SPAIN

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes: Part 3

Mougás to Pontevedra: 4 days : 87 km

A short 16 km day ahead planned luckily which will go easy on Sally’s feet and Emma’s first day, although we still started early enough, rising with the pilgrim tide from their beds at the albuergue. With no kitchen and milk that had turned to yoghurt our fresh supplies of Irish tea bags were of no use to us and without a bar or cafe for miles we walked off under the lightening sky to venture once again into Galician Connemara.

Again alternating yellow cycleway with sandy coast path for about 5 km we then turned up a forest track that became a wonderful and ancient stone paved track with the grooves of millennia of wheels carved into the granite. Stopping at the top after a short but sharp climb for restorative chocolate we admired the views over to the Cape Silleiro lighthouse.

Coming down towards the coast on the other side of the headland through the pine and eucalyptus I passed a farmer calmly leading some sheep to graze. The rugged mass of the Cíes islands came into view. Supposedly a fine example of eco tourism, the limited number of permit holding visitors can only stay at the one campsite although there are 3 restaurants and a well stocked shop to enjoy after exploring the sea and trails on this National Park.

Continuing on towards Baiona we passed a lovingly crafted 1940 faux castle tower with a fuente inside and in the plaza where we finally got a coffee, the Baroque Capela de Santa Liberata and the older 12 c church of Santa Maria.

Then through the historical quarter to the shore and ,following a cycle and walkway around it, soon reached the river Minor and crossed it on the beautiful Ponte da Ramallosa guarded by San Telmo, the patron saint of sailers.

A short climb past bars and restaurants to explore later lay our goal, the Hospederia Pazo Pias, where €15 secured a bed in a 17th century palace set in lovely grounds.

Gotta look after the pilgrims.

Pilgrims familiar from the night before joined us but we lost them again the next day when we decided to take another variant. This one avoided a lot of the suburban sprawl of Vigo, instead adding 2.5 km overall, but with an earlier finish for the day after 16 km or so. The start was a mix of urban and rural lanes and streets and woodland paths and tumbling streams.

There were lots of grand old houses indicating great wealth in the area and a fine selection of horreo, the traditional grain stores, wash houses and veg gardens.

A lovely stretch of stone paved woodland took us up to views over the Baiona and Vigo coast and the Cies islands. By coffee time we’d reached Priegue, stopping for refreshment before heading up into the forest again.

We had decided to stay at the Albergue O Freixo which meant leaving the main path and hiking another 5 km through the forest mostly on a trail that led past numerous old water mills and a couple of speeding bikers. Very beautiful and peaceful we stopped for a long rest amongst the towering eucalyptus.

Emerging from the greenery an open landscape of rocky ground and forest lay ahead. Hoping for the Albergue to come into view we were arrowed up and up and finally, gratefully, we arrived- at the same time as Angie, who, with the help of google translate, looked after us well.

The Albergue was also a thriving community centre with function room and fully equipped kitchen we could use to cook our dinner. There was also a community run bar which came in very handy and evening classes in Pilates and ,weirdly, bagpipe and drumming combo which didn’t come in quite so handy as the pipes and drums started just before bed time. They also prevented Austrian pilgrim Manfred from using a mattress in the classroom so as to spare us his monstrous snoring. So late that night the three of us in turn abandoned the dorm and transferred to the classroom- now only disturbed by the carousing of the community drinkers till the early hours.

With a biggish hike of 23/24km ahead in the morning we set off early and a bit bleary after a disturbed night. Down and down into the big city of Vigo as the lights went out and the sun came up.

The walk through the city was much more pleasant than we had feared, going through wooded parks and along riverside trails. Even close to the city centre there seemed room for gardens. And art.

On the north side we joined a route called the Senda da Auga that runs for 10 km beside a covered pipe taking water from the mountains to Vigo. Tarmac road to begin, with gorgeous views down the estuary to the sea, and then lovely shady woodland path with waterfalls and fountains. We passed and we’re passed by plenty peregrinos- so different to the empty Mozarabe route.

Emma listening for water, unsuccessfully.

