The ruins of Casa Eraso and Montón de Trigo

Early Summer morning in the mountains

Early Summer morning in the mountains

It’s surprisingly easy to forget, when one gets very involved in the sporty or athletic side of mountain activity, just how beautiful it is to be in the mountains. It certainly happens to me sometimes..but this last weekend i got reminded, once again, of just how powerful, in a sensual and aesthetic way, the mountains can be.

We spent a couple of days in an area that i know very well but have visited little in recent years, Puerto de Fuenfría and its Northern aspect where the ancient Roman road begins its descent towards Segovia. We started out from the Hospital de Fuenfría (1345m) and ascended towards the Fuenfría pass (1792m) along the Camino Viejo de Segovia (Old Segovia Way), a trail made very pleasant by Fuenfría’s wonderful wild Pines and the shade that they give on a hot Summer’s day.

Uncaring adults dragging an innocent delicate child up a mountain on a hot Summer's day!

Uncaring adults dragging a wilting delicate child up a mountain..on a hot Summer’s day!

On the other side of Fuenfría the shady ambience continued as we headed for the ruins of Casa Eraso overlooking the vast valley of Valsaín with its great pine forests.

Running to catch up..as the evening shadows lengthen below Montón de Trigo

Recovered! ..and running to catch up, as the evening shadows lengthen below Montón de Trigo.

Casa Eraso, also known as Casarás, was once a large palatial residence used by Spain’s royalty travelling over the mountains between Madrid and Valsaín. Built by Felipe II in the late 16th century, this was how it looked back then. And this is how it looks today..

Ruined fragments of the great house are all that remain today

Ruined fragments of the once great house are all that remain today.

Though Casa Eraso is now little more than a pile of ruins, the beauty of the spot is undiminished..and perhaps even added to – for those of a Romantic spirit – precisely by the ruinous decadence of past human presence. The views over the enormous extension of Valsaín’s valley and the massif of Peñalara are magnificent.

Peñalara, as seen from Casarás, rising above Valsaín.

Peñalara, as seen from Casarás, rising above Valsaín.

We spent the night just by the ruins..and though no ghost appeared, we were disturbed by the aggressive bellowing of a small bull who came to check us out, and thereafter by the jangling of the bells of the cows who followed him. A night in the wild is not always a guarantee of blissful peace!

Sunrise over Valsaín

Sunrise over Valsaín

However the sunrise was magical, as it almost always is in the mountains in Summer. We quickly broke camp and headed for Montón de Trigo, the mountain which stands over Caso Eraso and Puerto de Fuenfría.

Montón de Trigo towers over our camp by the ruins of Casarás.

Montón de Trigo towers over our camp by the ruins of Casarás.

Our plan was to start early so as to complete the ascension before midday, thereby avoiding the heat of the afternoon. We were on the move well before nine, which i thought was pretty good given the inclusion of at least one five-year-old in our party.

There were other little people on the move early in the morning too.

There were other little people on the move early in the morning too. Valsaín squirrel.

Back at Fuenfría pass once more, we began to climb towards Cerro Minguete..soon leaving behind the trees and their shade. Though still early, this is Summer in Spain and the sun starts to hit long before midday. Despite being close to 2000m, we began to feel the heat.

Getting close to the top of Cerro Minguete, Puerto de Fuenfría below and behind us.

Getting close to the top of Cerro Minguete, Puerto de Fuenfría below and behind us.

At this point we were getting up a sweat, and from the top of Minguete we would have to drop down slightly and then ascend once more along a steep path to the rocky summit of Montón de Trigo. I could sense that our spirits were flagging..maybe the heat and the height were going to be too much for us.

We pushed on. I pushed a little (and pulled a lot)..and we pushed on up. Close to the top, as the trail steepened even more, mamma and auntie had had enough and gave up. But there was no stopping the youngest mountaineer of our party, barely five years old, who went hopping – yes, literally hopping – to the top. Montón de Trigo, 2161m.

Buzz Lightyear waves from the top of Montón de Trigo, 2161m. the promontory of Casarás visible far below.

Buzz Lightyear waves from the top of Montón de Trigo, the promontory of Casarás visible (center, in shadow) far below.

