Flying to Malaga would be many peoples idea of a perfect Spanish holiday, yet a ninety minute drive away from the airport will take you to some of the most spectacular scenery in Spain.
Here, I enjoyed some of the most unspoilt and remote landscapes of Andalucía. Based amidst the lovely whitewashed houses of Canillas de Albaida, on the edge of the rugged mountains of the Sierra Tejeda Natural Park, I explored an ancient network of mule tracks and trails that took me through an idyllic region of Moorish villages, olive groves and vineyards.
However, as I travelled by minibus, the winding roads with a sheer drop at times, were enough to make your stomach churn. The driver was full of confidence and knew every turn well, almost knowing when a car would come round a blind bend and knowing when to brake at the last moment.
On my arrival in the small village, I was greeted by Gustavo, the owner of the hotel; a flamboyant character who took great pride in running the place. Forget big hotels. There is nothing more pleasant than staying in a small, family run establishment. No room the same size, each with a different ensemble of furniture. You are often woken in the morning to the sound of church bells heralding in the dawn of a new day.
One evening, before dinner, the bells were rung with gusto as we were told someone in the area had died. In a short space of time, the village square became populated by all the local men, with all the women filling the church. Every one, it seemed, had turned out to pay their respects. It was apparent these small villages are deeply religious.
Built amongst mountains, houses on either side of the narrow streets are never level with each other, yet the views overlooking the countryside made this way of living worthwhile. The fresh air and the idyllic slow pace of life is ideal for those who want a quiet standard of living. Occasionally though, the peace was broken by young motorcyclists who ride through the streets with carefree abandon.
The first days trekking is always more of a challenge than any other. It’s like having to get a bit of match fitness. The limbs ached all that bit more as I climbed up and down the mountain sides on varying terrain. The paths, carved out over centuries by farmers and locals alike, are a network of trails connecting the villages. Fruit trees were abundant and it was nice to see avocados growing alongside the orange groves.
When I reached my first village, Competa, I was almost blinded, not by the sunlight, but by the brilliant white paint of each building as it glistened in the rays of the sun. With roof tiles made from bright red terracotta, the homes were in stark contract to the lush green surroundings of the countryside. The slow pace of life seemed a deliberate act. No one seemed to want the hustle and bustle of living in a big Spanish tourist resort. Villages have no shortage of bars, but it is a pleasant and relaxing way to unwind with a cold refreshing drink.
What better way than to end a fabulous walk with fantastic food? Tapas, the Spanish version of appetisers, are plentiful and there is no shortage of food on offer in the many restaurants in this area. Paella is common in these parts. Made from traditional ingredients of Bomba rice and a mixture of seafood, depending on the season.
As I meandered along each day, I was often reminded of the history of the Spanish Civil war as I passed derelict buildings that once stored arms and weapons used in the conflict. It is thought many more weapons still lay undiscovered in the mountain ranges. I even learned that during the Civil war protection rackets were rife and travellers would pay money to ensure they would not be sitting ducks from the hidden locations on the mountains where a lone gunman would often lay in wait.
The arrival of the Moors in the 8th century brought silk manufacture to the Iberian Peninsula and these ancient trails are littered with the historical reminders of those once lucrative journeys across Arabia and into the Islamic heartlands of southern Europe.
Goats provide an income for many of the local farmers. It was not uncommon to see a dead goat hung on a fence as we walked by. I was told that if any wild dogs attacked the herds then the dead goat would be left out as a warning to others in the area.
During one days walking, I made my way to the village of Sayalonga; meaning long dress. It was the first chance to try a Spanish omelette. A generous portion, accompanied by fresh salad and washed down with a ‘Clara’; local lager and lemonade mixed together.
Climbing up through these idyllic rural settings, I reached the summit of Cerro Verde (1,346m), a peak similar in height to Ben Nevis. I enjoyed a picnic lunch at the top, enjoying the fresh Andalucian air as I looked out across the limestone landscapes. It was amazing how quickly I ascended and descended within a short space of time, often gaining a few hundred feet within hours each day. Ants were a problem every time you wanted to sit on a rock, millions of them going about their daily tasks. Yet they have a nasty bite and it is advisable to check you hat and clothing before resuming the walk.
Amongst the trees and plant life were many vineyards producing fine wine. A few years ago, it was considered wines from this region lacked the quality of their French counterparts. However, nowadays, many expensive red and white varieties are produced in this area. Unlike other vineyards, the grapes are left to the mercy of the elements and are not watered or tendered, giving a rich full flavour.
Aside from walking, there is an opportunity to go to Granada for a day trip and visit the impressive Alhambra Palace. Initially constructed during the mid 14th century by the Moorish rulers, it is comprised of many palaces and fortifications added over the centuries by Kings, Queens and rulers who lived in this part of Spain. The city of Granada is steeped in history and it has its own fortified wall built in the eighth and ninth centuries to quell unwelcome invaders.
All in all, this is a lovely area of Spain to visit.
More beautiful images by Mark Davidson here:
This post is also available in: Spanish