...
When it comes to food there is good news and bad news. The good news is that French food is incredibly good. I absolutely loved French cheese. There are thousands of varieties from soft goat cheese to hard Tome. I could not stop trying different sorts. There is also excellent salamis and almost every little shop sells bread as well. Excellent ingredients for hiker meals. But this is also the end of the good news. Because the French are so proud of there food they don't sell dehydrated pasta and rice meals that like Lipton or Knorr. Nada, nothing, no matter how big the supermarket is. I mean I don't particularly like that stuff either but it is very practical for backpacking. There only is some flavoured couscous - sometimes. And very rarely flavoured risotto rice that takes forever to prepare. The only other option is fresh pasta like tortellini that you can get from the fridge section but it is very heavy, bulky and doesn't keep very long. As long as you are close to civilisation and shops you can live on bread and cheese and fresh pasta. But long lonely stretches or weekends are a problem. And worst of all for me chocolate is very expensive here and I eat a lot of this stuff. Generally food is more expensive here than in Germany. There are discount supermarkets here like my beloved Lidl and Aldi but you won't find many along the trail, only in bigger cities. 

To make resupply even more complicated there is the opening times problem. Except big supermarkets all shops in France close for lunch. Unfortunately lunch break times are unpredictable and can be anything from 12 noon to 5 pm. Sometimes only 2 hours, sometimes 4. Also small shops tend not to open some days or afternoons which can be Monday or Wednesday afternoon. And of course these small shops are not on the internet and therefore you cannot google their opening times. More than once I arrived hungry at a shop only to find out that it had closed 10 minutes ago and would only reopen in 3 hours... 

The French are very proud of their country and their language. Unfortunately this translates into a general lack of foreign language skills - or reluctance to speak them. Even in some small tourist offices staff would only speak French. Do not expect anyone to speak English. The French expect you to speak French. To make things worse a lot of French do not even try to understand your efforts in rudimentary French or sign language, although I have also met multilingual and very welcoming French people. So it definitely helps to speak at least some words of French, don't rely on English only. 

Although France has a great trail network hiking if not as popular here as for example in Germany or the UK. This leads to a lack of decent outdoor shops. Of course there is Decathlon, a huge chain of shops for outdoor stuff and sport. But they mostly sell their own cheap brand Quechua which is cheap but of very low quality. Even widespread international brands are mostly unavailable in France. For example I could not find a replacement TAR Prolite sleeping pad or Keen hiking shoes in France, not even in online shops. Also keep in mind that France uses a different system of gas canisters. You will not find screw top ones, only the blue Campingaz canisters, with and without valve. But there are adapters to solve this problem although I have not seen them for sale in France. 

Refuge in the Pyrenees
Most French hikers I have met were out on a day hike. Very few hikers were going for a couple of days and hardly anyone was camping. Almost everyone is staying in the refuges or huts. This hut system is very extensive - but also expensive! There are no fixed prices for the refuges. They very from hut to hut depending on the amenities and the location. They can be add cheap as 10 Eur or as expensive as 30 Eur. For me they were out of question and I never stayed in one. Keep in mind that a lot of those refuges don't have a permanent keeper and have to be booked in advance. If you arrive withouth a prior booking you might find a refuge completely locked up and usually there is not even an emergency shelter open! So do  not rely on these refuges for emergencies!

One last word on telecommunication. In every country I try to buy a local SIM card and stay connected with the rest of the world. In contrast to Germany and Spain telecommunication is an expensive business especially if you have to go prepaid. Rates for national calls are as expensive as 39 cent per minute no matter what company. Only Orange offers a very decent internet flat rate for 9 EUR per month, but getting the SIM card and subscribing to the flat rate takes more than 24 hours and the whole procedure is definitely not customer friendly.

In Memoriam Dr. Margarete Hochhut

I have met Rita (short for Margarete) on the internet. She was a German hiker from Frankfurt, had hiked the AT and was preparing for the PCT. After exchanging some emails I caught the opportunity and visited her in Frankfurt in winter 2007. Although we only met one night, this meeting had a tremendous influence on me. Rita was 10 years older than me and had given up her job as an anaesthetist at age 50. She had been living a very happy retired life ever since, was hiking a lot and engaged herself in her neighbourhood in Frankfurt. At that time I was already toying with the idea of giving up working myself, but was afraid of that big step. Rita proved to be a very positive role model. Although she had enjoyed her professional life as well she had never regretted retiring so early. She was so apparently happy with her life situation that it encouraged me a lot to follow in her foot steps and 2 years later I stopped working myself.

After this short, but very important meeting we have always kept in contact. I sent her post cards from all my trips, we exchanged emails and whenever I was in Germany we had long telephone conversations. In 2009 she was first hinting in an email that she was ill and I soon discovered that she was suffering from a very aggressive form of cancer. Although she remained very positive and continued hiking, her health deteriorated quickly. When I called her in early 2011 she told me that she had only a few months left and prepared to end her life herself before it became unbearable. It was an incredibly touching conversation and when I left for a hike through Germany a bit later Rita was always on my mind. I lit many candles in churches praying for her health to improve.

Her health did not improve, but her spirits did. Visits at a psychotherapist helped her to deal with her fear of death. I admired her tremendously in these last months. In a very organized way she was preparing her departure of life. She worked on her will and donated most of her wordly possessions. When I told her about my hike through Western Europe this year, she immediately sent me relevant maps and guidebooks. She even apologized for not sending me some of her hiking gear because she had already donated it to the boy scouts. She talked very freely about dying and her fears of death and I will never forget these conversations.