From a sporty, athletic point of view, that’s close to 1000m of vertical gain (and almost 17km) in under 24 hours. Not bad for a day over five!

 

More on the history of Casa Eraso (in Spanish).

 

Posted in children in Nature, Conservation, fauna, flora, Mountain, Nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cool Summer..again!

As i’ve said so many times in the past on this blog, i often suffer thru the Summer in Spain. Some years it’s better, others it’s worse..when the temperatures soar, putting up with the heat day after day can be tough. And this goes not only for northern-born Celts like me..i know many native Iberians who feel the same. But the last couple of years the Summers have not been too bad. Three years ago, in 2011, July was quite mild – i blogged about it here – and this year again, after a relatively cool June, the first three weeks of July have brought us just four hot days. When the temps started to rise last week i thought “well, this is it..here comes the heat” and yes we had a few pretty hot days..but temperatures plunged at the weekend, from 30-31ºC last Wednesday-Thursday  in Cercedilla (1200m) to barely 20º on Saturday-Sunday. They’ll be back up again this week and there’s still plenty of time for the heat to hit of course, but pretty cool so far!

Posted in the seasons, Weather | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Rascafría, valley high among mountains

I have spent hundreds of days in my life looking down the Rascafría valley..also known as the Lozoya valley due to the river that flows thru it. It’s a high valley in the Sierra de Guadarrama between the mountains of Peñalara and los Montes Carpetanos on one side and Cabezas de Hierro and Cuerda Larga on the other. Since these mountains are usually accessed from Puerto de Cotos – and i come from “the other side” – i rarely go down the valley..always up towards the peaks!

El Risco de Claveles, the second highest peak of Guadarrama, and it's beautiful SE spur.

Winter-Spring view down the Rascafría valley from Peñalara..you can see the town of Rascafría quite clearly in the distance.

Rascafría and its valley are very different from “the near side” of the Sierra, Cercedilla and the Fuenfría valley for example. Rascafría is much less accessible from the capital, almost 100km whichever route you take, and the most direct routes to get there oblige you to go up to almost 1800m – crossing high mountain passes – for Rascafría is literally surrounded by mountains. Historically this has meant that this valley has been relatively isolated..and, some would say, has protected Rascafría from the excesses of development all too clearly visible on the Madrid side of the Sierra.

This is not to say that Rascafría has not seen touristic development in recent decades. On a recent visit i was surprised to find hundreds of people crowding the scenic spot known as Las Presillas, a popular area for bathing and picnicking in Summer.

Las Presillas with a view towards Peñalara, where a few patches of snow still resist Summer's heat.

Las Presillas with a view towards Peñalara, where a few patches of snow still resist Summer’s heat.

In the photo you don’t see too many people apart from my son and his aunt and a few shy bathers..but trust me, there were hundreds, maybe up to a thousand bodies all around and about. Most of them in swimsuits but very few in the water..not too surprising as it was still extremely cold, and i doubt that it gets much warmer even at the height of summer.

We soon moved on – the beach ambience was a little too much for me – to sample the more tranquil rustic delights of one of the many trails that the lower valley offers.

Walking under the oaks of Rascafría, ever under Peñalara.

Walking under the oaks of Rascafría, ever under Peñalara.

Walking in this area many years ago, it reminded me quite a bit of Ireland..somewhat drier perhaps, but there are moments when you feel you really could be strolling along a country path in the Emerald Isle.

The town of Rascafría itself while not spectacular certainly has some very pretty spots and, as i said before, does not suffer from the often horrible consequences of development so commonly seen elsewhere.

The church and steeple of Rascafría.

The church and steeple of Rascafría.

So Rascafría, perhaps not the remote location it once was..but still very much worth a visit!

Posted in children in Nature, Conservation, Nature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Wild flowers of the Pyrenees

In Spring it’s wonderful to climb and ski in the Pyrenees, but it’s also cool just to go walking and see the flowers that appear everywhere as the snows of Winter melt and recede..giving way to high alpine meadows where flora abounds.

The receding snow gives way to green alpine meadows, here in the Lliterola Valley, Benasque.

