Friday 1 July 2011

Madrid's River Manzanares. Where it begins....

Or Out of the frying pan and into the Fridge,
By Richard Morley.

When I wrote, a couple of posts ago, about Madrid’s new park running alongside the Manzanares River as it lazily glides though the city, I gave little thought to where that water came from. Like the crowds happily picnicking on the river banks in Goya’s famous painting above, I was quite happy to spend a cool evening beside the cool water.

Not many days later and Madrid stopped having cool evenings. The numbers on the electronic temperature displays at the bus stops climbed way up into the thirties and refuse to come down. Madrid is hot and sticky. The washing machine seems to be continuously on, removing the perspiration from several shirts a day, with the shower doing the same thing from my body. (I wish the guy on the Metro this morning had followed my example. It must have been yesterdays shirt. What a stink!)

Last week one of my students injured himself playing football and limped into Monday’s lesson wincing as he walked. On Tuesday he called and cancelled, claiming his ankle needed the expertise of a doctor. And so, with a free evening ahead, a friend suggested an escape to Madrid’s northerly mountains.

Now I like a walk in the hills, but I should have smelled a rat when she also suggested that I bring my swimming trunks.

By six that evening we had parked the car in an almost deserted car park in the Parque Regional de la Cuenca Alta del Manzanares, a nature reserve high in the Guadarrama mountains, recognised by UNESCO for its unique biological heritage and overlooked by La Pedriza, a huge granite uplift that dominates the region.

Geologically speaking, the Spanish word “Cuenca” means valley or bowl. Hence the town of Cuenca, which has nothing to do with this post, but where houses precariously hang from cliffs over-looking a deep valley. In the case of the Parque Regional de la Cuenca Alta del Manzanares, the “bowl” here signifies the confluence of several small streams into one main river valley which officially becomes the Manzanares river.

On the drive up to the parque I took in the scene of boulder strewn slopes and thought that at sometime in the past something pretty serious had happened to the geology. Granite is an igneous rock, spewed out by volcanoes, and here was several cubic kilometres of it. In places the granite was fissures and the cracks were filled with black basalt, again of volcanic production, and then it had been uplifted and split asunder. The area would have been pretty uninhabitable at the time. Now the parque is a peaceful retreat from the heat and bustle of the city. A place of shady pines and scented bushes, riverside walks and picnic spots. And, my friend told me, of places to bathe in the cooling water.

We left the car and strolled down the slope to the river. A handy sign informs you or where you are and what you can see. Beyond, a narrow wooden bridge, half submerged in the shadows of high tree – don’t ask me what they are, I am no botanist – led us across a narrow stream that tripped lightly over a few rocks and a fallen tree trunk.

A pretty little river I thought. But as we progressed up stream the rocks became boulders, the trickle turned into competing flows of white water. There was a water fall around every bend, and behind each fall a pool where people picnicked and splashed in the water.

Now, if you were to dip a toe into the waters of the Manzanares as it meanders though the city you might remark that the water is “refreshing”. But when the water reaches the city it is well on its way along its eighty-three kilometre journey from its source to where it joins the Jarama river. Yes, the “mighty Manzanares” is but the tributary of another. On the first half of its journey it has had time to relax under the warming sun while it dawdled in the Santillana reservoir, near the town of Manzanares de Real, and then slowly tumble along its lazy route, past courses for golf and horse racing, into the city.

 Cooling off in the cold, cold waters.

Up near its source, in the Parque Regional de la Cuenca Alta del Manzanares, the water is not “refreshing” but BLOODY FREEZING. A few degrees cooler and those sparkling water trickles would be icicles. It is not many days since the tumbling water of the Manzanares headwaters was snow peacefully at rest on the peaks of the Guadarrama mountains. Then summer arrived and raising the temperature by not very much sent the snowmelt in a raging torrent over the granite boulders where it splashed and tumbled, eddied and pooled as it squeezed through the rocks.

 A local resident basks in the evening sun.

Still unaware of just how cold this snowmelt was, as my friend and I walked along the river banks under a burning sun from a cloudless blue sky, I looked on with envy as groups of family and friends paddled and splashed in the water. The car park we had used was not the only one. My friend stopped a passing dog walker and asked him how far up river did the picnics and pool parties continue. He laughed sardonically, remarking that on a Tuesday evening he had hopes of having the woods and banks to himself, but that he thought most of Madrid, us included I suppose, had come out to spoil his evening.
 Going ...... going ........ soon to be gone. A boulder balances precariously over the river bank.

My friend remarked how nice it was to be able to walk unencumbered with a back-pack through the shady woods. I, being a gentleman, had volunteered to carry the back pack and grunted that I was happy for her. A language difference means that irony sometimes gets lost in translation!

The open and flattish woodland walk soon gave way to a more rugged and narrower path. There were cracks to be squeezed though, boulders requiring giant steps to surmount, sticky, snagging bushes to circumvent. All the while the laughter and joy of those who had already found their little pool of paradise rose up from the river.

Eventually we found an empty spot. A place of washed pink granite, known appropriately as Rose Granite, that had been eroded over millennia into broad, smooth beds which the acrobatic water washed with sporadic waves. We changed into our swimming stuff and dipped a toe in the water.

I shall not record the first word I used. Children might read this! Suffice it to say the coldness of the water came as a surprise. The second surprise was that the smoothness of the eroded rock allowed for no grip and I slid into the water. My friend was greatly amused by this, until the same thing happened to her and it took us a while to scramble back on to dry rock, which, compared to the water, was positively hot. Half on and half off the rocks we dangled our feet in the water. We had possibly walked four or five kilometres so the cold water gurgling though our toes was a welcome relief. Later, now with anticipation than ignorance, we let the water console more of our bodies.

 A couple of degrees less .....and this would be an icicle!!!

From the backpack she produced tortilla and bread and something to drink. Like others in their own personal paradises along the river bank we let all thoughts of hot and sweaty Madrid pass from our minds.

Walking back, with the sun casting long shadows and dappling the wood floor with light and shade, we noticed birds hovering on thermals over the Pedriza. The mountains here claim the title of the largest expanse of Granite in Europe.

On the way from Madrid I thought I was being clever and spotted the shape of a face in the rocks. My friend gave me that look which means I will for ever be a guiri and remarked that gazing at the slopes of the Pedriza is like observing shapes in the flames of a fire. She pointed out a tortoise, a helmet, which is what this particular peak, El Yelmo, is named for, and even a mammoth, while above us the rock formation known as the Canchos de los Muertos contemplated the living below.

I am told that there are nearly a thousand different routes for hill walkers and rock climbers within the thirty two square kilometres of the Pedriza. I had already had enough exercise for one day and the only exercise I was now contemplating was raising a glass or two of cold beer.

This was achieved after we drove out of the park into the small town of Manzanares el Real where stands a real medieval castle and a church tower swarming with storks.

Below that tower, in a small plaza, lay a bar. Around me kids, lots of kids, probably something to do with the storks, played in the plaza. A beer sat in front of me - but not for long!!

Now that was paradise.

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