Report for our Inntravel walking holiday in Andalucia in June 2004.
Inntravel's walking holiday in Andalucia, Southern Spain follows a circular track, starting high up at Grazalema, then over the rolling hills from town to town, eventually ending up at the picturesque town of Ronda, with its sensational, much-photographed bridge over the gorge which divides the town in two. Six day's walking - some short days, only 10km, others more challenging up to 22km. See Inntravel's Andalucia holidays. NB: Inntravel change the details of each walk from time to time, as hotels open and close, and offer Inntravel better deals. This walk is now slightly different.
The walking area is in southern Spain, about 50km inland from Marbella. It's an individual walk - there is no guide, and we were always on our own. You walk from one small hotel to the next, and Inntravel arrange for your bags to be carried round by road. All you need to carry is the picnic provided by the hotel.
We had thought that this far south the landscape would be dry, arid, brown, rocky, scorched. Far from it - it was just as green as England in spring - and simply bursting with wild flowers and songbirds. This made it a real pleasure to be walking through a carpet of colourful flowers, listening to the goldfinches, stonechats, and nightingales everywhere.
Our advice is: don't do this walk in early June like we did - it was far too hot. To be fair, we had hit a bit of a heatwave - the local Spaniards were also complaining about the heat, and told us that at 35°C it was the hottest day of the year so far. Most of the walk was at around 500m altitude, so we weren't benefiting from cooler, high altitudes. We were regularly carrying (and drinking) 3 liters of water each day between us. We feel that the walk would be better done in early May, but it's a trade-off. Many of the tracks had plainly been extremely muddy, and had now set like concrete. If you do the walk much earlier in the year, you'll avoid the heat, but could well be wading through thick mud. You could do the walk in the autumn, when it's cooler, but then you won't get the wildflowers and spring birdsong.
Inntravel's walking guide
Inntravel always supply detailed walking notes to guide you across the mountainsides and help you get to your next hotel. We never actually got lost, and the notes were clearly well-written and up to date. However, there was little attempt to cross-reference the walking notes and the supplied 1:50,000 walking map. This meant, especially on the very long second day, it was at times difficult to work out where we were on the map. This in turn would have made it difficult to get back on track had the walking notes let us down. It's even more important as many of the paths on which we were walking weren't marked on the map.
The journey out...
Inntravel were having difficulty getting a flight, so we booked an Easyjet flight from Luton to Malaga. Inntravel's usual itinerary is to fly to Gibraltar, and take the train to Montejaque-Benaojan. We were advised to take the train from Malaga to Bobadilla, changing over to a train via Ronda to Montejaque-Benaojan.
However, they made two unforgivable mistakes for this journey. First Inntravel told us to get the shuttle from the airport into Malaga to get the train to Bobadilla. We soon discovered that there are two stations in Malaga - Malaga Centro and Malaga Renfe. We asked Inntravel which we needed, and they advised to go to Centro - this is wrong. The train to Bobadilla goes from Malaga Renfe.
Secondly, they assured us that the connections would be ok - they gave us 68 minutes to get off the plane, collect our bags, do the ten minute walk to the shuttle rail link (which goes every 30 mins), travel to the Renfe train station (11 minutes), walk several hundred meters with our suitcases through the streets to the mainline platforms, buy tickets, find the right platform etc. Preposterous. We worked out that the next viable connection wouldn't get us to our hotel until nearly ten at night. We didn't even bother - we grabbed a taxi at the airport to Ronda. Expensive (EUR120), but the only real option.
Instead of diving inland from the airport, the taxi driver chose to drive down the coast from Malaga to Marbella before turning inland to Ronda. While undoubtedly quicker, the journey was a real eye-opener revealing the relentless development that has transformed this coastal strip into one of the ugliest places on earth.
We waited a couple of hours at Ronda for the train to Montejaque-Benaojan, from where we were picked up by the hotel rep and taken to our first hotel at Grazalema.
