The following is a first-hand account of a solo visit to Alquézar in Spain. Join us on a journey through the Spanish northeast, as we explore how special (and challenging) travelling alone can be.
Landing in Spain
I had landed in Spain on the 15th of August. An evening flight had taken me from London to Santander in the north, where I would spend just a night before catching a bus to Bilbao. Four days there, then on to San Sebastian – that paradise on the Bay of Biscay made famous to North Americans by Hemingway – where I would spend only one night again before heading south to Pamplona (another Hemingway haunt) for two nights. I should perhaps mention that in all this time, having left two friends in Bath back on the 15th, I was travelling alone. Alone and, by the time I had reached Pamplona, exhausted.
A Lonely Road
Solo travel, for any who have tried it, is an interesting and different experience. I will not go about trying to convince you now that everyone should attempt it at least once in their life. I mean, maybe they should, but I know for certain that there are just some individuals who will not enjoy it. Who will not thrive. Then again, there are those who may well. This was my second time attempting it.
I do very well on my own, but there are times when everyone needs some human contact. Usually, hostels provide a good solution for this. With all sorts of people staying in a contained space, it is easy to make friends if you have a mind to, or to keep to yourself if you’d rather. There must have been something about the stars that month however, because from the time I left Santander to the time I rendezvoused with my friend in Barcelona two weeks later, the only meaningful contact I made was with a German girl in Bilbao – who also remarked upon the poor social state of the hostel we were staying in. Regrettably, she left for Zaragoza two nights after we had first met; I do hope she encountered better company than I found in the weeks to follow.
It was not simply the loneliness. Indeed, I don’t even think that was the main factor in my level of fatigue. But it had been a lot of ground covered and a great deal to absorb. I was so beat that besides a walk the only thing I did on my full day in Pamplona was read and do laundry – the bulls were long gone. It was a good thing I took that rest day however, for early the next morning began a long half day of buses – leaving the green north far behind as I entered the arid brown of Aragon. From Pamplona to Zaragoza to Huesca to Barbastro…all the way to my final destination of Alquézar.
Alquézar, Huesca province; not exactly the first stop on every Canadian’s tour of Spain. A trip to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona on a previous occasion had seen me fall deeply in love with the Romanesque art and architecture of the Pyrenees. The Vall de Boí was the locale from which they had taken, or rescued (depending upon which side of the fence you fall), much of the Romanesque art in that museum. But it was Alquézar, not quite in the Pyrenees, that I eventually settled on.
Located roughly mid-way between Pamplona and Barcelona (albeit not quite the way the buses run), Alquézar is a small village on the edges of the Sierra y Cañones de Guara Natural Park. Minus the carpark and tv antennas, at first glance the village looks much as it must have back in the Middle Ages. The castle walls still stand on the hilltop, defending the Collegiate church of Santa María, which has stood there in some form since 1099. According to Wikipedia, the population of Alquézar as of 2012 was 301, though the village and area proved to be popular among French and Spanish tourists and there was certainly an energy to the place – although this was mostly to be found down at the bottom of the gorge through which the Rio Vero runs.
My bus dropped me off in what seemed to be the village square. It was mid-afternoon and hot. On the one side restaurants and patios stood, catering mostly to the tourists; on the other, a walkway, railing and lookout from which one had a clear view across the gorge and down upon the Ebro basin beyond. I quickly found my bearings and spotted a stairway up which I hoped to find my hostel. It was not altogether hard to find, there at the top of the hill, and after a five-minute climb I strode through the beaded door curtains and waited to check in.
A Bohemian Existence
My three full days in Alquézar did not differ greatly from one another. I would rise in time for breakfast each morning, make the most of the complimentary buffet and pocket a portion to sustain me during the day. I’d then go back up to my room, grab my rucksack, and set out down towards the village square. Here I would fill my water in the public fountain and set out down the road that led over towards the castle and church. Following the path to the right, I sauntered down through the groves of almond and olive trees towards the gorge.
I went straight down to the river usually. The first day turning right where the path split in two at the cliff, down to the old Roman bridge. The latter two days I turned left, down the steeper track toward the gorge proper and the deeper pools that could be found there for swimming. But whether in the shade of an olive tree or the Roman bridge, or on the rocks in the sun by the deep pools up in the gorge, I would sit reading, writing, sketching, and painting. In the late afternoons I would head back up towards the village, visiting the castle and Collegiate church, or simply walking through the charming winding cobblestone streets before deciding to retire to the hostel to my bunk and the book I was reading.
Those who have travelled alone before will know that it is in the evenings that the reality of your situation becomes most apparent. There is something about eating dinner alone that feels far more isolated than spending an entire day in solitude. But while this feeling was very much evident in the cities I toured, I was not bothered by it here. My days were quiet and relaxed, and my evenings were no different. Though there were people around me most of the time throughout the day, the tongues they spoke were foreign to me. I was far more alone than I had been up to that point, but it no longer bothered me. I was at peace. As if on retreat.
When Friday came, a kindly woman that had been staying in my room drove me back to Barbastro, where I caught my bus to Barcelona. On the bus, I reflected on the trip up to that point. Travel is exhausting. It is the very stimuli that make it so rewarding that also wear on you. Sensory overload is a very real thing, and whether you’re with friends or on your own, sometimes you just need to stop and sit awhile. I concluded with this: There are many types of holidays. Travelling as I was for three months, however, I was in need of more than one. In the end, I had enjoyed my time alone; but man, I was excited to see my friend.
For more on Alquézar: frasermilphotography.com
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