Bizipozatours is an insiders guide to the curious country and culture that is Euskal Herria (The Basque Country). It is about connecting visitors to the wealth of unspoilt, often undiscovered, country and culture which exists here.
It is not about the well trod tourist trail where you choose your meal from a menu with photos, shuffle round the sights and return home with a sombrero and a bottle of dodgy plonk.
No it’s not about that.
Bizipozatours is about stepping off the beaten path and taking time to explore the less trodden tracks that twist this way and that. Those are the tracks that lead to the crystal fountain where you meet friendly folk with time to pass the day and a restaurant serving beans grown locally, washed down with a bottle of Rioja, “sin etiqueta”.
Bizipozatours is about travel. It’s about stepping outside our routine, observing that there are other ways, other customs, that there’s always another point of view and that really anything could happen!
The following photos and text recount some highlights from a five day trek that took us across Navarra travelling from west to east and passing to the south of Iruña, the capital of Euskal Herria, before ascending into the pre-Pyrenees.
At Bizipozatours it is nothing less than a great pleasure to facilitate people’s exploration and discovery of this place.
All the same there comes a point in the year when the guide needs a holiday too.
What to do?
Where to go?
The answer came with the chance arrival of a friend from Madrid. He’d walked the 400km in three legs of a month each and he was currently on the final section which would take him to the occupied villages of the Navarran Pyrenees. Javier’s route in the previous days had taken him over the Sierra de Toloño and down into the ocean of oak forest that is Izki National Park. He’d taken three days to cross that. Camping under a tarp and cooking on an open fire where his preferred dish was “rice and…”.While Javier’s tales of camping in the forest and sleeping in church porches in sub zero temperatures provoked a certain horror they also held considerable appeal. The appealing simplicity of life reduced to the contents of a rucksack. He also exuded a deep vibe of calm a strong smell of wood smoke and there was no doubt that I would be joining him on the next leg.
There is something tremendously special about starting a long journey on foot from your own front door. A sense of departure and a certain longing for the slippers and pipe that lie by the still hot embers of the hearth.
I was leaving the comfort zone.
All the stuff I had been fretting about until that moment of departure evaporated to be replaced by a rather heavy ruck sack.
After crossing the Sierras of Iturrieta and Urbasa our first port of call was the village of Etxauri in Nevarra.
As two off season pilgrims travelling the wrong way on The Camino de Santiago I guess we stood out as an oddity. We quickly fell into conversation with the locals in the bar and when we explained our intention to pass the night in the church porch they were quick to offer us floor space. We may be ‘ard as nails but we ain’t stupid either.
The storm clouds of the previous day had moved on by sun up the following morning. Turning westward into those warming rays we picked up a winding trail that stretched on through vineyards to the far horizon and our destination the snow clad Pyrenees.
The day unfolded and the kilometres eased by at a leisurely pace. The early morning frost lingered only in the shade and the air temperature soared with the rising sun. Stops were frequent as we adjusted clothing, stripped off layers bringing welcome cooling but unwelcome weight to the packs on our backs.
There’s a meditative quality in the rhythm of walking. The mind chatters but what are you really going to pay attention to when the pressing concern is how to adjust the weight on your back so that that tensioning pain in your shoulders might find ease?
Mid morning and a stop for “hamaikatako” elevenses. Cheese and some of Oianha’s organic bread, baked locally from “masa madre” made with locally grown and milled flour. Simple food well earned after a mornings walking.
The road lead on through rolling farmland linking every three or four kilometres, one village with another; Otazu, Larraya, Galar, Esparza,… Unremarkable villages when seen from a speeding car but filled with interest to the pilgrim’s eye. When there’s only one or two people in the scene you’re rather obliged to interact. Folk out and about or tending huertas (gardens) would pause in their tracks and exchange a “buenos días” or “Egun on”. And more often than not we’d fall into conversation.
Turning Pamplona by the broad plain that lies to its south we joined the Camino de Santiago for some twenty kilometres. We were of course travelling away from Santiago. Something which people we met took delight in informing us. Nonetheless, it was an insight into the Camino and its history. This corridor linking Santiago in Galicia with France and the rest of Europe via the Pyrenees has seen the passing of inconceivable numbers of pilgrims, traders, nights templer, and crusaders since the midle ages. The record of their passing is preserved in the chiseled stone of buildings with their distinctive Navarran arches and cryptic inscriptions.
But there are layers of history here. Iruña was founded by the Roman commander Pompey in 75 B.C.. He named it after himself “Pompaelo” and it presumably evolved into Pamplona over the milenia. Iruña is the Basque name for the town.
Beyond the Romans you’ve got the neolithic period and this whole area is dotted with neolithic stone circles. This is a place that has seen the passage of civilizations. Makes you wonder about the permanence of our own.
It took us three days to cross Navarra and we spent most of the nights in church porches and always found a space to make a fire and brew up a pot of “rice and…” The nights were fresh with the temperature falling to around 4 below.
Arriving in the village of Itzagaondoa with fading light we were dismayed to find that the church didn’t have a porch. There were a few folk around and we asked if they new of anywhere that might provide rudimentary shelter for the night. A key was produced, the local community centre was opened and the central heating was cranked up. “ Aye, this is the life!” What’s more, having arrived on foot there was a certain sense that the people of Itzagaondoa were after all just neighbours. We spent a few hours with them drinking patxaran and discussing this and that. So many things in common. Concerns about rural depopulation a shared sense of injustice and indignation. A notion that a more local, collaborative approach might be the salvation we are looking for.
They opened the church for us explaining that some builders had discovered a freeze under the plaster. The freeze is dated around 1460 and depicts a medieval calendar. Things like that abound here. The church is an otherwise unremarkable replica of so many others in so many other almost uninhabited villages. Soooo much history!
From Itzagaondoa we made our way to Aoiz and there began the ascent into the foothills of the Pyrenees. We spent one more cold night in a hunter’s shelter at around 1200m before descending to the occupied village of Arizkuren.
Arizkuren was first inhabited in the 12th century had its heyday in the mid 18th century and was abandoned half way through the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine what the original inhabitants gleaned from those forested hill sides at an altitude of 800m. But they must have found something and they certainly built some beautiful houses out of the stone they quarried.
Some eighteen years ago Arizkuren was occupied by a group of folk who have repopulated the streets of this medieval village. I can easily imagine the enthusiasm and romanticism that fuelled their initial experiments in building a community. I can also see how hard it has been to match idealism with the reality of living in such a remote spot. But they’ve done it or better said, are continuing to do it as this level of community requires constant attention and a very clearly established system of conflict resolution.
It was inspiring to be there. This is a level of communal living that is based on a collective economy and while it is certainly no picnic it is a system which currently supports twenty one people. The nearby village of Lakabe has been operating for around forty years and is respected world wide.
These are communities of people who have stuck their courage to the sticking post and opted consciously for a way of life where they accept responsibility for their actions and live by and large with a minimum of impact. Out of respect for them and their privacy I won’t add more here but if you wanted more information you would know where to ask.
In one way or another this trip represents the spirit of a Bizipozatour. Having said that most of our clients opt for accommodation in luxury rural, guest-houses complete with spas. I hope you might be inspired to join us.