I am arrived in Bembibre, west of Leon, north west Spain, mid-afternoon. It immediately struck me as a Spanish version of my home town, functional but lacking any culture and many facilities. I was not inclined to stay. After asking in a cafe I found the taxi rank and it became clear there was only one taxi – about to take a couple of women off somewhere. It took 45 minutes before he returned. He was a chatty bloke, who neither slowed down nor stopped speaking when I explained that my Spanish was very poor. I have no idea what he was saying, and I wonder now whether he was describing an alternative route to Matavenero, but who is to know. He did, however, drop me at the beginning of the path to Matavenero in the small village of San Facundo, and off I went.
The path quickly became narrow, steep, over-grown and rocky. At various places the mountain has clearly slipped and a new thin path on the edge forged from the scree. It was not my ideal environment. Then I came across a snake. I was in the wilds of northern Spain, with stunning views, wild lavender, yellow remanta and the river below. I navigated, with fear and difficultly, where the path had been destroyed by a fallen tree, creating a slippy steep muddy pile of rocks. I even began to feel like I might make it. I could manage my pack, the sun was shining and there was a beautiful breeze. I also still had four hours of daylight left.
But then, walking down into the valley, I came across the broken bridge. The heavy rains of winter had clearly washed the wooden bridge away. It´s remains were scattered either side of the river, while some still traversed it – completed by a couple of thin logs bound together. The new bridge was in construction, but not enough to use with huge gaps and built at a height that the gaps were hard to jump.
The broken bridge and the new bridge in construction
I spent some time at that spot. Trying to gauge the depth of the river. I did try and step on the logs which rolled and slid. But it was fast flowing, likely above my knee height and its bed an uneven concoction of builders and pebbles covered in algae. Having just passed a huge dam with water rushing over the top I had an awful vision of either getting washed over it, or breaking an ankle and being unable to get back along the path. It goes without saying that there was no mobile reception out there. I struggled with myself, was I being too cautious, too risk averse, or was I being mature and accurately assessing the risks? I really wanted to make it to Matavenero. I had come this far – two days of train travel, five hours on a bus and then the taxi. I was only three kilometres away.
But it was no good. I could not cross the river and I needed to made a decision to return and find somewhere to sleep. I was pretty frustrated as I clambered back over the rocks and scree. I had got so close.When in San Facundo I struggled to get the pay phone to work and eventually, almost despondent, a kindly bar man ordered me a taxi. The same guy, of course, turned up to collect me and I think did not believe my carefully worded explanation of the broken bridge. He even stopped to ask others in the village if this was so.
I asked him to take me to a hotel where he carefully told the landlady that there was no point talking to me as my Spanish was terrible. The hotel was a rundown sort of place, but central and cheap and I collapsed in a state of nervous exhaustion. Now that I had mobile signal again I called Matavenero. But I got one of the least helpful people I have ever spoken to. She clearly could not be bothered to explain the alternative route and quickly ended the conversation prematurely with ´see you!´. I simply had very sketchy Spanish instructions and, despite my best efforts, not a detailed enough map. The instructions said that the ´road´ the back way to Matavenero was in fact a track often closed by rain and snow. I did not fancy my chances, let alone the logistics of hiring a car. I reluctantly abandoned my attempts to get to Matavenero and instead started to contemplate the how the remoteness and isolation of the village symbolised a flaw with relying on cheap land to make eco-housing affordable …
(Leon, 15th June 2010)