These days Siurana is a popular tourist village on top of a 737m escarpment in the municipality of the Cornudella de Montsant, Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain.
Siurana is also legendary. For 2 reasons:
1. In the autumn and winter of every year it is inundated with climbers from across the globe. There is some seriously hard climbing to be done here (there’s also some easy stuff that Mrs P and I can play on)
2. A Saracen Queen once rode her horse off the cliffs (and not even by mistake).
Well, today (Tuesday 13th November) is our last day here and we have decided to walk rather than climb. We have never really seen Siurana town or the surrounding countryside, just the climbing.
Back in the day (the day being 1153 – 1154) high upon a colossal cliff, dominating two rivers stood Siurana Castle. The last Muslim enclave in Catalonia. When Christian Knights arrived at the gates the Saracen Queen, Abd al-Axia, rather than be taken prisoner, tied a blindfold round her horse’s eyes and rode off the cliff (apparently this is something many Catholics have considered doing in order to avoid attending Sunday mass – Am I going to Hell for that one?)
After that the castle was used, mostly as a prison, until the 13th Century when Felipe IV ordered its destruction following a Catalan revolt.
The town allows only local vehicles and even they avoid entering the town itself, instead leaving their cars at the edge of town and walking in.
The town is surrounded on 3 sides by vertical cliffs which makes for some spectacular views.
So, having done the legend bit, the town bit and even the coffee bit, we head off for the walk around the cliffs below the town bit. First we have to get down to the valley floor which involves some lovely, airy paths…
…and takes us past some of the climbing sectors…
Where some of the climbers play to the camera by, yes, you guessed it, falling off…
His first words on coming to a halt about 6 metres down where, “Another week and that will be easy.” It begs the question, which will be easy, the climb or falling? He seemed to have the falling bit down to an art form, no screaming or anything, so we can only assume he means the climb.
About 200 metres below the town the beautiful clear Siurana River runs towards the modern day reservoir.
The limestone cliffs that support the town of Siurana are themselves supported by a huge band of sandstone. A very stark and unusual contrast.
A great little walk. Just a few hours. Then back to our campsite ready for the remainder of the long drive North in the morning.
Wednesday 14th of November we drove just over 420 km (260 miles) to the North coast of Spain in readiness to catch our ferry home on Saturday. It was a bit of a melancholy drive, truth be told.
Still. Two more days of fun to be had. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?
ASIDE: There was a lovely house for sale in Siurana. Very tempting. Rent it in the summer while travelling in Gandalf. Live in it in the Autumn and winter and get some good climbing done. What do you think?
…the optimist expects it to change; the realist closes the roof and sleeps downstairs.
William Arthur Ward – (as amended by Mr P)
I already mentioned how we found a lovely free place to park Gandalf on a ridge near Arboli, Catalunya, Spain.
It had been a very peaceful spot on our first evening. Stunning views, close to the climbing, flat (very important). We both had a great nights sleep and woke to a beautiful sunrise. All in all, a great place for a wild camp.
No surprises then that, we had decided to spend another night in the same spot.
This may not have been our best move. The evening started well;
• Beautiful sunset – check
• Dinner cooked and eaten – looking good so far
Time to settle down for the night.
Climb into pop top roof and think;
Sleep, my sweet reward.
Nope. More like…
O sleep, O gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee, That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down and steep my sense in forgetfulness?
Ah, would that mine own words should compare to that of the great Bard. No. More like;
How in heaven’s name am I going to sleep through this racket?”
What sounds like a howling gale has started up. Winds are gusting at a mere 43 kph. ‘Not too bad.‘ I hear you say. ‘A mere 26.179 mph‘. But, we all know what happens when wind hits a ridge or mountain and what happens to the wind speed at the top of said ridge or mountain… What do you mean “No”? Must I explain everything? Hey ho. It’s Mr P explains time again:
When wind hits a slope the speed increases the higher up the slope you go. Meaning that the wind reaches its highest velocity at the summit of the ridge/mountain/hill or, where Gandalf is parked.
The following diagram may help…
Not entirely sure how accurate the figures are but, you get the idea.
Additionally there is the eyes shut effect that automatically magnifies all sound to cataclysmic proportion.
The gusting bit is the thing that is keeping me awake. The pop top or, bloomin’ great sail, is causing the van to be buffeted around in a far from relaxing way. Yes, I tried counting sheep, but they kept blowing away.
There is a difference dear reader, between a tent in a gale and a campervan pop top roof in mere high winds. Strange as it may seem, I would prefer the tent in a gale. At least in a tent you sleep on the immovable ground.
By 11pm I had had enough, and so it would appear had Mrs P. On attempting to gently wake her to break the news that I was going to close the roof and we would have to move downstairs (“downstairs!?) I discovered that she was already awake, had been awake for some time and was thoroughly fed up of being constantly battered in the back by the side of the pop top.
So, down we go. Pop top closed. Noise reduced, buffeting diminished. But, I still can’t sleep (unlike Mrs P who is instantly out like a light). Finally at about 03.30 the winds die down and I finally, get some shut eye.
We wake in the morning to beautiful sunshine and new neighbours. A white campervan with British number plates arrived shortly after dark the previous night. The occupants are a lovely couple (Phil & Allie) of a similar age to Mrs P and I (well, at least Phil was a similar age to me) out here, in Catalunya, climbing for a few months.
We chat, and following a guided tour of their cleverly converted, if somewhat larger van, we [read: ‘Mr P’] suffer from the following:
1. Storage space envy
2. Oven envy
3. Fridge envy
4. Extractor fan envy
5. Shower envy
6. Even inflatable kayak envy.
Later that day our new acquaintances bump into us at the crag where Mrs P is honing her lead climbing skills and Phil (under the expert direction of his able assistant Allie) kindly takes some rare and rather splendid photos of Mrs P and myself in climbing mode.
Tune in again tomorrow when it’s back to the pretty pictures as Mrs P and I take a walk around the historic and even legendary, hill top town of Siurana.
Those of you who have been reading this blog since day 1, may, if you cast your mind back, remember that the title was;
“DAY 1 of 120”
If you were really paying attention you will have noticed that the, “…of 120” stopped being used after day 12. At the time this was pure idleness but I am thinking of reintroducing it just so, on Monday, I can have a title of;
“Day 121 of 120”
Yes folks, it looks very much like the blog and our trip is to continue beyond its original remit of 120 days or 4 months.
However, our time, as our cash, is finite and the end is in sight. We have booked our ferry tickets home from Santander, Spain to Portsmouth and we sail on Saturday 17th November returning late on Sunday 18th.
To this end we have begun the journey North and today (Saturday 10th November) we have arrived in a place called Arboliin the Catalonia region of Spain. It is kind of between Barcelona and Valencia but, inland.
Prior to this we had a couple of lazy days. One deliberate; resting after the Bernia ridge with just a few routes at Alcalalí. One semi-enforced due to high NE winds which meant our choice of crag (Gandia) was ‘chilly’ to say the least. We quit after just 3 climbs. It doesn’t bode well for our return to a British winter and climbing in… well, anywhere really!
A Long drive today (Saturday 10th) over 200 miles, so we just did a couple of climbs on arrival at Arboli to stretch our muscles after too long sitting in the van (sorry Gandalf).
Wild camp tonight. Beautiful spot. About 1 km outside Arboli on a ridge with great views in pretty much every direction. To the north, about a kilometre away across the valley we can see the hilltop town of Siuranabeautifully lit by the sunset.
To the west, nothing but hills with a line of wind turbines just about visible on the horizon (I like wind turbines). Stunning sunset.
So, let me fill you in on a couple of thing we have learned over the last three days
Lesson 1. English coach tours can be embarrassing
We were parked up having our lunch in a place called Xaló. A pleasant little place on Alicante’s wine tour route. We were near a coach tour bus and watched as, in dribs and drabs the passengers returned. They were almost caricatures of the very worst of the unhealthy middle aged English abroad. You could almost hear their arteries hardening. One might question how people allow themselves to get in such a state or ask, “Why such dreadful posture?” or, “How slow is it actually possible to walk before you are declared stationary?” You could ask those questions. But what was the question that crossed Mr (aught to be ashamed of himself) P’s mind?
