Seven of us – female, and last together decades ago at school in Zimbabwe – leave our lives in England, South Africa, Spain, France and Australia, and head off for a week’s reunion in Extremadura.
The plan, born from a cyber whim, somehow, suddenly becomes real.
Katie, based in Spain and fluent in Spanish, draws up an itinerary of walks and village stops to last us the best of a week.
It is the spring of 2018…and we are ready!
Our first meeting involves just three at the car hire desk in Madrid Airport. Two of us have come from England, and one from France.
Impressions, briefly strange, rush then readjust. Each of us has changed and not changed, and we find out why, as we cover miles and miles of choices and families en route to the rendezvous.
First we clear Madrid and its traffic, and then we head west on the long straight roads that stretch out across the plains towards Extremadura. The afternoon shifts from full sun to half-light, and to long-legged storks who peer down at us from their nests on the motorway signs.
We switch on the headlights to search for the turn we need. The air, thick with insects, bounces off the windscreen, crunches and smudges beneath the wipers. It is as though we are back in Africa, back to where we began.
Eventually we find our turn, and the conversation slows as we study the map that takes us through the villages towards our stop, and our four friends who mind the master plan.
We meet, finally, in the corner of a huge dining-room in the empty rural hotel booked for the night. Again there is a rush of cries and hugs, of first impressions, and then the easy blanket of familiarity. There are gaps, but there is so much that feels the same.
In the morning we set off, in a roll of pleasure beneath a shining sun, through fields of deep green and a sky filled with birdsong and cowbells.
The pace of conversation is ‘extreme’, while the best our walking speed can do is ‘moderate to variable’, and even that is dented by plenty of off-piste detours eventually shepherded back into an orderly direction by signs, and by concentration.
It is all perfect…there can be no reason to rush.
Around us it is sleepy, picture-book perfection. Pale roads curve into the distance past gentle grey horses and rocky outcrops, before they twist on up to the valley rims dotted with villages. We thread along them…talking, talking, talking…while above us there are eagles on the wind, and the call of cuckoos.
It is only the clusters of houses that are quiet. Gathered into villages around a main piazza or church, they squash together and doze, waiting for their young to return for the summer.
In the quiet our chat, and the swoop of the birds, echoes noisily off the walls.
We become enthusiastic connoisseurs of the shaded cool of the bars, of their dark espresso, fresh bread and ice cold jugs of water.
And, at the end of the day, we share bedrooms in a selection of homes and small hotels. All are comfortable, our arrivals causing only a brief ripple through the watchful locals who know that we and the birds come and go, and that each is the reason the other is here.
We are migrants of a fleeting kind, so the plan is simple and complete. We may all share in the homes – the walkers on the inside, the storks on the rooftops, and the swifts in the pockmarked walls.
It is a peaceful, rich solution.
Slowly, our route – a handful of miles a day – reminds us who we are, and builds us up towards the final triumph of our longest hike.
The day is hot, and the valleys steep. We walk miles, evaporate buckets, visit castle ruins, and dodge cows…but we get there together – some brave, some glamorous, some cautious – our shared memory remapped by walking.
When the final night comes, the only night of cold and rain, we know that our route, not far from the constant tread of the Camino de Santiago, could not have been better, and that Sierra de Gata has proved the perfect bond.
We have remembered.
It is hard to thank Katie enough for her planning and her Spanish. If you would like to know more of the “wheres” and “how-to-get-theres” please let me know.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019