Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Semana Santa Trip Part 4: Zahara de la Sierra and Seteníl de las Bodegas

Zahara de la Sierra
     Ah, it's been a while since my last post. I was very busy in Madrid the last few months I was there. That's okay, let's pick up where I left off. I was traveling aroung Andalucía with Camille, and we had just traversed part of the Sierra de Grazalema. We visited the pueblo of Grazalema and, as the day was coming to an end, we decided to try to get to our next destination. It was about 17km away, and we started walking in hopes of getting a ride there. The only problem was, there was one road that went to our next destination, Zahara de la Sierra, and no other stops along the way. So unless we caught someone going to that pueblo of 1,500 people, we were out of luck. We walked to the crossroads that led to Zahara and waited. As it turned out, we were in luck. A family drove by—at first they said sorry, they couldn't take us, because their car was pretty full with two children in the back. But a minute later they turned around, no doubt feeling bad that we would be stranded there all night, and gave us a lift. It sure was good that we didn't have to walk, because most of the ride consisted of hairpin turns while ascending a mountain. Then there was a steep descent into the valley below. We arrived in Zahara at sunset, took a walk around and got a bite to eat.

Sunset in Zahara de la Sierra
Fried Eggplant with José Ximénez vinegar

     The next morning we explored the town. As you can see from the first picture, the town is perched on a hill. At the top of the hill is a castle contructed from the 13th to 15th centuries. It overlooks the entire valley in which Zahara de la Sierra is situated. 

A look at the reservoir from Zahara's castle
The tower of Zahara's castle and the olive groves surrounding. 

Zahara at a distance 
     Needless to say, the views were impressive and it was definitely worth a stop. I envisioned myself staying there for weeks, saturating myself with Andalusian country life. But I hadn't brought my guitar, so that was out of the question! We had places to be, and didn't know exactly how to get to them. Later in the day, we waited for a bus that we thought would take us to our next destination. It didn't. We got dropped off 7km down the road in another pueblo, Algodonales. The bus driver said another bus would come in a couple hours so we had lunch and waited. Eventually, that bus did come and we experienced a beautiful bus ride through the Sierra de Grazalema, passing white-washed pueblos and castles older than the discovery of America. I know it's a bit cliché, a bit romantic, but after a year and a half in Spain I still had not gotten over its beauty. 
     We arrived in Alcalá del Valle, a small pueblo outside of the park. We went there because a guide book said there was a great walking path that connected Alcalá and the town of Seteniíl de las Bodegas. There was supposed to be an old windmill and everything. It turned out to be a disappointment—that path is not worth walking. But we decided to camp for the night and set up in an olive grove a few kilometers outside of Seteníl. In the morning we walked into town. Seteniíl de las Bodegas is famous for its houses that have been constructed under rock overhangings. 

The 'modern' section Seteníl de las Bodegas
Houses constructed into the rock in Seteníl de las Bodegas

     The area has been occupied continuously since at least the 12th century, when it was under Arab control. But considering nearby archaeological findings that indicate the region was populated with humans over 25,000 years ago, it would be a good bet to say that Seteníl has seen its share of prehistoric humans. The natural shelter the rock provides, coupled with the river below, would've made it a great place to spend some time back then. Since then, permanent dwellings have been built by the building of walls from the top of the rock overhang to the ground beneath. 

     It is a unique place and, though I couldn't see myself spending more than a day there, it's definitely worth seeing, and the food we had was tasty and inexpensive. It's not far from one of my favorite towns in Spain, the town we were to visit next—Ronda. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Semana Santa Part 3: Sierra de Grazalema

     From Arcos de la Frontera we took a bus to the Sierra de Grazalema. We got off at Ubrique, a town nestled into the mountains and famous for its leather products. We bought groceries and the local sweet, called a gañote, and headed for the mountains. 

Roman road (calzada romana)
      From Ubrique there is a Roman road that connects Ubrique with a nearby village, Benaocaz. It's fantastic. The mountains in the sierra are of the same composition (limestone) as those in the Picos de Europa. Their slow decomposition is evident in their jagged peaks grooved by rain over millennia.

Rain grooves

Ubrique in the background 
Ubrique in the background

     As we walked toward the next pueblo, Benaocaz, the sun set and we eventually set up camp outside of town. The next morning we had coffee (chocolate milk for me) in town and continued on toward the next destination, Grazalema, on the Senda de cabreros (Goat herder path). In the bar in town they had told us we wouldn't be able to make it all the way to Grazalema because part of the route went through private property and there had been a dispute that led to the owner's closing his land to walkers. It sounded a bit silly to me, so we went ahead and continued on, despite others telling us along the way that it was closed. 

