Our last leg, at 26km the longest of the trip, started pre dawn in Alcaudete and ended back at the camper in Baena. From the back alleys we wound our way to the plaza below the castle wall entrance and the blue lit ayuntimento where we got a stamp in our pilgrims ” credencial”.
As the light grew and the streaks of red tattered cloudlings turned pink we left the towering fortress and descended once again into the sea of green. A never ending carpet of olives blanketing the swelling hills and washing up on the uncultivated high tops.
The freezing night left a legacy of frost that highlighted the agricultural art of the groomed groves.
Under the main road we headed off on a frosted track adorned with seed heads and frozen stalks and the first fragile iris’s.
We walked a line sandwiched between olive plantation and solar farm, an interesting intersection of past and present, tradition and innovation and endangered and sustainable.
For days we had been walking through a very dry Andalucia and yet the growth of new irrigated plantations continues. The region produces 80% of Spain’s and 30% of global olive oil. 900,000 tonnes a year. Plus 380,000 tonnes of table olives. They take up 85% of the land. 70 million trees- 1.5 million ha- the biggest tree plantation in Europe. The defining historical, cultural, agricultural and economic feature of this huge area of Spain. But there are many danger signs.
Water is running out. Teresa Ribera, Spain’s Ecological Transition Minister says that southern Spain will see a drop of 40% in water resources by 2050 with increases in drought and desertification. Over exploitation of natural aquifers and illegal digging of 500,000 boreholes are leading to disaster. Every effort to control wanton water use is met with fierce and powerful resistance. 50 years ago 5% of olive production was irrigated. In 2015 it was 20.6%. Now it’s 35%. At a time when there is less and less water available.
The temptations are obvious but shortsighted. By irrigating it’s possible to increase yields from 2 -5000 kg/ha to up to 15,000 kg/ha. But studies have shown that it can increase compaction, erosion, loss of organic matter and leaching of nitrates and phosphates into groundwater, 28% of which is now close to or above potability levels. Over half of the olive plantations are on a slope of more than 10 degrees – making them very vulnerable to erosion given the usual clearance of all vegetation around the trees.
So much seemed at stake as we continued on up over sandy lifeless hills and down into dry river valleys, and past empty reservoirs and lagoons. The stark sight of abandoned homesteads seemed a fitting symbol for past and possible future.
The investments in the olive oil industry have been huge – in the grubbing up of old and replanting with new varieties, the machinery and mechanisation of the harvesting and building of new and bigger milling and processing plants. World consumption has skyrocketed and foodie fetishes have developed. In contrast to the industrial and intense mass production of the oil in most kitchens is the El Poaig oil from hand picked olives on the millennial trees of the El Maestrat region of Catalonia and Valencia. The registered and protected ” arboles monumentales”, from 1000 to 2500yr old produce an olive whose oil sells for €160 for a 500 ml bottle.
There are some hopeful signs of change as grant schemes are introduced to support more sustainable methods and the Andalucian regional government has presented a draft ” Law of Olive Groves” with sustainable management as one of its chief targets.
There is a burgeoning Olive Tourism sector with interested people paying for stays on farms, visits to mills, oil treatments in spas, tasting sessions, cooking courses and olive picking “experiences”. They want something authentic, traditional, organic and sustainable. Philippe Starck the designer is promoting this idea in a big way. His company LAOrganic already has a 25 ha Oleotourism attraction outside of Ronda where you can stay and taste and spend and has started building an €11 million organic oil mill there.
Nearing the end of our journey we rested awhile on the Via Verde cycling route on the old railway line overlooking the sadly dry wetland of Laguna del Conde before climbing the last long rise and finally, with the end in sight, passing the belching processing plant we had left 5 days before. Up through the scrubby wastelands of semi developed suburbia and back to our thankfully unmolested camper.
For a finish the next day we visited a remarkable site. Discovered under a hilltop olive grove not far from Baena was the Roman town of Torreparedones. Years of excavation have revealed hidden splendours from 2000 years ago when the Romans were planting olives here and exporting the oil back to Rome in huge quantity. So much that a 50 m hill near the port there was found to be almost entirely made up of 53 million amphora from Spanish oil.! It’s been going on a long time.
One of the remarkable finds was a temple devoted to Iberian/ Roman god Juno where the North/ South axis and clever construction made for mid summer and mid winter noon sunlight displays.
Who knows what lies beneath as you walk the Camino Mozarabe.