Mountain memories from the Pyrenees: part 4 - people power
When admiring photos of pristine pine forests, plunging silvery waterfalls and sweeping glacial valleys, it's rather easy to forget that the Pyrenees are home to people as diverse and memorable as the landscapes. They are, and will remain, as much a part of the fabric of my memories as the places through which we walked, cycled and drove.
There's Núrea, who I think I inadvertently awoke from her afternoon nap to show Emma and I around her organic vineyard in the mountains near Cap de Creus, tucked away up a bumpy dirt track that ends next to a fenced off field in which her two donkeys roam.
Her pride at what she and her husband Diego Soto have achieved here shone through with no airs or graces whatsoever. They simply fell in love with this place, respected the terrain enough not to contaminate it and are more than happy to share it with anyone interested enough to ask. Her easy-going approach to guiding us around was so matter-of-face, so humble as to be positively inspiring. They are, like many others I've met in Spain, deeply appreciative of their lot in life.
Then there's Sergio, who led us merrily around on our first ever eBiking experience up in the Pineta Valley. He's possibly as softly spoken and laid back a man as you'll find in these parts. He worries about his English, enough to bring his girlfriend along on some group rides to play the role of translator. I meant to tell him he needn't worry. The way he helped trace out our route for the rest of the day, maps spread out over the bonnet of our hire car, proved beyond doubt that he has a strong grasp of our language. The fact that he cares so much is rather endearing.
Sandra's English is non-existent. We stood by the till of the souvenir shop, the old village square of medieval Ainsa outside, our room in Los Siete Reyes hotel above us, awaiting our arrival. For 20 minutes or so we chatted away about our trip, about the region, about business and about the rudely shaped door knocks scattered around Ainsa. She reminds me of one of those Energiser bunnies off of the adverts - a bundle of energy, little firecrackers going off this way and that, without warning.
What I loved most about her, what rather oddly remains one of my favourite memories from the trip, was her insistence on involving Emma in the conversation throughout, despite me having explained that she speaks very little in the way of Spanish. Yet off she went in her excitable machine-gun Spanish, words tripping over each other as they came out, switching glances between the two of us, looking eagerly at Emma for interaction. Emma smiled politely and nodded along, sending confused sideways glances at me as I tried not to laugh. I like Sandra. The world needs more Sandras.
The world could do with more Goretti and Roys too. They are a Scottish-Catalan duo, he the Scot, she the Catalan and she, not he, the whisky expert and keeper of the big glass cabinet in the living room which holds the good stuff. Together they run one of the wonderful big old country houses amid the forested volcanic cones of La Garrotxa in the Catalan hinterland.
For a few days Goretti became my 'Spain' (sorry, 'Catalonia') mum. She went out of her way to make us feel at home, introduced me to two of our longest-standing Pura clients who were staying there on the first night and made us a picnic to take on our long walk the next day. When I first arrived, my hand had swollen up somewhat following an early morning feasting by the mosquitoes of the Cap de Creus. The next day it had swollen to an alarming size. Goretti fretted endlessly, digging out various lotions and even offering to take me to the local medical centre. I had to stop her from Googling the opening hours and still feel guilty for not reassuring her that my hand had eventually returned to its normal size by the time we'd crossed the border into Aragón.
Roy provided a dose of familiarity that only a Brit, or at least the right kind of Brit, living away from home can. It's the same feeling you get when you stay with expats Tim and Clare in Andalucía, a sense of shared identity in a foreign land. He also cooked up some of the best meals I've ever eaten in Spain and treated Emma's vegetarianism as less of an inconvenience and more as an opportunity to showcase what he can do without meat and fish. Those 10 years at Edinburgh's Balmoral hotel have paid off handsomely. We will be back for more one day.
Up next: Part 5 - The high Pyrenees >