Europe's wildest frontier

At the tip of Spain closest to Africa is a mysterious region of Moorish castles and soaring eagles. Ray Kershaw goes off the beaten track in Andalucia's national parks
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The Independent Travel

Appearing unexpectedly out of the sun-suffused mist, Brother Antonio looks like an apparition. The Monte Sión Monastery, a perpendicular kilometre above the Andalucian plains, had reputedly been unoccupied for years. Sharing our surprise, his smile is beatific, but in his frayed Franciscan habit it is his bread-stuffed plastic shopping bag that betrays his mortality. His nuzzling white terrier seems pleased to see us, too.

Appearing unexpectedly out of the sun-suffused mist, Brother Antonio looks like an apparition. The Monte Sión Monastery, a perpendicular kilometre above the Andalucian plains, had reputedly been unoccupied for years. Sharing our surprise, his smile is beatific, but in his frayed Franciscan habit it is his bread-stuffed plastic shopping bag that betrays his mortality. His nuzzling white terrier seems pleased to see us, too.

We had climbed from Cazorla, a historic mountain town heaped like a snowdrift at the foot of the Cazorla Natural Park. At a picture-book farm we met an old lady cooking on a brazier. Beneath a grape-hung pergola, her outdoor sink was fed by a spring. The alfresco kitchen, clearly not a lifestyle choice, seemed of another century: of an Andalucia of densely-forested mountains and deep river valleys that few outsiders realise still exists.

The Cazorla Natural Park remains one of Europe's greatest wild places. Its jagged limestone peaks, soaring abruptly to 2,000m, harvest rains from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and keep the surrounding scenery green. The altitude and climate range, winter snow and burning sun, create ecology of extraordinary contrasts - within a few kilometres are olive trees and lavender, daffodils and pines. Among its 2,000 plants are rare pre-Ice Age relicts, while wild boar and ibex roam the terrain. Eagles and buzzards navigate the thermals, and on lucky days you may see the giant bearded vulture.

As the monastery mist dissolves to blue sky, Antonio directs us to the summit of Gilillo, Cazorla's second-highest peak. When he joined the order 40 years ago he had six other monks for company. For the past four years, often snowed in, he has had only his dog. Isn't this hard? The old monk gestures at the materialising landscape: the glowing red plains of the world far below, the green forest above. Where else could be more beautiful? He looks a happy man.

From Gilillo's trackless heights, half of Andalucia is visible. Between the snow-capped Sierra Nevada and the Sierra Morena, millions of Jaén Province's countless olive trees - which produce 20 per cent of the world's olive oil - recede into infinity. The vast natural park - about the size of the area enclosed by the M25 - looks as labyrinthine as a maze. We sunbathe on rocks overgrown with thyme while goat bells tinkle in the distance. For the whole of one dazzling Sunday we have the mountains completely to ourselves.

We head the next day for the spectacular Borosa River Gorge. From Cazorla, via a string of hamlets along the River Guadalquivir (a mere mountain stream at this point), two buses a day careen along the 30 white-knuckle kilometres to Torre de Vinagre at the gorge mouth. With its hunting museum and botanical gardens, the village pulls crowds like an Andalucian Cheddar. Visitors are clearly not enticed to this part of the park for solitude.

On our badly-chosen holiday weekend, half the lowland Spanish population seemed to have massed for a taste of rare mountain greenery, many to tackle the tough 25km walk. But, undiminished by the multitudes, the gorge puts on a stunning show. At every twist and turn our expectations soar.

Crisscrossed by bridges, the steep wooded valley funnels the river over sparkling cascades and into enticing rocky pools. At the cave-like ravine of Cerrada de Elias we squeeze along boardwalks over the torrent. Limestone pinnacles like castles soar to frame the sky and as the crowd starts to thin, miles melt away.

The gorge ends abruptly at the tiered Organo Falls where the river plunges down an apparently impassable 200m precipice. While we watch rainbows in the spray, ibex spring onto ledges and two pairs of eagles wheel against the sun.

The Borosa is hiding a spectacular finale. The track zigzags past water-carved grottos then burrows into a long and muddy tunnel. We emerge lightly bruised (who forgot the torch?) on the tree-fringed shore of a sapphirine lake. Bright with butterflies and birdsong, it is a magical place. Watching trout rising, we devour our bocadillos in the resinous air. For ten enchanted minutes, having climbed 900m, we are finally alone.

