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The Canyons of La Mancha

January 25th

La Mancha - Castille, Los Canyones Del Jucar

An afternoon's contemplation and a disturbed night.

We are heading for a popular natural area, a tourist attraction set in a beautiful gorge setting. Heading up the narrow road on the left side of the gorge we pass open lands of tidy, well tended olive and almond groves, each defined with a small hut. The road starts to descend into woodland and as we stop at a Mirador an incredible landscape opens up before us. High cliffed and steep sided the ravine twists and turns away into the distance. Along it’s flank a pathway clings to the rock, just visible in the strong sunlight.

We headed back to the end of the gorge (the lowest end) and pass through a scruffy seemingly deserted hamlet. Eventually we find a scraping of land and notice board. The lack of people is surprising because this gorge seems to be a widely acknowledged tourist spot (according to Dorling Kindersley anyway)

We headed up a track to meet the walkway - an elevated path that followed the gorge who knew where. The air was hot with the scent of thyme and rosemary, the smell almost astringent as we brushed through the plants. The sun was too hot for the first time since arriving in Spain and we removed layers, revealing our white northern skin.

In the valley below we looked down on tiny olive groves each with a house, very neat and tidy, sometimes with a pool, green and not yet ready for the summer. At some time people would return to enjoy these places and sit in the deep, cool shade of the gorge, but not today. Several hours had now passed without us seeing a single person or car, near or far.

As we climb higher we see evidence of a busy industrial past. The path follows the line of the ravine, passes through tunnels, arches and skirts areas of concrete and numerous tumble down buildings. Structures perched high on the mountain side in ruins some with concrete columns, the internal reinforcement exposed and rusting. It looks as though there was a series of chutes and pipes in place for electricity production, a basic but hugely ambitious scheme in this landscape, dating perhaps from the time of Franco. We find a huge covered well set deep in the mountain side, about 5 metres in diameter. We marvel at the manpower that must have been utilised to make this happen.

We round a corner and are surprised by the cliffs before us. Deep orange in colour and towering sheer and so high. We aim our cameras but cannot get the height and gigantic scale into the screen. There is plenty of rock fall around but thankfully the path is mostly cut into the base of the cliff, where rock fall would overshoot. We see two types of hawk wheeling around above us, a kestrel and another more powerful bird we can’t identify. The cliffs are endless and terrifying in their height. Eventually the path dwindles and due to the rock falls, becomes largely impassable. The shadows have lengthened and we head back the way we came, keen to pass tracks that pass close to the cliff edge before twilight. Spooked by the emptiness and silence, we make conversation to fill the void. We are watched in our progress by a group of Ibex, perched high on a rock outcrop.

We stay the night in the little car park with the information sign, and spend a wakeful night disturbed by the isolation, haunted by the ghosts of the past.

Alcala del Jucar

The next day we drive to the town at the far head of the gorge Alcala de Jucar, passing swathes of empty plateaus on the way. The castle was well worth a visit, just a few euros to get in. We are learning that in Spain almost very hill top has a castle on it, with a story of conquest and reconquest, Muslim and Christian, usually at war but sometimes as allies. This town is also famous for troglodyte dwellings. At the time our sometimes admittedly aged guide books were written, these were still in genuine occupation. Now there are a few open to see inside, run as tourist businesses by the owners.

We finish the day on the bikes travelling back into the gorge where we had walked the day before.

The air smells of dust and herbs as soon as we leave Alcala del Jucar. Rosemary filled our nostrils occasionally replaced with cold pine as we entered a stretch of shady woodland. In the next village the scent disappeared. Lazy cats lay in the sun by the side of the road, or sat blinking and flicking their thin tales.

The end of the track brought us to a power station. The damned river was channelled into a wide canal which went through turbines and under concrete chutes. Huge generators converted the power and the air hummed. We turn back and cross a bridge to the other shadier side, but we find the lack of sunlight too cold. We returned to the dusty road breathing the herby pathway back to Alcala.

We could have ridden this as a VTT (in Spain BTT) if we had carried on up the gorge to the next village, returning high along the escarpment above us to Alcala.

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