Tuesday 24 November 2009

Friends, Food, Mountains and Music

By Richard Morley.

What a Week! Lessons cancelled, postponed, or reassigned. I complemented one student that he alone had remained consistent, and then he first cancelled and then asked for a reassignment! Another reassigned and then cancelled. I didn’t know if I was coming, going or going round in circles.

So it was a wonderful relief when a very good friend suggested a day in the country.

It is unfortunate for the visitor, but just outside Madrid are some wonderful places that can’t easily be reached by public transport. You need your own. Luckily my amiga has her own car. And so, together with another friend, we set off for a day in the sierra Guadarrama.

Madrid might well be the highest capital city in Europe, but, although you might think not think so as you drag your suitcase up yet another slope on your way to your hostel, it is built on a relatively even plain. Relative to what? Look north! Well within sight of the city and less that an hours drive away are the mountains of the sierra Guadarrama and a village which never closes.

That’s a bilingual play on words that Spanish speakers of English like to tell. The name of the village is Navacerrada and is a place of restaurants and gift shops that pander to the tastes of the Domingeros, those Sunday drivers who like to take a slow journey out of the city for a change of air. We were going to have lunch there, but first we had to embark on some appetite building mountain climbing.

It is autumn in Spain. In the Retiro park the trees are wonderful shades of yellow, red and gold and as we travelled out of town the varied shades of the dying year just became even more vivid.

Autumnal yellow in the green
Yet as we passed an elevation marker telling us we were at 1200 metres above sea-level, the landscape returned to green as fir trees took over from the soon to hibernate deciduous trees. Now I finally understand that line from the musical film about “Mountain Greenery”. (I’ve just looked up the lyrics and they really are incredibly trite.

So we skirted the village and, taking a narrow country lane, followed the route of the Rio Navacerrada, which probably never stops flowing, to La Barranca. There, in the company of a multitude of others wanting to escape the crowded city, (and so made for a crowded mountain,) we hunted for a parking place among the trees and set off for our climb.

El Valle de la Barranca has a good, smooth gravel road which leads on to smaller, wilder, and rockier tracks.

A couple of hundred metres from the car park there is a fenced off area called “De Pino a Pino”, from pine to pine. Here strong steel cables have been slung between the trees where brave souls could perform Indiana Jones style death defying feats of high wire walking, leaping from trapeze to trapeze, or fly great distances suspended from a pulley. Queues of kids lined up at a reception shack to be fitted out with all the necessary safety harnesses and that all important, well lubricated, pulley wheel. The speed with which they threw themselves through the tree-tops was a sight to behold – and made me feel slightly jealous.

Beyond the adventure area the track wound ever upwards. My friends, who had visited the Highlands of Scotland last summer said it reminded them of walks they had taken there, except the stream beds here were dry and their boots were not caked with mud. But like the Scottish weather the unbroken blue skies came with a biting chill wind. I wish I had taken gloves.

We had turned on to a narrow track, perhaps not much more than a metre and a half wide. To our right the side of the mountain climbed steeply. Fir trees, brambles and brown, fragile, dean ferns covered the rock face. Huge boulders seemed ready to slip and crush us at a moment’s notice. To our left the ground fell away more steeply than it climbed to the right. The tips of pines almost within an arm’s length were level with out eyes. The reservoir next to where we had parked the car shimmered in the bright sun a long way beneath us. Under our feet the gravel path had become rock strewn and occasionally blocked by fallen trees.

We probably climbed about 300 metres, it was never a difficult walk and the only danger came from the speeding mountain cyclists who were very polite and always thanked us as they screeched past as we flattened ourselves against the boulders or threw ourselves into the brambles to escape their onrushing onslaught. I wondered what protection their plastic helmets would offer if they went over the edge? It would be a couple of hundred vertical metres before they came to rest.

More sensible people, like us, had chosen to walk. A sign near the car park recommended a circular route with arrows suggesting a direction of travel. We were following the suggestion, but many had not and we met them coming down as we went up. Almost without fail total strangers gave us a friendly “Hola”, which we returned as we squeezed past each other. My friends explained it was traditional to greet strangers on country paths as much as it was traditional to ignore them in the city.

Almost at the summit we looked down on the city of Madrid, some 50 kilometres distant. Unfortunately the details of the city were lost in the haze, although the wraith like silhouettes of the Cuatro Torres easy to make out. Considering that the tops of those towers are more than one kilometre above sea-level and we were looking down on them it was easy to appreciate how high we had climbed.

