Encounters of the friendly kind: pathfinding in the Sierras of Extremadura
Extremadura has always been a place where people walked. Gisela Radant Wood, author of Cicerone’s The Sierras of Extremadura, is continuing a long tradition of choosing a path and following it. She has never been absolutely lost but has had the luck always to meet someone who knows the way, as she recounts in some anecdotes from the routes in her guidebook.
There are thousands of kilometres of paths and tracks in Extremadura. Some date back millennia to even before the Romans arrived, linking villages and larger towns together: old communication tracks that run over mountains and connect provinces. They are paths for hunters, farmers, apiarists, birdwatchers, fishermen, butterfly collectors, botanists, cherry and asparagus thieves, chestnut gatherers, mushroom pickers and pleasure walkers.
The best trails are not on maps and have no signposts. They are discovered and not forgotten by walking down the unknown and inviting path that leads to goodness knows where.
I know it is possible to load up GPS points on to a device and follow them. Someone, however, needs to discover those points in the first place. Someone like me, for instance. Since coming to Extremadura I have been absorbed in exploring paths and tracks and finding out all sorts of interesting things: medieval bridges; granite boulders sculpted to press olives and collect their oil; caves; ruined mills and overgrown mill races; abandoned hermitages; archaeological sites; disused aqueducts; waterfalls and natural springs; cork oak groves; flower meadows; and the best place to see the Perseids in August and watch bee eaters fly in circles in the twilight.
Walk 7 in The Sierras of Extremadura
On most of my exploratory walks I never meet anyone at all but when I do the meeting is always timely. Exploring an area just north of the village of La Garganta I did know where I was going. Although the map had some lines on it I wanted to explore a path I had heard about that left the track and climbed over the rocky base of a granite outcrop known as La Muela. The first bit was easy. Two groups of cairns at the side of the track advised me to leave the track and start my climb. Low flowering bushes of lavender, Spanish heath and broom dotted the tiny path. The cairns made the way clear. The going was up and the view behind grew more impressive. I could see Las Hurdes, 50km to the west.
I reached an area where there were cairns in both directions. Instinct, and a look at the map, told me to go right. It seemed reasonable – and then something unexpected happened. Mist rolled in from the north. It was May, and I had started under a blue sky. but I was suddenly enveloped in mist. I could still see my feet and the immediate surroundings but it was a bit eerie, as not much was visible beyond 10m in any direction. I knew there were no sudden drops or anything dangerous nearby, because I had done my research, so I just carried on walking – slowly. I crossed the rocky base of La Muela and came to an unexpected track. Should I go left or right? I thought right. Just then two neon lycra-clad runners loomed out of the mist. They were surprised to see me. I felt a bit ridiculous in my boots, anorak and walking poles but asked them if I should go left or right. They agreed, ‘Right’. I went right. The track was easy. The mist cleared and the views came back. The walk had a happy conclusion but, just to make sure of everything, I repeated it the following week in brilliant sunshine all the way. A great walk and it’s now become a favourite of mine.
Walk 13 in The Sierras of Extremadura
Between Jarandilla de la Vera and Guijo de Santa Bárbara I was having the most wonderful day of walking. The weather was bright and sunny and, after recent rain the streams, rivers and waterfalls were spectacular. It seemed as if all the trees were in flower competing with the wildflowers underfoot. Raptors were lazily circling overhead. A perfect day. I had followed my map faithfully. However, after 11.5km I was supposed to find a turning on the left which did not seem to be where I thought it was. I carried on walking and, by a huge old tree I did, indeed, find the turning. I also found a farmer with three lovely dogs. I explained my confusion to the amusement of the farmer. He walked with me. We took the turning on the left and came to a T-junction, right, and then another one, left. None of these were on the map. We parted with a ‘Gracias’ from me and a ‘Ten cuidado’ (Be careful) from him. From then on the path was clear into a deciduous oak wood and a good track to Jarandilla de la Vera.
Finally, an extra route from Gisela’s website
Years ago I wanted to do a walk near Romangordo, the village famous for the Battle of Romangordo on 19th May 1812, fought during the Peninsula Wars by the British against the French. The route was supposed to be signed, but this was hopeless: the start took ages to find, and only one signpost followed. Consequentially I had the most amazing walk, but not the one I’d expected. I walked in a small river valley but, just after a medieval bridge covered in old crests and coats-of-arms, the way ahead was blocked by dense vegetation and brambles. I looked for a way over the valley side on the left. I started to climb up, but after 10m realised this was not a good idea. I had no mobile coverage and no one knew where I was – not even me. I retraced my steps, backwards, down the valley side. I walked closer to the brambles and there was a small path, one I could climb.
On getting to the top there were goats, and where there are goats there is a goatherd. I asked directions. He didn’t seem to know more than me. I checked the sun and the time and walked to the east and found a lane instinct had told me must be there. I climbed through the fence, sat on the verge, drank some water and ate my last banana. I heard a vehicle. It was the goatherd. My car was in Romangordo and I asked how far that was. It turned out to be 15km boring on the lane. He was going in the opposite direction: but as he wasn’t doing anything else that afternoon I got a lift back to Romangordo and my car. The walk became an out-and-back route.
I always tell people that I get lost in Extremadua so they don’t have to. The reality is that I just love exploring and have great satisfaction in joining up the tracks and plotting good walks for everyone to enjoy.
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