An excellent tip for an autumn day escape from Madrid. I am perfectly aware that it’s end of December, and that my advice comes a little late, but hopefully it will be autumn again, at some point. Next year. Potentially. I wanted to try my best and give everybody a Christmas break from my ranting, but on the second thought: maybe not. I have been searching in vain for an English equivalent of the Italian saying “non ci sono più le mezze stagioni”, which loosely translates as “the seasons are no longer what they used to be”, but without the underlying irony of stating an obvious cliché (and being aware of it). But then, in British English, stating the obvious as long as it regards weather is not considered a commonplace, but rather a standard topic. Anything to avoid real conversation. So much for English being the superior language, according to some.
A friend recently complained about a book he’s been reading. The fact that my friend is bilingual and that (excellent) English is his second language is worth mentioning. The book in question is Bill Bryson’s under-researched venture into linguistics called Mother Tongue: The Story of English Language (I will not link it, as this pile of tosh does not deserve to be spread any further, you can google it if you please). My friend’s bewildered reaction made me curious enough to buy it. Big mistake, but excellent rant material. British sense of entitlement and superiority is a fact known to any foreigner who’s ever lived in the UK, and in this regard the overall tone of the book does not come across as a surprise. I am well aware of the fact that Bryson is American (naturalized Brit), but that only makes him more Catholic than the Pope. My main problem with the book is not even the condescending writing (“More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to.”), as much as the arrogance of someone who not only lacks any training in linguistics whatsoever, but does not even speak any other language except for the “mother tongue”, yet feels comfortable enough to write a prose on comparative linguistics. All your alarms should start ringing the moment you read on page 2 that according to Mr. Bryson, the fact the Polish watch telewizja is a proof that English is the universal language superior to all other. Because television (tele – far – Greek / visio – seeing, vision – Latin) is clearly an English word. Mixing Greek and Latin to create compound nouns is another obscenity, but that’s not the topic here. I have found serious inaccuracies when he compares English to languages I happen to speak (as of this moment, five), but he doesn’t shy away from comparing it to Mandarin, which he has no clue about either. It is sort of admirable that someone manages to write (and publish) an entire book (279 pages) about how English is richer than everything foreign, and how it is impossible to express certain things in any other language, without speaking a single word of anything foreign to start with. Apparently, Bryson sued his agent at some point, for “failing to perform some of the most fundamental duties of an agent”, I do not know the details (nor care to), but I like to imagine that it was a consequence of not advising him against publishing this outrageous nonsense. “Hey Fred, I want to write a book about how English is the best language, like, ever, and that all things are best expressed in English. I have no clue about any other language, so I would not actually know, but that is irrelevant, and in any case only native speakers are going to buy it, so no one’s gonna notice. What do you think, Fred?” Fred: “Great idea, Bill, go ahead.” (Now, I know that Bryson has accomplished some outstanding work in popularizing natural sciences to general public, and it’s great, but it does not automatically mean that he should attempt to do the same with any science.)
Now, that was a long detour from not finding the right words in the beginning. Turns out there is something untranslatable in every language (which is not a surprise to anyone who masters more than one). However, even without english equivalent of the saying and always provided the seasons do come back to what they used to be, next autumn, if around, make sure to visit Sierra del Rincón, a beautiful mountainous area north of Madrid, particularly charming during the period when oak and beech forests change colour.
How to get there: 1 hour drive from Madrid Chamartín station (that’s where I rented the car, you drive wherever you need from) along A1 north. Exit at Buitrago and follow signs for Montejo de la Sierra. It is a stunning drive. It will even take you over a dam at one point.
What to do: erm, hike. Most people want to see the restricted protected area of Hayedo de Montejo, which is an easy 3 km long circular walk in the beech forest just off the village of Montejo. To gain access, you have to act in very un-Spanish manner: You have to plan it well ahead. Only a limited number of visitors can enter the biosphere each day, there are 100 (free) entrances available to walk-in hikers distributed on first come, first served basis. Or there is a fantastic online booking system, that enhances the entire experience and turns it into a treasure hunt. Because you will not be simply able to pick a day and make your reservation, oh no. On the first day (only on the first day) of a given month the bookings for the first 15 days of the following month will be open. On the sixteenth day of of a month, you will be able to make a reservation for the second 15 days of the following month. Which means you either need to plan your visit 6 weeks ahead (I know that’s a normal margin of time you need to operate with when you want to see a friend for a coffee in London, but no one plans anything 6 weeks (or even days) ahead in this country, thank God), or you need to get there early enough to get the on the day entrance (for whatever hour it may be available). We arrived just after 9 am (as soon as we could, the rental shop opened at 8) and the tickets sold out just before it was our turn.
It wasn’t too big a deal, as there are (supposedly) many hiking trails in the area. No hiking map exists, pdf leaflets about the five hiking areas are available here, but the trails are marked rather approximately. Or you can take a photo of the same leaflets on the information board of the ticket office. Neither is of much use, as the trails are not really signposted anyway once you get going. However, it’s not like you can get lost in the wilderness and struggle to find your way to the nearest pub for longer than a couple of hours. Worst thing that happened to us was a detour through rosehip bushes to avoid a bull that placed itself in the middle of the trail and showed no intention of moving aside. It doesn’t really matter which way you go. The views are stunning, the towns are charming, and the profile of the hikes are all fairly easy. And if you pick well the day of your visit, you may even see some colours. We did not. End of October was clearly too early. Everything was still green. About three weeks later, everything was bare. The seasons are clearly no longer what they used to be, signora mia.