Spain 2023 – part 2

(For part 1, click here.)

30 March 2023. Grazalema. We complete one of the walks from our Cicerone guidebook, which takes us out into the Guadalete valley to the north of the town. It’s supposed to take three-and-a-half hours, but we manage to extend it to nearer five, what with a few stops and a lunch reading break. The sun is strong and warming, but the air in the shade is still quite cool, and there’s a good breeze. Later we climb out of town to the west, along a path that tracks the road (and indeed the higher reaches of the river Guadalete), but is far enough away to let one feel in the country. There’s lots of pine trees, with enormous fir cones. One of the many information signs informs us that these thrive specifically here, because of the abundant rainfall – more than just about anywhere else in Spain. Happily for us, none forecast currently. Eventually we get to the saddle, and look down far into the Boyar valley to the west.

Friday 31 March 2023. Grazalema. We embark on a more ambitious walk today, again from the Cicerone Guidebook, that takes us south out of Grazalema to climb first Simancon (1564m) and then, via a saddle, Reloj (1535m). It’s another prefect day for hiking, bright and sunny, but cool air and a bit of a breeze. Again we linger over the walk, and get in a few chapters of our books at lunchtime. It’s a karst limestone landscape that reminds me of Yorkshire. Except it’s not raining. And it’s warm.

On our return we spruce up and wander into the village, but there is very little happening. Possibly an influx of weekenders, but the bars and the square are largely empty.

Saturday 1 April 2023. Grazalema. The good weather just keeps on. Another perfect walking day, cool and sunny. We initially try for the much celebrated Sendero El Pinsapar (a walk through the pines), but the conformist element of the party doesn’t want to proceed past a sign that says authorisation must be carried. I’ve tried for this, but been defeated by the buggy national park website. It seems you are better off applying by email in advance.

So instead we again walk on the path parallel to road and river up to Puerto del Boyar. The idyll is somewhat spoilt by the regular passage of innumerable powerful motorbikes clearly on some organised Spring run. But we are eventually able to escape the noise as we head south on a path that would take us to Benaocaz. I checked this one out also last night, and the 15:40 bus back to Grazalema promised in the Cicerone guide doesn’t appear on any timetable I can find. So we turn-back after lunch and throw in a bit of a loop into Grazalema at the end. In all 17km (and 830m ascent). The scenery is breath-taking with the white hills sharp against the bright blue sky.

Sunday 2 April 2023. Grazalema – Seville. It’s about 120km from Grazalema to Seville, so if we were driving we could do that in under two hours, but we’re subject to the vaguaries of public transport and, possibly unwisely, we are travelling on a Sunday. We are out of the apartment by 8:15am, being neurotically unconvinced that the 0845 bus will turn up. It does, early, and duely waits in the town square before the trip to Ronda. We arrive at about 10am, and pleasantly while away two hours on the terraces looking over the valley before our train at 1215. We have a short ride to Antequera Santa Ana, which is a large modern station in the middle of nowhere. There’s an intersection of lines, so presumably a deal of changing trains goes on here. There’s no town. Then at 1408 a train to Seville, where we arrive at 1615, seven-and-a-half hours after setting off. It has to be said that the journey is not unpleasant, the stops are filled with reading and sunny ourselves; the train travel is contemplative and stress-free.

Antequera Santa Ana

In Seville we are quickly settled in, then out of the flat onto the streets. It’s hot – 28C. And the place is absolutely packed. It seems all of Seville has turned out – it being Palm Sunday – to watch the various parades through the streets. Furthermore, young and old are dressed smartly and stylishly. It’s as if the whole city has turned out in their Sunday best. We take in the parades, and walk along the river to Park Maria Luisa. After sunset we return to the streets to watch the processions.

Monday, 3 April 2023. Seville. The streets are much, much emptier when we get up and we wander about a while, impressed with the efforts of the cleaners and sweepers who have already got the place looking pretty spic-and-span. We wander under the Setas de Sevilla, somewhat mockingly called ‘The Mushroom’ but we’re impressed. Claimed to be the largest wooden structure in the world. Then (wisely it turns out) we head down to the Cathedral, where we spend the rest of the morning viewing the largest Gothic building the world. It is spectacular and truly enormous. The afternoon we walk in the Parque de Maria Luisa, site of the ill-fated expo 1929. Then, an evening of parades, bells, smells, drums and trumpets.

