Hiking in Andalucia

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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And the view wasn’t bad.

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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.

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

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and my first other GR249 user this trip.

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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.

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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.

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Lower down an old finca still supplied almonds

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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”.

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

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

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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.

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

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

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and south towards the sea.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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GR7: Rio Gordo to Ventas de Zafarraya

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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