I have set myself a challenge this year – to climb 30 of the highest or most important peaks in Madrid and Guadalajara before I myself turn 30 (on June 30th). One of the great things about this challenge is that it is forcing me to explore places I’ve never been to, so, after nearly 4 years of living in Madrid, I finally head to the neighbouring mountains of Guadalajara – the Sierra de Ayllón.
Approaching the Sierra de Guadarrama from Madrid there is always one sight that takes my breath away. That is the first glimpse of La Maliciosa as you drive towards Navacerrada.
Rising almost 1000 metres directly from the reservoir of Navacerrada, its granite bulk looms over the pretty, alpine village below.
I can’t be the only one, wandering through Madrid’s leafy parks, to notice the almost complete absence of our furry, often misunderstood friend – the squirrel.
Coming from the UK, where gangs of grey-haired rodents roam our parks, I was expecting the same in Spain. But, after nearly 3 years of living in the Spanish capital, I have yet to see one.
It’s 9pm on a saturday night, the rain is cold and unceasing. I crouch under a lone tree on the banks of the River Riaza desperately seeking shelter. I briefly question if this is how I should be spending my Saturday nights. The answer – an emphatic yes.
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.
7.30 in the morning. Sleepy and bleary-eyed we arrive at the car park, ready to begin our hike. Our aim today – climb Almanzor. At 2592 metres it is the highest peak in the Sierra de Gredos and the highest point in Spain’s Sistema Central. Our guidebook gives the climb a difficulty rating of muy alta (the highest it gives) and recommends for experienced climbers only. I’m feeling confident.
The stillness is overwhelming, no wind, no noise. Enveloped in a blanket of white, the snow smothers everything. The ground is dotted with tracks: human, dog, rabbit, deer, and many others I don’t recognise. Each path is a mystery, a traveller writing their own story. I choose the deer and follow the tracks off the path and into the forest.
It has been snowing all morning, the softest, purest, whitest snow I’ve ever seen. The top layer of snow falls through my hands like flour through a sieve. We are in Cercedilla, in the forested valley of Fuenfria. Today it feels more like Narnia (no Mr Tumnus, sadly). The heavy snowfall has put off visitors, we get a look of surprise at the information centre and are warned to stay by the river, not to climb any higher. We nod politely and then set off up, high into the mountain.
The air is hot and dry, the dusty earth crunches under my feet. I pause and look at my surroundings. Parched grassland stretches before me, squat, low oaks provide much needed shade for deer. I scan the horizon, past the grass and trees, to low, rounded mountains, some of the oldest in Spain, pushed back down to earth by millennia of erosion. I have to remind myself I’m still in Europe, not the plains of Tanzania.
Early October in the Parque Nacional de los Cabañeros, just south of Toledo and a mere hour and a half drive from Madrid. Looking around me I feel I could be on the other side of the world. Cabañeros has been both a mesmerising and frustrating experience. It is an undeniably beautiful area of Spain; wild, untouched landscapes, calm, idyllic rivers and streams, deep valleys leading to high, if slightly dry, waterfalls.
A movement out of the corner of my eye, I lower the camera, ignoring the protestations of Maria as she poses for a photo, large granite boulders stain the pristine snowfield. It was nothing, back to the photo.
Then, appearing as if out of nowhere, a large male Ibex, horns curled in perfect symmetry outwards, leaves the safety and camouflage of a grey boulder and trudges out onto the snow fifty yards in front of me, over the shoulder of the still unaware Maria. Six others emerge, diligently following behind. Enormous black vultures soar high on the thermals above, two young males ‘play’ in the snow, horns clashing with alarming power, a mother tends to her kid.