Tuesday 4 April 2023. Seville. A day for museums. We’ve decided to skip the Alcazar this visit, wanting to get off the touristic conveyor belt for a while. So we head back to the Parque de Maria Luiza and to the Mudejar pavilion which houses the Museo Artes y Costumbres Populares. Citizens of the EU pay nothing. Brexiters cough €1.80. This turns out to be a great (and sadly empty) museum which celebrates particularly the artisans of Seville. It also has a temporary exhibition about the importance of preserving tradition and folk lore. We cross the river, to walk in the more down-to-earth Triana area, which has a splendid market and many ceramic shops. Then a spot of Dead White Men at the Museo de Belles Arts . We’re a bit overwhelmed with Christian iconography at the moment, so possibly not in the best frame of mind to take in the works here. But we do enjoy the various tiling that have been moved into the open air quadrangles in the museum. Then home, with delays for the processions and huge crowds.

Wednesday 5 April 2023. Seville – Granada. We’re in Granada by noon, and can drop of our bags and head into town. We wander the streets by the Cathedral and have lunch, before deciding to head upto the Alhambra to sort out our tickets. The news is depressing: tickets are sold-out, this week and next. We kick ourselves, as we’ve known we would be in Granada at this time since before we left home. Despondent we return to the city centre, and we’re drawn to a church where crowds are gathering for a 1700 parade start. We watch the many participants arrive and settle into place. This one has lots of women in what I think of as widow’s weeds. But they are incredibly well made up, and look elegant and poised. We stay for the floats to emerge from the church, Christ at the front and then, after a good deal of time, Mary to the rear. Each has an accompanying marching band.

Our AirB&B is right in the heart of the Bazaar part of town. Narrow lanes with numerous stalls and small restaurants. The place is full of character and incident, although stays noisy till midnight, when we hear a succession of shutters being drawn. We console ourselves that probably the Alhambra is over-hyped, and likely to be commercial and touristic; they’ll be plenty to do without this.

Thursday 6 April 2023. Granada. With little hope of success, at about 23:45 on Wednesday night I log into the Alhambra website to see if any tickets have been released. I keep refreshing the screen and affirming that I’m not a robot. At 00:02 the refresh takes a bit longer, and …. WOW!! There are tickets for today. I purchase two (a bargain at 19€ each) without problem, and we fall asleep astounded at our good luck.

All that sour grapes from yesterday was nonsense! The Alhambra is simply fabulous. The gardens are full of colour, and beautifully laid out, reminding us of those we saw in Iran. The palaces are elegant and cool. The fortifications magnificent and sturdy. We stay for seven hours. It has been brilliantly restored and maintained. It’s a great tourist experience: the ticket lets you see everything, the audio guide is helpful, the numbers of people are not overwhelming, and there are places to pause and discreetly rest and eat.

Friday 7 April 2023. A week from today and we’ll be on the train journey home. There is no way to confirm the ticket but to walk to the station and sort it there. Happily it’s a pleasant stroll through largely empty Good Friday streets, and the ticket office has three staff on duty and two customers, so we’re done in minutes. We’re still slightly wary at the idea of travelling from Granada to Brussels (via Barcelona, Cerbere and Paris) in about 27 hours, but at least we now have the tickets.

The Cathedral, as we expected, is closed to all but the faithful, so we explore our neighbourhood of Albaycin, which is a hill of narrow streets, steps, and shops and bazaars. We orientate by always heading upwards, and eventually we reach Iglesia de San Nicolas which sits on top of the hill. There’s a bit of a buzz there, with hawkers and performers, as it has a stunning view over to the Alhambra. Then on to Sacromonte, which is an area of caves, formerly the homes of Gypsies and the descendants of Granada’s Jews and Muslims. They were brusquely cleared out in 1962, so just a museum now. But this is pretty interesting (follow the link), and is a fine celebration of these folk and their customs, which of course, includes flamenco.

Saturday 8 April 2023. Granada. We have a late start, but we are in the Cathedral soon after opening. It’s a later building than some of the other Cathedrals we’ve seen, started on 25 March 1523, the style of the Spanish Renaissance. After this, a wander through the city and in the afternoon a whirlwind tour of four small museums. We loiter in the Museum of Archaeology.

Sunday 9 April 2023. Granada – Bubion. We are up early-ish to get the bus. Our street is busy till about 2230, but then seems to quieten, and by midnight the last of the shutters have been heard to close. So arising at 0730 was not too much of an effort. We walk the half-hour or so to the bus-station. Very few folk on the street, and after all the parades and processions of the last days, not much evidence of Easter Sunday celebrations. Perhaps we’re too early.

A two hour bus ride gets us to Bubion which is in La Alpujarra on the southern side of the Sierra Nevada National Park. We’re at an altitude of 1350m. After the somewhat Bohemian accommodation in Granada, this feels sedate and opulent. We have a whole house to ourselves: larger than most holiday-homes we rented with our kids. Bubion is a white village with reminders of its Moorish past: white houses, flat roofs, covered alleyways. After lunch we walk down the steep valley to Pampaneira, then back along the river to Capileira then back to the house. The hillsides are brutally steep. As the light fades it’s (just about) warm enough to sit outside and watch the stars come out. Venus bright in the West.

