Hiking in Andalucia

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.

The old highway used to be busy with travelers needing food and lodging, supplied by ventas now in ruins amongst the windmills.

On cue, at coffee time, we were led up into the village of Finana and a welcoming bar before carrying on across the wide plain littered with the remnants of past lives.

Past another imposing but redundant travelers hostelry at Venta Ratonera we reached the outskirts of La Huertezuela where the surreal sight of another Spanish urbanization that never happened greeted us. Abandonment through the ages.

From there it was another 6 km or so along an increasingly narrow and rocky riverbed and heathy and prosperous looking olive farms, over the motorway, and into the town of Hueneja- with its graffiti croc, nice doors and well trained vine.

Housed in a slightly bizarre 3rd floor flat next to a school our home for the night featured murals, fantastic views of the snowy mountains and some beers and wine left in the fridge by previous pelegringos.

Buen Camino.

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.

LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR 249. 21st OCT. JIMERA de LIBAR to BENALAURIA ( 17km)

Our last days journey along the trail for this trip was going to take us through the Rio Guadiaro valley on fairly flat ground for about 8km and then on a long steep climb up and over Penon de Benadalid at over1000m before a steep descent a couple of km into the Rio Genal valley.
We set off under a clear blue sky luckily on the shady side of the valley, stopping to admire the Fuente and washing house on the outskirts of the village.

IMG_6177.JPG

IMG_6171.JPG

IMG_6170.JPG
We were again passing through the Natural Parque de Sierra de Grazelema and after following a little cobbled path through patches or parcelas of vegetable gardens we crossed a cattle grid and entered a vast area of cork and acorn covered Holm oaks, perfect for raising pigs, but here sheltering herds of impressively horned cattle, flocks of sheep and a lot of goats all seemingly free to mix and mingle.

IMG_6179.JPG

IMG_6188.JPG

IMG_6189.JPG
The freshly peeled cork oaks were a beautiful bloody shade of red in the early morning light.

IMG_6184.JPG
As we climbed higher we crossed grazing lands, leaving the oaks and coming to walnut plantations.

IMG_6193.JPG
Further on the landscape changed again to a mix of low shrub and more open grassland where the path was lined by stone markers.

IMG_6206.JPG

IMG_6208.JPG
Sally let out a shriek when a little adder on the path struck out at her.

IMG_6196.JPG
As the sun climbed higher so did we and we reached the little gaggle of buildings at Siete Pilas, named after the natural spring Fuente that made this an important intersection of ancient paths.

IMG_6210.JPG

IMG_6212.JPG
A cobbled path took us up away from the village and we were joined by a tabby kitten who followed us for 3 km to the peak.

IMG_6215.JPG

IMG_6220.JPG
There is an abundance of powerful springs in the area which makes farming possible to a great height as the rain filters down through the limestone until it hits the underlying clay and emerges from the ground. The fuente near the top which we were very grateful for was dated from the 1700’s.

IMG_6225.JPG

IMG_6228.JPG

IMG_6229.JPG
Finally, hot and sweaty, we clambered the final few steps to the top where we discovered a car full of a young family that had come up the easy way, a steep concrete track on the eastern side. The towering slab of Penon de Benadalid was impressive and offered a couple of via ferrata routes. We preferred to rest and soak up the views.

IMG_6236.JPG

IMG_6235.JPG
I’m pretty sure that view included the Rock of Gibraltar and the Morrocan Atlas Mountains.
We left kitty to walk with the other family and hopefully avoid the soaring vultures and started down the track. Crossing a main road at the bottom we were suddenly into chestnut country, an important crop over a huge area here.

IMG_6239.JPG
Briefly getting lost when our usually reliable markers abandoned us on the last leg we made in down into the attractive village of Benalauria with spectacular views of the surrounding hills.

IMG_6242.JPG

IMG_6241.JPG
Our friends were waiting in the plaza for us, so we settled down for some cold beers and tapas, with the publican teaching us how to use an acorn cup as a whistle.
A great weeks walk, very varied,was over and the GR249 will have to wait till next year for me to complete it.

IMG_6244.JPG

LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR 249.10/11th SEPTEMBER. CAMPILLOS TO EMBALSES de GUADALHORCE and beyond (32.5km) to EL CHORRO (13km)

I immediately took the wrong way out of Campillos in the pre dawn gloom but soon the sun was lighting my eucalyptus lined road past some big industrial chicken “farms”.

