Hiking in Spain

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes : Part 1

PORTO to SPAIN : 4 days: 90 km

Emerging from the airport at midnight we only had a few minutes walk to a modern little boutique hostal where free beers awaited in our room. No sooner drunk than a knock at the door bought glasses of pink sparkling wine and cake, and at 6.30 in the morning a breakfast hamper of all we could wish for.

A few meters around the corner we came upon our first yellow arrow of our journey in prosaic form. A painless start from plane to path- we were off down the still misty cobbled streets, past crosses and shrines and gardens and verges rich with the colours and scents of flowers wild and cultivated.

We kept crossing paths with Michael, a German Pilgrim of our vintage who we bonded with over the next few days before our schedule pulled us ahead. After nearly an hour we cleared the end of the runway and the sun burnt off the mist as we followed miles of cobbled road through eucalyptus forest and freshly cut fields of grass. Running alongside the busy motorway and shopping centre for awhile we were glad to return to the ancient streets of Mindelo. Stopping briefly for a tiny super strong cafe and local treat pastel de nata, it wasn’t long before we were crossing the river Ave into Vila do Conde beside the massive monastery of Santa Clara.

Another hour of urban walking brought us finally to our destination for the day after 20 km, the albuergue in Povoa de Varzim where the cafe opposite fed us well while we waited for the albuergue opening hour of 2 o’clock. The obliging host gave us a private room as a married couple- a first for us. We rested, showered, laundered and eat and drank in a sunny beach side restaurant pleased to have succeeded the first day at least.

In the early morning light we headed off along the seafront and onto a boardwalk that took us through the dunes for 8 km. The seaside resorts had not really awoken after winter yet so pilgrims, locals and fisherman were all that were about. Many men were fishing for something on the rocks and in the shallows with gaffhooks , something I had never seen before. It didn’t look like they were having much luck. We passed the remnants of windmills and many neatly stacked and covered piles of seaweed.

Eventually the thousands of decking boards ran out and we were led inland through an area of intensive poly tunnels and fields of crops, all of interest to us gardeners. They were harvesting spuds already!

Through a nice quiet stretch of woodland where we rested for breakfast and on into Fao where pilgrims gathered. We followed the arrows cut into the road over the river Cavado and along the prom in Esposende, a busy town rich in pilgrim sculptures.

Nearly 25 km done, under a hot sun on a lot of hard cobbles, we were getting weary and stopped at a mini market for beers and the makings of breakfast and lunch. A thankfully short distance later we arrived at our Albergue for the night in Marinhas, housed in a beautiful old building, where the shower, rest, drink, eat , sleep regime was a welcome end to the day.

A lot of movement early as some pilgrims were up before 5 making bedtime redundant, so we were out the door before 6.30 heading up more cobbled back streets past the now common mix of traditional and ultramodern homes and well kept veggie gardens. Out of town we began our first real track, a lovely stretch through woodland alongside the river Nieva complete with watermills and an ancient clapper bridge. Many feet had passed over it through the ages.

Our first climb, of about 100m, took us up out of the woodland on wisteria lined narrow cobbled tracks between fine granite walls to the church of Santiago de Castelo do Nieiva, the oldest church outside of Spain dedicated to the Man, with a carved dedication from 862ad. Stopping awhile for a rest and chocolate/ banana breakfast we were soon back on a lovely sandy track through the young oak and unstoppable eucalyptus.

Down into Chafe for coffee and Coke and on over more granite cobbles along more narrow lanes past large ancient houses then steeply up past stone and timber corn houses and decorated washhouse to hilltop shrine and cross.

With Viana do Castelo in view on the other side of the wide river Lima we descended steeply on road and track festooned with wild flowers and crossed the bridge built by Eifflel in 1878 to reach the city where, with over 20 km done and another 10 km to do before our beds, and Sallys feet ailing bad, we did the right thing and caught a bus.

20 minutes bus ride saved us 2 or 3 hours of walk and Sally a lot of pain. Alighting in Carreco we had a beer whilst waiting for the mini market to open then continued to the joyously beautiful Casa do Sardao Albergue, a funky and lovingly restored and converted family farmhouse. The place hummed with good vibes and architectural integrity. The friendly owner showed us proudly around with stories of generations past. I wish I’d taken more pictures. A gem.

A good nights sleep but we were up early under the flashing of the lighthouse on the coast to take the tea before once again setting off on granite cobbled lanes between granite cobbled walls. I don’t know if the plant life is particularly rich here or if the granite is a very hospitable environment but it was a joy to have so much at head height.

We were soon led into the forest on massive granite slab paving where countless thousands of pilgrim feet have trod, passing the very many pillars and crosses where pilgrim hands have placed offerings.

