The quiet life in Andalusia
MAL ROGERShikes, saunters, ambles, climbs and siestas his way through the largest region of Spain – and barely meets a soul along the way
YOU COME to it rather unexpectedly. Just around a bend on a lonely road, and there she is – El Picacho, some 2,500ft of limestone, shimmering purple in the afternoon sun.
About an hour’s drive from Cadiz, El Picacho stands in the middle of Los Alcornocales national park. Verdant vegetation stretches to the distant horizon; any walk through this corner of Andalusia is akin to ascending through thousands of landscaped rock gardens. These natural rockeries would cost a fortune back home in Ireland – the olive trees and strident bougainvillea alone would set you back a toxic debt or two, never mind the jacaranda and oleander tastefully arranged alongside babbling brooks.
Our trail is the Sendero del Picacho, rising to 882m, with a degree of difficulty pitched at medium to high. But hey, never mind. You can climb anything if you’ve got the time.
To reach El Picacho I’d driven from old Cadiz, with all its beauty and chaos – as decorously dilapidated a city as you could hope for.
By complete contrast, the surrounding countryside is soporifically quiet – drive through this serene and beckoning wilderness all day and you’ll barely pass another soul.
The first part of our journey includes La Ruta del Toro – the rich pasturelands where beasts destined for the bullring are bred. “Toros Bravos”, the signs proclaim, and there they are – magnificent, rippling specimens, each bull about the size of Co Leitrim, chomping contentedly on cloud grass.
The weedy liberal lurking within obliges me to apologise for having enjoyed bullfighting on the odd occasion. But whether you agree with it or not, bullfighting is a religion in this part of Spain. A religion and an artform.
You might think it merely consists of emptying the contents of your cutlery drawer into the neck of the bull, but newspapers carry bullfighting reports on the arts pages, alongside the opera and ballet, and not on the sports pages. Should you wish to learn more about bull matters, visits to bull-rearing ranches can be arranged (00-34-956-304312, acampoabierto.com) around the Medina Sidonia area. That’s right, Medina Sidonia. The old duke was the big shot in the Spanish Armanda. His beautiful hill town is topped by the striking church of Santa Maria. It’s a terrific stop for tapas and wine, but be warned: almost every bar and restaurant is likely to have wall-to-wall bullfighting on the telly, usually at full volume (most things here are done at full volume).
It’s best not to be in a hurry in this part of Andalusia. Linguistically, the Spanish draw no distinction between waiting and hoping; esperandomeans either. When you know that, you know everything you need to know about the local character.
Nonetheless, the bullfight, perhaps alone in Spanish society, always starts on time.
After Medina Sidonia, the road rises away from the pasturelands and into the mountains. Next stop is Alcala de los Gazules, one of Andalusia’s pueblos blancos, a confetti pile of white houses tumbling over the hillside. Handbags between locals and – variously – Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Castillians and Franco’s forces have all left their mark on this ancient settlement.
Granada writer Federico García Lorca believed here was the very heart of Spain: “I breathe for Malaga . . . for Cadiz, for Alcala de los Gazules, for what is intimately Andaluz.” .
From Alcala, it’s a short upward stretch to Los Alcornocales park and El Picacho. The lower reaches of the walk are through an olive grove surrounded by tangles of wild roses. I quickly made my way upwards through some frondy palms, and immediately became aware of an eldritch screeching sound. The ethereal noise was soon explained. The frogs had spotted me – and immediately ceased their clamour.
The little lagunas dotting the route are not only home to the marsh frog, Rana ridibunda, but also the odd aquatic grass snake. Like miniature Loch Ness monsters they patrol the lake, on the lookout for any amphibian who has forsaken vigilance for chattering with his mate. Anthropomorphism? Not a bit of it. As I left the pond behind I could hear the all-clear being given and the raucous banter beginning again.
From the lake, along a dusty, rutted path, whose history could only be guessed at stretches into the mountains – hunters would tramp along here; in days gone by fugitives too, because this is the lower reaches of one of the main mountain passes in the south. Farmers, deer, cattle and even the odd tourist have helped to hard-pack the walking surface.
The way ahead now looks different. Black tree trunks, with the bark stripped off to a height of about 10ft, predominate. This is Los Alcornocales – the cork oak park – and it does exactly what it says on the bottle. Here and southern Portugal are the two principal producers of the world’s corking needs.
Eventually the cork trees become more sparse, the evergreen holm oaks grow smaller, and palmitas (dwarf palm trees, the only native European palm, fact fans) appear amid the gorse. And although the great pine forests of the Mediterranean are further south, there’s a fair selection of small conifers. Soon the open mountainside is in sight, and the view across the high-rise landscape of Andalusia is incomparable. Look south and you can see the formidable crags of the southern tip of the Andaluz sierra nudging the Mediterranean.
