The Sierra de Gredos mountain range and Regional Park, about 150km west of Madrid, is a beautiful area of towering peaks, glacial lakes, oak woods and river valleys that we had explored once before- in the snow- and had always wanted to return to. So when Jill, Sally’s sister, asked for a suggestion for a walking holiday destination in the region of Madrid and Salamanca it was an obvious choice, especially as we were invited to join them.
Problem was an ever increasing series of tests, scans and consultations had resulted in an ever decreasing picture of good health and the closing of windows of opportunity. We managed to get there though, about a month ago, unsure of my hiking ability but sure of the restorative power of being out there in the wilds.
We stayed in an eco airbnb in the little hamlet of Navacepeda de Tormes on the northern side of the range where I thought the trails alongside the clear rushing waters of the Tormes river would make for leisurely strolling. The ancient buildings in the village of 160 inhabitants were sadly in decline as depopulation continued although the area is popular for summer holidays with Madrilenos seeking cool mountain air.
We discovered the bear paw nailed to the church door- carbon dated at 400 yr old, making it possibly the last bear in the Gredos. Hemingway, who came to the area, had written of it and a street in the village is named after him.
On our first evening we walked down to the river and up the Garganta del Barbellido to a lovely natural swimming pool overlooked by a picture perfect medieval bridge. Although the water looked and was very cold I couldn’t resist immersion into the picture myself
I knew from our last visit that there was a road that reached way up towards the peaks on this northern side – to a car park “La Plataforma” which saved 11 km and 500 m of ascent- to gain access to the high altitude trails. I was happy to hear that Jill and Ralph were keen to take the hire car up there in the morning from where we would attempt the well worn route up to the Laguna Grande.
So, starting out from 1750m in the crisp mountain air, still in the shadows of the surrounding ridges but under an immaculate blue sky, we joined the stone laid path and started our ascent into the sunshine – slowly but surely.
The autumnal browns and greys of the grasses and rocks were dotted with the shocking crimson pink and purple flowers of crocus which surprisingly seemed to fair best on the well trodden path.
We were on one of the traditional paths that cross the mountain range used for many centuries. There is a long history of transhumance here, the seasonal moving of cattle to and from the high pastures, and availing of the climatic differences of the north and south facing sides of the range. These old paths were also used to exchange goods, as the economies of the different sides were based on different products, and reached their peak in the 15th and 16 th century. I wonder how our current road systems will be used 600 years from now. We crossed paths with a man with pack horses coming back from supplying the Refuge high above us, continuing the centuries old ways.
We came upon a large group, herd, cluster,??, of male Ibex. A semi-protected species they seemed to be doing well, with an estimated 5000-8000 in these mountains. The Gredos are one of 4 species of Iberian Ibex , 2 of which, the Portuguese and Pyreanean are now extinct. Along with the other surviver, the Southeastern, their greatest threat now apart from loss of habitat and illegal hunting is sarcoptic mange, a deadly disease.
After an hour or so of gradual climbing we stopped at Los Cavadores spring for a drink and snack break before continuing a little further to the high point ridge at 2200m.
Crossing the broad flattish area of Los Barrerones we started to descend and the awesome views of the Circo de Gredos made the effort of the climb a very reasonable price to pay.
From here we could see the highest peaks of the range, La Galana and Almanzor, at nearly 2600m. We could also see, in the distance beneath the peaks, the Laguna and the refuge beside it, a truly spectacular setting in which to stay. Making our way down the rocky path others joined us- it was obviously a popular destination, with beds for 65 and meals and drinks available.
Hard though it was to tear ourselves away from the hospitality and the view of the cirque towering above we had to make the return trip, with a slower, more gentle, ascent this time. We passed a lot more hikers heading for the Elola refuge for the weekend and the pack horses returning again with more supplies for them. When we stopped at a fuente we were surrounded by ibex, this time females and juveniles, seemingly well used to people on their patch and unperturbed.
Back at La Plataforma, and pleased with our efforts, we decided to return the following day- Jill and Ralph to ascend to El Morezon and us to descend via the Garganta de las Pozas and Garganta de Gredos to the river Tormes.
It looked like it was going to be a busy weekend at the Refuge when we arrived at a nearly full car park in the morning and a stream of fit looking folk snaked their way up the rocky road before us. They included a team helping to transport a young fella in an off road wheelchair contraption – determined and vocally animated they left us in their wake as they forged ahead on route to some peak. Fair play.
At the top of the rise above the car park Jill and Ralph set off south on an old path that led to a pass at Puerto de Candeleda while we turned north across the grazing area of Prado de las Pozas to find the river we were to follow down stream for 15 km.
Another glorious day of sunshine and blue skies was now enhanced by the sounds of gurgling and gushing as the crystal waters gravitated down through the glacial moraine, accompanied by the occasional clank and clonk of cow bells.
When we stopped for a pool side break I couldn’t resist stripping off and becoming one with the mountain stream- but not for long. Bracing could describe it. We crossed over to the eastern bank and carried on down through concentrations of crocus, passed an old farmhouse turned refuge, to merge with the Garganta de Gredos and its rushing waters coming down from the Laguna Grande.
After a restful lunch on the Puente de Roncesvalles we rambled on, stopping for a peek into another farmhouse Refugio where a family had taken up residence for the weekend. We were now below the 1500m tree line and oak woodland lined the valley walls.
The well made stone path took us down into lush farmland of grazing cows and pine plantations before merging with another river and PR walking trail to the Cirque. Now back in ” civilisation”, a road of giant stones led us to the best of it – a friendly bar beside the river Tormes.
As a herd of free range horses joined us on the river bank we luxuriated in the lushness of it all, accompanied by flowing water all day, at the end of summer, so different to the parched south of Spain with its dry rivers and empty reservoirs.
It had been wonderful to be out in the wilds of Spain again. So many trails- so many beautiful spaces. It would certainly take more than a lifetime to know but a fraction. But I would urge anyone to explore, experience and ramble as many as time allows. Not just Spain of course but anywhere in as natural a world as you can reach.
Contact with and connection to nature can create the love, respect and empathy needed to restore our dangerously unbalanced relationship with the rest of the threatened co-habitants and eco systems of our abused world. It can heal ourselves and our surroundings.
Last Legs? Hopefully not quite yet but time is obviously running out. Enjoy it and protect it while you can. I’ll leave you with some images of Salamanca and Madrid. From the man made sacred spaces that were built to inspire the same sense of Awe that nature had supplied for millennia.