On the Orwell trail: a hike in the Monegros

The Monegros region of Aragon has a landscape that geographers categorize as semi-desert and anyone else describes as lunar. George Orwell spent some time there during the Spanish Civil War. He wrote in his diary “The hills in that part of Spain are of a queer formation, horseshoe-shaped with flattish tops and very steep sides running down into immense ravines. On the higher slopes nothing grows except stunted shrubs and heath, with the white bones of limestone sticking out everywhere.” It is a harsh landscape covered with steppe vegetation―Carrasco Pines, Savin Junipers, gorse, rosemary, and thyme.

Taking a twenty-three kilometer trek through this territory with approximately four hundred members of “Os Andarines d’Aragon” seemed to be a good way of getting to know it, so I signed up for the adventure. However, the day before the event it rained cats and dogs. When the alarm clock went off at five o’clock on the day of the hike, the rain was still pouring down in sheets. Not to be daunted by a little bad weather, my husband and I packed our rain ponchos, put on our hiking boots, and set out for the rendezvous point. As we headed out from Osera slogging through a sea of mud, pairs of white storks circled overhead. I have to admit that the going was tough, but as we trudged along, the rain abated and spring began to unfold all around us.

While this landscape might seem barren to outsiders, to my husband it is redolent with childhood memories. He pointed out many familiar details along the route. As we walked parallel to a rain-swollen irrigation channel, he described in detail how these acequias (a Spanish word derived from the Arabic term, as-Saquia, meaning “the water bearer”) bring water to a myriad of small farm plots across Spain. The sketch illustrating an acequia system in New Mexico is from a fascinating website that provides a lot of information about the “acequia culture” in the United States.

The rosemary that covered the hillsides was in flower and the strong odor of wild fennel filled the air. A few gorse bushes had bloomed, dotting the trail with bright patches of yellow. My husband described how years ago the people of his village had gathered gorse in the countryside before they slaughtered a pig, as the brief but intensely hot flame of torches fashioned from gorse branches were useful in burning the hair off the skin of the slaughtered animal. We marveled at the distinctive lavender clumps of Globularia, best known in Spain as Coronilla de Fraile, although from one region to another it goes by almost a dozen other names. Elsewhere in Europe it flowers in the fall, but here in Aragon it is one of the first harbingers of spring. The serpentine trail offered some marvelous views of the Ebro River and the surrounding territory. From the crests of  the hills we climbed we could appreciate their importance as outposts during the Battle of the Ebro. Halfway along the route, the organizers had set up a barbecue.  Lured by the smell of wood smoke, we quickened our pace. It was great to stop for a few minutes and enjoy a sausage sandwich.

We continued along a trail dotted with outcroppings of limestone and alabaster, through a landscape that was just as Orwell had described it more than half a century ago. The route marked out for the hike was a series of ascents up muddy trails that led to marvelous lookouts and tortuous descents into the serpentine ravines. Twenty-three kilometers of slippery trails and flooded ravines is a good workout. When we finally caught sight of Osera from the last hilltop, I was genuinely relieved.

Os Andarines d’Aragon really know how to wrap up a long days trek through the Aragonese wilderness: we were treated to a lunch of “rancho” at the village community center. The rancho of the day was a delightful wild boar stew laced with potatoes and green beans served up with heaping bowls of garden salad and red wine. While we dug into the feast, the weight of the world settled back on our shoulders: television coverage of the tsunami in Japan, flooding on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, and the advance of Gaddafi was projected on a wall of the community center. As we left Osera, my husband swore he saw a swallow. “The first one,” he said. I wasn’t so sure, but as we drove toward Zaragoza the sky turned brighter. With each kilometer we drove, we were a little closer to home and a little closer to spring.