walking in Andalucia

Sierra de Aracena

The largest Natural Park in Andalucia, the Aracena y Los Picos de Aroche is 184,000 hectares of prime walking country.

100km northwest of Seville, in the province of Huelva, this is where the cross Spain ridges of the Sierra Morena finally run out and the Atlantic weather systems drop their water bombs after crossing Portugal unchecked. Lush, green and 90% forested, the softly rounded hills, covered in their blanket of oaks and pines and chestnut are less rugged and wild than many higher, steeper and rockier Sierras but the Aracena is a hikers paradise with long or short walks on moderate gradients winding along the wealth of old drovers that string the pueblos and villages together.

We did 5 long looped rambles over 5 days, and felt we could have lost ourselves in the shady valleys and over the high ridges for months tramping the cobbled mulo trails.

Our first couple of days were spent around Aracena town itself, a charming centre famous for its fantastic cave system right in the middle of town. Supposedly discovered by a shepherd and first opened to the public in 1914, the km or so of passageways and caverns visited on the tour feature a truly awesome ( not a word I use lightly) display of all forms of stalactite and stalagmite, the likes of which I have never seen before. Unfortunately no photography was allowed so I can only illustrate by showing a poster of just one interesting element.

We started early on our first 11km walk on a misty and then drizzly day, a loop to Corteconcepción. The moisture was a good illustration of how the region is seemingly so fertile and lush. Most of the fincas had fine huertas, or garden areas, which even out of season had a wide variety of fruit and veg, irrigated by various systems of water control, including one way stream gates.

A very catholic rural people, there was an abundance of roadside shrines and gatepost tiles depicting the Virgin Mary, and the entire landscape was dotted with chapels, churches, convents, monasteries and hermitages.

Passed the gardens of brassicas, root crops and the last remains of peppers, tomato etc and the orchards of orange, lemon, chestnut, pomegranate and persimmon was rich Dehesa country. Tracks lined with Arbutus, the strawberry tree, their fruit littering the ground, their flowers decorating the branches in a fitting Christmas style, were surrounded by oaks of every kind, under which the Iberian pigs snuffled and snorted, hovering up the plump and plentiful acorns.

Unlike a lot of our Spanish treks we were often accompanied by the gurgling and burbling of running water and had to ford streams on a variety of stepping stones and bridges.

We spent the drizzly afternoon in the caves and in museums of jamon (ham) and setas (mushrooms), both of which, along with chestnuts, the region is rightly famous for. Autumn is the time to be here with a rich harvest going on and the chestnuts turning golden brown. The huge variety of mushrooms is amazing with many kinds gathered for the kitchens and tables.

And as for the jamon, as much as we relished seeing the pigs enjoying their free ranging freedom, ( indeed we came upon many living feral in the open hills) the sad truth displayed in the museum of jamon was that it all ended in butchery.

But at least the end product was treated with a reverence rarely seen bestowed upon food unfortunately. There are many outlets in the area and indeed across Spain that are akin to cathedrals of pork, with the Iberian acorn fed pigs from Jabugo and the Aracena area on the high alter, and the jamon costing many hundreds of euro.

Next day was brighter and drier and we took off on another 16km circular route from Aracena west to the village of Linares de la Sierra.

Finding or way out of town past the sports arena , swimming pool and football pitch we soon found ourselves among the freshly peeled alcornoques or cork oaks on a path shared with walkers and riders.

The amount of material gathered sustainably from the cork oaks is very impressive and must involve some hard graft with ladders and mules needed to harvest the trees across the hard to reach sierra. Although the wine industries adoption of plastic corks created worries for the indigenous industry there seems to be a big revival of other cork products and an impressive selection of goods are on sale in the area.

The trail climbed a ridge and then descended towards Linares, tucked deep into the folds of the green hills. We walked on sandy tracks, rocky trails and cobbled paths accompanied by birdsong, cowbells and snorting pigs.

The village itself was an exhibition in the art of cobbling. The houses had individual designs in black and white marble cobbles at their front doors, the streets were intact and maintained and there was new and restored cobbling going on around the church.

On our return to Aracena we passed through some more open country with big fincas, the gate posts displaying the hieroglyphic initials or signs with which their stock was branded. There was also one signed with the distance to Santiago de Compostela, presumably a returned pilgrim. And then on the approach to town some tasteful and expensive looking holiday rentals.

Finishing our circle we drove to our next days starting place outside Alájar, another attractive town in a beautiful setting with towering peak of Pena de Arias Montano rising sheer above it. We drove to the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels half way up and hiked up to the mirador for mighty views across the Sierra.

A shortish 12km loop with plenty of ups and downs circled from Alájar back to Linares by way of the once abandoned but now being resettled hamlet of Los Madroneros.

A new concrete track covers most of the distance to the isolated hamlet where solar panels and mobile phones have made living or staying out here a more viable option. There has been a fair bit of reconstruction going on and there are places to rent for anybody looking to avoid the rat race for awhile.

Our route now lead us through an area with broken down walls where the resident pigs had access to miles upon miles of open territory and even abandoned houses. Remarkably tame they joined us for a picnic.

Our approach to Linares was marked by a lot of wilder, less managed Dehesa with horse and scrub replacing the grazing grasses.

After a couple of cafe con leches in the bullring bar we climbed back up towards the camper on a steep track past the poolside Riberas recreation area where a dammed stream has become a popular picnic spot.

Alájar was busy with visiting school kids and people preparing the village for Christmas so we headed for the hills to stay in Castano del Robledo, ready for an 18 km circle from there to La Pressa, Alájar and back.

From our fine (and quiet) park up next to the cemetery we descended in the morning through a misty mixture of chestnut and pines with views out across the forested slopes.

Coming to the valley floor we crossed various streams many times and on one I came a cropper and ended up on my back in the water.

The riverside walk was obviously visited by school kids who had left pictures and poems celebrating nature along the route and even had a little library in a grove of trees.

It was here we met a bunch of escapee piglets who showed no fear as they rootled past.

Past an enclave of holiday haciendas built by Dutch settlers, on a lovely track into Alájar and then up a cobbled way past the hippy hamlet of El Calabacino.

Abandoned and then squatted the community has now been regularized and some of the houses/ fincas look very settled and established.

Above the hamlet the cobbled gave way to a concrete track that turned into a rutted sandy one that climbed up through our first large scale chestnut groves. Brought to this part of Spain by settlers from the north and Galicia after the reconquest the ancient and venerable trunks, pollarded for hundreds of years, have born witness to many changes to an area which on first impressions seems timeless.

The final leg back to Robledo was down through deciduous oaks where the wildlife was dangerous, and into the town square woolbombed for Xmas.

More knitted decorations at the start of our last days loop, from Almonaster La Real, up the Cerro de San Cristobal mountain and around through Arroyo and Acebuche, a distance of around 14 km.

Looking back towards town on our steep onward bound trail the 10th century hilltop mosque was impressive with its adjoining bullring.

More glorious tracks, chestnut groves, clear streams, happy pigs, settlers idylls and forested slopes marked our last day in the Aracena.

Before setting off southwards to Seville at van speed we soaked up the view of the Sierra from its highest point on San Christobal. From a tad over 900m the whole landscape looked glorious.

We had discovered it looked just as appealing when deep down within it and vowed to return.

LA GRAN SENDA de MALAGA: GR249. 18/20th Feb. Benalauria to Genalguacil(18.5km) to Casares(20.5km) to Estepona(27km)

It was a bit of a journey just getting to the start of my last journey on the GR249. Getting to Benalauria where we had left off last October involved a late train from Malaga to Antequera Santa Ana, which is in the middle of nowhere miles from Antequera. This big ultra modern station was thought to be a huge white elephant when it was built but since the new high speed lines have made it a major junction.

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My connection didn’t leave till the morning and with nothing in the surrounding area and the building closing at night it was a rather cold night in my sleeping bag around the back. The day dawned very misty.

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The sun slowly burnt it’s way through on the journey to Cortes de la Frontera and I was joined on route by a crowd of runners who set off from the station after being cranked up by the MC.

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No taxi available early on a Sunday morning so I reluctantly set off on a steep 10km hike. Lady Luck sent me a young man who picked me up and set me down just outside Benalauria where, after a cafe with the publican who taught us how to make a whistle from an acorn cup back in Oct, I was on my way down out of the village among the almond blossom and chestnuts on a sharp descent to the valley bottom.

