Walking Hiking Rambling

SIERRA DE LAS NIEVES

A short journey of 15 km inland from the busy beaches and constant consumerism of Marbella on the Costa del Sol takes you to another world and the southern edges of the Parque Natural Sierra de las Nieves, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve of nearly 100,000 hectares.

We made 2 hiking trips to explore the park between lockdowns after finding a long distance route, the GR 243, traverses the area from Istan in the south to Ronda in the north, over 6 sections and 122 km with a couple of variants.

We discovered we could do a 3 day triangle at the southern end and avoid transport complications.

Leaving our car near the Cerezal recreation area outside of Ojen we headed off on the GR variant and PR-A 167 route to Istan.

Ojen is one of the half dozen or so tranquil whitewashed villages and towns surrounding the park that were Moorish strongholds and still retain the crumbling fortresses of the reconquest era. With a wealth of minerals to exploit in the Sierra’s rocky interior the area was at the forefront of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Hard to imagine nowadays when the decreasing population is drawn to employment down on the coast. Ojen’s main export now is a anise like spirit that bizarrely is particularly popular in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

First few Kms were a rocky scramble up a dry stream bed and on a lovely path through a forest of pine with distinctive peaks rising above us. As the sun climbed and the heat rose so did the strong scents of pine needles and oil and I recalled the studies of the positive effects on the mental and physical health of “forest bathing” and the phytoncides, the chemicals emitted by the trees.

Emerging onto a forestry track on a high level plain planted with a variety of conifers and eucalyptus we passed a number of weekend walkers and a few parties of mushroom gatherers- all of whom had dogs that made us wonder if they used them to sniff out the fungi. They seemed to have been successful anyway and had baskets brimming with a mushroom similar to chanterelles that we were told bled red juice when cut with a knife.

Climbing a narrow rocky path up and over the ridge we found ourselves in wild untamed country with a vista of peaks disappearing into the cloud. The extent of the park became apparent. When originally designated in 1989 the Natural Park was 78sq miles and this was increased to cover 362 sq miles on achieving World Biosphere Reserve status in 1995.

We had passed signs warning us that our route demanded physical fitness, good mountain orienteering skills and experience and we began to see why when we started to clamber down the descent towards Istan on a, luckily dry, stream bed, the Canada de Juan Ingles gorge. Tricky going but rewarded by the magnificent views and flora, particularly the dwarf or fan palms and the masses of aromatic rosemary, thyme and lavender.

Istan is a place of water boasting numerous springs, fountains, pools, the rivers Verde and Molinos and a network of ancient irrigation channels built by the Moors. Once a place of great wealth with a thriving silk industry and forests of white mulberry, walnuts and oak, hillsides of vineyards producing wine and raisins that bought ships from France and England, all changed when after the rebellion and defeat of the Moricos ( Muslim converts to Christianity) in the mid 16th century the area was practically uninhabited until Christian settlers from other areas in Spain took over the old Moorish properties.

The next leg was a longer but easier 20km trek on mostly good tracks to Monda, over the Canada del Infierno and the high point of Puerto de Moratan at 600m.

Leaving town on a road passed the Nacimiento ( the birth or spring) of the Rio Molinos we headed into the wild hinterland with remote houses dotted here and there in the folds of the hills.

A tiny tree had been dressed for Christmas on the track that took us eventually up to the pass and a helipad- maybe for forest fires or mountain rescue. The landscape seemed to hold more moisture with lush grasses accompanying the palms.

From the Puerto it was a long descent alongside a massive fenced and gated estate of forest, orchard and arable strips between rosemary covered scrubland.

Crossing a river bed on the outskirts of Monda we climbed an ancient cobbled track before arriving into town to find our bed by the loofah plants.

The final leg of the triangle back to Ojen was a 16 km combination of GR243 and GR249, my old trekking companion the Gran Senda de Malaga. Starting off on the trail we had arrived into town on, we soon diverted under the road and into a forested area, eventually turning off onto a steep overgrown track that climbed up and over the mountains separating the two towns.

The views all the way down to the coast awaiting at the top made up for the scratching and effort involved in getting there and the difficulty in scrambling down the steep path back down to the Cerezal recreation area and eventually , with relief, the hire car, still safely where we left it.

The Sierra is very shortly to become designated a National Park, the 1st in Malaga province- 3rd in Andalucia and 16th in Spain, an upgrading to the premier league of protected environments that will mean an increase in investment in infrastructure to develop responsible tourism such as visitor and nature education centres, lookout points and outdoor leisure facilities. The dozen or so towns in the area are hoping this will help stem the flow of outward emigration and bring increased employment possibilities.

The logistics of returning from a multi day linear walk put us off returning to the GR 243 so our next trip to the area was centered in a couple of spots from which we rambled on a number of routes deep into the Parks interior.

Staying at a mountain hotel high above the town of Tolox for a night enabled us to tackle a couple of great trails, the first of which, the PR-A 282 route to Las Cascades, took us in a 11km loop around the steep slopes, deep valleys, gullies, ravines and precipices typical of the landscape with the added attraction of some mighty waterfalls in full flow after some days of rain and snow.

Starting off from the Puerto del Monte we climbed a zig zag track way marked with yellow and white dashes up through the red peridotite rocks this area is renown for. The lower altitudes of the Sierra are made up of the worlds largest massif of this rare rockform. The impervious nature of the rock holds the water that nurtures the lush vegetation and creates the dramatic cascades.

Somewhat alarmed at the signs warning of “fording rivers, landslides and falling into voids” we carried on around the deep creases and folds to a series of cascades where the more adventurous enjoy canyoning and we were satisfied with sitting and picnicking.

Beautiful, and if it had been a bit hotter I might have managed a cold power shower. Instead we descended to the valley floor and tried to stay dry footed while crossing backward and forward over the river before climbing again to our starting point.

In the morning, stepping out of the Hotel Cerro de Hijar, we were off on the SL-A 229 Rio de los Horcajos, supposedly only 9 or 10 km but , as usual, working out a fair bit more. Another loop, this one took us up and over a pass to a steep sided valley that we descended into to follow the river down into Tolox and up again to the hotel.

Climbing over the pass we could see the snowy peaks of some of the parks higher mountains including La Torrecilla at 1920 m ( 6300ft) Malaga’s highest. On its limestone slope, at 1670m, is the entrance to the 3rd deepest cave shaft in the world, dropping vertically over 1000m. Known as GESM it is one of a great many caves and shafts in the limestone mountains and a great draw for potholers and cavers.

The steep valley slopes were covered with ancient, much pollarded chestnuts which along with holm, cork, gall and Portuguese oaks and pine carpeted the Sierra up to the snow line.

We followed a beautiful old stone track down through the shrub to the Rio Horcajos. The whole area is covered with a network of trails, as is much of rural Spain. These paths between villages have been used for hundreds of years by shepherds, goatherds, muleteers, charcoal makers, herders and travellers of all kinds forming a web of communication and information.

It wasn’t long before we came to a recreation area at the hermitage of the Virgin of the Snows where natural springs emerged from the ground to join the river that we followed into Tolox on a verdant path between rampant crops.

The river had once supplied the power for many mills in Tolox , for grain and olive oil, but nowadays the local sulfur rich waters of the Balneario o Fuente Amargosa emerge at a constant 21* and supply Spain’s only medicinal spa. Famous for the treatment of kidney and urinary problems by drinking and respiratory disease by inhaling the mildly radioactive vapours you need a doctors prescription for a 2 week treatment. The building was our last stop before a final leg aching climb back up to the hotel and car. Time to move on.

We were moving on to Finca las Morenas, an off grid farmhouse with accommodation run by a couple of Mediterranean garden designers who moved here after decades of working in London. In an isolated setting adjoining the Natural Park outside of Yunquera the converted sheds next to the 300 yr old farmhouse had been tastefully and thoughtfully renovated and featured many environmentally friendly features designed to save water and power. Situated at above 700 m it was a perfect spot from which to explore the upper reaches of the Sierra.

