In Bilbao, I went to a pintxo bar called Irrintzi. Like the names of many pintxo bars, to the newcomer to the Basque Country it looks like a mess of random letters, more like a random file name you typed out in a rush than a word with significance and meaning. Still, like most of them, it does actually have a meaning.

It’s basically a crazy, high pitched scream, serving the traditional purpose of calling throughout the mountains, like yodelling. Nowadays it’s often used by Basque as expressions of excitement, happiness, and emotion at fiestas and the like. Here’s a definition I particularly like, from – “The traditional Basque mountain cry, a ululation characterized by a rising pitch and concluded with a kind of demented laugh.”

Because real life has to add a darker and more complex tone to everything, Irrintzi has recently developed another meaning – it is the name of a new Basque terrorist group that works in France with the motto, “Euskal Herria ez dago salgai” – “The Basque Country is not for sale.”



The final group who made it to the top.

The Club de Montaña Pyrenees Hike yesterday included an optional ascent of Petretxema, which someone on the group told me was the highest mountain in Navarra, but that’s wrong on two counts – it’s about 50 meters shorter than Mesa de los Tres Reyes, and, more importantly, the peak of the mountain isn’t in Navarra, or even in Spain – to get to the top, you cross the border into France. No one who knows me would ever believe I would have worked so hard to get there, of all places. 🙂

Petretxema is higher than Ben Nevis, which I climbed in Scotland, so it is technically the highest mountain I have climbed. It was a shorter hike, though, as we didn’t start from sea level. For me it was still a greater challenge, as we had already hiked for several hours before tackling the mountain itself, and we took it at a quick pace, without any stops. On top of that I wasn’t feeling extremely well that day, and in fact hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Until the last minute, I wasn’t sure if I was going to try the mountain or not. In fact, I had decided against it, as most of the inexperienced walkers weren’t doing it, and I didn’t want to slow the hard-core group down. I started out at the front of the group, and tried my best to keep up with the leader. As we climbed higher and grass gave way to rock, the group split into two – the faster ones, who hadn’t needed a break until then, and the much slower half. It was just then that I started to fall behind, so for the rest of the climb I was my own middle group, pacing myself and listening to myself breathe. I kept looking behind and trying to keep going as the distance between me and the last climbers quickly narrowed. I knew that if they caught up with me, they would pass me and I would never make it to the top in time.

The Final Ascent

The last section of the ascent, just before the summit, is a strange miniature landscape of rock and ferocious wind which blows down from the top, slowing your ascent further. By this point, I was pushing myself by not letting myself stop until I reached this or that rock, and sometimes almost crawling.

The Summit

Finally, I was able to hear the voices from the people who had already made it to the top. One last push, and I was there.

I made it!

The views from the top were spectacular – almost as good as the satisfaction of having made it all the way up there. And I wasn’t even last – three or four people came in a few minutes after me, and a few more had given up along the way.

Anyone who’s never climbed one of these mountains must think I’ve gone crazy, or that I simply enjoy pain… but I’m two in now, and I’m absolutely hooked!

Back to the Fields...

When you’re so focused on getting to the top, sometimes it’s easy to forget that you still have to get back down. But although it’s quite rough on the knees, and you have to watch where you put your feet, it’s still infinitely easier to have the wind on your back and gravity on your side. Everyone is relaxed and talkative on the way down, a marked contrast from the windswept isolation and struggle of individual wills on the way up.

Trekking in the Pyrenees

Pyrenees National Park

This weekend, UNAV’s Club de Montaña offered a trip to the Pyrenees National Park, on the border of France and Spain. We hiked approximately 12 miles over rugged terrain from the abandoned Refugio of Belagua to the Refugio of Linza, and there was also an optional summit of Petretxema.

We had perfect weather for the trip, especially for October – blue skies with passing white clouds and refreshing winds – visibility was good, and the temperature was just right. A few of the trees were just starting to change colour for fall, and the winter’s first snows were still a comfortable month away.

Narrow Paths

This definitely wasn’t a gentle weekend stroll, and the group took it pretty quickly, so I was sometimes having to work to catch my breath, and everyone was feeling the uphill stretches in their thighs and calves. Although Club de Montaña had listed the activity as medium difficulty, I heard the leader saying that it might have better been classified asmedium-high, but he didn’t want to scare anyone off – after all, they might not come back, but at least they’d pushed themselves and seen things they otherwise wouldn’t have.

The Autumn Crocus, or Meadow Saffron

What did we see? Incredible views, crocuses blooming in the meadows, climbs along steep slopes that fell away into green valleys below…  and somehow everything seems even more remarkable and beautiful when you get there on your own two feet. You learn a certain amount of respect for the hardy livestock of the region after you’ve huffed and puffed your way to some remote bit of grass, only to find that a sheep or a cow has beaten you there and left some droppings to prove it!

Published in: on October 3, 2010 at 13:34  Comments (1)  
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Already Only a Month

It’s the last day of the solar summer. September is drawing to a close, and that means I’ve been on this exchange for nearly a month. It doesn’t feel like it. Depending on the time of the day, who I’m talking to, what I’m doing, it seems like I’ve been here forever, or like I’ve only just arrived. Never like I’ve been here for a month. And yet, I’ve now spent more time in Spain than in any other foreign country – longer than in Japan or Scotland. The time spent so far has been less action packed than a month of pure tourism, but not nearly as routine as life back home.

It’s funny now, to remember how I arrived in Spain after spending the night in the Manchester airport, how Allan and I wandered through Barcelona for two days as if in a dream, meeting up with Emily in Valencia for Tomatina and the beach, and then spending another long, sleepless night in route to Pamplona. I was happy to have Allan with me for the first few days here, as I moved into my apartment, walked around Pamplona for the first time, as a stranger, and even impulsively visited Puente la Reina based on a single photo in the train station. And then, Allan left, and suddenly I was totally alone, and far from home.

I took things one step at a time, with some challenges leaving me triumphant and others in a pathetic heap, but I got everything straightened out, in the end. I went through orientation, picked classes, matriculated, found my way around campus and groups for projects. I got a hair cut and learned where I could find this food and that and for what price. I learned how to use WIFI and the copy machine and the library and the bookstore. I’ve adjusted to Sundays and Siestas.

I made friends and we had curry parties and pancake parties and long nights drinking wine on apartment balconies. We travelled to San Sebastian and Vitoria and Bilbao. I met up with a girl from and went to a Basque concert with her and her friends. I started learning Euskera. I went hiking in the Valley of Arpan, explored Alquezar and went canyoning in la Sierra de Guara with Club de Montana.

If I put it this way, yes, I suppose it has been one month. And yet one morning when I didn’t have class until 12, I lay in and when I woke up, it took me several long seconds to remember I was in Spain, because everything felt so normal and natural and safe and clean and good. I’ve found a new normal, made a new home here.

Not bad, for the first month.