Shortly before I left for my long hike through Western Europe this year she sent me a last present with only a little note saying "Happy trails, Rita". When I tried to call her to thank her, her telephone was disconnected. I later learned that she had gone to a hospice then. A couple of weeks into my hike a received an email from a friend of Rita's. It was Rita's own farewell message. She had prepared it herself before her death and had asked a friend to send it out afterwards. Rita has died on April, 15th 2012. In this last email she thanked her friends and said that she had finally overcome her fears. Her last message was this poem by A. Muschg:

Weit waldet das Wilde.
Weiter weht der Wind der Werke.
Weit ist noch immer die Weide des wagenden Wunsches.
Wandere weiter im Widerspruch.
Weißt du den Weg nicht, wähle den wirklichsten.
Weise wandle ihn, so wandelt er dich.
Wirke im Wandel den Wert. Halte dem Wechsel Wort.
Wende zum Wunder die Wunden.
Immer weniger werde.
Werde dein Weg.

Rita was a remarkable person and although I have not shared much time with her, she has had a big influence on me. I want to dedicate my hike through Europe to Rita. She was on my mind every day during these last months and the memory of her will always be with me wherever I go.  

Camino Primitivo/Frances: Lugo to Santiago - the end

My last two days on the Camino Primitivo were rather uneventful and unfortunately back on lots of pavement. Because it was mostly on very quiet country lanes it was not too bad though and led me through more half deserted little villages. Camping was still great and I even had two very nice campsites -and no more ticks. I was now facing a new challenge: In order to receive the famous Credencial, a document saying that you have hiked the Camino, you have to hike at least the last hundred 100 km and prove it with 2 stamps daily. You can receive these stamps in the hostels and most bars along the way and so I started collecting stamps now feeling rather stupid and touristy about it.

At Melide I finally joined the dreaded Camino Frances and all my fears came true. The Camino Frances really is a hiker highway! I have never ever seen so many hikers on one trail. During the day I was never out of sight of another hiker. Taking a pee was almost impossible because of the constant stream of hikers coming down the trail. Consequently every little side trail that led you out of sight from the main trail was littered with used toilet paper - a disgusting sight. To manage these masses of people rest areas with tables and benches were set up every couple of kilometres and trash cans were placed all along the way. Even the dogs have specialised in pilgrims and were hanging around in the rest areas waiting for food scraps from the hikers

I was soon getting tired of all those hikers and the constant greeting "Buen Camino". The locals did not seem to mind though and still greeted the pilgrims friendly. But local economy profits a lot from the pilgrims. Every other house seems to be a private pilgrims' hostel and despite this being very late in the season in the evening I did see a lot of "Complete" (Hostel full) signs. Little food stalls were everywhere along the trail where you could buy coffee or pieces of fruit. Drink vending machines were also frequently along the trail being a rather odd sight in otherwise very rural Galicia.

My last campsite on the Camino looked rather nice in a Eukalyptus plantation. Sheltered from the wind and tucked away from the sight of other pilgrims. But I spent an almost sleepless night because it became rather windy and the Eucalyptus trees were shaken in the wind hitting each other which caused a dreadful sound that even my ear plugs could not drown out. I realised that it was rather improbable that a whole tree would come down but it still sounded like it and did not let me sleep. To make things worse some big insects had crawled under my tent and made funny noises that were magnified when I had my ear on my pillow. I constantly thought that a tree was about to be de-routed.

And so finally, on Wednesday, September 19th I walked into Santiago de Compostela, the terminus of my hike. I did not feel elated or very happy like you usually feel when you finish such a long hike. On the contrary: I was so dead tired that I did not even go to the cathedral but just went to my hostel and collapsed in my bed. The cathedral and all the other pilgrim's rituals had to wait till next day. At least I was very lucky with my hostel. Because I knew I would arrive rather late in the day I had made an online reservation for the Seminario Menor, a former boys' boarding school. It is a huge building complex that now houses hundreds of pilgrims in big dormitories ("snoritories") of 50 beds per room! But just paying 5 EUR more gets you a private room which is a very small and spartan "cell" but quiet and clean. I enjoyed the pilgrim feeling at the end and liked watching my fellow pilgrims in the evening.

The next day I finally went to famous Santiago Cathedral to visit the daily pilgrims' service. The huge cathedral was overflowing with pilgrims and other visitors. Dozens of security guards had to manage the masses and getting a seat was impossible. Pilgrims, backpacks and walking sticks were everywhere and several priests were celebrating the mass. I have never seen a church so full of people but was assured afterwards that this had only been a mediocre day. On weekends there are even more pilgrims and tourists! I found it hard to find a decent spot for a finish photo with all those people around.

Next I wanted to get my "credencial" but when I got to the "pilgrims' office" the waiting line was so long that I gave up on it. Hundreds of pilgrims were waiting for an hour and longer to get that document and the queue was well out onto the street. I resigned myself to just have a picture taken of myself outside the office. The only satisfying event that day was the daily German pilgrims meeting. A German church had started this initiative and a team of a priest and two volunteers were offering a daily German mass, a pilgrims' meeting and a spiritual sightseeing tour of the cathedral. I attended the pilgrims meeting and was surprised to see only three other pilgrims there! The idea of that meeting was to share the experiences had on the trail and talk about your feelings at the end of it. A great way to end a pilgrimage!

I wholeheartedly plunged into asking dozens of questions to the priest in order to find out what he thought of the "pilgrimage fashion" and what his experiences with the pilgrims have been. He seemed to like it so much that he even invited me to lunch and we continued talking for another hour. I wish I had found more of these "spiritual" services along the way, but the Spanish church is offering no "religious support" to the pilgrims except the masses in Santiago. In the end I even met to fellow pilgrims in the hostel and I felt a bit like on the AT again. I just wished I had had more time to thoroughly explore Santiago and indulge in the pilgrimage feeling, but alas I had to leave the next day and fly back to Berlin. Altogether this has been the most unexcited finish of a long-distance hike. My finish day just felt like any other hiking day on the trail and I did not even feel a bit special...

Monday, 17 September 2012

Camino Primitivo: Conclusion

 Although the Camino Primitivo has definitely not been the best trail on this trip I guess it is one of, if not the best Spanish pilgrimage trail and I quite enjoyed it. So what is so nice about it? It has a relatively low percentage of roadwalking. 40% pavement is still a lot for a normal hiking trail, but low for a Camino. But the even better news is that you never have to walk on really busy roads. Once you have passed the dreaded A63 motorway there aren't any big roads any more at all. You don't have to walk on them and there aren't any close by. Only the first days out of Oviedo and the last two days before joining the Camino Frances have a lot of roadwalking.

This Camino's trump card is the rural landscape. You walk through a mixture of pastures and forests and tiny villages that often consist of a few houses only. Very often I felt like 100 years ago. Time seems to have stood still in a lot of these places that are half abandoned with only a few old people left. And the locals like the hikers because they bring in fresh air - and money. Almost everyone I met was friendly and helpful. There are only two bigger cities along the way, Oviedo and Lugo, and both are nice and picturesque. They are big enough to have all amenities, but small enough to get around on foot.

Wild camping was very easy with lots of forest and hardly any people around. But there are also lots of pilgrims' hostels and plenty of cheap pensions and hotels. Because none of the villages and cities along this Camino is a seaside tourist place finding accommodation is not difficult even in high season.

Reservoir
Trail marking is excellent and finding water is easy, but you have to plan ahead for food as not many of the villages have shops. You sometimes have to carry food for more than one day which is unusual for a Camino.
The guidebooks make this trail sound difficult which is not true. It is not more difficult than any typical German hiking trail and you don't need hiking boots or mountain experience for it. There aren't any really steep ascents or descents. Would I recommend it to a friend? If you are looking for a great hiking trail I would not recommend any Spanish Camino. But if you expressively want to hike a Spanish pilgrimage trail the Camino Primitivo is the way to go.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Camino Primitivo: Oviedo to Lugo

I stayed in my nice hostal in Oviedo as long as possible and with a well meaning cleaning woman this meant 1 pm. I just wanted to do some last shopping and then hike a short day. But when I arrived st the supermarket it was closed. Guess why? There was a fiesta, of course! I could not believe this happening to me 4 times in a row. Every time I am in town shops are closed on a normal day because of some obscure fiesta. Luckily I still had some food and at least bakeries were open which meant I would not starve while the rest of Spain was indulging in a fiesta.

Motorway construction
Rather grumpily I left otherwise nice Oviedo and hoped for better trail. I had now changed from the Camino del Norte onto the Camino Primitivo, the oldest pilgrimage trail in Spain. In my German guidebook it was described as the most demanding, but also most spectacular trail. Unfortunately, the first couple of days were nothing spectacular at all, just the danger old road walks. Only the costal motorway was now replaced with motorway A 63 which was one huge construction site and an even bigger eye sore. I was really getting fed up with all these Caminos!

But then, after a couple of days things improved tremendously. Firstly, A63 was left behind and the percentage of road walks plummeted tremendously. I was now mostly on dirt roads and even single file trail was seen. Secondly, the landscape improved. This was hilly country and the trail rose up to 1,200 m. Though not the most breathtaking scenery it was a quite pleasant landscape. But most importantly, this was eventually a real rural area. No more big settlements, only small and tiny villages. Some fields, lots of pastures and eventually plenty of forest. Not even Eucalyptus, but pine trees. I felt like I was eventually hiking again instead of pounding pavement.

With these changes the camping situation also improved. I did not have to plan the while day ahead but was able to find possible campsites very frequently. But unfortunately another problem reappeared: Ticks! Ticks had not been a problem since I had left Germany but here they were out again in vengeance. Every night I spent a long time searching for them and usually found 20 (!) per night. I felt very uneasy about not being able to check my back but it could not be helped. Being a hypochondriac I now of course think that every little ache is a sign of Lyme Disease.

Fog on Puerta de Alto
I feel very tired right now and although I am enjoying my hike I am glad it will be over soon. I have therefore decided to finish it in Santiago de Compostella instead of walking 90 km further to Cabo Finisterre. I want to have a relaxed finish and some time for sightseeing instead of rushing till the very last day. I am taking it relatively easy now and hiking 30 km per day is not a problem in this easy terrain. My guidebook author however does not think it is easy here. He warns pilgrims of the stage up to the pass at Puerta de Alto: "Only attempt it when you feel mentally and physically prepared for it. Take enough food and water as the next bar is 22 km away!" As I had expected the stage was dead easy despite these warnings and an incredibly thick fog. I could hardly see 50 metres, but the route is incredibly well marked and you can't really get lost.

I soon changed from the province of Asturias into Galicia and to confuse the pilgrims a bit the way of waymarking changes here. The trail is marked with yellow arrows and the shell symbol. But whereas in Asturias the small side of the shell is pointing into walking direction, in Galicia out of the broad side. I am also curious to find out what fiestas they have here....

Lugo cathedral
I am currently having a Nero day in Lugo, my last town stop before the end of my hike. Lugo is famous for its completely intact Roman town wall and beautiful cathedral. I took a look at it on a Saturday night when weddings were taking place there like on a conveyor belt. Seems to be a very popular place to tie the knot. This being a weekend I was a bit worried about finding accommodation. I don't want to stay in the pilgrims' hostels and have to find alternative accommodation. The first hostal I walked in offered me a single room for a mere 12 EUR. I could hardly believe that such a bargain is still possible in a touristy place in Western Europe. The place is sort of a dive, but is clean and there is even a TV in the room. Writing about this place here the only light bulb in the room has just gone out...

But economy is bad here. Unemployment rate in Spain in Spain is 20% and probably much higher here on rural Galicia. When I treated myself to a cheap menu del dia yesterday the friendly waitress explained all the food options in perfect English to me. When I enquired where she had learned it she said she had a university degree in English but could not find any other work than as a waitress in a cheap restaurant. I am now waiting in my rather dark room for the cleaning lady to arrive and throw me out of my hostal to hike the last 4 days to Santiago. Still it seems like yesterday to me that I started this hike in snow at the German/Czech border...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

How to plan the time needed for a long distance hike

This had been my first really long hike the route of which I had completely planned myself. All the other long hikes I had done in the US and Australia had been existing long distance trails with map sets and/or guidebooks. And of course other people had hiked those trails before and had given me a pretty good estimation on how long the hike would take.

My hike through Western Europe has been very different. Although I was using existing long distance trails as well I had been piecing them together creating my very own route that nobody had hiked before in that combination. I therefore could only guestimate how long it would take me. To get a rough idea I had downloaded gpx tracks for the whole route and connected them. Now I could measure the distance on my computer and the result was around 4,850 km. I knew from experience that I can usually average 30 km per day. I double checked that by comparing this to my daily mileage on the PCT. Assuming the same amount of full and half rest days I came to a finish date for my European hike and booked my flights accordingly.

Now, at the end of my hike I have learnt a lot... I had to realise that I have very much miscalculated the time needed for this hike. I have only been able to make IT to the end in time by taking all sorts of planned and unplanned shortcuts and by even skipping a section of trail that I had already hiked several years ago.

Why have I been so much off my planning? In hindsight I can say that there have been several factors.

Inaccurate length of route: I have already described that I had downloaded gpx tracks for the whole distance and measured the length of the route based on it. But with anything you download from the internet you never know what quality you get. The tracks for Germany and the Spanish Caminos turned out to be very accurate. But the tracks for France which made up a good third of my hike were only very basic. They consisted of very few track points only. When on the ground the trail was meandering around or taking long switchbacks my gpx track would only show a straight line. And of course this straight line was much shorter than the real trail. I have no way of double checking it but I guess that the real distance I have hiked in France is about 10-15% longer than planned.
Lesson learnt: Make sure you have the accurate length of your route. If in doubt add a buffer for planning inaccuracies.

Rest days: I knew from long experience that I need a rest day about once a week or at least every 10 days. I had calculated 2 full rest days per month and was expecting that I could add a couple of Nero days per month by exceeding my daily average. But the amount of rest days needed was based on my hiking experience in the US and Australia where your usual trail town is pretty boring. You can concentrate on what a hiker has to do on a rest day: rest and eat! There is not much else in those towns to distract you. The trail towns on my European hike were very different. They were major tourist destinations themselves. You could spend several days sightseeing in places like Basel, Grenoble, Carcassonne, Bilbao. And therefore I was facing a dilemma in each trail town. I really needed the rest, but I also wanted to see the sights! Unfortunately, sightseeing is not resting and I usually left town about as tired as I had entered it. I would have needed the double amount of rest days: one day for resting and town chores and one day for sightseeing.
Lesson learnt: If the trail towns have lots of sights and you are interested in seeing them you need a separate sightseeing day. You will not get rest on a sightseeing day!

Abundance of resupply options: I usually came across a shop every day, sometimes several times per day. I rarely had to carry food for more than a couple of days. Great! That means less weight to carry. But it also meant more time spent shopping! Every day I had to find the supermarket, do my shopping and find a nice place to eat it. Because of course with all this abundance of food I ate a lot of fresh fruit and other heavy stuff that I did not want to carry too far away from the shop. I don't mean to complain about this. It was great to get all this great food daily and I enjoyed the local specialties tremendously but I had not considered how time consuming it is. Time that cannot be used for hiking any more.
Lesson learnt: Plenty of resupply options means less pack weight but also more time spent shopping.

Wrong daily mileage: My assumption of daily mileage had been based on my thruhike of the PCT. It should have dawned on me that I had needed almost the same amount of time for the AT which is much shorter, but had a more difficult terrain. I had stupidly assumed that hiking in civilised Europe would be easy. No wilderness, no bushwhacking. I was wrong. The Pyrenees turned out to be some of the most difficult hiking I have ever done and my daily mileage was halved. And although the French mountain ranges of the Vosges and Jura are not quite alpine I still had to deal with a daily elevation gain of 1,000 m plus. The PCT is all well engineered trail accessible for horses whereas the French do not seem to believe much in switchbacks and other commodities... The difficulty of the terrain and thus my daily mileage was alternating greatly from dead easy Spanish pilgrimage trails to suicidally steep ascents in the Pyrenees. But overall a daily average of 30 km was a bit too high.
Lesson learnt: From now on I will only assume a daily mileage of 30 km/20 miles if I am dead sure that I will encounter relatively easy trail and moderate elevation gains.

Climate: Of course I had studied climate charts and knew what sort of weather to expect. But I had only considered temperature and precipitation. The big problem turned out to be humidity in combination with heat in Southern France and Northern Spain. It was draining all energy from me and chafing became a real problem. Yes, you can still maintain a high mileage in that climate but it is no fun...
Lesson learnt: Don't forget humidity in your climate considerations.

Fixed finish date: Because I had to book a flight to get to my next adventure in the US I had a fixed end date. And because I don't have an apartment any more I did not want to linger too long in Berlin where my storage unit is. I therefore calculated only 4 days between my planned finish date in Spain and my flight to the US. I somehow assumed it would most likely take me less time to finish. Big mistake: the finish date turned into a Damocles' sword and I constantly felt in a hurry. Instead of staying and resting where I liked a place I felt a constant time pressure.
Lesson learnt: If at all possible don't have a fix end date for such a long and unpredictable hike. But if you have to have one like me, plan enough buffer time. If you then finish with some buffer time left, have a plan for what to do with the rest of the time like another short hike, sightseeing or visiting friends. Don't plan to hike till the very last day!