The receding snow gives way to green alpine meadows, here in the Lliterola Valley, Benasque.

Of the myriad flowers that appear, one of my personal favourites is the Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna), a small blue flower commonly found above 2000m in late May, June and early July. It usually grows in groups and its often electric blue colour makes it stand out brilliantly.

Spring gentians in Valle de Lliteriola, May 2014.

Spring gentians in Valle de Lliterola, May 2014.

Another typical flower that shoots up everywhere as soon as the snow disappears is the Dog’s-tooth Lily (Erythronium dens-canis), a violet flower  found as early as late April and in May and June.

Dog's-tooth Lily, in the area of La Besurta, Benasque, May 2014.

Dog’s-tooth Lily, in the area of La Besurta, Benasque, May 2014.

In previous posts i’ve mentioned the small narcissus flowers of Guadarrama, but in Pyrenees this year i came upon – like the famous poet Wordsworth – the larger common daffodil..

Daffodils in Lliterola..maybe not a host of them but a good bunch nevertheless.

Daffodils in Lliterola..maybe not a host of them but a good bunch nevertheless.

 

Of course the snow hasn’t disappeared completely..on North and East facing slopes above 2000m the white stuff is still there and indeed will persist well into the Summer, though the snowline will gradually rise thru June and July towards 3000m. On my last day of ski in the Lliterola Valley i found some very curious surface snow formations..deep furrows caused by heavy rainfall running downslope and later refrozen into sharp ridges.

The furrows and ridges of Lliterola snow, late May 2014.

The furrows and ridges of Lliterola snow, late May 2014.

Anyway, as we roll into Summer and the snow rolls back and the ski season winds down, the high mountains transform into a wonderful wild garden..and particularly in the Pyrenees, the effusion, the explosion of wild flowers is something to amaze.

Posted in flora, Mountain, Nature, snow, the seasons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

High peaks of the Pyrenees..for all the family!

Last week i got to spend some days in the Pyrenees with father-and-son team Angel and Diego. There are probably plenty of fathers and sons – and not a few mothers and daughters either – skiing in the Pyrenees. But you don’t see too many kids skiing the high peaks of the Maladetas, with a dozen or more summits well above 3000m, in their early teens.

Diego and Angel above the Renclusa with Pico Salvaguardia behind.

Diego and Angel above the Renclusa with Pico Salvaguardia behind.

On the first day we set out from La Besurta (1900m) which lies below the Renclusa Hut and headed for Pico Cordier, a snow-capped summit in the Western Maladetas. Temperatures had dropped in previous days and even at midday with the sun shining it still felt cool as we approached 3000m.

View of  Pico de la Maladeta (Oriental) and its glacier as the ramp below Cordier starts to get steep.

View of Pico de la Maladeta (Oriental) and its glacier as the ramp below Cordier starts to get steep.

The cold meant that the snow remained very hard on North-facing slopes above 3000m and we changed to crampons as the terrain got progressively steeper on the ramps leading to Pico Cordier.

Diego and Angel gain access to the upper ramp..

Diego and Angel gain access to the upper ramp..

The final section below the summit is a mini-couloir that reaches 40º and with hard frozen snow you need to place your feet well in order to get up it. But no problem for Diego, who stepped up resolutely under the watchful eye of his Dad.

You certainly begin to feel the steep in the final 20-30m!

You certainly begin to feel the steep in the final 20-30m!

Coming out on the summit ridge the wind really began to let us know that we were high up in the mountains..just in case anybody had forgotten. In the few meters that remained to the top it went from cool to freezing.

Summit! Pico Cordier, 3265m.

Summit! Pico Cordier, 3265m.

At this point i abandoned Angel and Diego taking the rare opportunity to ski down the South-West Face of Cordier in good conditions. The snow was still pretty hard at first but later softened up quickly..as did the weather, the freezing wind chill of the summit instantly giving way to warm summery sensations. Rather than descend all the way to Laguna de Cregüeña i stopped about half-way and headed back up to Cordier and then down the North side in pursuit of Angel and Diego, who were waiting at about 2900m. The snow down to that point on the Northern slopes was still very hard but loosened up a bit thereafter and even threatened to be enjoyable as we descended to La Renclusa.