The return journey at the end of the holiday was more straightforward - by train from Ronda to Malaga Renfe, changing at Bobadilla (time for a beer at the café). A long walk through the Malaga streets to the coastal line platforms (there is a lot of building work going on here which should eventually smooth this part of the journey), to join the train for the short journey out to the airport. The walkways from the airport train station to the airport departure hall were clearly designed by someone who hates tourists - following a series of unnecessary steps and switchbacks while wheeling your suitcases.
Malaga airport was packed - dread to think what it's like in August. The authorities have packed in plenty of seats and tables to make it bearable, which were regularly cleared and cleaned. There is only one food supply place, with a wide variety of expensive food.
The first hotel was the very excellent Villa Turistica, which has a spectacular terrace and pool with good views over Grazalema village and the surrounding countryside. We had a very comfortable 2-bed apartment. The apartments area has been well-constructed to look like a narrow cobbled traditional village street with "houses" on either side. The whole village is set on a very steep slope - our bedrooms were downstairs.
Dinner was taken in the main hotel block down a long flight of stone steps. Another black mark for Inntravel - their notes promised us that we would be eating a la carte here, but as soon as the staff realised we were with Inntravel, we were provided with the cheaper set menu. The food was good anyway.
In the morning we had a great view of a serin which was perched at the top of a fir tree right outside our lounge window - we were serin-aded all morning as we packed our cases and donned our boots for the first day's walk.
Day 1. Grazalema to Zahara de La Sierra (13km)
A good day's walk, initially walking on grassy paths down the Gaidovar valley, then following a wide, dusty cart track through fields and olive groves round Monte Prieto. Good picnic lunch (including cold omelettes!) taken in the shade of a tree overlooking the huge Zahara reservoir. This day made us realise how hot it was going to be - 2 litres of water consumed during the day. The track deteriorated as we neared the atmospheric Zahara, with its Moorish castle mounted on the outcrop of rock dominating the town, and visible for miles around.
We descended the narrow streets into the centre of Zahara, and stopped for a beer at a bar that seemed to have a policy of ignoring us. Later on we came out to the same bar for another beer before dinner, and were again ignored until we started throwing things at the waitresses to attract their attention. Meanwhile, le tout Zahara were parading up and down the high street, trying to look cool and sexy.
We stayed in the Arco de la Villa hotel at the far end of the high street. A comfortable room, but while the hotel restaurant boasts a spectacular view from huge windows overlooking the reservoir and the hills beyond, we were the only people in the dining room. The food was reasonable. The man on reception in the morning was unhelpful. After breakfast I asked for our picnic lunch - he promised it in ten minutes. I went to collect it in 15 minutes, and it hadn't been started. I had to wait another ten minutes for it to appear - no apology, just handed over with a haughty gesture.
Day 2. Zahara to Prado del Rey (22km)
From Zahara, you descend a couple of hundred meters onto a country road, which
you follow for a few km, turning right onto another cart track which eventually
winds up and down through olive groves, with bee-eaters and an eagle overhead.
This joins onto a wide country road which you follow for many km through
fields and olive groves. While this makes for easy flat smooth walking,
it was a bit dull. And also extremely hot - well above 30C, with the dusty
white road surface reflecting the heat back up to you.
Eventually we turned off this road and followed a grassy track for some km along the bottom of a valley through woods and fields. Beyond Llano del Fresno the walking notes give little idea of where you are on the map - and the track isn't marked on it either.
After wading through a flock of sheep being "tended" by two sleeping shepherds in the shade, we stopped in the shade of a tree by the track for our picnic lunch.
Although you are walking through farmland, it does seem pretty remote - people and buildings rarely seen.
More country roads eventually brought us down a long descent into the Las Vegas (!) valley and out onto the Zahara-Prado road. A few hundred meters along the road, we turned right up past a farmhouse and over a hilltop down to the hotel La Huerta Dorotea a few hundred meters below Prado.
This hotel is unique - run by the local village collective, it was at the same time very welcoming and charmingly amateur. It has a splendid terrace (where we dined) overlooking the valley and a large water cistern which rang with the sound of frogs all day and night. This hotel holds the record for the smallest bedroom we have ever stayed in, with the most enormous room key. Linda and I had to take turns to breathe in and out. Not much choice of food, but acceptable.
