It is a bank holiday Friday, Madrileños are celebrating their Patron Saint. Throngs of people are coming into the capital for the festivities, Maria is working on a live TV special. I make a sneaky exit and catch an early morning bus to San Lorenzo de El Escorial and the low, rocky Machotas.
I cross through the enormous courtyard of the Palacio, early tourists wait to enter, while swifts and swallows take their breakfast in the skies above. Leaving both equally noisy groups behind I enter the tranquillity of the Bosque de la Herreria. I wander happily through shaded walkways of tall oak. The forest is overgrown and lush. A robin sits in a bush, crows caw high in the trees.
After the stifling heat in Madrid the last week, the fresh air and cool breeze is incredible. I wander through high grass and dry leaf, lizards scuttle amongst the rustling undergrowth – the noise makes me jump every time.
Being in the mountains, or out amongst nature, you don’t feel like just another cog in the machine like in the city; there’s a sense of community, of camaraderie, people stop and say hello and talk to you – Spaniards thrilled to practise their English. It’s wonderfully refreshing; in the city people go out of their way to avoid you, out here people welcome it. A Colombian mountain biker stops to tell me the history of his country, and his hope for the future. His biking partner looks on, bemused.
I push on up beyond the Silla de Felipe II, where the king would climb to and watch the building progress made on his palace. I look out and see the palace rise high out of the surrounding woodland. Monte Abantos sits directly behind, rocky slopes and carpeted with pines. In the far distance the high peaks of the Sierra de Guadaramma. Looking out I imagine this view has remained unspoilt for hundreds of years. The countryside is filled with life, wild flowers are in full bloom and the scenery is ablaze with colours. Sticky Jara proudly show off their flower, bees fight for nectar, crickets jump and birds sing. In Europe we need a re-imagining of what we consider as wild; so few major mammals and predators remain that wildlife should be viewed on a micro rather than a macro level. All around us there is life. As I walk on, an invisible orchestra plays its symphony to an invisible audience.
Reaching the high valley that divides the two peaks, Machota Baja to my left and Machota Alta to my right, is like entering a wind tunnel. The wind screams past my ears, a large beetle dive bombs me and I manage to duck and avoid it, behind me a Black Kite swoops down from a rock and on to the valley below. As I near the peak of the Machota Baja I see groups of people on top, I decide not to carry on. Instead I climb a large boulder in front of me, sit and take in the views. After a few minutes, without realising, I am encircled by dozens of swifts feasting on all manner of flying bugs. They fly incredibly close, whooshing through the air and filling the sky with noise. I feel for the insects; they don’t stand a chance.
l retrace my steps and ascend the Machota Alta, not sure of the path I follow a low stone wall that leads upwards. Here I am completely alone, my only companions songbirds and sun-lounging lizards. As I reach the top I walk past a group of cows, the bull eyeballs me as I stroll past, we briefly play a game of chicken – I lose.
The peak is nestled amongst a labyrinthine collection of rocks and boulders, indistinguishable from the rest except for a little secret that it holds – a metal box containing books and writings from weary wanderers. I stop, take in my surroundings, and come to the realisation that I have no idea where to go from here. Paths lead off in various directions, none of which I want to take. I see where I need to go, cross the low stone wall, and head down. There is no discernible path here, however I know that if I keep heading down I will reach the bottom.
After crossing muddy bog and scrambling through low, thorny bushes I come to a high gate and even higher walls. I realise that I have been walking through a private estate, no wonder I was all alone. I throw my rucksack over the gate and start to climb, my shorts catch on barbed wire and as I jump I hear the dreaded rip – a parting gift from the Machotas. I cross into another private estate, a buzzard, startled, flies out from a tree, crouching behind a bush I hide from a gamekeeper.
Eventually I reach the Senda Ecologica, I know where I am now. Time to go home.