“I wonder if they carry body bags. You know, just in case.”
Lesson 2.The Spanish have what can only be described as a laissez-faire attitude to parking.
Parking in England is bad and getting more inconsiderate as the years roll by but, it has nothing on Spanish parking. Rather than citing examples of this let’s drop in on Alejandro’s driving test from a few years back…
Driving instructor:“Now then Alejandro, you only have one more section in this driving test between you and a pass.”
Alejandro beams. He’s been looking forward to this bit. Practicing and observing his grandmother, an excellent exponent of this particular driving skill, when he goes out shopping with her
Driving instructor:“Alejandro, I would like you to park the car please near that supermarket you can see up ahead.”
“Mirror signal, manoeuvre.” thinks Alejandro and in a matter of a few turns of the steering wheel the deed is done. He looks expectantly at the instructor.
Driving instructor:“Well Alejandro, you’ve parked on the wrong side of the road, on a blind bend about 1.5 metres from the kerb, at a very rakish angle and to top it all you are on a pedestrian crossing. What can I say? You’ve performed extremely well all the way through the test and, right at the very end… (his voice falters) I’m lost for words.”
Alejandro looks nervous. He feels a trickle of sweat drip down his back.
Driving instructor his voice breaking with emotion:“Alejandro, that was… (tears well in his eyes) ..just about the best parking I have ever seen. You pulled out all the stops there. You have obviously been practicing everything I taught you. Well done you’ve passed your driving test.”
There is a difference though. In the UK people get very irate about this kind of behaviour. In Spain it seems to be just accepted as the norm by both other road users and the perpetrators.
I will not be writing a blog tomorrow. At 11am you will be busy observing a 2 minute silence.
There is a mountain ridge that provides a lovely backdrop for those happy tourists on the Costa Blanca coast from Altea to Benidorm. Well, at least to those folk capable of looking beyond their next alcoholic beverage and imaginative enough to face the opposite direction to the sea (or their satellite TVs). This impressive rocky crest is called the Bernia Ridge or, to give it its Spanish name the Cresta de Bernia.
The ridge rises to a height of 1,126 metres (3,694 feet) and way back on day 93 Mrs P and I took a walk around this beast which took us 8 hours, all told.
There is a climb along the most interesting (read: “lumpy“) section of the ridge. It is long. 3 km. It has some technical climbing and an abseil or two. It is described as “airy” andwas recommended by some climbers we met a week or two ago. It is also horribly badly described in our guide book.
This is what we know…
The guide book gives some extra information but it is pretty light in detail:
One technical section at grade 4+
One 20 metre abseil
One additional abseil of ? metres
“? metres…” Not helpful! Our lightweight rope is only 50 metres so, maximum abseil is 25 metres. This “abseil of ? metres!” Fine, if it is less than 25 metres but not so good if more. Attention to detail please.
Timings: 5 – 10 hours car to car
5 – 10 hours car to car. Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with?
So, we buy a new guide book. The pictures are better and it at least gives the length of both abseils. Our 25 metre rope will be fine.
It suggests 50 minutes to the start and 1 1/2 hours from the finish back to the car with 5 hours for the climb. I only know this because it’s in pictures.
One evening I was poring over this book staring blankly at the Spanish text when Mrs (I cant speak a word of Spanish) P, takes the book off me and starts happily translating pretty much the whole thing!
Staring agog at this person who I thought I knew, the person who lets me flounder away in Spanglish in shops, bars and, well everywhere, Mrs P spots the question in my startled look and says: “Well, of course I can read it. It’s a bit like French.”
I think she’s a spy. If we go to Russia will she suddenly start jabbering away fluently to all her spy mates? I’m snitching on her to MI5 if she doesn’t buy me nice things for Christmas.
Anyway, happy with this new found information we decide to have a go. I pack a rack of gear that would see us happily along most Alpine ridges, just in case and we set off from Gandalf at 09.10. 8.5 hours of daylight. Best get a move on…
The locals don’t seem too impressed with our plan…
It takes us a little over an hour to get to the start of the ridge and all kitted up.
