A mountain journey. Hiking the GR11 from Isaba to Villanua


Day one: Thirst

Leaving the safety of our two guides behind us, we (mum, Daniela and myself) shouldering our heavy packs (weighed down with un-necessarily vast amounts of food) set off along the winding road into the mountains. To our left scree and lichen spattered rock, rose sharply, while to our right a forest of pine and beach shaded the banks of the Rio Veral and the sun hot summer blazed down on us.


Eventually we reached the end of the road and began to climb, the path became rocky and treacherous and the stones had a red ocher color, as if stained by iron. Lizards scurried out of our way. And the line of gray mountains like jagged teeth drew around us. I began to sweat profusely. Sweat dripped of my nose, splashing on the ground. Sweat filled my eyes making them sting. Sweat drenched my clothes till theywere sopping. I was overcome by a powerful thirst.


At length we reached the first landmark on our map, a hat, no more than a broken, burned out stone ruin. Here we stopped for lunch, a hearty meal of chorizo ​​(sausage to my mind no other can compete with the rich fatty flavor of true Spanish chorizo, which is cooked and eaten hot ), baguettes, cucumber and wine. It was a meal that shocked other hikers whose fare was mostly limited to water and dehydrated foods.



After lunch we kept climbing. My thirst had not abated but with every step it seemed to grow worse and my mouth felt unquenchably dry. It was around this time that Daniela began to question whether I was drinking all the water supplies, and only being half way through the first day, whether it what wise. I had already drunk two out of our five bottles, we were now high in the mountains and there was no tap marked on our map.


We passed the tree line and walked through a beautiful landscape of alpine flowers, small birds, grasses, lizards and bees. Soon however this landscape gave way to more rock and wind swept grass. Fatigue began to set in on our soft pink bodies. Our huge packs cut into our shoulders our rests became longer and more frequent, while the path became ever steeper and more treacherous. My breath came out in loud gasps and my was mouth dry as I begged the others for more of their precious water.


Meanwhile vultures and ravens circled ominously, as we walked the narrow ledge like paths around the steep precipices. Daniela what the fittest, lithe as a mountain goat, she led the charge, followed by my panting self. But poor mum, poor little Huhu was dropping behind; the steep up hills were taking their toll on her and she was lagging further and further behind (though she was very tough sleeping without a tent and being rained on more than once).


We came to the second hut a tin shed on a kind of small plateau. Exhausted though we were, we all agreed that there was something unpleasant in the bleak prickly landscape, infested with scurrying marmots (thesis large cat-like ground squirrels, active for only three months of the year, are everywhere in the Pyrenees) that we did not want to make camp but decided to push on.


And so we did, toward a high saddle between the two peaks, hoping to make it before the yellow sun rolled over the western mountains toward the dark and deep Atlantic. My mouth had become so dry that I began to chew on leaves and sticks with the goal of salivating and thus bringing more liquid to my mouth.


We reached the high saddle just as the first shafts of evening were beginning to illuminate the mountains in a rose light. We were rewarded for our trouble with a spectacular view of the valleys and sharp gray mountains before us. Herds of chamois gamboled through the grassy land. The rare white vultures that the Spanish call Alimoche circled in the darkening sky.



It was here we took a seemingly clear trail leading to our left. The path however petted out, and when we reached the soft alpine meadows we were lost in the ailing light. We were rescued by a camping school group, who pointed us in the direction of the right path. Here, clear springs bubbled out of the mountainside and we filled our water container with the fresh water. We drank deeply. We camped on a soft, grassy terrace. We ate our hot food, while we watched the twilight play on the faces of the mountain cliffs to the sound of the wind and the distant bells of the Pyrenean feral horses. The night was clear the stars were bright.

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Day Two: The Valley of Horses

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Early next morning we woke and had a breakfast of muesli and milk powder and discovered that where we had slept were old stone ruins, so old, that all that what was left was the grass covered outline of what could have been a house and a small circular structure. Perhaps they were the dwellings of medieval shepherds, or buildings from even earlier, structures of the ancient Cro-Magnon peoples, the ancestors of the Basques that lived here before even the Celtic speaking peoples came out of the east, and who left only weathered dolmans and cave paintings behind. Or Perhaps, as Basque legend tells, they were the Jentilak, the benevolent hairy giants of old who never moved from the mountains and who disappeared beneath the earth when a star foretold the birth of Christ.

