Nick Jenkins . Pictures . Words . Travel

Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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climbing belya
dancing the sardana in Barcelona

Valencia, Seville and Grenada

Friday, 08 Jan 1999 06:13:56 PST

From Barcelona we went south and east to Valencia, the home of paella and seafood. My travelling companions talked me into the cheapest paella we could find and consequently we all got food poisoning.

I only suffered a mild bout but my travelling companions were laid low for several days. Valencia was nice but the only real tourist attraction, the Cathedral was closed for renovation. I did however have a chance to do some shopping and practise my faulty Spanish.

Learning a language empirically can have its problems as some of you will know. Just when you think you have the basics mastered, something will jump out and bite you. Take the following example, ordering Tapas :

NJ: Lets have the chipirones, they're like little sausages, a bit like chorizo

- waiter brings food -

Friend: Hmmm... are those the chipirones ? or is it them ?

NJ: Not sure, never seen a sausage with eight legs before

Confusing a sausage with a crustacean can be the least of your problems. Lack of local language can promote incipient paranoia in visitors. You never quite know when the waiters, the doormen or the taxi drivers are being polite or sniggering behind their hands at you. But hey, that's why your here! Smiling a lot helps too.

From Valencia I went south in search of better weather and I found some in Seville. Seville is a nice open-plan city and the weather during the day was near perfect. In Seville we managed to see the cathedral (the largest in the world), the Moorish fortress and the Plaza Espanol. We also dined well on tapas, ice cream and chocolate con churros. In Seville I got an invitation to go climbing in Malaga so we split up. The girls going off to Morocco and I east to Granada.

I had some time to kill before Malaga, so I decided to do a quick circuit of the south coast and end up there on the 25th. First stop was Grenada, a beautiful town and well worth the attention of anyone travelling in Spain. Nestled under the flank of the snowy Sierra Nevada the twon is dominated by the Alhambra, a Moorish palace of the 12th century.

The Alhambra is beautiful. It is divided into the Alcazar (fortress), Generalife (summer palace and gardens) and the Palacio Real (royal Spainish palace). The three sections sit atop two arms of highest hill in Grenada and the views from the top, both of the town and the mountain, are spectacular. The interior of the buildings is no less spectacular and would put to shame many a European palace.

After two nights in Grenada I went south again towards the coast. My plan was to go down to Almeria and out as far as Cabo de Gata the south-eastern most point of Spain. The weather however was bad and the near desert landscape of that area did little to inspire. I spent a couple of hours in Almeria and climbed aboard a bus to Malaga. With some sign language and some pidgin Spanish I managed to discover where my climbing friends might eb and went out to join them.

climbing belay
Camino del Rey
El Chorro
El Chorro
El Chorro
Los Lagos

El Chorro

Monday, 01 Feb 1999 09:17:26 PST

I've just had a week of superb rock climbing in Spain! I'm thinking about learning Spanish, moving here and becoming a rock climbing hermit. To those of you who indulge in vertical pursuits : I did about six 18-20's all on lead or seconding, fell off once and culminated the week with a 260m five pitch monster up the vertical face of the main wall at El Chorro.

In Early January I received some email from a friend in the UK. I hadn't seen her in two years but I'd been sending out travelogues via email and she noticed that I was in Seville. She told me that she and a bunch of her 'adventure tourism' classmates (yes adventure tourism is a college course in the UK!) would be rock climbing near Malaga, two hours south of Seville, and invited me to join them.

I didn t know exactly where around Malaga they might be climbing so I was forced to do some detective work in the climbing stores around Malaga. After some cursory investigation work I managed to figure out that most climbers in Malaga head for a little town called El Chorro and I jumped train there to see if I could find my friends from Birmingham.

The station at El Chorro is tiny - it's litteraly the width of two planks. The scenery is not. Directly in front of the station is a cluster of tiny buildings, a picture postcard white Spanish town, and behind them a curtain of wrinkly grey cliffs which soar 600m into the sky.

The rock stretches from a hill on your right, behind the station and across to the near left where the ground drops away into the murky green waters of a dam. On the other side of the water a hydro-electric power plant sits at the bottom of another massive hill, this one more gently sloped and dotted with straggly vegetation.

