Thursday 24 March 2016

Exploring Inland Andalucía: El Torcal, Antequera and Sierra Nevada

Spain, 18th – 23rd March 2016

Rather than following our usual patterns of edging along coastlines we’ve stayed inland this week.  From Ronda we skipped the rest of the Costa del Sol by travelling east with no intention of coming back to the sea until reaching Almeria on the other side of Andalucía.  That’s quite a chunk of coast we’ve left unexplored, but between the stunning karstic landscape of El Torcal and the views of distant snow-capped mountains in the Sierra Nevada, I think we probably made a good call.

Our weekend started at the aire in Antequera, where we spent the evening reading up and researching about what was in the area and along our coming path so we could figure out what our plans were.  At some point in the evening we heard a strange, mournful singing coming from somewhere nearby.  Soon after a man in full brown monk’s garb walked by singing into a megaphone, along with a procession of people led by a young boy carrying a cross.  After doing a bit of digging into Catholic celebrations it seems this was probably to commemorate the Friday of Sorrows, a day of remembrance that occurs on the Friday before Palm Sunday.  It focuses on the emotional pain that the Virgin Mary experienced during the final days of Jesus Christ.

The procession passed us by, and the aire returned to a state of quiet once more spare for a few passing cars.  We’d realised that we were close to El Torcal national park, a location that had been recommended to us as good walking territory, so the next day we drove for a look.  The road towards it led away from Antequera and wound through hills of fields and scrubland before finally making the approach to El Torcal.  El Torcal is a karstic landscape, made of layered limestone rocks rising up in strange stacked pillars and formations.  Hundreds of millions of years ago in the Jurassic period, this area was immersed beneath an ancient sea where the sediment and carbon left behind by dead marine life eventually formed limestone.  Over time the area was compressed until the limestone was forced upwards into a hill, where the stone then fractured and was eroded by rainwater into the unusual shapes it has today.

There are two signposted walks that are open to the public, with the longer of the two taking around two hours.  We opted for the longer one, and were no more than minutes into the path before we were very glad we opted to wear walking boots.  It had rained during the night and a little throughout the day, meaning the path was a quagmire of mud and puddles that squelched beneath our feet.  Despite my efforts to keep my jeans clean by tucking them into my socks, they were a muddy mess within the early stages of the walk.  Progress was slow going as we figured out which areas were safe to stand without slipping.  That being said, it was a lot of good fun and the scenery was spectacular.

In the evening we returned to Antequera as a place to stay the night.  Whilst we were in the town we decided we might as well have a look around, but made it no further than a couple of streets along before we were distracted by a Mercadona (a common Spanish supermarket, where we emerged with a pack of napolitanas for breakfast) and a Chinese Megamarket.  We’ve found these Chinese shops to be a fairly common thing in Spain and Portugal and have heard a lot of people mention buying things from them, but this was the first we’d been inside.  It was a warren of all kinds of various bits and bobs, like stationary, DIY goods, electrical bits and kitchenware.  Despite the excitement of so much stuff Matt managed to keep his hoarder instincts under control (who knows, maybe the van lifestyle has changed him?) and we emerged with just a notepad, which we’d been meaning to buy anyway.

By the time we’d finished shopping it was a bit late to visit the town so we explored it the next day instead, which turned out to be a good move as there was plenty to see.  It was Palm Sunday, so there were lots of people walking the streets to and from the various churches in town, many carrying leafy branches of what looked like olive (Andalucía is home to 75% of Spain’s olive production) as a substitute for palm.  The tourist office was open, where we found out that the nearby local museum was free on Sundays.  We’ve been in a fair few questionable free museums before, but this one turned out to be rather good.  It was set in a grand old building with an attractive courtyard area and embellished ceilings.  The museum spanned multiple levels and had lots of different exhibit areas, starting with displays and remains from the local area during the bronze and iron ages and then going on to areas showing artwork, religious icons, and one room full of golden objects complete with a sealable vault door.  The top floor was a gallery showing the works of a local artist, who seemed to have done dozens of realism paintings that all featured suitcases and luggage strongly as a theme.

Antequera was quite an interesting visit for what had looked at first glance to be an unassuming working town.  It was full of interesting buildings and churches, and there were the remains of an old fortress at the top which from the outside you could see views over the town to one side and an uncovered Roman baths to the other side.  From what our guidebooks had said, one of the main things of interest were three dolmen caves.  We didn’t make it to the main two dolmens as they closed half an hour earlier than scheduled (the gates were closing just as we drove up).  We did make it to the other smaller dolmen site, El Romeral, but they were also closing early and we just had time for Matt to nip inside and take a couple of pictures whilst I waited with the van (no time to pack away all the charging electronics that were on display).  Dolmens are megalithic structures (ancient stone monuments) that are believed to be ancient burial chambers, as human remains are often found in or around them.  The dolmen in question was a large dome shaped stone chamber, covered by earth and grass and accessed by a tunnel.