Alternate shortcuts: This is at least one point I had taken into account. I had prepared a couple of alternate short cuts and when I realised that I was running out of time I took them instead of sticking to my original plan. But not all shortcuts were real alternatives. I had a lot of shortcuts for the beginning of my trip but they were useless because I had not yet realised at that time that I needed them. I had only one possible shortcut for the end of my trip: taking the popular Camino Frances instead of the less travelled Camino del Norte and Primitivo. But faced with that option I realised that it was such a bad alternative that it would spoil the enjoyment of the trip. I could not bring myself to hike with thousands of other pilgrims in the blazing sun in the height of summer tourist season.
Lesson learnt: Try to have attractive alternate routes (shorter and longer) for the last stages of your trip when your finish date is already predictable.

Bottom line: So far I have always roughly calculated to hike 850 - 900 km per month. In easy terrain I was even able to do up to 1,000 km. But for any further European hikes I will definitely reduce that to 750 km per month in order to have an enjoyable hike.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Camino del Norte: Conclusion and tips

As I want to write a post about pilgrimage trails in general I will limit myself to observations specific to the Camino del Norte in this post.

First of all the usual two questions: Did I like the trail? Would I recommend it to a friend? In both cases the answer is a very definite NO. The Camino del Norte has been by far the worst bit of hiking on this whole trip. I would even go as far as to say that this has been some of the worst hiking in my entire outdoor career. Why has it been do bad? There are many negative factors:

Too much pavement: About 75% of this Camino are on pavement. This fact itself makes the Camino almost unacceptable as a good hiking trail but it gets worse. The remaining 25% are almost completely on gravel roads. There is next to no single file trail. The 75% pavement can roughly be divided into three equal parts. In the best case you are on a concrete pista which means no traffic. The next third is on quiet country lanes with very little traffic. But the last third, and that means 25% of the trail is on or next to major highways with lots of traffic. In most cases there is a shoulder or a side walk, but there are a few outright dangerous stretches on busy highways with no shoulder.

Ugly scenery: I do not need pristine wilderness to enjoy a hike, but there is very little nice scenery along this Camino. You have to get in and out of 3 metropolitan areas: Irun/San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander. Each time that means at least one day of hiking through urban sprawl and industrial areas. The coastal towns are geared towards tourism including loads of apartment buildings and parking lots. And the coastal motorway is an eyesore.

Noise pollution: The costal motorway is paralleling the Camino as is the old National road. A lot of time you are within earshot of them and you cross the motorway endless times. Motorways are a fact of modern life but I prefer hiking trails that aren't constantly following them.

Disappointing coast line: Forget about picturesque fishing villages and pristine beaches. This is cheap holiday country with overcrowded campgrounds, monotonous apartment buildings and crowded beaches full of screaming kids. There are stretches were you can walk along the beach but it is no fun to trudge along the beach in stinky hiker clothes with a heavy back pack when everyone else is sunbathing in a bikini or shorts.

Illegal garbage dump
Difficult free camping: This is a very populated region and even in the more rural stretches there are houses almost everywhere and very little forest. Stealth camping needs a lot of planning ahead to end the day in a potentially good free camping area. Crossing the metropolitan areas you almost have no other choice than staying in a pilgrims' hostel or other paid accommodation. But if you don't mind asking people if you can camp on their property things will be a lot easier. Locals are very friendly and have a positive attitude towards the hikers so you should not have a problem finding a campsite this way. But being a single female I rather stealth camp so that no one knows where I am.

If you still want to hike the Camino del Norte here are some practical infos:

Trail marking: Generally very good though the quality varies a lot. It can be difficult in the bigger cities were trail marks disappear in city centres. But with a simple guidebook or by asking people you should not have any problem.

Santander
Guidebooks: By chance I ended up with three guidebooks for this Camino. I could not find any good maps for this trail that show the vegetation. This is an important information for stealth campers like me. The only guidebook in that direction is the Spanish guidebook "El Camino Norte en tu mochila" that has sketch maps showing forests and houses. Although these maps were pretty useful (and the only reason why I bought the book) it is otherwise rather useless with bad trail descriptions and little practical info. The red Rother guidebook available in German and Spanish has excellent practical info on hostels and alternative accommodation, sights and opening times. The trail descriptions are decent and there are maps (not showing vegetation). The German Conrad Stein guidebook has the best trail description but is otherwise pretty bad. Useless overview maps, no info on alternative accommodation and a horrible and confusing layout.

Water and resupply: There are water taps in almost every village and I never had to carry more than 2 litres. You come across a shop every day, often several times per day. Only beware of local fiestas when shops are closed.

Instead of walking the Camino del Norte I would rather cycle it. Most of it is on pavement anyways. And I would not do it in summer. It is very hot and what is worse, humid as well. Also accommodation is a bit of a problem in summer if you don't stealth camp. I passed several hostels that were already full in the afternoon. Spring and fall are much better and far less crowded.

Camino del Norte: Santander to Oviedo

Industrial area out of Santander
Before leaving Santander I wanted to go shopping - and ran into the usual problem. All shops were closed because of a local fiesta. The same had already happened in San Sebastian, Bilbao and now Santander. There seem to be a lot of fiestas in Spain... Hiking a whole day through ugly suburbs and industrial areas if another common problem on the Camino and of course hiking out of Santander was not much different. I am getting rather annoyed of this. To make things worse I had to follow the coastal motorway a lot of times which complicated camping. You do not want to camp next to a major highway and therefore I had to plan well ahead to end the day in an area that was forested or at least and away from the motorway. Not an easy task.

