Boxing Day in the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas
Sierras de Cazorla - day 1
Boxing day doesn’t exist in Spain. Come the 26th December, life goes back to normal, more or less, although there are still long queues to the Nevada Shopping Mall on the edge of Granada as the main present giving day here is 5th January, the night Los Reyes Magos come bearing gifts. Christmas Eve is a time for family dinners and marks the start of a 2 week round of family gatherings and general festivities culminating in the Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos - the procession of the Three Kings in every town, village and city.
We had planned a mini break away as soon as Christmas Day was over; a relaxing few days away from work and the trials and tribulations of trying to liaise with pensions advisors here and in the UK. Has anyone else had such trouble? Because we now live in Spain, all my former financial advisors in the UK can barely give me the time of day. If I get a one-line email, I am lucky. Seemingly, I have some sort of financial plague now that I am resident in Spain. I should add here that I am of an age where pensions become relevant, but not so relevant that suggest I have reached the venerable age where I might draw a state pension. Phew, clear that one up…Age is but a number.
Anyway, Andrew arranged a delightful 3 nights in the Sierra de Cazorla, an area of Andalucia that we have read about a great deal, and it has long been on our list of places to visit. To give it its correct name, the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas is Spain’s largest protected area, and covers some 520,000 acres, almost one-fifth of the total area of Jaén Province in which it is situated. That this Natural Park is not better known is a travesty of the highest order.
We knew very little about the area except that it is densely forested, teeming with wildlife, has a network of rivers and is the place where Spain’s Rio Guadalquivir has its source - the Guadalquivir is the fifth longest river in the Iberian Peninsula and the second longest river with its entire length in Spain, coursing as it does through Seville and down to Cádiz. The park is botanically hugely important, and was designated a Unesco biosphere reserve in 1983. To us, as we ventured into this unique landscape, the Sierra de Cazorla was reminiscent in parts of the Black Forest in Bavaria, the New Forest, and the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus. The range is Jurassic in its wildness and sheer drama, and seemingly undisturbed by both time and humanity.
We drove up the motorway towards Jaén before branching off to take a cross-country route to get to Cazorla itself. We had booked into one of the Paradores hotels, the state-run chain of hotels across Spain, typically located in historically important buildings, or in glorious settings. Our cross-country route probably added a good hour to our journey, but as intrepid explorers we felt almost obliged to go off the beaten track. We ventured towards the Parque Natural Sierra Mágina via the villages of Mancha Real, Torres and the delightful Albanchez de Mágina, a hamlet that boasts one of the most precariously perched castles on top of an impossibly jagged peak just above the sleepy time-forgotten village. The Christmas Day weather had decided to bed in, and we were to find that rain had set in for the duration of our visit to this part of Spain, but rain was desperately needed and the heavy clouds provided their own dramatic backdrop to the stunning landscapes through which we drove. The little country lanes connecting these villages seem disconnected from the real world, and there is a distinct sense of travelling back in time.
The downside to the undisturbed nature of these villages became apparent when we tried to find a place for lunch. Christmas had clearly taken its toll on the general populace hereabouts, and human beings were thin on the ground. In the village of Torres, the post office was open when we arrived, but the bars were determinedly shut. We wandered down what appeared to be the main street, and eventually found an unpromising little place, with no signage to suggest it was a bar, but the sounds emanating from within implied that we might be able to get a drink if we ventured through the dingy doorway. Sure enough, this was a hostelry; not glamorous, but there was a bar and the promise of tapas. Brightly coloured tinsel had been draped hopefully between beams, and a handful of village gentlemen were having a fairly festive time. We managed a quick refill before deciding to press on. Grey clouds were not helping visibility and daylight was already fading.
We reached Cazorla as the day’s clumpy clouds had decided to band together into one lumpen mass. Having driven for some considerable time, weaving around country lanes, we realised that we still had another 40 minutes to go before we reached our hotel, managed to get slightly lost in Cazorla town (primarily because the sign to our destination was obscured, helpfully, by another road sign), and then continued onwards and upwards. Onwards and upwards it certainly was. The road out of Cazorla and into the National Park was glorious. The clouds were packing together, but not before the last blades of wintry sunshine managed, defiantly, to strike through and cast a dazzling pool of gold across jagged layers of mountains rising above the town. Suddenly, we were in forest, and everything took on an alpine feel, similar to the drive up into the Sierra Nevada. From our familiar corner of Andalucia, we were immediately thrown into another world of forest, crags, waterfalls, glades and views. However, as the solid mass of cloud, weighed down by its own magnitude, descended onto the Sierras, our views became increasingly diminished. If you have ever seen the film, ‘The Shining’, you will recall the opening sequence in which Jack Nicholson’s character drove his family through stunning scenery to a vast hotel that has closed for the season. Our drive to our hotel felt similar. Fortunately, unlike Jack Nicholson’s character, neither Andrew nor I went mad and attacked everyone with an axe. Good thing, really.
The Parador de Cazorla is off the beaten track. Driving into the mountains from Burunchel, you start to pick up signs for the hotel, and around every bend in the road we were aware that, surrounding us, there were unsurpassable vistas of gorges and mountains. A branch in the road and a small sign indicates that this is the way to the hotel, and after a further 10 minutes of thrilling forest lane, you turn a bend and see the hunting lodge of a hotel nestled on the side of the mountain. The setting is perfect. The Parador de Cazorla is not the most luxurious hotel in the group, but it makes no pretence. It is styled as a hunting lodge and why would it be anything else? It is in the middle of countryside inhabited by Roe, Fallow and Red deer, wild boar and mountain goat. Humans are very much visitors here, and the sheer scale and beauty of this place is truly humbling. The hotel reflects that, and pays homage, we felt, to its setting as to try to compete would be impossible.
The main reception room in the hotel is dominated by a huge inglenook fireplace, and armchairs and sofas are informally arranged on the rich red tiled floor. We decided to upgrade our room, and opted for the half-board option as this place is remote. Given that it was now very clear that the weather had set in, the thought of venturing out every evening to find restaurants, eat and then venture back seemed slightly foolhardy. The hotel was heated! Poor little Casa Magdalena, our lovely home, is like an ice-box in the winter months, so to feel the omnipresent warmth inside the hotel felt strangely decadent. We could even cast off our thick knits!