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Our bottles filled with fresh water, we had an easy enjoyable hike down the valley to the river below. Insects buzzed, butterflies flitted, and brooks bubbled. At length we began to come close to a river, a tributary of the Rio Aragon, and we wove our way through fields of bracken fern. We had lunch at a bend in the river where we took a cooling dip, sharing the swimming hole with baby frogs while the mother frog sat mummified on the rock in the hot sun. After lunch we followed a long stretch of dusty, dirt road. Wind writhen beach forest to our right, and the bending line of the river, glinting in the hot afternoon sun, to our left. As the cool of evening was beginning to replace the heat of the day we reached the end of the road and climbed steeply clambering over rocks for about on hour until we came, just as the light what dimming, and our bodies were beginning to break, into the Valley of Horses.


The Valley of Horses is a long tear of flat grassy land broken by a sluggish curl of water. Spread across this alpine plain were hundreds of horses and cattle. The horses and cattle of the Pyrenees are not technically wild. They have bells, so that the herdsmen may track them through the mountains (and many of them, horse and cow, will end up in a sausage). On the other hand the horses and cattle of the Pyrenees can not exactly be called tame. They wander whither they want, without fence or gate to check them. They breed As they wish, without the control of men. And in summer they run across the mountain ridges, their manes and tails blowing in the chill wind.



I must admit that I have a fear of large animals, horses, and cattle particularly, and there they were in the failing light, the vast herds spread across the plain while the ringing of the bells echoed in the hills. We had to walk through them and it was getting late. We were exhausted. But they did not bother us and we camped with another hiker on the edge of the Valley of Horses. It was, we realised not the cattle that are the worry, but the horses. The cattle are placid enough, but the horses are curious of people, They run in herds, they meet other herds, they kick and fight. We fell asleep and woke to the sound of bells, the deep mooing of the cattle, the whinnying of the horses and the thunder of their hooves. That night in the Valley of Horses, I faced my fears.



Day Three: The Field of Blueberries

The next morning dawned. And mist began to roll thick and fast through the hills. You could see it racing into the valley – a dense white cloud.




And soon we began our hike for the day. Keeping tight so we would not get lost amongst the dense damp fog, like the hobbits in the barrow downs, or run into some savage bull, for we heard amongst the mist, always, ringing bells. We climbed and climbed and as morning gave way to late morning the mist cleared. And we arrived at a popular high alpine lake, close to the boarder with France.



Here, both French and Spanish tourists congregated to observe the phenomenon of this glacial lake. I personally did not get a pleasant feeling from it. The rocks were sharp and red, strange large fish circled within, and it was filled with an unpleasant kind of weed. Nonetheless we went for a swim and it what refreshing enough. We filled our water bottles at a nearby spring and continued our journey.DSC05229


Blocking our path eastward were a pair of young bulls attempting to mate with the cows on the path itself; carefully we went around. We ate lunch in a stunted mossy beech grove and then took a wrong turn that nearly took us to the French boarder. But once we corrected our path we entered into what was probably the most beautiful part of the journey. First we walked through steep alpine meadows. Sheep grazed and the large rocks, which covered the landscape, appeared as if they had been placed there by the Jentilak. We left these steep meadows behind and came to the eaves of an ancient beech forest. The forest with its moss-clad splendor had a kind of magical feeling, and though my feet throbbed with pain, there was something revitalising about the very trees themselves, which seemed to give me the energy to keep going. We tracked along the steep mountain cliffs and came to a waterfall splashing off the mountainside. We reached slopes of scree and shingle, where shallow rooted mountain flowers and herbs bloomed – irises, buttery word, and lilies, raspberries, crocuses, and red currants. Eventually our weary feet took us away from the open cliff faces and ancient moss-filled beech forests and into fields full of wild blueberries and here we threw off our packs and made camp.




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Day Four: Return to Civilization.

The next day brought us out of the wilderness and to the ski resort town of Candanchu. How people can build something so ugly in a place so beautiful almost beggars belief. Candanchu can only be described as a horrible eyesore on the landscape, on offense against good taste and to the mountains themselves! A large stretch of concrete, bordered by the razor wire fences of a military base welcome the wanderer coming from the GR11. The town itself consists of large block like hotels and expensive pubs that resemble prisons. Coming from our camp among the fields of blueberries this town was a reminder of the world outside, the imposing structures of the Spanish government, who since Franco’s time have been suspicious of the mountains on their northern border.

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We drank some beer in this history-less place and hurried on our path south. Following the line of a major road and the Aragon River, we walked through pine forest and dry scrubland. We passed old bunkers, leftovers from the civil war, and hill top castles built at the time when the Moors themselves came this far north. Into the lower-lands we went, following the route of the old pilgrimage to Santiago. We passed through the towns and villages. And as the altitude fell the country became lusher.