We passed the beautiful but forlorn Quinta de Cabanas, home to the poet Pedro Homem do Melo as well as a huge 280 yr old magnolia tree and site of a monastery since 564AD. Restoration and landscaping is in progress around the huge riverside complex and it will be rewarded. The path took us away up through the wool bombed forest to reach the little chapel of Our Lady of Amparo where the guardian family were deliberating the best placement of the May Day wreath of yellow broom.

The ancient ritual of Maias in Portugal sees people gathering broom flowers on April 30th to adorn their gates and doors before midnight, to protect from evil for the coming year. Nowadays even machinery and vehicles are likely to be fortified in this way, although I was surprised that super safe Volvo needed it.

After another peaceful stretch of forest on a wide cobble road we descended quite steeply towards the coast, crossing the river Ancora on the medieval stone slab Ponte da Torre and passing another old water mill.

The seaside resort itself was buzzing with Mayday celebrations and markets. After coffee in the square I headed on out of town on a dirt track beside the railway, waving as the train past expecting to see sore feet Sally on board. (But she hadn’t found the station and had hitched- getting dropped off far further than wanted and had to hike back to meet me.)

On reaching the crescent beach in Moledo I followed the esplanade till the end and continued on soft sandy tracks through the forest to the Boat Taxi across the broad river Minho where Sally joined me for the ride to Spain.

Jumping from the speed boat onto the sands of Spain we lost an hour so had a quick lunch and carried on to A Guarda on the boardwalk, through the gallery forest and beside the rocky shore, to finally reach the harbour town bathed in sunshine rising up steeply from the sea. The sight of a long steep flight of steps was enough to convince us that a stay in the converted 16th century convent at the bottom was a well deserved treat after 3 nights in dorms.

We’d made it to Spain.

BASQUE COUNTRY: Parque Natural de Gorbeia

Our last exploration in Spain before braving the Bay of Biscay homeward bound for Ireland was this 200km2 park, the largest in the Euskadi region of Basque Country. Established in 1994 it forms a bridge between the Pyrénées and the mountains of Cantabria in a series of dramatic limestone sierras.

In a stunning contrast to the parched dry south we started by walking in lush green fields and forests beside rushing streams and gushing waterfalls.

In the little traditional hamlet of Usabel we followed the road past the mill pond of a former forge and , later, hydroelectric turbine and the adjoining 16th c farmhouse. The traditional 3 storey farmhouses of this area were built to house livestock and workshops on the ground floor, hay and corn on the top and domestic living was sandwiched, insulated, between the two.

Climbing up a narrow lane way and along a field side path we entered some coppice woodland and herds of stocky horses similar to a breed we’d seen raised for meat.

We shortly passed through Urigoiti, another hamlet of ancient vernacular buildings, one with an inbuilt bread oven and another with tree trunk beehives adorning its wooden siding.

Climbing out of the village slowly the conifer forest gave way to more open mountain side affording wide views back towards the coast with the imposing hulk of the Itxina massif rearing up above us as we ascended through beech woods and rough tracks to the Aldabide waterfall.

The water came from 2 springs that emerged from fissures in the limestone and had been planned to travel 9km across the mountainside in the concrete canal (we walked alongside) and join another stream and power a hydroelectic plant. Unfortunately the structure which took 12 years to complete (1945-1957) never worked and a landslide finished it off.

After traversing the flank of Itxina alongside the failed canal we began our return down through the pine and beech forests of the Sintxieta river valley past a remote hunting lodge at the end of a long and rutted track.

Some of the beech were ancient pollards cut by generations of charcoal makers and woodsman, the track through them worn down into a holloway deep in rustling leaves.

The steep valley sides flattened onto a narrow floor where a mill race canal was diverted from the river to feed another old hydro scheme. Soon back at the camper after our 12km/ 4hr ramble we drove around to the Pagomakurre picnic area on the eastern side of the Itxina massif ready to go deep into it in the morning.

This popular iconic route would take us up through a spectacular natural stone arch at about 1000m and into the bizarre karst formations, 500 sinkholes , mysterious caves, hidden upland meadows and sacred beech groves of the magical world of the Itxina protected biotope.

Leaving the area recreativa in the early morning sun we started to climb a well worn path up through the forest and out onto more open pasture where, as wide ranging views opened towards the Pyrenees, the Ojo de Atxular ( Eye of Atxular) peered down at us from the rocky crest.

Used since time immemorial by shepherds and woodcutters to gain entry into the rocky plateau , encircled by a crescent shaped ridge of protective limestone, we clambered up and through it- and the wind immediately quieted and we were becalmed.

We followed a spur trail through the labyrinth of sinkholes surrounded by cracked and fissured limestone like the scattered artworks of a prodigious sculptor. A faint path, sporadic splashes of paint and numerous cairns of stacked stones led us up and down through the mossy maze to the gaping mouth of Supelegor Cave.

