The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word ‘escape’ in thee ways:
- Break free from confinement or control.
- Fail to be noticed or remembered by (someone)
- Interrupt by means of an escape key. (Computer)
Within the first section there are, as per usual with dictionaries, various sub-definitions. But in general it was point one that interested me. I needed to escape. I needed an escape. I needed to get away from the city, from work, from the drudgery of indecision, the lingering cloying heat of the summer that had dripped over into autumn, from the social pressures imbued on the self and invoked when all around are getting married and having babies. I needed to escape.
The nonexistent readers of my first book “The Sun Struck Upwards” may cast their minds back to the chapter where I travelled around Extremadura with the help of my friends Elena and Carlos. They are natives of that hot, conquistador-spewing land and are always happy to return and show me its wonders.
‘Luke, how do you fancy a weekend out to La Vera.’
I almost dropped my hideously expensive phone in anticipation. I signed of with a capitalised yes and cleared my diary.
La Vera is a green a mountainous enclave at the top of the Cáceres province where it borders with Castilla y León. It lies within reach, a mere two and a half hours west of Madrid and covers a pancreas-shaped wedge of 888km2 in the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos. I had been there once before, way back in 2010, where I hunted for pimentón and glacial canyon streams called gargantas in villages with names like Guijo, Garganta la Olla, Cuacos de Yuste and Jarandilla de la Vera. I had picnicked with Elena’s family down by the water; we ate gooey homemade tortilla de patata and ate fresh salads made from tomatoes local to her village of Miajadas, whilst kids and teenagers jumped from the rocks into natural pools with water so clear you could see the bottom.
I needed this more than ever. Elena and Carlos too needed a break. After a brisk drive through ever growing vistas and topography, we arrived at our campsite in the nowhere town of Madrigal de la Vera; la Puerta de la Vera. It was an isolated little eden of tents and bungalows - we opted for a touch of luxury with the bungalow - next to the garganta de alardos. Also next door were a couple of natural pools, called charcos, and an obscenely beautiful and photogenic 16m high roman bridge that bowed up and reflected primly in the limpid waters below.
The Spanish countryside around the central plains and sierras is a land that makes the glutton yearn for meat. Out there the last thing that crosses your mind is lightly fried fish or heavy meat stews. The brasa is king: the grill. Lunch was had in the village. Chuleta (steak), churrasco, and a cut called abanico (exterior rib meat from the Iberian pig), all done on the grill and served with potatoes, salad, and endearingly bad local wine that tasted of pale blackcurrant juice.
After a brief siesta we went exploring. Madrigal, though welcoming and covered in sunshine like all Spanish villages, was not much in the beauty department. A somewhat tumbledown and ramshackle affair with a few crumbly old houses with traditional wooden balconies and the classic drainage gutters carved into the streets; for La Vera, despite the length and dryness of the summer, is a place of water. Indeed, as we passed the village church, it could be heard gushing about through channels and waterways between the buildings.
The light was start to show signs of wanting to slip away and allow dusk to set in. We had been told of a waterfall, one of the 10 most beautiful in the country, not too far away. We piled into the car and set off with the Gredos mountains to our right, starting to have its green stung gold by the setting sun. The sad truth was that the brutality of the summer had left the 20m high Cascada del Diablo, Devil Falls, somewhat dry. It was barely a trickle when we arrived. ‘Best enjoyed in Spring, after the winter snow melts.’ What was left however, though less overtly impressive, was nonetheless beguiling. A sequence of levels and smoothened out platforms pockmarked with eroded away pools that we could clamber down and fool about on. A naked waterfall. The pools that were left were dark and ominous and the rocks nearest were stained white or red by the minerals. It veered on the side of surreal.
We didn’t linger long and the decision was made to milk the last minutes of the daylight by strolling around neighbouring cutesy village Villanueva de la Vera. One the more postcard-worthy settlements of the valley, Villanueva had a tight and old-feeling web of cobble streets lined with white houses that all sported those indicative and quite charming gravity-defying wooden balconies. Here too abounded porticoes, arches and support columns hiding cloisters that ran around the squares and lanes.
We supped on beers in the diminutive main square, next to the bell-tower of the town hall and surrounded by the ubiquitous old men with sticks and groups of locals. The population of the town is only a couple of thousand.
