Chris Hurley goes on a rambling holiday and finds as well as losing a few pounds she gains some new friends
Stout rucksacks and sturdy boots made our fellow ramblers fairly easy to spot and from the minute we met in the arrivals hall at Malaga airport, it was pretty evident they were a very friendly bunch. By the time our equally friendly walking guide, Alf, led us out to the waiting coach I was already on first name terms with a few and deep in conversation with a couple who were on their third trip with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (RWH).
My husband Peter and I are enthusiastic walkers and rarely miss a weekend trekking along local rural footpaths, but an entire holiday focused on walking was quite a different matter. Would we stand the pace? Would we gel with a collection of strangers? And would making small talk with the same people day in, day out be a step too far?
Leaving behind the modern apartment blocks of the cosmopolitan coastal resorts and taking the winding roads inland through the Sierra Nevada our adventure began. As we climbed ever higher the views were to die for as sheer drops revealed sugar cube villages clinging to valley slopes, deep ravines and green terraces lush with almond, olive and lemon trees.
A couple of hours later and we were at our hotel in picturesque Capileira, perched at around 1400 metres above sea level in the Alpujarras and the highest village in the Poqueira Gorge. What the no-frills family-run Hotel Meson Poqueira lacked in luxury it made up for in authentic charm and friendliness and we loved the idyllic sunny terrace with its spectacular views over the valley where we would enjoy a sundowner or two. Our simply furnished and spacious room had a balcony overlooking the pretty cobbled street and, most importantly for walkers with aching limbs, a very efficient hot shower and an amazingly comfortable bed.
The first hint of what was to come was revealed when we gathered at the daily pre-dinner briefing. This was a two-leader holiday with the choice of two levels of walking. Alf, would be leading a group on more challenging walks of up to 15 kilometres a day with ascents of 800 metres while, Alison, our second, guide would be averaging 11 kilometres with climbs of around 500 metres. Both guides described their walks, which sounded very lovely, in detail and the decision was ours.
Our evening meal on the first few nights was in the hotel restaurant and proved to be a very convivial affair with free seating, giving everyone the opportunity to get to know each other. At 30 this was quite a large group (RWH groups usually range from 12 to 20) and a very interesting mix. It’s not often I get to chat to a psychologist, a social worker, a farmer, a waitress, several retired teachers and even a rocket scientist in the same week.
Although mealtimes were very much about socialising the food was very good too. It was going to take a lot of walking to shift the ample portions of home-made specialities such as the rib sticking Alpujarran soup, delicious cured hams and hearty casseroles – all washed down with some very drinkable red wine at around 8 Euros a bottle.
Calorie burning started briskly after breakfast the next morning. First we had to divide into our groups and, without hesitation, the more seasoned walkers strode off with Alf while the rest of us decided to test the water on Alison’s gentler course. The two leader system worked really well and it was interesting to see some couples, who clearly had different levels of walking enthusiasm, happily part company for the day and later in the week we would see others shifting up and down the groups as their fancy or fitness dictated.
Over the next four hours I realised that even walking with Alison’s group wasn’t for wimps, but there was no pressure to keep up the pace and our long crocodile snaking through the mountain paths accommodated quite a wide range of fitness and ability.
I am no stranger to the Spanish Costas but following mule tracks in the gentle countryside through quaint whitewashed villages, I was seeing the real Spain for the first time. We were so far off the tourist track that the only signs of life were fat cats dozing in the warm autumn sunshine and the occasional farmer and mule bringing back the chestnut harvest.
Evidence of the influence of the Moors, who settled in the Alpujarras for 150 years after they were kicked out of Granada in 1492, is all around. Apart from the agricultural terraces, there is a clever irrigation system of acequias bringing melt water from the mountain peaks not only to the farms but also to walkers quenching their thirst with the pure ice cold water gushing from every village fountain.
As we walked, we talked and with such easy companionships forming I could see why the majority on this holiday were solo travellers. Not that they were all necessarily single. Some were alone because their spouses didn’t enjoy walking while others had partners with health problems that made travelling difficult. A shared interest in walking seemed to be a solid basis for camaraderie and by the time we joined the advanced group at a local bar for some aprés-walk ice cold beer and free tapas we were all getting along like the proverbial house on fire.
My worries that walking 10 kms a day would become boring also proved quite unfounded as each day our guides introduced us to very different but equally beautiful landscapes.
We went uphill and down dale, following the river deep in the Poqueira Gorge, picking our way through stepping-stones and babbling brooks with only the splash of waterfalls to break the silence. Another day a bus took us up 700m from where we huffed and puffed our way up through the soft pine forests for a perfect mountain view where soft fluffy clouds floating below made it feel like I was looking out of an aircraft window. Another high point was looking down on Trevelez, Spain’s highest town, from where we gingerly descended to the town square for a reviving beer before going to the local shops to buy the superb locally cured ham.
There was one free day when we could do as we pleased and this was where Alison and Alf really did go the extra mile, using their local knowledge and contacts to make sure that everyone got the most out of the trip. For some they organised a bus to make the hour-and-a-half’s journey to Granada and for others they led an impromptu walk to the local monastery. Everyone had a good time including me who, unashamedly, chilled out by the hotel swimming pool.
Despite this day of laziness, my fitness levels were so improved that Alison suggested I joined Alf’s team for the last few walks. But I had bonded so much with my own group that I decided to stay put.
A widow who was on her first Ramblers Worldwide holiday, summed up how relaxed and comfortable the experience was when she confided. ‘I was so scared of coming on holiday on my own but I love it and will definitely do it again.’ Once you have travelled with RWH it seems you do it over and over again as I learnt, over a glass or two of wine, about the amazing and often far-flung places some of our group had already visited.
As we gathered for a final feast at a local Michelin recommended restaurant one of our party was celebrating a landmark birthday. Apparently, he was planning to let this birthday slip by with no fuss and fanfare but as he blew out the candles amid much whooping and cheering, he admitted it was one of his best birthdays ever – and I don’t think anyone in the room would have disagreed.
Maybe we were all suffering a bit from the night before when we said goodbye at the airport– but I think the subdued mood was more to do with leaving our newfound friends. We exchanged email addresses and I think our walking paths might cross again. In the meantime, I’m studying the RWH brochure looking for another mountain to climb.
Walking in Las Alpujarras, Andalucia, Spain with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays. Price from £769 per person includes return flights, transfers, half-board accommodation and the services of a dedicated tour leader on all walks.
For more information go to www.ramblersholidays.co.uk or call 01707 33 11 33
For information about Hotel Meson Poqueira go to www.hotelpoqueira.com
Ramblers Worldwide Holidays profits that are not required for the running of the business are channelled back into the Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust which supports environmental conservation projects in the UK and community projects overseas. These include funding a skills workshop for young people in Romania and supporting an orphanage in Sri Lanka housing children who were victims of the 2004 tsunami. In the UK the Trust supports The Ramblers and smaller UK charities that provide outdoor experiences for the disadvantaged, the disabled and inner city children.
If you would like the opportunity to talk to Ramblers Worldwide Holidays at the Outdoor Show in London or The Destinations Show in London and Manchester, a limited number of free and discounted tickets are available. To find out more click here
Images courtesy of Richard Hobday, the copyright owner