Many miles of passageways and caverns connect these caves and sinkholes, home to some of the characters of Basque mythology. Supelegor is particularly associated with the Goddess Mari, a beautiful feminine personification of the Earth. She lives deep within the world, connecting to our realm via mountaintop caves, and adopting diverse forms such as a TreeWoman. Shepherds would leave offerings for her here.

There was a mysterious and timeless aura to the place. The bones of Neanderthals have been found in the caves and the area is rich in dolmens and menhirs. The ancient beech trees looked as though they had been coppiced for millennia for the ironworks and lime kilns and were coated with a variety of rare mosses that would excite any bryologist, as were the rocks and sinkholes. We passed one yawning hole reputed to be 100m deep.

After clambering back towards the Eye of Atxular we headed onwards eventually reaching more open ground with views of the plateau and then beautiful Alpine like meadows with the crumbling remains of one shepherds hut and the more welcoming refuge of another. The weather can quickly get bad here and I can imagine this shelter amidst the labyrinth has saved lives in the snow.

Continuing to the southern end of the massif we got views of the swollen dome of Gorbeia itself, the highest in the region at 1480m, before dropping down through the pass at the sheer cliffs of Arrabako Ate and out onto the vast grassy plateau of Arraba.

From here the going was easy, across the empty grazing pasture dotted with early flowers, past a building used by those scaling Gorbeia and other peaks and down past some impressive sinkholes to a drivable track with a glorious vista across the Basque mountains to the east. From there we had a long downward stroll to complete the 10km/ 5hr loop and return to the camper.

A good hike to finish a great trip on a country wide loop from Bilbao. Homeward bound.

BADLANDS 2: Yesares de Sorbas

About 25km east of Tabernas is another “protected” Natural Area, the Karst en Yesos de Sorbas. Founded in 1989 this 2,500ha reserve is one of the best examples in the world of a karst landscape comprised of gypsum ( Yeso). The same harsh climatic conditions as Tabernas ensure a limited variety of flora can manage here.


Its gypsophyte flora- plants that are gypsum tolerant- are rare or endangered and many are endemic.

These species are under threat, however, mainly from mining activity, which, although prohibited within the protected area, is the economic mainstay of Sorbas. There are three big quarries, extracting 5million cubic tonnes a year for cement and plaster across the world, including Los Yesares, Europe’s largest gypsum quarry. The multi faceted crystal in the rock constantly flashes in the sun as you walk through the landscape while underneath your feet over 1000 caves and a multitude of interconnecting passages create a labyrinth through the limestone.

After a short exploration of the Cuevas de Sorbas, which has tentacles stretching out over 50 km, we left the town clinging precariously to a cliff and headed off to a place dear to our hearts, Los Molinos de Rio Aguas.

Another prolonged stop on our road trip nearly 30 years ago Los Molinos has stayed constant in our diminishing memories. A derelict village, hollowed out by abandonment, in the process of rebirth. An English environmental charity, Sunseeds, had established itself here to work on desertification and alternative, sustainable technologies. In its wake volunteers were settling, rebuilding off grid ruins in the village above the oasis created by the spring of the Rio Aguas. A beautiful place with lovely people doing good work.

3 decades on we saw how much had grown and been restored as we followed the signs of a PR walking route down through the houses and gardens to the fecund waterway below.

The emerging waters of the Rio Aguas once powered the derelict water mills, producing flour and oil from the crops irrigated by the system of acequitas , water channels, still working now to feed the gardens. Thick stands of bamboo like cana thrive in the damp surrounds, used for a multitude of tasks. Cool pools among the sparkling boulders give blessed relief from the summer sun and are home to endangered turtles. We followed the path passed a little house blended to the rock to the birthplace of the river, and then on up to the top of the Rio Aguas gorge.

The huge areas of dry fields and terraces, dying trees and abandoned fincas around us told a sorry tale of climate change and hardship but a man we coincidentally ran into walking his 8 dogs through the hills told us a sadder one.

David Dene is a fellow we helped 30 years ago to clear paths and build walls as he started a life in Los Molinos and it was good to know he was still there. Over the years he has become more of a prominent environmental activist, fighting at local, European and United Nations levels on a number of issues. He told us of the irreparable damage being done to the Rio Aguas spring and its downstream ecosystem by the massive amount of water extraction from the aquifer that feeds it. The fossil waters laid down 1000’s of years ago are being sucked out of the ground at a rate of 200 times what is available to irrigate rapidly expanding ” super intensive” olive plantations between Tabernas and Sorbas.

