Wednesday 23 March 2011

Sierra de Aitana, Spain 6th – 13th March 2011

A small group holiday in a little-known area of southern Spain combining a short trek with day walks to explore the rocky peaks and mountain ridges of Alicante province, using the network of ancient paths and mule tracks that criss-cross the area. The ridges of the area form a large “S” shape; we would be following a line across them.


Editorial Piolet Map – Marina Baixa Serra D’Aitana 1:20,000

Sunday 6th March 2011

Day 1: Arrival

“Benidorm, eh? You sure you’re going on a walking holiday?” Such was the general reaction when I mentioned where we were heading for this break. And, lets face it, the Costa Blanca, with it’s reputation for Brits abroad, hedonism and high-rise hell, isn’t the first place that springs to mind when considering a hiking holiday, is it?

After a fairly uneventful flight we arrived at Alicante airport and met our guide, Jose, and the rest of our group for the first time. With everybody present and correct, we boarded the minibus and settled in quietly for the transfer.

The drive from the airport along the coast, past the pseudo-Manhattan skylines of Alicante and Benidorm, did little to allay those niggling fears. But, heading inland, the mountainous interior soon started to reveal the wild rugged landscape we had been promised; it wasn’t to be the only time during the week that our preconceptions would be challenged.

We wound our way up from the coast to our first stop at Castell de Castells, a village of some 500-and-odd souls situated at the base of the northern slopes of the Serrella massif. Surprisingly, for the climb had seemed gentle, we were already 500m above sea level, with the surrounding peaks and rocky ridges rising a further 1,000m above us.

On arrival at the Hotel Serrella we dumped our bags in our room, then met up with everyone for a spot of lunch. It was a slightly subdued affair – because of the early start, it looked like lunchtime but felt like bed time.

Later, we popped out for an hour-or-so to get a bit of fresh air and to stretch our legs. The afternoon was sunny but not overly warm, so after a short climb up a nearby hillside for views back over the village, we returned to the hotel for a rest and a wash and brush-up before our 7.00pm briefing and dinner.

Monday 7th March 2011

Day 2: Xorta Massif – approx 12.13 miles

Route Summary:

Hotel – Pla del Daialt – Arc del Atanços – Penyo Gelat – Caseta del Tio Alcoia – Penya Alta (1,219m) – Font del Teixos – Baranc del Xic – Hotel


After a good night’s sleep, we all met for breakfast around 8.30am – continental in style and large in size. On the strength of the meals so far we were not going to go hungry.

We packed, picked up our sandwiches (large, obviously) and congregated on the patio out front. Today’s route was a circular walk on the Xorta massif taking in the summit at Penya Alta (1,219m). We left the village along the old Postman’s Route, crossing the road a couple of times and rising slowly towards Pla del Daialt. After an early chill the day was warming nicely, and it was good to get the legs and lungs working properly and feel the warming winter sun on our backs.

Skirting round the head of a low valley, we followed a track past a half-renovated farmhouse with olive and almond terraces to either side. Away to the west was the ridgeline of the Serrella massif. Staring out over that wild valley, the hustle and bustle of life back home already seemed a million miles away.

We then followed a contour path round to a surprise viewpoint – the twin rock arches of Arc del Atanços, a romantic spot where the two arches are said to represent twin wedding rings.

A steep, earthy path climbed a short way to gain a track curling below the main ridge. After a quick break for elevenses, we worked our way westwards to a gap in the ridge at Penyo Gelat, cutting through to the southern side and heading back eastwards to reach another narrow gap just below the summit. A loose, rocky path led steeply up to the 1,219m high point for fantastic views all round – across to the enticing ridges of the Serrella and Aitana massifs, prominent Puig Campana, and down to the coast, where the horrors of Benidorm were but a few miles away as the crow flies.

It was wonderful to be able to soak in the views for a few minutes, as well as get a preview of what was to come over the next few days. Coming down from the summit, we slipped through the gap to regain the northern side of the ridge and made our way down to the refuge by the Font dels Teixos spring where we stopped for lunch. Along with our first taste of the excellent sandwiches we were to enjoy the whole week, Jose magicked some “extras” from his seemingly bottomless rucksack, today in the form of olives.