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On reaching the waters the vegetation got lush, with moist and fertile gardens lining the track and thick clumps of rush and canna. Yurts and other “alternative” structures were tucked away here and there alongside the traditional campo cottages.

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The river Genal etches a deep line for miles through this region not reaching the sea until it leaves the province and enters Cadiz. My route coincided with local walks along the river on specially constructed walkways through the verdant growth.

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It being a Sunday there were a good few walkers on the track and as I left the river and started up a steep and narrow path I had to stand aside for a seeming never ending stream for awhile. I begrudge them not, it was great to see the trails used as sometimes it seems like I’m the only one on them.

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At long last after a 500m ascent I spied the town of Genalguacil, since 94 the home to visiting artists on residences to create and leave a piece of work. I didn’t have time wander around looking for them as I needed to push on and find a camp.

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Which I luckily did a few km on. An unoccupied goat shed would protect me from the forecast rain better than my tent. The place seemed to be someone’s abandoned dream with an old foreign car and dilapidated caravan engulfed in briars.

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No rain, no goats in the night and the morning sky was clear. I had heard a horse at some point and I met him on the trail down to the river that was forded easily.

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Up again and then along a level track giving views through the trees of Benalauria and Genalguacil.

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The cork harvesters had been out in this neck of the woods and I was hoping to come across them to see them in action but the only workers I found were wheedling chainsaws.

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Down again for 250m on a rough track to cross another river, this time dry, although I could hear the Genal gurgling not far away.

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And so began yet another long 600m haul up through the woods. I climbed into a fire lookout tower to lookout for fires, it must be a lonely job. This was all part of a huge (really huge) hunting estate, and at the top of the climb I came upon a great estate with liveried workers driving about in liveried jeeps. The place was impressive but the massive gates closed on my approach.

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Another slight( comparatively ) rise and I was finally on the way down into Casares where I was delighted to see on a signboard that the next day’s stage had been changed to reduce it from 33km to 24km. Good news. This meant I didn’t have to carry on for another long haul in order to shorten the next day. It meant I could eat, shower and sleep in a bed. Luxury.

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The sky was clear again. The forecast rain had yet to appear. The sun sparkled on the dew and I got my first real view of the costa lying below.
Setting out on the road in the gloom I was mindful to take notice of the warnings before I headed off down tracks that would take me past some very “civilised ” gardens and mansions that would not have looked out of place in the Home Counties. Perhaps the owners were trying to recreate the old country in the sun. The flowers were nice.

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Ironically, as I crested the ridge above the ideal homes I came upon the bizarre sight and worse smell of a huge landfill site. The poor GR runs down on a neglected path ( I guess it’s not a popular section) right to it and alongside it before thankfully turning its back and beginning a torturous climb into the Sierra Bermeja.

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Up and relentlessly up into the admittedly beautiful mountains on a mixture of incredibly rough footpaths and tracks made to service the pylons that stride across these slopes.

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Lovely spring flowers poked their delicate heads through the hard stone surface of the track and there were many rockfalls and landslides.

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It seemed absurd to suddenly come across a road works sign on a track that even a digger would have problems navigating but they had replaced a bridge over a steam I soaked my feet in.

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At some point ( I think I know where) I missed a turn off. It was around the point where the route had changed and I blithely followed the main track for too far before realising my mistake. It meant carrying on to the Tarmac road from the mountains down into Estepona which was a long hot slog I didn’t need at the end of the day. I passed some very comfy looking chairs I thought I could probably sleep in and some inviting benches placed for the setting sun but carried on and now I am happily set in a air b+b with a view of the sea contemplating my 27km beach walk tomorrow.

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LA GRAN SENDA DE MALAGA: GR249. 17/18th October :El Chorro to Ardales (16.7km) to El Burgo (25km)

We thought we might not make it.
Booked to fly from Shannon to Malaga the day that Hurricane Ophelia swept across Ireland and all media were constantly telling everyone to stay at home, we didn’t think we’d be taking off at all.
Miraculously though,our plane was still not cancelled as we chain sawed our way through fallen trees on route to the airport through the maelstrom.
As we approached we saw the first post cancellations jet wobble its way down onto safe ground, and we knew we’d be off soon.
And so it was. After a remarkably smooth flight we landed into a barmy still night on the Costa del Sol, seemingly on a different planet to the storm tossed coast we had escaped.
Here for another week on the GR 249 trail, continuing the circumnavigation of Malaga Province for just over 100km over 5 days hiking and finishing with a bit of R+R.

