The Sierra Subbetica is a series of steep limestone mountains, stretching for miles across the heart of Andalusia and so high that when you are perched upon their tops you feel that you can reach out and touch the wispy clouds streaked above.
We appreciated their height precisely because of a slip up with our sat-nav….
Leaving the main road and intending to drive the ‘scenic route’ (which is universal driving code for a road that is going to terrify you with hair pin bends at altitude) ‘snopper’ our three-year-old navigational system instead put us on a dusty single track lane from which we couldn’t turn back.
Duly driving up and through endless olive groves and then around, and indeed over, the top of the sierra we were waved at by bemused labourers upon our relieved descent.
The workers were putting down vast quantities of lime around the roots of the thousands upon thousands of squat olive trees and burning old branches in careful bonfires by the side of the track.
The air was thick with white dust and sweet-smelling from the burnt wood. We were grateful to finally emerge into the narrow streets of the pretty white-washed town of Dona Mencia in the foothills of the Sierra Subbetica national park.
We were there to cycle the ‘Greenway Subbetica’ which follows the old railway line taken by the ‘Tren del Aciete’ – the old oil train.
The route runs for nearly 60 kilometers through the elevated landscape and alongside hillside towns, cliff-edge castles, olive groves and thirteen former railway stations.
For two days we enjoyed pedalling and puffing along its trail, spotting wild birds, herds of sheep with young lambs and cheeky goats.
Talking to locals and the staff at La Lantina bodega where we were camped, we learnt that the train had been in action until the mid-1930s. The railway line was intended to transport olive oil from the mountains to the ports at Malaga and Algeciras, although it also carried passengers. Its construction was in several phases beginning in 1879 and ending in 1893.
Spain produces half of the world’s total tonnage of olive oil, with an average annual production of a mind boggling 1.75 million tons.
This is twice as much as Italy and four times as much as Greece. Andalusia produces most of this production, hence the infinite sea of olive groves that is spread across the tops of its countryside. To imagine the amount, consider 400 Olympic size swimming pools filled with the precious oil!
From Dona Mencia we had a leisurely pedal (we later realised it was ten miles downhill and with a tail wind) toward Luque, an olive pressing village, originally a Roman fortress.
On the way we stopped beneath the mesmerising white village of Zuheros, clinging to a crag in the lee of its protector, an 11th century Moorish fortress. Coming along the track towards us was a herd of gleaming and well-fed goats, comically foraging in the lower branches of almond trees for tasty treats of fresh green scented leaves.
Passing early summer flowering meadows of poppies, daisies and buttercups beneath the olive trees we pondered upon the difference between a grove and an orchard. Was it fruiting trees? Perhaps the height of an average tree or its age?
Researching later it seemed that the universally acknowledged truth is that a single grove in possession of a fortune of olive trees but in want of some undergrowth, is called an orchard. Both groves and orchards, according to this loosely interpreted definition, seemed evident along the olive trail, so it was hard to tell.
The next day and heading in the other direction to Cabra de Cordoba we continued the merciless return climb of the day before. Passing only a handful of fellow cyclists along our clifftop route we spotted a notoriously shy hoopoe bird bobbing alongside the trail. It was a delight to see the bird take off and fly alongside us for a few short seconds.
Gratefully submerging into the cool darkness of the only tunnel along the entire route, the Tunel del Plantio, we had 140 meters of respite from the baking sunshine before pedalling out onto a spectacular viaduct crossing a gorge of 132 meters long.
At our destination, the aptly named Cabra de Cordoba railway station we admired a gleaming gang of well-groomed goats who tried to charm their way into the station’s former ticket office, now a restaurant. Their cheek knew no bounds!
Later it turned out that their owner, a Levi 501-wearing and dapper older gent lassoed the leader and clucked them home further along the train tracks. Tourist trap and cynical photo opportunity or a random lucky encounter? We didn’t know but enjoyed the moment’s humour.
From the aire at Dona Mencia, next to a very busy cantina, it was a splendid couple of days exploring a truly spectacular endeavour of railway engineering that even now clings precariously to the sparse mountainsides.
Leaving the olive train did not mean leaving the olive trees, as we drove through 50 miles of groves into the heart of Andalusia.