Walking Hiking Rambling

Sierra de Aracena

The largest Natural Park in Andalucia, the Aracena y Los Picos de Aroche is 184,000 hectares of prime walking country.

100km northwest of Seville, in the province of Huelva, this is where the cross Spain ridges of the Sierra Morena finally run out and the Atlantic weather systems drop their water bombs after crossing Portugal unchecked. Lush, green and 90% forested, the softly rounded hills, covered in their blanket of oaks and pines and chestnut are less rugged and wild than many higher, steeper and rockier Sierras but the Aracena is a hikers paradise with long or short walks on moderate gradients winding along the wealth of old drovers that string the pueblos and villages together.

We did 5 long looped rambles over 5 days, and felt we could have lost ourselves in the shady valleys and over the high ridges for months tramping the cobbled mulo trails.

Our first couple of days were spent around Aracena town itself, a charming centre famous for its fantastic cave system right in the middle of town. Supposedly discovered by a shepherd and first opened to the public in 1914, the km or so of passageways and caverns visited on the tour feature a truly awesome ( not a word I use lightly) display of all forms of stalactite and stalagmite, the likes of which I have never seen before. Unfortunately no photography was allowed so I can only illustrate by showing a poster of just one interesting element.

We started early on our first 11km walk on a misty and then drizzly day, a loop to Corteconcepción. The moisture was a good illustration of how the region is seemingly so fertile and lush. Most of the fincas had fine huertas, or garden areas, which even out of season had a wide variety of fruit and veg, irrigated by various systems of water control, including one way stream gates.

A very catholic rural people, there was an abundance of roadside shrines and gatepost tiles depicting the Virgin Mary, and the entire landscape was dotted with chapels, churches, convents, monasteries and hermitages.

Passed the gardens of brassicas, root crops and the last remains of peppers, tomato etc and the orchards of orange, lemon, chestnut, pomegranate and persimmon was rich Dehesa country. Tracks lined with Arbutus, the strawberry tree, their fruit littering the ground, their flowers decorating the branches in a fitting Christmas style, were surrounded by oaks of every kind, under which the Iberian pigs snuffled and snorted, hovering up the plump and plentiful acorns.

Unlike a lot of our Spanish treks we were often accompanied by the gurgling and burbling of running water and had to ford streams on a variety of stepping stones and bridges.

We spent the drizzly afternoon in the caves and in museums of jamon (ham) and setas (mushrooms), both of which, along with chestnuts, the region is rightly famous for. Autumn is the time to be here with a rich harvest going on and the chestnuts turning golden brown. The huge variety of mushrooms is amazing with many kinds gathered for the kitchens and tables.

And as for the jamon, as much as we relished seeing the pigs enjoying their free ranging freedom, ( indeed we came upon many living feral in the open hills) the sad truth displayed in the museum of jamon was that it all ended in butchery.

But at least the end product was treated with a reverence rarely seen bestowed upon food unfortunately. There are many outlets in the area and indeed across Spain that are akin to cathedrals of pork, with the Iberian acorn fed pigs from Jabugo and the Aracena area on the high alter, and the jamon costing many hundreds of euro.

Next day was brighter and drier and we took off on another 16km circular route from Aracena west to the village of Linares de la Sierra.

Finding or way out of town past the sports arena , swimming pool and football pitch we soon found ourselves among the freshly peeled alcornoques or cork oaks on a path shared with walkers and riders.

The amount of material gathered sustainably from the cork oaks is very impressive and must involve some hard graft with ladders and mules needed to harvest the trees across the hard to reach sierra. Although the wine industries adoption of plastic corks created worries for the indigenous industry there seems to be a big revival of other cork products and an impressive selection of goods are on sale in the area.

The trail climbed a ridge and then descended towards Linares, tucked deep into the folds of the green hills. We walked on sandy tracks, rocky trails and cobbled paths accompanied by birdsong, cowbells and snorting pigs.

The village itself was an exhibition in the art of cobbling. The houses had individual designs in black and white marble cobbles at their front doors, the streets were intact and maintained and there was new and restored cobbling going on around the church.

On our return to Aracena we passed through some more open country with big fincas, the gate posts displaying the hieroglyphic initials or signs with which their stock was branded. There was also one signed with the distance to Santiago de Compostela, presumably a returned pilgrim. And then on the approach to town some tasteful and expensive looking holiday rentals.

Finishing our circle we drove to our next days starting place outside Alájar, another attractive town in a beautiful setting with towering peak of Pena de Arias Montano rising sheer above it. We drove to the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels half way up and hiked up to the mirador for mighty views across the Sierra.

A shortish 12km loop with plenty of ups and downs circled from Alájar back to Linares by way of the once abandoned but now being resettled hamlet of Los Madroneros.

A new concrete track covers most of the distance to the isolated hamlet where solar panels and mobile phones have made living or staying out here a more viable option. There has been a fair bit of reconstruction going on and there are places to rent for anybody looking to avoid the rat race for awhile.

Our route now lead us through an area with broken down walls where the resident pigs had access to miles upon miles of open territory and even abandoned houses. Remarkably tame they joined us for a picnic.

Our approach to Linares was marked by a lot of wilder, less managed Dehesa with horse and scrub replacing the grazing grasses.

After a couple of cafe con leches in the bullring bar we climbed back up towards the camper on a steep track past the poolside Riberas recreation area where a dammed stream has become a popular picnic spot.

Alájar was busy with visiting school kids and people preparing the village for Christmas so we headed for the hills to stay in Castano del Robledo, ready for an 18 km circle from there to La Pressa, Alájar and back.

From our fine (and quiet) park up next to the cemetery we descended in the morning through a misty mixture of chestnut and pines with views out across the forested slopes.

Coming to the valley floor we crossed various streams many times and on one I came a cropper and ended up on my back in the water.

