Nuria (owner of the apartment) belongs to a walking group, and she extended an invitation to participate in what she understood was to be a gentle 15 km country walk in forested country side. A walk in the countryside with a bus load of Spaniards sounded like a brilliant idea. Its the sort of experience you only get when you connect with a local.
Sunrise is not until 8.15am, so it meant getting up in the dark at 7.00am to catch the bus from a park 1.5 km away. It was bitterly cold, and the three layers of woollen clothing, a windbreaker, beanie, scarf, gloves, woollen socks, hiking boots and jeans barely kept the chill at bay. The streets were dark and quiet, except for Nuria nattering away merrily.
It was easy to find the group – from the noise – they were all conversing at the tops of their voices! There was so much interest in the walk, 115 people had signed up and two busses were required. People were decked out in their flashy walking clothes, hiking boots, poles and backpacks, and it seemed that everyone had to greet everyone. Surprisingly we left on time…and the volume of the conversations continued unabated for the 75 minute journey to Alcantara.
Its harsh country. Occasionally sheep and cattle could be seen grazing in dry stone walled fields. Kilometres and kilometres of these walls, every stone placed by hand, the stones taken from the land out of which broken slate or granite outcrops rear. In some places, the landscape was dotted with irregular rows of small round-crowned trees, mostly olives but also oak, planted hundreds of years ago. Crumbling isolated fincas (farmhouses) stand abandoned, the new homes’ orange tiled roofs and white walls a stark contrast to the drab olive- and grey-green of the landscape.
Alcantara is a mere 15 km from the border with Portugal. Arrival in the tiny town plaza meant the two coffee shops had to go into overdrive: everyone needed coffee and madalenas, or hot chocolate and churros before starting the walk. Serving everyone took about three quarters of an hour before we could head off…after the group photo moments. And everyone talking at the tops of their voices.
The walk began easily enough, and we stopped outside a traditional thatched and stone round shepherd’s hut to pose for photos. We headed off again…everyone still conversing volubly. The road rapidly grew steeper and the group spread out up the side of the mountain, with the ‘walk fascists’ (Nuria’s definition) in the front and the slower amblers to the rear. We were sort of in the middle. Next thing we’re all heading off down a rugged goat track to view a cave with paleolithic signs and symbols in it – only discovered in 1980. The last part of the ascent required rock scrambling. Again, more photo opportunities and a big squeeze to listen to the guide explain everything (with everyone telling everyone else to be quiet), before heading back along the goat track, down the mountain and up along another trail.
This is where things started to come undone. The front walkers, of which we were now part, headed off along a ‘shortcut’, but didn’t leave anyone at the point where the trail split to tell the slower walkers the way to go. The further along the trail we walked, the more side trails emerged and the more opportunities for people to head off in all directions.
Aside from people scattered all over the mountainside, it was fascinating to see considerable stands of eucalyptus everywhere. Some had been planted, evidenced by the trees being in rows. The rest had simply spread. Gum trees are regarded as an invasive weed here.
The group of which we were a part became more spread along the trail, until the only way we knew we were on the right track was the occasional sighting of a brightly coloured jacket in the distance. We’d been walking for three and a half hours, getting occasional glimpses of the village below, when the trail reached a mirodor (a roofed ‘looking place’ with some coarse benches) and turned up the hill and away from the village. There was no one in sight. Then we spotted a brightly coloured jacket move between two stone walls down the side of the hill. Path or no path, that was the way we decided to go. After a short way, we found a trail – barely visible and ancient – judging by the stone walls on either side. It was a rough decent, and the next challenge was going to be to find the plaza. Actually, that was the easy bit – follow the noise!
Many people had arrived ahead of us, having taken a down trail early in the piece, so they didn’t do the full walk. A further 45 minutes passed before everyone made it to the plaza…wanting a beer! The bars were flat out again and everyone was still talking…which continued all the way back to Caceres. Then everyone had to say goodbye to everyone else.
And what was there to look forward to at the end of this very long day? An uphill walk concluding with a four-storey stair climb!