First established in 2007, over the next 10 years the area planted multiplied 20 fold and its estimated that now 5000 ha are under super intensive production. The olives are grown in continuous dwarf hedges that are mechanically planted, pruned and harvested at a density of 1,500 to 2,000 trees per ha as opposed to the traditional rain fed terraces density of 60-100 trees per ha.

With each tree being fed 10l of water and chemicals to maximise cropping the aquifer is being drained of approx 40 million litres a day. If it takes 50 years for a drop of rain falling in Tabernas to make its way underground to the Rio Aguas spring in Los Molinos you can imaging the effect of this ” absolute unsustainability”. Water has run from the ground there at a average rate of 40 l per second for generations, now it’s down to 7 l per second.

” An agricultural bubble with virtual water has been created”

The economics are shortsighted in the extreme. It costs about €6000 a hectare to set up a super intensive plantation. Cropping begins after only 3 years and they reckon it pays for itself in 6. They are even grubbing up irrigated groves to plant super intensive, super water hungry industrial estates of olives. It’s calculated that the aquifer will be dry in 10 years. They are now drilling 400m looking for water in a headlong rush to desertification.

The farmers/ multinationals often refer to the water saving technological advances of the drip feed systems they employ. Unfortunately the Jevon Paradox states ” As technological improvement increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, an increase in consumption of that resource is more likely than a decrease”.

The result, for David Dene and the rest of the people of Los Molinos and surrounding villages, is that in 5 or 6 years the spring will stop flowing, Europe’s only true Oasis will dry up and ecocide will occur.

Still, David and other campaigners fight on and one can only hope that sense, and law, will prevail and the madness , driven by our wanton consumption, will cease.

Bidding farewell we carried on across the esparto covered landscape, crossing the Barranco del Tesoro on the Puente La Mora. On the old track to Sorbas the origins of the bridge are unknown but it was written about in 1573. There were plenty of deep karstic sink holes about and we needed to watch our step.

After following the cliff tops for awhile we started to descend into the barranco through an abandoned hamlet that quietly crumbles whilst life hurtles past on the motorway constructed above.

We were back at the Rio Aguas and now we looked apprehensively at the tranquil turtle pools before following the waters upstream to Los Molinos and the camper.

We moved a little north east to park up at another deserted village where we started our last hike of the trip in the morning.

Marchalico- Vinicas was left alone in 1969 when its last inhabitants finally followed those that had been leaving for a decade. The gypsum mines no longer needed the manual labour, the water was too chalky to drink and it was generally too tough to make it on your own up there. Nowadays the motorway roars at the foot of the hill but then there were no roads. The nearest doctor was a 4 hr donkey ride away over unmade tracks.

Our path wound through the couple of dozen buildings, the ghosts of hard lives embedded in the twinkling gypsum they were constructed with and from.

At the top of town was a fine bread oven and above that an era, or threshing circle, used to process the grains they could grow here in the days of rain. Wheat, barley, carob, almond and olive on the terraces, more fruit and veg in the gardens below. And sheep and goats shepherded from place to place.

As we continued up and across the high plateau of esparto grass, stopping to look at the results of events on a geological timescale- the gypsum blisters or tumuli and sink holes colonised by fig- I mused on lives becoming unsustainable in a far shorter period. Marchalico- Vinicas was only 100 years old when it could no longer support it’s inhabitants.

After weeks of walking through vast areas of irrigated crops across a very dry Spain , and learning the fate of the Rio Aguas , it is no surprise to read that climate change / human activity has led desertification to seriously effect a third of Spain. I fear the symbolism of the abandoned movie sets could be profound.

BADLANDS: Desierto de Tabernas

I think the Tabernas desert was where I first fell in love with Spain. 30 ish years ago, on tour with young lads in our old Dodge van, we parked up way down a sandy track amid the remains of an adobe film set. Surrounded by the surreal landscape of fluted slopes of grey and ribbed crests of pale yellow, gorges, gulches and clefts, we spent days exploring this otherworld. Looking for scorpions and tarantulas – with an eye out for bandits, or Indians, on the skyline. Most afternoons, if the wind was right, we would hear gunshots and shouts in the distance. We built a bread oven against the wall of the chapel bell tower and soaked in sunshine.

A setting for fantasy, under a big blue sky, the wide open spaces offered a possibility of some kind of freedom. Harsh and wild, ancient and epic. Awesome.

We returned this week for a few days rambling in the ramblas, the dry river beds that coil and snake their way through the eroded terrain.

A seabed 8 million years ago, as the Sierra Alhamilla to the south and the Sierra Filabres to the north rose up the area became a giant lake or inland sea. As the waters slowly evaporated the bottom layers of mud and sandstone ,marl and gravel were exposed and slowly, over a geological timescale, became eroded by wind and water into the extraordinary landscape we set off to explore.

