Monday, June 28, 2010

a day in Gombren

In my mind, few things are as frightening as being stuck high on a mountain during a raging thunderstorm. When Ed and I ran into the Scottish hikers back in France – the ones who helped us unravel the mysteries of the enigmatic trail back to La Illas, I asked – if you hike from day to day and you have hostel or b&b reservations for each night, what do you do if you have a day or two of unexpected bad weather? (Ed and I had hiked this way in Scotland, but we had a tent with us and no reservations, and besides, rain there is common. Fierce storms – less so.)

The Pyrenees are known for having raging storms.

The Scottish couple looked at one another, somewhat surprised at my question. Well now, that’s interesting. I guess we have been lucky. I don’t remember ever running into foul weather. I wondered then if it was sort of like childbirth – you tend to forget the miserable details and remember vividly the joy of the birth of your infant son or daughter.

Sunrise from our room above the restaurant in Gombren.


It’s going to be a glorious day.


A copious morning meal awaits us. (And an opportunity to pack some bread and cheese for a midday lunch.) A mountaineers meal, no? So different from a mere pain au chocolat on the Sorede square! Ah well, each has its special charm.


Each new country, each new region has a trail system that must be lernt. We have a decent map (on loan from the Fonda – there is no tourist office here, though you can also purchase some literature at their little shop). Ed has also searched the Internet. He has in mind about a five hour hike with possible variations if things get tricky (meaning we get confused with markings).

Overall, the Spanish trail markings here are good, but far far from transparent. A trail tends to have many blazes of color on trees or rocks. Too many. How do you deal with a red trail that goes in two different directions? Or that is conjoined, for a while, with blue and then the blue disappears?

Going up is easy: our first goal is the St Pere de Montgrony sanctuary and actually, for the lazy or infirm, there is also a long and winding road to it. We choose to climb the mountain, but others may skip this one and a half hour steep ascent. We like the challenge and the views. You never see one tenth as much out the window of a car.

We start at the village church. Sunday. The women are gossiping after the service. The few men wait at the village bar (also under the ownership of our restaurant family).



We find the red trail mark without problem. We soon leave behind the last village house (and the last village cat -- and there are many) and head straight up.


And as the valley recedes and the mountains come to full view, I begin to appreciate the enormous beauty and the diversity of the Pyrenees.

to the east

 to the south (with our village at the base)

to the west 

At the sanctuary, we fill our now five jugs of water (it was such a hot morning that we came prepared) but we notice we haven’t been drinking that much. A first sign that things may be cooling down.


I also see that the clouds are starting to build over the distant summits. It confirms what the radar map showed on the Internet. This evening there very well may be a shower here.

We now have some puzzling trail marks to figure out, but our map is pretty good. We choose a loop around the mountain. We are at 1400 meters and we have a little more climbing and a lot more walking before us.

The forest smells are magnificent, as are the flowers and of course, the views.



But our lookout is to the south and east. Our summit blocks the northwest. Looking straight up though, I see the first gray cloud.

Ed, I think the evening rain shower may not be in the evening. We have been hiking since 10:30. It is now only 1 in the afternoon.
He looks up. True. We may get wet. You can use the plastic bags from our sandwiches for your camera.

We continue in this way – looking for marks, me looking up every now and then at the no longer blue sky. We get lost once, but it’s our fault – we neglected to see a turn. There on the mountain ridge, as Ed and I separate to look for any slab of red on a tree, for the first time that day, the air seems threatening. When we reconnect, I suggest shortening the loop.

We pick up the trail and continue, looking now for the turn off that would allow us to start heading back to the sanctuary.

That is when I hear the first crash of thunder.

We are on a rather open path and of course, this makes me feel especially vulnerable. Funny how even in storms you tend to think that trees offer shelter.

I tell Ed he must walk faster, but that’s just dumb on my part because Ed always moves at a steady gate – up or down, it never varies. I tend to fly down mountains. He paces himself.

We have one of many in the next few minutes discussions about safety. He is convinced that first of all, we wont die, and second, if we do -- it’s a great way to go. I offer suggestions on how we may extend our lives some by hiding in bushes or getting rid of all things made of metal.

The storm is now just to the side of us – loud and clear.

What can I say – we are amazingly lucky. Not because no bolt of lightening strikes us – luck is not required for that, as the statistical probabilities are so in our favor. (Ed’s caveat: unless the bolt of lightening has your name written on it. Then you are doomed no matter what. I ask – do you think it has my name written on it? He answers – maybe. So don’t come near me! -- he is, by nature, inclined not to provide verbal reassurance.) We are lucky because the storm and the rains appear to jump over our mountain and move on to the next one and the next one, with merely a short-lived  sprinkle on our ridge – not even wet enough to dampen my shirt.


And now I grow bold. Luck does that to you – it makes you feel brazen and brave, as if it was your genius that prevented disaster.

I suggest we stop for lunch and it is one beautiful little spot! Filled with meadow flowers, looking out at the distant peaks.


If Alpine flowers are your joy, this is where you want to be on a late June day. (Almost as colorful are the rain barrels.)



We complete the loop to the sanctuary.

But it’s not raining and the storm appears to have moved on and so we consider our return to the village. Retrace our steps? Not if we can help it. We opt for the longer loop down the next mountain.


We are maybe a fourth of the way into the descent when the next rumble comes through, loud and clear. And we are at a crossroads, without a clear indication which path is ours. (Too many markings in different directions.) I say rather urgently – let’s just go down this one. It’s an educated guess, but it is just a guess. Ed responds that I make foolish decisions when I am scared and I am now officially once again thunder shy.

But we haven’t a reason to not take the trail and so we continue. The rumble grows more pronounced and much more frequent, but again we are lucky. The rains have moved through once already (the trail is muddy and very slippery and one of us does wind up on his ass at one point), and they are hovering now, but holding back.

In my heart, I know we will make it down alright. I believe in the correctness of the trail and, being on the bottom third of a mountain feels a lot less frightening than being on an exposed ridge. Possibly for a lightening with your name written on it, it doesn’t matter, but fears are often irrational anyway and by this stage, I am no longer afraid.


We make our way down amidst light sprinkles and loud thunder...



...and by 5:30 we are safely back in the village.


And then the rains come down and the storm explodes and the power goes off.

As I said, lucky.

Our dinner tonight at the Fonda is a sweet, sweet gift. Typically the restaurant is closed Sunday evenings, but the family that runs it (he cooks, she manages, the two little boys – completely adorable and completely Catalan in name and spirit—help in all ways) has a pair of additional guests and so they decide to keep it open for the two tables.



And what a meal it is! I eat vegetables in a Catalan dressing and calamari, also in a typical Catalan preparation, and cherries with a yogurt ice.




The meal is intimate and casual and it gives us a chance to chat a little in a mixture of English and Spanish with the woman who helps run the Fonda.
We’re curious -- where do you get your ingredients?
There is a bio culture – organic farm – that we work with...
I listen to her speak to her sons. Catalan. What language do the kids speak in school?
Oh, Catalan. But they learn Spanish too.
And where did you learn such good English?
In Ripoll. I also learned Spanish and some French. What languages do Americans learn in school?
None in elementary school....
Really? But don’t you think learning them early is much much better?
She puzzles on this one, then clears the plates with the help of one of the boys and refills our Cava flutes.

The Cava bubbles explode and new ones form. The wine is delicious and gentle. The day, in recalling it now, seems that way too. Time ages good wine and fond memories very, very well.