We passed through a lost world of ancient stone terraces and buildings, crumbling and reclaimed by the forest. We made camp by the river and built a fire. We had left the mountains. We felt sad, bereaved as if we had lost a friend, a cheerful bubbly friend that had led us though the mountains.


Thunder rolled through the mountains and rain lashed down on our camp. The next day we would cross the bridge of Pilgrims through the narrow ancient stone streets of Canfrank, and on, through Villanua to the dry dusty plains and canyons of Arargon, a bleak, infertile and eroded land, and on to the green valleys of Basque country where our journey had begun.




Daily scenes from Berlin


A view from the street outside our house: a social centre has been tagged with “Free Gaza.” The street is in Gesundbrunnen the most multicultural kiez in Berlin (only 35 percent German). Gesundbrunnen was founded around a natural spring close to the Panke river and it was believed that it had healing properties. In the nineteenth century rapid development saw the construction of factories as well as neogothic and neoclasic architecture along the Panke. The construction of the factories caused the spring to dry up and an electric fountain now stands in its place.


A view of the Panke river as it flows through Gesundbrunnen. It could be somewhere in the wild but this beautiful spot is five minuets from our house and in the middle of one of Europe’s most populous cities. The red brick factories behind the Panke have long been decommissioned, and they are now mainly artist studios. The chimneys no longer belch black smoke but stand like odd towers, monuments to a bygone industrial age. For such a little river the Panke (29km) has its own history and traditions it even has its own folk dance, the Panke Polka. But these traditions are slowly being forgotten and the youngest member of the polka club is in her fifties.


Make love; why not? This potentially political banner hangs above a balcony in Neukölln.


“Happy Junior,”A chinese-vase juggler prepares to show his impressive skills during the Berlin street performance festival, while his “proud parents” look on. Plenty of magic shows, juggling and impressive acrobatics for all.


A mechanical, remote-control horse bends its head down so that the children may stroke it and enjoy their petting. Meanwhile the fire-breathing wing-flapping dragon reclines on a pedestal behind it.


Hot days. As over thirty degree heat strikes the city, Berlin residents cool off in what ever way they can, including the public fountains in Alexanderplatz.


Neptune watches while cranes work reshaping Berlin’s landscape, in a reminder of the constant development which is changing the city. Prices are skyrocketing and apartments are hard to come by as development pushes people out of what were once effordable enclaves. Even the flea-market shows signs of gentrification, no longer a place to find cheep stuff for your house, more a place to buy imported garments and gaudy trinkets.


In a similar vane the bonanza has clearly not helped everybody, this is not a view of a slum in Mumbai it is a slum in the heart of Berlin. With up to a hundred and fifty people and growing this 12,000 square metre area is packed with shacks and tents. It has one water pump but no proper sanitation or toilets, and cooking is done on open fires. Although the space is a positive social experiment and the fact that it has been left to grow by the authorities shows an unexpected tolerance. The fact that space in such a shanty town is in demand is a damning vision of Europe’s growing inequity.



This rather more bourgeois shanty town is located close-by, along the banks of the Kreutzberg canal. Here there are water tanks, solar power, comfortable looking caravans, gardens, a stage and a composting toilet system. There is also an open fireplace, and a bar. Established in 1991 built in the former no-mans-land between East and West. This community has thrived and maintained, a very different and undoubtedly more exclusive social experiment than the slum.


Street Art – A European Journey

Street Art Berlin - I am not afraid

Street Art Berlin – I am not afraid

drawn to the light

Street Art Berlin – drawn to the light

Street Art Berlin - the local dog crew

Street Art Berlin – the local dog crew

Street Art Berlin - unravelling

Street Art Berlin – unravelling

Street Art Prague - out of the corner of the eye

Street Art Prague – out of the corner of the eye

Street Art Prague - smoke on the wall

Street Art Prague – smoke on the wall

Street Art Prague - the bringer of change

Street Art Prague – the bringer of change

Street Art Geneva - under the bridge

Street Art Geneva – under the bridge

Street Art Geneva - beneath the surface

Street Art Geneva – beneath the surface

Street Art Lisabon - finding ways

Street Art Lisabon – finding ways

Street Art Lisabon - stamina

Street Art Lisabon – stamina

Street Art Lisabon - trust

Street Art Lisabon – trust

Street Art Lisabon - a long way to go

Street Art Lisabon – a long way to go

Street Art Portugal - erosion

Street Art Portugal – erosion

Street Art Vitoria-Gasteiz - observed

Street Art Vitoria-Gasteiz – observed

Street Art Vitoria-Gasteiz - blue is beautiful

Street Art Vitoria-Gasteiz – blue is beautiful

Bilbao - Mami can I go to Uni? You can't, you are a drawing!

Bilbao – Mami can I go to Uni? You can’t, you are a drawing!

Bilbao - ride on

Bilbao – ride on


The borderlands


It’s an organic raspberry farm in Massongy, close to Geneva on the French side of the boarder and it’s beautiful. The snow-capped Mountains rise in all directions, their lower slopes thick with forest, blooming in the spring. Hawks glide above the fields and swallows flit among the trees. A cold mountain wind blows across the land rippling the daisies, dandelions and forget-me-nots. The wind cuts through my shirt, reminding me that we will leave soon, across the Alps to the East.

These borderlands may appear idyllic but they are defined by a smouldering political tension. The Swiss call them les frontaliers – a derogative term for the French workers that flock to Geneva attracted by the high Swiss franc, and whom the Swiss blame for their own rising unemployment. It’s no jocular rivalry. Elsa has lived here all her life but when she is in Geneva her French number plate elicits a stream of verbal abuse, while aggressive tagging along the motorway welcomes her and other French visitors with hate. Pier and Audrey are typical “les frontaliers,” an electrician and caregiver, they live in a house truck and have been lured here by Swiss wages. “We could never earn this much in France,” they tell me. Now they have a chance to live their dreams. Yet the Swiss are struggling. Genc, an electrician who lives with his girlfriend and two-year-old son, pays 2000 francs a month for their small apartment in Geneva – a sum unthinkable in France. He earns barely enough to get by and has no chance of competing with Frenchmen who will work on the black market for less than his rent. The frustration is tangible and right wing nationalism rises on both sides of the border.


I watch as a hawk hovers above the field, then swoops, catching a mouse in its talons. It’s beautiful here. Wasps, bumble bees and St Mark’s flies hover between the flowers. Firebugs, with backs like African masks, cluster on the trunk of an apple tree covered in white blossom. Yes, it’s beautiful here, but I remember the words of the wine sodden Frenchman, his flushed face illuminated by the candle light. “I am French, I like wine and sex. I am a typical French man, and you do not belong here.” He’s right. It’s beautiful but I do not belong here. The fights are not my fights. The cold wind bites my face, and I feel its pull. Tomorrow I will go, across the Alps to spend a sleepless night among the clacking shoes in Munich Central Station on my way to the East, to another place where I do not belong.


„Berlin is rather a part of the world than a city.“

„Berlin ist mehr ein Weltteil als eine Stadt.“


In this post, I now backtrack to the start of our journey when I arrived in Berlin to meet Daniela. We would dissolve her flat and begin our journey across Europe. The above quote, attributed by Wikipedia to the Bavarian romantic writer Jean Paul in the year eighteen hundred, still felt true, when more than two hundred years later, I arrived on a hot, sunny September’s day. I was soon enchanted by the broad tree lined avenues of the city and its murky, swan-filled canals (Berlin is said to have more bridges than Venice). The city had a feeling of a thriving mixing pot, diverse and difficult to generalise about. But I have heard that people come to Berlin from all across the world, they came to visit and they forgot to leave.



A note on food: I’ll start by saying that the coffee is generally awful. I could explain why, but to avoid sounding like a coffee wanker, I won’t. Despite this Berlin is frankly the best place in the world I have ever been for food. It is astoundingly cheap and excellent, though perhaps not typically German. You can get a big kebab for two-euro-fifty; juicy, gourmet Italian pizza for three-euro; a full meal in an authentic Vietnamese restaurant for five-euro; and we mustn’t forget the handmade pasta. There is also “Sunday brunch,” where, at a range of cafes (we had good cluster by the canal in Kreuzberg), you can eat as much as you desire from a vast buffet of delicious sweet and savoury dishes – cakes, mousses, chocolates, crapes, fruit salads, yoghurts, bacon, sausages, chicken, tomato-and-mozzarella, cheeses, potatoes, toasts, beans, egg, fresh salads, etc. Sorry to go on about it, but it really was dazzling, and all for the price of eggs-on-toast in New Zealand.

Tischlein deck dich

Tischlein deck dich, Brüder Grimm

And if you felt like eating at home, then that was no problem, with the Kreuzberg Turkish market filled with fresh produce, the abundant and reasonably priced organic shops, and the supermarkets where wine and beer were ridiculously cheap, and you even got 20 cent for retuning the empty bottle. Having experienced the food scene in Berlin I am tempted to think that this may be a major factor in travellers visiting and not leaving. The poor artists of Berlin may indeed be poor, but they’d be a hell of a lot poorer if they lived in Auckland.


