Ezcaray to San Millan de la cogolla: Hiking the GR-93 in Spain

Ezcaray to San Millan de la cogolla: Hiking the GR-93 in Spain

Day 1: Predawn bus trip to Ezcaray

At 6:47 a.m., Chris and I boarded a bus out of Logroño. Quarter till seven may not sound early to most, but it is for the Spaniards. That Friday morning, there was no sign of an early-bird business crowd, walking briskly down the street in suits. There was only the occasional stirring of a vagabond, shuffling around to keep warm in the pitch black.

(Side note: These days, the sun doesn’t come up until 8:23 a.m. in Logroño. I’ve wondered why it stays dark so late in the morning since I got here. I found out it’s because Spain is in the wrong timezone. A fellow Auxiliare explained that the reason is that, back in the 40s, Franco switched the clocks one hour ahead to be in the same timezone as Nazi Germany and align himself with Hitler. They haven’t changed it back yet, so it’s the same time in Spain as it is in Warsaw. Wild? I know.)

We paid 4.90 Euro each in fare and joined the only other passenger on board the bus to Ezcaray [pronounced Eth-car-eye]. As we left the city and sped from pueblo to pueblo, the stars sparkled overhead. I dozed in and out of sleep, waking only to see if the horizon looked any lighter yet.

The idea was to arrive in the small mountain town at around 7:45 a.m., and grab a cup of coffee before walking to the trailhead*. That plan got derailed when the driver pulled over to let us off in Ezcaray on the side of an empty residential street, next to a school, in the dark.

*Here is a brochure that provides a detailed outline of the hike.

Heads up: Ezcaray does not wake up until well after 8:00 in my experience, and it is frigid on fall mornings. So bundle up and arrive later.

 

Ezcaray, on the way to the GR93

 

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in daylight, the square we desperately stumbled into at dawn was actually quite charming. It looked like something out of Beauty and the Beast. It made for a nice walk to the edge of town where the GR-93 begins – if you were willing to ignore the two 1990’s Suzukis with freshly shattered windows and missing stereos.

17k to San Millan de la cogolla

The sign to San Millan de la Cogolla

It was still cold enough to see your breath when we crossed the bridge to leave Ezcaray for San Millan de la Cogolla, where we stopped for a photo opp of our first hiking excursion in Spain. When I shifted to get my pose just right in the new position, I heard something fall out of my pack and splash into the river below – it was my journal, the book where I’d been writing about all of my experiences since I got here.

Don’t worry, I’ll go get it, Chris said, running back toward the bank. Luckily for me, he was brave enough to stick his hands into the freezing water and wrench the small journal out from under a rock. He held it up victoriously. The book was sopping wet, but salvageable. Despite the incident, Chris still made me re-do the photo shoot to get the picture without interruption. And FINALLY, we got started.

I was a little nervous about the hike. I’ll admit it. I’ve done loads of hiking across the U.S., but I was worried about hiking in another country. Was it widely done? Were the trails well-marked? Are people friendly about it or is there a Deliverance vibe?

I am happy to report the trail WAS well-marked – better than most back in the states – and it wasn’t creepy. This is partly because La Rioja is making a tourism push to bring more outdoor enthusiasts to the region, so the GR trails are consistently marked with red and white paint going in both directions.

The first part of the trail was super pastoral: Cowbells tinkling on the other side of the barbed wire fence, frost-tipped grass crunching underfoot, mist rising lazily off the stream that gurgled nearby.

It was like that until we reached the tiny, almost non-existant pueblo called Turza.

Tiny Turza

True to Spanish form, the whole town was shuttered up and not a soul was to be seen as we passed through (which only took about 2 minutes). From what we could see, it was an old, but not ancient, agricultural town tucked into the mountainside with just one road going in and out.

The town of Tuerzo on the GR93

From the top of the hill on the other side of the town, we could see far-off peaks that framed the valley and bright autumnal leaves on the tree-lined hills. At this juncture, we had to decide whether to climb over a stone cattle trough or get a cow to move out of our way in order to get to the trail marker on the other side of a fence. (We chose the trough.)

After winding around some farmland where a family of horses was out to pasture, we crossed a wooden bridge and wound up a dirt road around (what I assume was) someone’s private property. A man in a camo jacket came down the road toward us on a 4-wheeler.

We said ‘hola.’ He said ‘hola.’ And he seemed non-plussed by our presence, but I still thought it was a little strange. Camo? In Spain? A 4-wheeler? 

Just passin’ through Pazuengos

Pazuengos on the GR93

Monestario de Yuso in the valley on the GR93

Pazuengos was the next pit stop. And I use the term pit stop loosely, because we didn’t stop in town per se. There was no reason to, because – you guessed it – everything was closed.

Lucky for us, it wasn’t too much longer – maybe another winding ascent – before we were on top of the next mountain.