This is about as spiritually far removed from the Costa del Sol’s pulsating resorts as it’s possible to get – nobody here drinking themselves into duty-free comas; in fact, nobody here at all. So far I hadn’t passed a single human being. A couple of Griffon vultures had wheeled overhead earlier to check on my health. Concluding that I looked robust enough and unlikely to provide dinner, they languorously changed direction and soared away to the north.
Mid-afternoon. Very hot. Time for a break.
So I sat on a rock and ate my bocadillo(or sandwich) of local manchego cheese and jamon serrano(dry-cured Spanish ham). Nothing disturbed the tranquillity, only the distant sound of cowbells. A bit of shade, and the rocks were damned comfortable . . . maybe a siesta? A local down in the village had given me the correct method for taking this constitutionally guaranteed afternoon doze. You drink enough wine for contentment, then make yourself comfortable in your favourite armchair, with one arm hanging over the side. In that hand you hold a metal spoon. When your snoozing turns into a deeper sleep, the hand relaxes, dropping the spoon on the floor, conveniently waking you. Repeat as necessary.
But thoughts of a siesta are banished by the sudden appearance of a quartet of red deer not more than a couple of hundred yards away. I was surprised to see them so early in the afternoon, and for their part they were more than a little upset to see me. They bolted as fast as their hooves could carry them, kicking up dust as they charged across the sun-baked rocks.
Until recently, hiking hasn’t been a big thing in Andalusia – walking was what you did for want of a donkey. But it is superb rambling country, with 20 signposted walks traversing woodland, river and mountain areas. However, visiting most parts of the national park requires a permit – there are no rights-of-way and few public amenity walks. The permits aren’t hard to come by, and are free. I’m not sure what sanctions would be visited upon you should you attempt without a permit. In a week of hiking, sauntering, ambling and climbing, I met maybe half a dozen people in total, none of whom looked in the least likely to say, “Papers, por favor.”
On the other hand it’s such an easy task to get the permit, and you usually get some friendly advice into the bargain, that it seems churlish not to bother. This particular corner of the sierra is covered by the Alcala de los Gazules office – you’ll remember we had to stop there en route. The office is at the top of the town, opposite a devilishly enticing cafe, where the aforementioned sandwiches can be ordered. Pay a visit after your walk, too, when the tapas, local vino and uninhibited carousing are an unbeatable hat-trick. And they’d probably lend you a spoon in the unlikely event of your wanting a quick siesta.
Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) flies twice daily to Malaga from Dublin, once daily from Cork, except Fridays. Malaga is a four-hour coach ride from Cadiz, less by train (www.renfe.es). Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Seville twice a week – some two hours’ drive from Cadiz.
Where to stay and eat in Andalusia
Where to stay
Hotel las Truchas. Avenida Diputación, El Bosque, 00-34-956-716085. In the heart of the Sierra de Grazalema. Provides cosy shelter for the night – clean sheets, hot water, stiff drinks. Doubles from €60.
Casa La Loba. 21 La Loba, Medina Sidonia, 00-34-956-412051, casalaloba.com. A beautiful boutique hotel with style to spare, situated in dusty, historic old Medina Sidonia. €75 per night.
Parador de Arcos de La Frontera. Plaza del Cabildo, 00-34-956-700500, parador.es. Set high on a rocky pedestal overlooking the Rio Guadalete, the terrace has the best views in town. Like all Parador hotels, the rooms ooze luxury. €160.
Where to eat
El Faro. 15 Calle San Felix, Cadiz, 00-34-956-211068, elfarodecadiz.com. This is one of the best fish restaurants in Andalusia, in the heart of the Barrio de la Vina. Outside Cadiz, most Andaluz restaurants seem to share one, fairly predictable, menu. But in the city you get imagination and flair, and El Faro is a shining beacon.
Restaurante El Escenario. 4 Calle Honduras, Cadiz 00-34-856-174217, escenariosdeeuropa.es. El Enscenario is one of those wonderful Cadiz institutions where you can present yourself for breakfast (try the churros, or fried doughnuts, dipped in chocolate), move on to tapas for lunch and find yourself back at 2am quaffing whiskey.
Bar Terraza. Plaza de la Catedral. An excellent place for eating, drinking and praying, as it’s just opposite Cadiz’s stupefyingly grand cathedral. It’s a classic tapas bar with wooden tables, hanging hams, nooks, crannies and laughter.
Tourist information, maps and passes:Oficina del Parque Natural Los Alcornacales, Casa del Cabildo Plaza San Jorge No 1, Alcala de los Gazules, 00-34-956-413307, andalucia.org.
One Foot Abroad (01-4433972, www.onefootabroad.ie) can organise itineraries, accommodation, permits and so on in the province of Cadiz.
Mal Rogers flew to Malaga as a guest of Aer Lingus