Sitting in the café beside the station will be a group of grizzled locals, quietly surveying you over their lethal black coffees and muttering to each other about your dress sense, your open mouth and your stunned expression. "Turista!" they say knowingly to each other with gap-toothed grins. Beneath their feet a three legged dog half-heartedly chases cats and the sun beats down, warm and bright from an unrelenting blue sky.

This must be one of the finest rock climbing venues in the world. About 40 minutes north west of Malaga the area attracts climbers from all over Europe and, in my case, from around the world. It also features some beautiful scenery and plenty of activities for those more inclined to less vertical pursuits.

El Chorro itself is a small town on the rail line in the heart of the rocky hills and is the main access point for the whole area. It is about forty minutes by train from Malaga to the south-east and twenty from Bobadilla to the north (Bobadilla is a major rail junction on the lines north to Seville or east to Granada). The town features a small shop, the train station, a café and accommodation ranging from camping to a bunkhouse to self contained apartments. Most climbers stay in El Chorro for easy access to the gorges and rocks nearby but others might like to stay further afield.

A five minutes drive, or an hours walk, from El Chorro is the El Torcal national park. The park is set around a sprawling series of lakes, reservoirs for the Rio Guadalhorce which runs down to the sea between Malaga and Torremolinos. In the hills above the lakes are a number of camping run from the "Parque Ardales" administration on the main road. Individual apartments are also available for those who prefer more salubrious accommodation and some of them have breathtaking views from their balconies.

Clustered around El Chorro are the equally picturesque towns of Alora, Bobastro, Las Mellizas and Torcal de Antequerra. They are all of varying size and offer services ranging from corner stores and local bars up to discos or restaurants.

The locals everywhere are friendly and helpful although it helps to break the ice if you try to speak a little Spanish. If you don t feel comfortable enough to attempt Spanish however, sign language and a big smile usually suffices.

During the summer the area is very busy and accommodation can be hard to come by unless booked in advance. However I was there in late February adn there was more than enough available and tariffs were reasonable. Weekends at this time are still busy though as Spanish urbanites take advantage of the good weather and head outdoors.

Hill walking in the area is particularly good with long stretches of the national park to be explored and some interesting ridge walks near the gorges. The going can be quite rough and some form of map might be required for the more adventurous since trails may not be marked. The El Torcal park is home to various forms of large raptors and consequently some areas are out of bounds. Walking the hills though you still get to see these magnificent birds as they ride the thermals and appear as giant silhouettes against the sky.

In the summer sailboats, wind surfers and kayaks are apparently available although I saw no sign of them while I was there. There are also advertisements for companies specialising in pursuits like caving, canyoning, mountain biking and even parapente although these too were not evident during my visit.

For climbers routes vary between IV and 8c+ in the Spanish scale, or VS to 8c+ in British grades. Most climbs are no more than two or three pitches long but there are some much longer ones for the more experienced climbers. There is a good choice of routes and areas to try and plenty of variation so that you need never get bored.

The longer pitches feature on the big walls visible from the station at El Chorro but most of the climbing including the shorter routes are located in the gorges directly behind those walls. To reach the gorges you will need to either follow the paths alongside the railway from the station or, if coming from the Los Lagos side you will need to traverse the Camino Del Rey.

The Camino del Rey ("King s Way") is a narrow concrete walkway which stretches the entire length of the largest gorge. During the construction of a dam, the King's Way was built to transport men and supplies to the face of the dam. It was later converted into a personal walkway for the reigning King who wished to inspect work on the dam. The walkway was lined with lights and featured the occasional booth where the King and his entourage could pause for refreshments before resuming their stroll.

The walkway itself is no more than a metre wide and has no outside railing other than a concrete lip perhaps 25-30 centimetres high. Quite a lot of the walkway is still in respectable condition and can be traversed for spectacular views from the middle of the gorges. Some of it however has fallen into disrepair (or more accurately, into the gorge!) and would be very dangerous to attempt without proper equipment and experience. All of the walkways should be avoided by those faint at heart, those who suffer from vertigo or those unsure of their ability.