On the way to Grazalema

Ibérico pigs

Rocks. Outside of Benaocaz.
     The hike was, needless to say, stunning. We saw five people in as many hours. 

Still on the road to Grazalema
     After hours of walking we arrived at the point of contention. There was a fence with a sign saying that no one could pass. But that wasn't true, because it was rather easy to hop the fence and continue on. Turned out, the private land was the most enchanting part of the hike. It is truly a shame they closed it off. We saw a mare and her colt in a pasture with the limestone mountains rising up behind. This might well have been the reason for the closing of the path. Then we came upon a house, which was surely the property owner's, and we had to scramble through two gates and walk a half mile more down the road until we were out of the property—just before a car came rolling down the long driveway.

Mare, colt
This is how a goat drinks from a stream
     After, we ate lunch on a bench before continuing on another 4km (we'd walked 9 already) to Grazalema.

The pueblo of Grazalema

     The town itself was calm and after spending some time there we decided to try to get to our next destination before the end of the day. To be continued...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Semana Santa Trip Part 2: Jerez de la Frontera and Arcos de la Frontera

     From Fuenteheridos we rode south with a nice couple to Jerez de la Frontera, a flamenco capital. They wanted to drive us to the hotel but we encountered roadblocks and policemen once we neared the center of town. It was Sunday, and the processions of Holy Week had began. Processions take place throughout Spain every day of Holy Week, but Andalucía does it best and takes it most seriously. Every town does things slightly differently. The general outline is that a lot people dress up, mostly in Ku Klux Klan style outfits (of course, this has been going on in Spain much longer than the Klan's existence), others in army uniforms with instruments, others in robes, and they walk around the town. All ages participate. Depending on the day, people also carry enormous Pasos, or floats, some with Jesus and others with the Virgin Mary. They are not light, and are usually carried on the shoulders of many men who stand beneath the floats for hours at a time.

There is Jesus on the Cross
     We got dropped off near our hostel, which happened to be right in the middle of the procession. The streets were completely full and everyone was wearing their Sunday best as we walked by unshowered with big backpacks and hiking clothes. We got to the hostel, changed and went out.

There's the Virgin Mary
     Processions last for a long time. The closer it is to Easter, the longer they last. More on that later. Needless to say, as we walked around the city, we kept running into the Procession and had to either wait for it to pass or turn back and go a different way.

     Above is a kid with a big candle. Kids not in the procession gather on the side and have sticks with balls of wax on the end and ask the people with candles to kindly drip the melted wax onto their balls to make them bigger. Nothing more to say here.

The same Paso passing through a plaza hours later. 
     These processions move very slowly. Everyone walks in time to the somber music of the band playing and very couple of minutes everyone stops, maybe to give the float-bearers a rest, and they do various things. Some of the people in the parade go barefoot.

Not spooky at all
     I'll be talking a bit more about these Processions in the next post. Here's a picture of a sign outside of a restaurant. 

I think "papatoes" is spelled wrong but other than that it looks okay.
     Jerez was a lovely town I would like to visit again to see some flamenco. During Holy Week the flamenco stops to make way for other events. The next day we took a bus to Arcos de la Frontera, a white pueblo on a hill.

A corner of Arcos de la Frontera
A street in Arcos de la Frontera
     The village was enjoyable to walk around, though very steep. Villages in the south of Spain tend to be built eiither on a hill, cliff, or in a valley. They are almost never flat. From the town we could see our next destination, the Sierra de Grazalema. We had a tasty meal while we were in Arcos, with one of the best flans I've eaten.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Semana Santa Trip Part 1: Sierra de Aracena

     Over here in Spain our Spring Break is called "Semana Santa," or Holy Week. It's the week before Easter and we don't have school. My friend Camille and I decided to take a hiking/camping trip in Andalucía, covering less trodden places. Our first destination was the Sierra de Aracena, which is in the province of Huelva in southwestern Spain. We arranged a Blablacar ride down there. If you don't know, Blablacar is a ride sharing website, popular in Europe and still non-existent in the U.S. I've had great experiences, it's cheaper than other transportation, and many times it enables you to get to out of the way places easier. Case in point: Aracena.

A map of where we walked in the Sierra de Aracena
     The man we rode with, Óscar, had a van and there were seven of us. Everyone was very nice and we even stopped in Trujillo on the way down because I'd never been. Trujillo was a wealthy city, with palaces built by venturers who had come back from America, including Francisco Pizarro (he defeated the Incas in 1533).

     After the stop we continued on to Aracena. It was getting dark. We all picked up groceries at Mercadona (the best Spanish supermarket chain) and the driver suggested we might stay with him and his friends that night and have dinner, as it was getting late to find a place to camp. We cordially accepted. His house is down about a two mile "road" with nothing else around it, about half-way down a valley. It is rustic, with stone floors, a fireplace, solely solar powered and complete with orange, lemon and fig trees. He also has a mare. The mare seems to think it is a dog. It came galloping down to meet us as we pulled into the driveway and nearly followed its owner into the house. 

I call this one "Horse with Head in Front Door." It's the best photo I've ever taken. 
by Martín Rico (1833-1908). You can find this in the Prado museum in Madrid.

   At the time it reminded me of this beautiful little Martín Rico painting. Eventually I have to do a post on my favorite Spanish painters. Spain's had some of the best in history.


     Needless to say, we were fortunate to have met such a nice guy. Camille cooked dinner and we ate outside and learned a few new Spanish phrases. I am a collector of Spanish phrases. The next morning we had breakfast and took off with a borrowed map of the sierra. The hospitality we experienced will not be forgotten.

Linares de la Sierra from a distance
     With the help of our wonderful host we found the centuries-old footpath connecting the villages of the sierra and walked toward Linares de la Sierra. It's a small white village tucked into the hills and there isn't too much to see, although the bullring/plaza is ineresting.

Plaza that doubles as a bullring

Linares de la Sierra 
     We walked around the town and then continued on toward another village, Alájar. There was so much rosemary. The weather was perfect the entire trip, which was fortunate because April is known to be rainy, especially in the mountains.

     Around this region there are a lot of cork trees. They still strip the bark every seven years to make primarily wine corks, and some of the trees are very old.

Cork trees
      We arrived in Alájar, a pleasant village with quite a bit happening on that particular day. There was a market with many tantalizing things for sale. We ended up buying membrillo (quince paste) with pine nuts to have for breakfast.

Plaza in Alájar
Alájar from above

We walked outside the town and ascended the Peña de Arias Montano, a big rock formation named after the tutor of Philip II, for some great views of the town. We bought some dried peaches and continued on, winding up the mountains as the trees changed from cork to castaños (chestnut). After a while we reached yet another white village, Castaño del Robledo.  

     There really is not much to see in most of these towns—the walk is the best part. The paths were previously the only way to get from town to town.
Wild Asparagus

Quince fruit with pine nuts
      We left Castaño and walked halfway to Jabugo before stopping for the night to camp. Fortunately it wasn't very cold, and the next morning we continued on to Jabugo.
On the road again
      We had several pocketbooks for identifying vegetation: trees, plants, flowers, fruits. Camille correctly identified a wild asparagus plant and found a lone stalk that she cherished for a while afterward. We arrived in Jabugo, the most famous ham town in Spain. But not just any ham—they have jamón ibérico de bellota. This is the cream of the crop. The pigs, dark gray in color, are left to roam around eating acorns all their lives, getting properly fat. The legs are cured for nearly two years (or more) under strict conditions and during that time the ham becomes an absolute delicacy. One of the most famous brands of jamón ibérico is Cinco Jotas, which is what the man at the bar used to make my morning toast.

Best tostada con tomate y jamón ever. 

     Jamón ibérico is not cheap. In Jabugo it is cheaper than anywhere else, and it is over 100 euros per kilogram. We bought 150 grams to eat for lunch. It was not a mistake. This stuff is truly amazing. It is hand-sliced razor thin so that it nearly melts in your mouth. Here's a quick video about it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbRfdrHS3SU). And here is a poor quality clip of Anthony Bourdain eating Spanish ham and cursing Gweneth Paltrow for not eating ham (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRWdyIAjNnA). 
     After, we walked back to Castaño del Robledo and toward Fuenteheridos, where we would take another Blablacar to Jerez de la Frontera. Outside of Fuenteheridos we stopped in the shade and feasted on ham, dried figs and dark chocolate with almonds. It was phenomenal. 

This piece of ham looks like Spain
This piece of ham looks like the Spanish flag
Up next, Part 2: Jerez de la Frontera and Arcos de la Frontera, along with Easter Processions