The Complete Guide To: Highland Spain

The formidable peaks of the Iberian peninsula harbour some of Europe's best walking trails. Ben Crichton laces up his boots and strides out


ISN'T SPAIN ALL ABOUT COSTAS AND RAIN ON THE PLAIN?

ISN'T SPAIN ALL ABOUT COSTAS AND RAIN ON THE PLAIN?

No. Spain is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe. Although smaller than the Alps, which contain Europe's tallest mountain, the 4,807m Mont Blanc, Spain's highlands command respect. To find the highest point in Spain you have to travel to the Canary Island of Tenerife, where Pico de Teide reaches 3,718m. But there are plenty more options on the mainland. The Iberian peninsula boasts the Pyrenees, the Sierra Nevada, the Cordillera Cantabrica, the Sistema Central and the Sistema Iberico, while the Balearics and the other Canaries have plenty of lofty charms.

The Sistema Central and the Sistema Iberico are roughly comparable in height to the Scottish highlands (as is Mallorca's Serra de Tramuntana, the rugged north-west of the island). The 2,500m-high Picos de Europa, in the Cordillera Cantabrica of north-west Spain, are around twice as tall as Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, and they in turn are outdone by the Spanish Pyrenees.

Several Pyrenean summits along the border with France reach above 3,000m, and the loftiest link in the chain, Pico de Aneto (3,408m), is entirely inside Spanish territory. It is just outdone by mainland Spain's highest peak, the 3,478m Mulhacen in the Sierra Nevada.

CAN I SKI?

The Sierra Nevada is Europe's most southerly ski area. With Thomson (0870 888 0254; www.thomson-ski.co.uk), for example, you can spend a week there in March for £525 including flights, staying at the Kenia Nevada. Alternatively, Alto Aragon (01869 337339; www.altoaragon.co.uk) offers the chance of cross-country skiing in February and March for £715 for eight days, including flights, accommodation, meals and guiding. Or do it yourself on Ryanair's (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) new routes to Granada from Stansted and Liverpool, which start in February and April respectively.

Another option is to do as the Madrileños do and spend a weekend in the Sierra Guadarrama, an hour north of the Spanish capital - though go midweek to avoid the queues. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) and Iberia (0845 601 2854; www.iberia.com) fly to Madrid from a range of UK airports. There are trains from Atocha and Charmartin stations, and a daily bus from Moncloa, to the principle resort of Puerto de Navacerrada. Alternatively, Alto Aragon (01869 337339; www.altoaragon.co.uk) offers eight days' cross-country skiing in February/March for £715, including flights, accommodation, meals and guides.

Rather chic skiing can be found at the Pyrenean resort of Baqueira-Beret in the Val d'Aran. To get there, fly to Toulouse from a wide range of UK airports, and travel on by train, bus and taxi.

I WANT WARMER WEATHER

Then wait for spring or autumn and take a beginner's rock-climbing course in the Sierra Nevada. Highpoint (01768 486731; www.mountainguides.co.uk) offers one-week trips from £495 with instruction and self-catering accommodation; flights are extra, on Ryanair to Granada or a range of airlines to Malaga. Compass West (01736 871 447; www.compasswest.co.uk) organises similar trips inshore from the Costa Blanca for £395, again without flights.

Several companies sell multi-activity Spanish winter holidays. Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk), for example, has trips at £550 for eight days in the Picos de Europa that include canyoning, caving and mountain biking, but not flights.

THAT'S TOO MUCH ACTIVITY!

Less strenuous options include riding and wildlife holidays. In The Saddle (01299 272997; www.inthesaddle.com) offers riding weeks in the Alpujarras mountains for £860-£1,230, including accommodation, all rides and most meals. Nature Trek (01962 733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) offers trips based around Spain's abundant wildlife - for example a week in the Pyrenees for £985 including flights, accommodation, food and wine.

If painting combined with some gentle walking sounds more appealing, then check out Andalucian Adventures (01453 834137; www.andalucian-adventures.co.uk), which offers week-long holidays between May and October for £840 with flights, accommodation and tuition.

