Here we go…
We start early on Friday morning. Barely a snatch of sleep before up and out to meet the pitch blackness of night and a (far too) cheerful taxi radio.
Four women sitting motionless in a cab whizzing on an empty motorway, stunned by the early onslaught of wakefulness. A surge of chat then sleepy silence.
Airport security predictably busy. We get the all clear (even my pimentón) and are free to purchase toiletries, essentials, coffee, croissants. A lovely, necessary sip of caffeineted warmth.
Light beckons the morning as we fly southwards. Happy anticipation as we spot land, mountains, white villages and lakes. And then there is Sevilla with its river curving through it.
The welcome warmth as the plane’s doors open and our faces lift to meet the sunshine. 22 degrees we are told. Bliss.
Our car journey is so different from the darkness of our early morning ride. Expanses of farmland, trees standing in sweeping fields, and then gently undulating land leading into mountains – the Sierra – where a white-washed settlement sits pretty above a big reservoir. One of the pueblos blancos well-known for adorning this region. Zahara de la Sierra. Up and down the winding roads until we find the last car parking space in town. This is no sleepy village.
Santiago at the central Hostal Rural Marqués de Zahara welcomes us. He is quietly mannered and efficient. We are glad to find pleasant, clean accommodation. Nothing fancy – good and simple.
Lunch under some orange trees in the charming square nearby: 4 huge salads and hunks of white bread at the Bar Nuevo. We communicate in badly broken Spanish and wish the language would come more easily. A shopkeeper sits outside her tienda. Passers-by, friends or neighbours stop to talk. The señora’s red wine sits on the wall next to her. She takes small sips very slowly.
Hike número 1 – Serenity with bulls
That same Friday afternoon an emptily winding road brings us to a viewpoint that marks the start of our first walk (Puerto de las Palomas – the Pass of the Doves). Some local workmen have just finished tarmacking the parking area, and are chatting in the afternoon sun. They gaze at us curiously then point us in the right direction. Gracias.
It is so still and clear – as we climb higher we can see for miles and miles. We walk up and around the mountainside for two peaceful hours. We have it all to ourselves. Gorse bushes scratch our legs, and we brush past aromatic thyme. Native holm oaks (Quercus ilex) are dotted all over, and we watch Griffon vultures soaring and circling overhead. We spy our pueblo blanco with its lake far below us. Other villages lie in cascades of white-washed houses further afield.
Fit as a Fruitcake persuades us to practise some yoga, and we first hear, then see some sheep in a mountain meadow, bells gently clanging around their necks. The serenity of this place calms us as we pass by a couple of large bulls (even though two of us are in pink and red), and back to the starting point. It was worth the early flight to stand here on this tranquil mountainside, so far from home. An escape into the Sierra.
Back to Zahara
Later we return to the square. The shopkeeper señora is not there. We see her emerge from a café and cross the square to her chair, her red wine glass refreshed. She sits down to savour the evening’s comings and goings, and maybe a sale or two.
We are so weary at supper that evening. Our conversation is disjointed. Sentences are left hanging in the air, waiting for another of us to finish them off…
…Saturday begins very slowly. We have slept like logs. Breakfast is a long, leisurely affair. Giant slices of toast, cereal and fruit, and some excellent coffee. We are fully embracing relaxed holiday mode.
Hike número 2 – Walk with a View?
Our hiking plan starts in beautiful Grazalema, a neighbouring pueblo blanco. But our phones inform us that the weather could worsen, so we seek advice from Paco Marin in the Grazalema tourist information office, who is definitely in the right job. He is an enthusiast, and knows the Sierra like the back of his hand. He apologises for his excellent English.
Paco suggests a 5-6 hour hike, taking in both Mount Reloj and Mount Simancón. It is not a circuitous walk, so if the weather closes in we will be able to simply trace our steps back. In fine weather the views are magnificent…apparently.
The hike starts out busier than yesterday’s. More people – mostly Spanish. But they are all descending the mountain. The wind amplifies the sound of (seemingly 100) barking dogs from beneath the rocky outcrop of Peñon Grande. Low cloud races overhead. Steady progress upwards is matched by the relentless descent of the rain cloud, and we soon find ourselves in its wet folds.