Now, the tricky bit. Condensing 5 hours and 45 minutes of climbing and scrambling into half a dozen photos. I’ll give it a shot but I won’t do it justice. I suggest you go try it for yourself.
There is a very narrow section between the two abseils with vertical drops in excess of 100 metres either side. Before we started climbing we saw two goats (not Statler & Waldorf) looking down at us from this section of the ridge. Evidence of them was available on the ridge by way of their scat but, no goats. Where did they go? Paragliding goats. That’s the only explanation.
Much of the ridge is unroped scrambling at about grade 1 & 2 (anything beyond grade 3 is classed as climbing not scrambling).
Mr P does 99% of the ridge in approach shoes. A sort of mix between hiking and climbing shoes. Perfect for this sort of thing.
Mrs P on the other hand prefers scrambling in her hiking boots. My hat (helmet) is off to her. I would hate to be on this kind of ground in hiking boots.
The weather is perfect. Not too hot, not too windy and the rock has dried nicely after the rain of 2 days ago.
The first abseil is only about 16 metres long and bypasses a section of grade 2 scrambling. With a risk of death factor positively off the scale we opt for the abseil.
The next section of the ridge is still pretty narrow though some bits you can actually walk along. Mostly however it is delightful, hands on scrambling.
Eventually we get to an obvious abseil anchor, bolted to the rock alongside a big painted red arrow pointing down and over an abyss.
I set up the abseil and chuck our 25 metres of doubled rope off the cliff. By hanging on to the anchor bolt and leaning out I can see that the rope is long enough. Always a bonus as I then commit to the drop…
Closely followed by Mrs P…
A spot of lunch overlooking The Costa Blanca coast and we are off again. Climbing first back up to the ridge.
A long relatively easy section of scrambling ensues culminating in a descent to a col where a short but technical piece of climbing enables us the regain the ridge.
The following picture shows three narrow fins of rock. The third from the left must be climbed to regain the ridge above the enormous cave.
The second half of the ridge is probably a bit easier than the first but, maybe we are just getting used to the terrain and the exposure. We certainly know that all the technical stuff is over.
About 2/3rds of the way along the ridge, near a col, there is a box with a book in which happy climbers can write their names. Mr P does the honours…
Books like this are usually at the end of a route so, psychologically, once the book is completed so is the climb but, not in this case. There are still 2 more hours of climbing ahead.
If you zoom in closely on the above photo you will see 3 climbers on the ridge behind us. Centre of picture there is a tree on the ridge. Follow the ridge left. One climber is silhouetted on the ridge. The other 2 are to the right of him and harder to spot.
We did go off track briefly but it was fortuitous as we think we found some orchids. I can’t find anything on the interweb to prove it so, any budding (excuse the pun) flower experts out there like to tell us what it is?
More lovely, easy, grade 1 scrambling on perfect rock finally sees us on the summit of the Bernia 5 hours and 45 minutes after we started.
Just 1.5 of descent to go. In total our time was 8 hours 45 minutes, Gandalf to Gandalf. This includes one lunch stop, 2 snack breaks and one minor detour.
We are well pleased with ourselves particularly as we arrive back before dark. Time for a nice cup of tea.
ASIDE: Back in September I published a post called, Day 75 – Fear – Mr P gets all philosophical, in which I tried to explain why a particular Via Ferrata near Annecy in France has scared me so much. It was all about exposure etc. It was deep stuff. Mrs P can’t understand why I was afraid on the Via Ferrata but not on the Bernia Ridge since the ridge was way harder and more exposed. The answer? Not sure, but she is right. I wasn’t scared or nervous on this climb. I will have to think about it and get back to you.
The following photo was actually taken on Saturday 3rd November but I was too busy wittering on about Magdalenas to post anything remotely sensible. It is a one photo lesson in bad climbing practice…
Climbers reading this will (I hope) concur with my guess that this man has never been belaying someone who has taken a lead fall. Non-climbers will be thinking, “belaying?”, “lead fall?”.
