As I walked out, with Laurie Lee by my side

Jeremy Atiyah walked from La Mancha to Andalusia hoping to retrace the footsteps the writer left in the Thirties. He wasn't disappointed
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The Independent Online
My Idea of a rural walking idyll did not involve travelling with a group, nor did it involve clambering about icy mountain-sides with big boots and survival gear. I just wanted to cross a piece of Spain in the footsteps of Laurie Lee, whose own trek in the 1930s across rural Spain, as described in his book As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, was the most beautifully Bohemian piece of poetry I had ever read. If only I too could cross, alone and on foot, the imaginary frontier between La Mancha, the flat heartland of central Spain, and Andalusia, the mountainous borderland between Europe and Moorish Africa. Following my mentor's footsteps wherever possible, I dared to hope that traces of Lee's Spain still lay ahead.

I caught a brown train to the sleepy town of Valdapenas. From the station a long straight avenue called Avenida del Generalissimo, with grass growing between the paving stones and crumbling houses on both sides, led nowhere in particular. There were no cars, and at the end of every street stretched grassy meadows. Unsurfaced streets and rough white houses streaked with muddy stains marked the edge of town. Smells of manure and fermentation from the local wine-growing industry wafted through wooden colonnaded walkways in the central square. Lee could certainly have written poetry here.

Walking south, out from Valdepenas, was not going to be easy, however. Where Lee had described endless dusty tracks, there now ran the principal Madrid-Cadiz highway. To avoid it I aimed for the railway line, alongside which, as it happened, ran a white, dusty track of the prerequisite variety. In no time I was in open countryside, under an enormous sky, walking among silver olive-trees and the budding vineyards of spring.

That first leg of the journey was amazingly hearty. I covered 10 miles by lunch, before coming to a tumble-down railway station in the forgotten town of Santa Cruz de la Mudela. In front of the station was an ancient overgrown square, surrounded by deserted ruined cottages; I sat down to eat a suitably basic meal of olives, cheese and water, before setting out again as the afternoon sun was reaching its peak.

Now however I found no dusty white path beside the railway line and this had an unsettling effect on me. Suddenly the plain seemed 10 times larger and I seemed 10 times smaller. I watched a passing train slowly, slowly disappear into the remote distance ahead. And unlike Laurie Lee, I found that my feet were rapidly blistering.

Knotting a hanky on my head, I pressed on grimly towards a village known as Las Virtudes, where I planned to reward my hard work with dinner and a bed, or perhaps (more appropriately) a barn. Walking through the gentlest sloping land, striped with endless olive plantations, I eventually limped into Las Virtudes sunburnt and exhausted, only to find that this was no village - unless a clump of shady trees and an old bull-ring make a village. I continued on my way. The next stage was a true wilderness, with rabbits and wildfowl scurrying off at my approach. The only sign of human existence came at dusk with bells tinkling from the necks of a flock of sheep. The shepherd himself, when he appeared with a new-born lamb under his arm, was as outlandish as anyone described by Lee.

"You are walking south," the man mumbled dreamily, as though walking was the only way to get about. "So is this the road to Seville?"

Not that he'd been there himself, good God no, but he'd heard tell...

At darkness I came to a village called Almuradiel, but this was no place to be Bohemian. In fact it was right on top of that confounded highway I thought I'd shaken off. I checked into a hotel which looked like a motorway service station, washed my feet and went to bed, where I lay in an irritable stupor, disturbed by the constant rumble of passing lorries and trucks. Come sunrise, I was frantic for Andalusia and my first task was to get back into the 1930s as quickly as possible. I scurried away from the motorway, across a dewy field, and there hit upon a south-bound track marked "mule- path". This looked promising.

The sun climbed and rapidly turned hot. I passed a huge, white hacienda and, slowly, the path began to meander upwards into the wooded foothills of the Sierra Morena. The only people I saw were some tough poachers skinning a rabbit; they asked, oddly, if I was escaping national service. Were there traces of the Spanish civil war still lingering in these hills?

The air began to freshen and the way grew narrow as I neared the top. Finally, scrabbling through a gorge, I emerged on to a bright green pasture covered in buttercups, washed by a stream brimming with dazzling lilies and croaking frogs. Rows of olives stretched away in the distance. Laurie Lee's Andalusia can hardly have looked better than this.

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