After parking at Mini Hollywood, one of the 3 or 4 Western movie sets open as tourist attractions in the area with daily shoot outs and can can girls in the saloons, it was fitting to soon come across a lone cowboy in the creek below.

Generally accepted as being Europe’s only desert, with under 250mm rainfall a year and temperatures from -5 to 48 degrees averaging 17c, it’s an inhospitable environment whilst at the same time being strangely attractive.

The arid climate, infertile soils and constant erosion ensured that this was always marginal agricultural land and the declining rainfall and economic realities drove most settlers out decades ago, leaving only scattered and crumbling walls of cortijo and terrace and enigmatic canals carved through the rock.

The 280sq km of the desert was made a Natural Site in 1989 and have been since been declared an SAC (special area of conservation), an SPA (special protection area- for the bird life) and an SCI (site of community interest) although the hostile and unstable nature of the place maybe its best defence. When we ventured above the riverbed to the cliff tops we discovered a labyrinth of eroded holes and flushed out gullys where water had created a Swiss cheese landscape.

A collection of beehives surprised us, wondering where the nectar was to be found. Amazingly there were still traces of water in some of the deep ravines and they supported tamarisk, oleander, some broom and other endemic plant life. We climbed down into a reed bed that also had strange coral fungi like life forms emerging through the salty crust of sand.

We were grateful of GPS and app assisted navigation in this warren of possible pathways. As the sun gave up and darkness encroached we climbed out of the maze under the baleful gaze of the wolf moon to sleep beside the ghosts of the good, the bad and the ugly.

A full days hike of 18km started in the cold light of dawn as the full moon sank into the eucalyptus.

From the back of Fort Apache a set of partially collapsed wooden steps wound down the Barranco del Grillo and into occasional trickling waters in the Rambla de Genaro where salt encrusted flora tenaciously survive.

The Mesa like landforms reminded us of the American southwest but also the Sinai desert, no wonder the location has been used in over 300 movies to portray both as well as Australia, North Africa and fictional landscapes past and future. After diverting down the Rambla de Tabernas we reached the Oasis de El Cautivo, created for movies, as was the Oasis of Lawrence of Arabia a little further on.

The illusion of being deep in the Wild West or the land of Exodus was somewhat diluted by having to go under the Puente del Cautivo and the A92 motorway whose background hum was more of a presence than we liked when we clambered up from the deep ravine of Rambla de Otero.

The geological wonders of our surroundings were astounding. The forms, patterns and shapes created by time, wind, water, pressure and gravity were seemingly infinite and beautiful. The softer marls and sandstones weathered away to leave harder conglomerate rock sitting high and (very) dry. The movement of strata under irresistible force over irrepressible time made a gracefully slow dance through waves and curves.

Climbing up to the top of the rambla we reached the higher tableland of Llanos de las Salinas with salt pans and waterfall of salt travertine and the towering Torre de Hades with a yin/ yang of rocks at its base.

Back down to a tunnel under the motorway where a gallon water container, (not the first stash we had spotted and wondered if they were placed to aid those arriving illegally to the shores of Almeria), and some delicate flowers prompted thoughts of life’s fragility in this harsh place.

A long meander up the narrowing cleft of the Arroyo Verdelecho led us up again to a eucalyptus grove and the abandoned movie set of Rancho Leone and further, the lower ranking attraction of Western Leone with its bizarrely shaped tipis.

The final quarter of the hike took us high around the shoulder of scrubby hills and back down again to the Rambla Tabernas before emerging once again at the strange combination of zoo and cowboy.

Discovering a track beside the “fun park” we headed for the hills- to a park up with a view.

A short walk further up into the Sierra Alhamilla in the morning took us through more eroded earthforms and rock formations with subtle changes in colouration and far reaching desert vista to a small roadside shrine encapsulated within a hollow boulder.

Time to move off, further east, away from the motorway to the lands north of Tabernas and a 13km route around the Valle del Buho,( Valley of the Owl).

Leaving town on a dusty track past crumbling remains of abandoned cortijos through small scrubby groves of drying olives we climbed slowly and surely above the vast flat plain of the Valley Buho.

The farms below looked in a parlous state but seemed to be still trying whilst those at the top of the escarpment seemed to have given up the ghost entirely. Traditionally the higher ground was for growing esparto grass. The high cellulose content made superior paper and was a major industry along with more fibercraft work production of baskets, sacks, rope, fishing nets, beehives, harnesses, sandals and clothing. The introduction of plastic killed off the livelihoods of many and the lowering of annual rainfall and unproductive extensive systems have seen the end of grain as a crop. It was sad to walk across the abandoned terraces and grain threshing eras and reflect on the efforts of previous generations to wrest a productive living from those soils.

