Getting high in Andalusia

by rachelwebb

Walking the Sierra Sur de Jaen while taking in the views; asparagus, mushroom and orchid hunting; and practising Spanish in southern Spain

With the end of the working week rapidly approaching, my dreams of staying at home relaxing and chilling out were doused at the family dinner. “We’ve arranged to go up the hill with Rosa and Domingo on Saturday.” My husband said.

Inwardly I groaned, what about my lie-in, my “me” time, our family time? I looked around the table; my two older sons were smiling and nodding. My youngest just looked at me eyebrows raised. “Great” I responded. Everyone knew I was exaggerating.

“What time and where are we meeting up?” I asked. Rosa, Spanish for rose, and Domingo, Spanish for Sunday, are notoriously bad time-keepers. As are most Spanish people we’ve discovered.

My precious Saturday now involved picnics, wild asparagus and mushroom hunting and a head-aching day full of Spanish, Spanish and nothing but Spanish – super.

So as planned we rolled up to our meeting point half-way up Sierra Ahillo, the mountain we can see from home. We live 700 metres above sea level, so climbed nearly a thousand more. From the summit of Ahillo I’m assured the sea can be seen on a clear day, it’s obviously not been clear enough on my ascents to see the Med. 150 kilometres away by road.

Boys, caves and climbing

I didn’t bother trying to be on time to meet Rosa and Domingo, much to the exasperation of my four males and I was right, they were late. We’d been waiting about three minutes, being already 40 minutes past clock-in time when they showed. They were loaded with walking sticks, wet weather gear, enough food to invite every passer-by, bags for asparagus, buckets for mushrooms and just two of their five kids, Eva and Israel.

Vale, vamos,” said Domingo, OK let’s go. So with a shuffling of gear into our car and my lot into their van the males went off cave spotting and climbing, that left us three “girls” to our own devices. I’d made sure I had our car keys and I knew us girls had all the food, so we were more than ok.

Girls, asparagus and no mushrooms

Al rio,” said Rosa marching off towards the river with her spiked steel-capped walking stick – good for attacking the prickly asparagus plants.

No sooner had we scoured the river banks and popular tree stumps for non-existent mushrooms (along with much disgust and unrepeatable language) then we scurried off uphill in search of tender wild shoots of asparagus, we found many. Rosa, loud, forthright, square of stature and dominant, yet far shorter than I, told me, yet again, how to make asparagus tortilla, their repast for the coming evening.

I hesitatingly admitted I wouldn’t be making a tortilla as asparagus is green and my boys aren’t into greens. Plus the fact that tortilla and I tend to fall out. Part falls out onto the plate and part sticks fast to the pan. I’d probably throw my gathering of asparagus into tomorrow’s soup, then, when cooked, spoon most out into mine and hubby’s bowl before being spotted by the youth.

Our bunches of asparagus were growing, Rosa's more than mine. But she has experience and a weapon. The asparagus plants are prickly, Rosa attacks them with her stick, only lowering her stocky frame for a result. I use my eyes then dive in with my hands - will I ever learn?

I prefer looking for orchids than gathering asparagus and kicked myself when I discovered a new variety and had no camera. This tulip-shaped orchid flower hung down rather like a fritillary, I still haven’t discovered its name.

The views from Sierra Ahillo look across valleys and clinging white-washed hillside towns to the rising mass of snowy Sierra Nevada peaks. What a sight, a whole crest of white wave rises out of the depths.

So where exactly am I? This is the Sierra Sur de Jaen, an area made up of eight towns in the south of Jaen province and bordering with the provinces of Cordoba and Granada. Sierra Ajillo is a popular spot for Spanish mountain bikers and hill-walkers.

Situated between the towns of Alcaudete to the west, Martos to the noth-east, Fuensanta de Martos in the east and Castillo de Locubin in the south-west, Sierra Ahillo rises above the surrounding olive groves and is the highest peak around. Its fertile olive tree slopes rise from the valley and the reservoir of Las Casillas a great spot for fishing, picnics and - don’t forget - asparagus hunting.

Mountain biking is big here among the young people. After all it’s pretty much mountainous everywhere inland so the scope is huge. What makes it even more appealing is the thousands of kilometres of carrils or rough tracks that lead through olive groves and criss-cross shortcuts everywhere. Just check out Google earth - it’s incredible. We can drive 27km on tarmac roads to our local dam or walk/bike it on a rough track in 6km.

Where to stay in Sierra Sur de Jaen

This is a huge area with more olive trees than people. Posh hotels are few and far between but there are plenty of casas rurales - or holiday rental homes, which if you’ve a bike or muddy boots to keep track off could be a better idea.

Hotels in the Sierra Sur

Martos has two hotels, the new Ciudad de Martos on the outskirts of town and the 3* Hotel Hidalgo next to the bull ring and municipal swimming pool.

Hotel Ciudad de Martos is a new-build, view-less but nevertheless extremely adequate hotel with a pretty walled summer patio and a more than reasonable 3-course menu del dia.

The fairly old-fashioned Hotel Hidalgo is more upmarket in a run-down outmoded way. It can also be very noisy with bull fights, children’s playground, swimming pool and Saturday morning market all nearby, but it’s central to the noisy atmospheric tree-lined avenue full of street bars.

Casa rurales in the Sierra Sur

Casa Rural El Reguelo in the quiet hamlet of El Reguelo is situated on a quiet country road between Fuensanta de Martos and Castillo de Locubin. With private garden, terrace, patio and dip pool it’s a great escape spot. There are 3/4 bedrooms sleeping a maximum of seven people and the weekly high season rent is 475 euro.

Casa Rural La Pasailla, 6km from Castillo de Locubin is an isolated holiday home offering five bedrooms in a beautiful natural setting. For up to a maximum of 11 people, this hoilday home is complete with swimming pool. A typical week in the summer would cost 1,210 euro.