The riverside walk was obviously visited by school kids who had left pictures and poems celebrating nature along the route and even had a little library in a grove of trees.

It was here we met a bunch of escapee piglets who showed no fear as they rootled past.

Past an enclave of holiday haciendas built by Dutch settlers, on a lovely track into Alájar and then up a cobbled way past the hippy hamlet of El Calabacino.

Abandoned and then squatted the community has now been regularized and some of the houses/ fincas look very settled and established.

Above the hamlet the cobbled gave way to a concrete track that turned into a rutted sandy one that climbed up through our first large scale chestnut groves. Brought to this part of Spain by settlers from the north and Galicia after the reconquest the ancient and venerable trunks, pollarded for hundreds of years, have born witness to many changes to an area which on first impressions seems timeless.

The final leg back to Robledo was down through deciduous oaks where the wildlife was dangerous, and into the town square woolbombed for Xmas.

More knitted decorations at the start of our last days loop, from Almonaster La Real, up the Cerro de San Cristobal mountain and around through Arroyo and Acebuche, a distance of around 14 km.

Looking back towards town on our steep onward bound trail the 10th century hilltop mosque was impressive with its adjoining bullring.

More glorious tracks, chestnut groves, clear streams, happy pigs, settlers idylls and forested slopes marked our last day in the Aracena.

Before setting off southwards to Seville at van speed we soaked up the view of the Sierra from its highest point on San Christobal. From a tad over 900m the whole landscape looked glorious.

We had discovered it looked just as appealing when deep down within it and vowed to return.

Parque Minero de Riotinto

A few days work done on the finca and time to head off in the camper on another hiking/ exploring trip. This time we were off Northwest, to Huelva province and only about 60 km from the Portuguese border.

The hiking around the Sierra de Aracena is renowned for its beauty so we were going there for a few days – but en route we wanted to stop at Riotinto the birthplace of the river and the global megacompany.

In a way the landscape was the exact opposite of Aracena’s carefully nurtured or natural and wild countryside. Riotinto’s has been torn asunder for millennia for quick material gain, literally clawing the earth apart to get to the wealth of minerals hidden in the Iberian Pyrite Belt.

A massive area of open cast mines both current and exploited and abandoned coupled with vast spoilheaps of vivid and florid colors make for a man made,surreal, and toxic, environment. A (un)healthy balance to all the gloriously bucolic green and pleasant lands we’ve been wandering through.

The largest open cast mine in Europe is here, recently flooded and left. But it’s been going on for 5000 years with the Iberian miners leaving many Neolithic reminders of their presence around the area. Then Phoenicians mined copper and mixed it with tin from Cornwall to make bronze. The Romans followed after but preferred the gold and silver in the rocks, as well as copper, lead, iron and sulfur.

After admiring (?) the view from the mirador on the edge of town we headed to the abandoned wastelands of Pena de Hierro.

The setting sunlight emphasized the already red hills and heaps but there was a host of other colour too.

It was soon dark so we postponed our exploration till the morning after checking out our route on a suitably bizarre map.

The rising sun made for an equally effective lighting of the land as we wound our way up the hill above the derelict buildings.

Within the hill lay the crater whose multicolored walls spoke of a riches of minerals.

The entire mountain side around had suffered a devastating fire fairly recently, increasing the apocalyptical look and feel to the place, although we were glad so see signs of recovery in the eucalyptus if not the pine.

The Brits had planted these sierras originally, to use in the mines. They had arrived in 1873 in the shape of the Riotinto Company, taking over the unproductive state owned mines and transforming ( and soon enveloping) a town of 4000 into a behemoth of industry with 200,000 workers.

All very weird, and it got weirder when we drove down to Riotinto town and stopped at the source of its namesake. The river waters are full of copper and iron oxide and sulfuric acid and other lovely things, something I didn’t know when I tasted it!

I suppose the danger/ stop shade of vivid red should have warned me. The strongest taste I’ve ever had the displeasure to rapidly spit from my mouth. I found out later the stuff can dissolve iron and has a ph of around 2.

In fact it’s so inhospitable to life that NASA have been studying it, and the surrounding toxic landscape as a Mars substitute. And actually, even though no plant, amphibian, fish, insect or mammal can survive in it, micro organisms that can have been discovered there. So Mars could be full of similar. Maybe.

We visited the museum in town for an exhaustive exhibition of the history of the mines and the exploitation of the earth and local people wasn’t something to celebrate but there were some pretty rocks.

The British Bosses had built themselves a little separate enclave modeled after an Edwardian village and named Bella Vista. There, at the English Club, they could enjoy the lifestyle of the Home Counties and play croquet, cricket, polo and tennis. And Riotinto was not only home to Spain’s first golf course but also it’s first football pitch and is where the game was first introduced to the Spanish.

So the legacy of the mining activities is not just a hugely polluted landscape and watercourse all the way the the coast and beyond but also the “beautiful game” of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Anyone wanting to make an ” end of the earth” sci fi/ horror movie could do worse than come here and our next location was perfect. A few Km north of town on the way to Aracena lay the Embalse Gossan and here the out of this world cranked up a notch.

Water levels were low, revealing strange mineral encrusted life forms. Trunks and branches of long dead trees and stalks of amazingly surviving reeds were coated thickly in ? And the orange mud surrounding them was worryingly quicksand like. Not a way I’d wanna go.

And another strange thing was that footprints left in the muck we’re not indented – but raised!

One other disquieting thing before I finish this post. While looking at Google maps satellite view of the area I spotted a funny landscape/ crop formation next to Pena de Hierro, so I went for a look when we were camped there. It’s miles and miles of orange grove on terraces around the mines.

We’d heard trucks up and down to it half the night. I found a car park full of pickers cars. It’s harvest time and there’s a big area to pick. Huge operation.

