Early in the life of this blog I started reviewing books, travel literature and trail guides. Then publishers and authors started sending me books to review and I began the practice off ending each review with an Amazon link so readers could compare my thoughts with those of others. The Amazon links give me a small commission each time somebody buys something as a result of a click on one of these links (warning — you will never get rich doing this). This service also allows me to see which of these books have proven to be most popular in terms of purchase. The results have often been quite unexpected.
Mostly these purchase ‘charts’ are topped by the you might expect to find in such a list, for example long distance trekker Chris Townsend. But every time I look at the tables one name always features — Steve Cracknell — and his If Only I Walk Long Enough, his account of walking the GR10.
Now Steve has turned his attention to the Spanish GR11, or La Senda and I have no doubt that this will become another slow burn hit.
Like the previous book, Footprints on the Mountains sets out to be more than an extended trail journal. Memories of the trail are enhanced by notes on local history and observations of local culture. The terrain — and the effort required to cross it — is detailed with honesty and a certain humility. Steve is not a man simply racing through the landscape. He is a man who savours the journey, takes great pleasure in the company he keeps on the trail and who is genuinely interested in the local cultures he encounters along the way.
The secret of the success of If Only I Walk Long Enough was that the book gave you a real impression of what it was really like to walk the trail. Many of those you encounter in the Pyrenees are tackling the walk later in life. Some are tackling long distance trails for the first time. Most are walking the trails in sections, sometimes over a number of years. While some guide books seem to revel in ridiculously long and hard days, and single multi week journeys, Steve’s books more reflect the experience that most of us will have.
Steve also shares, I think, one of my own views. Race through this landscape too quickly as you simply miss so much. Avoid your fellow walkers and you miss so much of the camaraderie des montagnes as the French say. And to pass by local history is a real shame for this is a fascinating area. As Steve suggests in the book the Pyrenees are really a land all of their own, a non-state place that exists on both sides of the border with a shared economy, shared culture and even shared languages, based on the Basque cultures of the West and the Catalan cultures in the East. Take your time. Look and learn. Let it all sink in.
Steve walked the trail from the Atlantic to the Med, west to east. On the GR10 the vast majority of walkers go in this direction but with the GR11 many more walk from east to west. Starting in the Basque country Steve seems in no hurry to get going and book opens with an extended account of the towns and villages he explores before setting off. This works very effectively and sets the scene for the book as well as setting the pace. A walk along the Pyrenees can offer so much and Steve’s preambles seem to prepare the reader for this very effectively.
If you are thinking of walking the entire trail, or just a part of it, this book will give you a real feel for how the trail works and what it is like underfoot. The GR10 is a classically French invention, starting and finishing each day in a village with a bar, a hostel or a campsite. Planning and then walking is relatively painless (apart from the usual muscle pain that is) as you cross high plateau and walk through lovely forest. The GR11 is more solitary and more rugged, its trails and terrain more demanding. It is not as developed as the French Trail and often the day ends at an isolated hut or hostel where the French equivalent would end in a more luxurious setting. Yet this is no wilderness adventure with days on end of wild camping. Steve completed his walk without (I think) one night in a tent, staying at mountain refugios, hostels and small village hotels. If you are thinking about the same and of trip you will find a lot of useful information here and you can also get a good feel of the side trips off the trail that are needed to find these kind of hostelries.
The book is useful in all kinds of other ways as well. Steve started walking relatively early on in the season and encounters a lot of snow. An ice axe and crampons were required. Steve is not an experienced winter walker and so his descriptions of using this equipment and of crossing snow and ice fields is all very helpful.
The Pyrenees are big and proper mountains of the kind not found in the UK. The trail while long is sharper and steeper than many of the long distance routes in the US. Real planning and research is needed when route planning, understanding how the route alternatives work and so on. Itineraries need to be relatively flexible. These are trails that most relatively healthy walkers can tackle relatively happily but guide books often do not help you prepare effectively. During this walk Steve is constantly meeting walkers coming in the other direction. He often has to warn them about large and potentially dangerous won fields. Their response is often the same — the guidebook didn’t say anything about snow. And that’s the point. The season in the high mountains is a short one and snow can linger long and hard on the shadier parts of the mountain, even into August.
So, this is a great book to read if you are thinking of tackling all or part of the Senda. If you have walked the GR10 and fancy tackling its Spanish cousin then this is the book that will show you the differences between the two. But there is more here besides, much more.
Steve has developed his writing style a lot since If Only I Walk Long Enough. In many ways the new book reminds me a lot of Chris Townsend’s recent work. On completing the walk Steve has painstakingly researched a lot of the local history and setting out with this already in your head can only enhance the experience of your own walk. There is so much to know about and to explore here. There are old and ancient communities, deserted settlements, man made interventions such as reservoirs and hydro schemes. In the West there is the struggle for the survival and development of the Basque culture. In the East there are memories of the civil war and the fight again racism. There is nature too, the attempt to rebuild the community of Pyrenean Ibex and the more controversial campaign to re-introduce the brown bear (there are currently estimated to be 30 bears living across the Pyrenees so hikers need not worry about them too much). The wolf seems to be re-introducing itself, by all accounts migrating across France from Italy. And in the middle there is Andorra, that weird anomaly of history that has resulted in a whole nation — economy, culture and all — completely devoted to the art of shopping.
I’ve not walked the whole of the GR11 but I’ve always enjoyed my time here. The path is higher, more rugged and more solitary than the GR10 and demands more thoughtful planning. The sections featuring the snow should be considered carefully. More than once I’ve met small groups descending from the GR11 quite traumatised by their high mountain experience. But prepare properly and the Pyrenees will reward you handsomely.
This book will no doubt become a firm favourite amongst lovers of the Pyrenees. The French GR10 is more developed and therefore more popular than the GR11, but the later is a trail that should be better known.
As with the GR10 Steve has developed a website/blog too accompany the book — LaSenda.net to accompany PyreneanWay.net. These are great sources of information as well as sources of news and other information which benefit from Steve being a local to these mountains.