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We’ve been to Spain several times including twice driving across the middle from the Pyrenees to Portugal. Although there is plenty of plain for the occasional rain to mainly fall on, much of inland Spain has spectacular scenery with jagged mountains, deep gorges, badlands like those in South Dakota and small conical volcanic hills. The Spanish look after their natural parks very well. Hiking trails are generally well-signed (at the start) and there is plenty of visitor information. The temperature high up in the mountains is very pleasant in summer and it doesn’t rain much, just enough to enable alpine plants to flower even in February.
Also in February fields of pink or white almond blossom flourish in the valleys and high plateaus between the mountains. Further down on the odd areas of cultivable land are huge orange groves which are laden with fruit at this time. It’s sunny and about 20C every day. It was definitely time for a visit to Spain.
Almond blossom on high plateau
So we booked a week at the Holiday Property Bond site at Alfaix in Almeria in early February 2022. It’s a lovely site about 12 km inland from Mojacar and facing the Sierra Cabrera mountains. The HPB properties are always well-equipped with a full kitchen for those who want to cook. This time we had a studio which was plenty big enough for two. You definitely need a car there.
Gebas and the Sierra Espuña
In winter the nearest airport for Alfaix is Alicante, some 210 km away by the A7 motorway. It seemed a shame to go for only a week and so I checked out the flight times for Jet2 from Leeds, avoiding a 7am flight, and looked at the map. I found the Sierra Espuña Natural Park not far off the A7 between Murcia and Lorca. Booking.com turned up the Hotel La Mariposa (the “Butterfly”) in the village of Gebas on the east side of the park.
La Mariposa was a simple clean hotel run by a Brit Tom and his Peruvian wife who also do adventure tours in the area. We stayed there three nights and were very well looked after. The nights were quite chilly but our room was well-heated. We had an excellent dinner of imaginative salads and huge portions of fish there for two nights, after looking at the menu via a QR code.
The restaurant at La Mariposa was closed on the third night and Tom sent us 12 km to Abadia a kind of pub restaurant in the nearest town Alhama de Murcia. This was definitely a local place as we had to wait over a drink until 7.30 for the kitchen to open. There we had to use another QR code to get the menu and ate an excellent and cheap meal of salads followed by pork or chicken in sauce with saute potatoes, plus sparkling water. Everyone in Alhama was wearing a mask, even outside in the street.
For our first full day Tom suggested driving to El Berro a village higher up in the mountains. He said it was possible to walk down to Gebas and there would be time for somebody (i.e. Martin) to walk back up to collect the car. After picking up picnic food in El Berro we set off down a pleasant track past some orange trees and through scrub and bushes – it was very dry indeed. We ate our picnic surrounded by rosemary bushes in flower. We came to a field of almond trees which were all in bloom and took what appeared to be the obvious route on the left. After a while the path deteriorated. We reached a house where the owner who did not speak English pointed out a route and kept mentioning a tunnel (tunel in Spanish).
After about twenty minutes from the house we found ourselves in the rambla (dried up river bed) whereas the map showed the path higher up on the opposite side of the river from the house. We realised we had gone wrong and by then it was 3 pm. We went back to the house and I sat on their steps admiring all the oranges on their tree while Martin walked back up to El Berro for the car which he could only drive part of the way down the steep track to the house.
Orange tree near Gebas
Back at La Mariposa we got talking to an Irish couple staying there – they had gone wrong on this walk in exactly the same place. We should have gone round the right hand side of the almond trees where there was a stone irrigation channel.
For day two Tom suggested going to see the remains of the pozos de nieve high up in the sierra at 1300m. Literally meaning “snow pits” these are conical structures covering deep pits which were filled with snow by the locals from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Pozo de nieve (snow pit)
The snow compacted down into ice which they took down to their villages for preserving food. Transporting the ice must have been quite a challenge in this rocky and often steep wooded terrain.
A couple of the pozos have been reconstructed and Martin went down a metal staircase into one of them.
Inside a pozo de nieve
Later that day Martin walked up from Gebas towards El Berro and found the route we should have taken including the tunnel.
Tunnel on the walk from El Berro to Gebas
We went over the mountains again on our way to Alfaix, stopping at the park visitor centre which had excellent displays and was staffed by two very helpful rangers. Martin went on a short walk and saw a fox (the only wild animal we saw on the trip) and found a cafe which was open. We headed straight there and had some excellent tapas for lunch.
Mojacar and Garrucha
Our first full day at Alfaix was rather quiet. It was just nice to eat lunch on our terrace. In the afternoon we drove down to Mojacar which is definitely a rather upmarket tourist area and then along the sea front to Garrucha which is more of a local area. There we watched gypsum being loaded into a large ship by five vehicles which initially looked rather like cranes which dropped their tops to transfer the gypsum from a conveyor belt into the cargo area of the ship. It did not seem to be a very efficient way of loading the ship but this method would prevent the gypsum from being blown about everywhere.
