We were happy that we had taken the photos of the posters describing the driving route through the Sierra de Grazalema National Park, because we looked up the limited information in our guidebook and it was pretty clear that we would have missed seeing this amazing part of Andalucía if we hadn’t been alerted to it. I had read about Arcos de la Frontera and it sounded wonderful, but Anil was looking at all the driving he would have to do north of Seville and felt we should make our way straight there, stay the night and head into the province of Extremadura well rested.
In 1977, UNESCO declared the area around the mountain range, Sierra de Grazalema, a ‘Biosphere Reserve’ due to the exceptional variety of its flora and fauna. Several beautiful towns and villages are enveloped by the nature park, and while we wouldn’t be able to see them all, we would be able to see Grazalema, Zahara de la Sierra, Algodonales and drive over the Puerto Las Palomas (Dove’s Pass). The road would take us to Arcos de la Frontera and we would end up in Jerez de la Frontera for the night. Despite what we had read, we had no idea what we were in for; scenery to remained etched in our minds forever.
As we drove along the narrow winding highway, we kept seeing signs warning us of cyclists on the road. I’m glad for the warnings, because there were no shoulders along the edges and we would come upon the riders often as we rounded the tight corners. We kept talking about how much our cycling friends Rocco and Linda D’Ilio would love exploring this region on their bikes.
We had seen our first Andalusian ‘pueblo blanco’ (white village) on the road from Algeciras to Ronda, but we still weren’t prepared for the beauty of tiny Grazalema, nestled below a huge tower of natural granite. I’m not sure that my photos do the town justice, but they will always serve to remind us of this special place. As we entered the narrow streets of the town, we came upon a small group of seniors dressed head to toe in what looked to me like Mountain Equipment Co-op gear. Several of them had walking sticks and they looked like seasoned hikers.
We parked the car and walked through the quiet streets to the town square. There wasn’t much happening there, but I did notice a unique series of water taps at the fountain and when the sign indicated that the water was potable, I stopped to fill up my drinking bottle. We returned to our car and I snapped some photos of the homes and shops along the way. As we drove out of town, the narrow road took us above the tiled roofs and we were struck by the beauty of the scene below us. Many of the rooflines were trimmed with tiles painted white. I have never seen this before or since.
After leaving Grazalema, the road climbed and climbed and it was clear that not a lot of traffic passes this way. It’s a perfect place for hikers, beautiful vistas, rock and trees in all directions and birds soaring overhead. We finally reached the highest point in the region and paused to admire the views from Puerto Las Palomas (Dove’s Pass – 1331m) and the massive lake off in the distance. We began to descend on an even more winding road and I was startled to see that at one point, the road made an almost complete 360 degree turn, looping back on itself and dropping precipitously as it did so.
At last we reached the lake and found the village of Zahara rising above us. I didn’t think it was possible to find a village more beautiful than Grazalema, but we did. A 12th century castle keep is perched above the town, which has impossibly narrow streets and two beautiful churches near the central square. When we passed a series of tables nestled under some trees on the square, we decided to stop for lunch and join the other visitors sitting in the afternoon sun. The meal was fabulous, and once again, we were able to include a glass of red wine with our ‘menu del dia’.
We would have liked to linger here a little longer but we knew we had to carry on to Arcos de la Frontera. Our guidebook described the old town there as a delight to get lost in, situated on a high, unassailable ridge, with sheer precipices falling away on both sides. We found the winding streets in the sprawling new town so difficult to navigate, (for some reason there didn’t seem to be any signs pointing to ‘centro de ciudad’), that we almost gave up and turned towards Jerez. True to form, I insisted that we persist, and with great difficulty we finally found our way up to the citadel.
We had to pass through a narrow gate, so narrow that we had to tuck the rearview mirrors in against the car, and then on into lanes just as narrow. It was more than a little claustrophobic in a small car and we knew immediately that we shouldn’t even be there except on foot. We headed for the first gate out, drove down into the bottom of the gorge and took some photos of the buildings sitting on the brink of the rock face. If this had been our first visit to a ‘pueblos blancos’, it would have been more memorable, but we had seen others with more charm so we decided to make our visit short and head on to Jerez de la Frontera, our stop for the night.