It’s Mr P explains time again. The man sitting down, enjoying the sun and seemingly taking no notice of the rope he is attached to is the only thing between his partner, 15 metres up on the other end of said rope, and, if she falls, death. His sole job is to manage the rope as she climbs and, if she falls, arrest that fall by use of the belay devicehe has attached to the rope and his harness.
My biggest issue with this is not so much that he is not really paying attention, this is not such a big deal, we all look around a bit while belaying (though he barely ever looked up). My issue is with the fact that he is sitting down.
Climbing ropes have a certain amount of stretch to reduce the fall factor but a lot of the force involved in any fall must be absorbed by the belayer as well as the rope.
Comfy it may be but, if your partner falls the pull on the rope can be immense. A few weeks ago we saw a climber take a lead fall and his much lighter female partner, who was paying attention and was standing up, shot about 6 feet up in the air before the fall was checked.
If this man’s partner falls, no matter how strong he is (unless of course he comes from the planet Krypton), he will be dragged sideways and upwards across sharp rock, dirt, grit and prickly bushes before his weight can slow down and stop the fall. If however, at any point during his brief, violent and unexpected journey he inadvertently lets go of the belay device his partners fall will continue unchecked. He will not be able to stop it.
Now, there is a device calledaGrigriwhich will arrest the fall even if you do let go. He wasn’t using one and, even if he had been, it certainly wouldn’t stop him being dragged across the ground and his partner falling an unnecessarily long way down lumpy, bumpy, sharp rock.
Ironically this mans partner was wearing a t-shirt from a climbing safety convention. Even more ironically, she belayed him in exactly the same way.
Lead climbing by the way is where…
…the rope runs directly from the belayer to the climber who clips the rope into bolts fixed to the wall or removable pieces of trad gear.
On this “sharp end of the rope,” the lead climber must move above a bolt or piece of protection in order to move up the route. If he or she falls before clipping the rope into the next bolt or piece of equipment then the fall will be at least twice as long as the distance above the last piece of gear. E.g. A fall 1 metre above the last bolt mean a fall of two metres, plus a little bit more due to rope stretch.
I have very rarely fallen lead climbing. Mostly because I am way too scared to ever let go but, on the couple of occasions that I have fallen Mrs P has checked my fall in exemplary fashion.
She always stands, she always pays attention and she is always the prettiest belayer at the crag (Christmas is coming. Got to get that brownie point count up).
So, Sunday 4th. We went multi-pitch climbing at our favourite crag so far in the Costa Blanca region. Sierra de Toix.
Picture the scene. Sunrise…
…and Mr & Mrs P are eager to go climbing even getting up early enough to take a picture of the sunrise. They rush around, drinking tea, eating breakfast, drinking more tea, faffing… drinking another cup of tea. Driving the 20 minutes to the crag (stop en-route for a pain au chocolat). Park up. Eat pain au chocolat. Walk 10 minutes to bottom of climb. Finally arrive at 12.30! What happened to the morning!? The slowest we have ever got ready. We are strangely proud of ourselves.
The climb is called Oma Sus (I’m sure it means something to someone). It’s four pitches long, grade 4+/5 (not too hard) and a total of just over 100 metres high (about 330 ish feet in old money.)
The bolts (protection) on this climb are few and far between. From 8 to 10 metres apart in some places. I had some trad gear but only managed to place one piece in the very compact (no cracks) rock.
There are some pretty shoddy, old, sun damaged bits of tatt along the way to clip on to. More psychological than real protection…
More stuff in a generally upward direction…
And, eventually, the top.
At the top the following brief conversation took place. I only include Mrs P’s words since Mr P’s can easily be deduced;
Now, how do we get down?
Where’s the path?
What do you mean; ‘there is no path?’
How many abseils?
I haven’t had lunch!
Well, at least the rope eating tree is above us.
ASIDE: If you want to read some funny stuff about multi-pitch climbing, how not to abseil and the rope eating tree check out the Gandalf on tour blog from way back on day 11.
So, down we go. Love these next 2 shots.
That evening we found a great spot for free camping on the edge of Altea and right by the sea.
