My heart is bursting – and it’s only day one. It’s not bursting from effort, or exertion, or altitude or attitude – it’s bursting because I’m among friends, doing wonderful things, in a wonderful place. It’s living, I’m alive and life is so very good. Just yesterday I flew into Malaga from Dublin and boarded a bus for a three hour journey to the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains,
nestled between Northern Spain and the Mediterranean sea. I had intended using the coach-ride to catch up on sleep, after catching two hours of unrelaxed over-excited snoozing in my own bed in Dublin the night before. It didn’t happen that way. The trip was too interesting, and our guide Danny too entertaining, to succumb to sleep. Our group of around 20 Irish adventurers finally arrived in the ancient white village of Capileira, ready for dinner, ready for bed, and ready for a whole new day of adventure – but not before we managed a splash-down in the hotel pool, followed by an introduction to tapas, Spanish wine, local tomatoes, sheep’s cheese, heather-scented honey, and avocado soap…
0800 for breakfast, and already I’m meeting familiar faces. It’s a great group and we’ve already bonded over the journey and dinner the night before. A day of walking will probably seal the deal – I’ve found that friendships form quickly and memorably when you’re sharing a love for the great outdoors. There’s that sense of anticipation, spiked with apprehension. How fast will we walk? How steep will we climb? How hot will the sun get? We have briefing with Danny and our local guide, José, and are all quickly reassured that we will all enjoy today’s walk, whatever our level of fitness.
I’m meant to be good at this, with all the walking and trekking I’ve done in recent years, but I have to take a few deep breaths in the first 20 minutes, as we take off from the village of Capileira – and start walking upwards. Steeply upwards! but Danny appears with fresh figs plucked from local trees, and the sweet, juicy fruit, and the nice steady pace, brings us up to the point on the mountain where the trail evens out, and we head to our left, in the direction of La Cebadilla and the hydro-electric power station that marks the halfway point for today’s loop walk around the gorge, carved out by the Poqueira River.
José is brilliant. His English is perfect, his manner is gentle and humorous and his knowledge extensive. I’m learning lots, as well as walking in the sunshine and soaking up the craic with the rest of the group. I’m fascinated to learn of the intricate water irrigation system that floods the locality allowing the slopes to remain green and fertile, despite the heat of the Spanish sun. “Like the veins pumping blood through your body, the snow-melt from the mountains are pumped through the region, delaying it’s rush to escape to the Mediterranean” José explains. He tells us that 95% of the system is unchanged since first designed and introduced following the Moorish invasion of 711 AD. He shows us how the water is diverted to feed local landowners’ property for a certain number of hours each day. It’s ingenious, and even more so, to think that the system works better without the application of diggers and plastic pipework. I’m fascinated and want to learn more, but we have more days to follow.
José also tells us lots about the local flora and fauna. Vipers are around, but they populate an area that is higher than we are now; and the acorns on the many oak provide rich feeding grounds for wild boar. He also explains how trees in the region have developed leaf systems to cope separately with the conditions which differ dramatically in a very short area, between either side of the Poqueira River. We look at Chestnut Trees that bear conkers similar to those we are familiar with at home in Ireland, but with leaves that look entirely different to what we would expect. Other leaves have hairy surfaces, to trap the moist breezes blowing through the gorge from the Mediterranean Sea. Walking further, we graze on figs, walnuts and berries, while stepping through clouds of thyme and oregano; the trail, scented with herbs, and flooded with the music of water flowing beneath our feet.
We walk through National Parkland to reach the hydro-electric station at La Cebadilla, wondering at the high-water marks of the gorge far beneath us, which is clearly flooded when spring melts the winter snows on the mountain above. We glance curiously at the recently built but now derelict village, the stone church offering glassless windows to the noonday sun. José explains the village was built to accommodate workers at the hydro-station, only to be cast aside and abandoned, when a new road linked the workers with the more pleasing and sunny village below at Capileira.
Crossing the river, we head to a nearby meadow for a picnic lunch with grainy loaves, cheese, ham, locally sun-blushed tomatoes and rich, oily olives; before opening up for the home stretch. We push upwards for a while, before the pace changes and we start dropping down again to the river. At places we’re walking on a bed of acorns, and the squashed, sweet fruit of the Mulberry Tree, which I’ve often sung about in childhood rhymes but never before actually seen. We spot lime green butterflies, the stick-like ‘Praying Mantis’ insect, and disturb a couple of lizards. Then the group splits into two speeds as we enter the last hour of the walk; finally joining together again at the point where we cross the river for the second time, in the shadow of our ‘white’ village home. The narrow gorge broadens slightly here into a series of plunge pools; rushing urgently and noisily in bright sunshine, an inviting call for hot, tired feet. I can’t resist, and within moments my toes are followed by ankles and knees and then I’m pushing off from the bank, immersed fully in the cold, foaming, mountain hydro spring. Bubbles flow around me, beneath me, over me, below me and catch in the brightness of the warm afternoon sun. I swim against the wave crashing over the rocks towards me and lap at the crisp, clear water, like a puppy paddling unprettily towards a bank. I laugh, how could you not laugh. I’m alive and life is very wonderful…
Some minutes later, the team push off, slightly damp, towards the last incline and the last push to reach our white village and home and tapas and wine and dinner. The world back home in Ireland seems very far away, and I smile at the thought of what might lie ahead for day two…
Teena is currently staying at the Hotel Finca Los Llanos in Capileira. Her walking holiday in the Sierra Nevada is booked with Travel Department www.traveldepartment.ie and includes hiking, culture and sightseeing to the beautiful coastal castle at Salobrena, and an excursion to the Alhambra in Granada (World Heritage Site).