Archedona above; Villanueva do Algaidas below
Our next intended point of call had been Granada, a city whose biggest attraction is the Alhambra, a Moorish palace that often requires advance booking of tickets to guarantee entry as they limit the number of visitors to protect the site.  I’d checked availability on Friday, and other than a couple of days it looked like getting tickets wouldn’t be a problem.  We made the mistake of not booking the tickets there and then, as it seems that somewhere between Friday and Sunday all tickets had sold out for the foreseeable future; either that I had the wrong tickets selected the first time.

Whilst we figured out what we wanted to do about Granada given the Alhambra wasn’t an option, we spent a couple of days mooching about the area and researching our coming path.  We spent one night at Archidona (GPS: 37.09079 -4.38877, Free including services), a small town about 20 minutes west of Antequera.  Unfortunately the parking was very close to one of the main roads around the town which usually isn’t a problem, but the traffic didn’t seem to die off at night and I struggled sleeping.  As a result we moved the next day to Villaneuva do Algaidas (GPS: 37.17832, -4.44991, Free including services) where the noise at Archedona suddenly seemed much more desirable.  The motorhome parking here is a large dirt area which unfortunately had attracted the local youth crowd, who first showed up in the late afternoon and kept coming and going until the early hours of the morning with a mixture of cars parking up tight to each other and hanging around, leaving bottles and rubbish strewn everywhere.

The A92 past Granada with views of snow-capped mountains
The next day we set up our route for Granada.  We’d decided that we’d give the place a go anyway despite the Alhambra no-go, as it sounded like a nice place and we were lured by it being one of the few places where tapas is still given out for free with drinks.  Camping wasn’t going to be cheap however, as all of the local campsites stopped accepting ACSI discount cards during Holy Week and the website price lists were generally confusing, not translated and/or out of date, but it looked like it would be €25+ just to stay without hookup.  Despite the expensive price tag we were still prepared to pay up, right until it started raining.  We checked the forecast and it looking like it was going to rain in Granada for the next two days.  Camping was expensive, we had no Alhambra tickets and we’d be wandering in the rain… the stars just didn’t quite seem to be aligning for us so we decided to give it a miss this time, and changed route to take us around the city.  We’ll be coming back to see it one day, just not on this particular trip.  The joy of travelling: there’s always something to come back to.

A 120 mile drive (the first time since the start of the year doing over 100 miles in a day) took us around Granada and eastbound, with views of strange cave dwellings near Guadix and distant snow-capped mountains in the Sierra Nevada national park, finally reaching Abla.  It’s a small town just off the A92 (the main road from Seville to Almeria), where despite its small size there are two aires: one by the main petrol station in town, and a quieter one between a football ground and a (closed) picnic & BBQ area, where we spent the night (GPS: 37.15446 -2.77786, Free including service point) and traded the excitement of Granada for a day cleaning the van, making up for the lack of tapas with a large portion of delicious Patatas a lo Pobre. (Edit: The aire wasn't behind closed gates like it looks in the photo, access was through open gates at the other end - Matt)

A Roman mausoleum near the entrance to town
Abla is placed between the snowy forested Sierra Nevada mountain range to the south and smaller Sierra de Baza to the north, which is a cold desert-like landscape.  Ceramic products are made in the region, something the town has used liberally by having tiles set into the pavement to mark an urban walking trail through the town that goes through the main squares and up along a street with views over the surrounding area.  There’s a real mix of buildings going on, with some having large sections constructed from crude building blocks whilst others were the pretty whitewashed variety.  One building in the middle of the cobbled town had converted its downstairs into a barn, complete with donkey.  Despite the advanced walk information online that had full downloadable audioguides at a WiFi point provided, by contrast the local tourist office were using blown-up images from Google maps of local villages, but at least they made up for it in enthusiasm.

The mountains south called out to us, with a road leading out of the village that showed only as a white unnamed road in our Spanish atlas.  We were unsure at first, but after seeing a couple of motorhomes coming down it we decided to give it a go.  It turns out the AL3404 is well paved road that is marked out into two lanes all the way along, twisting and turning around scenic views of the Sierra Nevada until you reach its end near Canjáyar, where we spent last night (GPS: 37.01402 -2.74544, Free including services).  The town was a bit of a quiet place, with more ceramic tiles marking out a walking route around tired buildings, but despite not having much going on it was fine as a place to wander and lay our heads for the night.  We were staying at an altitude of 618m above sea level but it was still warm during the evening and the heating remained off; perhaps because we’re in Almeria territory now, the hottest province of Spain.

Next stop: back to the coast at Cabo de Gata.

- Jo

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