Much the same views can be achieved by walking along the tracks of the railway and into the hills around El Chorro. The trains are infrequent and don't pose a real threat but caution should be used and some of the narrower tunnels are out of bounds to pedestrians due to the danger of being inadvertently squashed by a speeding express. This includes the tunnels immediately either side of the El Chorro station.

The scenery is worth the effort and is truly breath taking. The softer parts of the gorges have been twisted and carved by wind and water over the centuries to produce a fantastic mosaic in yellow and brown stone. The resulting shapes are reminiscent of some Gaudiesque castle with pigeons nesting in the nooks and crannies of its battlements. As you walk along the sides of the gorges the river below drops away to a beautiful but distant blue thread amongst the rocks.

Coming 12000km from Australia to a country like Spain was enough of an adventure in itself, but El Chorro transformed it for me into an unforgettable trip and a singularly Spanish experience.

After El Chorro I headed west to Portugal before returning to Spain and Madrid.


Madrid and Toledo

Friday, 12 Feb 1999 05:19:42 PST

I like Madrid mainly because I was a little homesick the other night and it provided the perfect solution for me. I was getting a bit sniffly and missing my Vegemite and needed something from home. So I went out for dinner - to a Japanese restaurant.

Now, I don't expect any of you to understand that one but it worked a treat. The miso soup alone could have sustained me for a couple of weeks and the sushi and chicken karaage were just fantastic! On the same street with the Japanese restaurant was an Irish pub, a couple of tapas bars, a Chinese restaurant and a French bakery. Now how could you not like a city that pays that much attention to good food?

Like a lot of Spanish cities, Madrid doesn't have Eiffel towers or leaning towers or huge statues or whatnot. What it does have is an abundance of galleries, fantastic street life and interesting bits and pieces on every corner.

To get my fix of fine art I decided to skip the Prado which is reportedly one of the best museums in the world (it certainly had one of the biggest queues!). Instead I concentrated on the smaller, more easily digestible Reina Sofia.

The Sofia is a modern art gallery and has works from modern Spanish artists including Picasso, Miro and Gaudi. The most important single piece is Picasso s Guernica. Hung in a huge gallery, surrounded by some of Picasso's preliminary sketches and no less than four armed guards, Guernica depicts German atrocities in the Spanish town of the same name during the Spanish Civil War. The Germans bombed the town on April 26, 1937 in the full knowledge that the town had no military significance and being market day would be crowded with people from all over the country side. There were 10,000 people in the town and after three hours most of the town and the people had been annihilated. Picasso painted Guernica in Paris and insisted that it stay in France until the Fascists were thrown out and it could be returned.

I didn't like it.

I don't think Picasso liked it either. It looked unfinished to me. The surrounding preliminary sketches and other works were far more emotive and chilling than the actual painting. I suspect Picasso had enough of the morbid subject after about 10 minutes and decided to pack it in and go for a beer. Apart from his work there are some very nice pictures in the gallery and a few less emotionally challenging ones as well.

From Madrid I also took a day trip out to Toledo.

Madrid is surrounded by smaller towns in Castilla La Manche and Castilla y Leon, all of which are purported to be interesting. There is Segovia, Cuenca, Salamanca and Toledo. I picked Toledo more or less at random.

Toledo is interesting; beautiful too. It's another walled Spanish city, this time perched on a small round hill in the middle of the plains of Castilla la Mancha. It has the usual Spanish attractions of a Moorish Alcazar and a fantastic cathedral with the added bonus of a deep gorge alongside, through which the Rio Tajo runs. The town is small and a little bit tourist oriented but very pretty. The streets are cobbled and so narrow that you occasionally have to step into a doorway to allow a car to pass. The city is also full of students, foreign and domestic, who had a bit of a lively air. You can always pick the American students because they will be the ones shouting at each other from either side of the table in an otherwise silent bar/restaurant/whatever. The Spanish students are similar but have the grace to look embarrassed about it and to shut up occasionally.

I spent most of the day in Toledo wandering around taking photo's and sitting in the sun reading a book. I came back late last night and crashed into bed before getting up this morning to stroll down to the Internet cafe to reel off the latest instalment of my travel saga.