Afterwards, on reaching a stony track, we skirted below the summit – a much more imposing proposition from this angle. Descending steadily through a mixed scrub of pine, cistus and gorse, we followed a series of narrow paths into and out of the Baranc del Xic ravine, meeting some of the very few other walkers we were to see all week along the way.

Then we wandered past more almond and olive terraces, with almond blossom all round, and rejoined our outward route along the correuero – the Postman’s Route – back to Castells, a little more tired, and a little more sunburnt than before, but happy. A great first walk showcasing what we had to look forward to over the next few days.

Dinner that evening was again both delicious and sizeable – starters of mixed salads, then a regional dish of baked rice with chickpeas, chicken, black pudding and tomatoes.

Tuesday 8th March 2011

Day 3: Castells to Beniarda – approx 7.82 miles

Route Summary:

Hotel (Castells) – El Castellet – Alto de Tronca – Barranc de la Canal – Barranc de les Mates – Mas de Gorges – Embassament de Guadalest - Beniarda


Today was a transfer day; the planned walk an exciting looking trip up to and along the dramatic Serrella ridge followed by a descent into the neighbouring Guadalest Valley. But an early look out of the window revealed low cloud and a steady rain – at the very least it appeared we would get precious few views today.

After the by now predictably generous breakfast, we piled our luggage in the foyer ready for collection and set off. As the group assembled outside there was a flurry of activity as waterproofs were pulled from the deepest of rucksack recesses and donned. Not only was it wet and misty, but pretty chilly, too. Suitably clad, we set off into the gloom, picking up a track leading towards the campground at El Castellet. Being somewhat unfit at present, I was happy to amble along near the back of the group, huffing and puffing my way up the steep bits.

It wasn’t long before the village was nestling some way below us, half hidden in the murk. As we rose higher, conditions gradually got worse. By the time we reached the first ridge a cold, buffeting wind had added a noticeable chill factor to proceedings, and visibility was down to just a few metres.

Somewhere around the 1,050m mark, in the lower reaches of the Barranc de la Canal, the decision was reached; we would not attempt the summit ridge today. It was a shame – judging by yesterday’s walk it should have been spectacular – but it was the right thing to do.

Looking for a lower route across the ridge we headed down “the canal” instead, following a steep path of loose, slippery rocks, past a sheepfold and into the steep-sided ravine of the Barranc de les Mates. Solid rock replaced the loose stuff underfoot providing a simple scramble down the gully. Part way down, a shallow cave presented a modicum of shelter from the rain, so we took the opportunity to stop for lunch.

At the bottom of the ravine, we picked up a descending path leading past more olive and almond trees. Ahead of us, somewhat worryingly, we could see the upper, north-facing slopes of Aitana – the target for tomorrow’s walk – pocked with old, lying snow. Hoping for better conditions, we descended to a tarmac road; the beginning of a longish stretch beside the reservoir of Embassament de Guadalest. Now, lower down, the rain had eased off a bit, although the mist still persisted.

The final stretch took us up into Beniarda, one of a number of villages scattered across the valley. Above us, to the east, the village and castle of El Castell de Guadalest, perched imposingly on a wonderfully defensible rocky crest, made for an imposing sight.

We put in at a small bar, a chance to rest and dry out little after a fairly uncomfortable day. As we sat in the bosom of the roaring range, the conflicting effects of coffee and Muscat wine on tired bodies vied for supremacy. Conversation waxed and waned.

Suitably refreshed, we moved next door to a small factory where local organic olive oil was pressed and bottled. Jose arranged for us to have a look around and explained how many producers and fruit-growers in the region are moving over to organic farming and the supply of high quality products. We bought a small bottle as a souvenir.

Finally, we met the minibus for the ten-minute transfer to Benimantell and our new hotel, the El Trestellador, where we soon settled in. Dinner was again copious and featured regional dishes – a scrambled-egg-and-onion mix and beautiful calamari for starters, then a chicken and rabbit pasta-like bake in a huge bowl. Even fourteen hungry hikers couldn’t polish it all off.

