90. Iberian chains – Tierras del Cid, Spain

As we swoop down through a turbulent and thundery Madrid sky, the brown and dusty fields rising to meet us already tell their tale of a dry Spanish spring and the early summer heat. The weekend has just begun, and there’s no better way to leave long hours and weeks in the office behind us as we drive northwards from the city, through the busy Friday night traffic towards the looming grey shadow of the Sierra de Guadarrama.

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Cresting this single gneiss and granite ridge at the Puerto de Somosierra, 1 400 m high, we leave Madrid in our wake, and it’s a different Spain which opens in front of us now – the open and deserted plains of the Duero Basin beckoning, yellow cornfields stretching into the dusk as far as the eye can see, with only low ridges of wild oak scrub scribbled sporadically onto the darkening plain.

We make good time, if not quite fast enough to reach my sunset goal at Río Lobos canyon, a treat we’ll save for the journey back. It’s nightfall as we cross the mighty Duero river, and the cathedral at Burgo de Osma is a floodlit beacon receding behind us as we drive northwards towards the darkened hills. The hairpins at Ucero reveal stars ahead, but little of the drama of the climb. But atop the high plateau, the stilled and cooling air carries with it that promise we have travelled for, the scented aroma of the Castillian pines which flank our headlight beams stretching far into the night.

This one long evening has transported us from the city to the sierras, but it’s getting late now, even for Spain, and only my best smiles and the most polite persuasion can rustle up a plate of jamón, chorizo, ensalada and chuletillas to add substance to the cervezas our thirsts demand.

It’s fourteen years since last I was here, and yet I feel I’ve never left. It’s surely the excitement of a homecoming boy which wakens me at 5 am, as the first light of dawn rises behind the silhouetted castle beside the hotel. It’s a crazy time to be awake, and yet there can be no fighting it, no restful snoozes for me now. I stand on the balcony, and breathe in that mountain air, the perfume of the pines more subtle now, calling me outside to greet the day. Three minutes later, I pull the hotel’s front door quietly closed behind me, stop to note the isoclinally folded Liassic limestones in the new outcrops of the carpark, and start gently up the track.

It’s a slow and gentle lope to befit the hour, but one which takes me from the muddy, calcareous seas, back through time into a shallow, more salty flat, the evaporitic shorelines of the earliest Jurassic. For now, it’s uphill, and is it the slope, the time of day, the lack of sleep, or the beer which hold me back ? It’s proving hard to run, so I slow to walk whilst slugging down some mountain air. And that’s just it – the altitude. At 1 200 m above sea level, San Leonardo de Yagüe is not the highest town in the Iberian Chains, but it’s high enough for me today.

A herd of goats is chiming its laconic way across the ridge ahead, and the goatherd passes me on his way back home for breakfast. I smile and wave, and he waves back – did we meet here one time before ? We’re neither of us quite sure, but perhaps we have.

The slope has eased a little, and I start to trot again, as my journey back in time is now complete. The scraggy rocks beneath my feet give out, and the grassy slope is softer here. The smoother ground tells its geological tale to the practised eye and yet yields so little of the violent history which it shrouds within. For here, beneath my feet, the slippery salt within the Jurassic strata failed under enormous strain to be thrusted over younger, Cretaceous rocks, as Iberia collided with Europe just 30 million years ago, pushed from the south by Africa like a giant battering ram hammering into southern France. The whole of this area was uplifted, and an entire mountain range was born, the Iberian Chains emerging from subsiding basin into rising hills. The piece of rock on which the town, and my hotel stand, were pushed upon their soft stone carpet, slid several kilometres to the south, as their foundations were lifted up from sea level to their present height by that gigantic push.

The calm of the morning belies that scene. Crustal upheaval and crunching rocks seem so remote, and yet it’s that chain of geological events which brought me here to study this land, this basin, these mountains. Of course, I’ll never understand the rocks, not in all their detail, even if my musings might scratch the surface of their secrets within.

