Travelling on the road isn’t always about reaching a desired destination. Sometimes its about experiencing the road for itself.
The A372 that travels between Ronda in the west of the Andalusian mountains to Arcos de la Frontera in the east is a winding and scenic route that crosses through high mountain pastures and remotely situated but pretty white-washed villages as it bends up to the pass at Porto Del Boyar (1103m).
Driving any vehicle along this route takes some nerve, but we’ve tackled mountain passes before and it was our obvious way to the west coast of Spain without a huge detour to the Mediterranean coast at Gibraltar and a forced visit to the Rock.
Besides, we had taken advice. Jose, a local and laughing guide with a tour coach packed full of wearying French tourists, had chatted with us along the roadside at the Zahara-el Gastor reservoir.
Having taken his large group east from Arcos de la Frontera along the A372 en route to Ronda just that morning he reassured us that the road was “narrow, but fine for a motorhome. Listen coaches use it all the time!”, waving at his gigantic and extremely long bus. Some passengers wearily waved back. We were heartened and steeled ourselves for the epic drive ahead.
On the appointed day of our drive, the first obstacle was leaving the packed aire at Ronda. Hundreds of lycra-clad cyclists were milling in the road outside on their way to a nearby sports arena. It turned out to be that year’s ‘101km Ronda Race’.
Needing to be on our way by 10am, as we wanted to be up and over the pass before the Saturday afternoon traffic had built, we squeezed our way through the crowds of athletes wearing number plates and sponsorship logos and already sweating in the searing morning’s heat. We wished them well. We had our own challenge ahead!
The climb from 200 meters up to 900 meters at Grazalemar was a long slow ascent through gorgeous meadows of billowing and colourful wildflowers and shimmering silver grasses.
This part of Andalusia is the wettest and greenest throughout the year. It is famous for its many cork and fir trees, as well as Spain’s national tree, the rather grand Evergreen Oak, the Elcina.
By 11am we had met no oncoming traffic and were grateful for this as the road was extremely narrow with few passing spaces. It was however along open land with trees either side, so not yet clinging to the sides of the sierra with a heart-stopping drop below. We knew that was yet to come.
As we entered the national park the meadows abruptly ended, and the landscape became moorland of scrubby green pasture dotted with thickets of low trees and prickly bushes. The rocky sides of the sierra started to show themselves as they emerged above the slopes and towered up toward the high blue sky.
We spotted the occasional goat nimbly jumping along an unseen path, and the air was warm and humming with bees and insect life.
At Grazalemar we stopped in the pretty pueblo blanco for coffee. A couple of other motorhomes were parked in the village aire having stayed the night but were returning down the way we had come. There was only a slight breeze, which we had researched, as otherwise it would have been foolish to attempt the drive in any wind.
Above Grazalemar the road switched back in long steep curves up the mountain side. We had the good fortune to find ourselves following a little behind another motorhome which meant that oncoming traffic was alerted to our being there.
At the mountain pass of Porto del Boyar (1103 meters) the views south over the many ranges of sierras was thrilling. Even now the landscape was green, and the air was warm and sweet and busy with butterflies and insects.
It felt as though nature was teeming with life at this highest point, which only very recently had been battered with days of incessant rains and gale force winds. With the climb behind us we set off downwards smiling in relief. It was to be short-lived. The road on this side of the mountain was treacherous as it swung down in steep hairpin bends.
Thankfully we were in the inside lane, as driving on the right, and not peering out over the eye-watering drop at each impossibly tight turn. There were no passing spaces and we feared meeting Jose or another tour coach making their eastward route. It would have been impossible to pass each other, and impossible to reverse.
‘Snopper’ our sat nav lost us in a spiral of twists and turns and kept burping out a ‘warning’ which didn’t help to calm the situation. Simon held Bertha back by keeping her in a low gear and braking sharply but shortly. We had learnt this important lesson when crossing the French Alps into Italy with a hand brake problem. We weren’t going to arrive at the bottom with four smoking tyres again!
As the steep and narrow road eventually widened into two clearly marked out lanes, and the curves became a long gentle straight we let out a breath and congratulated our van.
Just then, a loud blasting horn sounded alongside, terrorising us over to the edge and scraping past a large thicket bush. Having managed the pass without incident we were furious with the vandalising scratch down the length of Bertha caused in one idiotic moment by a moronic driver.
From El Bosque the drive to Arcos de la Frontera was along a fast-moving straight stretch of road. It was here that we met traffic and spotted tour coaches. How we had not encountered any on the way across the mountain was incredible, and extremely lucky. We kept mindful of this.
The lake below the hillside town was a gorgeous emerald green and busy with families on the water. A smart waterside hotel was setting up for what looked like a wedding party and it was noticeably hotter back down at 300 meters above sea level, with an increasingly gusty wind. We admired Arcos’ position along an ochre-coloured cliff which is capped with the 15th century basilica of Santa Maria and the austere and gigantic church of San Pedro.
We were tired and ready to stay in the town’s dusty car park and aire. It was strangely empty in the early afternoon, and with sand being whipped up by the wind it was not conducive to hanging around. Reluctantly we headed back onto the road to find another home for the night, where we could rest tired wheels and nerves.
On a day that was all about driving a route to avoid the south coast it was with a rueful smile that we headed down to the west coast at Conil de la Frontera, 60 miles away. At 6pm we were rather surprised to find ourselves cycling to a beach bar!
A world away from the natural beauty of the high sierras the long sandy playa was packed with sunbathers and the raucous colour and noise of a busy summertime beach. Feeling bemused we toasted Bertha and our safe passage across the mountains.