Loading gypsum at Garrucha
For days we saw many gypsum trucks on their way to and fro between their source near Sorbas and the ship.
Cabo de Gata
This is one of our favourite places within an easy day trip from Alfaix. It’s another Natural Park with plenty of strange volcanic rock formations and a headland jutting out into the Mediterranean. You get there from Alfaix by first going southwest on the A7 motorway then driving through a sea of plastic greenhouses. You then cross some small hills by the coast to get to the three sandy beaches in the park past the village of San Jose. Our favourite is Playa Monsul reached by a 7km gravel road. It being a Saturday we wondered if the beach would be busy but there were very few other people there, all locals.
It was bright sunshine but with a slightly chilly wind in the more exposed areas. We found a sheltered place to eat our picnic on the beach watching a dog chasing a ball thrown by a girl wearing a bikini. I was still wearing my jacket. We did the short walk to Half Moon Beach which was almost deserted.
There’s a track up to the top of the headland but you can only drive up to it from the other side which is quite a long way round. Instead we took a different route back over the mountains north to Carboneras, a town which does its best to look presentable even though it is dominated by a huge cement works with a tall chimney visible from miles away.
I was curious about the name Cabo de Gata. Cabo is a cape or promontory and gata is the Spanish for a female cat. With the help of google I found that it was originally known as Cabo de Agatas, taking its name from agate which was mined there.
The HPB site at Alfaix faces the Sierra Cabrera a range of jagged mountains directly between Alfaix and the sea. In our previous visits we had driven up there passing through the pleasant village of Cortijo Grande. The map showed a tarmac road down the other side to the village of Sopalmo and we decided to try to find this route down. The narrow twisty route up took us above the trees with stupendous views.
At the top we found that the road down to the sea was gravel and was not suitable for a rental car. There was another route and better road down to the Alfaix side through the rather curious village of Cortijo Cabrera. This consists of a number of very large houses built in Spanish style very high up on the hillside. It seemed fairly deserted but a few cars were parked there. I wondered if this village had become a white elephant. A quick google search turned up a 5 bedroom, 4 bathroom villa with a large pool and several living rooms and terraces for sale for 475,000 euros.
Lubrin and over the Sierra de Los Filabres
The next day we drove up to Lubrin on the eastern edge of the Sierra de los Filabres. This village is dominated by a large 19th century church which was closed.
View of Lubrin
It is a typical Spanish village with houses in little alleyways, plenty of which had geraniums in pots all along the walls.
Geraniums on walls in Lubrin
In contrast to the many deserted small villages we passed, real people, not just tourists or second home owners, appeared to be living in Lubrin. We avoided the tower on a hill above the village which has a rather dicey looking handrail on the path up to it. Apparently there is evidence that Neanderthal man settled in the region some 100,000 years ago.
After Lubrin we drove round the mountains for some way. There was a plateau higher up with plenty of almond trees which were the best we saw.
The best almond tree we found
We achieved our aim which was to drive to the village of Albanchez and then over the Puerto de la Virgen pass which is at 1074m (300m lower than the pozos) then down to the village of Uleila del Campo. Once we were over the pass the route down was easier as it just followed the side of a mountain. We were then on flat agricultural land close to the area where the spaghetti westerns were filmed. It didn’t take long to get back to Alfaix.
HPB provides a walk pack for all their properties. Before we left home we downloaded the entire pack for Alfaix. It was time to try one of them. We attempted to do a circular walk around the base of a conical hill on the top of which sits the Ermita de la Virgen de la Cabeza. This is a short drive from Alfaix and just south of Antas. The car park was in a large “area recreativa” complete with picnic tables, swings and plenty of shade. It was completely empty.
We set off down the track from there but found the gate closed where we were supposed to turn off past a farmhouse. Not to be thwarted we continue down the main track and took a detour round the edges of a field of spinach and then navigated our way through a number of plastic greenhouses. This led to a track through orange groves which were laden with fruit.
We were back on the route and walked back to the car first along a quiet main road, then a side road up to the area recreativa, all past more orange groves. When we got home we found we had used an earlier version of the walk pack. The later one no longer includes this walk.
Our second walk was more successful. We parked beside a large tower at Playa de Macenas and walked along a track by the sea to the Torre del Piruculo, a round tower perched on a rock by the sea. You can go up some steps on the rock and then climb a metal ladder to go inside the tower. I declined but Martin went up to the top of the tower where there were fine views.
Torre del Piriculo near Mojacar
This was our hottest day. We walked further along the track looking up at a big house perched on top of another conical hill right by the sea. Some plants with tiny pink and yellow flowers were growing by the side of the track. Thanks to my brother-in-law these were identified as campion (the pink one) and medicago marina. I decided to walk back but Martin went further, took a side path up away from the sea to an “observatorio” and then a track and path down to Macenas.