Turns out it’s all RioTinto fruit. Europe’s largest citrus farm at 3000 hectares. They are big into the use of Boron in agriculture. Boron is one of the common minerals in the spoilheap landscape. There’s also lots of unpleasant ones.

A lot of RioTinto Fruit is classified as organic. Tesco buy their organic oranges from there. Just saying.

Sierra de Andújar

The Natural Park of Andújar is larger than its neighbour Cardeña y Montoro,at nearly 75,000 hectares and its wilder. With more pine forest and scrub and rock and less Dehesa country with grazing livestock the drovers trails strung between the villages around Cardeña are not so much a feature. But there is still a wealth of tracks and routes all over the Sierra, varying in length and difficulty. Walking and wildlife spotting are big business these days and there is plenty to spot.

This is one of the last strongholds of the Iberian Lynx and there are a good few wolves too. Unfortunately we only saw deer in the flesh and a statue of a mighty Jabari (boar) in the area recreativa we stopped at for our first night.

There was a fine fuente there allowing us to wash off the last few days on the trail and road before heading cross country to a high Mirador, or viewpoint, to catch the sun setting over miles of unbroken forest like green waves on the rolling and rising hills and valleys.

The road that wound further up the mountain past our camp passed by an imposing building we could make out firmly fixed atop a high crag of granite. Our target for the following morning, the Santuario Virgin de la Cabeza was the site of an apparition in the 13th century when a Shepard named Juan saw strange lights atop the Cabeza ridge and when he investigated came across the lost image of Mary who spoke to him, asking for a church to be built there. She also cured his paralyzed arm.

So we studied a map of part of the route and when to sleep under a sky ablaze with stars and filled with the call of owls and foxes.

In the morning the way climbed between rounded granite boulders steeply up a rocky/sandy track at times through shaded forest at others across more open country of aromatic shrubs and herbs. We passed an ancient ruin- maybe the home of Juan?

As we climbed the Santuario came closer into view and we able to make out its massive bulk. Apparently the 13th century building was very badly damaged by Republican forces during the Siege of Cabeza and subsequently rebuilt in ” a grotesque mishmash of Fascistic architecture, similar in style to Franco’s tomb outside Madrid”.

The strange slender shape we’d spotted and pondered over the evening before turned out to be a towering madonna sporting a crucifixion on her torso looking out over a gloriously sunlit panorama of hills and mist.

On exploring the cavernous interior I discovered a gallery of ” our ladies” from towns and cities in Spain , in fact the long corridor housed over 450 different Madonnas. Here’s but a tiny sample.

One of Andalucia’s biggest fiestas is the annual romeria , or pilgrimage, to the sanctuary on the last Sunday in April, when 500,000 pilgrims trek up on foot, horseback, carts and donkeys from Andújar, about 25km away. After days of celebrations in the town the pilgrimage proper starts early on the Saturday morning, arriving all evening and night, with hourly masses. Then on the Sunday morning the Virgin is paraded down the hill in her ornate carriage.

All of this has resulted in a massive fiesta/ party/ sales opportunity for centuries and there were some old photos of the huge tented village that springs up surrounding the Santuario.

It had started to get busy up there so we headed off, on the pilgrimage route, down to Lugar Nuevo, the half way point from Andújar, where half a million pilgrims have a picnic once a year.

It was a beautiful route, with the church bells peeling as we strode down the cobbled track worn smooth by the hooves and feet of a multitude.

We stopped briefly at a pretty mirador but were saddened to see loads of rubbish by a rest area. God knows what it’s like the end of April.

Thanks to the wonders of GPS and google maps from Lugar Nuevo we were able to work out a route back up the El Jabari area recreativo, so after a rest by the river we headed back up.

A long trek up a sandy track and a cross country scramble got us back to the van for a late lunch before driving south again to another area recreativa alongside the Rio Jandula and up to the dam at the Embalse del Encinarejo, looking good in the evening light.

The waters attracted the birds, the birds attracted the bird watchers, serious folk with big lenses on their cameras and camping chairs and binoculars, prepared to put the time in for a rare spotting. They were with us last thing at night and first thing in the morning when we set off for our own exploration.

It reminded us very much of Australia with all the Eucalyptus trees and also the facilities of sport and picnic( or barbies). There was obviously a fishing competition coming up with pitches marked out. And there were picnic tables everywhere, even a wheelchair boardwalk (board wheel).

The “birders” were still at it on our return and we too admired the avian life, and the hides,down the river.,

From the Santuario we had gazed across mile after mile of this Parque and it would have been wonderful to loose ourselves in its depths, but there were things to do elsewhere so we returned to the van and the road , sad that the only Lynx we had seen in the Sierra de Andújar were on the signs.

Sierra de Cardeña y Montoro, Andalucia

We’ve managed to get away to Spain for a few weeks avoidance of the inclement weather of an Irish winter and to explore some hiking areas in the south we haven’t been to before.

Driving hurriedly down through a rain lashed France through the Yellow Jacket’s blockades the sun emerged as we journeyed south of the border. Stopping for the night to visit Toledo we meandered around the narrow streets soaking up the ambience of this historic city.

Pushing on south the next morning we arrrived in Cardeña, the main town of the Parque Natural, early afternoon and headed off on an 18 km circular hike through the Dehesa ,open Holm , Cork and Portuguese Oak pastureland, famous for its free ranging Iberian pigs which fatten on the copious quantities of acorns and become the highly prized Bellota jamon.

The first leg took us down an old drovers road to Aldea del Cerezo, an ancient hamlet which had been more or less deserted until renovated and turned into a study Centre a few years back. Cattle and sheep are also important livestock here and the sustainability of this centuries old farming system is being intently studied at the moment in the light of climate change and other transformations.