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Studying the map board at El Chorro station, where I’d finished up last time, we were disturbed to see the route had been changed from all the info we had and now went 6 km longer past Carratraca before turning towards our objective, Ardales. However the GR7 still went along the original route so as it was already nearly midday we decided to stick to that.
It was a bit daunting to look up at the tower atop the hill we had to climb.

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The tower was connected to a reservoir 350m higher than those below, and water is pumped up at times of surplus energy and allowed to run back down, through turbines, at times of need.
We climbed relentlessly for over 4 km, passed some interesting looking rock formations with life clinging to it precariously.

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The higher we climbed the better the view, and after an hour or so we arrived at the wall of the reservoir and the tower with it’s resident vultures/ eagles and many more riding the updrafts around and above.

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From this vantage point we could look down on a line of people crossing the new bridge at the end of the Caminito del Rey gorge, and continuing along the cliff side walkway.

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We were now on a high plateau with extensive views over the surrounding Sierra , a landscape of pine trees and herbs which supplied a glorious scented background to our walk.

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After a couple of km along a forest track along the ridge we joined the Tarmac road that serviced the high reservoir briefly and passed by the entrance steps up to the 9 / 10th century fort of Bobastro.

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This was where the Mozarab rebels led by Omar Ibn Hafsun hung out and built an impressive citadel complete with this church and subterranean cemetery.

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Off on tracks again the next couple of hours took us across an empty quarter of sparsely populated farmland of sheep and grain ,now mostly within a Natural Paraje or park. There were a few tasteful finca to holiday home conversions but mostly simple farm worker ” navvyies” or houses surrounded by stock sheds.

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The subsistence grain growers had left the old cobbled threshing grounds, or “eras” behind, for the few passers by to admire the view from.

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The ringing of bells heralded a large flock of sheep minded by dog and man.

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A little earlier we had passed a long water trough with an elaborate welded cage around it and been puzzled.

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Looking back as the flock surrounded it we could see it was to allow the sheep to drink without climbing in and fouling the water.
Another flock was being minded by a large but mild mannered dog who seemed to let them wander at will.

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The last 4 km were downhill through open country until Ardales came into view on the other side of a busy road.

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We found the stage end and sign board for the next leg and bought the makings of a huge tuna salad to fortify ourselves for the following day.

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The night was full of thunder and rain and , as forecast, the next day dawned drizzly under leaden skies. We dressed for rain and headed out under the ancient hill top castle and down to the Roman bridge over the Rio Turon.

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Fair play to the Roman builders, that bridge has been carrying traffic for 2000 years.

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We now had 10 km of ascent ahead, taking us from 350 m to 820m. As we climbed, the view back over the mountains we had climbed from El Chorro was of darkness and light, with white clouds rising from the gorge.

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Atop of the first ridge was a medieval fortress from the war between Granada and Seville kingdoms.

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We climbed up into the vast public forest, 1000’s of hectares planted to help with erosion and as an amenity, although this is a little known and remote area- we saw no one all day.

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The rain started to come down relentlessly although the trees gave us some respite for a few hours until we reached more open ground of deep soiled mixed crop farmland. Luckily, at more or less the same time the rain became drizzle, then stopped, and then the sun came out for awhile and we stopped to dry out.

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A long line of bee hives were laid out next to the track and a copse of fine eucalyptus soaked up the rain from the arroyo.

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We were now back down to Rio Turon level. While the river had meandered its way through the mountains we had gone over them. As we neared the town we passed the fertile riverside gardens and a little shrine to the saints

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And finally, still pretty wet, a couple of km further than expected was El Burgo with its welcoming streets and hot shower.

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The cloud is well down again and tomorrow we have to climb, over 25 km, up to 1160m and back. So I really hope the forecast is right and we can stay dry.
But now some internal liquid is required.