The motorway is not even finished yet and construction works are even disrupting the trail in places. It was heartbreaking to see that some of the few remaining unspoilt coastal are going to be destroyed by the motorway. Also generally speaking I get the impression that Spanish people are not very environmentally oriented. Urban sprawl is everywhere and there does not seem to be much planning behind it. New apartment buildings are erected along the coast line and there is nothing picturesque about them. Wild garbage dumps are everywhere. And the pilgrims are no better: every side trail is littered with toilet paper. "Pack it out" seems to be unheard of...

Horreo or storage space
Still camping was a bit better in this stretch a it was a bit more rural - if you can get away from the dreaded motorway. I made two more attempts with pilgrims' hostels. The first one was rather unintended. I was hiking through the little village of Serdio when I was spotted by the hospitalera. She immediately introduced herself and before I could say that I did not want to stay at the hostel I was dragged into the local bar, given a stamp into my credencial and asked for a donation of 5 Eur. As it was already late in the day and camping was allowed at the hostel I decided to stay there in my tent. It turned out to be a good decision as I met a Spanish pilgrim with whom I ended up discussing the fascination of pilgrimages till midnight.

Hostel in Serdio
My second stay in a pilgrims' hostel on the other hand turned me off them. It was a day when I either had to camp early or hike into the dark to find a campsite. Or stay at the hostel in Vega de Sariego. I decided to give the hostel a try. There were 3 rooms and as holiday season was already over I was hoping for a room for myself or with few other pilgrims. There was only a Danish couple in my room but the husband turned out to be a hardcore snorer. He was snoring so loudly that I decided I was better off sleeping on the roof terrace. What I had not realised was the fog. I slept much better on the terrace but I woke up with a soaking wet quilt due to the heavy fog. I decided that those hostels are not for me. If I ever use a hostel again I will camp there. Those dormitories are too much for me. The only positive experience had been to meet a Japanese pilgrim who was thoroughly impressed by my meagre knowledge of the Japanese language and my enthusiasm for his country.

Coastal motorway
Next day I hiked into Oviedo - another slog through suburbs and along major highways. I am getting tired of the Camino del Norte and hope that things will improve now on the Camino Primitivo. In Oviedo I treated myself with a real full rest day. Two nights in a single room will hopefully restore my good mood. And again I was lucky finding a cheap and quiet pension in the town centre where I am happily enjoying lying in my bed and not doing anything except eating in an AYCE buffet. I have two more weeks left on this trip and I must admit that I am getting a bit tired. The Camino del Norte has been the worst bit of hiking on this trip and had made it difficult to stay motivated.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Camino del Norte: Bilbao to Santander

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
On my rest day in Bilbao I was very much torn between resting and sightseeing. This has often been a problem on this trip: you just want to rest in your bed but you also want to see the local sights... In Bilbao I managed to see the Art Museum (which was quite nice) and the famous modern Guggenheim Museum (which was rather disappointing: a lot of space and a lot of money for very little content). But what I enjoyed most there was a fantastic AYCE buffet and my single room in the youth hostel... Long distance hikers are bad tourists. I even missed the big fiesta that was going on in Bilbao with concerts and bull fights. Because of this fiesta it had been difficult to find accommodation in town and I had been very lucky to score a room in the youth hostel. But this hostel was rather weird. It has the charm and location of an Etap hotel: very clean and efficient and located right next to the highway. But it did not have any of the hostel amenities like a kitchen or a comfy sitting room. To my big disappointment there wasn't even a book exchange and therefore I had to buy new reading material in town.

Along the bike path out of Bilbao
The way out of Bilbao was as horrible as expected. A whole day you walk on pavement along old industrial buildings, run down high rises and motorways. There was absolutely nothing scenic about this stretch. Still in Bilbao I had run into two South African women who had come all the way from South Africa to hike the Camino - without a guidebook. They were completely lost and I helped them back on their way. But on this day I really started wondering why people come from that far only to walk on concrete through urban jungle and along huge highways and then sleep in huge dormitories with plenty of snorers.

It required a lot of planning to find stealth campsites every night but I was very lucky on this stretch. Although I mostly had to hike on highways through very populated areas I could always camp in the very rare forested areas in between. Forest here was another surprise: it feels more like Australia than Northern Spain because of the many Eucalyptus plantations. It smells very nice! But of course the forest floor is always overgrown with weeds and ferns and your only choice for a decent campsite is on old and abandoned forest roads.

I had not stayed in any pilgrims' hostel yet because I can't stand the dormitories, but my guidebook said that one of those albergues had a camping area. I hiked a 43 km day to get there and was not disappointed. Although the hospitalero could not understand why I insisted on camping instead of taking one of the free beds he assigned me a great camp spot. The hostel was big with 70 beds and offered communal dinner and breakfast. There is no fixed price for that: you pay as much or little as you can. The place is run by Don Ernesto, a Catholic priest and the next morning I had a long and very interesting talk with him.

Father Ernesto
He confirmed that the Caminos become more popular each year. He alone had hosted almost 6,000 pilgrims last year and expects more this year. The majority of pilgrims its from Spain, but Germans have the biggest portion of foreign pilgrims. The evening before I could see that hikers like me are really an exception. Everyone else was wearing "camp shoes" for dinner. I read the only one of 50 with only one pair of shoes... and a tent. In the morning everyone left really early in the quest for a free hostel bed in the next town. Only I was left behind chatting until 10.30 am, but it was only a short stretch to Santander.

Santander Cathedral
It started drizzling that day and a 8 km walk along a major highway did not improve my mood. I took a ferry ride over to Santander where I found a rather incompetent tourist information where staff was not willing to find accommodation for me. They told me just to go to the pensions or hotels. Although they had assured me that it would be easy to find a room for the night the first for places were fully booked... But I made a wise decision and went to eat at an AYCE buffet. The world looked much brighter afterwards and I started calling places instead of going there. Immediately I was lucky and scored a very nice and quiet room for 27 Eur - where I stayed and relaxed the rest of the day and next morning. Because of the difficult camping situation I am spending more money here in Spain than on any other part of this hike...

