159 – Venite, Adoremus Dominum

Beginning of January and I am now officially 5 months late with my blog content. That is assuming that I will be able to finish this post before Epiphany. I mean the religious holiday, of course, I am sadly not expecting any ground-breaking revelatory event in my life anytime soon. That goes for any other religious analogy. Especially the Annunciation. If anyone with that sort of power is reading this blog (and I am hoping given the current situation, they’d have a bigger fish to fry), I am not interested in winged creatures turning up in my flat in company of doves and bringing bad news. Other birds I may be fine with, but no doves. I mean, I haven’t been a virgin since almost two decades and have been dutifully reviewing the question on regular basis, so I should not fall into the demographics this sort of things happen to, but just to be on the safe side: roosters are welcome, pigeons are not. Enough blasphemy for today. On the positive note, we are now back to home office, which means Lilith is on the turbo, which should accelerate the process of getting rid of the excess weight I gained recently. Nothing dramatic – and most importantly – nothing worth doing something stupid, like dry January. I just need to refine my shape a little to look hot(ter) in lycra and carry less weight on the climbs.   

View toward Cabeza del Tormal (I think) from Barco de Ávila

Anyway, my blog and its true purpose. This time it will be a flashback post to high summer, when I managed a brief escape to Gredos, a mountain range north-west from Madrid. It was supposed to be a hiking weekend, but the hiking did not really happen, due to daytime temperatures still too high to possibly enjoy walking in the sun, but it was still an excellent scouting occasion for future multiday treks with possible bivouac. Sierra de Gredos is a 120 km long mountain range that constitutes the biggest part of Sistema Central, and spreads over 3.600 square kilometres. Between peaks, glacial lakes, gorges and valleys and vast pine forests, there are countless hiking possibilities for any difficulty. In late august, when temperatures in central Spain were still horrible, and given Madrid is only relatively short drive away, it was bound to be full of people seeking some relief from the oppressing heat. I decided to visit the westernmost part of Gredos, which is less popular than others, and chose the charming village of El Barco de Ávila as the base. It has a pretty historical city centre, a river beach for swimming, plenty of bars, and wide enough streets that provide sufficient (for me) parking space. Worth noticing: the 14th century castle, currently property of the noble house of Dukes of Alba (along with half of Spain), the 12th century Romanesque bridge, the 14th century Gothic church, and what remains of the 12th century city walls. To see all of the above will take you about 20 minutes, after which feel free to hit the bar. 

What was supposed to be the hike: Laguna de los Caballeros (2.028 m)

Starting point: village of Navalguijo

How to get there: about 20 minutes drive from Barco. The road is stunning, must come back with the bike. Park either at the beginning of the village, or try your luck and take the road as far as it allows you. There is an improvised parking lot for about 8-10 cars where the paved road ends and the trail begins, but availability really depends on how early you arrive. Also the only road in the village is narrow and at times looks like it ends in someone’s garden, so maybe just park where you comfortably can and spare yourself, for example, reversing through the entire village (to the great amusement of the locals) because the car in front of you is the bread delivery van and has no intention to let you through, as happened to me and I still have nightmares about it. The locals will probably tell the story to their grandchildren for generations to come. 

Length and climb: cca 24 km / 900 m accumulated climb

Difficulty: the walk itself is not technically difficult, but it is long, which is why I decided to turn around halfway up (also taking into the account the temperatures, and possible lack of daylight, given the late start). It is however a perfect destination for an overnight stay in bivouac by the glacial lake at the top of the hike. I may have mentioned this elsewhere on this blog, wild camping (in a tent) in Spain is forbidden, but you may sleep rough practically everywhere, obviously no open fire in natural parks (or in the entire country in summer). 

Description: Leave the village of Navalguijo and follow the trail from the information board at the end of the paved road. You cannot get lost. The path follows the gorge of Caballeros all the (long) way up to the glacial lake. The ascend is constant, but the incline is not horrible. The views are superb, and there are waterfalls and little lagoons along the way, where swimming is permitted. Or at least tolerated, everybody does it. When you reach the lake, you come back the same way. Wikiloc here for your convenience. There is a way to make a loop out of it, you will have to negotiate your way around the Laguna de los Caballeros over the Corral del Diablo (2.366 m), around the glacial lake Laguna de la Nava and down to the village of Nava del Barco (wikiloc here), but it’s an 11 hours hike + stops, so again, I’d consider bivouac, and you will have to either go with two cars and leave one at each end, or convince (pay) a local to give you a lift. There are mountain refuges (bare huts, don’t imagine a hotel that serves cold beer) in both valleys, but I have no idea if they are open. You would not need to stay in them in summer anyway, normal bivouac equipment will be sufficient for spending the night. The only spring with drinking water is at Maja Baera about three fourths of the way up to Laguna de los Caballeros. I would not drink the water from the streams without treating it first, there are too many cows around and E. coli is not something you want to be dealing with in the mountains.  

As I aborted the mission to ascend to the glacial lake, I needed to come up with an alternative plan for a hot day: A couple of hours of wild swimming. A few kilometres from Navalguijo, Garganta de los Caballeros is not a gorge anymore, but it opens into a wider stream and forms a natural pool deep enough for swimming. You cannot miss it, there is a huge parking lot and the only bar in the area (there is none in Navalguijo). Absence of a bar should disqualify any village as inhabited area, in my opinion. Although, in this particular bar, the service depends on the day and mood of the serving staff. For example, you may or may not be sold ice cream if they feel like they don’t have enough left for dinner. I know. Also, everyone please take a moment to appreciate how I managed to make the beach look empty in the photos. 