At the end of the Senda it was a short 2.8 km to our bed in Redondela, housed in a beautiful old stone building nicely renovated into a municipal Albergue where the usual registration, shower, bed making, rest ritual was followed by the usual eating and drinking and more resting ritual.

A quieter night, an early rise, a chilly start- through the mix of old and new on the way out of town. Memorials, sculpture, gardeners, a stretch of busy main road, a climb through woods, and when needed, a funky cafe/ albergue for cafe and tostada.

From the cafe in Arcade we crossed the river Verdugo on the Ponte Sampaio and climbed again on ancient wheel rutted stone tracks through the forest and down through fields and vineyards, stopping for rest and chocolate by a feet soothing frog pool.

We were briefly diverted when crossing a new road construction, and then brought down through another section of towering eucalyptus forest to the Capela de Santa Marta where we gathered another stamp in our pilgrim passports.

A short distance further on was a split in the trail- the shorter by a km and with a cafe was beside a busy road, the longer was a peaceful 4 km stretch beside a tranquil stream. Although we had already decided on the river walk a postman stopped at the junction and proclaimed the virtues of the ” tranquilo” route to us. We had come together with the more popular Central route of the Portuguese Camino back in Rodondela and the Way was busy with peregrinos but many were chilling beside the shady stream.

Leaving the woods and water we went under the highway passing more graffiti and under the railway to arrive, after 19 km, at the Pontevedra albergue just as it opened, where a very stern and officious man had us all filling the dorm in order- top and bottom bunks- no anarchic freeform. Ah well, you’d put up with it for an €8 bed for the night.

And Emma’s won the prize bonds so big dinner tonight!

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: 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.

CAMINITO DEL REY: The Walkway of Death

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The somewhat dramatic title of this post, on a hike we did recently ,has been earned over the years by numerous people being killed whilst attempting to complete the original and badly crumbling walkway clinging to the side of a sheer cliff face 100m up above the waters tumbling through the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes gorge northwest of Malaga.

We had visited the area a couple of times over the years and seen climbers clambering about and watched videos posted on youtube by daredevils of themselves teetering on narrow and rusting steel beams supporting patches of crumbling concrete over the sheer drop but were never brave or foolhardy enough to attempt it ourselves.

Officially closed to the public in the 1980’s it continued to be a popular illicit attraction reached by crossing the iron girder railway bridge at the southern end while keeping a close eye out for trains emerging from the tunnels on either side.

img_1630Following a string of fatalities around the millennium , 30m of the walkway were demolished  next to the bridge making access much harder. But still they came, and so plans were made to provide a safer, money making, route to satisfy the obvious demand and it was reopened last year after a €3million refit and we were keen to experience this magnificently engineered path under less nerve racking conditions.

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Following the course of the Guadalhorce upstream from Spain’s southcoast the river has cut deeply through the limestone sierras as they rise up from the plains to the north, creating a ravine at some points only 10m wide and 300m deep.The last few km before the huge embalse or reservoir system forms the Garganta del Chorro, a staggeringly dramatic, jaw dropping sliver of a passage between the towering slabs of contorted rock.

The walkway was originally constructed over 7 years to 1912 to facilitate construction of a hydro electric scheme with much of the work being carried out by sailors hanging on to ropes suspended from the top of the gorge. The story is that the most dangerous tasks were saved for prisoners on life sentences with nothing to lose.

The area had already been witness to formidable engineering feats when 40 years earlier the railway from the interior of Spain had blasted tunnels through the sierras on route to the coast at Malaga. The line still serves passengers to Ronda, Seville and Granada and must be a very scenic ride.

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It was during the construction of the railway that the idea of harnessing the 100m drop in altitude from one end of the gorge to the other for hydro power was first mooted and by 1921 when King Alfonso x111 used the walkway to inaugurate the completed dams (and so giving it the name ” The Kings Little Pathway”) the controlled waters of the Guadalhorce were producing the power for a burgeoning  Malaga.

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The old path, what’s left of it, has been retained and is just below the new walkway of wooden boarding on a galvanised steel framework anchored securely to the cliff face and with reassuringly sturdy cable and steel post railings.At the southern end a new steel suspension bridge with a metal mesh floor and another section with a thick glass floor allow an uninterupted view to the river below.

Initially the route could be tackled from either end but now can only be done in a southerly direction, presumably to ease the congestion of criss crossing groups on narrow or convoluted sections. Parking at El Kiosko bar and restaurant at the beginning of the 3km trail to the northern access gate we had a pleasant walk through the pine woods with the blue waters of the Embalse de Gaitanejo to our side.

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As we approached the access point control we could see the gorge opening in the mountain ahead, and a large group of people milling about.The Caminito is popular and even on a September weekday, a year and a half after reopening, with groups leaving every 30 minutes,I was glad we had booked on line as our time slot, in fact the whole day, was sold out.

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It was with surprise and relief that very soon after our group had been given our safety talk and helmets and been released into the wilds the majority raced ahead and out of sight and we were left to slowly stroll and marvel at our surroundings, with no time limit on our ramble. We were quickly immersed in the sandwich of rock faces.

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Looking down over the wire railings to the river below revealed the sculptural power of the rushing waters with countless rock bowls turned over eons by their spiralling flow.

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There were many bits and pieces of hardware left over from the original structure and many pegs, rings, cables and hand or footholds hammered like giant staples into the rock.

After a slow kilometre or so the narrow gorge began to open out ahead of us and the Hoyo valley came into view.

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We passed by a couple of the maintenance guys working away on the end of a rope. The project must have created some good job opportunities for local climbers.

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On the other side of the river the railway tunnel disappearing into the mountain came into view. Nowadays the new high speed Malaga-Madrid track has dug a route under Huma mountain, about 1km further east but the original line is still well used.

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The valley widened before us and we stepped down off the boardwalk onto a trail through the wooded slope studded with Aleppo and Stone pines, Holm oak and Eucalyptuses. Juniper and Mediterranean Fan Palms also thrived in the parched and stony soil and the scent of brooms and rock roses wafted on the warm air. Down along the riverbank the moisture supported rushes, canes, oleanders and tamarisks.

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Above us many vultures circled in a thermal of rising heat and there are often golden eagles and buzzards accompanying them. Below us an abandoned farmhouse commanded a fine situation looking over the land it once worked, isolated by it’s encircling sierra.

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We continued for about a km on the level shady path, sometimes alongside the little canal that used to carry water to a turbine at Chorro, and sometimes in it, before scaling steps at the sluice gates.

And then we were back to the boardwalk and approaching the massive bulk of limestone and dolomite whose sedimentary layers have been uplifted over millennia to now stand as vertical slices where fossils reveal their ancient origins.

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We were getting to the most dramatic section of the Caminito, the last 500m, where the narrow walkway snakes around a series of acute bends,

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crossing the suspension bridge,( where the sufferers of vertigo may have a hard time),

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and following the curve of the sheer rock wall around to it’s southern face towering above the blue water where after a series of steps, we climbed over the steel girder railway bridge to the exit gate.

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Our return bus was another few km walk alongside the reservoir from which water is pumped by windmills atop the mountain to a high altitude at times of excess energy, to be released back through turbines as the need arrises. The hydro scheme is clever engineering and the Caminto del Rey, both original and modern, was a thrilling walk built to enable its construction and appreciation. Long may it last.

If your looking for any information on how to visit the Caminito a useful english language website can be found by clicking  here.

A WALK IN THE PARQUE

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Treking in the Parque Nacional De Sierra Nevada, Spain’s highest mountain range, has many rewards and in the heat of summer one of the best is a swim in the Med an hour after hiking down from the 3500 mt peaks.
Floating in the cooling waters off a busy beach packed with holiday makers it seemed a parallel universe to the empty and wild landscape in which we had spent the last 3 days.
If you want to clamber around the top of Spain without crampons or skis you need to wait till June/ July for the snow to recede- in the Spring or Autumn a snowboarding trip followed by a swim in the sea is an even more surreal experience.
The highest peaks can be accessed either from the northern Granada side in Prado Llano, Euope’s most southerly ski resort or from the southern, Alpujarran side, walking up the old mule tracks that weave their way into the mountains from the white cubist style villages of Capileira and Trevelez. Such is the number of these tracks linking the cortijos, or farmsteads, which reach over 2000mts that there are a wealth of routes short or long to explore. In the higher ranges there are many guided hikes and horse treks or you can avail of a service where you can walk unencumbered while somebody brings up all your gear by horse, sets up camp, cooks your dinner and opens the champagne.