Back down at the valley bottom we followed the Rambla del Buho in the footsteps of Indiana Jones on his Last Crusade to the bizarre saline outcrops of Llano de Benavidas. Seeing the wide washed out area and flattened scrubs reminded me that when it does rain here the force of floodwater is horrendous. You don’t wanna be in a rambla in a thunderstorm.

It’s something like the geographical equivalent of culture shock to emerge from those landforms into a man made world of flat surfaces, rectangular buildings and unnatural colour but I guess we are an adept species and so we left the giant rocks on the slope of La Tortuga (The Turtle) and before long we were back in the camper heading to our next destination, the Karst en Yesos de Sorbas Natural Area, where more wonders, and sadness, awaited.

CAMINO MOZARABE: Granada to Baena 1

Off we go again. Continuing the Mozarabe from where we left off 2 years ago. This time it’s a 5 day, 105km pilgrimage through the olive trees of Granada and Córdoba provinces to meet the route from Malaga I walked 6 years ago at Baena.

We parked up there overlooking a massive 24/7 olive processing plant, and in the morning left the camper and took the bus back to Granada, found our first arrow, and set off through the suburbs and industrial estates and out onto the industrial farmland beyond.

At one point the route was blocked by drainage works and a young jobsworth tried to stop our progress before an old hand, seeing we were peregrinos, led us through towards Santiago. The power of the pilgrim! Looking back the snow covered Sierra Nevada slowly shrank as we walked beside deep irrigation channels of pretty foul smelling water and, after Atarfe and its monumental roundabout sculptures, beside the high speed railway line to Seville. We clambered up an embankment and entered Pinos Puente after 20km and 4 1/2 hrs walking. Not too bad for first day.

The hotel Montserrat looked after the pilgrims well giving us a 3 course dinner and a bottle of red for €10 each- and a fine bed to sleep on. Unfortunately we were dismayed by the huge amount of rubbish dumped on the roads and more shocking- in the river- as we made our way out of town in the morning on route to Moclin 16 km away.

The ornate ceiling of the bridge tower sheltered loads of swallow nests.

At last in open hilly countryside, but still on the road, we passed a ruined drying shed ( but had no idea what might be dried ) and poplar plantations , freshly pruned, growing alongside a river that offered the chance to swim in old mill ponds and natural rock pools – a bit cold today though with frost on the shadowed ground.

We finally turned off the tarmac at the ruined buildings of Cortijo Bucor. New huge concrete structures were being built hard against the crumbling originals, although the fine hacienda still seemed to be functioning, perhaps not its private chapel. There was a bit of an air of dereliction and it was sad to see way the dogs were confined- a familiar Spanish tale.

From there the Way led us through olive plantations on what looked like the original road. Still with cobbling intact in places in took us along the river valley on a track that rose and fell on the shoulder of the hills towards Olivares.

Crossing the river Velillos into town we had hoped for a cold drink but the bars were shut so we continued on. This was the hard but pretty stretch, a climb of 400 m up a track for 3.5 km to our destination.

We stopped for food and rests at the sadly somewhat derelict area recreativa and again higher up where an amazingly complex structure was also rather unloved.

A mirador higher again gave us views over the entire days hike as well as down into the dramatic river gorge and up to the Moorish fortress walls of Moclin. Neolithic cave paintings were found on the cliffs below the castle and have been recreated in signage and motifs around the village.

By the time we struggled the last few metres to our room for the night we had hiked over 16 km and the final climb had been tough. Our accommodation had been nicely renovated from ancient buildings and we looked forward to using the kitchen when the shop opened post siesta.

But it didn’t, and neither did the bar. No food, no drink. Luckily, whilst standing shocked outside the shop, the lady who had let us into our room appeared in the plaza and kindly gave us a couple of oranges and bananas and toms and eggs and tins of tuna and some bread. Praise be. The Camino provides.

But not alcohol!

SIERRA MÁGINA

About 550km south of the Canon del Rio Lobos is the Parque Natural de Sierra Mágina. Established in 1989 the 20,000 hectare protected area is in the province of Jaen. Named by the Moors as the Mountains of the Spirits its rugged limestone peaks reach over 2000 m and are surrounded by the largest olive growing area in Spain. The Jaen province produces 50% of Spain’s production and 20% of the world total. That’s a lot of picking. Over half a million hectares of olive trees.

The Sierra rises up out of the sea of olives in distinct layers of altitude levels. Forests of pines and oaks give way to juniper, yew and a rich mix of flora species, 45 of which are endemic to the region such as the hedgehog broom. The Sierra’s particular ecosystems and climatic niches make it one of the most important environments in Spain and also support endemic fauna such as the rare black cork oak spider, a snail that lives in fissures in the rocks and a high altitude grasshopper. We were disappointed not to sight the rare Betica midwife toad.