The 41,000 hectare park is home to a rich variety of wildlife and a wide range of habitats. Forests, scrubs, pasture and crags provide homes and food for a wealth of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish. Perhaps the most exciting of animals to be found here,and in the neighbouring Sierra de Andújar, is the Lynx, a rare and solitary animal of which there are now reckoned to be only 250, most surviving in this area.

But pigs, there are plenty of. It was lovely to see them living a life of relative freedom, with vast areas to roam at will, or soak up the sun, or wallow in the mud. At first scattering on our approach, curiosity brought them back, snorting contentedly.

The walk was pleasantly easy going with gentle undulations and sweeping curves in the track and plenty of shade from the evergreen oaks.

Arriving at Aldea del Cerezo after 7 or so km we had a little refreshment break and watched dogs, farmer in Jeep and wife on foot struggle in control a flock of errant sheep.

We were glad to see them restoration of the little hamlet and hope it gets plenty of use. It seemed a lovely spot with the advantage of water running through it. There were even rushes to match any at home in the soggy boglands.

From here we headed up a smaller, rougher, no vehicles track towards Azuel for about 4 Km before turning west again to reach after Cardeña 6 km.

There was another steam to ford with more birds flitting about and we had seen rabbits but otherwise all the animals had been domesticated.

There had been plenty of raining over the last month or so and the landscape shone an iridescent green. There was another interesting landscape feature, huge granite boulders like Henry Moore’s or Barbara Hepworth’s artworks scattered around the green carpet of a gallery floor.

On our return to Cardeña we passed a few flocks of sheep with their dog minders. These remarkable canines not only spend all day guarding without human guidance but also escort them home at night and out again in the morning.

A little weary on arrival at the van, we drove to the Mirador above the village of Azuel a few km north where we slept soundly under a clear and star studded sky.

It’s slow to get light here around midwinter thanks to Franco setting his clock to Hitler time and we didn’t get going on the next days 11km loop around Azuel till after 8.30 but it was another glorious day and the temperature soon starting rising, especially as we spent the first hour rising up through the trees towards the southeast. A similar landscape but subtlety different, with sparser trees and more open views to the Sierra to the north.

The granite base to the landscape had provided walls to match the Aran Islands and hundreds of lovely slender fence posts.

There must be a fair bit of rain in these parts and the air must be clear and clean judging by the copious lichens hanging from the trees and adorning the walls.

We walked right through a remote and deserted farmstead where the steadfast dogs minded the sheep mums and their newborn lambs and then off down a series of autumnal trails.

Nearing the end of our walk we passed a load of pigs leading a lifestyle a lot more restricted. I’m not sure if these were those grain fed farm reared pigs that obtain “Cebo” status or what but “Bellota” is a happy pig.

Next stop -the neighbouring, but wilder Parque Natural Sierra de Andújar and another chance to find the elusive Lynx.

ST DECLANS WAY : Cahir to Ardmore 85km: 25th-27th June

IMG_9459

A year and a half after I first hiked some of St Declans Way in Co. Tipperary I went back to complete it last June. Previously I had walked the ancient route from Cahir north to the finish/start at the famous Rock of Cashel, and then returned to Cahir along the Tipperary Heritage Way following the River Suir. This time I started again at Cahir and continued south for 3 days to reach the Co Waterford coast at Ardmore where Declan is said to have founded Ireland’s first monastery sometime in the 5th century, and beating St Patrick to the claim of bringing Christianity to the Irish.

With the pilgrimage revival in full swing and this route being dubbed the Irish Camino, my hopes were high. There has been a lot of promotion of this and other Ways recently and now, thanks to the Camino Society of Ireland, 25km walked on Irish pilgrim paths will count towards the 100km needed to claim your certificate or compostela in Santiago.

Indeed, there is now now need to travel to northern Spain to obtain a certificate, with Irish pilgrim passports stamped on completing 125km over 5 routes in Mayo, Wicklow, Cork and Kerry entitling you to a Celtic Compostela.

IMG_9409

And so on a fine midsummers day I set off from Cahir Castle admidst a bustling crowd of holiday makers. A quick stroll in the riverside park to admire all the tree trunk carvings and then I followed the Tipperary Heritage Way signs through a woodland thick with “fairy” houses and along a sunlit dappled path passed the golf course and towards the rustic and ornate “Swiss cottage”.

 

It was there that the first directional confusion occurred. I was working off the maps that were produced in the mid 90’s, when the route was initially devised and laid out. These maps aren’t the most clear or detailed but were all I could find. I had also managed to download the route on to my phone Viewranger app but this disagreed with the maps and all physical signage had disappeared. Calling into the Swiss Cottage reception for help the ladies informed me that there seemed to be a lot of directionally confused people trying to locate the Pilgrim Path nowadays and were unable to shed any light on which of a multitude of choices was the right one.

2018 had been billed as the official relaunch/ revival of the route, touted as being fully signed and “de-vegetated”. I knew that the very active “KnockmealdownActive” group had organised a series of 5 hikes over the entire route on the last Saturdays of the month, starting in March, and had been attracting about 300 people a time, but these were of course guided hikes without the need for signage. Considering the fanfare that accompanied the relaunch and the €150,000 from the Rural Recreation Fund to get it together I was disappointed over the next few days to be confronted with old, fallen or hidden signage from the 90’s and often no signage at all, abandoned at the crossroad.

After following the wide and sparkling Suir for another km or so I was led up to a road where I was heartened to see a yellow arrow, a sure indicator of a pilgrimage route, even if it was pointing in the opposite direction to mine.

 

 

It was more than 10km of tarmac road before I crossed the Suir again at Ardinnan on small roads that roughly followed the ancient Rain Bo Phadraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow, through lush and productive grain growing farmland, occasionally passing the earthen cottages of a bygone era.

IMG_9424

 

 

Ardfinnan, now a sleepy village, had once been an important and strategic stronghold, protecting a major route into the province of Munster. The castle from around 1100 was built by King John, later to be owned by the Knights Templar and the bishop of Waterford before being sacked by Cromwells cannons. I stopped here for a fish and chip dinner by the river before pushing on toward the Knockmealdown Mountains another 10km away to the south. I had to backtrack a little when I missed the sign hidden in the hedge. I was now following the Heritage Way again until the forested slopes of the Knockmealdowns.

 

 

A few kms to the south of Ardfinnan lay the ruins of what must once have been a beautiful monastery whose history is now lost in obscurity. Lady’s Abbey has been dated variously between the 12th and 15th centuries and lying, as it does, alongside the Rain Bo Phadraig-“the most important Ecclesiastical highway in the Diocese” it must have witnessed a lot of foot traffic over its life, including the shuffling lines of the starving in the famine years as they made their way to the nearby poorhouse.

IMG_9430

The renowned fertility of the Tipperary landscape showed through in the golden grain as I passed fields of barley, oats and wheat awaiting the summer harvesting.

IMG_9432

IMG_9433

Another few kms walk on the quiet backroads and I was led down a path to the River Tarr, a tributary of the Suir, where i crossed on a 1930’s metal bridge while a dog chased sticks in the wide and shallow waters below. The river, which rises in the Galtee mountains to the northwest, meanders across the limestone through which a couple of mighty springs bubble up, feeding the flow of clear waters. It’s rich in life; salmon, eels and sea lamprey and has a reputation as an excellent brown trout fishery, which in turn attracts herons, egrets and kingfishers.

IMG_9437

Not far down the river, when a fine new stone bridge was built to span the Tar,  the first pedestrians to cross were a couple of goats and so the village that grew there became known as Goatenbridge. The evening was drawing in and although it was high summer and the light would stay with me for a few hours yet I was anxious to move on and reach the forested mountains where I stood more chance of finding a place to bivvy for the night. The forecast was for the prolonged dry spell to continue so I had left the tent at home to cut down on my pack weight and only carried a sleeping bag and mat.

IMG_9442

The first St Declan yellow arrow I had seen led me up on forest trails into the Knockmealdowns as the lights of the farmhouses in the rich vale below started to twinkle on. I was driven on from my first choice of encampment by clouds of midges, a problem of being tentless I hadn’t considered. Losing my way for awhile I blundered and backtracked through more and more unsuitable surroundings before finally, as the light faded, chasing some sheep from a trackside patch of grass and settling down for the night, weary after 8 hours hiking over 26km.

IMG_9449

The morning sky was a similar canvas in reverse, the darker reds slowly dissolving into slighter hues of pink and blue.

IMG_9451

Another fine day promised in this summer of official Irish heatwave and drought. I retraced my steps aways, past the waterfall heard but not seen the night before, to find the route revealed by a tiny sign amidst the bracken, up through the trees to the open moorland above, a relief to be beyond the embrace of the dark green forest and out in a space with further horizons.

IMG_9454

IMG_9456

IMG_9460

Clearly visible as I made my way up and over Bottleneck Pass at 537m were the deep trenches cut by the horns of the enraged cow belonging to St Patrick as she chased the robbers of her calf from Cashel to Lismore. Or so they say. An ancient path certainly did cut through the shallow turf southward towards the sea shining silver in the mornings light.

IMG_9461

IMG_9463

Crossing from Tipperary and into Waterford it was a fine hike down the Rian Bo Phadraig, the sunken, sometimes sodden, path through the heather and bilberries eventually merging, on more level ground, with stony tracks and finally tarmac roads.

IMG_9469

The Rian led me all the way to beyond Lismore when I turned onto the Bothar na Naomh (Path of the Saints). We have visited Lismore castle a few times in the past and the gardens are always a delight. After a cafe breakfast I embedded myself amongst the flowers, scrubs, trees and architecture for a restful few hours, reluctant to leave in the heat.

IMG_9494

There were a lot of sculptures dotted around the grounds including ones by a couple of my personal favourite artists- David Nash and Antony Gormley- and the castle has its own contemporary gallery with a continuous showing of exhibitions.

Finally wrenching myself away I watched a fly fisherman below the castle and then followed the river Blackwater downstream through verdant growth on Lady Louisa’s Walk.  Lady Louisa was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, ancestor of the current owner the 12th Duke. It wasn’t long before the sweltering sun and the cool looking water conspired to slow my hike again by tempting me into a still pool at the edge of the fast flowing river.

IMG_9496

Much refreshed I continued cross country for awhile before joining a road to Cappoquin. From there I had many many kms of Tarmac road, passing some grand but neglected remnants of the colonial and protestant past. Affane Church of Ireland, nearly lost beneath a mass of Ash and ancient Yews, was surrounded by overgrown gravestones and mausolea with fine cut stone and handcrafted iron railings, attesting to the wealth of the inhabitants of this productive land. It was here that the route turned away from the Bothar and onto the Casan na Naomh (Path of the Saints), long buried under the hard footsore surface of bitumen.

Eventually reaching Knocknaskagh I at last started down the charming ribbons of narrow boreens that marked my walk across Waterford and that proved to be the fond and abiding memory of the whole St Declan’s Way. In fact I was now, for the first time, on what is known as St Declans Road.

IMG_9512

I was getting weary after travelling 30km that day and the slender tracks with high hedges either side didn’t make for great camping so I was optimistic when a chatty local recommended that I stop in at a “new age travellers” house a couple of km further along who would be sure to put me up.

IMG_9518

And so it was. I was welcomed into the restored cottage on a few acres of grazing by a lovely fella whose name my declining memory refuses to return to me. Although suffering from a debilitating disease he had, with the help you tend to get if you give, built up a homestead previously destined for the bulldozer, rescuing and raising horses and foals- and sheltering weary travellers. He offered me a variety of options and I chose a caravan, sleeping soundly after a couple of pints of homemade cider. Cheers.

IMG_9514

With the high ground of the Knockmealdowns and Bottleneck Pass sat on the horizon 30km and a days hike behind me I set off on my final leg to Ardmore down a sequence of peaceful and still boreens, some recently cleared of vegetation in what my host had said was preparation for the creation of publicised walking routes.

At the crossing of the River Lickey I somehow missed the path to the left and crossed over the stepping stones, the unusually dry summer and low water levels helping considerably. It was only after fighting my way through the undergrowth on the far bank and blundering into a pilgrim path waymarker that I discovered the handsome wooden footbridge.

The Pilgrim Path post was the first i’d seen on this route. The design comes from a stone carving in Co Cork and depicts a medieval pilgrim complete with tonsure, or shaved head, hat, tunic and staff. Used when the Heritage Council first initiated the re-awakening of various pilgrimage routes in Ireland I had come across it in Mayo, Cork, Kerry, Wicklow and Offaly.

After leaving the dragonflies and darting fish behind in the babbling brook I climbed up onto another earthen trackway, once known as the Bothar na Riolog, and back into a sunny summers day with the temperature rising.

IMG_9552

As the heat rose my desire to get to the sea climbed towards obsession. Passing a bicycle atop the hedge I stopped and internally debated the likelihood that it was abandoned and the morality of taking it on a final, speedy journey to the coast and the cool blue waters. A pilgrim couldn’t  take a chance on bad moral judgement so I reluctantly turned away and plodded on what was now hot tarmac.

IMG_9553

A short(ish) distance and a lot of sweat later I broke through the crowds of beachside holiday makers and followed the retreating tide to the relief. Dropping my pack and stripping off my clothes I ran into the shallows and, without a pause for the jellyfish, continued until submerged. Ahhh.

IMG_9576

The hottest summer on record. The hottest day of 2018 would be the next day. And only a few months since Storm Emma, The Beast from the East, had dumped tonnes of snow on this area, filling the sunken roads to the top of the hedges and shutting the county down for days.

But my journey was not over yet. I had to complete the 5km Cliff Walk, taking me passed the 12th century round tower and cathedral. At 95ft high the tower is one of Ireland’s finest and very well preserved and next to it is St Declan’s oratory where once the saints body lay before the medieval enthusiasm for relic collecting saw him scattered.

IMG_9577

A sandy path between potato fields drew me up to the cliffs edge with an invigorating Atlantic sea breeze whipping up the waves crashing on the rocks way below.  In the distance stood the castle and coastguard station of 1867 now surrounded by a dancing mass of wild flowers and circled by raucous seabirds.

A concrete lookout post from WW2 seemed incongruous amidst such harmonious beauty and was certainly of no use in 1987 when the Samson, a crane barge, went onto the rocks. The rope that attached it to a tug had broken in gale force conditions off the Welsh coast and a day later it washed up on Rams Head. It now slowly rusts away and a couple of years ago the entire jib collapsed into the sea, depriving countless seabirds their roosting spot.

IMG_9588

IMG_9589

Walking back in time from 20th to 4th century ruins I rounded Ardmore Head and west along the cliff path overlooking Ardmore Bay to arrive at the origins of Christianity in Ireland. St Declan’s Well served as his Baptistery from 416AD, a good few years before St Patrick was to appear on the scene, when he founded the first monastery over by the round tower a little distance inland.  In later life, tiring of the hordes of pilgrims he built himself a little cell near the well and retired to a life of quiet contemplation. He died there and a church was erected that to this day is the site of pattern rituals on the saints day, July 24th, and often a midnight mass the night before.

IMG_9591

IMG_9592

There was one more sacred relic to witness before I finished with St Declan’s Way. Before leaving Wales for Ireland Declan received a golden bell from heaven after giving mass. Now this bell was obviously very precious to him and he wanted to bring it with him to Ireland. Unfortunately it was forgotten when they set off leaving Declan to pray hard for its safety and low and behold his prayers were answered and the bell appeared, borne atop a rock floating on the waves ahead and leading the way to the Irish coast. Declan promised to build a monastery wherever the rock, and the bell, came ashore. And so it was.

IMG_9597

I don’t know if the tradition continues but it used to be that on 24th July people would crawl under the stone to receive spiritual benefits (and cure arthritis – although it’s hard to imagine a sufferer of that being able to manage ). It’s also said that the stone should not be approached by the “unworthy” so I kept my distance.

And so this pilgrimage was complete. I don’t have a “passport”, and will receive no certificate or “compostela”, but I carry with me abiding memories of walking beside the Suir and the Blackwater, climbing over the Knockmealdowns on an ancient trail, strolling the sunken sandy boreens of Waterford, from the seat of the high kings in Cashel to the origins of Celtic Christianity  at Ardmore. I think I would have been OK with the rock on the beach.

THE CAUSEWAY COAST WAY : 52km: June 2018

Screen Shot 2018-08-07 at 09.54.59

It was now almost 2 months ago that we finally got round to heading north to experience the Antrim coastline over a couple of days hiking the Causeway Coast. In the middle of June we drove north through Storm Hector, listening to the government warnings on the camper radio telling us to stay at home and not to risk venturing out. A long blustery drive up the west from south Co Galway, we were surprised when we reached Donegal to discover we were only half way there.

However by midday we were parked up in the harbour at Ballycastle, the finish of the Way, where we left the camper and took a taxi over to the start of the walk in Portstewart. It was another of those slightly irritating journeys when you ponder the sense of taking 2 days to walk a winding route of 52km whilst sitting comfortably in a car that takes a bit over half an hour over a straighter road.

The Blue Flag beach where the taxi dropped us was basking in sunshine, and vast. Owned and managed by the National Trust which tries to protect the dunes and has established bird hides to admire the wading birds and waterfowl.

IMG_9211

We took a look at Tubber Patrick, St Patricks well, originally used by prehistoric communities as a source of water and medical cures. When St Paddy past through around 450AD he blessed the well and started a pilgrimage which developed into a fair on the last monday of August with horse races on the beach. Locals would sell the holy water to tourists right up until the 1940’s.

IMG_9214

Setting off on the 10km section to Portrush we past a salmon fisherman’s cottage, part of a once thriving and prosperous industry all along this coast until quite recently. Maybe the occupant of the grave of an unknown sailor, a little further along the shoreline, was a salmon fisherman himself.

On the rocky sections of this coast, between the sandy beaches, we came upon numerous swimming pools over the next couple of days. A little bit of well placed concrete and some ladders and steps turned the wild waters into placid bathing places.

IMG_9223

There were also a lot of golf courses and beautifully positioned houses amongst the cliffs and dunes. The whole causeway coast is an AONB, an area of outstanding beauty, and within it there are a number of SAC’s (special area of conservation), SPA’s (special protection area’s), ASSI’s ( area of special scientific interest) and an NNR (national nature reserve). The Giants Causeway itself is a WHS (world heritage site) and with all these protected areas the owners of these houses are obviously living where no planning would be granted now.

 

The Rosa Rugosa plants obviously liked it here and were running wild and rampant along the Way for miles. They had colonised the edges of the many golf links and must have made the retrieval of errant golf balls a prickly business. Passing a grassy promontory where we struggled to make out the remains of Ballyreagh Castle before we crossed the wide sweeping bay of the West Strand and on to Portrush harbour with its neat display of  boats made fast with a network of ropes.

IMG_9228

IMG_9231

IMG_9232

Unfortunately the route east along the Curran Strand, a glorious 2km stretch of fine golden sand to our bed for the night at White Rocks, had been closed off for filming Artemis Fowl and rather then walk along the busy A2 we decided to try climbing over the dunes and cutting across the famous and expensive Portstewart golf course. A bit of a mistake as we hadn’t realised the size of the three 18hole courses and the number of fairways we were going to have to negotiate whilst wealthy players waited for the rucksack ramblers to get out of their way.

We eventually and somewhat miraculously made it to the back door of our airbnb where we discovered that the winding coast road we were to continue on in the morning was also due to be closed for filming. We went off to the neighbouring hotel for a drink and to mingle with the stars supposedly staying there. And to complain to Kenneth Branagh, the director, about the inconvenience his movie was causing us. Maybe. If we saw him.

We couldn’t find Kenneth so hung out on the patio soaking up the moody sea views and discovered from security that the road wouldn’t be closed till 8am, giving us time to claim it.

IMG_9251

Bright and early we were down on the shore admiring the limestone cliffs backing the beach that give White Rocks its name. Amongst the white were many hard black boulders of basalt, spat out of volcanos in one of the 3 great outpourings of lava over 60 million years ago that also created the Giants Causeway.

IMG_9258

The car parks above the beach were getting very busy with film crew and we figured it was time to get going. There are numerous locations along this coast made famous through the filming of The Game of Thrones and the roads can be full of tour buses rushing from one to another. Luckily for us the A2 we were walking down had been closed to vehicles but filming had not started, allowing us the rare opportunity of sauntering down the middle of the usually busy and noisy road, admiring the magnificent sea views in peace.

We stopped to explore Dunluce Castle a medieval masterpiece perched spectacularly on a rocky promontory high above the sea. The castle was still not open when we got there but we were able to explore around the outside and imagine the “lost town of Dunluce” recently unearthed by archaeologists.

Back to join another, open road, we passed through the small town of Portballintrae, down to Runkerry Beach and crossed the river Bush (of Bushmills whiskey fame) to join a wooden boardwalk alongside the bank for a bit before turning onto a gravel path through the sand dunes and crisscrossing the old Bushmills to Giants Causeway railway line.

At the far end of the long beach we past under the impressive victorian edifice of Runkerry House, around the Point and climbed up on to the grassy clifftop we were to follow for the next 10km. Next up was the tourist honeypot of the Giants Causeway, and it was heaving. Declining the offer of £11.50 tickets to visit the Visitor Centre we instead joined the human snake down the access road to the (free2view) causeway.

The legendary basalt rock formations and columns were impressive enough to overcome the distraction of hundreds of other sightseers although the cliffs and coastline beyond were equally impressive and devoid of people.

IMG_9291IMG_9296IMG_9310IMG_9326IMG_9327IMG_9330IMG_9331

From the sea level we climbed the steep “Shepherds Steps” to rejoin the cliff path and walked along the highest part of the Way rising slowly up to Benbane Head from where we looked back down to the final resting place of the Girona, a Spanish Armada ship wrecked with the loss of 1300 lives. In 1967 the wreck gave up many treasures to a team of divers which are now displayed in Belfast’s Ulster Museum.

From this highpoint of 100m we steadily descended south east, passing above the beautiful Port Moon bay, an historical fishery now home to a bothy for kayakers and down to sea level again at the ruins of Dunseverick Castle, an ancient promontory fort once important enough to lie at the end of one of the 5 roads emanating from Tara. After being sacked by vikings it fell into ruin and little remains of it now.

IMG_9334IMG_9336

A little way passed the ruins we made a mistake. We believed our guidebook, published by WalkN.I., when it told us that the way forward along the coast had been blocked by landslides and it was necessary to divert along the busy A2. We did think about risking it and trying to find a way through but with the evening approaching and a fair way to go we didn’t want to get stuck on some cliff face and have to retraced our steps so we reluctantly turned on to the pavement less road and put our heads down for the couple of kms to Portbraddan squeezing ourselves into the hedge as cars and buses roared passed.