Friday, 24 August 2012

Camino del Norte: Irun to Bilbao

I am now hiking one of the many Caminos and therefore I guess I am technically a pilgrim now! I must admit that I was a bit afraid of this stretch. I was worried about horrible fellow hikers, lots of pavement and boring hiking. And although some of this is true so far I am enjoying the Camino. There is a lot of pavement (and so much more than on any other part of this hike) but most of it is on concrete pistas with no traffic at all or very quiet country lanes so it is quiet bearable. The hiking has been very different but not boring. There definitely is no pristine wilderness here, but you see a lot of quite charming villages and a very different side of Spain. My fellow hikers have been a very positive surprise. After reading a couple of books written by ex pilgrims and visiting a German pilgrim´s forum I had been afraid that there would be more Germans than anyone else but the overwhelming majority of pilgrims are Spanish. Which gives me a great opportunity to practice my language skills.

These pilgrims are a very friendly community like long distance hikers in the US. Everyone greets me and some are really eager to talk to me. Although most other hikers are not very experienced they are very friendly and I enjoy talking to them - especially since my personal contact with other pilgrims is very limited. Unlike everyone else I am camping most of the time whereas normal pilgrims stay in pilgrims´ hostels. Camping has turned out to be as difficult as expected. I am walking through a very populated area that is also very hilly and the vegetation very dense. So first of all I find to find a spot away from houses which is difficult enough. Then this spot has to be reasonably flat and free of blackberry bushes that are scratching up my legs and arms. I usually manage to find something but mostly I end up totally scratched up or sleeping on a slope!

I reluctantly left Irun but there were so many cities coming up where I would have to stay in hostels that I could not justify a full rest day. Only 20 odd kms from Irun to San Sebastian but I could not make up my mind whether I would try stealth camping, a pilgrim´s hostel or a normal hostel in San Sebastian. After leaving Irun I first came through a little fishing town where everyone was gathering along the port entrance. I wondered what was going on and was told that everyone was waiting for a huge cruise ship that was so big that it would hardly fit through the port entrance. I guess the captain must have been really nervous as it really was a tight fit. I then ran into my first fellow pilgrims who kept me talking but then I decided to give stealth camping a try. It was still relatively early but hiking further would get me into the city. I had found a halfway decent site when I realised that plenty of people were walking around - and that I would have to wait before I could set up my tent. I still felt a bit uncomfortable about camping so close to civilisation when all of a sudden the music started: A music group had settled close to my spot and entertained me with loud medieaval music. Knowing that this is Spain I realised that the music would go on forever - and decided to move on. My guidebook listed a youth hostel nearby that doubled as a pilgrim´s hostel. The receptionist greeted me very friendly and although there was a bed available she suggested that I should move on to the bigger city hostel with shops and restaurants nearby. She called ahead for me and made a reservation. "Only 40 minutes walk", she told me. I don´t know how she walks but it took me 1 1/2 hours and a full culture shock to get there.

San Sebastian
The walk through San Sebastion took me along the main paseo along the beach - on prime paseo time Sunday evening. The street was so crowded that I could hardly make my way through. I must say that after 4 months in the boon docks I was shocked to see so many people - and so many girls in ultrashort shorts. Hiking gets you a bit out of touch with fashion.... At nine o´clock I finally arrived at the city hostel where I was given a bed - but no food. All nearby places were closed in August on a Sunday night and I ended up eating in a Doner Kebab place.... Not the best of food, but I was so hungry!!! Again, very reluctantly I left San Sebastion the next day after shopping for guidebooks and food. But five days later I would be in Bilbao and there I wanted to spend a well deserved rest day with museums and shops.

Those five days were pretty hard. Although the hiking is very easy compared with the Pyrenees I had not thought of the climate. It was hot, but more importantly it was very humid and that was the biggest problem. I was sweating so profusely that sweat was dripping onto my guidebook when reading it. The climbs are very short and not too steep, but only the slightest physical exercise and all my clothes were soaking wet. Chafing has become a big problem again. Although I take a sponge bath every night before going to bed I feel sticky and uncomfortable. And this is very hilly country. I am still doing 1,000 m of elevation gain per day! Although there is plenty to see along the way I have sort of lost interest in churches and local museums. All I can get excited about is a shower. I had been looking forward to Gernika with its Peace Museum but it turned out to be very disappointing. But now I am in Bilbao and tomorrow will be my rest day - hurray! Guggenheim Museum is waiting for me!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Hiking the Pyrenees: Conclusion and tips

The Pyrenees have been the most beautiful and spectacular part of my hike. There is no doubt about it. The Pyrenees sometimes even rival the High Sierra in the US in beauty. Also the weather in the Pyrenees is usually very favourable. There might be some thunderstorms (which of course I happened to run into), but usually there is hardly any rain but endless sunshine.

But did I like the Pyrenees? No, not very much. They will definitely not be my most favourite part of this hike. Would I recommend hiking the Pyrenees to a friend? Well, that depends on the friend. Some people would absolutely love it, and then there are people like me. So what was wrong with the Pyrenees? To put it in plain, short and simple words: For me in my situation they were too difficult and too demanding to really enjoy them. Now let me explain this in more detail:

There are people who surefootedly hop from one boulder to another, run down steep mountains over loose scree and find daily elevation gains of 2,000 m easy. Then there are people like me who have a sort of distorted sense of equilibrium, slight vertigo and very often more resemble a wet sack of potatoes than a surefooted mountain goat. The first type of people will love the Pyrenees and the second will have a hard time like me. I honestly think that the GR 11 is a bit too difficult and sometimes even dangerous for such a famous and well hiked trail. Passages like the Porta de Baiau where you have to descend more than 200 m of almost vertical elevation loss over loose scree is downright dangerous. Luckily there are not too many really dangerous sections but almost every day I encountered passages were I felt uncomfortable.