Our first trek from the finca took us into the pines on a foresters track that took us slowly up another 500 m to the Cueva del Aqua, the cave of water, and into the snow. Obviously the Sierra de las Nieves, the “Mountains of the Snows” have a reputation for getting a fair bit of the white stuff and there had been some heavy falls before we came.

This walk would also bring us for the first time into stands of the tree the park is famous for, the Abies Pinsapo, the Spanish Fir endemic to this region. “Discovered “in 1837 it is a botanical relic of the pre glacial period that by the 60’s was in danger of extinction due to felling but under protection they now cover an area of 5000 hectares. Some are National Monuments and hundreds of years old and are the emblem or symbol of the Natural Park but unfortunately a more subtle and pernicious effect of mankind’s damage to the environment could still be their downfall. An invisible fungus has been attacking and killing the trees whose natural resistance is thought to have been weakened by climate change and ecologists are calling for a seed bank to be created to ensure survival of the species.

We reached the cave after about 6 km and carried on up to a picnic spot with a view before returning to explore it on our way back down to the finca. Deep enough to provide plenty of shelter for goatherds and their flocks the walls bore the smoke stains of countless fires.

Next day we set off to drive up to the Mirador Puerto Saucillo above Yunquera to do a hike up to Penon Enamorados ( Lovers Crag/Rock) the second highest peak in the Sierra at 1760m. Unfortunately the road up had been blocked half way up by local police adding another 6 km and 300 m ascent to our days walk.

After a chocolate break on reaching the mirador at 1240m we set off on a yellow and white marked route the PR-A 351 and were immediately immersed into the snowy landscape that had long been a source of industry with the building of snow pits and the subsequent transportation ,by mule ,of snow and ice all over the province.

Chilly enough in the shade but climbing up out of the forest and onto more open rocky ground we were able to bask in the sun and take in the far ranging vistas.

The crisp clear air, bright sun and dazzling white snow made the views over the surrounding Sierras to the distant coast even more dramatic and awe inspiring as we climbed across an icy slope studded with occasional lonely Pinsapos and recently planted galloaks towards the “wedding cake” pile of Enamorados.

We were truly blessed with the conditions as we reached our goal at 1745m, happy to picnic at the bottom of the pile of rocks below the summit and take in the view of Torrecilla, another 200 m higher. Another time.

Our return leg to the mirador was on a smaller track across a coll, and along a ridge and then down to the bottom of the valley, at times a slippery slide down snowy slopes. The trail, invisible beneath its white blanket was thankfully marked by many stone cairns, leading us back into the Pinsapo forest past tracks in the snow, the nearest we got to seeing any of the deer, boar, goat or muflon that are among the rich variety of fauna living in this wilderness.

We had discovered yet another area of Spain worthy of more exploration and will have to return. So many wonders. So little time.

Connemara: The Southside

December 2020: Emerging from another Covid lockdown I finally get around to a post on a short exploration we enjoyed just prior to shutting ourselves away again within our 5km cocoon.

Heading west into Connemara we usually favour the mountainous areas to the north, the mighty lumps of quartzite and marble that make up the Twelves Bens and the Maumturk ranges. From the peaks of some we have gazed south, across the low lying bogland scattered with shining pearls of light reflected from a myriad of lakes and pools, to the sea beyond. The coastline there is so wildly indented, so convoluted, with peninsulas bulging out in all directions, surrounded by a flotilla of islands and islets, that it takes effort and time to explore some of the further flung pieces of this mesmerising landscape.

So although we have, over the years, been many times to the (relatively) more accessible beauty spots, we wanted to delve deeper and started with a walk on An Cheathru Rua, anglicised as Carraroe, a low lying peninsular of about 4×1 miles jutting south from Casla.

Home to nearly 2500 people, over 80% of whom are native Irish speakers, this is the heartland of the Connemara gaeltacht and the Irish language media ,being the base of the Foinse newspaper, with RTE Raidio National Gaeltachta and TG4 television station both nearby.

We started our walk on the beach that featured in the first Irish language film “Poitin” directed by Bob Quinn whose home and production company are/ were based in Carraroe.

Tra an Doilin, Strand of the Creek, is nowadays better known as Coral Strand and is made up of a rare biogenic gravel, a coralline algae known as Maerl. An Cheathru Rua translates as the Red or Ruddy Quarter in reference to the poor land of rock, heath, grass and rush possibly through the browning or bronzing of dead vegetation. In the past the Maerl would have been used as a soil conditioner to sweeten the acidic soil.

Heading north along the coastline past grazing horses in rocky fields we soon reached Doilin Quay.

There are very many piers, quays and landing/ mooring places all over the South Connemara area, a reflection of the vital importance the sea had for the generations of people gaining sustenance from these waters for over 4000 years. Roads have only come relatively recently and the sea was the main route from place to place until modern times. Another name for this place is Ceibh na Mine, Meal Quay, because cornmeal used to be landed here.

From here we left the “official” loop and continued on a narrow path along the coast, climbing over and through a wonderful variety of stiles fashioned from the granite to hand.

Soon enough we reached ‘Tadhg’s landing place’, Caladh Thaidhg a once busy port built in 1840 by Tadhg O’Cathain, a prominent local busnessman running a fleet of boats from here to the Aran islands and Galway city.

The hookers and other boats of old were busy transporting primarily turf to the Aran islands, a trade that continued into the 60’s when “cosey gas” as Kosangas was known had started to arrive on the islands. Connemara turf is still important fuel in these parts though and we passed many neatly piled stacks on our ramblings. None of these sods originated in the local area though as the profitable turf trade to Galway city and the Aran islands had ensured that the granite hereabouts had been stripped bare to earn money, at one time leaving only the unsellable top layer of heather roots or “scraw” to be burnt at home.

From the pier we turned up the road toward Loch na Tamhnai Moire , lake of the big field, anglicised as Natawnymore and turned off into a charming little grass covered boreen that led us up, down, around and back to the road from the village to Coral Strand, from where we looked across Greatman’s Bay, Cuan an Fhir Mhoir , to our next walk on Garumna island.

Although only a km away by water we had to drive about 20 km by tarmac ,up to Casla and then on a lovely road that spanned 3 bridges between the islands of Eanach Mheain , Leitrim Moir and Garmna. A beautiful landscape but as in WB Yeats’s words, ” a terrible beauty”, as this area suffered terribly in the famine and post famine years.

Carraroe in particular became famous for the evictions of the cottagers and especially for a rebellious battle against them. In 1880 the western half of the peninsular was owned by the Kirwan estate whose men with 60 police were serving eviction notices and closing houses when a melee broke out that warranted an extra 200 police to be sent down to Galway and on to Carraroe where they charged and bayoneted a group of women defending the homes, wounding several severely and one mortally.

The New York Herald reported that when attempts were made to serve eviction notice at another home the women ripped it to shreds and a did of blazing turf was snatched up from the fire and smashed into the inspectors neck. With 2000 or more protesters now gathered to defend the cottages the situation was deemed too dangerous and the notice server, a Mr Fenton, refused to carry on and all the police were withdrawn.

However evictions did eventually continue over the coming years and the Land Leaguers Davitt and Parnell visited and used its example in America to raise funds for famine relief and political change.

Hardships unimaginable to us as we embarked upon the 8km loop in the sunshine with full belly’s and a cosy camper van to return to.

Garumna is the largest of dozens of islands in the archipelago of Ceantar na hOilean, the mosaic of water, rock, bog and land that are the heart of the south Connemara Gaeltacht. Small lumpy fields of dips and hollows bordered by a writhing mass of stone walls are made up of a variety of habitats and flora. Pools and marsh, granite slab and boulder, rush and grasses, bracken, gorse and heather. The low lying acidic land rises bare metres above the Atlantic whose westerly winds beat down any trees attempting a life here.

