Southern gems; Jerez and the Sierra Nevada

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April 25th 2019
Published: April 26th 2019
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Waking up was guaranteed on Easter Friday when there’s loud drums, the rhythm repeated and echoing through the narrow old town streets. Another parade moved through to mark this day. Blue and purple were the theme colours here, and folks were out on their Sunday best.

By mid morning more people were milling around, and come check out at midday, it was heaving. As luck had it, the bakery opened again that ran out of bread the day before. It was grainy bread and pan o chocolate for P2 and the cycle journey to Merida.

We planned our route with bikes resting outside the Santa Maria convent, the police ever present, as they’d been stationed for the last 24 hours at our top street corner. Car after car came through, trying a hairpin band, to then go down again or enter into discussion why they needed an exception. Sometimes being on foot or bike is much easier!

On road we had 70km and better weather due. Hooray. We cruised just 7-8km from town to hit a sudden storm and heavy showers forcing us to shelter under a tree. Studying the clouds we
waited a good fifteen minutes for it to settle enough to consider getting on with it.

The kms ticked by and it felt good to do a large chunk gently downhill. P2 mentioned we’d a hump to go over to Merida, but not before a few longer humps and steady ups. Following the N630 Camino route alongside the A road meant it was blissfully quiet and setting the lunch stop at the 600km marker put us 25km roughly from Merida. We passed through Casas de Don Antonio and Cruce de las Herrerías. Apart from some dramatic skies we remained toasty warm and dry.

A complacency set in at lunch. Crusty bread and dips was being enjoyed, sitting on the gravel, admiring views to a sunny valley below. We heard thunder. Then we caught sight of forked lightening. It hung over Cruces but suddenly began advancing our way. We rush packed, and hit the road jack.

Hail and rain tried hard to stop us, but as the kms dropped to our destination, we decided to keep gunning it, stopping only occasionally to record the incredible stormy view.

Merida opened up before
us on the final hill.

With that crazy weather, it was with joy we pulled up to Hotel Apartments MPD. Sheltered at last, and, of all days, there was a small supermarket open late around the corner. Thank goodness for retail that responds to consumer demand, even if it’s reduced hours; that shop was busy!

With a shed load of dirty clothing, we found a laundrette also open late on this sacred day. Well fed, clean, and we discovered, very well slept that evening. Fresh air, dehydration and exercise; always a sleep inducing combination.

Archeological sites fill up around here, being home to very well preserved Roman ruins. Casa de Mitreo, the Roman Anfiteatro and Teatro Romano, and the Alcazaba occupied a large part of the afternoon. There’s many incredibly well kept examples of life from the past 2000 years or so. Foundations of homes, the grounds for grand public events, a citadel, and that which shows the necessities of Roman existence. The water source underground of the Alcazaba was impressive, the reservoir built far beneath the surface, and then reportedly using ‘beasts of burden’ to cart it to ground level.

A young girl crying as closing time neared at the Alcazaba said it all. How many archeological sites they’d been accompanied to; maybe one too many. A pram lay also empty at the entrance. The child had got out and gone, with probably good reason.

The last bike ride on these solid wheels was had, south to agricultural Alange. It was time to dismantle, and follow the instructions for uplift. As sad as it was to trade free wheels for fuelled transport, a break surely was due. We’d waited a decent time in line at Enterprise Merida that morning to pick up our Toyota Aygo. A sewing machine on wheels, size was to its advantage. I begged for small and I got it.

Jumping into a manual for the first time in years, I worked on gears one and two around the old town as getting the majority of needed speeds whilst P2 toiled with a slow app, in navigating. Three, four and five were to be for the 120kph permitted in the A roads.

With some of the morning of my birthday spare, we got more value from our €15 tickets by seeing the Roman Circus. In the last 2000 years, the fights and games that took place formed a part of other Roman cultural activities, related to the other city ruins. One man in particular featured here and was equated at the time to that of elite sportsmanship.

Merida certainly delivered on ancient ruins, and a few more days could easily be spent.

