Outdoor World

A wander near Ronda: Spains empty quarter

Andalucas first parque natural is fairly unknown, yet Sierra de Grazalema is a stunning wild place of crests, gorges, hilltop the towns and vultures

Andalucia holidays

A goat farmer told me no one swims in the pond at Zahara de la Sierra because it’s full of fish with crocodile heads. Is that why I’m the only person in 128 sq km of cool sea on a very hot period? I subsequently learn that this manmade reservoir (< em> embalse ), the mountain ranges to the south of it, and the cliffs, ravines, bloom meadows, forests and caves all around are simply, for the most part, empty. Spain has a surplus of staggeringly beautiful wild spaces, but this one- nearly 54,000 hectares north-east of Cadiz, overflowing into the province of Malaga- became the country’s first Unesco biosphere reserve in 1977. And Sierra de Grazalema became Andalucia’s first parque natural in 1984.


Most foreign visitors, myself included, discover the park by accident while driving from Ronda to Seville, do a double take on spotting the reservoir and the fairytale village of Zahara, wrap around its crag like a wonky marriage cake, slam on the brakes, make a detour, and end up biding- sometimes for a lifetime.

I check into a casa rural at an age-old olive mill on the leading edge of a village called Molino el Vinculo, eat jamon and goat’s cheese at a local saloon, imagine living here and, next morning, wake to the sound of cockerels, wood pigeons … and puffing.

Grazalema. Photograph: Alamy

The heavy breathing comes from three runners and two cyclists heading up the mountain, a 600 -metre climb over 11 km of buttressed switchbacks to Puerta de las Palomas pass at 1,189 metres. I follow( by automobile, with igniting clutch ), heading for Grazalema village, 30 minutes to the south. I pause at the top of the pass to survey the park laid out below: verdant valleys, limestone pinnacles, pinsapo ( Spanish fir) forests, more mountains. As I slam the car door, a stag jolts away down the scree.

Grazalema is overshadowed by some serious peaks, most notably Penon Grande. This is hiking country: many of the park’s 20 official roads start here, and most go upwards. Clearly it’s a weekend playground for Lycra-clad sporty Spaniards- the cafe in Plaza de Espana are packed with puppies, children, motorcycles and people doing stretches.

Following a map from the tourist office, I head up the one-hour Llanos del Endrinal trail, but unwittingly stray on to a longer loop-the-loop, and stray puzzled through the boulder-strewn plains of Puerto de las Presillas for some time. The climbing is richly rewarded by a stretching of cool pine forest, and an hour lying flat on a slab of rock, encircled by lofty crests where ibex side along ledges. Below me is a lush flower-filled hollow, and above me are whirls of choughs.

Garganta Verde. Photograph: Alamy

To British ears, one of the park’s claims to renown may explain its lack of visitors: it’s one of Spain’s wettest places. The rain falls mainly in winter, though. It also has Europe’s largest colony of griffon vultures, with a nesting website in a deep canyon just outside Zahara, the Garganta Verde.

The trail to the base of the gorge is one of four where access is limited. Even with one of the 15 permits a day issued by the park agency in my knapsack, I can’t believe I’m allowed here alone. It’s like a Spielberg film set after the crew has knocked off. As hefty vultures waft across the void, I hear their wings flap. Aside from that, the soft tacking and clatter of a rock fall and outbursts of bell-clear birdsong, the primeval gorge is eerily quiet. I slide down stones at the bottom and, margining into the mouth of the Cueva de la Ermita, carefully examine the underworld.

If I was into caving, canyoning, and spelunking I’d be in luck: the park is made of porous limestone, and an underground world of interconnected tunnels and pools lies beneath.( Actually, it’s the place for exhilarating physical stuff in general: a major center for paragliding, rock climbing, extreme triathlons, and serious journeying .) But the caves are also of historical concern. In Cueva de la Pileta in the eastern segment of the park, just above Benaojan and below Montejaque, a lantern-lit tour uncovers stalagmites, stalactites and paints of fish, goats and stick men, some dating back 25,000 times.

Village street and cafes Zahara de la Sierra. Photo: Alamy

Despite a smattering of walking tours and tutor parties, Sierra de Grazalema seems fairly unknown. Yet it has been inhabited for a very long time. It is littered with signs of occupation, from megalithic crypts to Roman murals, necropolises and streets- the calzada romana to Ubrique, further to the south, is one of the more popular hikes in the park. The villages themselves, settled by Berbers, subdued by Christians( some invaded by Napoleonic armies ), are is built around layers of civilizations.

Back in Zahara, the bars under the orange trees are well-patronised: neighbours catching up after an hour apart; older boys in berets and tints boozing Pedro Ximenez; teens on their telephones, sharing tapas; small-scale sons with firecrackers; a table of touring cyclists examining maps. There’s a group of older women up by the cemetery, gazing out over the lake.

The view over the reservoir from Zahara de La Sierra. Photo: Blanchi Costela/ Getty Images

Ironically, the pearl of this natural park is a dam, constructed simply over 20 years ago- some villagers still call it the pantano , or swamp. But things are changing, slowly. Younger villagers decamp to the grassy lawns and icy seas of La Playita recreation area by the lakeshore south of Zahara on summer periods. On the north shore, a young local pair, Javier and Maria, operate El Mogote, a chic coffeehouse and nautical centre with kayaks to rent and the world’s best opinion. Something similar farther south may just open next summer. Or not. For now though, as I stand at the water’s boundary, it seems agreeably wild. Croc-headed fish or no, I jump in.
* Permits from Sierra de Grazalema natural park Visitor Centre, El Bosque, juntadeandalucia.es

Where to stay

The terrace at Tambor del Llano, Grazalema.

In Zahara de la Sierra, Al Lago Hotel Restaurant has doubles from EUR1 15 B& B( al-lago.es ). All areas of the park are accessible from Zahara, but other good bases include: in Benaojan, Molino del Santo( doubleds from EUR1 15 B& B, molinodelsanto.com ); in Villaluenga del Rosario, the traditional Hostal La Posada,( doublings from EUR6 0 B& B, tugasa.com ); 5km from Grazalema, Tambor del Llano( doublings from around EUR7 0 B& B, tambordelllano.es) offers rooms in a wild property put. One of very few campsites- with cabins- is Tajo Rodillo in Grazalema( campingtajorodillo.com ).

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ travelling/ 2018/ apr/ 02/ sierra-de-grazalema-natural-park-ronda-andalucia-spain-walks-villages

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