As we set off westwards towards loch Hoirbeaird we had to disagree with the anthropologist Dr Charles Browne who came here in 1898 to study ” probably the poorest and most primitive population in Ireland” when he said of the area that ” a more utterly barren, dreary looking region could hardly be imagined”, although I had to admit that some of the holiday accommodation had seen better days.

We turned off down a small winding backroad that became a track which took us , after losing our way, down to a tiny quay lost among the seaweed covered rocks.

Gathering seaweed has a long history in the area as a food source and fertiliser and the days of burning kelp for soapmaking, dyeing, paper and glassmaking and producing iodine were succeeded by collecting vast amounts of ascophyllum nodosum or egg wrack for the extraction of alginic acid, used in so many foods, cosmetics, biotechnology as well as animal food and fertiliser. Some 20,000 t are now harvested annually by hand in the region and transported by road to factories across the water in Cill Chiarain where the Canadian owned company Arramara Teo are about to upgrade their factories to food grade and take in bladderwrack seaweed as well, a move which they say will have ” far reaching economic benefits within the local community and west coast of Ireland”

We had our lunch gazing at all the riches clinging to the rocks and reminiscing about the times, 40 years ago, when we earned our living gathering seaweed in West Cork.

Turning back up the track aways we found our turnoff, a grassy track leading us deeply into the island towards a line of smoke in the sky. Someone was clearing heather or gorse in the hope of fresh grass but we passed some areas where this method of burning had resulted in mosses alone.

We reached the coast again at the medieval church and graveyard at An Tra Bhain, the white beach, from where pilgrims would gather for the journey out to the monasteries of the Aran islands.

An enchanting path now led us northwards along the shoreline of Greatman’s Bay, looking back over towards the Coral beach, and on reaching yet another little jetty we turned west again to return to the camper along a quiet backroad.

Looking for a quiet park up for the night we drove back over the causeways to Leitir Moir and Eanach Mheain and followed our noses to a graveyard on the north coast overlooking the Bens and Maumturks way in the distance.

The very tranquil spot was shared by the buried with golfers who got to play in what surely must be the most dramatic setting on the Wild Atlantic Way, although a risky spot for amateurs, being surrounded by water.

The following day we headed further into the depths of the Connemara Gaeltacht by driving around the large peninsular of Iorras Aithneach to Mhairois where another loop awaited.

Another beautiful 5km walk on beach and boreen started at the ancient seaside church ruins and headed southwest along the immense strand where the ghost of a friars massive hound was said to be seen running races from end to end.

At the far end at a headland we turned south along a rock shoreline of wonderfully hued slabs and boulders of granite and tropical looking crystal clear waters, as calm and flat as a mill pond.

The views across Cuan na Beirtri Bui, Bertraghboy Bay were stunning, a palette of blues and greens and pale turquoise from which swellings of land emerged, rocks, islets, islands and mountains. The microcosm was as appealing as the wider picture with miniature seas held in rock pools and the abstract artworks of gigantic stone sculpture under our feet.

There was the work of man here too. Ruins of stone cottages that must have caught the spray of storms sat squatly atop the rock, a testament to the resilience of man and his work. Calm and tranquil in the weather we were enjoying, the usual conditions must have made for a harsh life on the Atlantic’s edge.

I fruitlessly searched around for a Holywell marked on the map below the high tide line, the third of these seashore relics we’d passed on our rambles unspotted. Further along, on the grassland above the beach of An Tra Mhoir, we discovered another of the Eire navigation and neutrality markers from the days of “the emergency”we had spotted in many places around the coast. This was number 52 of 83 and had been recently restored by locals.

Next up was an inlet that was fed by a stream we crossed on a new looking recycled plastic bridge. A good use for the silage wrap that so often gets left to decorate the hedgerows, block drainage and ends up in the bellys or around the necks of wildlife.

On reaching the road we took the detour to the right to check out the Atmospheric Research Station in Mace Head. It is uniquely situated, far from shipping lanes, cities and other pollutant sources to look for aerosol and trace gas elements within the clean air mass coming from the North Atlantic. Part of a large number of international research networks into global warming it also produces data for the weather forecast. In 1994 it was recognised by the World Meteorological Organisation as one of the most important stations in the northern hemisphere.

*Not my photo

Then up to the top of the broad summit of An Mas , translation buttock, where the Coastal Watch Look-Out Post number 82 still kept a watch out for friendly and foreign goings on.

Having our sarnies we had a magnificent view northward to the mountains and southwards over the rough and rocky fields littered with long abandoned cottages and beyond to the sea and islands, the nearest being St Macdara’s, home to an early Christian monastery.

Then back down the winding boreen, passed signs of the low intensity of the agricultural practises in the area. A couple spending a long long time driving some cattle into a ruined cottage and a tractor in retirement.

Finally we did get drawn towards the distant peaks , to the ancient woodland of the Nature Reserve on the shores of Derryclare lake in the Inagh valley north of Recess. This 19 hectare old oak woodland is a remnant of what used to be and an indication of what could be again if the ravages of a “sheep wrecked” environment could be resisted.

Access is down a forestry track off the R344. Parking the camper we crossed the river between locks Inagh and Derryclare above a salmon hatchery, and followed the track around the end of the lake and on until we eventually found an unmarked and slight trail that seemed to be going in the right direction and were soon enveloped in a mysterious green stillness of another world.

The aboriginal oaks, hangovers whose ancestors arrived here after the last ice age, are smothered with thick coats of mosses and host colonies of polypody ferns. Although in theory protected, the sheep continue to find their way in and these elderly trees do not have a lot of youngsters to take their place having been nibbled at birth. The National Parks and Wildlife service have been ringing the non native conifers and have translocated 19 red squirrels from Portumna Forest Park to Derryclare. They have been doing well according to study’s and hair tubes and traps and wildlife cameras keep a close eye on their movements.

The edges of the Oakwood are home to a range of other species, alder and willow on the marshy boggy bits and birch and ash on the dryer sedge covered ground.

Here and there are yew, chestnut and sycamore but the species that the visiting botanist really get excited about are the lichens. The clean air and humid climate have allowed over 100 species to flourish here, some unknown elsewhere in Europe or the northern hemisphere. or extremely rare.

The macrocosm of the mountain ranges, the lakes, the bogs and the vast fractal coastline complimented again here by the microcosm of forests of mosses and lichens and fungi. A beautiful interconnected web reaching out from within the earth up to the highest peaks and passing through the hearts of some who journey here.

Dingle Ramblings

We had thought we might head down to the southwest and do the Sheeps Head, or Dingle Way long distance trails but having just survived Storm Ellen and with Storm Frances on the way thought it wiser to do day hikes from the camper as the weather permitted. And so it was that we arrived at Brandon Head under Ireland’s highest mountain outside of the MacGillycuddy Reeks with a plan.

This was staycation summer on the Dingle peninsular and we were concerned it could be crowded. But no, once you venture into the hills there is always wide open spaces for all. Even on the Wild Atlantic Way.

Our planned route of an out and back to the pass between Masatiopan and Piaras Mor north of Brandon Mountain changed when we saw the signs for a loop to Sauce Creek.

The Loop was 12km I think and we would add another 10 km by continuing west over the pass on the Dingle Way. It was a dramatic place to park up for the night with waves crashing onto the cliffs below us and views out over Tralee Bay to Kerry Head and the Slieve Mish Mountains.

Climbing the stile with the red walking man signs in the morning we climbed higher up the headland and away from the cliffs through a wild and open landscape of russet brown grasses and bracken and the purple and yellow splashes of sheep trimmed heather and gorse.