Wednesday 9th March 2011

Day 4: The Aitana Ridge – approx 8.66 miles

Route Summary:

Hotel (Benimantell) – Clot dels Teixos – Port de Tagarina – Penya Mulero – Avenc del Port – El Malpasset – Hotel (Benimantell)


Once again we awoke to low cloud and grey skies and the prospect of another day of poor weather. The rain in Spain may stay mainly in the plain, but this week it was having a go in the mountains, too. Our planned itinerary scheduled a walk along the highest, most dramatic section of the Aitana ridge, but conditions were such that we approached the day with a flexible outlook.

After the now-standard substantial breakfast, we left the hotel and began to climb steadily along the flanks of the Aitana massif. As we paused for a breather looking out across the valley, Jose told us about the lives of the people of the Guadalest valley, the paucity of water, the difficulty of growing fruit, and how the low incomes and hard work of farmers, compared to working on the coast, was drawing younger generations away.

At first, glimpses of the village were possible beneath the low cloud, and there was even a hint of sunshine away on the coast. But soon we were ensconced in a thick fog with visibility down to a few metres. Around 11.00am, we took a short snack break and considered our options. The high level route, which would involve a short scramble, did seem a trifle too ambitious for a day like this. So we chose a lower, easier section instead.

This whole region is an example of Mediterranean Alpine climate zone, where high mountains are situated close to the coast. This creates an unusual combination of weather conditions, as we were discovering. Climbing towards the ridge we took a short detour to visit a snow well, one of a number of quite sizeable dry-stone structures, each several metres across, built hundreds of years ago to store snow and ice that accumulates at these higher levels. This could then be quickly moved to the nearby coast and sold to preserve precious fish or cool the drinks of wealthy merchants.

Continuing upwards, we reached the pass at Port de Tagarina and turned east along the ridge. The views from up here are supposed to fantastic, but, to be honest, we could have been anywhere. Well, anywhere cold and wet, that is. The gale blowing past us had dropped the already cool temperature by several more degrees, so we hunkered into fleeces and waterproofs for the half-hour toddle along the crest, passing the day’s high point of 1,308m along the way.

At Penya Mulero, we dropped off the ridge down a narrow gully and, a few minutes later we found a sheltered spot for lunch at the junction of tracks; time for another excellent sandwich, hearty enough to help warm us up. Once on the move again, we dropped below the cloud base to find the best conditions of the day. It wasn’t exactly warm, but there was a smidgin of sunshine in the valley and across the slopes opposite – with any luck heralding brighter weather for tomorrow.

Because of the shorter than expected walk we arrived back at the hotel a little early, leaving plenty of time for rest and reading, or, as some did, a visit to the touristy village of Guadalest. Dinner featured soup followed by chicken, fries and a dish like a local version of ratatouille. Over coffee, we held an impromptu Spanish Tat contest comparing the worst “gifts” purchased for under €2. Amongst stiff competition – such as flamenco dancer snow globes, a “Benidorm” shot-glass, and a brace of smutty key rings – a winner emerged; a particularly ugly, unglazed ashtray with a surprised-looking clown decoration …….

Thursday 10th March 2011

Day 5: Benimantell to Sella – approx 12.60 miles

Route Summary:

Hotel (Benimantell) – Eastern end of Aitana Ridge – Hotel (Sella)


Just when we thought all the bright, clear pictures of the area had been cleverly photo-shopped, the sun came out! This boded well, as today was a transfer walk day round to the next valley. Keeping to lower level paths with easier gradients, and only reaching around the 1,000m mark, we were looking forward to a day of clear weather and good views. With breakfast taken and bags packed, we said goodbye to the El Trestellador.

The first stretch led in a south westerly direction, contouring the hillside along the road. Although not hot, it felt great to have some decent weather again. After a while, we branched off on to tracks and paths as we worked our way steadily towards the base of the distinct cliffs near Penyo Roc. Away to our right, a remnant of low cloud obscured the Aitana summit, but to our left were stunning views across the Guadalest valley and to the coast beyond.

After an hour or so, we picked up and narrow path – one of the prettiest so far – leading through the ubiquitous mixed vegetation of pine, cistus and gorse as we came ever-closer to the cliffs. Still working our way around the eastern end of the mountain, our route was now swinging more towards the south. At least, in sheltered spots, it was nice and warm, and the strong coconut scent of gorse filled the air as we brushed past.