As the temperature were still too high on day two, I opted for a short walk around river Tormés in Barco de Ávila and then drove to see the famous Parador de Gredos, and did a much cooler walk in the pine woods around it. Paradores is a luxury hospitality chain in Spain and Portugal that manages over 100 hotels on the Iberian peninsula, often situated in historical palaces (many of them listed national monuments) or iconic buildings and locations. Parador in Navarredonda in Gredos, established in 1928, is the oldest one of them. They are popular wedding or celebration locations, or romantic (if a bit pricey) getaways. 

Now because it’s Christmas (and in Spain it is Christmas at least until the Epiphany), let’s talk about two bizarre things the Spaniards insist on doing this time of year. The first one is the madness the entire nation succumbs to when it comes to the Christmas lottery. It all starts around mid October, when long queues begin to form on weekend mornings in front of Doña Manolita, an old betting shop in the city centre. It makes absolutely no difference where you buy your ticket, there are thousands of licensed shops, but as a lot of people buy their lottery at Doña Manolita for good luck, this particular shop happens to have relatively many winning tickets. Obviously. There are two special draws: on the 22nd of December, and the Niño, on Epiphany. Now, I am not 100 % sure how it works, the system is complicated, after three years in Spain I have given up trying to understand it, as betting fortunately does not fall among my many vices. A single ticket is not cheap, it costs 20 euros, and that sort of money can buy you excellent wine in this country. My reasoning is that between throwing the money away and drinking it, really, I know where my heart is. However, most people (who can afford it) don’t buy just one ticket. They buy hundreds of euro worth of lottery. They buy it at work, as many companies play a single number (and on the 0.001% chance that it’s the lucky number, you would not want to be the only idiot in the office to be left empty-handed). Then they play another number between friends, or at their child’s school, between extended family, at their local pub, golf club, you name it. Before they know it, they are 2-300 euros lighter.

I find it charming. I work in an environment where the majority of people around me consider taxation akin to soviet collectivisation or Stalin’s systematic murdering of the intelligentsia (apart from the fact that they’d have intellectuals murdered or at least imprisoned too if they had their way). They go great lengths every year to avoid paying as many taxes as they can possibly get away with.  Now, it’s a state-run lottery. If you win anything at all over 40.000 euro, it will be taxed (up to 20%). Fun fact: up until 2018, the tax exemption was 2.500 euro, raised to 10.000 in 2019, to 20.000 in 2020 and doubled again this year. Guess which party proposed this little tax progression in reverse? It’s safe to assume it’s the only type of progression they are ever going to support. Remember this detail, we will come back to it shortly. Not all of the money spent in lottery tickets will be redistributed (2.408 million euro out of approximately 3.440), so that still leaves a billion euro for the state before the prizes are given out. I mean. Just pay your taxes?

If there was a way to ensure that someone who really needs the money will end up with the big prize, this would be the smoothest, most ingenious system of wealth redistribution. But there is a catch. The running joke among the Spanish police goes that there is not a single counsellor in the country who hasn’t won the lottery at least once. What, once? There is one particular politician, Jose Antonio Roca (PP, obviously), former ubran planning advisor of the city council of Marbella , who was kissed by outrageous fortune 80 times in his life. Sorry, political career. That’s 1 in 43 quadrillion (10^15 – I had to google how many zeros there are) chance. Then there was Carlos Fabra, former mayor of Castellón (PP, again), who won over 2.2 million euro in 7 major lottery prizes between 2000 and 2011. And of course, the incredible story of Ángel Matanzo, Sheriff for friends, former Madrid city council member (PP, no need to stress it), who won the first prize (30 millions pesetas, about 180.000 euros) in the Christmas lottery in 1991, with the ticket that someone gave him as a present. For intellectual honesty, there was also the case of then-mayor of Seseña, Jose Luis Martín (PSOE), who happened to deposit over half a million euros in investment funds supposedly coming from lottery winnings just around the time a big real estate developer started building a huge residential project in his town. I know what some of you are going to say now: they all do it. Of course most people are corruptible, but the left has a bigger margin for corruption, because those on the right already start corrupted. At least in this country, but I think I am safe to claim it’s a general trait. Still, PP – PSOE 3:1. 

How does it work: the lottery tickets are not nominal, they belong to the bearer. People who win a substantial prize in national lottery are approached by an individual who offers to buy the winning ticket off them, for the entire sum of the prize and a surplus. People are greedy or ignorant, or both, so even though everything about this screams fiscal fraud, they’ll accept. The buyer then cashes the prize, paying tax where it’s due (as off this year, anything below 40.000 is not subject to any tax at all), and the laundry’s done. Of course, if singled out by the taxman, the unfortunate seller of the lottery ticket will have to explain where the money comes from, but I guess it’s a risk worth taking. He’s been paid a premium after all. 

Now, madness number two. The curious habit of the Spaniards of attempting a mass suicide at midnight of 31st December by choking on grapes – namely 12 grapes in the last 12 seconds of the year, and sometimes, their life. I’m not joking. Choking (in general, not just on grapes, I hope) is the third most common non-natural cause of death in the country and claims more lives yearly than traffic accidents. In children younger than 5, choking on grapes on New Year’s Eve is the third most common cause of asphyxiation. What a lovely way to end the year. I’ll just stick to bubbles. Worst case scenario, I’ll wake up with a hangover, but at least I’ll wake up.

Oh, made it before the Epiphany! On that note: all the best in 2022. May Covid finally piss off.  

A kitten. Everyone likes a kitten.

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