IMG_5656.JPG

IMG_5651.JPG
Some fields were turning from brown to green with new life while on their edges the dry seed heads ended that cycle.

IMG_5659.JPG

IMG_5662.JPG
This area is famed for its many lagoons, some no more than a patch of damp ground at this time of year, others a much prized habitat for wildlife, birds in particular.
Pink flamingos tiptoed in the shallows of this one as the squealing of pigs broke free from the unit behind.

IMG_5666.JPG
The land hereabouts was good quality with an amazing depth to the soil.

IMG_5668
A shepherd led his flock to graze the stubble of grain near a huge cortijo which had done lots of tree planting and landscaping.

IMG_5673

IMG_5678-0

IMG_5676

IMG_5679

A beautiful place that looked like they loved the land.

The mountains to the south were looming larger and after another stretch of road I entered a forest of pines and a first view of the destination of the day, the reservoir of Guadalhorce.

IMG_5680

IMG_5682

To get there I crossed a large area of land being grazed by sheep- complete with guard dogs but no shepherd .

IMG_5685

IMG_5690

The track turned back into woodland and followed a winding path that gave me enticing views of the cool turquoise water that I was too hot to resist clambering down to for a swim.

IMG_5699IMG_5702

Refreshed, (briefly), it was off through more thankfully shady pine untill the red and white blazes led me across a tricky rock face where the weight of my water filled pack threatened to full me off onto the rocks below.

With the heat building towards the daytime maximum I emerged onto the road at the dam wall between the two reservoirs of Guadalhorce and Guadalteba- two huge bodies of water.

I had a few km of road walking on the other side of the dam before I started to climb into the mountains that were my final hurdle. This point was usually the end of the stage from Campillos, having already covered 23km, a lot of it on tarmac. But I was anxious to leave as little of the final stage for the last day as possible. I knew it would be an uphill slog for 500m ascent, followed by a long fairly steep descent and didn’t want to do it all in the heat so decided to carry on for awhile. After another half hour or so I was driven into the water again by the blazing sun and then sat out the worst of it feeding the carp.

IMG_5719IMG_5711

I could see a bunch of vans and cars high up on the track into the sierra and after turning back onto the trail and starting to climb towards them I saw why. The sheer limestone walls of the towering cliff faces are a magnet for climbers and I watched with bated breaths tiny dots scaled their heights with and without ropes. Major cojones.

IMG_5724

The views over the reservoir and the hills to the north opened up more and more as I slowly made my way up through the landscape of boulders and scrub. Passing through the Puerto de Ramos the vegetation became increasingly given over to Juniper, a forest of it, and laden with berries.

IMG_5735IMG_5733

With the light starting to fade and keen to find somewhere to camp I came to an isolated plantation of young olives with a nearby old stone barn that looked inviting but a couple of chained and barking dogs put me off and carried on into more and more unsuitable surroundings with very thick juniper shrub and rocks and boulders in any space between.

Eventually I ended up in a drain for the night. Not as bad as it sounds with a flat smooth surface, shelter and privacy, not that there was anyone for miles.

IMG_5737

And the view wasn’t bad.

IMG_5736

It was however pretty cold at that altitude without a sleeping bag and I had a fairly restless night listening to strange sounds of birds and unknown wildlife and what I was sure were trains running through tunnels that were somewhere deep deep below me in the mountain, before dawn gave way to another clear blue sky day and I set off early for the final 250m climb, with the landscape i’d covered over the week laid out below.

On a plateau at 830m was an extremely remote farm with hundreds of goats and extensive tillage of which not an inch was wasted amongst the rocky crags.

The inventively recycling farmer not only used bedsprings for fencing, but a multitude of baths for water and feed- however he got them up there.

IMG_5769

Suddenly I was on the downhill stretch, passing my first asphodel

IMG_5775

and my first other GR249 user this trip.

IMG_5777

Watching him cycle up this steep track towards me made me feel as inadequate as the climbers had. He was escaping from a Torremolinos holiday to mountain bike in the wilds and was loving it.

IMG_5781

The vista before me to the east was of the area i’d be hiking through on my next trip on the GR when the route goes to Ronda and the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema.

IMG_5785

Lower down an old finca still supplied almonds

IMG_5789IMG_5794

and a newer homestead sported a yurt, a pool and a riding stables.

IMG_5791

Before too long I was surprised on the wooded trail by my second GR user of the trip- presumably from the attractive property nearby.

IMG_5798IMG_5799

Huge eagles or vultures circled above more climbers I could just make out high above on the cliffs surrounding El Chorro, hopefully not in anticipation of rich pickings.

