Sunday, March 11, 2012

Back to life

As many of you know, the past few weekends, I have been quite the couch potato.  Between fevers, colds, coughs and more, I basically trapped myself in so I could get better.  Relaxing is all good, but movies, books and internet surfing get pretty boring pretty fast.  So, finally I started feeling better this week and by some sort of miracle, my good health coincided with good weather, and Joseba and I decided to take advantage by making a hiking weekend out of it. 

We started off easy on Saturday morning by going to a mountain we have been to time and time before, Ernio.  When Joseba used to live in Orio, we would go a few weekends a month, but now that we live a bit farther away, we go less frequently.  As a result, when we do manage to get out there, it kind of brings back memories of our first hikes together over two years ago. 

Whenever we go, I always happen to forget how beautiful just the drive to the parking area is, and each time am delighted and mesmerized by how breath-taking the Basque landscape is.  Grass covers the rolling green hills and if you look you can see white dots slowing moving along, sheep chomping away.  With it being 'twitterpateing' season to use Bambi's vocab, this trip we were able to see so many little lambs prancing about as well.  With acres and acres of land to roam, the sheep do of course pass the typical Basque farmhouses that man the land.  With massive stones and whitewashed walls, you can't help but want to live in one; the red or green (Basque Country colors) shutters framing the windows that sport overflowing flower baskets add another incentive to wanting to be a farm girl.

The hike starts out in a wooded part of the mountain and with piles of stones as the pathway, you watch your step closely.  Soon it opens up to a large valley with expansive views - the mountains to one side and the sea to the other - perfect on a sunny day like we had.  As we continue up, the landscape changes to slate-type rocks and new flower buds are far and few between, but after some sideways walking and hearing rocks you knock falling you make it to a landing called Zelatun.  Here, there are two restaurants whose smells woft through the air as you pass, but we never let ourselves stop there on the way up.  Instead we continue up more slatey rock up a steep hill towards the top where the peak is covered with crosses.  Some are just nameless, some like a tombstone dedicated to a loved one, some quirky and others very old-fashioned Basque metal work.  From here the view is even more astounding - the beach, France and the Pyrenees are all in sight!

After having worked up a sweat we descend and normally treat ourselves to little pintxo at the restaurants in the landing - a little chorizo (a type of sausage) sandwich and sometimes even some cider.  When the sun is shining the location is unbeatable and we bask in the sun as we eat our little delights.  The return is the same as the ascent, but being downhill we do it much quicker.  All together the hike is only about 3 hours and after having done it so many times it feels like a comfy pair of pajamas, which it why we like it so much. 

So, Saturday was a 'back to basics' kind of afternoon and Sunday we decided to break out a new hike.  For this one we drove about an hour inland for a different type of scenery.  Again, just arriving was a treat - farmhouses, enchanting little towns with church steeples staring down at the brick-red rooftops, grazing sheep and the occasional Basque sheperd with his boina cap.  This particular hike took us to a mountain called Aizkorri (red rock), near the small village of OƱati, where I imagine only Basque is spoken.  Right beyond the village is the famous monastery named Arantzazu.

Located on the site where the Virgin appeared to a shepherd in the 1400s, the sanctuary and monastery are housed in a buildling of diamond-shaped rocks.  When the Virgin appeared, it is said that she was hidden in a hawthorne bush and upon seeing her he exclaimed 'arantzan zu?' which loosely translates to 'you among thorns?'.  For this reason, the thorn-like spikes take over the buildings built in 1954.

From this spot we set off on our hike which led us up a winding road through naked trees and sparse landscape.  In other seasons I imagine it is bursting with color because the bare trees looked like they were just waiting to bloom and with many waterfalls and bushes, it looked ready to come alive.  After quite an up-hill climb we came to a valley named Urbia that was surprisingly covered in snow!  During that European cold wave, the interior Basque Country got dumped on and what stayed we crunchily clomped through.  The small valley soon opened up to a large meadow that was situated right in front of Aizkorri!  With blue sky and high clouds flying across the sky, the sun shone down on us and we happily hiked along.  From the flat valley, the incline was a drastic shock when we started heading up the mountain. 

Standing at 5,088 feet, it is the highest mountain in the Basque Country  but the rocky craggs make the ascent just like walking up a staircase, albeit an almost never-ending one.  We were quite excited to get to the top, but just as we got to about the peak, the mountain became shrouded in a huge cloud and we weren't able to see barely anything.  With snow covering the path and without snowsticks, we decided that it was best if we turn around and not risk it.  We were so close!  We made it down lickity-split and when we got back to the meadow decided to take a rest in front of the farmhouse/restaurant to feel the sun for a few minutes. 

The walk back was brisk, sometimes even jogging pace as we were hungry.  Just after leaving the path, about 4 hours after starting, we stopped off at the first place to eat there was - the Arantzazu Hotel's restaurant.  With an entire wall of windows, the views of the sanctuary and the surrounding mountainous area were picture-perfect and with the having picked up, we were happy to be inside, warm with happy bellies - although our hiking clothes were a bit out of place with the people who came to this cliffside spot for a fancy lunch! 

Our tired legs rejoyced when we finally took off our hiking boots and sat down for the ride home.  After so many weekends without being in the fresh mountain air, it was a perfect way to get back into it.  And now I can only hope it's nice again next weekend! 


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