Day 3. Prado del Rey to El Bosque (10km)
A short day retracing our steps back to the Las Vegas valley, then walking along a country road for a few km before turning off onto a grassy track leading through olive groves and fields down to El Bosque, where we had to climb precariously over a high padlocked gate. The Hotel las Truchas was right next to a building site and a major road junction, but the swimming pool was screened off and very welcoming. We spent several hours relaxing in the sun by the pool.
Excellent room with balcony. Pleasant terrace by the huge dining room, which had a high ceiling. Poor service in the restaurant, with average food, apart from the trout main course (truchas is Spanish for trout).
Day 4. El Bosque to Grazalema (13km approx)
This day was very hot, and the notes promised an unremitting 3 hour slog up the valley if we took the option of walking all the way (20km). We therefore took one of the other two options offered. Pausing only to collect our free national reserve permits from the office in El Bosque, we went in the taxi with our suitcases to the junction of the Grazalema and Zahara roads. We then walked up the Zahara road to the park entrance, and trekked up for nearly an hour through cool shady forest up to Puerto de las Cumbres at about 1300m, and then on a more or less level track for a few km into the national reserve. At this height the temperature was bearable.
This reserve is notable for the rare pinsapo fir trees, amongst which we ate our picnic, while a flock of about 200 choughs circled above us.
We retraced our steps to the road and walked down across a field to the top of Grazalema, following the narrow streets down to the welcoming characterful hotel Casa de las Piedras in the centre of the town. A reasonable room overlooking the Spanish tiled roofs of the town, but the tiniest and most awkward shower ever constructed. Lots of good food and wine served in a courtyard by a huge, loud and enthusiastic waiter.
Day 5. Grazalema to Montejaque (13km)
I have to say that we ducked this one. This was the hottest day so far - even the locals were complaining about the heat. We were told that the temperature was 35°C - the hottest day of the year. We tried - we walked the first few km, but weren't enjoying it. We returned to Grazalema and took a taxi to Montejaque.
The hotel Palacete de Mañara seemed to be run by one woman, who was receptionist and dinner and breakfast waitress. A comfortable room overlooking the main square with a good bathroom. As we were there early, we went for a walk around the town, stopping for a beer at a bar with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. It was our wedding anniversary, so we then had a bottle of bubbly in the hotel courtyard next to the swimming pool.
No choice of food at dinner, but free wine.
Day 6. Montejaque to Ronda (13km)
After wimping out the previous day, we were determined to walk rather than take the other option offered of catching the train. At first we walked steeply down from Montejaque down to Benaojan, down to the river and railway line. We then walked along the river bank for a km or two before branching up across wooded hillside up to a pass (blessed relief from the heat from a cool breeze) and then down past farms and up again along a ridge. We ate our picnic in the shade of an olive tree looking across a valley to the spectacular town of Ronda half a dozen km away.
The path then descended into cool wooded valleys alongside rivers. However, the last five km into Ronda were purgatory - there was no shade, the temperature was blistering, the dusty white country roads doubled the heat. However, the views of the famous Ronda bridge as we plodded along in the heat made it all worthwhile.
A huge cold beer in the shade at a bar at the bottom of the town restored our spirits, and we then walked up to the famous Hotel San Gabriel, where many celebs have stayed. Excellent luxurious room. Evening meal not included so we ate out at the Restaurant Don Miguel with a spectacular outlook over the gorge. An excellent meal, if slow, and understandably expensive given the location.
Wandered around the town in the morning - went back to Restaurant Don Miguel for a beer overlooking the gorge, but left after sitting waiting for ten minutes to be served. Went and sat in the Hotel's lounge. The bar shuts at lunchtime (!). Taxi to the station mid afternoon for the long journey home.
Eight to ten photos, totalling about one megabyte, per page.
Far too hot. Also a lot of road walking which is not as good as footpaths.
Inntravel's walking notes and travel advice were not as good as we've
come to expect. Mixed service in the hotels. Pretty white towns,
good views when we were up in the hills. Lots of birdlife to see and listen
to. The Grazalema Reserve prides itself on its vultures and birds of prey
- but we hardly saw any - we saw more birds of prey from the train on the way