Diego skiing above the Renclusa, his father in the distance.

Diego skiing above the Renclusa, his father in the distance.

 

We had a relaxing evening at the Renclusa Hut and a good night’s sleep before setting out once more next morning. The objective for the second day was Pico Aneto, monarch of the Pyrenees. We climbed at a good pace to the Portillon and then headed across the Aneto Glacier towards the summit. This long traverse above 3000m often seems to take forever, especially when the day warms up and you are feeling the altitude, but on this day we seemed to move quite quickly. However when we arrived close to Collado de Coronas (3190m) the wind made its presence felt anew and things suddenly seemed much cooler. Diego despite having put another thousand plus meters of uphill behind him gave no indication of tiredness, so on we went. From that point the snow was also hard frozen and showing no signs of softening, so we decided to proceed up the steeper ramps below the summit with crampons and axes.

Angel and Diego heading for the summit.

Angel and Diego heading for the summit.

Then finally came the part that so many dread..the twenty or so meters of rocky ridge that separate the end of the snow ramp from the summit. The notorious Puente de Mahomé – “Mohammed’s Bridge” – which has to be crossed to gain the Paradise that is the summit of Aneto. Angel used the rope to belay Diego along the ridge and soon we were on top.

Angel and Diego on the ridge known as Puente de Mahomé.

Angel and Diego on the ridge known as Puente de Mahomé.

A few quick photos at the top..and then carefully back along the ridge, where a vertical kilometer and a half of down awaited.

Summit photo, Aneto 3404m.

Summit photo of father and son, Aneto 3404m.

Having safely made it to the other side once more it was time for me to decide if i wanted to ski the upper ramps in their still white asphalt state. I opted to descend a little further in crampons before switching to skis..and tasting the strange pleasures of sliding on the hard stuff with wide boards. Thankfully the snow began to loosen up below Collado de Coronas and we could all enjoy the descent from there on..

Diego waiting for Angel to catch up, on the slopes below Collado de coronas.

Diego waiting for Angel to catch up, on the slopes below Collado de Coronas.

There was even some really loose snow further down where it was possible to let the horses run a bit..cool! And we were soon down to the plateau above Barrancs looking back up at the Aneto glacier.

Little humans beneath big mountains.

Little humans beneath big mountains.

From there we skied out the valley bottom known as Barrancs to reach Aigualluts (2025m) where the snow ran out and the descent came to a finish. Diego even admitted to being tired!

Looking back up at Aneto..it's a long way.

Looking back up at Aneto and our ski-route down..it’s quite a long way.

 

And there was more.. but that’ll have to wait for another day!

 

 

Posted in children in Nature, Mountain, Nature, rock, ski, snow | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flower power: potent peonias!

The peonia is probably not what you would call a rare flower..though i have not seen many in the Sierras of the Sistema Central. I recall seeing a couple of them in the oak forests of the Southern slopes of Gredos many years ago, and i have come upon the odd one here and there in Guadarrama over the years. But never anything like this year..

Wandering among the peonias, Cerro Golondrina, May 2014.

Wandering among the peonias, Cerro Golondrina, May 2014.

Between the towns of Cercedilla and Navacerrada there is a hill known as Cerro de la Golondrina (“Hill of the Swallow”) whose slopes are covered by the small Spanish oak trees known as melojos, and this month of May we discovered here the most incredible flowering of peonias.

Peonias..

Peonias..

The peonia (Paeonia officinalis) is a flower of some entity, the plant grows to 50-70cm above the ground and the flower itself is large and richly colourful. To come across a couple of peonias in the woods is already a spectacle..and to run into not dozens or even hundreds of them..but literally thousands of peonias..is a little unreal.

..peonias..

..peonias..

Thousands of daisies or buttercups, ok..but thousands of peonias? I don’t usually frequent this particular area at this time of year so maybe hereabouts it’s normal to have such blooming abundance of peonias in May..but given that it’s next to town you would think that it would then be a well-known local floral phenomenon. And it’s not.

..and more peonias, among the oak leaves.

..and more peonias, among the oak leaves.

