The need to escape a place and be alone is often tempered and countered by the desire to get away with friends and surround oneself with jokes and banter. The luck of life in Madrid is that both addictions are easy to fix.
Rascafría is 80km away to the north, tucked away in a verdant fold of hidden valley - the Lozoya Valley - between the Pedriza and Peñalara ranges of the Sierra de Guadarrama; that hulking green barrier that separates Madrid from northern Castille. Sevilla is 390km away yet, by taking the fast train, one can be sunning oneself in the sultry Andalusian heat a few minutes before the local bus from Madrid manages to slink its ways through isolated towns and drop you in Rascafría.
Three under-populated buses a day make their way, slowly and picturesquely, out through the plains to the bumps of the sierra. Every village, from larger urbanizaciones to minuscule lakeside unknowns like Pinilla del Valle and Lozoya where only old folk clutching bags of groceries seem to get on, get a visit from the one rush of noise that excites the road. Little old ladies sit outside houses and bars on plastic seats and aged gentlemen collect in small groups, fiddling with their canes and peering at the dark windows of the bus.
And finally, just before the valley pinches, stops, and rises to peaks, Rascafría; large, if only because everywhere else is minute. Apart from its somewhat interesting town hall it is a place without defining merit. The joy of it is what lies around. Walking out of the village limits one instantly feels the isolation and nature of the place. Seemingly on all sides one sees mountain. To feel actually surrounded by close mountains is a joy, and one that, even in those village-peppered ranges of Madrid - is not so common. Some twenty minutes south of the centre one stumbles upon the jewel of the Lozoya: El Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular - a former Carthusian monastery from the end of the 14th century that sits primly by the Lozoya river. It is a compact, unassuming, yet perfect-looking late Baroque gem of stunted slate-coloured turrets sitting atop cream brickwork.
When the school kids leave, all is silent. Though that is in fact the great lie of the countryside. When the humans depart, the great soundtrack of Mother Nature kicks in. One starts to see and hear the panoply of life that besets the valley: whinnying horses, clicking crickets, clucking storks and the rush of the water. And then the visual attack: small trout jumping the dam, goats rutting and clashing heads, eagles wheeling on thermals and lizards stopping and scattering. The world is just as alive when the people leave.
A walk away from the world was needed. I spied a sign signalling a track to a waterfall. There was just time enough before the one afternoon bus returning to the capital, though the walk would have to be brisk. Following a steadily rising track that crossed the valley floor towards the southern flank of hills one passes through heady and glowing corridors of slender pine trees and vistas that were irritatingly busy with new flying ants. Then the rapids and wet stones of the Aguilón stream that slowly creept up through a dense matt of warm woods and a tight prehistoric glade. Finally a wall of rock, nowhere to go, no people to share it with, just a fat explosion of water bursting out of the cliff and tumbling twice down to where I sat with my shoes off munching a sandwich and wishing I could stay forever. The Cascada del Purgatorio, the falls of purgatory.
But then sometimes one craves people.
The isolated and unimportant Manchegan village of Olías del Rey was as good a place as any to escape to. Ten kilometres outside of Toledo, it was to be the destination of a casa rural weekend. A rented house of many beds and rooms and where one could slip away from the world yet share it with friends.
This part of La Mancha is utterly anathema to Rascafría, yet so close, that one could assume a new country had been entered. A quixotic world of wavy plains, brushed browns and beiges and greens, that were here and there studded with the crumbled remains of the high meseta. Olive trees dotted and lined the views and…that was it. The house itself, a big old finca-style construction of yellow walls, grand wooden furniture, a bizarre living room decorated with deer skulls, and generous gardens, stood on a small rise hidden from view by cypresses, oak trees and other tall vegetation.
Barbecues, rich salads, marinated meats, snacks, beer, wine, rum, still more wine. The menu was excess, yet that is the whim of the British. Swallows flew around the outdoor terrace and tweeted into their small nests that hid in the beams. Beetles and flies and, in the evenings, pretty moths, fluttered about too: half annoying, half delighting. And the two country dogs vied for our love, which we gave, or ran around the flower-potted old well and then slumped tired into pools of shade.
Each day I would watch, in an inebriated haze and with a bursting belly, the sun dropping long over the olive groves, where rabbits ran in the wheat and poppies and lavender flowers decorated the ground. It was a weekend that passed in a comfortable stupor. One where any latent desire to walk somewhere or do something was suppressed by the more attractive option of doing nothing and lounging about with friends in a lazy mood of bonhomie.
There are many ways of escaping. North, south, alone, accompanied. I found that any and all combinations were welcome.