We passed one of the Second World War lookout posts that we’ve come across on numerous headlands around the coast of Ireland. Manned 24/7 by 2 men who watched for and logged and reported any military activity, the LOP’s were often accompanied with a giant EIRE laid out in white painted rocks on prominent sites to alert pilots they were over the coast of neutral Ireland. Historical remnants that often puzzle the coastal visitor there are still around 50 of the original 83 standing sentinel awaiting some other purpose.

Almost lost in the soft boggy ground and hidden in the long rushy grasses were the stone walls of animal shelters or human habitations from a time of hard and isolated living. We descended into a deep valley to ford a steam and then climb up and over the rounded summit of Cnoc Duileibhe (311m).

Heading due west towards the sounds of the sea we reached the flatish heathery area of Sliabh Glas and a view down into the jaws of An Sas. Translated as “trap with a noose” the horseshoe shaped Bay was reputed to hold fast any boat that ventured, or was swept, in. There used to be 3 families living at the bottom of the 750m long curve of cliff, scrapping a living from a few acres of land and the vastness of the sea, the last to leave in 1910 after a local midwife lost her life falling from the heights on her way down to deliver a baby.

Half of the Kerry coastline is defined as “soft” and liable to erosion and about 10 acres of these cliffs fell into the sea in 2014 so much of the remains of the early settlements are slowly being lost to the sea. As we turned our backs to the ocean and continued south the ground was riddled with deep bog holes and fenced off ravines and care was needed to avoid a twisted ankle or worse.

Rising over a knoll following the marker posts we had a vista of uninterrupted bogland and the silver glinting of Brandon Bay beyond. Reaching an ancient trackway we turned west again. We were now following the Dingle Way on its route over the shoulder of Mt Brandon and down towards Feohanagh and Smerwick Harbour.

At the far end of the track we stopped for lunch at a roofed building amongst what had been an extensive settlement. It had possibly once been a home and still had traces and relics of its past life but now looked like it was a shelter for people working on the track or tending the cattle that were now the only inhabitants of this lonely spot.

This was the hamlet of Arraglen and was once home to 13 families. A lot of effort was being put into creating a solid path from here up towards the coll high above with a mini digger creating ditches and drains. At its end we continued to clamber over the steep slope to the pass at 610m where somehow we missed the 1500 year old Ogham stone but reveled in the views down to the west.

Below us were the walls of Fothar na Manach, the Fields of the Monks, where a community of monks lived and farmed what must be one of the wildest and most inaccessible sites in Ireland next to Skellig Michael which would have been visible in clearer weather. We could see Brandon Creek, from where St Brendan and the lads headed off to America in the curragh, the sloping pointed peaks of the Three Sisters, and, fading into the murk of sea and sky, Slea Head and the Blaskets islands.

Returning to the camper via the Dingle Way along the old bog track we were rewarded with equally stunning views to the East which at times included Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest. But Mt Brandon continued to wear its hat of cloud. In the sheltered walls of the boreens in the valley below the colors of the fushia, montbretia and heather were a shock after the bare mountain above.

Moving on to the most westerly point in Ireland , on Dunmore Head , for the night, we were again grateful for an empty and dramatic seaside parkup without any ” no overnight parking/ camping ” signs.

We had planned to tackle Mount Eagle in the morning but the cloud was too low so we explored the short but sweet local loop around the head, where some of the last Star Wars movie was shot. We could imagine the location finder was well pleased with themselves on discovering the stunning otherworldly scenery of this western outpost with only the hauntingly atmospheric Blaskets Islands any more “Far Out”.

Atop the headland was another LOP, that’s Loop Out Point to those who haven’t been paying attention, this one with an Ogham stone for company, it’s 1500 year old script still plainly visible.

The sky was clearer to the north so we headed round the indented coastline on the Slea Head Drive wondering if pre-covid we would have encountered coach tours on the narrow winding road. Parked up overlooking the embracing shelter of Smerwick Harbour we walked a muddy farm track to gain access to the commonage around the Three Sisters.

An untamed and rugged landscape that had witnessed the savagery of man at Dun an Oir, the promontory fort we explored below the Sisters. It was here in the defensive Iron Age site that one of the bloodiest events in Irish history took place in 1580.

A force of 600 Spanish, Italian and Irish, sent by Pope Gregory in support of the Desmond Rebellion were forced to defend themselves there when their ships had been blockaded within the bay. The English forces, 4000 strong, massacred them all after they had surrendered following a 3 day siege. All but the commanders were beheaded and the bodies thrown into the sea, the heads lined up in an adjoining field, since called Gort na gCeann ( Field of the Heads).

With a wild, wet and windy night forecast as Storm Francis swept in we thought we’d better retreat inland to safety. Glanteenassig Forest Park in a sheltered valley nestled among the peaks of the Slieve Mish mountains sounded good. The 450 hectares of forest, mountain and peatland were billed by Coillte as ” an outdoor enthusiasts dreamland”. Seemed to fit the bill. Up a long single track lane towards the only farm at the valley end we turned in over the Drishoge river and drive on up the forestry track to the upper lake, Caum.

Amazingly the 2 km circular walk around the lake was all boardwalk. Some serious amount of effort and cash had been put into placing the 1000 or so slabs of 9×2. Wether this was to protect us from the environment or the environment from us I couldn’t be sure but certainly made for a dry footed walk over some seriously wet ground.

The deep lake, gauged out by a retreating glacier, was silent and tranquil as we awaited the wind and rain in a carefully selected parkup.

Our sheltered position protected us from much of the storm and it was only when I ventured away from the van in the morning that the amount of rain became evident. It was easy to understand the origin of the name Glanteenassig or Gleann Ti an Easaigh which translates as Valley of the Waterfalls. They were streaming down the mountainsides in silver ribbons and when we walked to Lough Slat the words of the Irish poet J J Callinan couldn’t have been truer,” a thousand wild fountains rush down to that lake from their home in the mountains”.

A roaring, foaming, rushing mass of white water raced down beside us as we ventured up the River Walk alongside the Owencashla and the views from the picnic spot high up on a glacial moraine were elemental.

With the storm abated we headed out to another fine seafront parkup for the night with miles of empty beach backed by a vast expanse of salt marsh. So much nicer than the nearby campsite/ trailer park we abandoned after having our showers and charging Sally’s computer.

Our final hike was around the Glennahoo valley, a truly beautiful u shaped glacial valley carved out of the mountains by unfathomable forces. We started at the old graveyard at Ballyduff or An Baile Dubh, associated with the Celtic deity Crom Dubh, a god of fertility and harvest.

An old narrow boreen led us past empty dwellings and up onto a treeless expanse of rough grass and turf banks, the track once tarmac way beyond ” civilization”.

The extraordinary track continued up the narrow ridge of Beenbo to 475m where we had a fine view back down the romantic Glen of Macha na Bo ( Plain of the Cow) and south across a featureless expanse of bog towards Anascaul, the final destination of the ancient trackway.

A bit of a soggy trudge to an unnamed hillock below us followed by an even soggier trudge back around towards the cliffs at the head of the Glennahoo river valley rewarded us with the panorama of the trip. We stopped for a sandwich and soaked it up. Nearly 300m below us lay the fields and homesteads of people who lived in the isolated splendour of a terrible beauty.

Setting off again we met a sheep farmer and dog out looking for his flock. He told us that the houses had been lived in until the fifties by the Dineens and the O’Donnells. From there another old trackway leading over the mountains from the valley took us down to Wolf’s Step, where the last wolf in Ireland was allegedly killed in 1710.

We crossed over the river here and continued down the steep track with a series of waterfalls beside us until finally reaching the valley floor and stopping again to contemplate the life of Mary ‘Macha na Bo’ the last inhabitant of this lonely spot, supposedly an old lady with long flowing white hair who would emerge to hurl abuse at hikers but also on occasion have them in for tea.