We crack on now. Less pausing to take in the near non-existent views. Lunchtime is a business-like affair. The rain falls harder, so we huddle under some trees for shelter. My paprika warms up some bread and cheese.
Our food gives us focus: we want to reach the top of Monte Reloj. This is when we realise we packed as mums in a hurry. I have waterproof trousers (very fetching), an emergency foil blanket, but no gloves or hat. One of us has a survival bag (in which she lunches) but no waterproof trousers or gloves. None of has the right gear individually but put us together and we have everything necessary. I guess that’s called teamwork (if you share).
We climb higher (but see no-one) in deteriorating conditions. Someone yells: Whiteout! Visibility is poor but the summit seems to be somewhere up there. No path – just rocks. A shouted discussion decides us: Let’s GO – ¡vamos! Gusts of strong wind force us to grab hold of rough rocks, and flatten ourselves down. Scrambling with speed and gritted teeth when the lulls in the squalls allow, we make the summit. We crouch and hold on. And make it brief: Shall we go down now?
Yes, quickly – slipping and sliding. The wind stays at full blast. We are cold and wet and our hands are red raw. Monte Simancón will have to wait.
Our inexperience has been exposed to the elements, but we are satisfied that we met our challenge. Google images later show us the beauty of the views from the top of Monte Reloj. Next time perhaps it’ll be a briefer breakfast, and we will not think we know better than nature, the weather forecasters and the early-rising Spanish.
Only after our descent do I remember that Grazalema is the wettest place in Spain 😉
Desperately needing warmth after our virtually viewless hike, we seek Chocolate y Churros in Zahara’s pretty streets. The weather is improving in the late afternoon and we alight upon the Meson Los Estribos with its enviable outlook onto the lake. The restaurant is heated and we take seats in a corner with a view. It seems that authentic hot chocolate and churros (doughnuts) are hard to find. Instead we order tea and coffee, which arrives served with condensed milk. A rather sweet accompaniment.
We sit for hours, reconnected to the 21st century as the restaurant offers wifi. Sombre news from Mali of a terrorist attack on a hotel in Bamako, and later the news that Brussels in on high alert.
We think and quietly absorb the beautiful peace offered by the evening view.
The waitress offers to open up windows so we can take better pictures. We say: ¡No gracias! We are warmed through now – comfort wins over photo opportunities.
Relaxing into the evening we order some tapas and Spanish wine, then enjoy some fish and chicken dishes too. Salt features heavily, but the food is nourishing and plentiful. Our hosts are good-natured, indulging our long stay at their corner table. They are amused by our tired silliness and poor Spanish. We seem to be the only guests staying so still for so long.
Sunday dawns beautifully. Before we head home we climb the steep path to the remains of the Moorish castle at the very top of Zahara de la Sierra and enjoy our last views of this (mostly) sunny, stunning slice of Spain.
It’s been a brief visit, and we would love to stay. But our tickets tell us we must board a plane and get back to reality.
This reality kicks in with the reminder of world events through the careful scrutiny of bags by Seville’s airport security.
I am stopped and detained. Asked to open my tiny suitcase. I oblige. The security officer unpacks my clothes, my toothbrush, the leaflets given to us by Paco at Grazalema. She seems puzzled. Then she picks up an object tightly encased in plastic bags. A little nervous (she – not I), she carefully unwraps it. Ah, pimentón! Smiling, she lets me keep it. My paprika survives security to travel another day…just 😉
Details can be useful
There is a wealth of information in books and on the internet about the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema, which is a UNESCO Biosphere reserve made up of mainly limestone rocks. All I have space for here is to tell you that it is rich in history, culture, and flora and fauna. The perfect way to see it is by hiking (but check the weather forecast before you set out). Check out these links:
Permits are needed for some walks so check with the local tourist information first. Which reminds me – we were told by someone that the tourist information in Grazalema would be closed. Not so. Paco Marin was most definitely there.
Zahara de la Sierra is about an hour and a half from Seville’s airport. More can be read about it here: http://www.spain-holiday.com/Zahara-de-la-Sierra/articles/visiting-zahara-de-la-sierra-andalucia
Hostal Rural Marqués de Zahara – double room rate is 50 euros, plus 2,75 euros for breakfast – http://en.marquesdezahara.com
We flew with Ryanair as it offered us the right times and prices – £82.60 pp from London Stansted.