Perhaps the most unusual holiday in Spain's highlands are lifestyle-coaching breaks amid the inspirational beauty of the Picos de Europa called "The Big Stretch". These week-long trips cost £2,150 including coaching, guiding, luxury accommodation and meals - but not including flights or transfers. Contact Pura Aventura for details (0845 225 5058; www.pura-aventura.com; www.thebigstretch.com).

ANY LONG WALKS IN WONDERFUL SCENERY?

You're in the right place. Spain's spectacular mountain landscapes are ideal for guided treks, not least because Spanish maps often leave a lot to be desired. Where you go depends on what you are looking for. The 70km-long Alpujarras valley on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada is sprinkled with villages full of blinding whitewashed buildings and stunning floral displays. As in other Spanish mountain regions, staying in these remote rural hamlets is half the enjoyment of walking here. The adventurous can join trips up to the high summits with companies such as KE Adventure (01768 773966; www.keadventure.com), while Sherpa (020 8577 2717; www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk) and Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) offer less demanding tours.

However, if the thought of tramping, eating and possibly sharing a room with a stranger (twin rooms come as standard but you can pay a single supplement) isn't your idea of a good holiday, fear not. Companies such as Inntravel (01653 617788; www.inntravel.co.uk) and Pico Verde (0161 773 5335; www.picoverde.com) provide detailed walking notes for self-guided trips. They will also sort out accommodation and organise baggage transfers between hotels, but it's up to you to decide how long to stop for a picnic lunch.

CAN I COMBINE A CITY BREAK WITH A TRIP TO THE HIGHLANDS?

Easily. Flights can be booked with a range of airlines to Spain's main cities, all of which are within striking distance of all trekking destinations. Accommodation is widely available outside peak season, but over Easter and in July and August it is wise to book in advance. The best destination for a week's holiday is probably Barcelona (combined with the Pyrenees) or Palma de Mallorca, both of which are easily accessible from the UK on dozens of scheduled flights. Mallorca has a long walking season; its highest accessible peak, Massanella, is a couple of dozen steps higher than Ben Nevis; and the island offers great coastal views and the chance to stay in small villages as well as the monastery of Lluc. Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) has an eight-day guided walk in March for £445 including accommodation; you fix your own flights to Palma, allowing as long as you like in the city before or after the tour.

If you fancy a long weekend of trekking in mountains hardly known in the UK, then hop on a flight to Madrid and take a train from Atocha station to Ceredilla in the Sierra Guadarrama. You can stay at the mountain hostel centre La Fuenfria (00 34 918 525 568; www.lafuenfria.com), and spend your days walking in the national park.

YOUR FAVOURITE LOCATION?

The Picos de Europa in the heart of "Green Spain". These mountains were given their name by Atlantic sailors glimpsing their first sight of the Continent. The chisel-shaped peak of Naranjo de Bulnes towers above the massif, and the range includes the gargantuan 16km-long Cares gorge, which at some points is nearly 2km deep. It was here that a pivotal event in Spanish history took place when, in 717, King Pelayo of Asturias routed a small Moorish force at the Battle of Covadonga. Little did he know that historians would credit him with starting the 700-year-long Christian reconquest of Spain. Staying the night in the remote pastoral communities is a real pleasure, and lovers of blue cheese are in for a treat as cabrales, reportedly the strongest cheese in the world, hails from here.

Several companies offer guided and self-guided trips to the region including Inntravel (01653 617788; www.inntravel.co.uk), Pura Aventura (0845 225 5058; www.pura-aventura.com) and Pico Verde (0161 773 5335; www.picoverde.com). Alternatively, fly from Stansted to Bilbao on easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) or from Stansted to Santander on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). Buses run into the Picos from both these cities. For information visit www.asturiaspicosdeeuropa.com, a well-presented site that provides accommodation and general details about the area.

THE BEST EPIC JOURNEY?

Head for the Spanish Pyrenees, generally drier and less developed than their French counterparts but no less spectacular. The paths and passes that link the tiny mountain communities were used by pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostella, by Roland fighting his last stand at Rocenvalles, by Republican sympathisers in the civil war and Jews fleeing the Nazis during the Second World War.

The GR11 long-distance path that runs from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean offers walkers the chance to spend two months striding from end to end, or shorter periods cherry-picking the best bits. The Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido in the Aragonese Pyrenees puts in a strong claim to be the most stunning section of the whole route. Sherpa (020-8577 2717; www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk) has an eight-day self-guided inn-to-inn circular walk with departures from June for £781, including flights. The Catalan Pyrenees next door are not as high as the Aragonese peaks but are a little softer and greener. Here is where you'll find the outstanding Parc Nacional d'Aiguestortes i Estanyx de Sant Maurici.

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

The timing of Spain's walking seasons are determined by temperature. Only the Canaries, Mallorca and the Costa Blanca can claim to offer year-round trekking, and even then it is advisable to avoid mid-winter and high summer. Extreme summer heat is less of a problem in the Picos and the Pyrenees, but snow can block some walking routes in the Picos until May and in the Pyrenees until June.

Popular trails can become congested from mid-July until the end of August, but wait until late September in the Pyrenees and October in the Picos and you'll have the tracks to yourself. In the Sierra Nevada, heavy snowfall means that attempts on the high peaks are best left to the experts until late April or early May, but walks in the lower valleys are ideal at this time of year as the spring flowers are likely to be spectacular and temperatures mild. The heat of July and August is likely to rule out all excursions here except for the highest-altitude activities; autumn is good, but the first snow can arrive in early November. Mountain conditions can be pernicious and extreme unseasonable weather is not unusual, so don't set off unless you have the right clothing, maps and food supplies.

WILL I GET LOST?

Probably. Even the principal Gran Recorrido routes (long distance paths) in Spain have some startlingly inconsistent signposting. Sometimes the maps are little better, so be prepared for confusion and backtracking. The Spanish military produces 1:50,000 maps that are better than others for marking trails, but not as good at pointing out places of civil interest. Your best bet is a specialist supplier such as Stanfords (020-7836 1321; www.stanfords.co.uk), which has branches in London, Bristol and Manchester.

Discovery Walking Guides produces a wide range of specialist maps and guides that carry precise instructions thanks to GPS mapping; you can get a complete list at www.dwgwalking.co.uk or by writing to the company at 10 Tennyson Close, Northampton NN5 7HJ.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Contact the Spanish Tourist Office at 79 New Cavendish Street, London W1W 6XB (020-7317 2040; www.tourspain.co.uk). Lonely Planet's Walking in Spain (£14.99) gives a good overview, while Cicerone produces a number of titles that tend to be aimed at the more ambitious trekker.

Chris Stewart's books Driving over Lemons and A Parrot in the Pepper Tree provide an introduction to life in the Alpujarras. The Independent's travel editor, Simon Calder, has written on the Pyrenees with Mick Webb in Backpacks, Boots and Baguettes (Virgin Books, £7.99), though this focuses more on the French side of the frontier.

ISLAND LIFE

Tenerife and the other Canary Islands offer some of Spain's most unusual trekking. Spain's highest peak, El Teide, is often snow-capped, and the sterile lunar landscape around the mountain are very impressive. It is also well worth exploring the surprisingly verdant Las Canadas or Anaga region or catching a ferry across to La Gomera. Hooked on Walking (01501 744727; www.walking-europe.co.uk) offers a one-week unguided trip to Teide with walks in the area for £545 without flights.

If you are planning an assault on El Teide independently you will need a permit to climb the final 200m. This is free but must be arranged for a specific date and time. You are theoretically able to arrange a permit in advance by writing or faxing your request to: Oficina de Parque National, Calle Emillo Carzadilla no 5, Santa Cruz de Tenerife (00 34 922 290129; fax 00 34 9222 244 788). However you may end up needing to go in person to Santa Cruz with your passport and a photocopy of it. You will also need your passport and permit to access the final ascent.

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