From there, we could see the towers of theMonastario de Yuso in the valley near San Millan de la Cogolla. The only thing standing in our way … was a cow, a tan vaca with two small pointy horns on her head. She showed them to us every time she bent over to munch some more grass.

Lauren vs. The Vaca

If you haven’t seen a cow up close in a while, you might underestimate how big one is. According to Google, the world’s tallest cow was 6’4”.

This one certainly wasn’t the world’s tallest cow, but I would say its back came up to my shoulder at least. And I’m not sure how much experience you have with cows, but I don’t really know the proper protocol:

  • Do you casually stroll past them?
  • Do you give them a slap on the behind?
  • Will they kick you?
  • Do they charge?
  • Will they move off the trail if you ask them nicely?
  • Do you just avoid them by scrambling across the thorn-infested mountainside until you pass them on the trail?

This cow was holding its ground. We tried yelling, we tried clapping, we tried moving in on it. It wouldn’t budge.

I was really regretting that I’d never enrolled in a 4H class. Although not entirely popular or necessary in suburban Boulder, Colorado, my mom was all about that FFA. And here I am – the end of a long lineage of Midwest agriculturists – and I don’t even know how to act around a cow. Jeez Louise.

Finally, Chris got impatient and encroached on the cow. It started to move forward, ever so slowly. It put one hoof in front of the other down the trail right in front of us. Are we going to take this cow to town? I wondered. But we didn’t have to. At the last-minute before a switchback in the trail, the cow veered off onto a nice patch of grass.

At the bottom of the trail was an old man wearing a paperboy cap and a wool sweater. He was winding loops of rope between his hand and elbow. Buen camino, he said to us as we left his property. Gracias, y buenos dias, we said back to him.

San Millan de la Cogolla

The Monasterio de Yuso in San Millan de la Cogolla

We followed the trail down and along the stone walls of the monastery for another kilometer or so until we got to the street that turns off toward town. And there, we could appreciate the Monestario de Yuso in its full effect. But despite its beauty and size, this was not a booming tourist town. After meandering up and down the deserted streets, past houses with chestnuts, almonds and beans drying outside on blankets, we realized the entire place consists of a quaint and charming Main Street of a town with only one bar open – Bar Angél.

Chris and I stopped in for four beers, free olives and salt-on-the-outside peanuts for a mere 4.20 Euro. When we arrived, it was dead. But by the time we left, it was HOPPING with old men.

Unfortunately. we couldn’t stick around to see how it played out. For us, the journey wasn’t quite over. Chris and I couldn’t find an affordable hostel or hotel in San Millan de la Cogolla, so we made reservations at a campsite in nearby Berceo. Google Maps predicted it was about 2k on a trail from San Millan. But Google Maps was wrong (it was much shorter – about a 10-minute walk).

It turns out Camping Berceo is a permanent mobile home kind of joint. I’m wary of calling it a trailer park, but …. well, it was a trailer park. A nice trailer park. And there was a restaurant with a bar and a camp store and an undrained pool littered with dead leaves.

We were the only people camping in a tent that night at Camping Berceo. So we had the lay of the land, where grass patches without electricity hookups were concerned. It was plenty nice. We pitched our tent and set up camp and I evaluated the damage from the first leg of our trip: 4 blisters, 2 sore legs.

 

The camp matron, who was wearing an aggressive amount of turquoise eyeshadow and a purple gypsy skirt, told us the restaurant would not be open until 8 p.m. (Spain). So we had plenty of time to first take a siesta, and then walk into Berceo to explore the town.

the town of Berceo off the GR93

In my opinion, this was a bit of a mistake. At first glance, the town looked adorable. The picture above is probably my favorite from the entire trip. But, it’s a little misleading.

Beyond those cheerful fiesta flags and rosy red flowers was a town deviating between fixed-up flats and ruins, stray cats and shiny Audis. On the narrow streets, we passed locals who were hobbling on canes in house shoes. Despite the town’s quiet fame as the birthplace of Gonzalo de Berceo,  a 12th century poet, its tourism draw is a little thin.

So we cut the visit short and went back to the campsite bar for some libations. I ordered red wine – which I later found out only cost .70 Euro a glass – while Chris’ beers were double that! CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT, BOSTON??

 

We waited until it was appropriate Spanish time to order, and had a giant dinner before retiring to our tent and falling asleep to the sound of church bells at the stroke of 10 p.m. (We were tired OK? Don’t judge me). The total bill for all of our drinks and our meals was 17 Euro. That plus the cost of our accommodations (8 Euro per person) and our breakfast the next morning (2.25 Euro per person) means we spent less than $20 for room and board, and you just can’t really beat that.

The same sound woke us up the next morning at 8 a.m.. Well, that AND the sound of dirt bikes tearing up a nearby motocross track. But the bells, mostly.

We were ready and raring to go. We had a lot of ground to cover on the second day to get to our pick-up spot in Anguiano: 21k.

But, there were delays. Like I mentioned before, things don’t really get going real early over here. (Stay tuned for part 2!)