‘Pero hay vida aquí, eh!’ Cooed Elena.
We were constantly surprised by how much life and ebullience sung out from this places. But then it was a Saturday, I reminded her.
Darkness finally fell and the hills had become looming silhouettes. Back at the campsite we ate fairly terrible garlic chicken, picadillo (a fried mix of the insides of chorizo and herbs) and migas (bread crumbs fried in oil, garlic and chorizo) with an egg on top.
Then reading and music on the porch, and bed.
It was already hot at 11 o’clock the following morning, but we wanted to hike a little. We headed down to the Roman bridge again, crossed it, and struck northwards towards the snarling, grey granite spike of the Almanzor peak. I would have to wait until a hardier group joined me before I tackled that, but we found a pleasant 9km to and fro track that Elena was happy with.
As we left the world behind we passed by farm and after farm along an ever-rising path. The air was fragrant, tangibly warm and busy with butterflies. The rocky path was alive with bouncy crickets and skittish lizards and here and there we spied the silken plasticky remains of a shed snake skin.
Up again, still onward at pace, through an aromatic eucalyptus forest. The bases had had small sections of bark sliced and cut clean off; like some native had taken a bowie knife to a scalp. Red tree flesh had been exposed under the bark and was macabrely leaking sap slowly down into plastic cups. Resin collection. Then out again, past farms and farms. Tobacco plantations with their crispy crisping leaves; then oak trees shedding their still green acorns; and fig trees, so many fig trees, their little fruits collected and laid out on trays in little drying huts. Altitude then got the best of the farmers as we arrived at our lonely destination: Castro de Raso.
More than a kilometre in the air, stuck on a little mountain ridge is a small Vettones settlement. The ruins of a pre-Roman Celtic people from the centuries before Christ. I expected a few rocks and a reconstructed house. Instead the remains were quite expansive and the location doubly so. These ancient places always made my mind melt a little. Just the thought, the truth and fact, that people were once in these simple stone houses, living here millennia ago, made my brain hurt. People had families here, ate dinner and washed over there, in this room made jewellery and carved stone artefacts, in that one they held meetings. It was amazing.
‘Que fuerte, I’m touching a rock wall that has been here for two thousand years.’
They thought so too.
We congratulated ourselves with a brief swim in a pool back at base camp and giggled and little fishes nibbled our feet clean.
Lunch was had in the hamlet of Raso, stranded far up the mountain side. The Mirador de Gredos: populated by rich people, cyclists, families and wasps. So many benign but annoying wasps. Again we took to the brasas and ordered overblown steaks and slow-roasted red pepper and tuna salads. Bloated and full we had one final stop to make. One that would make my eyes leak out of their sockets for its beauty.
Near the middle of nowhere place of Ramacastañas is a cave, called a gruta instead of cueva, that might be the country’s best kept secret. It should have worldwide fame, or least have been featured on some BBC or Natural Geographic documentary. The Grutas del Águila: The Caves of the Eagle.
We descended into the caves via some steps and, just to boil it down into one clear idea, spent the following forty minutes or so, gawping, making dumb noises, taking photos and generally having to remember to close our mouths. To describe the different stages of the cave would be impossible. It was a kilometre-long hangar from whose roof dripped glacially slow and ever-growing ghostly stalactites of such variation (and then the stalagmites too) as to render adjectives meaningless. Some were thick as trees and were stained orange and peach by oxidation and bacteria; others were delicate silk threads. Some were perfect icicle-like daggers that covered the roof like teeth whilst some were gently folded over each other like china-white carpet or rose petals.
Here and there still and eery little puddles and pools reflected the spotlit magnificence. I thanked the adolescent adventurers who had stumbled upon this fairytale by accident back on the 24th December 1963. What a Christmas present that was. If it weren’t for a few somewhat irritating tourists, that 17 degrees centigrade wonderland would have been one of those truly perfect places. That being said I have never seen anything like it. Photos do not do it justice, but my goodness it was a mind-melder.
To end: a scenic route along the Gredos eastwards as they dipped into the Guadarrama on the approach to Madrid. Traffic, lights of the city, a waning sun. The weekend was over and my escape had come to end. But while it lasted it was as varied and glorious as it was brief.