The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly on the... Sierra Nevadas? | Travel | Smithsonian
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Andalusia offers abundant trails, with one-fifth of its land under government protection. (Marina Koestler Ruben)

The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly on the... Sierra Nevadas?

Traveling to Andalusia after the wettest winter in decades brings unexpected surprises to a hike through Spain's southern region

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The sun was setting and the cow was gone. On all sides, Spain's snow-capped Sierra Nevadas reminded us that the day’s spring warmth would turn cold at nightfall.

We were lost.

“Not lost,” insisted my friend Danielle. After all, we knew how we’d gotten here—we’d been forced to stray from the official high road when it ended in a precipice, the result of a landslide that had washed away the trail. We had descended to an alternate route, where we found the rocky remnants of the slide and no sign of an expected bridge over the riverbed’s raging current. A brief cow sighting had given us hope that we could make it up the opposite slope slightly farther upstream.

So we had river-forded and rock-scrambled, pushed over thorns, past brambles and under barbed wire, and, finally, emerged—nowhere. Of course, much as we were not lost, we were technically not nowhere, but we were certainly neither found nor anywhere recognizable either.

__________________________

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. After all, my two friends and I were hiking to Trevélez, which, at 4,593 feet, is the highest village in mainland Spain.

We had decided to spend part of our March vacation trekking in Andalusia, the Southern region where Moorish rule guided Al-Andalus (as Andalusia was known in Arabic) from the 700s to the conclusion of the Christian Reconquista in 1492. The region is known for its melding of Muslim and Christian influences in its religious buildings and palaces—the core of Cordoba’s famed Mezquita mosque contains a Gothic cathedral. Washington Irving made the “Arabian spice” of Granada’s Christianized palace complex known to Americans in 1832 in Tales of the Alhambra. Famous Andalusian artists include Malaga’s Pablo Picasso, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and temporary resident Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about bullfighting (and not the GR-7 hiking path, despite the ominously almost-apropos title) in Death in the Afternoon.

For the outdoors-hombre of any level, Andalusia offers abundant trails, with one-fifth of its land under government protection. Vías verdes, or green ways, comprise over 1,000 miles of flat, former railway land, perfect for easy walking or biking trips between villages. As the Zuheros-based hiking author Clive Jarman told me: “You can’t get lost on a vía verde.” More advanced hikers can use vías pecuarias, or old cattle trails, now publicly protected for use by farmers and tourists.

On our trip, we followed low, red- and white-striped wooden posts that marked the route of the GR-7, one of more than 50 Gran Recorridos (large paths) that stretch across Spain. At 723 miles, the GR-7 is part of the much longer E-4, a European route that weaves from the southern tip of Spain, near Tarifa, up through France and across the continent to Greece. (Europe has 11 such long-distance “E” routes.) It takes approximately 40 days to hike from one end to the other of the GR-7’s Andalusia segment. We had chosen to hike only one day’s worth.

But even short routes can cause trouble. Speaking from personal experience, Jarman said, “The problem with walking routes is the minute you write about them, they’re out of date.” We found this out the hard way.

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