The long straight track out of the valley was about 4 km long but seemed to bring us forward decades or centuries in time. Looking back towards the mountains and turning out towards the sea the path felt in a time and space somehow separate from the 21st century tourism hotspot of Dingle and the busy city of Tralee visible in the distance.

Walking the long track had reminded me of the long long line leading back to the early inhabitants here, so palpable through the wealth of remnants left scattered across the landscape. A special place out on the western fringes of what is now known as Europe that has drawn people to it for Millenia. Long may it last.

Co Laois – The Leafy Loop in Lockdown

Looking for a long circular hike we discovered the Leafy Loop in Durrow, Co Laois. It sounded lovely. 23 km of waymarked trail through plantations of beech, ancient native mixed woodlands, conifer forest, hazel coppice, riparian spinneys alongside steams, over lush fields and along wsterside paths by the Nore, Erkina and Gully rivers.

One of the longest looped walks in the country and in a part of Ireland we hadn’t visited since calling into the Durrow scarecrow festival a couple of years ago. We loaded the camper and printed off the maps and then…

Counties Laois, Offaly and Kildare re-entered a 2week lockdown that night because of rising Covid numbers. Our planned walks were on either side of the Laois and Kilkenny border and we had a decision to make. We could do our Kilkenny Walks no bother. But the Loop went into Laois.

Right or wrong we decided, on balance, that if we stayed outside on the trails, kept well away from anybody else and didn’t stop anywhere else in the county we would be doing no harm but still felt slightly uneasy and guilty for going.

Once out in the woods and up on the hills however, taking a step from an open county to one in lockdown , the arbitrary nature of the winding border made a mockery of the imposed restrictions. We understand the need to restrict people’s contact with the virus and we behaved safely but illicitly.

The walk was normally described as starting in Durrow village but in an effort at social responsibility we avoided the possibility of human contact and started in the Coillte operated Dunmore Demesne woods on the outskirts of town.

The trail immediately lived up to its “Leafy Loop” moniker and continued to do so. Durrow means ” Plain of the Oak” and this area was reputed to have woods so dense in the 18th century that the outlaw Jeremiah Grant and his gang of ne’er do wells were able to hide out with ease. It wasn’t until the early post independence days that mass felling took place making the current tree cover a precious thing.

Following the River Gully for awhile we crossed over a stone bridge past the remains of the outbuildings to the old Dunmore House- rendered roofless in the early 20th century to avoid paying rates and soon becoming a ruin that was knocked leaving only the basement and some steps down to the river Nore.

We encountered a pulley system across the river serving some unknown purpose and later a metal bridge brought us downstream to a stone bridge carrying the main road over the river.

A very pleasant stretch beside the river bought us to another footbridge, this time across the Erkina and out onto open fields where the path followed the meanders of the Nore past the impressive bulk of another grand mansion- Knockatrina House mid way through extensive ( and expensive) reconstruction.

A beautifully bucolic landscape in the ” fat of the land”, so different from the rushy impoverished country where the multitudes wrestled a living around our way in the West. Emerging from the fields and reentering woods we crossed the main road again at the site of the Durrow brickworks, an enterprise that produced fine red bricks from shale dug from the hill we climbed from 1890 to 1922.

The steep climb took us to The Ballagh, our high point at about 250 m from where we got occasional views through the trees over the lush farmland of Laois.

The fields were big, the sheds were big and the dairy herds were big. Down through a hazel coppice , across another road and past the lodge into Bishops Wood where the man of the cloth was executed in penal times beside a tree still growing here.

Bishop’s Wood is one of about a dozen “Life Sites” around Ireland where care is being taken to restore native woodland by removal of invasive species and reintroduction of a variety of original plant life. But strangely this was where we got very confused and thought we were lost as what was marked on our maps and google earth as forest had become mono grassland.

The sizeable chunk of field in the photo had , until recently, been forest. We watched a long long line of cows progressing across the prairie from the milking sheds in the distance before turning back into the woods and the charm of the lush path beside the Erkina.

Liable to annual flooding this is part of the largest alluvial woodland in the country and is remnant of a huge wetland known as the Laois Curragh. It was bursting with green growth of meadowsweet, flag iris, Angelica, bugle, sedges rush and water mint and buzzing with insect life. From here you could continue riverside to Durrow but we took the footbridge over to our last stretch of Bishop’s Wood, freshly strimmed.

A couple of km of road saw us back in Dunmore Wood to complete the Leafy Loop, a delight in the summer and, I imagine, even better in the spring when a carpet of bluebells and wild garlic adorn the forest floor. A few minutes drive later we were in Co Kilkenny, no longer illicit, on our way to Jenkinstown Woods for the night, parked up in the walled garden below the threshing mill. Mission accomplished.

Next day we tackled the Gathabawn Loop, a 12 km hike up and around Cullahill Mountain, small enough at 250 m but towering above the surrounding plains and providing far reaching views over 360 degrees. This walk would have us back and forth across the county borders in an uncontrollable way.

We checked out the terrain from a viewpoint carpark overlooking the mountain and waited for the cloud to lift before driving down to Gathabawn village to start the walk opposite Mackeys bar.

Passing by the pleasant Millenium Garden we climbed beyond the old Coolcashin graveyard and the invisible remains of a Norman settlement to reach the charming in name and nature, Ballygooney Lane, which took us up towards the windmills and forestry of Binnianea.

Emerging from the trees we crossed open farmland to reach the equally charming Shirley’s Lane. Was the abandoned farmhouse Shirley’s old home?

Now out of the mono species grassland and on to the wilder pastures we could see why it had been given special area of conservation status. Plant rich limestone country with many different grasses and herbs and protected because of the population of Green-winged,Frog, Bee, Early purple and Twayblade orchids. We sat atop a rath for lunch and admired the views.

Weaving our way through a short section of new plantation we walked along the back of Cullahill Mountain to discover a well placed bench where we rested again to soak up the vista to the north ( Slieve Blooms), West ( Silvermines), east ( Blackstairs, Mt Leinster, Devils Bit) to add to the southerly views earlier ( Comeraghs, Galtees).

Down below us sat the remains of Cullahill Castle the seat of the MacGiollaPadraig or Fitzpatrick clan long rulers of the area until the castle was sacked by Cromwellian forces. It is apparently adorned by a Sheila- na -gig high on a surviving wall. A 17km linear walk, the MacGiollaPadraig Way, has been created from Durrow to Gathabawn and we had shared much of its route.

Crossing the fields deep in drying hay we passed the sad remains of a famine village reminding us that the rich and prosperous landscape laid out before us had not always been so bountiful for the people. Passing by the rath or fairy fort again we made our way along the Gooseneck road to rejoin Ballygooney Lane and back to the Millenium Park and a more recent Fairy world.

Miners Way and Historical Trail: A Loop Around Roscommon, Sligo and Leitrim

Seems like a long time since we were walking the Camino Mozarabe under a blue Spanish sky. Longtime lockdown under the Covid curfew. We left Spain just as the shutters came down and were blessed with acres of homestead gardens to work and rest in under a blue Irish sky for weeks as a hush fell over the world. As a cautious emerging of people began to take place so the clouds also started to gather and by the time we were able to leave the county the summer had settled into the rainy season.

But a change of surroundings was needed along with a kickstart to a much needed fitness programme and trial of our new homemade lightweight 2 person tent. And so it was that we arrived on the shores of Lough Meelagh on the outskirts of Keadew, Co Roscommon to embark on a trail I had long had on my “to do ” list. The Miners Way and Historical Trail is a complex shaped figure of eight with “wings” to surrounding towns and the Leitrim Way and the Beara Brefne Way. It’s “officially” 118km but many hikers would reckon it’s much more. Our circular route without wings or connections came in at 110 km over 5 days.