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We had a less decadent itinerary when we set off from the hydropower station at La Cebadilla (1500mts) in the gorge of the Poqueira River a few kms north of Capileira. We had devised a roughly circular route from the Refugio Poqueira (2500mts) to take in the peaks of Mulhacen, ( 3479mts) the Iberian peninsula’s highest, and it’s near neighbor La Alcazaba (3364mts) the fortress, named for it’s formidable cliffs on three sides.
Due to the National Park status of 83000 hectares of the Sierra Nevada range, the area is highly protected and although camping is allowed with certain provisions you are required to notify the park authorities of your intentions. In practice however, if you behave sensibly and sensitively and camp or bivvy no more than one night in the same place, a blind eye is likely to be turned. These are serious mountains and as the D.O.E. leaflets on safety states-” Passing through the Sierra Nevada involves a high risk of accidents” and all the usual precautions should be followed.
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Everything was benign as we climbed the rugged track up the sides of the snow melt river gorge. We were grateful for the shade offered by the steep hillsides and groves of holm oak, chestnut, walnut and willow. At this relatively low altitude there was an abundance of wild roses, foxgloves and even bracken to remind us of home but here the warm air was full of a multitude of butterflies and the heady scent of thyme as we crushed it underfoot. The refugio came into view far above as we crisscrossed the river on simple bridges of wooden poles and flat stones, and above that the lower peak of Mulhacen looking deceptively close.
Although signed at only 5.7 kms from La Cebadilla the 1000mt ascent took us over 4 hours with time spent cooling our feet in the pools DSC_0027

and imagining life in the abandoned farmhouses scattered around us with their simple flat roofed construction and perfectly circular threshing floors projecting from the steeply sloping hillsides.A tough gradient took us up to the still used Cortijo de Las Tomas at 2150mts and over two of the areas acequias, the awe inspiring irrigation canals originally built by the Moors that contour the mountains delivering life giving water to hundreds of farmsteads .

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Cresting a ridge, the sturdy stone built Refugio Poqueira was a welcome sight and the cold beers on arrival a welcome taste. The refugio is open all year and can cater for over eighty people although after a busy weekend there were only three others sharing the facilities with us that night. The hardworking young couple who run the place offer four course dinner, breakfast, and supplied us with packed lunches for the following two days. You can also stock up on an assortment of requisites from compeed to chocolate and get advice on routes and conditions.
The next morning we headed off up the Rio Mulhacen valley following the tall orange posts that guide climbers and skiers during the snowy seasons. Leaving the last of the running water behind, at 3000mts we came to the trans sierra road that until closed to public use in 1994 was the highest in Europe.Crossing the sierra at 3229mts just below Mt Veleta it’s an impressive piece of engineering but looking at it’s rough and narrow surface and precipitous drops we found it hard to imagine day trippers out for a Sunday drive.
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The altitude was making itself felt as we trudged up the steep and shaley western flank of Mulhacen. To the northwest was the peak of the Puntal de la Caldera and the squat stone dome of the basic mountain refuge near a lake at its feet with tiny figures resting outside. As we climbed, views to the north beyond Granada opened up above the Caldera and we often stopped not only to take them in but also a little more oxygen.DSC_0070The once tiny figures below us at the Refugio Caldera passed us by, cheerily greeting us as they hiked on up. We saw them again as we reached the top- running off down a trail to bag another summit. We were happy to bask in the sun at the highest point on mainland Spain, to inspect the offerings at the little summit shrineDSC_0079

