Serious hikers can enjoy mountain walking in some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. Spring and autumn are the best seasons for hiking in most of Spain, when the weather generally isn’t too hot or too cold, although winter is the best time in the south of Spain. Note, however, that some paths can be extremely dangerous in winter and are only safe in summer.
Hiking isn’t a popular sport among the Spanish, although Spain is a favourite destination for foreign hikers. It has a wealth of hiking areas, including the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias in the north (an area often described as ‘Switzerland by the sea’ containing the Picos de Europa), the Basque mountains and the Cantabrian Cordillera – all areas of outstanding beauty. The Pyrenees and the Ebro region are Spain’s most popular and accessible hiking regions, assisted by the abundance of winter sports resorts and ski-lifts that whisk you to the mountain tops. The north of Spain has many outstanding hiking routes, the most famous of which is the old ‘pilgrim’s way’ from Le Puy in France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, designated a Grande Randonnée (GR65) by the French.
It offers some of the most beautiful scenery in Spain and takes two or more months to complete the whole route, although most hikers complete a small section at a time. Several other pilgrims’ ways run through Spain to Santiago including the Camino de la Plata, which starts in Seville. Spain’s longest circular route, known as the Sulayr, has recently been opened and runs 340km (212mi) around the base of the Sierra Nevada range and takes 19 days to complete.
Really serious walkers may be interested in the European hiking route (GR7) running from Tarifa (Cadiz) through natural areas in Andalusia, Murcia and Valencia on its way to Greece some 2,100km (1,300mi) away. Easier, but no less beautiful, walks can be found on Spain’s ‘Greenways’ (Vías Verdes), all of which follow disused railway lines through spectacular countryside (see http://www.viasverdes.com).
Hiking in central Spain
In central Spain, outstanding hiking areas include the Gredos and Guadarrama Sierras, the Alcarria region, the Sierra of southern Salamanca, the Las Hurdes of northern Extremadura, El Bierzo of western León and the Sierra Morena in the south. Andalusia also has an abundance of spectacular hiking areas, including the Alpujarras and the Sierra Nevada in Granada, the Sierra de Grazalema running from Cadiz to Malaga, and the Serranía de Ronda. Spain has nine national parks (four in the Canary Islands), including the Coto de Doñana near Cadiz, Europe’s largest nature reserve, and numerous other areas designated as natural parks. For information contact the Ministry of the Environment (Ministerio de Medio Ambiente, 915-976 000, http://www.mma.es).
There are tens of thousands of kilometres of official footpaths throughout Spain, most of which are marked with parallel red and white stripes painted on rocks and trees, and accompanied by arrows when the direction changes. The sign of two crossed lines indicates that you should not go in that direction. Where paths cross they’re shown by different colours, e.g. green and yellow instead of red and white. The best hiking maps are published by the Instituto Geográfico Nacional (IGN) and the Servicio Geográfico del Ejército (SGE) in scales of 1:200,000, 1:100,000, 1:50,000 and occasionally 1:25,000.
The SGE series are generally considered to be more accurate and up to date than those published by the IGN, although neither is up to the standards of the best American and British maps. Editorial Alpina produces 1:40,000 and 1:25,000 map booklets for the most popular mountain and foothill areas of Spain and the Mapa Topográfico Nacional de España produce a series of 1:50,000 scale maps covering the whole of Spain and showing most footpaths and tracks. Hiking booklets containing suggested walks are published by some regional tourist organisations and maps showing city walks are available in many cities.
In mountain areas, there are over 200 refuge huts (refugios) for climbers and hikers, equipped with bunks and a basic kitchen, where overnight accommodation costs as little as €1.50. Some are staffed in spring and summer and provide food, although most are unstaffed and you must therefore carry your own food, sleeping bags, cooking utensils and other essentials. Many huts are kept locked and enquiries should be made in advance about where to obtain the key. For information contact the Spanish Mountain Sports Federation (Federación Española de Deportes de Montaña y Escalada/FEDME), C/Floridablanca, 84, 08015 Barcelona ( 934-264 267, http://www.fedme.es).
A number of books about hiking in Spain are published in English, including Trekking in Spain by Marc Dubin (Lonely Planet) and Walking Through Spain by Robin Neillands (Queen Anne Press), and there are many books dedicated to walking in particular regions, such as those published by Cicerone. TurEspaña publishes a booklet, Rutas de Montaña y Senderismo, featuring around 50 mountain walks throughout Spain. Hiking tours and holidays are organised for hikers of all ages and fitness levels throughout Spain, and there are expatriate groups of ramblers in resort areas throughout the country. For more information contact the Spanish Mountain Sports Federation (Federación Española de Deportes de Montaña y Escalada/FEDME), C/Floridablanca, 84, 08015 Barcelona (934-264 267, http://www.fedme.es).
Hiking in Spain is no more hazardous than in other countries, although you should be aware of the dangers. Wherever you walk, you must be on the alert for savage dogs. Carry a stick or walking cane to defend yourself (pointing it at a dog is usually enough to prevent it attacking you). Don’t venture too far off official paths during the hunting season, when you risk being shot by a trigger-happy hunter. Other ‘natural’ hazards include encounters with wild animals such as bulls, bears, wild horses, wolves, wildcats, snakes, scorpions, tarantulas and a variety of insects, e.g. mosquitoes, horseflies, ants, wasps and fleas. Your chances of meeting a wild animal or being attacked or bitten are remote, although you should take standard precautions such as checking your clothing and shoes before dressing when camping, wearing protective clothing and using insect repellent.
You should also take precautions against the heat and sunstroke and be careful not to start fires, the lighting of which is strictly forbidden in most areas of Spain. In September 2005, a campfire started by two foreigners in Sierra Nevada destroyed over 2,200 hectares of unique woodland. If you don’t speak Spanish, you should carry a phrase book when hiking in remote areas, as few people speak English (or other foreign languages). Taking a mobile phone with you is also a good idea.
Take care when walking on roads in country areas, as many have loose gravel and stones, on which it’s easy to lose your footing. On narrow, winding country roads you should walk on the side of the road which affords the best view of the road ahead, as many roads have blind corners and some drivers keep close to the edge. This is the one exception when it pays to ignore the ‘walk facing the traffic rule’, but take care to listen for traffic approaching from behind.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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