Our first day was from Keadew to Lough Key forest park. 28 km

It was a ” fine soft day” as we entered Knockranny Woods, sharing our route with a nature trail to the Neolithic court tomb. We were immediately impressed with the amount of staple studded boardwalks erected to keep us out of the slop.

The whole trail was to impress us with its signage, stiles of many styles, wooden and metal bridges, strimmed and mown grass, general waymarking and above all- access over farmland and open mountain. A lot of people have been caring for it and thanks for that.

The woods were fully formed with many mature specimens. It seemed that the historical estates in the area had bequeathed a wealth of woodland.

The first half of our trip, the first two and a half days, would be spent on the Historical Trail with another couple of days continuing on the Miners Way, bringing us back to Keadew via the iron and coal mining areas around Arigna. The closure of the mines in 1990 had led to the development of the trail in an attempt to encourage tourism to the area. And we felt it was a beautiful but neglected landscape deserving of more visitors, with a wealth of rivers and lakes and varied upland and mountainous terrain.

After walking the southern shoreline of Lough Meelagh we reentered a mossy and mushroom rich woodland for awhile before a quick change succession of quiet backroad and rushy field sections led us down to Knockvicar where we had lunch beside the River Boyle which takes leisure boats from Carrick on Shannon to Lough Key.

We had a look around the Knockvicar Organic Garden with its welcoming orchard and displays of fruit and veg and flowers. It shows what can be done with 10 polytunnels on a very small space. They also run training courses and offer a gardening service.

There was a “Trail Closed Today” sign ( which has been there for at least 3 years!) owing to some ongoing land dispute and we were sent on a detour on a bogside track and through thick scrub woodland before emerging onto the lanes leading into the forest park over the “fairy bridge”.

We were weary by the time we reached the epicenter of the park with many staycationers strolling, cycling, picnicking and boating. There was a camping and caravan park but only catering for those self sufficient in bathrooms, toilets and kitchens so we moved on looking for a wild camping site affording some shelter from the rain.

Sally fancied setting up next to the mysterious mother and child statue but the ground was too peg resistant. I couldn’t find out anything about the sculpture other than it was by Jaqueline Duigan of whom the National Visual Arts Libary says ” virtually no information is available on this artist”.

We ended up a little further down the trail, behind the Nash designed gate house to the Rockingham Lough Key estate. A wet and windy night was promised and we were well sheltered by trees and Nash’s wall.

Quickly into Boyle in the morning under a leaden sky that released its watery payload sporadically as we bought supplies and miraculously found a seamstress to mend my packs shoulder strap for under a fiver. Then a long climb up into the Curlew Mountains. After about 3 km of road we headed cross country on the ancient Red Earls road past the site of his 1599 ” Battle of the Curlews”. It was soggy going across the boggy moorland and into a block of forestry where we stumbled upon a 2 story stonebuilt farmhouse subsumed by the trees.

There was a lot of mushrooms and bilberries available but we filled up on bread and cheese as the midges filled up on our blood and the drizzle cane and went. We stopped again after a few km of empty lane when a heavy shower had us sheltering in the shed of an abandoned farm cottage. With a swing in the garden and a cot in the cow shed it had a forlorn feeling of broken dreams.

But ” things can only get better” and as the weather improved so did the surroundings as we came down out of the saturated Curlew and up into the dramatic karst landscape of the limestone Bricklieve mountains. A tarmac and gravel track turned into a grassy boreen and finally a narrow wall lined path, past beautifully located abandoned farms and cottages with mighty views down to Lough Arrow and Lough Key with the Plains of Boyle beyond. We climbed alongside and then crossed a narrow u shaped valley, the Devils Bite, before joining a disused bog track heading northwest towards the Carrowkeel passage tombs.

We had crossed into Sligo and Carrowkeel Neolithic cemetery with 14 five thousand year old passage tombs was just one of the very many impressive archeological/sacred sites in the area. Our friend was meeting us at the bottom of the access track so we didn’t have time to explore but the Bricklieves had instilled a desire to return for further ramblings.

22km done we were very happy to be transported to our friends house for a night of good food, drink, company, warmth and sleep and a lift back to the trail at Castlebaldwin in the morning for the next 22km leg.

We kept a close eye on the clouds as they rose and fell over Carrowkeel making our way on a mix of road and field around the top of Lough Arrow, over the river leaving it to the north and up past the abandoned Cromlech Lodge hotel, once prosperous enough to warrant a helicopter pad, to the Labby Stone- Ireland’s second largest portal tomb.

Another change in the landscape and we hiked mown paths across fields and up onto the Plain of the Pillars a reference to the 14 megalithic monuments in the area. It’s a place of glacial drumlins formed in groups known as “swarms” for some reason. We had lunch at a trig point at 226m overlooking Lough Arrow and a land inhabited for thousands of years, and left with a mass of reminders of their passing including a rich concentration of ancient saunas or sweat houses.

In recent years many inhabitants have deserted the land hereabouts and we past many homesteads slowly returning to the earth. Another downpour was avoided by resting up in a hay barn where we took the tea in comfort.

Settling off again under heavy dark skies over the rushing river Feorish we were on the look out for a camping spot. Nothing suitable found we asked a farmer if we could erect our tent in his hay shed. He said he had a better,less exposed option for us- the old home place cottage- and directed us toward it. It proved to be completely buried under vegetation outside and junk and rubbish inside, so bad that the damp and dark cowshed next door was preferable.

We did a fine job of fixing it up a treat and settled in for the night. Not everyone’s idea of glamping but we have modest needs!

Still misty and moisty next morning as we started another 22km leg by following an old miners track up towards the wind farm atop Carrane Hill. We had switched on to the Miners Way and the hills here were littered with old coal mines.

Down into The Glen, a narrow valley between Carrane and Corry and Lynchs mountain where many miners had lived and whose children must have attended the school we passed on the way to the Arigna river.

When we entered the forest things got tricky. Recent felling had left the track a quagmire of deep mud and muck. The waymarks disappeared and we were left floundering about through a section of clearfell attempting to find the bridge across the river. Not easy.

When we eventually managed to get to the road beyond the forest there was a “Trail closed today” sign! Looking online later I saw a notification on the closure due to felling dated 2018.

Onwards and upwards to the highest point of the whole trail at over 400m. By the time we reached the top ridge the rain was relentless and we were enveloped in cloud with no view to reward our efforts. Too wet to use the phones camera anyway we squelched on down below the cloud towards Lough Allen in Leitrim and the sanctuary of more friends and a place to dry out, warm up, and eat drink and be merry.

Our 5th and last day on the trail was a relief. Blue skies, sunshine and only 16 km over interesting and beautiful countryside to return us to our car.

A leisurely start after a lift to the trail and off over the stiles again and along the thoughtfully laid gravel paths across fields towards Arigna. The sunlit landscape made us appreciate the terrain we’d been through even more as we recrossed the Arigna river and returned to mine country stopping for lunch at the Mining Experience Centre’s restaurant.

The final leg took us up over the flank of Kilronan mountain on ancient old miners tracks. They’ve been hacking away at the rock for over 400 years up there and it felt like we were following in the weary footsteps of generations.

A sunny final days hike was a lovely way to finish a much anticipated but sadly pretty washed out walk. We arrived back at our car by Lough Meelagh well satisfied and tempted to advise the strollers around Knockranny Woods to carry on ( and on and on and……….)

CAMINO MOZARABE: Almeria to Granada 5

Tocon to Granada.

Both of the last two stages of our journey on the Mozarabe from Almeria were spectacular and we were glad we had given ourselves the extra time that the stop in Tocon had allowed. It would have been a long haul from Peza to Quentar in one go, as it was we only had 16 km from one albergue to the next. As we walked past the big walnut trees below the bar, whose nuts the family had been cracking as we’d had dinner the night before, a woodpecker was hammering away in the branches above us.

