In the spring of 2016, Cicerone’s Lesley Williams travelled to southern Spain to trek along a section of the Andalucían Coast to Coast route, a long distance trail that crosses the province from its Mediterranean to Atlantic coastlines. Here, she tells the story of winding ancient tracks, friendly locals, beautiful villages and olive groves.
At Cicerone we're never short of excuses to research new walking opportunities, and late April was the perfect time to enjoy the profusion of wild flowers in Andalucía as we walked a section of Guy Hunter Watts' Andalucían Coast to Coast route.
Guy is to Andalucía as Wainwright and Mark Richards are to the Lake District – an established and respected expert. His accumulated knowledge appears in three walking guides to the province (originally published by Santana press), of which Walking in Andalucía and Andalucían Coastal Walks are now revised and published by Cicerone.
Our trip was a nine day trek along much of the first section of Guy's third book, the Andalucían Coast to Coast route (to be published by Cicerone in 2018), which tracks a great arc from the Mediterranean coast at Maro, near Nerja, to Bolonia, just to the west of Tarifa on the Atlantic coast in the west. The plan was to aim to finish in Ronda in time for some sightseeing and to celebrate my birthday... Don't ask, but suffice to say I can't get away with saying I'm 39 any more!
A flight to Malaga, and two bus rides later and we were enjoying the warmth of late afternoon sunshine in Nerja as we walked four or five kilometres east along the coast to Maro, where our trek would start. 'We' were a group of four, Jonathan and I and our great trekking friends Clive and Lucy.
The route 'officially' starts at the lifeboat station, just above the tiny beach at Maro, then climbs steeply past fields of lemons, avocados and almonds, as well as terraces with vast sheltered 'greenhouses'. After about twenty minutes of steady climbing, the route crossed the coastal motorway and emerged at the visitor centre for the Nerja caves. At this point Guy's route shares the GR249 waymarking, as was the case for much of our trip. The track climbed steadily on a forest track up through light pine woods and scrub to a picnic area, at the edge of which we found an old circular stone era or threshing circle, suggesting that this area was once cultivated more heavily.
From this point we started to get a feel of the convoluted landscape – the ridges and ravines that form the foothills of the Sierras, as we plunged steeply down, then up to the first of many ridges, then down again, eventually arriving at a beautiful stream where we lingered in the shade while having lunch, chatting to an English couple who were just finishing the final walk in Guy's Walking in Andalucía guidebook! Several more climbs and descents followed throughout the afternoon, until we eventually dropped to a gorge leading directly to the eastern side of Frigiliana, where a very welcome cafe provided much needed cold drinks.
Frigiliana is a delightful village. The white houses of the old half of the village are linked together by a web of narrow cobbled streets, paths and steps. Our rooms for the night were in the 'new' part of the village, and supper was in a delightful little restaurant situated in what had been an old donkey stable, with a view south to the sea.
From Frigiliana to Canilas, the route climbed steadily on a track past an endless succession of villas and rural houses up a total of around 1000m. The temperature and humidity of the day was only slightly relieved by a lunchtime stop by a stream in the shade of huge eucalyptus trees. Cloud and a thick mist enveloped us as we climbed ever higher, eventually levelling out and crossing a col, Puerto de Colado, at 910m.
From here is was a steady downhill track through a recently fire-damaged hillside ablaze now with myriad purple flowers as we approached Competa, one of the principal villages of the region. A gentle path beside fields of vegetables and fruit trees links Competa with Canilas, where we stopped for the night in the hotel in the village square. Our host Gustavo also provided a good evening meal in his restaurant opposite the hotel. Canilas is a popular village from which to tackle the ascent to La Maroma 2069m, (also known as Tejeda), the highest peak of the Sierra de Tejeda and the highest peak in the province of Malaga. At breakfast a party of four or five young Spaniards were preparing to climb it that day, as part of a holiday project to climb the highest point in each of the seventeen provinces of Spain. The weather was not good however, as the thick cloud of the previous day persisted. We too had a big day ahead of us, and we too hoped to make the two (or so) hour detour to climb to the summit.
Sandwiches in our packs, we hired a taxi to take us to Sedella, where we started our uphill climb. The weather was awful, thick mist, cold and clammy, with occasional glimpses of a ridge here, a hillside there.
At one point we glimpsed the top of La Maroma, just for a second or two, and then it was gone.