While most Spanish are not passionate walkers, the growth of green tourism along the upper Guadalquivir - campsites, apartments, restaurants, bars and supermarkets - ominously resembles a nascent Costa del Arcadia. But away from the Borosa and the ubiquitous 4x4 safaris around the park's peripheries, persists a frontier-like atmosphere of a terra incognita. Its few map-and-compass hikers come mostly from abroad, like the convivial young Dubliners, Colin and Susan, who we keep bumping into in its farthest-flung parts.

One hundred kilometres long, and 40km wide, the park's northern end is accessed by road from Segura de la Sierra, a precariously-perched medieval walled village. Cazorla Town, its radiant white houses overhung by two castles, captivates us at first sight. Despite its inevitable "park gateway" tag, in the warren of lanes shaped by Romans and Moors it is soon apparent that the daily lives of its 9,000 inhabitants remain immune to tourism. After losing our camera we are desperate for an image of the town, but no one seems to sell postcards. Around the oval Plaza de Corredero - nicknamed "The Egg" - strangers are welcomed into numerous rough-and-ready bars full of card-playing men consuming wine and gratis tapas after Sunday church.

For serious idling we are seduced by the cosy Plaza Santa Maria. Snuggled against the ruins of the former cathedral, its silence is broken by children play games and ancient fountains gurgling. After sundown across the Río Cazorla, a floodlit Moorish castle - a rare touristy touch - levitates in the darkness.

In the square we discover La Cueva de Juan Pedro, a centuries-old fonda whose proprietor sustains us with robust mountain feasts from his stove behind the bar. Cazorla oozes olive oil. Venison, rabbit, wild boar or trout - every dish sizzles in the local liquid gold. His huevas Cazorla - a roasted cornucopia of mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers and cheese crowned with fried eggs - soon become the daydream that fuels my every ascent.

Most evenings here are spent with Colin and Susan. Sipping Montilla finos and nibbling jamón serrano, we rest aching feet and swap walkers' stories, the sunset turning the mountain walls pink.

For further urban diversion, we traverse 30km of olive trees to elegant Úbeda. The small city's genteel air resembles more Jane Austin's Bath than fiery Southern Spain. Its 16th-century golden age created one of Europe's Renaissance gems - the exquisite Plaza de Vázquez de Molina, a leafy rectangle of palaces that has changed little in 500 years. Horse-drawn carriages convey well-pursed visitors through its embalmed heart. A goatherd's flock in the manicured streets is a surreal reminder that wildest Andalucia is just down the road.

Today, several palaces are luxury hotels. The Condestable Dávalos Parador, voted Spain's most atmospheric, offers regional menus - even beer and sandwiches - for those not flush enough to stay. Cazorla also has a parador, deep in the forest, but we stayed at the central Hotel Guadalquivir whose ex-chef host, Pedro Russello, understands that British walkers require fortifying breakfasts.

Up at his misty monastery, Brother Antonio is only sure of visitors one day a year - the last Sunday in September when a romeria pilgrimage ascends from Cazorla. But as more of his compatriots invest in hiking boots, the old monk's mountain solitude may be more frequently disturbed. Pack your rucksacks and experience Andalucia while there's still time.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: CAZORLA NATIONAL PARK

GETTING THERE

The nearest airport is Malaga, to which there are flights from all over the UK on a wide range of scheduled and charter airlines. From here, you can travel by bus or train to Jaen, from where there are two daily buses into the park.

STAYING THERE

The park has a couple of excellent hostels. The HI hostel, Albergue Junevil Cazorla (00 34 953 72 03 29), boasts a pool for the use of guests, while the Hostal Betis (00 34 953 72 05 40) has excellent views.

The tourist complex at Los Enebros (00 34 953 72 71 33) has hotels, restaurants, a campsite and freestanding wood cabins and offers a variety of activities including horseriding, mountain-biking, canoeing and guided walks.

WALKS

One of the best walks in the park takes you along a beautiful section of the Borosa River Gorge.

You follow a dirt track and then a spectacular wooden walkway eastwards through the gorge which opens out into a huge, natural amphitheatre. From here a steep climb takes you through to the stunning high reservoir, which you reach by tunnel.

CAZORLA CIRCUIT

This circular walk along the mountain trails is a classic itinerary. A long climb of nearly 900m up from the village leads you to a high pass from where the peak of El Gilillo is easily climbed. From here a high mountain trail brings you back to Cazorla in a long, lazy loop.

MORE INFORMATION

The municipal tourist office in Cazorla (00 34 953 71 01 02) is at Paeso del Santo Cristo 17, north of Plaza de la Constitucion. It opens only in summer.

Spanish National Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London WIM 5AP (020-7486 8077).

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