As the path reached the base of the cliffs, we zig-zagged up to a little pass and stopped for elevenses. Above us, dozens of Choughs wheeled in the air, and there was a possible Perigrine Falcon sighting. Looking back, we could see our path skirting the base of the cliffs, and it was a fine, airy perch for views across the valley.

Continuing, the path contoured round the hill a little further before switchbacking up a short gully to bring us to the entrance of a flat-bottomed hanging valley. A peculiarity of this area, these plateaux were often cultivated for growing fruit or crops. Crossing the valley we passed a couple of tumbled-down cottages. It perhaps comes as no surprise; these are quite remote and difficult to access places, quite a way from any proper roads or modern facilities. On a day like today it would be easy to imagine them providing a wonderful get-away-from-it-all retreat once renovated, but you’d feel a long way from anywhere in bad weather.

Now, with jagged peaks and rocky spires all around us, we picked up a wide track leading into the Sella valley, passing a recently renovated house, no longer in use, and a Buddhist retreat, all rustic and quaint, as we went. Soon, a gap opened up between the hills to our left revealing the target for Saturday’s walk, Puig Campana, with its distinctive “notch”. It looked rather steep.

Shortly afterwards, we stopped for lunch by a spring – time to enjoy the obligatory large sandwich along with a “treat” from Jose’s rucksack. So far, this miniature bag of miracles had produced olives, chocolate, pickled chillies, gherkins, oranges, salted nuts, sausage, black pudding, and marzipan fancies.

Then it was back to the track for the gradual descent into the valley, with low summits and rocky ridges all round. Near the Refugi Font de L’Arc, climbers could be seen hanging precariously from the cliffs – nobody felt too inclined to join them.

Just beyond the refuge, we hit the tarmac for the final hour-or-so into Sella, the peaks still soaring either side of the heavily terraced valley. As the afternoon wore on, the weather had slowly started to deteriorate, becoming more and more hazy. Now, looking back, we could see cloud beginning to fringe the tops once more. As we approached the village, we took a left hand fork to take us to our base for the next three days – the farmhouse L’Hort de Gloria.

Across the valley, Jose pointed out the village, stacked on the opposite hillside, with its hilltop shrine and his own house away to the left. He explained how this valley, with its orange, lemon, olive and almond trees, had also moved over to organic production to command a better price – and a higher income – for its hard-pressed farmers. For me, one of the highlights of the holiday has been discovering just how rural the life and economy of these villages is, especially when compared to that of the coast, less that half an hour away by car.

The farmhouse/hotel we are staying at seems to be a bit of a hippy pad, with a very relaxed and trusting atmosphere. The bar was, basically, an honesty box! We settled in and (after an initial scramble for the bathrooms) had a wash and brush-up, and settled down by the fire in the communal lounge. Dinner was, if anything, more delicious and more copious than before – soup and pizza to start, followed by fish, potatoes, vegetables, ratatouille and salad, plus desert. Afterwards, we had coffee and read or played games in the lounge.

Friday 11th March 2011

Day 6: Sella – approx 5.00 miles

Route Summary:

Hotel (Sella) – Exploring the village – Hotel (Sella)


Today was officially our free day. There were plenty of activities on offer – from lounging around or visiting the chocolate factory to climbing and kayaking – but, because once again we had woken to low cloud and drizzle, most people either opted to visit the coast or stay local and explore the village. We chose the latter, so had a more leisurely breakfast whilst the sea-siders were rushing to get the coach.

From the hotel, we took a little dirt path down into the valley, past the water mills (one current and working, one remains only and disused) and up into the village. There was a hint of drizzle in the air as we crossed the main road and got lucky finding the main street.

One reason for Sella’s local importance is that two streams run through it, converging just below the village near the water mills. Water is a very important resource around here, and rationing is a way of life. In fact it is so scarce and so important that each farm has an allocated share as part of the deeds. Water is channelled through the village and split, by a complex system of stone troughs and channels (such as the one below) to the various properties.

Moving on, we wound our way up the hill through the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys, stopping to buy some supplies in a small shop. We were aiming for the shrine at the top of the hill, so kept picking a way that led upwards through the maze.