For hundreds of years the Sierra was the natural border between the Muslim kingdom of Granada and Christian Castilla and the fortifications and castles from that period still loom over the land.

We parked up above one of the best preserved and oldest in Andalucia in Jódar hoping to visit it and the parks information centre inside but it remained stubbornly closed throughout all advertised opening hours. But the view was good.

Moving on into the park in the morning we drove up to the Area Recreativa Cuadros and walked through the river side oleander forest that housed many shady picnic tables and benches and up on paths of needles and stone into the pines.

We were on the Las Vinas trail, named after the vineyards that predominated here until the late 19th c when the phylloxera epidemic wiped out that livelihood. A 10 km loop it circled up above the River Cuadros valley through the pines and back down through the olives. The woods were thick with the mastic shrub, Pistacia Lentiscus, from which the sap would be harvested by cutting the bark and turned into a substance for everything from chewing gum to varnish.

The aromatic incense juniper was another common species while the colourful leaves of maples reminded us of the season.

Emerging from the trees the views of mountain and plain opened up and the noise of the petrol engined olive rakes buzzed from below.

We stopped at a fuente and were joined by the GR 7 /E4 walking route, on its way across Europe to Greece. Then we continued on a track through the groves on a spur to visit the 11th century Torreón de Cuadros, the Chequered Tower – so called because of its two tone appearance due to its construction of stone from two different quarries.

Jaen province has the highest concentration of castles and defensive buildings in Spain and this 12m high watchtower with its arrow slits stood high over the gorge- guarding the Muslim/ Christian frontier.

Returning to the loop we managed to find our way on an unmarked route back to the oleander forest,( Europe’s biggest!), along an acequia which involved a 50m tunnel.

Back in the camper we drove around to the southern side of the park and high up on rough dirt roads, past the Area Recreativa Gibralerca, and on to a fine high park up amidst the Holm oak, with sunset views over the highest peaks of the Sierra.

With the help of walking app Wikiloc I had sorted another 10km loop for the morning but this one involved a bigger elevation gain to reach a summit called Pico de la Laguna at 1525m. Setting off down the track in the morning it was still frosty in the shady ravines but we certainly warmed up when scrambling up the steep firebreak for 400m to follow the ibex we saw running across the rocky shoulder towards the mountain top.

The view more than rewarded our efforts with a magnificent 360 covering a vast area of Andalucia. But the cold wind moved us on over the mountain towards a forest fire lookout station on a lower peak to the northeast. Even on this inhospitable high ground there were signs of land management with traces of stone wall and flat areas of cleared high pasture and coppice Holm oaks.

Down past the herbage manicured by animal teeth and up to the lonely lookout, empty now, perhaps out of season, perhaps the lookout is busy picking olives from the multitude below.

A longer decent on the firebreak and we were on track to the camper again giving us time to visit the park info centre at nearby Mata Bejid where the reconstruction model of our walks did not seem quite so epic as they had appeared to us.

EL CANON del RIO LOBOS

An hour or so south and west of the Holly forest we parked up for the night at the beginning of our next hike, from the seven eyed bridge or Puente de los Siete Ojos. We were about halfway down the dramatic gorge of the Rio Lobos, named after the wolves that still frequent the area. We were going to do a 17km out and back to the beautifully situated Chapel of San Bartolomé in the morning.

We were in a 10,000 hectare Natural Park and special conservation area for birds. The canyon is often cited as one of the prettiest landscapes in the whole of Spain and there’s a lot of stiff competition.

Setting off under a grey and misty sky we followed the signage down stream and into the mossy pine woods strung with lichens.

The gorge was fairly broad here with low cliffs of perforated limestone in the forest either side of the river that came and went above ground. Most of the Lobos is underground most of the time, sinking down through swallow holes before emerging again into pools of lily pads.

The limestone cliffs got higher around us as we continued south on steppingstones, rock steps and walkways. Dramatic caves and chasms dotted the rock faces gouged out by millennia of rain and river water.

The flood waters looked like they had been about 2 m higher recently, judging by debris left high and dry in the bushes. The pines of earlier had merged into mostly juniper with hawthorn,willow, poplar and scrub of rose, gorse and spindle. The amount of lush and fulsome lichens was amazing both in the trees and on the forest floor amidst the euphorbia and hellebore.

The pines were often coated with the cotton balls of the processionary moth whose caterpillars will be dropping to the ground and moving off in line before long.

There are 151 species of bird living in the park but the main draw are the Griffon vultures, of which there are 135 breeding pairs. They sat hunched on the cliff tops, sometimes with wings spread and sometimes placed just so like some art installation. Added to the Egyptian and other vulture species here as well as the multitude of different Eagles, Falcons and Harriers, I’m amazed there is enough carrion prey to keep them going.