In my long hiking career I have come across lots of different unpleasant moments on the trail. I have been yelling German obscenities at trail mark, hit trail posts with my trekking poles out of frustration and just started crying because the trail was so hard that I felt I could not go on any more. On the GR 11 I did not feel like that. I just felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable on the steep stretches over loose scree and the endless boulder fields. I did not feel that my life was in danger. Those stretches are difficult, but not life threatening. But I know from experience that there is such a thing as bad luck. One wrong step, one slippery rock or boulder that moves and you are in the shit. You can sprain an ankle, break a leg or just hurt yourself very badly. If you encounter these passages only once a week, you just pay attention and very probably nothing will happen. But if you have to deal with this every day for several hours statistically your chances of bad luck increase dramatically. To nmake things worse I was in a rush. Instead of doing one pass every day I had to do 1 1/2. Therefore I ended up on those endless boulder fields at the end of the day when no one else was around. If I had had an accident then I would have had a real problem. I sometimes had to hike until sunset before I could camp because I had miscalculated the time again. Everything took so much longer in the Pyrenees than expected. I got frustrated because I was not making any progress. When I switched on my GPS at night I very often had to realise that it had taken my a whole long hard day to just cover 7 or 8 km as the crow flies.

I do not want to discourage anyone to hike the GR 11. It is beautiful trail and even people like me can hike it. You do not have to be a mountain god, even less athletic people can cope. But it will not be easy for them and you will sometimes feel uncomfortable. Do not even think that the Pyrenees are similar to the High Sierra. In California you have very well engineered easy trail with an easy gradient. In the Pyrenees you have boulder hopping and loose scree - and very often no trail or trail marking. But there are a few things you can do to make the GR 11 more enjoyable:

Time: According to the guidebook it takes about 45 days to hike the whole GR 11. Being an experienced fit hiker I thought I could do it in less time. Of course you can, but then you might end up feeling as uncomfortable as I did. You can definitely combine days in the beginning and end of the hike at lower altitude and sometimes even combine shorter days in the high altitude section. But keep in mind that this is a physically very demanding hike and you will need rest days, maybe more than you think. (Especially if you have hiked 3,000 km before and are tired already...). Also keep in mind that the daily stages are designed in a way that you have to do one pass per day only. If you combine two stages you will have to cope with 2 passes and sometimes 2,000 m of elevation gain. Plus you might end up in places where camping is less than ideal. I think that you should calculate at least 40 days for an enjoyable thruhike of the GR 11.

Trail marking: The trail marking has definitely improved since my last hikes in the Pyrenees more than 10 years ago. Often it is really good, usually it is decent - but sometimes it is almost non-existant. The trail marking is done by volunteers and depending who did it and when the quality varies greatly. You should definitely have maps and a GPS helps, too.

Maps and guidebooks: Thanks to a very generous donation from a German hiker I had gotten the Cicerone guidebook and the Prames maps for free. I think that this was the best combination possible, although it is far from ideal. The Cicerone guidebook dates from 2007 and urgendtly needs an update. The route between Burguette and Ochagavia has changed completely and is shown wrongly in the guidebook and even the latest edition of the Prames maps. The Prames maps are ok, but far from great. They only show elevation but not the vegetation type, so it is difficult to predict whether your chosen camp spot will have tree cover or not. Also not all side trails are shown and the maps generally are not very detailled. The times given in the Cicerone guidebook are ridiculous. The author, a middle aged man carrying a 15 kg backpack claims 5 hours of hiking time for a 16 km stretch with more than 1,000 m elevation gain. This is ambitious even under ideal circumstances, but utterly impossible in the Pyrenees for mere mortals. The times given in the Prames maps are generally 10 - 20 % longer than in the Cicerone guidebook and much more accurate. The Navarran government has produced a leaflet with elevation profiles and hiking times for the GR 11 stretch in Navarra and if you compare elavation gains and hiking times with the Cicerone guidebook you will realise that Cicerone also has incorrect elevations gains. You have to add at least 10 - 20 %, too. Still, the Cicerone guidebook has been useful as it shows water sources and potential campsites. The author only mentions campsites with water and if you are used to dry camping you will find a lot more camping possibilities.
On my GPS I had the Garmin topo for Spain and a track for the GR 11. The Garmin map was not really good either. No vegetation is shown like in France and the GR 11 is only partially shown - and then mostly wrong. Sometimes whole roads were missing and I guess Garmin´s data base is a bit outdated. The GPS track was like any track you download fromt the internet: You do not know what quality you get. Mine was sometimes incredibly good and you could see that the data was actually gathered while hiking and sometimes there were no trackpoints for a whole km.

Water and resupply: The water situation was generally very good. There were only a few stretches where there was no water for 5 or 6 hours. Usually you only have to carry food for a couple of days. In the villages there is usually a small supermarket. High prices and not much choice, but resupply is doable. Keep in mind that shops are normally closed between 2 pm and 5 pm.

Other hikers: Due to holiday time (I was hiking in August) I encountered more people in the Pyrenees than anywhere else. A lot of foreigners doing a thruhike and even more Spanish and French hikers, although they tend to do shorter hikes and stay in the refuges. Still the Pyrenees are not crowded, even in peak season.

I do not want to deter anyone from hiking the Pyrenees with this post. Just keep in mind that the Pyrenees are not a walk in the park. I think one day I will come back and hike them again - but with more time!