Rambling in 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.

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!

EL SALTILLO-Getting high in Axarquia

A dramatic walking route opened in the Parque Natural de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama in October 2020 after many months construction. An old path following irrigation canals and pipes into the mountains above Canillas de Aceituno was transformed with a steel and timber suspension footbridge and other hanging walkways fixed to sheer cliff faces.

The €600,000 investment is hoped to bring in much needed tourist revenue to the area and it seems to be paying off. The day we tackled it the town at the start was busy with people with poles, and the pandemic has led to many more people exploring the vast natural areas away from the more crowded costa. In fact some places such as the Caminito del Rey and El Torcal have become a victim of their own success with long queues, traffic jams and overcrowding but we’ve always found that away from the honey pots Andalucia has space aplenty.

The walk starts in the Pueblo Blanco of Canillas de Aceituno at about 600m. If you just go to the bridge it’s a 8 km out and back but we were going to continue on and up to a mirador to make a hike of 11km.

After a quick coffee we followed the signs steeply out the back of the town on a route that continues to the summit of Maroma, at 2065m, the high point of Malaga province.

The way led up beside orchards and olive groves with the burbling waters of the acequia rushing along at our feet bringing life giving waters from the Sierra to the crops of the Axarquia.

Away from the town the surroundings got rugged rapidly with the path following the contours of the land through scented pines and Mediterranean scrub of gorse, thyme and esparto. The ridges of the mountains above us separate the provinces of Granada and Malaga, which we looked out over to the west, as we rested and watered at El Albercon pool.

The deep folds and convoluted ravines we crossed showed signs of former lives with ruined buildings clinging to the shaley slopes. There was mining in the past and fine sand was collected from the mixture of eroded gneiss, quartzite, schist and limestone.

At about 3km in the summit of Maroma came into view and shortly after the suspension bridge below us.

Things got interesting as we negotiated our first fixed steel walkway and signs warned of the dangers of falling. In fact a women had fallen to her death shortly after the trail was opened and you need to keep your wits about you.

The trail forked, to the left more walkways and a trail led around the mountain to meet the waters of the Rio Almanchares at waterfalls and pools while ours to the right took us steeply down on giant steps through the pines, to cross the ravine 80m above the river.

An impressive feat of engineering, the 55m long bridge is Spain’s 3rd longest and involved helicopters, zip wires and mules in its construction.

The easy bit was over and as most walkers stopped for snacks before they returned to town we continued up. More giant steps, and chains to cling to started to appear. We had a 300m climb ahead and those without a good head for heights had it tough.

With pounding heart and throbbing legs we reached a more level hill top before continuing on a stony path up through the sparse trees towards Maroma with glorious views south across the peaks to the Mediterranean and the Rif mountains of Morocco. The tell tale signs of snuffling boar were all around and a couple of our party briefly spotted a darting mongoose.

A small stone building of unknown purpose drew us to the top of the rise, over which lay our goal – the mirador, at 980m. This route is now linked to one of the 35 stages of the 750 km Gran Senda de Malaga, the GR249, a wild and wonderful trek I completed a few years ago and now attracting 2 million people a year to take on sections.

The expansive flagstone floor only had one, very welcome, bench to rest our weary limbs on as we soaked in the breathtaking vista of the fine fluted cliffs on the southern flank of Maroma, still high above us. The stunning views were a just reward for the effort put in to reach them, and just as good on our way back.

A great day out on a stunning route under a blue sky accompanied by the sounds of water, the scents of pine and thyme and the taste of adventure.

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.

LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR249. 19/20th OCT. EL BURGO TO RONDA(27km) to JIMERA DE LIBAR(26km)

The loud pitter patter of raindrops on clay tiles lasted most of the night but by dawn had gone silent. Not because it was dry but because, as we discovered on leaving our shelter, the fine misty drizzle made no sound. Draping the surrounding hills in a gauze of grey it seem to impose a quiet over the river valley we started up out of town.

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Everything was coated in sparkling shiny water droplets and the air had been washed of all haze creating particles leaving what could be seen below the drifting, swirling cloud to stand out in sharp relief.

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It was all about the water. The river was below us, winding through the walls of layered and undulating seams of sandstone and bursting from dams.

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It also burst from the ground next to us in “Fuentes” nicely planted and with seats that would have tempted in sunnier conditions.

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And it also covered our heads in a ceiling that rose and fell and drifted around us on unfelt currents.

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Although we were wet and a bit chilly and had concerns that it should improve before we got too high, it was very calming and a silent beauty pervaded the vast forests of the Sierra de las Nieves Natural Parque.

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We left the forest track to descend on a trail to cross the river and clamber up a steep and rocky slope past the ruins of old cortijos that once clawed a living in these wild spaces. The landscape opened around us as we climbed out of the forest and up into the high plateau guarded by the remnants of a cliff top fortress.

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The flat ground, at over 1000m high, was occupied by a working farm of grain and sheep. A lonely spot to be sure, we followed its track up to the pass at 1160m and then down towards their nearest neighbours 5km away.

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As we got lower the flat plain around our objective, Ronda, revealed itself.

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The rain / drizzle/ damp was long gone by now and after reaching the cortijos lower gate and starting across the agricultural land ,that now did not seem so flat after all,we began to feel the Kms covered and anticipated our arrival

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in Ronda.

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Glad to have arrived we had to negotiate swarms of meandering tourists to get to our bed for the night and climb into the shower before taking to the streets again in search of a back street local frequented eatery before collapsing wearily into bed.
Up and out before the sightseers clogged the streets we crossed over the famous bridge and down the beautifully cobbled path into the gorge, only making way for a mass of runners with an axe to grind.

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The path was magnificent. The cobbling superb. The light a delight.
What’s not to like.

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A couple of Kms out out town we turned off onto an old dirt track that serviced a small group of houses and a gaggle of rough and ready farm buildings. After the swish 5* buildings of Ronda this was a forgotten outland or edge town.

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At the edge of edgetown we joined the railway track that was to accompany us all the way the to JIMERA de LIBAR.

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It became the day of the insects with the air full of flying ants, the vegetation full of snails and busy dung beetles crossing our path.

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We left the railway to climb a beautiful ancient cobbled path up over the mountain, passing a flock of sheep on the way.

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From the top of the pass and down into the town of Benoajan we unfortunately passed some animals not best looked after. A horse tangled on a few inches of rope, sheep grazing on layers/ stratas of rubbish and one of so many dogs we heard chained and wimpering.

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Perhaps ironically, the town is famous for its pork products. Supposedly made from free ranging pigs happily gorging on acorns in the holm oak forests. We have our doubts.
Moving on through town on an old track past the station we continued on a beautiful riverside trail.

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The valley was spectacular, and just the railway and our track ran through it.

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Our views alternated between far reaching vistas of the railway, river and mountains and intimate ones of trees and trail.

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Eventually we crossed the railway on an elaborate bridge and walked alongside the river before starting the final climb towards our days end.

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Stopping briefly at a Fuente beneath some towering and randomly decorated palms

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we climbed our last hill of the day, a 2km, 150m ascent to JIMERA de LIBAR.

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Tomorrow is our last leg of this trip. A hopefully relaxed 17 km walk to Benalauria.

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.