IMG_5807

I could see the beginnings of the gorge of the Caminito del Rey, the scene of our previous adventure and another site popular with dare devil climbers for years.

IMG_5809

I arrived at the journeys end with time, water and food to spare and awaited the train to emerge from the tunnel into the mountains I had slept on the previous night.

IMG_5816

My third instalment of the Gran Senda over, I was happy to have visited the vast olive plantations and wide open spaces of the grain growing areas but more happy to anticipate the sierras and natural parks to come — next month— when it’ll be cooler.

LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR 249. 13/14th MAY COMPETA TO CANILLAS de ACEITUNO (22km) to PERIANA AND BEYOND(29 km)

Continuing my circulation of Malaga province for a few days Sally and I spent a night in a Competa townhouse with views over a jumble of interconnecting roof terraces.

IMG_4062.JPG
Leaving the village in the morning past the Ermita de San Antonio, we were startled by the surreal sight of an ostrich beside the log railed path.

IMG_4066.JPG

IMG_4069.JPG
The way was lined by the thrusting stalks of agave flowers.

IMG_4071.JPG
Canillas de Albaida came into view with the Maroma mountain range towering to over 2000m in the background.

IMG_4073.JPG
This area is renowned for the grapes grown between the olive trees and dried on netted sloping pens.

IMG_4077.JPG

IMG_4078.JPG
We entered the wild and forested Naturel Parque de Sierra Tejeda, passed the deserted Casa de Haro and down to the old Roman bridge at the start of a long steep climb up to Puerto de la Cruz del Muerto.

IMG_4085.JPG

IMG_4082.JPG

IMG_4084.JPG

IMG_4079.JPG
The wild flowers were a glory to us and the multitude of bees feeding on their nectar and gathering their pollen.

IMG_4089.JPG

IMG_4086.JPG

IMG_4094.JPG

IMG_4098.JPG
A long drop down to the hidden village of Salares over another Roman bridge and a quick coffee break was followed by another steep climb past an old threshing circle or “era”.

IMG_4088.JPG

IMG_4090.JPG

IMG_4093.JPG
The grain winnowed here for generations was still growing feral in the deserted fields.

IMG_4097.JPG
Another descent, another ancient bridge and we climbed into the flower bedecked streets of Sedella.

IMG_4100.JPG

IMG_4099.JPG
Our last big climb of the day led us past a series of narrow terraces of neat vegetable ridges and grain crops surrounded by more wild flowers.

IMG_4104.JPG

IMG_4101.JPG

IMG_4107.JPG

IMG_4105.JPG

IMG_4103.JPG

IMG_4106.JPG
The lushness was enabled by irrigation channels emerging from a water mill on the hill above the village.

IMG_4108.JPG

IMG_4109.JPG
As we climbed the views opened up eastwards passed the irrigation canals to the mountains and firebreaks

IMG_4110.JPG
and south towards the sea.

IMG_4112.JPG
At the summit was the well equipped recreation area with camping spots, showers, toilets , water taps, barbecue pits etc and Sally rested briefly on the designated bench.

IMG_4114.JPG

IMG_4113.JPG
From there a long descent past impressive holm oaks took us finally to our accommodation for the night and a very welcome but chilly dip in a pool.

IMG_4122.JPG

IMG_4116.JPG

The next morning we started by climbing down a steep path into the Rio Almanchares, up into the village and down again on a woodland path to the caves of La Fajara which have tunnels and passageways of 1500m.

IMG_4131.JPG

IMG_4133.JPG

IMG_4128.JPG

IMG_4125.JPG
A 3km climb on a track with the forested Natural Park on one side and clumps of waving grasses on the other was followed by a steep clamber down through an olive grove into Alcaucin.

IMG_4136.JPG
Passing the traditional graveyard and a very untraditional housing block we found a bar for cafe con leche.

IMG_4139.JPG

IMG_4138.JPG
From there a concrete track took us down down to the riverbed and up again to cross the road leading to the Boquete de Zafarraya, the gap in the mountains that led towards Granada.

IMG_4141.JPG
From the mirador del Pilarejo there were views back over the Maroma range and westwards over Vinuela reservoir.

IMG_4142.JPG

IMG_4144.JPG
The concrete track continued for another 5km or so through olive groves and an amusing chameleon juddered across our path.

IMG_4145.JPG

IMG_4149.JPG
On the outskirts of Periana was an area of unfinished development the bubble had burst over. Plazas and plots empty and waiting.

