The wind is relentless, ferocious and bitterly cold. Standing on the peak of Monte Abantos the enormous, austere palace of San Lorenzo El Escorial looks like a miniature lego playset. The view stretches on for miles, grassland dotted with lakes and low trees sweeps on towards Madrid, bathed in a haze its 4 high towers rise like tiny fingers out of the pollution-induced mist. Far to the south, the shadow of the Montes de Toledo forms a distant barrier. To the north the high, snow-covered high peaks loom forward, shrouded in cloud. I can’t feel my face. We seek shelter.
We take the bus, leaving early from Moncloa. Ignoring the effects of the wine and gin from the night before I’m bursting with excitement; we’re going to an area of the mountains we’ve yet to explore … I feel like a kid at Christmas. The journey is a revelation; I never knew the countryside surrounding Madrid was so diverse. We drive through a valley covered in dense trees and shrubs; it feels like we’re in the jungle. Rising out from the bottom of the valley a layer of impossibly low-lying cloud hangs still at the foot of the distant mountains. The surrounding area is beautiful tree-shaded grassland, littered with private hunting grounds and signs warning ‘Private property’ … I’m already thinking of ways of breaking in.
Then it seems that the driver has taken a wrong turn somewhere and we’ve ended up by the sea. Waves break onto sandy shores, swells rise into white-topped plumes, diving birds perch on rocks craning their necks in search of food, others explore the beach looking for snacks. This, of course, is not the sea – in fact it is almost impossible to be further away from the sea in Spain – it is one of the large reservoirs that supplies Madrid with its drinking water. Yet, in the high wind the water looks more like the wild coast of South-West England than anywhere else.
Leaving the reservoir the landscape, and wildlife, changes again. I look out of the bus window onto waterlogged meadows and swollen streams. Tall Oaks are home to huge nests of White Stork. I see one tree that must be home to over 15 nests, it looks as if it’s about to collapse under the weight of these enormous birds and their equally enormous homes. The stork in Spain are a wondrous sight, whether they’re wading in the shallows of rivers, perched on the top of medieval churches or soaring the sky. It makes me dream, and hope that one day these incredible birds will use the UK as a nesting spot again.
Our route begins from the courtyard of the Palace of El Escorial. We see our mountain, it’s peak shrouded in cloud – a mystery looming over this pretty, historical town. We leave the courtyard and make our way up into the leafy outskirts of San Lorenzo El Escorial. Lampposts are soon replaced by pines, paved roads transform into muddy, leaf strewn tracks. Area of ground is disturbed and scuffed up – evidence of the wild boar that call this mountainside home.
The path winds steeply up the mountain, breaks in the trees allow us to stop and take in our beautiful surroundings, peaks of different shapes and sizes stretch on into the distance, small patches of snow cling on in vain, fighting a losing battle against the warm sun.
As we climb higher the wind gets stronger and a frozen layer of snow covers the ground. The sky has cleared and is a deep blue. Planes fly over the peaks, strangers on their way to unknown destinations. We pause by a fresh water fountain, buds of spring flowers are starting to push through the gaps in the snow.
We leave the trees behind and reach the exposed lower peak. The wind batters us relentlessly, threatening to hurl us off the mountain – I’m glad I had extra pudding last night. The skies and views are some of the clearest I’ve ever seen here in Madrid. We don’t stay still for too long though; my face stings from the cold so we push on higher up to the top of the mountain where we finally find shelter from the wind and can enjoy our hard-earned lunch after a 700 metre ascent.
We climb down and are back in the courtyard of El Escorial. The wind has swept down the mountain and is tossing camera-wielding tourists around the large open space. The weather has changed immeasurably from 6 hours previously. The palace gleams a bright bronze, the mountaintop is clear of cloud and wrapped in shades of green and grey. Proud of our day’s achievements it’s time for a big, warm mug of hot chocolate.