Monday 10 April 2023. Bubion. Twenty kilometre walk up the step valley we are in, past Capileira and then onto a hydro-electric plant at La Cebadilla. There is a mountain refuge about 5km further on, but we only go on for another 2km. We are slow covering the distance with the steep rocky terrain. The sides of the valley we can see are covered in old terraces. Mostly these appear abandoned, but occasionally there is one being irrigated, and so green. It turns out these terraces were used mainly for crops, including wheat – hence the occasional threshing floor. See here. On our return we check out Capileira, it’s very pretty, but right now, sleepy and empty. The museum opens for two hours on a Sunday. We are back to our house early enough to bask for a few hours in the warm afternoon sun.

Tuesday 11 April 2023. Bubion. Using the various mapping aps available (mainly Komoot) we devise a walk that takes us over the ridge to our east, and then down into the next valley, to visit the little towns of Portugos, Pitres and then Capilerilla. About 20km, but with over 1000m in ascent and descent. Later we walk down to Pampaneira, for a beer in the town square.

Wednesday 12 April 2023. Bubion. We set off with the intention of walking to Trevelez (the highest village in Spain, we later learn) and then getting the bus back. But it’s only after we get going that I pay proper attention to the likely time it will take, and realise that we’ll be stressing and hurrying all day to make the departure time. So instead we turn north to follow the ridge towards the white capped high Sierras. We’re above 2100m for several hours and notice some effect from the thinner air. We see the Refugio on the hillside which looks near enough, but when we reach the path that would take us there, the 1km over the ground would involve a further 300m ascent. So we demur, and head home. (From the Refugio it’s only about 5km and 800m to the summit of Mulhacen, at 3482m the highest mountain in Iberia. Very do-able, and possibly a challenge to return to.). Still we complete 25km and 1200m of ascent. An absolutely fabulous walk, in near perfect conditions. And high up here, there are contouring water ducts that go on for kilometre after kilometre, presumably taking the precious commodity to water the hillside terraces we’ve noticed.

Thursday 13 April 2023. Bubion – Granada. Our bus is only at 1653, so we have most of the day in Bubion. After yesterday’s efforts, we have a late and leisurely start. Our super AirB&B host has said she doesn’t need us to vacate early, so we can leave our kit in the house and return later. In the end, we more-or-less reprise the walk we did on the first day, with a few deviations and variations thrown in. Then we have the two hour bus back to Granada, where we have our final AirB&B right by the station. Sierra Nevada has been fabulous.

Friday 14 April 2023. Journey home. Really, we started yesterday at 1653, when the bus came down the hill into Bubion right on time. We’d been waiting for half-an-hour, mainly through anxiety that it might not come, or, if it did, it would be early and whizz by. The journey to Granada involves the loss of hundreds of metres of altitude, on tiny roads, with precipitous drops to the side, innumerable hair-pin bends, and extraordinary excursions into tiny villages, that involves millimetre fine manoeuvres to negotiate the narrow streets.

On Friday, again we arrive at the station early, but so have many others. Getting the very fastest Renfe trains involves an x-ray security check of your bags, and a quick wanding of your person. This is the 0810 from Granada – Barcelona, the only direct train of the day. We’ve discovered, that much of the time, to travel any distance in Spain involves passing through Madrid, so avoiding this by taking this particular train is a bonus. We are pretty fast to Cordoba, but after that we truly speed. For times the information display says we’re holding 300km/h.

We have an hour stop-over at Barcelona, then we take the altogether ploddy slow train to Cerbere (just over the French border) which has 26 stops en route. At Cerbere, we have only 30 minute stop-over, which is plenty of time to change platform and get on the overnight sleeper to Paris. It’s empty when we board, but the conductor assures us it will fill up, which it does at Perpignan, although it seems pretty actually there is space, but the passengers are being shoe-horned into the compartments, so as to use the fewest number, fair enough I suppose. We have our first experience of rain in three weeks, and as the sun sets, we turn in on our couchettes, along with three others we are sharing our compartment with. We all sleep well, arriving at Paris Austerlitz on time at 0633 on Saturday.

Saturday 15 April 2023. We cross Paris to Gare du Nord, where we have enough time to breathe the city air, and buy a coffee. It’s cold and raining. We get the 0755 to Bruxelles Midi, arriving at 0917, which gives us about four hours to walk about the sunny, if chilly city, taking in a museum, and a few sights.

Then 1452 from Bruxelles Midi to St Pancras, arriving at 1600 (local time). We stress round the Circle Line and get to Paddington just in time to be shouted at to stay away from the 1628 to Cheltenham, which we watch depart. But we are smart enough to get the fast train going west that leaves four minutes later, and serendipidously deposits us at Swindon in time for us to run across the platform and join the train we missed at Paddington. So we are in Cheltenham at just about 18:30.