IMG_4150.JPG
We were soon climbing away from the town on the bed of the old railway which ran from Malaga to Zafarraya till 1960. Steep enough to need a cog system to draw the trains up the slopes the track makes for a fine walk under bridges and through cuttings to the high point at 875m and fine vistas westwards across the yellow rape fields.

IMG_4151.JPG

IMG_4158.JPG

IMG_4156.JPG
We stopped at the spot we had reached from the other direction last year and after relaxing in the shade from our efforts and soaking up the views we returned the 5km to Periana and a lift to dinner, beer and bed.

IMG_4155.JPG

GR7: Rio Gordo to Ventas de Zafarraya

IMG_0083

On a (too) short break in  Spain last week we tackled the local section of the GR7 route that works it’s way 1900km from Tarifa on the southwestern tip of the country, through the regions of Andalucia, Murcia, Valencia and Catalunya.

And the Spanish trail is only a small part of the International E4 route, starting in Portugal and traversing Spain, Andorra, France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and finally Cyprus making up an epic 10,500 km. Thats some hike.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do the whole thing and so made do with a 500th of it.

IMG_0048

Starting out in the early morning light we climbed a long way up out of Rio Gordo north, over the main road towards Malaga, past a lot of the prickly pears that been struck down with the white fly infestation of the cochineal beetle that is a relative of the one that produces the vivid red dye and ironically the original reason for the introduction of the prickly pear, its home and food source. But for some reason the population of this species is out of hand and has wiped out the iconic pear across a large and growing area of Spain.IMG_0053.jpg

It took us about an hour to climb the couple of hundred mts up into the sun, levelling off at  about 650m with fantastic views back down the sierra and on towards the imposing bulk of Dona Ana.IMG_0064.jpg

The wild flowers were a glory, mid April, and although a good few had obviously gone over there were plenty to admire, and smell, and gather seeds from.

IMG_0063

Even though there had been very little rain all winter the fields of grain and broad beans were green and the hedgerows lush. The colours of the flowers were very vibrant in the sun and the buzz of insects became loader as the heat started to rise.
IMG_0068

The broad open flatish land up on the high ground below the limestone peaks was obviously richer and easier to cultivate than the steep and stony olive groves of the lower levels and it was up here that the oldest and biggest fincas or cortijo seemed to be.We approached the crumbling ruins of one that was supposedly the birthplace of Andalusia’s famous Robin Hood figure Omar Ibn Hafsun whose rebel army controlled a vast territory in the 9th century, but had since been used to house a load of sheep in sheds above some ancient caves in the cliff.IMG_0069

From here a narrow and sticky farm track that gathered on our boots as we went led us between the fields yellow with some weed or old crop (rape? mustard?) , across a little arroyo running with the previous mornings rain, and slowly down again to reach a road.

We hit tarmac for awhile at the Puerto del Sabar at 600m but the wide views and wealth of roadside flowers made it an enjoyable stretch until we crossed a river  and turned up a narrow track and gained height again to reach a little hamlet with a bar and an interesting looking Casa Rural.

Climbing up and away from the houses on a track that heads southeast around the hillside we had our first view down the valleys towards the reservoir at Vinuela and beyond it in the distance the twinking Mediterranean .IMG_0111

Before too long we were approaching another fine old Cortijo, this one boasting a cobbled track and era (grain threshing platform. Not far beyond Sally got a bootfull in a puddle and we stopped for lunch by a fountain on the way into the elevated village of Guaro.

We needed the sustenance to fortify ourselves for a pretty big climb up out of the prosperous looking village and up to the crest of the hill at about 900m where we turned left to join an old railway bed that was built to accommodate mine workings in the mountains and led us eventually all the way to Ventas de Zafarraya.

We had more great views across the sierra and down to the lake and at one point there was strange bridge across the track whose purpose we could not determine.

We crossed into Granada province as we approached the end of our 8 hour 30km journey.The highest mountain in the area , Maroma, at over 2000m, came into view and soon after we passed through a short section of tunnel and through the gap in the ridge thats allows the road up from the coast and into the high plain beyond that is a very productive vegetable growing area. Many of the (presumably low paid) workers on the land here seemed to be immigrants from North Africa and we shared the plaza and bus stop with some of them.

We passed a sign on our way into town that showed we were right on time.

8h. Eight very enjoyable hours on the GR7  E4. Only another 500 days to go.

IMG_0158