We walked out of the village on the road for a km or so then turned up through boar churned woodland to a sparsely vegetated hillside and rejoined the original Quéntar route along a gravel track that climbed higher and higher.

Juniper appeared amid the white crazed rock that covered the landscape and we followed the track in a massive zig zag down to an area recreativa among riverside poplar trees.

Climbing again we passed through a pine wood that had been tapped for its resin. This thick sap like substance produces both rosin and turpentine. Apparently demand is on the increase because the natural material substitutes pollutant petroleum derivatives.

Higher and higher the track led us to more and more spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada’s and the hills that enveloped us. New benches,map boards and post and rail fencing were signs that there was a fair investment in encouraging this Camino route or hiking the area in general.

And then we finally reached the highest point of the entire route at the bizarre surroundings of an old talc mine. 1418m high with views across to the highest peaks in mainland Spain, covered in a smooth shiny white blanket.

What goes up must come down, and so we started our descent towards Quentar, passed some lovely fincas set among a sea of olives.

The almonds were flowering nicely as we approached the village, busy with bees from the hives we’d seen higher up the trail. Soon enough we were in the town and installed in our little hut complete with a tiny terrace in the sun.

Our last day. Quentar to Granada 20km.

Following the yellow arrows down through the town in the morning we reached the river and turned along it, watching the ducks ride the mini rapids beside us. Turning up a narrow verdant path that led to a series of well watered gardens and orchards we soon reached Dudar, a village celebrating its saints day and the origin of all the fireworks that we’d heard in our cabin the night before.

Up again out of the village steeply for 200m altitude gain, to arrive at the remains of impressive French engineering works from the 19th century. A major water syphoning system to bring irrigation from one hilltop to another.

We reached the ridge and enjoyed a long hike along the easy track soaking up the distant vistas as explosions from Dudars celebrations echoed around the mountains. For once we were sharing the Way, with weekend runners, cyclists, walkers and motor-bikers.

It was getting busy. And getting cloudy/ smoggy- we weren’t sure. But we were above the thick blanket that covered Granada. Our route turned down off the ridge, towards the ruins of a massive Jesuit monastery surrounded by olive groves that were being harvested by a gang of men and a lot of machinery, including the tree shaking tractors with the encircling funnel screens (you’d have to see them).

We nearly lost our way crossing the olive grove-( grove seems to imply somewhere small and intimate and not the immense and poisoned industrial scale monoculture they so often are) but followed the incline down to the rushing waters of the Darro river and a lush path to the gardens of the Sacromonte abbey.

Suddenly we reentered a world of people after 10 days of near solitude. Saturday in Granada is busy of course and we had to adjust quickly as we moved through the throngs in the old city beneath the Alhambra and played spot the Camino sign in the centre.

The various arrows and apps deposited us outside the doors to a church in the corner of the huge monastery of Santiago. We were in the wrong part of the convent but saw all the St James symbols and headed in to get our credentials stamped for the final time.

The place was full of a wedding party- whoops- so Sally waited with the packs outside and, assured by someone who seemed to know that yes , this was the place, I ventured in. I was confronted by all the wedding guests posing in front of the ornate gold leaf alterpiece and was pressed upon to become the wedding photographer on their cameras. After performing my duties to their satisfaction I squeezed through the crowds and managed to get a nun to get our credentials stamped and returned to me in the crush of celebrants. Job done. Time for a selfie.

A slightly surreal ending to a great weeks hiking on what is now my favorite Camino route.

CAMINO MOZARABE : Almeria to Granada 4

Guadix to Tocon

Our first section of the two to Tocon was one of the most surprising to us, with great contrasts in scenery when we had been expecting a long slog across the plain. I guess the profile should have told us.

Of course it worked out a little further according to the GPS by which time Sally’s foot was giving her some pain which took the edge off some the pleasure of walking through such natural splendors.

After a nice night at the man made splendors of the Guadix albergue and admiring the grand edifices of its glory days we followed the signage out of town.

A last minute stop off in a cafe for a peregrine breakfast, we were pleasantly surprised that it seemed to be run by social services and our two big tostadas with tomato and olive oil, two cafe con leches and two fruit salads cost us €3.80. The Camino provides! Suddenly we were away from the buildings on a dirt track that led up into eroded hills surrounding good flat farmland- with tractors and even a combine harvester hold up in holes ( in the rock- alongside old abandoned cave houses).

A beautiful stretch followed all the way to Purullena, about 7 km, of an up and down sandy track through pine trees with the “badlands” on either side. The erosion had created gorges that got narrower around us and we found ourselves in a winding tunnel of towering sandstone with openings many meters high.

The old abandoned holes became transformed into a thriving housing sector very shortly when we arrived into town. We had wanted to see the inside of a contemporary cave and the opportunity arose almost strait away with a three story museum right on our path.

The owner explained that the cave houses, with doors and windows shut were pretty constant about 16 or 17 degrees maybe 18-19 in summer. And even in the terrible rain and floods of the recent Storm Gloria the houses stayed perfectly dry owing to the iron content in the fine clay. The structure of the material is such that the ceilings ,and all inside spaces, will hold up as long as the rules governing proportions are adhered to. 40% of the people in his town live in caves and most of the good clay hills have been used. But there is a lot of renovation going on- and some expansion. Must be tricky when your extension is over someone’s bedroom. It would seem a logistical and legal quagmire but he seemed to see no problems and thought it an ideal building method. Another bedroom? Dig away! Another story? A little trickier but no material costs!

The middle floor was laid out as a home of maybe 50 years ago and the final, upper floor was stuffed full of ethnological artifacts.

We’d spent too long there and hurried on, on paths and tracks between small fields of fruit veg grapes and grain to Marchal, another troglodyte town that was making great efforts to be attractive to visitors and especially, pilgrims.

A high road past amazing rock formations and lovely wood and farmland with bueno vistas took us up in quick succession to Los Banos, with a wealth of hotels and hostals servicing people who come to “take the baths, (there are hot springs here but not accessible to us unfortunately), and Graena where we had a look at the 15th century church and shopped in our first cave supermarket.

A long riverbed track past mostly grapes and cave bodegas and then too much hard surface tarmac road- although the dramatic views made up for it- and we had made it to the 150km marker.

Finally La Peza came into view- and we left the tarmac to switchback down a steep mud track into the village where the albergue in a municipal building was cold but the local bar served a hot lentil stew.

La Peza to Tocon. 15km

We had decided to take two shortish days rather than one really long one to Quentar. This meant climbing up to 1200m again, splitting off from the usual route to Quentar to go to Tocon where the Camino Association in Almeria have procured and done a lot of work to a house and made an albergue. Then after another few Kms the original route is regained the following day. Nice and easy.

So it started with a long climb, but yet again the weather, the views and the interesting country made it a joy. So much so that I sloppily played Louis’s “Its a wonderful world” as we went.

The route was also shared for quite a way with horses, as this was the first designated riding route in Granada province, and we past one of the resting places with a newly made drinking trough.

Descending again for awhile we joined a stream bed beside a road that wound its way up through rocky woodland and jutting monoliths of talc(?) to an altitude where the snow still held on.

At the pass of Blancares the routes split and we made our way the couple of km to Tocon down a charming path with newly made wooden post and rail fencing. The tiny village is in an idyllic setting, with clear mountain water running through- supplying plenty of fuentes. The steep concrete road led us to the albergue on a sunny terrace with views to the mountains and the local bar, the only source of sustenance available, a few yards away. A great place to rest up awhile.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Almeria to Granada 3

So we did this:

from Alba steadily rising to Hueneja at 1200m. Then on the next stage we did this:

Hueneja to Alquife.