and enjoy our packed lunch under the watchful gaze of a cabra montes or mountain goat. The vista all around was sublime, rendered softer by a heat haze produced by a windless 20c -hard to imagine at 3500mts.
We studied the approach to the jagged heights of Alcazaba then set off down the ridge towards Canada de Siete Lagunas where we were going to bivvy. Siete Lagunas,at 3000mts, is a hanging glacial valley of seven beautiful lakes fed by many springs and rivulets that drops off to the southeast where the lowest lagoon, Hondera, shaped like a dog, empties it’s waters into Rio Culo de Perro (Dog’s Arse River!)
The area contains a number of low circular or horseshoe shaped stone wall enclosures built by campers to protect them from the worse of the wind that can rip around the valley floor, one of which was to be our home for the night. As with much of the high sierras, from a distance the valley had looked pretty austere but up close a wonderfully varied microcosm revealed itself. Alpine flowers in exquisite colors emerged from pin cushion mounds of 40 shades of greenDSC_0138and a small group of cows munched contentedly on the lush grasses before being called by the matriarch of the herd up the steep zig zag path out of the valley and into the vastness beyond, leaving us alone- with the foxes.
I had read about the increase in foxes scavenging food from campers at Siete Lagunas and posters at the refugio had warned of them. The advice was not to leave food in a zipped up tent as they would tear their way into it and the only real deterrent was a dog. So after we had finished our dinner, before settling into our sleeping bags for the night, I carefully stove all our remaining food into the bottom of my pack which I covered with rocks. Then we lay back and, as the sky darkened, watched the milky way appear above the sierras. Just as we fell Isleep we were startled by a sudden noise. Opening my eyes I looked straight into those of a fox at our feet, it’s snout in our other pack. My involuntary yelp drove it back over the wall and investigations revealed a forgotten chorizo sausage,which we promptly eat, sticking out of a side pocket. Falling back into a wary slumber we listened to a duet of the fox and a dog of some other campers barking at each other across the lake.
As the moon rose the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. A loud whooshing noise up the head of the valley was followed after a few tense seconds by a short but sharp buffeting. It was wild and elemental but the sky remained clear and we were cosy enough in our bags.
In the morning we stowed our packs against the bivvy wall and made our way up the shoulder of Alcazaba in a strong and gusty wind, climbing across a sea of shattered rock and shale to the final ridge to the summit.

DSC_0124 The cliffs fell away vertigiously to the north and the buffeting wind kept us well away from the precipice on the last couple of hundred metres. Our efforts were well rewarded by the views of the dramatic north face of Mulhacen and the spine of 3000mt peaks snaking away eastwards below us.
Although the sun shone brightly the wind chill got us off the top fairly fast and back down to the top of the shoulder. From there we returned to Siete Laguna by a more direct but much steeper route- scrambling down the north end wall of the valley allowing us to explore the higher lakes as we followed the streams back to Laguna Hondera.
Rested after a leisurely lunch we headed off, up out of the valley, looking back down to see a line of horse trekkers crossing the Culo de Perro.DSC_0149

Going south we worked our way across the long shoulder of Mulhacen past the last compacted snowfields following cairns that led us down to the trans sierra road at 3000mts. From here we could see the Mirador de Trevelez (2680mt) a couple of kms to the south, to where hikers and daytrippers can get minibuses from Capileira, saving them the long climb from the village. We quickly lost height to cross paths with a couple of fresh looking bus passengers at Hoya de la Iglesia. From here a pole marked trail led us down to the refugio

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Much busier than on our previous nights stay we mixed with about 40 cyclists, climbers and hikers on the sunny terrace, relaxing weary muscles over a beer whilst gazing down across the ranges to the sea.

Setting off under another clear blue sky in the morning, we retraced our original route alongside the tumbling river through clouds of butterflies stopping only to gorge ourselves on plump juicy cherries picked from the orchard of a long deserted cortijo.
Our descent to the car was much quicker than the ascent, so before long we were having lunch at a chiringuitos, a beachside seafood restaurant followed by a refreshing swim that restored us to a state where we were once again looking forward to our next hiking trip.