The track got busier as we approached the 12 th century chapel built by the Order of the Knights Templar. The major honey pot of the park and easily accessed from the southern end of the gorge it gets pretty crowed in summer. A spectacular setting to be sure and an attractive building with fine rose windows and corbelled doorway. Opposite is a huge cave where Iron Age engravings and earlier art have been found.

The multitude of caves along the gorge have been witness to countless generations of humanity. Stone Age tools, Bronge Age ceramics, Iron Age carvings, Celtic funereal artefacts, and bees hives from the Templars.

Truly spectacular, and we returned to the Siete Ojos replete but weary. Taking on Lobos water from the fuente we were ready for a 500 km drive south.

SIERRA de CEBOLLERA and ACEBAL de GARAGUETA

As the winter storm clouds gather over Ireland and the temperature and raindrops fall the call to Spanish adventures cannot be ignored. A 30 hour intermission in a cramped cabin surrounded by a swelling mass of moving ocean and we were once again driving into the mountains heading south.

Taking a different diversion to previous routes we drove deep into the Rioja region and up into the Sierra de Cebollera on the N 111 from Logroño towards Soria. Accompanied by rushing rivers and unbroken expanses of green,brown and gold forest of pine, beech and oak we climbed toward the snow. I had some rambles in mind in the Natural Park and we turned up to Villoslada de Cameros where the parks info centre sat next to the river below the ancient village of sturdy stone houses. Arriving at dusk we had a stroll up into town joined by some friendly hounds.

Our hiking destination, Lumbreras, was a few km down the road- but those km were up – and the snow deepened as we climbed up around the bends in the morning. By the time we arrived at the trailhead at about 1200m and struggled into our cold and wet weather gear the going did not look good.

We made an attempt but it soon became obvious that 8.6 km in deep snow was not a good plan and so had to enjoy what we could of the 23,000 hectare of well preserved forest of mostly Rebollar oak, the ones that keep their leaves, from the road.

Back in the camper and up and over the Puerto Piqueras at 1700 m, or actually through a tunnel beneath, and on into Castillo y Leon and the Reserva Natural del Acebal de Garagueta, the greatest Holly forest in Europe. Might not seem a big deal but we love our Hollys and this was special.

After calling in to the info centre in Arévalo de la Sierra and arming ourself with a map and some postcards we drove up the dirt track to the reserve. 300 h of Holly on a mountainside between 1400m and 1600m overlooking a huge sweep of Spain.

A large group of mighty vultures circled lazily above us in an improving sky as we set off down the track. Some horses snuffled in the snow for the remaining herbage and nibbled the leaves of the Holly to create an impenetrable topiary, and excluding themselves from access to its bark- saving the tree from injury.

Actually we had learnt at the info centre that it was human inhabitants that stripped the bark from the Holly and went through a lengthy process of scraping and soaking and mashing fibres to create bird lime, the sticky glue painted on branches to cruelly catch small “edible” birds, a practise finally outlawed by European law this year but frequently overlooked. In Spain the song thrush is a popular snack.

As a local resource the Holly forest had obviously been utilised for millennia for all it could supply – fuel, fodder and prey- but is now protected and the flocks of birds scattering between thick deep shelter and an abundance of berry food were impressive. The bright red berries and rose hips compete with the subtle hues of the mistletoe for the birds attention. They need to go through a gut or , with the Christmas kissing mistletoe, be wiped from a beak into a branch crevice in order to propagate. But strangely, even in this protected zone with a mass of birds and berries, there was no regeneration of trees visible.

We left the main path to follow little wooden markers half buried in the virgin snow. Not quite pristine as animal prints too vague to identify crisscrossed our route. Could be fox, deer, boar, rabbit, hare, shrew, mouse, hedgehog, badger or weasel. Snow hung in pillows on the trees and formed sensual mounds over scrubs.

We reached a lovely little circular shepherds hut finely built of stone with a corbeled roof in Celtic style. The nomadic lifestyle of transhumance was practised until quite recently with livestock being moved to these high grounds in the summer and down to Andalucia or Extremadora in the harsh winters. This hut was built in the 1930’s. The style relates to the fact that this area was the cultural stronghold of the Celtiberians for the last few centuries BC until the destruction by the Romans of nearby Numancia after a desperate 8 month siege in 133BC.

Inside someone had placed a little Christian grotto in an alcove.

Our path now swung up and around the mountain, returning towards our starting point near a large stone barn and fuente. Here was one of the few areas we could get inside the trees to admire their shade and shelter.

And so back to the camper under the watchful eyes of the vultures hoping perhaps for a fatal fall.

Onwards.

SIERRA DE LAS NIEVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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