So who was Puricelli?

Our local Puricelli trail (Camino Puricelli) is named for Piero Puricelli (1883-1951) who was an Italian engineer famed for building the world’s first motorway. Puricelli, a man of his times, was imbued with the futurist thirst for speed. He had already built the Monza race-track in 1922 when Mussolini’s fascisti came to power. It seems to have been a happy coincidence of up-and-coming talents. Though Puricelli had already been scheming and dreaming for several years with regard to his autostrada concept, few shared his vision in a country where automobiles were still relatively scarce in the early twenties – 80,000 in Italy compared to 600,000 in Britain – and the project was moving slowly. Fortunately il Duce took a shine to it, turned up to provide the inaugural pick-stroke himself, and generally facilitated the construction of the Autostrada dei Laghi, a dual carriageway exclusively for cars that connected Milan to the Lakes of Varese and Como. The world had not seen its like. The Milano-Varese stretch was inaugurated in September 1924, and the branch to Como in 1925. Others were to follow. Not only at national level, in the late twenties Puricelli participated in the planning of Germany’s first Autobahn, the HaFraBa project which aimed to connect Hamburg-Frankfurt-Basel.

In the early 1930s this road-building fever reached Spain – with its brand new Republic – where the Ministry of Public Works came up with several ambitious, not to say outlandish, projects to provide citizens from the Madrid area with better access to the newly discovered Sierra de Guadarrama. One such project was a road to connect Cercedilla to Valsaín, crossing the mountains via Puerto de Fuenfría. Piero Puricelli was hired to build it. The plans were drawn up, the company Puricelli Española was set up to build it, and work commenced. The project was well advanced by mid-1936 when the Civil War broke out. It is easy to conclude that few good things came of the brutal Spanish conflict, but there was at least one positive note. Puricelli’s road was never completed. What in the later twentieth century we might in all probability consider to be an environmental atrocity instead became the most elaborately realized forest track on the Peninsula, if not on the planet.

The first section, which retains Puricelli’s name, runs from the edge of Cercedilla up the Fuenfría Valley for about three kilometers almost reaching the Hospital (Puricelli trail to Hospital de Fuenfría). The engineered road dies suddenly a few hundred meters short of the Hospital giving way to a rougher, steeper section of trail. From here, past the sanatorium and on up the valley, there are another three kilometers where it is not clear if Puricelli’s road was to coincide with the existing asphalted road or otherwise. Close to the top of the valley in the spot known as Pradera de los Corralillos the road designed by Puricelli sets off anew swinging obliquely out to one side of the valley so as to overcome the remaining three hundred meters of vertical gain in a gradual way, thereby reaching the mountain pass of Puerto de Fuenfría over a stretch of almost seven kilometers known as la Carretera de la República (the Road of the Republic). Again this section is very obviously a product of road engineering with major earthworks, banking and considerable extensions hewn from rock – most notably the stretch known as el Mirador de la Calva o de la Reina.

Walking or biking along Puricelli’s unfinished road today, it is hard to envisage the potential nightmare of hundreds – maybe thousands – of noisy, exhaust-spewing automobiles blasting past, not to mention the huge car-park of Puerto de Fuenfría and the  inevitable bars, hotels and other services that come with auto sprawl. Would it be far-fetched to imagine poor Piero Puricelli as some sort of personification of the ‘curse of the twentieth century’ that the horse-loving Winston Churchill alledgedly saw in the car? Of course it might be unfair to lambast the vision of Puricelli  – and others – with regard to the development of the private automobile..in the early century it was hardly foreseeable that there would be such an explosion in car ownership, that vehicles would come to clog every city large or little and even the smallest towns, that mass use of the internal combustion engine could have such nefarious effects on both the health of people and that of the planet. But then what are visionaries supposed to see?

Like the automobile, Piero Puricelli’s early and protracted success came to blight his life. Il Re delle autostrade (the King of the Highways) became more and more involved in the fascist administration, his companies built engineering projects across the ‘Italian empire’ from Albania to East Africa, as a result of all the money rolling in he became very wealthy, he was appointed to various positions of national responsibility including that of Senator-for-Life. So, inevitably, when the edifice of fascism came tumbling down, the engineer fell with it. While he escaped serious retribution after the Second World War, Piero Puricelli was a forgotten man in the new Italian Republic. His death in 1951 was barely noticed.