Off we went in the sewing machine, bound for Jerez, via Itálica. This popular spot happened to be open on the ground level on this Easter Sunday, but sadly, the Neptune Mosaic Floor that P2 was interested in was off limits by 2:30pm. A firmly spoken Spanish women, likely versed in dealing to certain types of tourists, was not to be negotiated with. That left us ample time to get to Jerez and decide how to get to our old town ‘palace’ apartment on Calle Caballeros.

It was a ruin-themed few days, and now the focus began changing to nature.

Easter Monday in Jerez started the working week for most. Children were out early on the way to school, some carting roller suitcases, and workers too, some Andalusian spoken hard to understand. The police were spotted several times, asking questions.

We headed out after a late breakfast to the famous Alcazaba. A well preserved example of religious beliefs and communities that coexisted in the old city, there was also an old water wheel, Arab baths, archeological dig findings, and beautiful gardens full of brilliant red roses against the ever present sandy stone backdrop. Arenal square nearby, after all, means ‘sandy place’.

The police presence became apparent after our midday checkout, when we wandered down to a bodega and I saw the sign on its door mentioning an incident of afectación between 8.30 and 11am. Señorita advised me, without any hint of a smile, they were closed. With several cops and their cars moving around, some top secret investigation was in process.

Option one bodega fortunately was still available, Fundador Domencq, whom we’d tried to correspond with by email over the Semana Santa shut down. A French family owned this original olive oil mill (that became a bodega) from 1730 making it the oldest in Jerez. Barrels were stacked three high, as
the oldest, second (criadora segunda) then first barrel, to then sequentially blend the three. The tour took us through from old methods, to present day, where all production occurs. The deeply alcoholic scent was intoxicating!

Our driving to Montejaque that afternoon was through fields of green. Planning our gas station availability thereon in, we pulled into Repsol about an hour out. With the three abuelos amigos sat on the bench outside, they chewed the fat with P2. The sole operator even acted as forecourt attendant, an earnest fellow, keen to help.

Coming into this hillside village, we had a turn by turn navigation planned out. Around about the moment the every decreasing street width reached a few metres, we struck a local unloading her 4WD. It transpired that the streets didn’t allow cars any further; so, like the good foreigners we are, unfamiliar with driving in old villages, I took my 20 point turn to get out of there and into a less local location. The bags were sat down by the roadworks, ready for hauling 300 metres uphill.

The steps and slopes surely keep you fit. Plenty of times I
spotted older folks resting their hands on slippery rails or umbrellas to steady themselves, mostly going about their activities quietly, but if a hearty ‘Hola’ was said you’d definitely receive a smile.

Once in our unit, an hour late for the once thought realistic 5.30 arrival, it was literally a white out. Casa Cabra is a cute cottage plastered inside and painted all white, with some wooden relief in the windows, several bright sky lights, an artists studio, and an elevated patio overlooking the entire town. That was when we agreed the gear haulage was worth it.

The opportunities for hiking are all over this countryside. Fog and drizzle closed in on our first night, the rain worsening. We slept soundly to rain on the roof for the first time in ages. It was timely to have a sleep-in with a few unintended late nights.

Come mid morning we’d reconnected with wifi at a local café and set a plan for after midday when blue skies appeared. Picnic box packed, boots out for the first time this trip, and map in hand, we started in the direction of Los Llanos, between
rocky hills and green pastures. The view was definitely ancient, with large areas of eroding rocks and lattice type patterns showing their age. Once Farmer Brown passed us a few times we chose to head back down the valley to access part two of the walk, climbing to the crest above Montejaque.

It was there we met a friendly Norwegian, Olaf, and his dog, Lady, out for a walk. To connect with random strangers is one of the pleasures of traveling; before we knew it, we were swapping cycling and travel stories. Olaf holidays here several months a year in a modest Montejaque shack, bringing the dog and cat, and remotely working in between biking and hiking.

After a Spanish timed 4.30pm lunch, we followed his recommendation to loop around the Hacho of Montejaque. P2 even bumped into Olaf again and Lady the next day at the mirador, confirming how small this place is!

