Walking along a converted railway line in Andalucía gave Mick Webb the perfect opportunity to leave civilisation behind and discover some beautiful countryside

By the high standards of Andalucía, Puerto Serrano doesn't draw many tourists. A small agricultural town on a fertile plain, it is neither pretty, white-washed nor perched attractively on a hill, although it is only a short drive from Arcos de la Frontera which does possess all those attributes. The reason for bypassing Arcos and stopping at Puerto Serrano is that it stands at one end of Andalucía's finest Vía Verde, literally "Green Way".

Spain "rationalised" its rural railway services in the 1960s and more recently has converted 60 or so of the former railway lines into tracks for walkers and cyclists. What marks out the Vía Verde de la Sierra from the other 12 to be found in Andalucía is that no train ever ran along it. The plan, hatched during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera was to link his home town, Jerez de la Frontera, with Almargen, isolated in the mountains of Ronda. The money ran out and the rails were never laid, but in 2000 a Vía Verde was created along a 36 kilometre stretch of line which, complete with tunnels, viaducts and stations, will take you on a trek through a fascinating stretch of Andalucía's varied landscape.

Under a brilliantly blue sky in early March my friend Steph and I parked outside Puerto Serrano's former station which is now a hotel and also a bar - except on Thursdays, when it is closed. Today being a Thursday, we set out unfortified by coffee.

Soon the straggling town of Puerto Serrano was left behind and the sounds of urban living were replaced by bird song. Warblers, tits and finches flitted among the silver-leaved olive trees and the darker foliage of the holm-oaks; the cultivated fields were dotted with white cattle egrets.

The path was mainly asphalted and being a former railway line was not subject to steep climbs and descents. It also, of course, tended to go through hills rather than round them, so it wasn't long before we encountered the first of the Vía Verde's 30 tunnels. As it was only a short one there was no need for any artificial light or for any panic. But a few kilometres further on, el Túnel de los Esqueletos proved a different matter. If the name (the tunnel of the skeletons) wasn't enough to send a shiver down the spinal column, its length of 500 metres was even more foreboding. An electric light did little to reassure my friend. Afraid that darkness would descend suddenly in mid-tunnel, she ran the last 200 metres, though keeping enough breath to berate me for my lethargy. I'd advise taking a torch.

We emerged into a beautiful, and virtually untouched landscape of rugged hills and secluded valleys. The Vía Verde de la Sierra follows the course of the river Guadelete, one of the major Andalucían rivers, which eventually reaches the sea near Cádiz. At this time its water, though a muddy green in colour, is unpolluted enough to support otters.

At la Junta de los Ríos, where the Guadelete joins the Guadalporcún, a picnic area and campsite scattered with spring flowers was an ideal spot to devour our rudimentary cheese and ham sandwiches and oranges fresh from the tree. Just after the break we met the day's only other traveller, a Spanish cyclist en route for a more sophisticated lunch at the station-cum-restaurant in the village of Coripe, about half-way along the trail. His final destination was Olvera, the charming hilltop town at the other end of the Vía Verde, which was a reasonable plan if you were on a bike. We, though, turned back mid-afternoon and retraced our steps to Puerto Serrano to retrieve the car.

One disadvantage of converted railway lines is that they do not allow you the luxury of a circular walk, yet the return leg was replete with new joys. The transition from wilderness back to agricultural country was as dramatic as the reverse had been. A highlight was a very close view of a huge griffon vulture. Andalucía's largest colony of these impressive birds is on a cliff at Zaframagó*which can be clearly seen from the Zaframagó*viaduct between Coripe and Olvera.

We arrived back at Puerto Serrano after a thoroughly enjoyable and not over-taxing 25 kilometre walk, in time for the well-deserved reward of a cold beer in the setting sun outside the station. Well that's how it would have ended on any day except Thursday, but you cannot, as they say, win them all.


Hotel Via Verde , Puerto Serrano, 00 34 955 898 190 (bikes can be hired )

Hotel Rural Restaurante , Coripe, www.estacion decoripe.com; 00 34 620 013 708

Hotel Estació Verde , Olvera, 00 34 661 463 207

If you understand Spanish, www.fundacionviaverdedelasierra.com is an informative website about the Vía Verde de la Sierra:

For other Vía Verde routes in Andalucía, see the excllent English language website www. andalucia.com. You'll find the walking section under the heading "Recreation and Sports"