29 June 2014

Sierra de Gredos, Spain - June 2014

Just a couple of hours drive west of Madrid are the mountains which divide the river valleys of the Tiétar and Tormes, rising in granitic solitude to the peak of Almanzor at 2592m.

Granite features at the Puerto de Peón

Magnificent views on the Laguna Grande walk

Typical upland scenery in the Sierra de Gredos - broom everywhere!
Apart from weekends, this region remains largely devoid of visitors, a vast area of upland populated by herds of cattle at medium altitude and the higher elevations by the big horned ibex, standing proud over their domain, only bettered by the numerous raptors soaring high above them - griffin vultures, golden eagle, red kites and numerous black storks who descend to their prominent nests on buildings and towers in the towns and villages to keep an wary eye on the local residents. 

Summit views from El Torozo 2121m

Big horned ibex on the summit of El Torozo
Granite outcrops
The north of the region, my base for a week's exploration, is a country of foothills covered in yellow flowering broom, heather and grassland, with higher peaks protruding beyond them, still holding on to old snow in the northern corries and rocky gullies in the summery glare of June. Cattle roam far and wide, still rounded up by horsemen in this part of the world, and the area punctuated by characterful little villages, nestling quietly in peaceful solitude. In the high country there are outcrops of granite that would give the granite monoliths of Tioga Pass up from Yosemite a run for their money, and fine tors which remind me of the barren tops of Dartmoor in the UK.

Bullring in Santa Cruz de Valle
View towards Toledo from the Mirador on La Abantera
View over San Esteban
Venture a little further south, crossing the 1395m pass of Puerto del Pico on a fine mountain road which vies for attention with a cobbled Roman road which runs down the same defile to Cuevas de Valle, you enter a different climatic zone. Hotter days here, although a cooling breeze can still plummet down from the heights to relieve you at times, and a proliferation of trees bearing olives, figs and citrus fruit amidst free spirited vineyards, quite unlike their disciplined brothers further north in Rioja.
Or go further north, cross a 1900m pass towards Piedrahita, favoured by the hang gliding fraternity, and you enter the vast rolling plains which stretch up to the elegant little city of Salamanca and west to the Portugeuse border. Vast swathes of grassland punctuated by stunted oak trees and barley crops as far as the eye can see.
Although it's mid summer here in Spain and the sun hot on the face during the day, a good breeze is pervasive, and cool, even chilly nights make life here very tolerable. The granite peaks make for good rock-climbing territory, and there are many trails (GR, 'Grand Randonnee', and smaller 'PR') which are generally well waymarked with wooden posts, cairns or vertical rock pillars. The most popular, best avoided at weekends, is the Laguna Grande, an easy high level walk to visit the grand cirque and glacial lake below Almanzor. Other walks like the pull up to the pass at Puerto de Peón at over 1900m or the fine summit of El Torozo 2021m will find you virtually alone on the tracks, apart from the watchful ibex and the raptors hunting high above.
The conservation authorities have done their best to encourage people to walk the area, without causing erosion on the more popular routes, although some, like the 'Five Viilages' circuit from San Estaban in the south, or the climb to the wonderful viewpoint of Mirador La Abantera take intervention to a minimalist level, with infrequent signposts and a reliance on old wooden signs and small cairns to guide you through the pine forests. 
A day off to visit Salamanca, 90 minutes drive to the north from my base in the little village of Hoyos del Espino, was very enjoyable. Two cathedrals, a Roman bridge, and fine golden sandstone that dominates the architecture of this small university city make Salamanca a great place to visit. And the town square, the Plaza Mayor, is a truly impressive centrepiece of this UNESCO World Heritage city. Temptations galore of course, local preserved hams, savoury pie and pastries, plus, of course, the myriad tapas bars.

Plaza Major in Salamanca

View from the Puerto de Chia, 1710m
And, on the way back to Madrid for the flight home, the beautifully preserved walled town of Avila is worth a couple of hours of anybody's time:


Had it not been for Headwater, the walking and cycling holiday company that I like to use, Sierra de Gredos would never have been on my radar, but with their help I've discovered a lovely part of Spain. 

Room with a view!
Early morning light over the Almanzor massif
My base, the excellent little hotel El Milano Real in Hoyos del Espino, has been a treat. Elevated views to the highest peaks of the Sierra de Gredos, excellent food (especially their signature breakfast), with knowledgeable and genial hosts Teresa and Paco. 
Definitely worth the journey!

No comments: