Up the Hill to Grazalema

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I’m currently living in a rented flat in olive country. If I could see through the tiled roof opposite, I’d be looking at a smooth dome with rows of olives down it, and bigger ones in all directions. Most villagers here have olivars – olive groves, and most have walked me through them in case I’d like to build a house on one. I burn olive tree off-cuts, get olives with €1 wine (glass, not bottle – that’s €2), eat cake made with olive oil and, now it’s no longer prohibitively expensive (Waitrose), douse all salads in olive oil from the local cooperative olive press. When I first saw this place it was sizzling in the heat and loud with cicadas and the villagers only came out after dark (or to swim). Even though it is now a confusing 10 degrees celsius, it still looks and feels like Southern Europe for Beginners.

Up the hill behind us is another kind of country. An Alpine country. The village lies on the northern edge of the Sierra de Grazalema National Park, most of which is higher up, and constructed out of crags, gullies and giant gorges, spongy vibrant meadows and forests of pine and Spanish fir. It covers around 51,700 hectares, and is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, famous for the big things in it, such as the highest peak in Cadiz – El Torreón, 1654m, the biggest cave system in Andalucia, a very big gorge with 400m walls, and some velociraptor-sized  birds, the Griffon vultures, which soar above it in search of lost children. It also gets 2.2m of rain a year to keep it nice and damp. Wild boar, ibex and deer thrive here, as do the inhabitants of a smattering of white villages: Cortes de la Frontera, Grazalema, Montjaque, Benahoma, and El Bosque, as well as Zahara de la Sierra.

Grazalema is theoretically the neighbouring village, some 350m up, and reached by zig-zagging around vertical rock faces on a buttressed road up through the Puerto de los Palomas (a Tour de Spain climb). Expect a few near misses with traffic coming the other way, slight nausea, and distracting fine views.  Like most places round here it was settled by Romans, then occupied by Berber Arabs who were driven out by Christians. Quite a long time later it was sacked by Napoleonic troops, and nowadays it’s popular with tourists, local and foreign, who come here to escape from the heat in summer, marvel at the snow in winter, and hike steep, boulder strewn trails to Narnia valleys. 

The village has the advantage of being popular with tourists without being touristy, by which I mean people come here to see life as it is lived without wishing it were different and the menus were in English. There is accommodation, and camping (which is almost accommodation), and a tourist office, but aside from that few concessions made. Many of the German, Dutch, French and English sitting out in the plaza turn out to be residents, doing art or working remotely and living in nicely restored terraced properties with great big wooden doors and rough beams which are slightly above my price range. They tend to look pretty pleased with their lot.

Anyway it is useful to have Grazalema, a quintessential mountain retreat just up there above olive country for whenever you want to feel just that little bit colder. We go up there on Sundays, along with half of Ronda – Ronda not Cwm Rondda – ostensibly to hike, but mainly to eat. You can see stuff that you don’t get to see down below like fur gilets, gloves, thermal clothing and fine blankets and capes made from wool spun in the local mill. When the sun is blindingly brilliant, the plaza and cobbled mini-square are crammed with tables, dogs, children, and people in an approximation of apres-ski wear. When the streets are in shadow, queues form for tables by the open fire inside old restaurants with stag heads mounted on the walls, and we all eat boar, venison, partridge and rabbit from thereabouts.

A couple of Sundays ago we hiked from Grazalema up and around the Endrinal Valley on a walk mapped out by Tony Bishop in Walking in the Ronda Mountains. I’ve got to be honest, I chose it because it looked quick and short. It took bloody ages, and I thought I was going to be sick on the way up, but I was deliriously happy on the descent and for that I highly recommend it. Although not right now because there is snow glinting in the Pinsapar.

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