Check out the reflection in Gandalf’s window in the below picture. I can assure you that this was luck not judgement.
Tomorrow. It rains. I’m sure I’ll think of something to talk about.
Friday morning we woke all set to go off climbing again but, as I explained yesterday, this campsite, far from the tourist factories on the coast, far from the great whites, is home to a different breed of over-winterer (did I just make a word up?).
As we idly munched on our muesli and contemplated the sunny day ahead we are visited by a chap from England who is staying here till March. He and his wife are the vanguard of a group of like minded folk who spend the winter here. Let’s stick with convention and call him Mr S.
Mr S says (I do hope he will forgive me for paraphrasing): “Would you like to join me for a walk?”
Mr P: Oh, yes please. Where’re we going?
Mr S goes on to explain a 27km circuit taking in a visit to some donkeys (Mrs P is immediately sold on the idea), a look down a big hole, a visit to a Refugio (refuge/hut/elaborate garden shed. Call it what you will) and a scramble down a gorge.
He then says: “How fast do you walk?”
Mr P: “Eh?”
Mr S: “How fit are you?”
Mr P (thinking, ‘This man is 12 years older than me!’) stifles a derisive laugh and says; “Well, we just spent 3 months in the Alps.”
“Good.” Says Mr S, “See you at 10.”
Now Mr S is a sexagenarian (late sexagenarian at that. Oh, ok, he’s 67. But don’t tell him I told you), dynamo powered, (like the Duracell Bunny), speed demon. He certainly isn’t powered in the conventional way. You know, food, water, that kind of thing. In 7.5 hrs I think I saw him eat 2 fig biscuits and drink a thimble full of water. Mrs P and I can’t go more than 3 hours without recourse to numerous snacks, a proper lounge by the trail lunch and, of course, something sweet to take the taste away.
We set off at a rate of knots little known in our stop every few minutes to take a photo, change layers, point at things, answer a call of nature, world.
Along the way we whiz past some great views and visit a few interesting sights like a donkey sanctuary…
I know, it’s a goat but, in my defence, he was way more photogenic than the donkeys.
We also got to look down into a 50 metre sinkhole called L’Avenc Ample, and watched some spelunkers(apparently they prefer the term cavers, but it’s not their blog so, tough!) climbing out.
The sinkhole apparently leads to a short series of squeeze tunnels and then into a huge underground cavern. The above link has some great photos.
After the first ascent I develop a ploy to slow Mr S down, or at least arrange it so I don’t have to speak and walk at the same time. At the beginning of each climb I ask him questions like, ‘précis your last 6 holidays’ and ‘Name your 100 favourite films. In alphabetical order’.
Our journey along the Barranc de L’Infern was spectacular and we got in some great scrambling and general messing around.
All in all the hike was 27k (16.2 miles), over 7 hours, with 1,457 metres (4,781 feet) of ascent and descent and all done at an average pace of 600 kph (373 mph). It was a great walk, a great day and great company. We cannot thank Mr S enough for dragging us along in his wake. All hail!
Saturday 27th and I was overjoyed to be visited by Mr S who popped by to tell us that his legs ached after our outing. Result!
We use the inclement weather (temperatures dropped by 10 degrees overnight and there are rain showers all day) as an excuse to relax for the whole day. We visit the coffee shop, the bakery, clean Gandalf and watch a film.
The previous and following photos are the Gandalf version of one of those before and after shots where the before shot shows an overweight, unsmiling, badly lit, unattractively posed person and the after shot shows exactly the same only they are better lit, smiling and have been allowed to wear underwear appropriate to their stature.
GRATUITOUS ADVERT: Use GLEAMO cleaning fluid for that sun shining through the window look!
Yes, you heard right by the way. We watch a film. Some DVDs have been left behind in the communal area of the campsite. The place where paperback books go to die. We fire up the laptop and watch our first film, tv or anything of that ilk for more than 3 months. Feels weird. The film is called Wakefield. A dark drama. Mrs P and I can recommend it.
Clocks go back tonight. Extra hour in bed. Tomorrow we drive South. Heading for warmer climes and climbs.