Which looks dramatic but was all between 1150m and 1275m so pretty easy going. And GPS reckoned it was 21.5km to Lacho Albergue at the top of town. They are always at the top of town! It was a -2 degree start so the steep initial climb was handy for warming us up as we left the town through acres of almonds and cherries, looking back down onto the Marquesado plain with its dozens of wind turbines. Spain’s second largest, it puts out 200 megawatt.

The iPhone camera is hopeless for capturing the wonderful vista of the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada to our south and the Sierra de Baza to our north. The smooth soft blanket looked deep and powdery and we guessed the skiers and snowboarders were having fun.

The pretty village of Dolar after 5kms was having market day so we bought some nuts and fruit and hung out in a plaza bar for a breakfast of tostada and cafe con leche.

We climbed again up and along a beautiful old track with far ranging views over a sea of mostly almonds. Good to see so many healthy trees and so many young ones being planted. Hopefully these can replaced some of the Californian ones that are consuming so much water and are killing so many bees with pesticide usage. Seems like with the rise in vegetarian and veganism the demands for almond milk will grow hugely and here in Spain there was plenty.

The campo was mostly empty of dwellings but we did pass one that will go in my imaginary portfolio of deeply rural, off grid retreats that I’ve been adding to on my rambles over the years. It had a fine old chestnut tree and terraces fed by a complex system of acequia or little irrigation canals. And a view to die for as the agents might say.

We reached the highest point of the day at nearly 1300m and there were still patches of snow on the track. Sally was delighted to find a boar skull from which she extracted the tusks ( a longtime hobby/ interest/peculiarity). From this height we could see the whole 1500 acre site of the massive Andasol solar power station twinkling on the plain below. Using parabolic troughs to gather the suns rays they use tanks of molten salt as a thermal energy store and so can produce power for 200,000 people day and night. Costing €900 million it was money well spent.

Then down to our next stop, in the main plaza of Ferreira where we had our sarnies and I had a non conversation with a lovely old fella I couldn’t understand a word of.

We walked on the edge of the pine forest and natural park with our eye on the imposing castle atop the hill above La Calahora, another charming ancient/ modern mix town. On our way out we passed the casa of an artist in steel whose gates were also imposing.

From La Calahorra we took a bit of a dog leg route to Alquife passing along farm tracks some of which seemed to have been cobbled at one time. We slowly approached the giant mounds of earth and rock that had been extracted by the workers at what had been Europe’s largest open cast iron ore mine. Started by the Romans it had been operational till 1996 but now lay abandoned and in ruins, although there were still some staff and security around. 40% of the iron extracted in Spain had come from this place, leaving a very large hole in the ground which, frustratingly, was out of site.

A few of the almonds had come into flower and where covered by eager bees, although their appetite must be well sated when the other countless thousands are also covered in nectar rich blossom.

We also spotted, on the slag heap behind the mine fence, a big mountain goat puck who watched us curiously but seemingly unperturbed, perhaps knowing he was unreachable.

It was a relief to finally arrive at Lacho, greeted by Manuel and shown around his growing empire. After a shower and rest we returned to the shop for supplies and returned to find a big fire set in the kitchen/ living room which we enjoyed as the sun set behind the snowy mountains and the temperature plummeted.

Alquife to Guadix 25km

After a little climb to start it was downhill all the way the following day.

Leaving Alquife by a track alongside the slagheap wall of earth it took some time to be clear of it and out onto the plain, and some time for the sun to warm the frosted landscape.

But by 10 we climbed into the village of Jerez del Marquesado where it was their turn for the market. Too early to stop, we carried on another 7 km, past some mysterious chimneys that nearly escaped my camera, and up into some pine woodland, adorned with bizarre wooden sculptures of Christian symbolism.

Finally the down hill straight began with a run down through the woods to a big reservoir in a lovely setting.

Cafe com leche and tomate tostada and a stamp in our pilgrim passports were supplied by a surprisingly modern and stylish cafe bar in Cogollos de Guadix where there was also a fine example of the old water cisterns and acequias ( and related graffiti ).

And then we walked out onto the wide, very wide, open spaces of the plain. With huge skies overhead and 360′ views of a ring of distant Sierra it must have been a lonely place to live and a hard place to work. Eventually we came upon a great gorge, and climbing down into it we followed what must be a dry river bed towards Guadix.

A couple of hours later we arrived at the outskirts of the town, with cliffs of sandstone(?) burrowed out into a warren of homes, chimneys sticking up out of the ground like mushrooms. The cuevas barrios are a sight to behold and the houses seem to encompass a range of styles and social classes.

Deeper into the centre of town, around the cathedral, were fine but frequently faded grand old buildings, including our albergue, lovingly restored over the last 35 years and full of fine art and antiques. A treat after a long days hiking.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Almeria to Granada 2.

Alboloduy to Abla- 30km

Stepping out of the albergue in Alboloduy in the morning it was obvious it had been raining during the night from the wet and puddles about but thankfully the skies showed no immediate threat as we left the town to rejoin the riverbed as directed by the markers.

We had left the river Andarax at Alhabia the day before to join the river Nacimiento which would take us all the way to Abla and beyond. The deep rich layers of sediment washed down over millennia had created fertile ground alongside the riverbed that nourished a wide variety of crops but as we delved deeper upstream and away from the town the sides of the valley closed in and we were forced up on an old mule track with views down to the abandoned fincas and their hard won terraces.

The tamarisk and cane wound through the steep sided valley bottom like a golden thread. The trail was littered with the droppings of an animal we guessed to be mountain goats, and sure enough as we reached the tarmac road at the top of the mule track we saw a herd of them bolting away across the mountainside. Turning off the road again we passed an old water cistern built 100 years ago before descending on a zigzag track back to the riverside and another series of mostly abandoned fincas.

From here to the town of Nacimiento, where we stopped for coffee, was a beautiful stretch through cane forests and along a forgotten valley of old abandoned farmsteads, once upon a time busy with working people.

The sky had been darkening and looking more threatening for awhile and we had hoping the weather would hold but soon after leaving Nacimiento, about halfway to Abla, it began to spit, then drizzle, then rain, then lash it down with a strong wind driving it mercilessly straight at us. Heads down we hurried on hoping for shelter. Eventually coming towards the little settlement on the outskirts of Dona Maria I spied a large covered patio opposite some houses. Split into three, each with a door, first two locked, the third open. We hurtled in, throwing off our packs and sopping jackets. The owners were calling from the house opposite, “yes it ok- go in.” Before long ,as we tried to dry things out on the handy washing line and watched the downpour outside, the mother and son(?) arrived with plates of bread and cheese and jamon and a bottle of wine and much kindness and chat. A hard time turned to a good time as the daughter(?) and father all came over with hot homemade cake and hearty handshakes.

Our new best friends. They insisted on sending us on our way with an umbrella each which might not have looked like hightec hiking gear but were given and received with love and joy. And they continued to keep us dry until the next joyful event a few km later.

We had reached Ocana and messaged Nely for the door code of the Association albergue when miraculously she appeared in her carshe had spotted us on her way to check the Ocana albergue. More hugs and directions and off we went again into the riverbed and rain.

Then, bizarrely, a couple of men in a car started warning us about the dangerous waters in the river and said we should not walk there. So they drove us the 5 km to Abla saving us over an hour of sodden hiking. We soon had a couple of electric heaters in the albergue bedroom drying everything and marveling at how the “Camino Provides”!

Abla to Hueneja 22km.

The snow capped peaks around us looked more inviting than threatening the next morning as we set off from the luxury of the well appointed Association albergue, all of which are run on donations and the hard work of a band of dedicated volunteers.

We were now crossing the vast high plain of the Marquesado del Zenitel, a pretty flat and fertile area of fruit and wind farming. We went on the old main Almeria- Guadix-Granada road, the ancient Camino Real, that still has a wealth of different foods and fruits growing in the well tended gardens.