Backpacks, Boots, and Baguettes
Calder and Mick Webb
Reviewed by Erica Dorpalen
Backpacks, Boots and Baguettes by Simon Calder and Mick Webb is a memoir that recounts the joys of hiking the Pyrenees and uncovering the cultural heritage embedded in the Basque region. This travelogue is a collage of narrative modes, blending the authors’ personal experience of people and place with a historical-lens depiction of a community that dates back to the Romans. There are days spent on the trail, on trains and in planes, in local markets, restaurants and farming villages. With lighthearted and self-deprecating humor, Calder, a travel editor and television producer, and Webb, a radio producer, narrate the trials of losing their way in the wilderness, of inclement weather, meeting tight transportation schedules, maintaining professional correspondences in rural mountain country, and, of course, dealing with the social faux pas that are inevitable when traveling in an unfamiliar society.
Equally as important to the authors’ travels up through the mountains are their descents into the bordering villages and ventas, or marketplaces. Evening destinations are modest but comfortable hotels, hostels, and refuges created in abandoned farmhouses and mountain chalets. The travelers’ meals, accompanied by “earthy” wine or cold beer, are described with great care, as the influence of French and traditional Basque cuisine is a prominent feature of the region’s cultural identity. Calder and Webb tell colorful tales of the people who offer the foreigners hospitality and of the natural features and creatures unique to the Pyrenees. The overarching message is a conviction that the Pyrenees have something to offer everyone. The spectacular scenery of high mountain peaks and of centuries-old farmhouses and cathedrals nestled into valleys are accessible to both the experienced mountaineer and the traveler interested in short walks.
The Pyrenees form a natural boundary along the French-Spanish border, so that the Basque region is divided by mountains and between two political entities. The region is nonetheless unified by tradition and euskara, the native language. Calder and Webb scatter in piecemeal accounts of how the identity in which the Basque people take pride came to be. The historical anecdotes that appear intermittently are informative and paint richly the ways in which human civilization has etched its mark into the land. Perhaps occasionally the transitions into these anecdotes are a bit choppy and could be worked into the narrative more gracefully, but the stories are fascinating.
Calder and Webb primarily follow the GR10, la Grand Randonnée Dix, a route that begins at the Atlantic coast and ends at the Mediterranean. The GR10 has been in use since the French dreamed up the idea of networking webs of marked trails for the mountain trekker’s benefit. The Spanish eventually conformed to the practice of trail marking, yet, given the apparent inconsistency of trail markings in the Pyrenees, the authors are not surprised when they often stumble into misadventures off the track. The narrative leads the reader along these unpredictable trails, through soaked farmyards, haphazardly over the hurdles of Basque stiles, and invites the reader to stop along the way to rest, picnic, and enjoy one of many breathtaking views, such as the panoramic view from la Rhune of “Baztán Valley, a tranquil bowl of land, ringed by uncompromising hills” (49). One might imagine soft pastures, rocky trails and pony-sized pottöks grazing tranquilly.
The authors admit their fears and moments of terror with self-directed humor, but occasionally bring notes of real danger to their narratives. For example, Calder narrates a hike to the summit of la Rhune and the attack of vertigo that seizes him during a trek along the Crête d’Iparla. While he playfully confesses his own phobia of heights, he and Webb learn weeks later about a hiker who, tragically, has slipped from the cliff’s edge.
Despite moments of gravity, Calder and Webb capture the essence of the Pyrenees Mountains, delighting in the landscape, the culture, and the rich history and traditions of the Basque region.
Simon Calder and Mick Webb, Backpacks, Boots and Baguettes, London, 2004. ISBN: 0 7535 0902 4. £7.99 (paperback).