Zahara de la Sierra

In Spanish, ‘zahara’ can refer to a steep road built on the side of a rocky outcrop.

The aptly named village of Zahara de la Sierra is indeed set upon a series of winding and steep roads that have you bending forward to scale them on foot and anchoring yourself back when scurrying downward. Not surprisingly the locals, including the urban goats and sheep, are lean-limbed!

Urban goats and sheep

We had tired legs by the time we arrived at the bottom of the village, alongside the shimmering emerald waters of a large reservoir.

Staying in the whitewashed town of Algodonales a few miles away, we’d hiked around and over the top of the rolling hillsides peppered with ostentatious, or in some cases dilapidated, villas.

Zahara de la Sierra

Circling overhead were enormous griffon vultures, that occasionally dropped to fly directly at head height across our path. These gigantic raptors have a wing span of up to 10 feet and sport long white necks and bald heads.

They are terrifying. We pitied small, warm and furry things that catch the glare of their glinting black eyes.

A worrying thought occurred. Do vultures attack humans?

Vultures circling above

Happily, 3G was working in the Sierra de Grazalema and Google confirmed that vultures only feed on carrion or injured animals. We were safe from their feasting intentions and pootled up the mountainside reminiscing about the Disney vultures sporting Beatles mop-tops and voices in the original film of the Jungle Book.

Our dusty and potholed path clung to the hillside and we leapt up the bank and out of the way of a sudden and speeding satellite suppliers’ truck. The occasional villas we were passing, although remote, were clearly not off grid!

Hoopoe in flight

Alarmingly all the homes had at least one ferociously barking guard dog, often comically small, but nasty-looking all the same as it charged at us wildly from behind high gates and fences.

We started worrying about a loose dog. What if one got free and mauled one or both of us? And then – horror – what if the vultures realised we were potential carrion?! We hastened down the hillside and arrived with some relief onto the main road that crosses the dam of the huge Zahara-el Gastor reservoir.

Zahara-el Gastor reservoir

The views across to the pueblo blanco were stunning. The whitewashed homes tumble down and around a rocky crag topped with a 13th century Nasrid castle.

It was a reminder that for centuries Zahara was a Moorish stronghold and a key fortress protecting nearby Ronda and the coastal city of Malaga.

Once we had scaled the heights of the whitewashed village and looked out at the horizon from just below the castle, we could see the old Nasrid early warning system of watchtowers at the castles of Olvera, Matrera, Cote and Algodonales.

After scaling the heights for an impressive view of our hilly trek and steady climb to the reservoir, we spotted a sign advertising a local taxi service. Dapper Diego arrived within 10 minutes and plunged us down the near vertical streets in his small people carrier scattering locals, chickens and the odd American in his chuckling wake.

A route that had taken us nearly three hours to hike took 15 minutes by road back to Algodonales. All three of us were exhilarated on our arrival back at Bertha!

Algodonales across the hills

Algodonales is internationally known as a centre for hang gliding and paragliding and we saw plenty of daredevils wheeling overhead, and afterwards heard plenty of their animated discussion of ‘wanging it’ in the skies.

The town has a German mayor, for the first time, this year. A reflection of the European community that has descended upon the town and given its economy an aerial dimension. Algodonales however has a greater claim to fame.

Algodonales memorial

In 1810 during the height of the Peninsular Wars, the small mountain community held out heroically against an invading force of 5,000 French soldiers, for two whole days.

The villagers, unarmed peasants but determined to resist, were tragically massacred in their hundreds and their homes were burnt. However, they inspired the resistance of the Sierra of Cadiz and every year, their descendants remember the heroism in three days of celebratory re-enactments and partying.