Europe

Live from the Trail: Los Pueblos Blancos, Andalusia, Spain

Blanco 1

I have just completed a five day hike of the Pueblos Blancos – the famed White Villages of Andalusia, in the south of Spain. This particular hike was through sections of the magnificent Grazalema National Park, passing through the villages of Zahara de la Sierra, Grazalema, Montejaque and Benoajan, before finishing in the town of Ronda. A highly recommended adventure, and for those who may be considering doing similar someday, here is my simple step-by-step guide to what you can expect.

Step One: Wake up in a small guest-house run by an affable elderly Spanish couple, at around 8am-ish. Don’t forget to set an alarm if you actually want to get out of bed at a semi-normal hour. This is because southern Spain seems to run on a different clock to the rest of the world, and absolutely no-one is up and about before 8.30am – no people, no cars, no dogs barking, no roosters crowing. Even the sun couldn’t be bothered rising until well after 7am.

Step Two: Eat a local style breakfast, which will be provided by your hosts. It will consist of fresh orange juice and coffee. And a huge quantity of olive oil with stuff added to it, like bread and eggs and tomato. Warning: in Southern Spain, they really, really like olive oil. You and it are about to become good friends.

A dish of olive oil

Step Three: At breakfast, make sure to stare at your walking map, trying to pretend you know what you are doing, for the benefit of the middle-age-plus English hikers sitting next to you. They will be decked out in enough professional-grade mountaineering gear to fill a small size camping store and for sure will know what they are doing. So this is your one chance to appear even vaguely competent in comparison.

Step Four: Venture out into the wilds for seven hours of hiking. Unlike aforementioned English folk, be tough and do so without the benefit of a GPS unit, a proper hiking backpack, or portable water-filtration system. If you really want to show how tough you are, make sure the airline loses your luggage, so that you can spend the first two days hiking in the only set of clothes you have – 1 pair of underpants, 1 pair of socks, 1 pair of swimming shorts, and 1 pair of old sports trainers. Augment this with an emergency visit to the sole store in the village, where the owner will be roused from his sleep by the waiter at a nearby café to open especially for you. Now you can proceed to purchase the one t-shirt available. Never mind if it is two sizes too small for you and made of cheap polyester blend, because that will not really matter unless you are doing something where you are going to sweat a lot.

Step Five: Sweat more than you have ever sweated in your life, on account of the seven hours of hiking being in 39 degree heat. Your newly acquired polyester blend emergency t-shirt will virtually dissolve into your skin in the process, but do not be alarmed: they say it is not carcinogenic.

abandoned farm

Step Six: Enjoy the scenery along the way, which is truly, truly fabulous. Massive karst formations will greet you as you walk over high mountain passes and in deep, glorious valleys. The trail will take you through groves of gnarled olive trees on stony hillsides, neatly planted vineyards, and fields of ancient oak, citrus and cork. You’ll see working farms, romantic ruins of abandoned buildings, desolate plains of boulders, bubbling streams and dense impenetrable forests. And for home-sick Aussies, there will even be stands of tall Eucalyptus (these were introduced from Down Under about 120 years ago and have spread all across southern Spain and Portugal). It is a landscape so varied and wonderful that every fifteen minutes it will change so completely, and so dramatically, you will catch yourself wondering if you are in fact still in Spain.

Step Seven: Notice how you are walking on a crisscross patchwork made up of byways from every age. Winding modern highways to relics of ancient Roman roads; donkey paths to narrow goat tracks; cobbled streets to hiking trails to unsealed country lanes used by farmers to herd cattle. In Andalusia you are not just travelling across space but through time as well, using routes that have been plied for thousands of years. Ancient Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Berbers, medieval knights, Christian crusaders, aristocrats and peasants, Spanish revolutionaries, farmers, tourists – they have all been here before you, and there will be just as many to follow after you have gone. A pretty humbling thought, really.

Wildflowers

Step Eight: Stop to smell the flowers. If your hike is in the springtime, the landscape will be covered in wild flowers in bloom: red and orange poppies, yellow daisies, pink oleander, thistle bushes sprouting bright blue and purple, cactuses with yellow buds bursting off their fleshy green leaves. The wild flowers are everywhere, across fields, in every nook and cranny of villages, poking out between walls and rocks and clinging to the crags on the mountainsides. There is nothing quite like the feeling of meandering ankle-deep through a thick blanket of brightly colored flowers. It is like you have magically shrunk, and then allowed to run wild across the canvas of a Jackson Pollock painting.

Step Nine: Find a picnic spot. It will most likely be in a peaceful glade of trees alongside a gentle running stream. Agonize for several minutes as to whether this is the perfect spot, before walking on and finding a better picnic spot, this time on a flat rock with a panoramic view over a historic old town. Still be convinced that there is an even better picnic spot to be had, so walk on again, and finally come to a shaded spot under a solitary oak tree, on a verdant field of green, surrounded by views of high mountains and blue skies. Stop here to enjoy your picnic – a bottle of water, an apple, a sugary-snack, and a pre-packed olive oil and cheese sandwich. Finish your picnic, continue on your way, and immediately come across an even better, more spectacular picnic spot. Feel duped and promise yourself that tomorrow you’ll keep going until you find the absolute perfect location for your picnic. Then realize you sound like a spoilt brat.