Rain continued on and off into our next day, but stayed away just enough to see the Ermita, the path tracking in a zig zag over the hills on the opposite side of Montejaque. The boots were
blessed with lots of gluggy mud that only came off once into the grassy area south of town. Thank goodness for hoses and washing machines.

After a quick walk in the misty rain to the mirador for one last view, it was down to the rental for our onwards drive. Carrying slightly less this time, P2 helped as cart horse and thereafter, navigating. Use your strengths I say.

Nearly 300km later took a toll on the Toyota Aygo. It began emitting a smell into the interior with probably one too many gear changes or hills climbed in first and second gear. The driveway at Finca de Los Llanes sealed it, so with crossed fingers and a warning light now on the dash, we’ve another few hundred kilometres left to push it.

From the height of Montejaque at 690m, to the sea level coastline of Nerja for our lunch stop, and then arriving at 1500m altitude an hour later, we had covered some ground. On the bikes perhaps? As we passed cyclists, it begged the question. Emphatic no from P2.

The fog lingered into Thursday morning, heavy and moist.
Our sources now having internet access described an improving afternoon, so, we waited it out. Breakfasters lingered long after we returned to our room, but once midday hit, we decided to set off on a walk, despite the still inclement wet.

Up the valley towards the hydro station, we dropped down to the river on the western side, climbing through forest and farmland. Daisy and friends were about with bells on, and us, treading carefully, so as not to disturb the birds. The junction split to allow ascent up one side of the hill, and from there, inevitably with switchbacks, the view grew. Uninterrupted alpine views and fresh mountain air were the remedy we both needed.

The day stretched out into late afternoon, wind rising to 80kph gusts (so we learned) and plenty of chances to properly admire the terrain, once the moody fog disappeared. Channeled since the Middle Ages, there are numerous ducts of water throughout the Alpujarra, utilising the mountain water source to provide irrigation anywhere in the Sierra Nevada. For its time, it’s incredibly novel.

The sun stayed out. This was the Alpine Spain I’d envisaged.

Sat at breakfast, another non Spanish speaker tries the door with ‘empujar’, pulling the push door and pushing the pull door. Retirees, young couples, motorcyclists and stay-putters, I think we were in a minority planning an uphill hike.

Bagging a peak on a gorgeous day is bound to turn out well. With some indecision, we settled on Puerto Molino.

All packed up and checked out, the Aygo loaded, I moved the car into the street. Saddling up for the walk, I spotted a flat tyre. Several days before the low pressure light appeared, and we were to sort it on our exit. Now it forced our hand.

Four phone calls to the emergency services of Enterprise car rentals yielded no response, ending in disconnection. The hotel staff went above and beyond, yet it failed. “Any useful men about” I joked, P2 confidently encouraging me that we’d do it ourselves. After all, I never follow instruction manuals, and he does.

Two hundred metres up the road, we consulted SpanishDict and followed the step by step process. We blocked the car rolling forward, jacked it up, turned the bolts
the right way, and replaced it with the joke that is a space saver tyre. On an Aygo, it was almost identical.

There was time left to hike and still make our Granada rendezvous with Nacho.

Trudging up and up a key route to the east of Capileira, through forestry, tussock, and semi alpine scrub, we ended up several hours later clambering up a scree slope with smatterings of snow. The view from our 2375m high lunch spot was incredible and after a hard effort made without, sadly for P2, much bird spotting, I couldn’t have thought of anywhere better to be.

We made it down to town and an intact car by late afternoon, setting fortunately a conservative arrival time into Granada only 80km away. Dropping around 1000m elevation through multiple switchbacks, we basically crossed the Sierra Nevada to the valley in which the beautiful Moorish city of Granada sits. Cruising on a 120kph highway at 80kph space saver speed with hazards on was the most appropriate international signal for ‘look out, I’m broken!’

Hitting heavy traffic felt very Auckland, but, with the promise, after calling into
Enterprise, of a replacement vehicle for the forced add-on of roadside non assistance insurance, we’re on track for a smoother end to car renting. Parked up for now, Granada awaits.

Additional photos below
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