Zappelphilipp, Der Struwwelpeter

A note on the environment: Berlin, in contrast to the great cities of the west, is surrounded by a green ring of forests and lakes. These forests, covered with beach, oak, birch, willow and rowan are filled with foxes, wild boar, and naked athletes. I have even heard rumours of wolves returning from the east. Inside the city it is also green. The wide streets are lined with huge untrimmed trees. The large parks such as Tempelhof, Hasenheide and Tiergarten are filled with feral areas. Its flat topography and abundant bike lanes make it a city designed for bicycles, and they are a must for exploring the city.


dragonfly, Tiergarten


rowan berries, Tiergarten

A note on history: the history of Berlin is written into everything in that great city, and it is a history that is living, moving, and ever present. Of course there are the famous things: Check Point Charley, the famous crossing point between east and west Berlin frequently referenced in Cold War themed thrillers; the Berlin Wall itself, some parts covered in flowering murals, each one a different degree of political statement. There is the grand Brandenburg triumphal arch, comfortably distant in its historic significance. There is also the bust of Ernst Thälmann the great German communist, one of the eastern block colossi to survive reunification. There is much that I could write in this section but I will focus on two sites in Berlin, because for me they illustrate that sense of history in motion, the decaying old and the emerging new: Tempelhof and Teufelsberg.

Herr Fuchs, Frau Elster, Berliner Mauer

Herr Fuchs und Frau Elster at the Berlin Wall

Neue Wache, Berlin

Tempelhof is a vast abandoned airport right in the centre of the city. Its huge buildings are abandoned and the runways are now used by rollerbladers, cyclists and kiteboarders. Large organic gardens have sprung up on the flat grassy ground and it is a great open community space. Such a huge unused airport in the centre of a city like Berlin is something of an anomaly and has an interesting history.



Tempelhof receives its name from the knights Templar who owned the land in medieval times. It was then used as a parade ground for the Prussian armies and later the unified German armies. Tempelhof was first used as an airport in 1909 and officially designated as one in 1922 making it one of the oldest airports in the world. During the Nazi era Tempelhof was redesigned as the gateway to the great German Reich and the terminal building was constructed in the shape of a German eagle. The complex, remains one of largest buildings on earth and many believe that deep in its underground basements remain secrets of the Nazis. During the Cold War Tempelhof with its inner city location allowed the Americans to airlift supplies to West Berlin during the Berlin-blockade. It was also from Tempelhof that American planes took off to famously drop chocolate over the fields of East Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall Tempelhof continued to be used as an airport until 2007 in which it was finally closed. Now it is a community space, ringed by the largest example of fascist architecture and dotted with gardens. Berliners are attached to this community space and a battle over its future looks set to divide Berliners between those who want to keep it as community space and those who want to cover it in new developments. Tempelhof’s story is not yet over.



Teufelsberg or Devil’s hill, surrounded by Grunewald Forest, is the highest point in Berlin, but the hill itself is not natural and is constructed from an astonishing seventy-five million cubic metres of rubble, piled by the women of West Berlin at the end of the Second World War. Adjacent to the hill is a once top secret American spy base used by the NSA to collect intelligence from the Soviets. After the collapse of the Eastern Block the spy base was abandoned and the forest grew up through it and around it. It attracted, besides others, the interest of sound and visual artists because of the peculiar structure and acoustics. The spy station has now been taken over by punk tour operators who have the audacity to charge curious visitors upward of seven euros to enter, and only with groups at specified tour times, evidence of Berlin’s infamous and pernicious gentrification.


view of Berlin fromTeufelsberg


Teufelsberg, spystation

A tentative note on Berliners: Here I must be careful what I write for my love is a Berliner. Berliners come in all different types there are those who have always been there from the East and West who live their lives and to whom the city holds no more special appeal than simply the place they know as home. There are the minorities: the Turks, the Chinese, the Poles, and, increasingly, rich Italians. But the type of Berliner I am interested in is kind of a Berlin archetype the traveller that never left. Perhaps they came to Berlin and they found their scene, their social niche, their creative outlet. They had dreams and projects. Some made their fortune and met their lovers, but others did not. They contributed to giving Berlin its modern and alternative spirit. But Berlin, I have heard, can also be a lonely place, and in winter the skies are dark, the streets are cold and the expats dream of home.

Neptune und Meerjungfrau-Berlin2

neptune and marmaid, Kreuzberg

Neptune und Meerjungfrau-Berlin

neptune and marmaid, Kreuzberg

desire & satisfaction from Daniela Gast on Vimeo.