Can you see the Cuatro Torres through the haze?

Then one of my friends complained that her stomach was “noisy”, which was a definite sign that a decent lunch was needed. We turned around and travelling against the arrows, made our way back down.

Just last week the Comunidad of Madrid, which covers a huge area outside the city limits, had declared the whole of the Sierra Guadarrama a National park. It is a great sweep of countryside that encircles much of the northwest of Madrid almost as far as Segovia. It’s wonderful that this rugged landscape will be free of Madrid’s urban sprawl.

Sierra View. The rope bridge is part of the Pino a Pino adventure area.
From the country park to the village of Navacerrada the journey takes less than ten minutes. On route we past a base for the forest fire-fighters; their helicopter with its huge water scoop stood ready. Despite the autumn chill there had been no rain for weeks and the forest was tinder dry. Signs along the paths had warned us repeatedly of the danger of fire.

Fire warning.

Just below the fire station stood a long, ancient, decaying building built into the side of the mountain. It concrete was crumbling, exposed reinforcing bars rusty and deformed, every one of hundreds of small glass panes were smashed on each of its four floors. It’s paintwork was shabby and peeling. Weeds sprouted from every crack in its plaster. Years ago this had been a sanatorium for sufferers of tuberculosis when the “cure” had been fresh mountain air. Far too large to be turned into a practical hotel, too far away from the town to become a factory or office it stands decaying and forgotten as antibiotics replace the old treatment. A memory of a bygone age – but not that long ago!

Below that, at the foot of the slope, I was amused to see, was a house called “La Peña”. To be true to its name it should have been much, much higher up the mountain. Still, it’s not bad to have aspirations.

On reaching the village once more demanded a keen eye and lightning reactions to find an elusive parking space among the cars of all the other “Domingeros”. But we did and were soon wandering the streets of this delightful village in search of refreshment. We had booked a table at the Portillon restaurant, but despite our hunger, we were too early, so found a cosy place in a bar decorated with photographs of famous patrons who had sipped a caña or two on the premises. Naturally, the cañas came with small tapas bowls of paella. I am not a great fan of paella, but the appetite inducing effects of a brisk walk in country air had had their proper effect and I washed mine down with the beer. Therefore the immediate need for a proper meal had declined a little and left us free to order another.

Navacerrada Village.

The Portillón, the name of which, according to the waiter we asked, refers to the starting gate at the beginning of a competative ski run, looks like a something transplanted from the Austrian Tyrol. The name reminded us that further up the mountain lies the ski resort of Puerta de Navacerrada with its ski runs, cable cars and Swiss style chalets. Inside, in the ground floor bar, a huge log fire warmly welcomed us. We waited in the glow of its heat, yet more cañas in hand, while we waited for our table to be ready.

It didn’t take long. The restaurant above the bar is on two floors. The walls are lined with dark stained wood, the tables are wide and spacious. It’s not a place for whispered, intimate conversation. The menu is superb with a huge list of starters and only slightly smaller offering of main dishes. I was somewhat alarmed to notice that “mouse” was one of the dishes on offer, but was assured that they had forgotten the second s in mousse de pato. Ah, the joys of being an English spelling pedant.

One had the onion and cheese soup, which she pronounced delicious, while my other friend and I shared a goat cheese salad with balsamic vinegar that was a joy to the taste buds. I followed that with a Magret de pato with amazingly crispy skin, but nicely underdone in the middle. My friends had the beef. It too looked good, which was probably why they were not sharing any. Desserts followed, as did coffee and liquors, then more coffee as other friends joined us.

Outside it was twilight. The Portillón staff were preparing the tables for dinner. We left and found another bar to continue the conversation. But we couldn’t stay long. We had to get back to Madrid for an important engagement.

One of the English Speaking Group members was giving a concert with her husband. He plays guitar and harmonica and sings, (obviously not while playing the harmonica!), while the lovely Laura accompanies on percussion and backing (with occasional lead) vocals. Miguel had arranged with the Galileo Galilei theatre in the Calle Galileo to let him give a performance for friends and family. It was slick and professional with excellent acoustics. Mick had written many of his own songs which he mixed in with some well known oldies. It was a creditable performance and I really enjoyed the music.

Laura and Miguel

Friends, food, mountain air and good music. I love Madrid. Who could want for more?

And, so far, no students have cancelled or reassigned for next week. Life is good.

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