It’s a thought to ponder, as I run back to town. This isn’t where it started, my geological tale, but it’s where I came of age. Three years of long and cold spring field seasons I spent here, alone and lost in a foreign land of unspoken rain and cold. Nights of loneliness spent in bars, of solitary meals at busy supper times. Long hours spent learning the language, the customs and the people. Years spent perfecting that friendly wave and hearty smile to return the boorish stare which greets the unexpected newcomer in any small town. Three years of blinding summer heat, enjoyed too much with college friends at moments far too full of life for work. And yet work I did.

And once that time was past, I came back again, to look at different rocks, with different friends, with different eyes, the lost young man now mapping a way through rocks and heaving continents into a professional life. Those visits, these rocks, that time, they form a part of me now, the deepest of veins which lies within me as I run here again today.

Of the towns and villages I’ve stayed in through the years, there’s none more sweet than San Leonardo. There are bigger ones, and smaller ones for sure, which may be why it seems sized just to fit. Astride the main Soria to Burgos road, at a gap in the limestone ridge, it’s a crossing of routes and trails.

The old Mediterranean to Biscay railway line that runs through the town was fifty years in the making, and yet never quite found the strength to finish its trek. 500 km of line were laid, with only a few kilometres still unbuilt in the Cantabrian Mountains far to the north of here. When first I came, the choo-choo trains still plied their weary and incomplete journey across the plains just once a day, but without that link they never could survive. The rails lie deserted now beside the path, their long-awaited rebirth as yet unrealised. But the town continues to thrive alongside regardless, perhaps in the same slightly struggling way it always has. The town houses are in good condition here, not fallen down, nor entirely replaced by ugly flats or outlandish summer residences like those we see in other towns and villages nearby.

San Leonardo may have suffered the slingshots of a sporadically faltering Spanish economy these decades past, and its youth may still head for years in the brighter lights of Burgos and Madrid, but the ravages of desolation through desertion and despoblación have not yet torn out its heart. The Norma doors factory, crafting best Castillian pine, still works, its chimney sending out the fragrant smoke of the early morning shift as the green-shirted dayshift workers stroll reluctantly towards the factory gate as I run by. The storks’ nests may rest on the roofs of finer churches, the restaurants may offer finer food in other towns, the bars a livelier, more sophisticated clientele than the farmers, foresters and carpenters here, but San Leonardo is a simple place with beauty all around.

It’s three days, two runs, which I enjoy here this week. Three days with friends and rocks, of traipsing hillsides, of unravelling mountains and marvelling at dinosaur footprints. It’s not much time, amongst all the days and weeks and months I’ve spent in these sierras, nor against the years I’ve been away. And yet, it’s time to refresh, to reconnect with that geological history of millions of years which made this place, and that geologist’s history of mine, these rocks which saw me on my way.

I run five miles to the San Leonardo Fault this morning, and three more beside the abandoned railway line on Monday. But it’s not in distance that I measure these runs, nor this journey which I yearned to make. The thin air, the heat, the sun, the late nights and early mornings tax me, and yet there’s good balance left. My faulted strata are rejoined – through this range of hills which links me to the heart of Spain, and to my geological core. These are my own Iberian chains, these beds of rock which bind me now complete.

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The heart of Spain – revealed through unspoilt landscapes and villages.

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View north of Salas de los Infantes, Burgos, April 1984 (by JP)

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A sort of homecoming – June 2005

And you know it’s time to go
Through the rain and fallen snow
Across the fields of morning
Light in the distance

And you hunger for the time
Time to heal, desire time
And your Earth moves beneath
Your own dream landscape

Oh, oh, on borderland we run
And still we run
We run and don’t look back
I’ll be there – tonight

Oh don’t sorrow, no don’t weep
For tonight, at last
For tonight, with you
I am coming home.
U2 (Wide Awake in America, live) – May 1985

Related articles:
137. Otro día más sin verte: a return to Spain
91. Madrid me mata
78. Spanish stroll: Almería Half Marathon
98. Off the shoulder of Orion – Costa de la Luz
129. Tenerife – 1: the light at the end of the world

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