From there we were able, just, to negotiate the slippy boulders at the foot of the cliffs as the tide was sufficiently out, and to clamber around to White Park Bay, one of the first places in Ireland to be settled by Neolithic communities.

IMG_9342IMG_9344

Nearing the end of the beach we turned off route, away from the rock arches, stacks and islets that lead towards Ballintoy harbour, (another Game of Thrones location) and up a farm track to find our accommodation for the night. A long day of nearly 30km with the diversion was celebrated with a good dinner and some samples of local ale.

In the morning we backtracked slightly to visit the scenic harbour before continuing on a path between the potato fields and along the cliff tops with fine views down towards Rathlin Island and Fair Head.

IMG_9353

IMG_9358IMG_9368

From Larry Bane Head it was a short distance to the car and coach park, tearoom, giftshop, toilets and ticket office of another National Trust money spinner, the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. For over 350 years fisherman raised a rope between the mainland and a small island on the migratory route of the salmon to access their nets. The rope bridge has been remade into a sturdy permanent structure with enough wobble to thrill a stream of tourists as they cross 30m above the waves for a brief visit before returning to claim their certificate.

Avoiding the groups queuing to leave the reception at timed intervals, and the £8 fee for crossing the bridge, we walked the 1km to the island to see what all the fuss was about.

IMG_9375IMG_9377

The salmon are gone and the fishermen with them but what was once a scene of hardship has been modified to satisfy the booming industry of today, tourism.

After the previous days experience of avoiding the tourist buses hurtling down the road we decided to avoid the remaining 8km of tarmac to Ballycastle and take the bus. In the towns tourist office they told us that they recommended to all walkers on the Way to do likewise as the traffic was so bad and there were no footpaths or pavements. They also told us that the diversion we had followed was no longer in use and we could have followed a lovely coastal path.

They still had the misleading WalkNI guide on their shelves.

Overall it was a beautiful hike with some of the most impressive coastal scenery we’ve ever seen. You certainly can’t blame the masses of tourists for wanting to visit the sights, but its a pity more of them didn’t get out to explore the equally spectacular sights a little further down the trail.

 

 

 

 

GRAN SENDA de MALAGA: 26/27th Feb. Benalmedena to Alhaurin de la Torre ( 16km) to Malaga ( 20.5km)

It was my birthday so I allowed myself the luxury of the buffet breakfast, putting down energy stores for the day. I had to retrace my steps for the first 4 km or so, something that had prompted me to stash all my camping gear at the beginning of the overlap on the way in.
My fingers were crossed that it was still there and hadn’t got wet.
I passed, again, what I thought was an ancient quarry and continued up the sandy trail above a deep and steep ravine.

IMG_8428-0.JPG

IMG_8422-0.JPG
I was glad to find my stuff still there, disappointed to have to add all those kilos, but turning onto the new path it flattened out and led me through replanted pines above more quarries.

IMG_8437.JPG

IMG_8441.JPG

IMG_8438-0.JPG
I skirted around the peak that a cable car serves and carried on eastwards through low shrub across a limestone plateau. I was joined on the track by a group of kids and a few adults in camo gear that were obviously staying at the albuergue way up here. A little further there was a simpler refugio.

IMG_8445.JPG

IMG_8447.JPG

IMG_8450.JPG

IMG_8454.JPG

IMG_8448.JPG
All of this limestone had provided the materials for long thick walls running all over the place. This now abandoned land had been stock proofed at some stage.

IMG_8457.JPG

IMG_8455.JPG
And then below me, over a cliff edge I could see Alhaurin and it was time to descend from the hills for the final time. I felt a little sad to be rejoining the urban environment but had a nice route down on a narrow trail between the cliffs and into pine woods thick with creepers.

IMG_8465.JPG

IMG_8460.JPG

IMG_8464.JPG

IMG_8463.JPG
After being in the relative wilds for awhile I was sensitive to the sights of the border between natural and man made worlds.

IMG_8469.JPG

IMG_8472.JPG

IMG_8473.JPG

IMG_8474.JPG
Setting off on the last leg of the Senda de Malaga in the morning I was still musing on our disassociation from the natural world and could see symbols everywhere for our hurried lives blinkered from the reality of our damaged connection to it.

IMG_8485.JPG

IMG_8486.JPG

IMG_8487.JPG

IMG_8489.JPG

IMG_8488.JPG

IMG_8493.JPG

IMG_8497.JPG

IMG_8506.JPG

IMG_8496.JPG
And all of this before I got to the start of the final stage. My last signboard left me struggling to find the right way, through the crop area that left me very grateful I’m able to consume mainly organically grown food. The toxic smell from the milky waters was intense.

IMG_8521.JPG

IMG_8515.JPG

IMG_8522.JPG
Leaving the men to harvest the artichokes I passed under the motorway and around the perimeter of the airport.

IMG_8528.JPG

IMG_8526.JPG
I thought maybe I should leave this out but it’s all part of the GR249 and the strong contrast of surroundings shows the importance of keeping the good stuff good.

IMG_8535.JPG

IMG_8534.JPG
The waters had changed from milky to green as it struggled to reach the sea.

IMG_8537.JPG

IMG_8539.JPG
And finally back to the seafront I started at a year ago. I was received by the environment department of the council and awarded my diploma. They were very nice and are doing good and difficult work.

IMG_8546.JPG

IMG_8544.JPG

IMG_8542.JPG
That was it. Relief I’d managed to complete the route coupled with a slight sense of deflation that it was over. It’s a marvellous route around a truly beautiful province.
There is so much more to Malaga than the Costa.

IMG_8581.JPG