Wednesday 27th Feb – Pinos, Valencia to Sot de Ferrer, Aragon

I REALLY need a haircut…

I have one booked, for March 15th, when we must be home because guests are arriving the next day.  And we have our Eurotunnel ticket.  We toyed with the idea of taking the ferry from Bilbao to Portsmouth, saving ourselves around 500 miles and €300 in tolls, but nothing doing.  No tickets.  Everything this side of Brexit is now jam packed as reluctant Brits pour back into the UK, away from the sunshine into the dark turmoil that is our shambles of EU relations.

We hadn’t the heart to drive for very long yesterday.  Our departure had been delayed as were were reluctant to depart the warm and cheery company of Gary and Lesley.  Also, I delayed us until after lunch because I needed to set up a number of Skype calls.  I’m supervising a group of post-grad students dissertations for a Northern University.  Today was the first part of that supervision process.  They’ve each written a research proposal for what they want to study as the major part of their Masters degrees, which we need to discuss.  At this stage, proposals tend to be vast in their ambitions.   

The biggest idea of this year’s tranche, is the the student who wants to establish the value that social enterprise education might have on entrepreneurial activity in post-conflict areas of rural Columbia.  It’s a well researched proposal with lots of relevant literature in its justification.  Sadly, this social education process hasn’t happened yet, the post-conflict areas are far from stable and (even if I thought her travelling there was safe) all universities are twitchy about research taking place outside UK borders given the Durham PhD student who recently spent many weeks in a Dubai jail on spying charges. 

My Columbian student is bright, intelligent and cares passionately about peace in her country. At the end of our skype we’d worked through the issues about the scale of her research, her funds to carry out the work, and time limitations (it’s got to be done and written up by Sept 30th).  She’s happy with what I’ve asked of her in reworking the project and completely unaware of the irony I see in our conversation.  M and I are battling with precisely the same issues: what scale of life do we want post-guesthouse, what funds are we going to use to achieve it and what are our timings.  Of course, we don’t have to complete a 12,000 word research project by the end of the summer, and so have the advantage, perhaps.  

Our first leg of the drive home takes us beyond Valencia and then North, up toward Zaragoza. It’s very warm, the driving cab reaching 300c.  We’re a bit irritated that, with all of Spain to explore, we’re going to spend a 100miles or so on a road we’ve used before.  

It turns out to be an advantage.

A month ago, on our way South, fleeing from Teruel’s biting temperatures of -60c, we’d driven past a tiny town, buildings clustered around a hillside where a long white set of steps zigzagged half a mile or so to it’s zenith.  We’d exclaimed at the view but hurried on to the coast and the promise of warmth.   Now, doing the route in reverse, we want to know what this is, so pull off and find ourselves in Sot de Ferrer. 

It’s a tiny town, with antecedents that predate the ‘modern’ palace of the 1200’s, was built as a summer recess for the then monarch of Aragon.   The town’s highest recorded population was 900 souls at the turn of the 20thcentury.  This dwindled to 402 in 1990 and has steadied at 409 for the last couple of decades.  People stop and chat in the roads returning our greetings of “Hola” and “Bueno Dia” with automatic politeness.  Our experience is that the Spanish are generally surprised, but pleased, if foreigners take the trouble to greet them, and always respond. As we wander, we notice buildings that are mostly large, tall, creating narrow, quiet, long, shady lanes up which to wander towards the sunlit spaces always just out of sight.  

All of the roads, lanes and the large flat car park are either tarmacked or paved in pressed concrete.  They are smooth and easily traversed.  All, except for that pathway from the top of the village up the white-walled zig-zags to the chapel above.  Here, alone, the path is covered in sharp, lose pebbles and rocks.  

I notice the change in terrain, but don’t think about it too deeply, until we reach the first of thirteen white icons, each containing a tiled-painted picture of Jesus’ final days.  This is a route of the Stations of the Cross.  And the loose pebbles?  M explains, being brought up Catholic, those are for the supplicants who make their pilgrimage on hands and knees.  The rocks offer the means that worshippers might suffer more this way, than by crawling on a smoother surface.  I shudder, my imagination reconstructing the damage to skin, bone and cartilage.     

Luckily, our progress is injury free up to the chapel with its ornate but gilt-free altar in the cool depths of the thick whitewashed walls.  And then down again, along the outskirts of the rustic settlement and back to where the van is parked.

Supper is my attempt at paella, chicken and chorizo variety.  Stan lies in his bed, at the van’s doorway, staring out as maybe 100 sheep are herded up the lane on the other side of the fast flowing river. It’s good to be back in the van, door open until beasties discover us and reluctantly we witness the last of the sunset through glass.  I love this space, it’s harmony and simplicity. Our way of life in here has become a shelter from reality and all the decision making that we, the UK and even my dissertation students face.  Nine days left and counting…

The gilt-free chapel


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