The path was challenging too - overgrown, with spiky things out to get us. There was also a type of Andalucían 'alpenrose' and masses of thyme and rosemary - a walk through a soggy limestone herb garden! It was clearly not a day for a summit attempt.
With an overall ascent of 1200m, we finally reached a col and began our long downhill route towards Alcecin, crossing a succession of ridges and gullies as we went. There's nowhere to stay in the village itself but four kilometres outside the village is a friendly rural hotel where we stayed for two nights, to allow us to walk the following day to Ventas de Zafarraya (with a taxi from there to the hotel, and a return the following morning).
This area is beautiful, but few visitors venture inland from the coast. We met only three other groups of trekkers, all English, on our entire trip. You can obviously walk the entire route, but we were picking what we hoped was the best combination of walking days and taxi stages, in order to make the most of our time available. With a group of four, taxi rides were a cheap and fairly reliable solution for occasional logistical problems.
May 1st is a public holiday in most European countries, Spain included, and the locals were out in force in their cars, loaded with coolboxes filled with drinks and food to barbecue. In contrast with the previous day our route was a lovely easy one, climbing gently on a good track past a couple of picnic areas already crowded with families spilling out from their cars. Beyond the crowds the track was a delight, with views across to the west, and peaceful, until we suddenly had to dive for the side of the track as a mountain biking race hurtled past. Our track described a huge loop, passing cork trees, and mixed woodland, before descending to the vast flat agricultural valley. Ventas de Zafarraya provides a dramatic rock gateway between the elevated alluvial valley and the undulating landscape more typical of the area.
By now we were feeling comfortable in the landscape, and delighting in the friendliness of the locals. Following an old railway track bed – originally a primary route between Granada and Malaga – we made good fast progress, passing wonderful swathes of wild flowers as we walked through olive groves and almond trees. At one point the route passed between two houses, barking dogs alerting the owners of our approach. We were welcomed by most of the family, who, having been disturbed from their afternoon siesta, invited us to rent one of their houses, then plied us with Medlar fruit from the garden and gave us a dozen carefully selected oranges from their orange grove. Ideal trekking food!
Between Villanueva de Cauche and Villanueva de la Concepción the route follows an ancient 'royal' packhorse route that would once have been a busy thoroughfare between Malaga and the interior, passing more beautiful wild flowers and chequered fields of barley, olives, almonds and even peas! We had some route finding challenges, spending about an hour failing miserably to locate a path, deeply hidden under a field of barley, but having eventually found the right track we motored along, quickly reaching our destination for the night.
Food on the trip was generally great, and often served in huge quantities. One such meal was enjoyed in a local restaurant just up the road from the hostel in Valle de Abdalajís, where our 'starters' would have more than sufficed! On another occasion we were intrigued by a menu with few descriptive words - 'peppers' turned out to be about ten large deep fried green peppers, similarly 'aubergines' had suffered much the same fate. Breakfasts mainly consisted of tostadas with tomato, washed down by coffee in local bars, while hotels served delicious selections of eggs, bread, meats, cheese, fresh fruit and juice.
The landscape on the stage to Valle de Abdalajís is dominated by the tremendous karst scenery of El Torcal de Antequera, with huge convoluted cliffs, limestone pavements, gorges and dry streambeds. From there on we were treated to ever more dramatic scenery as we climbed and then descended through pine woods to El Chorro, known widely to climbers. Our day continued with a 400m steady climb between the lower lake and the upper lake, which feeds the hungry HEP turbines. A long winding and undulating route kept us occupied all afternoon. At one point Guy's suggested route was barred, so we followed the waymarked GR249 which eventually lead us onto a brand new path that, after much meandering, finally descended in zigzags to the spa village of Carratraca, where we stayed in a lovely traditional style hotel, Casa Pepa.
Our final day of walking took us to the village of El Burgo, where, by some miraculous coincidence, we arrived in the main square at exactly the same time as the rest of our family, who had flown out for the weekend to help celebrate my birthday. We all piled into the rather stylish brand new Renault Espace that Joe had rented and drove the remaining kilometres to Ronda for a weekend of sightseeing and celebration.
Ronda is best known for its situation straddling a dramatic gorge over 100m below, with the older Moorish town on one side, and the slightly more recent town on the other. Spanning the gorge are three bridges, the Puente Viego, the Puente Romano and the Puente Nuevo, the 'new' bridge having been completed in 1793! One of the highlights of our trip came the following morning when we took a tour of the caves at Pileta, a fantastic deep cave system with cave paintings dating back 32,000 years.