View from the Torre del Piriculo
The Macenas Tower was built as a watchtower in the 18th century. There is plenty of parking space near it but little shade and nowhere to sit down unless you own one of the many camper vans parked there.
To satisfy our curiosity we drove south on the main road to Carboneras and looked for the other end of the Sierra Cabrera route in Sopalmo but could not see any evidence of it. The main road then goes over the mountains and descends to another beach Playa del Algarobbico which is dominated by a huge unfinished hotel. There is no other habitation there and the hotel did not look any different from when we went there in 2012. Building work had apparently been started in 2003.
How to spoil a beach: building site unchanged since 2012
A lady was singing opera arias on the beach. I have a dim recollection that she was there in 2012.
Practicalities: Travel and Entry to Spain
The flight to Alicante on Jet2 from Leeds takes only 2 hours 15 minutes. Leeds is a very convenient airport for us but, to be frank, it is an embarrassment. Jet2 now have a checkin area of their own which was very efficient but it took the best part of an hour to get to security which is very cramped and has nowhere near enough scanners. There are no jetways for tourism flights and so you have to walk out to the plane at what is the highest airport in England (at 208m elevation) in wind and rain. There are plans for a new terminal but these have been held up by various planning disputes, but even then the plans do not show any jetways.
When we arrived in Alicante (at a jetway), we found a clean, light and airy new airport with plenty of space and food options. Our passports were stamped with a large stamp. We got another similar one when we left Spain. Holders of British passports are now only allowed to spend 90 days in any 180 day period within the EU and Schengen countries, which means an end to long road trips and quite possibly shortening the life of my burgundy passport which is now over half full.
We easily dealt with all the Covid paperwork by uploading our documents to an app on Jet2 which also held our boarding passes. The Spanish authorities checked the pass and scanned its QR code again when we arrived. For our return to the UK we only had to fill in the online passenger locator form as we came back after all the entry restrictions had been removed.
Practicalities: Getting About
We rented a small car from Sixt. The agent told us that we would need an international driving permit to drive in Spain after the end of February, but according to gov.uk and the Spanish embassy website, this only applies to permanent residents, not tourists. Our car was a Corsa, ideal for driving round mountain roads on tarmac. The main roads are good with light traffic except when we got near Alicante on our way home. Finding somewhere to park was never a problem and we did not have to pay to park anywhere.
The road signs are mostly good except perhaps if you want to drive over the Sierra Cabrera. Before we left home we downloaded a map of Spain into our satnav which was very accurate. We bought a detailed hiking map of Sierra Espuña at La Mariposa and took with us some detailed maps of the Alfaix and Mojacar areas bought for our earlier stays there.
The food was very good indeed. We ate very well in the restaurant at La Mariposa in Gebas and had another good meal on our last night in a restaurant by the sea at Mojacar where we were the only customers. The Spanish do eat rather late (lunch is between 1 and 3pm), but for hungry Brits things have improved since our first road trip in Spain in 1973 when we could not find any restaurant serving food before 9pm.
Buying our own food at a Mercadona supermarket was a real treat. The have a big fish counter where the fish are very fresh indeed and larger than the ones in the fish counters in UK supermarkets. We cooked sea bream on two evenings, just adding olive oil, garlic and thyme, and lemons from the trees on the HPB site. The fresh vegetables, salads and fruit were much better than ours, but I suppose they don’t have to travel so far. The choice of ham and deli meat is amazing and we’re also fond of Spanish cheese. There was no problem in making up a picnic lunch. Also, homesick Brits will now find Lidl and Aldi in Spain where they look very similar to their British stores.
Covid and Masks
Almost everyone, except some tourists, was wearing a mask outdoors as well as indoors, unless they were seated at a table. I didn’t see a single person without a mask in our several visits to different Mercadona stores. All the staff at the HPB site were masked and mask-wearing was strictly enforced in the Alicante airport. Most people on the plane wore their masks correctly over their noses and mouths, but not the person sitting next to me on the way back who was also coughing a little. He only put his mask over his nose for about 10 minutes when he was asked to do so. Fortunately I didn’t catch anything from him.
We’ll Surely Go Again
All in all we had a very good holiday. The weather was mostly sunny, but a little chilly high up in the mountains and at night. Everything worked fine except for our attempt to drive over the Sierra Cabrera, going wrong on the El Berro to Gebas walk and the small glitch in our first Alfaix walk when at least we didn’t have to detour a long way. The scenery inland is magnificent and well-worth seeing. The HPB site at Alfaix is beautifully laid out and is in a good location for our interests. There’s definitely a lot more to Spain than beaches. We’ll surely go again.
Picture Gallery for There’s More to Spain than Beaches
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