Step Ten: Mind the wildlife. Along the way you will encounter animals of every sort, up close and personal. In the air you’ll spot vultures, falcons, and native birds. Trout may be jumping in the rivers. And on land, you might happen on wild deer, chickens running ahead of you on the road, or fields of grazing cows and sheep (through which you will gingerly step to avoid the piles of dung). You may bump into flocks of goats so large they will completely block your path, bringing you to a standstill while you wait for them to pass. And special note: on the day when the trail leads through a paddock where a Spanish bull is being kept, so that you find yourself passing within ten meters of its giant, fierce-looking horns, remember to wear the brightest red shirt you own. The bull will love it.

pueblos-blancos-zahara-de-la-sierra

Step Eleven: Take several thousand photos as you go. Every turn will bring new and wonderful vistas, images that look like they have been lifted right out of a postcard. While you are at it, marvel at the fact that in the middle of nowhere, Spain, you can get perfect 4G cell-phone reception, even though you often can’t in central Sydney or New York. Take the opportunity to send an email to a work colleague while sitting under a tree, end by writing “wish you were here”, then sit back and feel rather smug about life.

Step Twelve: Finish your day’s hike, covered in dust, in a tiny white village. Stroll through a dense mass of cobbled streets and crooked alleys that pour down a rocky mountainside like a whitewashed waterfall. Arrive at around 5pm, notice every window is shut and every store is closed, and immediately wonder if perhaps you have taken a wrong turn on the trail. Then remember you are in the south of Spain, where everyone – and by this I mean everyone, including the village cat – is having a siesta to avoid the worst of the afternoon heat. So do likewise – find your guest house, shower, and snooze for a few hours.

square

Step Thirteen: Clean and refreshed, head out at around 7.30pm, and be surprised to find that (i) the sun is still high in the sky, and (ii) still nothing is open. Make polite enquiries and learn that bars and restaurants will sort of maybe start to open at around 8, maybe 8.30, maybe 9, you never know, it depends when the owner wakes up from siesta, and anyway it is rather hot after all. So take the time to wander around aimlessly for an hour, through tiny streets that seem to go up and up, but never down. It is all so beautiful: white walls under terracotta roof shingles, windows with flower boxes overflowing with purple and pink geraniums. In the slowly setting sun, the shadows will continually shift and lengthen, creating an ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and dark. Make sure to stroll through the town square for a slice of village life. Here you might see young boys kicking a soccer ball by the steps of a centuries-old church; groups of women chatting; dungaree-clad workers chain-smoking on the street corner (the “smoking is bad for you” message has obviously not reached rural Spain as yet); or a wizened old man enjoying the early evening sunshine on a roadside bench.

Step Fourteen: Wander into the bar off the main square, the only place that seems to be open. Stand behind tables of old men glued to a TV screen mounted on the wall at the back of the bar. One day they might be watching a Spanish domestic football game; the next it could be bull fights live from Madrid. As the matador spears the bull and it falls in a mess of blood and sand, the old men will start shouting. It may sound like they are fighting, but don’t be alarmed – it is just their way of discussing the finer points of the contest, while slow-motion replays of the fatal stabbing will play over and over on the TV. In the next instalment, the bull may get the upper hand and toss a careless matador five feet into the air before trampling all over him. Resist your urge to cheer when this happens – you may well be rooting for the bull in this barbaric “sport”, but the locals will not be amused.

tapas

Step Fifteen: Have dinner. As places start to open, you can pop into a quaint-looking tavern for tapas. The choices on offer will be mind-boggling, albeit decidedly slanted towards those with carnivorous tendencies: small plates of thin-sliced Iberian hams, meatballs, Chorizos, black-colored blood sausages, slabs of poached goose liver, fish stuffed with yet more Iberian ham. Not to mention thick rounds of grilled goat’s cheese, cheese croquettes, boards of mixed local cheeses, salads with chunks of local cheese mixed through and cheesy tortilla slices. In southern Spain the only thing they like more than their olive oil is their jamon and queso. While dining look around and you may notice that everyone is talking English, German or Dutch. This is because even though it is already 9pm, only foolish foreigners eat while the sun is still shining; a Spaniard wouldn’t be caught dead dining at this ungodly early hour.

Step Sixteen: After dinner, find a fabulous spot to watch the sunset. In the south of Spain, it goes down around 9.30pm (remember: this place seems to run on a different clock to the rest of the world). As the sun majestically descends over the mountains, turning the sky orange and purple and the landscape golden, you will be treated to one of nature’s greatest shows. It is pure magic.

Step Seventeen: Time for a second dinner. Feeling rather silly at having eaten early like a tourist, visit another bar for another round of tapas. Now that you are basically a local, you will be surrounded by Spanish people, who will be sipping wine, nibbling tapas and talking, talking, talking. They talk a lot here, and they laugh a lot here; always loudly, and always with lots of arm-waving and gesticulating. No-one will be looking at their mobile-phones, preferring instead to engage in good-old fashioned face-to-face communication. How retro, you may find yourself thinking, and yet you will also find yourself unconsciously doing likewise, all the while consuming endless rounds of scrumptious tapas. Eventually stumble back to your guest house well after midnight with a grossly distended belly and a happy heart.

Step Eighteen: Fall asleep with ease despite being completely jet-lagged, thanks to the walking, sunshine and tapas. Smile as you drift off to dreamland, knowing that tomorrow will be exactly the same.

Beunas noches.

Zahara at Night

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