“They were completely defeated. Everything they had hoped for had been disappointed. They were saying goodbye to their country, maybe forever.
This is not the first time Portillo has undertaken a personal pilgrimage to his father’s homeland. In the late 1990s, he spent seven days hiking the Camino de Santiago.
“I had gone through a difficult time,” he recalls. “I had lost my seat in Parliament and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. I’m always hesitant to jump to trivial conclusions, but let’s just say I’m glad I did. You are presented with this kind of kaleidoscope of human beings in a very short time, which is fascinating.
Whether blind-climbing along slippery, misty slopes or bathing in the glory of sun-kissed peaks, Portillo takes every part of the Pyrenees in its stride. But – acknowledging the transformative power of the trip – he credits the rugged characters of northern Spain with shaping his trip.
“What I love about them are their personal stories, their enthusiasm, their humor, their warmth… Traveling opens you up to different kinds of people and different experiences.
In one episode, he meets a 25-year-old architect who believes in forest folklore and mythology. Admitting he has ‘no patience with the idea of spirits and ghosts and goblins’, he still found it ‘very interesting that a young person gets caught up in these things as part of their culture’ .
A conversation with a former smuggler also proved revealing for the conventional public figure. “I live my life within the narrow confines of the law. And there’s this cheerful person who tells me how to get the police out of their house by plugging the chimney.
Besides challenging his outlook on life, other encounters confirmed things he already knew. “I always had the impression that the Basques were extremely proud and resistant,” he says, thinking of the first part of his journey.