As i said earlier, a little unreal..when the news is about people kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls and threatening to sell them, or millions of children in the rich world living below the so-called poverty line..this sensation of la vie en rose, even if it only lasted for a day or so.

Posted in children in Nature, flora, Nature | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Flowers – why are they so wonderful?

There’s more to Nature than mountains..flowers for instance, both wild flowers and those of the domesticated kind. I love them all.

The flowers on my living-room window sill.

The flowers on my living-room window sill.

And this is the time of year for flowers, the blooming time of year. Many trees have been in flower over the last month or two, but now it’s the turn of the flower per se..those small plants that go unnoticed until they flower..until they produce a flower.

Among the common wild flowers that change the landscape at this time of year is the poppy. They began to appear around Madrid ten days ago and now we have the first ones in Cercedilla.

Poppy explosion with small child, just up the road from my house..

Poppy explosion with small child, just up the road from my house..last year.

There are many other wild flowers that similarly seem to burst out of the ground with an energy..a force..which is truly cosmic. The potency of Spring..the guarantee of regeneration..the reassurance of cyclic continuity that the seasons offer us.

Spectacular daisy type flower which grows locally.

Spectacular daisy type flower which grows locally.

Amazing how entities so apparently delicate – even fragile – can express such strength and power.

In the mountains too, in the harsh ecosystems of the uplands, small and delicate flowers burst forth as the snows melt..these last weeks they have been abundant.

The snowcover rolls back..and little yellow flowers appear everywhere.

The snowcover rolls back..and little yellow flowers appear everywhere.

This year the main floral protagonist of Spring in the Sierra seems to be this small narcissus (Narcissus bulbocodium, locally known as narciso acampanado or narciso nival), it appears in considerable numbers every year but this year is to be found in profusion.

A closer look reveals.. little wild narcissus flowers.

A closer look reveals.. little wild narcissus flowers, Narcissus bulbocodium.

There’s also another narcissus which is plentiful this year, one which looks like a smaller version of the common daffodil. It’s Narcissus assoanus and i think it’s commonly known simply as narciso or sometimes junquillo menor.

Found not quit so high up, Narcissus assoanus.

Found not quite so high up,  Narcissus assoanus.

Surprisingly the flower which is usually the first and most abundant in the mountains at the end of Winter/start of Spring, the little crocus, Crocus carpetanus or azafrán serrano, has been somewhat less prevalent this year..but it’s still around!

Crocus carpetanus, perhaps the most emblematic flower of the Sierra de Guadarrama.

Crocus carpetanus, perhaps the most emblematic flower of the Sierra de Guadarrama.

Of course there are many other wild flowers in the mountains..and in the fields around our towns and cities..and in our parks and gardens along with the cultivated varieties. Indeed any spot that is not solidly covered by concrete or asphalt – and is not treated with herbicides or other modern gardening techniques – is likely to produce the natural miracle of a flower. Getting back to nature, what this blog is about, is something many people who live in an urban environment do thru flowers..whether they be flowers grown in a pot on the balcony, flowers admired in a public square or on a spot of wasteland on the way to work, or flowers bought at the florist and put in a vase on the dinner table. Flowers are cool..one way or the other.

But here’s the curious thing. Why do we humans find flowers so wonderful? Maybe because they bring colour into our lives..? But then so does advertising..or a visit to the supermarket. But flowers are natural. Hmm..tulips produced on an industrial scale in Holland or Africa for global exportation..how natural is that?  And biologically speaking, flowers are colourful and attractive in order to get the attention of bees..no? The bio-logic of a flower’s appearance is that it will draw pollinating bees to ensure the plant’s reproduction. A flower is not like a fruit which needs to be attractive to animals or birds. There is no reason why a flower should entice humans or animals in general. And yet we humans undoubtedly find flowers to be very beautiful. Just a happy coincidence of Nature?

(Or perhaps we are not so different from insects after all?!)

 

PS: nature photography freaks will have to forgive me for the quality of some of these flower fotos..the primitive nature of the instrument i usually carry does not allow me to take sharp shots of small floral phenomena. Sorry!

 

Posted in children in Nature, flora, Nature, the seasons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment