The criteria for a bed were: as few ants as possible, a patch of grass which might best imitate a mattress and an enclosed space inconducive to large mammal hospitality.
Long ago in the twilight of history, the city was called Bolskan and it was the capital of the Celto-Iberian Hergotes tribe. When it was absorbed into the Roman Empire the city became Victoria Urbs Osca, an academic centre for privileged young Iberians. When the Saracens took it in the 8th Century it became Wasqah, a barricade against the Frankish Christians in the north. The Moors were defeated, Christianity was re-established and the city got its modern name; Huesca. That was where I was heading on a bus one hot spring day in 2003.
Huesca had been an important city in the early medieval era, during the golden era of the Crown of Aragon, but when the Aragonese Queen Isabella married Fernando of Castile, Castile’s pre-eminence began and Aragon’s star began to wane. Now, looking through the window of the coach, the once-great capital of the Kingdom of Aragon looked like a provincial backwater full of crap underwear shops and old flaneurs standing around with their hands linked behind their backs under gloomy porticos. It was the kind of town I've always liked.
A room was available for €14 at a hotel up a side alley in the old town. The grumpy old innkeeper had a hunched-over physique and goblin-like appearance. He took my money and looked perplexed when I asked him how to get to the mountains.
‘What mountains?’ he said, his narrow, black eyes blinking furiously in irritation.
‘I don’t remember the name…’ I said, ‘Have you a map?’
The innkeeper clearly wanted me to disappear to my room so that he could return to his rocking chair, eat pipa nuts and watch the television. A few drawers opened and closed with a lot of unnecessary harrumphing and at last a map was thrown onto the desk. Tiny bulbous fingers unfolded it as if it were the original Mappa Mundi, handled for the first time by an itinerant archaeologist.
‘To where are we going, joven?’ he demanded. ‘Here?’ He pointed at a brown space, the Monegros desert (so named after the black forest which once apparently encloaked the plains, but whose trees were long-since gone, probably all laid to waste by a forest-fire).
He cleared his throat and tried again. ‘Here!’ his tobacco-stained fingernail rested on a large green area a little too far north-east, west of Jaca. ‘Or, here, maybe, eh?’ The old man looked up, rather excited now. His finger was smudging the capital of the Aragonese province, Zaragoza. Seeing my gentle mockery of this last blindfolded stab at the donkey tail, he looked down in deep concentration. Slowly his finger traced over the map, as if he were feeling for the contours of mountains, trying to feel the essence of the country this stranger wished to explore. ‘There!’ he said triumphantly, but his finger concealed the name on the map. The guilty finger edged out of the way to reveal the words, Sierra de Guara...
‘Guara!’ I said, ‘There we have it!’
‘The domain of the Quebrantahuesos birds it is!’ the innkeeper whispered. ‘Foul beasts. Capable they are of crushing a man’s bones in their beaks, so powerful are their jaws! Their wings open to the length of a horse when they glide over the valleys of Altoaragon and their talons are as sharp as a cat’s and as big as your fingers! The Queen of these vultures is the fiercest of all air-born monsters, the cruelest and cleverest!’
‘Thanks,’ I said and disappeared to my room to eat a magdalena and watch the telly.
Waking up extremely late in the morning, I packed my bag, paid the old goblin’s pretty grandaughter and went to the Dia supermarket for supplies. There I brought ten tins of sardines, tuna ‘mega mix’ and caballos del mar, two cartons of wine costing 40 centimos each and three packets of Gold Coast for the cold mountain nights.
In my bag I had a bottle of factor 15 suncream, a blanket and a towel, a tube of hotel bath gel and a toothbrush.
On the road out of Huesca, dunken Visigoths lined the avenue on benches. Plastic bags full of wines and brandies lay at their feet. They had preposterous King Ataulpho moustachioes. Africans stood around silently in sportswear in the shade of plane trees. The heat was absurd. I was sweating terribly. Little droplets fell from my brow and nose. The backpack was already moist on my back. I wasn't going to take a bus to the wilderness. I was going to walk it.
The road turned into a motorway, and I continued on the outer side of the barricade along it, crossing yellow plateaus of dust and scrub. To the north rose the grayish-green range of the Altoaragonese mountains. Wedged between Navarra to the west and Catalonia to the east this was the border of the ancient Kingdom of Aragon and Catalonia when its territories stretched as far as Athens, Sardinia and Valencia.
Nearer by, but still in the distance I saw the fortress of a castle. ‘The Castle of Montearagon!’ announced a pissed-off sounding voice. A man was sitting on the branch of an olive tree smoking a cigarette. ‘It’s the whore’s mother, isn’t it!’ He looked disinterestedly at the castle.
‘It was constructed in the eleventh century to use as a base to kick the Moors out of Huesca. But aren’t those lot all flooding back now to work our fields! I shit on everything!’
He pointed at a hotel across the road. ‘It’s 25 Euros a night for a room in that hotel over there. You have your own cozy, modern room, furnished with cherry wood. Cable television, a multi-line phone, work desk, wireless Internet and a bathroom of Carrara marble with a separate tub and shower. Not bad, eh?’
I looked toward the mountains. ‘I’m already booked in somewhere else,’ I said. Tonight, I wanted to add, I'm going to sleep rough up there in those mountains. I've got a date with mother nature, the big wide open. It's a coming of age, a retreat from the modern world.
'Es la hostia, eh, este hotel! Esta en el Tripadisor y todo!' he continued, as I walked on.
At the next crossroads, a dusty track, led up to the castle, and there was a huge bronze stature of an Aragonese King leaning on a gigantic scimitar. It was a queer place for him to stop and meditate, but he was a symbol of Huesca, old and magnificent, caught at a crossroads.
From here, the road ascended and curved around the hill of the castle to its summit. I passed through a Moorish arch and came into the courtyard. The ground had been recently excavated in places and a slight breeze bounded off the walls, with the occasional window taking the eye into the indistinguishable beyond. Above the heavens swirled, whirlpool clouds giving shape to the unknowable.
I smoked a cigarette and hit the motorway again.
My trainers were sogging wet with sweat by the time I reached the top of the highway and the turn off for the Sierra de Guara, so I stopped beneath an olive tree. The early heat, accompanied by the infernal smell of newly laid tarmac and the thundering by of cars on the highway, made for an uncomfortable morning. It had been an evil hike from the Castle, wedged in between the concrete ditch and the endless white line of the highway, while cars growled past me.
In the shade I smoked a Gold Coast and thought about what I was doing. Barcelona, my new home, although I loved, stuck to me like glue. I couldn’t get rid of it, its sticky residue was all around me. The simple feeling of being on my own seemed a far-off thing from years ago.
After another kilometre at a tranquil pace under the glare of the sun, a mud-brown church tower reared up. Streets of a town absorbed me, narrow aisles shaded by houses all with the same mud-brown facades baking in the heat, and bougainvillea and hibiscus on narrow balconies. A fountain afforded water for my empty bottle and a rusty green bench in the shade offered a spot where I could rest. I fumbled in the rucksack and opened a tin of tuna and some crackers, washing them down with a carton of wine.
A little boy ran through a rainbow bead curtain and out into the square, holding a red fire engine in both hands. He set it down and then looked at it, not knowing what to do with it. What was he supposed to do with it?
He kneeled and stared at the toy for a long time while I ate my tuna. The father appeared through the bead curtain, took a look at the boy, then at the fire engine, and then kneeled down and pushed the fire engine forward. Over the dust and the concrete travelled the fire engine. The boy followed it.
At the end of the village big yellow corn fields opened out on either side.
From this point the road was a constant ascent, past a stone hermitage and the lofty heights of a terracotta village. Then, a shallow gorge dropping away to a turquoise river and a small, well-maintained village with large macias, and a corkscrewing of the road around the rock into man-made tunnels.
The glare of the sun was splashed on my vision, leaving a green ectoplasm imprinted, pounding upon the darkness of the tunnel. At the end of the tunnel a man was dangling some five metres up in the air on a harness. His eyes were ringed by dark patches, like a raccoon. Another man stood below him in the road, hands upon hips, a bald head tuned sideways towards me, an aquiline Iberian nose.
‘Good afternoon!’ said the man in the harness as he dropped onto to his feet beside the bald man. My own ‘hello’ sounded garbled. It was the first for while and I was beginning to feel dehydrated and sun-burnt.
‘To where go you?’ asked the bald man.
‘Into the sierra,’ I told them, ‘and beyond, maybe.’
‘Camping?’ they both asked in unison.
‘Sort of,’ I said, ‘but without a tent.’
‘Hombre!!’ they frowned in unison.
‘What a night rough will you have!!’ said the bald one.
‘Do you know,’ I interrupted him, ‘of any places to sleep?’
‘There is a refuge at Nocito,’ said the racoon-eyed man, still frowning. ‘But before dark you won’t arrive.’
‘And if no, there is the tunnel,’ said the bald man, eyeing my footwear disapprovingly, ‘but it could be that comes the Park Ranger. Angry would he be. If sleep you in the tunnel, be sure to revive yourself early.’
‘If it is good tonight I could sleep in the free air,’ I suggested.
‘Flipped you are!’ said the raccoon-eyed man, ‘’Paco was joking about the tunnel.’
‘Sleep not outside, man, return to Loporzano for the night. There, there is an inn. If sleep you outside, spiders will crawl into your mouth. Bugs will hatch larvae in your ears.’
I continued on. The intensity of the sky was fading, as was my sun-bewilderment. The road ended in a curve at a last tunnel etched out of a mountain resembling a huge finger pointing to the heavens. Here, there was a great dam wall enclosing turquoise waters and surrounded by bulbous rock formations. A large bird of prey! Could it be the quebrantahuesos bird the old golblin told me of? No, an eagle! Swooping and ascending, encircling the rock finger.
Lonely stone pines grew out of grass-patches between the boulders high up, their copper trunks leaning across near-vertical descents. Light was dimming. I started looking for a spot to lay down for the night.
The criteria for a bed were: as few ants as possible, a patch of grass which might imitate a bed and an enclosed space inconducive to large mammal hospitality.
Above the footpath at the foot of a bowing ash tree I found some semi-grass at a slight gradient, ideal for a therapeutic body posture. I lay down my blanket, unwrapped some chorizo I had brought from Barcelona and started nibbling. Then I hid the remaining sausage deep in the bag to avoid attracting unwanted visitors.
Anyone who has ever slept alone in the wilderness will no doubt be familiar with the series of branch-crunch noises and the oscillations of the night and its shadows which produce paralysis in the would-be sleeper. The only thing I will describe here was an eerie discomforting noise coming from the lake below which sounded like a woolly mammoth enjoying a power-shower.
High above my bed-niche, a vast rockface shone vividly in the early light, as it had done for the last 80, 000 years, since the time of the Hercynian Orogeny; a time when Central Europe was bestrode by a gigantic sierra. The sierra had eroded gradually over millions of years until the Pyrenees was submerged in a shallow sea. Sedimentary rocks, such as the one towering over me, gradually formed on top. And when Africa and Europe drew together, the techtonic plates shifted, bringing Iberia and France into a kiss and squeezing the Pyrenees upwards into the air, where they were now above me.
I began on the trail west with a blanket around my body and soon found myself scrambling up shingles on a steep hill. The valley shivered in pale purple. A bed of Pyereneean irises and maroon fritillaries, edged by woods of fern trees. Wild goats with horn-ringlets stared down at me from the top of the hill.
By the time I got to the top the goats had traversed three mountains and were on the other side of the lake, perched incomprehensibly on some outcrop that only goats know how to reach, let alone graze upon.
The valley was shaded from the sun and so serene there was not a sound to be heard. Until something between a shriek and a whistle pierced the air. A huge rodent, it was a marmot, was perched on a boulder above me to the left. It nodded it’s head at me three times as if agreement with something I’d said; ‘yes, yes, yes!’, Then it turned, and scuttled away in a furry flash of golden brown.
A shadow fell across the ground and I looked up and saw a vulture some twenty metres above, so close I could see the red earth on its chest feathers. It was the bonecrusher, the quebrantahuesos. The Bearded Vulture.
I reached for the wine, watching this impressive bird. I opened a tin of sardines and scooped out the red juice and grey mush onto cream crackers. Soon I was light-headed, slightly drunk and very dehydrated.
For, foolish boy that I was, I hadn’t even brought a bottle of water.
A hummingbird hawk moth hovered over a thistle. The butterfly had a girl’s face and I imagined her shrinking away in a cab window, melting into the Barcelona traffic.
I shut my eyes and saw a marmot-girl on a staircase path made of bottles leading up the mountains. Goats in tee-shirts and jeans. Faces from the of the city. A drunken Visigoth lurching at a Huescan traffic light. Woolly mammoths scrubbing each other with soapy spunges. A half-conversation, precise yet incomprehensible, like free-form jazz.
The great Quebrantahuesos bird was alighting on a ledge of rock twenty metres away, almost level with my eyes. Her cruel beak opened and in a rich, gentle voice she spoke to me. What she said, I didn’t understand. But I knew this adventure had gone too far. I was drunk, the day was advancing and i was dizzy from dehydration. I’d have to go back to the nearest town for water. And I couldn’t be arsed walking all the way back here again to continue on, for another night out in the open.
I'd come all this way to visit the Sierra de Guara, and spent a day walking along a motorway, slept in a bush and then turned back before I'd even got anywhere.
It had been the best kind of trip.
By evening I was back in the city, strolling along Las Ramblas.