It was easy enough to get lost: we didn’t find the market; others we spoke to didn’t find the main street. But we threaded our way upwards bit by bit, finding our way more by luck than judgement. Nearer to the top, our progress was counted-down by the Stations of the Cross. We reached the shrine only to find it closed: no problem – the views were good even if many summits were hidden by low cloud.

Ambling back down, we could see right over village and admired the complex pattern of roofs, patios and towers. We decided it was time for a drink and a bite of lunch, so we sought out a recommended café – Isa y Toni – and took refuge inside from the rain. Over coffee and tapas (meatballs and pork stew) we heard the awful news of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

After lunch, we followed the road out of the village along the valley towards the Font de L’Acantera and the little bridge that crossed the stream. From time to time we passed the wreck of a car or caravan in the gulch below us, a reminder, if one was needed, that driving these roads can be a hazardous occupation.

From the bridge, we took a path along the bottom of the valley, from where we could see better how the terracing and irrigation worked to benefit the fruit production. Then it was just a short walk along the road back to the hotel, where we spent a relaxing afternoon resting and reading. Because today was the free day, dinner was optional so people could make their own arrangements. Although the group split up for the day, the food at L’Hort de Gloria was so good everyone decided to eat there again at night. After a mountain of mouth-watering tapas had been served, an enormous dish of paella arrived – enough for fourteen, plus seconds. We tried so hard to do it justice …….

Saturday 12th March 2011

Day 7: Sella Valley – approx 9.88 miles

Route Summary:

Rifugi Font de L’Arc – La Foya Roja – Collado Blanc – Foothills – Mas de Sanxet de Baix – Valley – Rifugi Font de L’Arc


So, at the end of a pretty soggy week, you’d imagine our last day – our crowning glory – would be a successful ascent of Puig Campana in glorious sunshine, right? Wrong! Saturday dawned wetter than ever – it was tipping it down.

This area is reckoned to have the most benign climate in Europe, with over 300 days of sunshine per year. Well, that leaves 60-odd days during which it can rain, so all I can say is that after this week, some future visitor’s odds of great weather have significantly improved!

Adjudging the planned steep ascent to be unwise in such conditions, Jose offered instead a winding walk amongst the foothills of La Moleta, Tossal de Retor and Penyo Cabal. We followed a track from the Refugi Font de L’Arc, passing the climbing area once more before taking a higher-level track into the hills.

As we gained height, we could see glimpses of the valley between the swirling clouds and rain. Where the track levelled out we came upon a farmhouse – even here, in rural Spain, recognised as such by the telltale detritus of broken-down vehicles. Our route cut across some terracing to reach the top of a narrow gully.

A well-made path zig-zagged into the gloom. It was a pity visibility was so poor – this was a great section of path, enjoyable enough even in such conditions. Apparently, it was an important mule track from the mountains to the coast, and was well guarded at defensible points such as this.

At the bottom of the ravine, we contoured round the hillside for a few minutes on a narrow path. We reached a well near another dilapidated house. Here we stopped for a quick snack, whereupon Jose rustled up an entire almond cake from the depths of his rucksack, slices of which were doled out to accompany our pain-au-chocolat. At least, if the weather was not good, the snacks were.

Then we hit the track again, rising steadily all the time. The cloud was trying to lift, pinnacles of rock appearing out of the gloom as we walked on. A short while later, after veering off at a junction of paths, we reached our lunch stop at a disused farmstead, La Carresca. In a moment of good fortune, the weather relented slightly and we were able to enjoy our al fresco lunch in the relative dry, looking up at the surrounding low, rocky summits.

After lunch (short stop, large baguette) we made our way back to the junction of paths and began our return route along a series of tracks sticky underfoot with a particularly adhesive, pale grey clay. Ahead, the lower slopes of Puig Campana put in a brief appearance.

Finally, we picked up our outward route again as we wandered along the valley to the climber’s refuge at Font de L’Arcs.

Later that evening, we all enjoyed another mammoth meal of soup, garlic bread, steak and salads – a fitting spread for our farewell dinner. It had been an easy-going group of roughly equal walking ability, and, despite the wet weather, we had all had a good time and got on well together, both during the walks and through evenings of easy-going banter and literary discussion. Even waking on the morning of our departure to sunny skies and warm temperatures couldn’t spoil the holiday. After a great week of walking, chatting and good company, I think we were all sad at the prospect of leaving.

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