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Snow biking on the Puricelli trail

As i was saying in my last post, we got out on our bikes despite the serious cold temps of recent days..a foray up the Fuenfría Valley as far as the flat Puricelli trail would take us. Cool sensations in every sense! Some more pics..

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Two weeks of Autumn, then Winter!

Mid-November, Autumn finally arrived..

Mid-November, Autumn finally arrived..

Our interminable Summer finally drew to a close a couple of weeks back, the oaks of the lower Fuenfría Valley seemed to suddenly turn orange-red and temps dropped, and i thought to myself: ‘well, get ready for another December-January Fall season’.. was i wrong! A blast of polar air and accompanying Atlantic front brought us snow on the 1st of December.

..and then this white stuff appears on the ground in the first days of December!

..and then this white stuff appears on the ground in the first days of December!

Ok, so it wasn’t exactly a foot of the white stuff – more like the thickness of two or three little toes – but the sensation of Winter cold was the real thing. Temperatures haven’t been spectacularly low, minimums of -3º or -4º C locally, but on Saturday 2nd of December we were below zero all day.

Autumn or Winter?

Autumn or Winter?

To put that into perspective, we went out for an afternoon bike-ride wearing full, multi-layered Winter gear..and didn’t remove a single thing even on the up section.

Multi-layered Winter biking!

Multi-layered Winter biking!

And the forecasts suggest more wintry weather on the way – let’s hope they get it right!

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The Puricelli trail – el camino Puricelli

Near the start of the Puricelli Trail

Near the start of the Puricelli Trail in Spring

There are many celebrated trails in the central Guadarrama area, but surely one of those you must begin with is el camino Puricelli – the Puricelli trail. It starts in Cercedilla, right out of the train station, and meanders up the Fuenfría Valley for about three kilometers and barely 200m of ascent as far as the Hospital de Fuenfría.

Looking back towards Cercedilla train station

Looking back towards Cercedilla train station..

..and forwards to where the trail kicks off

..and forwards to where the trail kicks off

After several short switchbacks right at the start, the trail basically heads straight up the Fuenfría Valley, ascending very gradually in general – sometimes it seems almost flat – and always easy to follow. You can see regular trail markers, dark blue circles, on trees and rocks. The predominant tree in the first part of the route is the rebollo or melojo, Iberian (or ‘Pyrenean’) Oak, Quercus Pyrenaica.

Notice the blue circle trail mark on the tree trunk to the left

Notice the blue circle trail mark on the tree trunk to the left

As you advance into the territory of the Wild (or ‘Scots’) Pine, Pinus sylvestris, you will notice that the path is generally quite wide, in fact it’s more like a forestry road than a trail..and this has to do with its origins and the name of l’ingegnere Puricelli, an Italian engineer who was indeed hired to build a road.

View towards Siete Picos from the Santa Catalina stretch

View towards Siete Picos from the Santa Catalina stretch

Apart from the width of the path, this road reality is given away by the elaborate banking that you can often observe – usually on the right or valley side – plus the obviously calculated gradual ascent, designed for motor vehicles. Until a certain point just after the second kilometer that is, when the trail abruptly changes character and ascends more steeply over relatively rough, more natural terrain for a few minutes.

The point where the trail suddenly steepens

The point where the trail suddenly steepens

After about one hundred meters of somewhat less regular – less engineered – and steeper travel, the trail joins with the Campamentos Forestry Track (Camino de los Campamentos) for the last stretch before the Hospital. The dominant floral presence continues to be the Wild Pines.

On the Campamentos Forestry Track

On the Campamentos Forestry Track

For a part of this last section you walk alongside a finely built stone wall on the right-hand side and there are several cerezos silvestres or Wild Cherry trees to be seen. If you pass by here in Autumn they can sometimes offer quite a spectacle.

The wall and the Wild Cherry trees in Autumn

The wall and the Wild Cherry trees in Autumn

For those really into flora, there is also a fine example of a mostajo or Whitebeam, Sorbus aria, a little further along this wall. By now the end of the trail is nigh, as we round a long bend the huge building that is the Hospital de Fuenfría appears above the trees.

Hospital de Fuenfría finally in sight!

Hospital de Fuenfría finally in sight!

Within five minutes you are at the Hospital where there is a café open to the public should you be in need of sustenance. At this point there are several options to continue: you could just return the way you have come, or take the public minibus (stops at the entrance to the Hospital) back along the Fuenfría road to Cercedilla, or also walk back along the road which has a generous sidewalk all the way. Alternatively if you want to walk some more, you could cross to the other side of the valley – passing by the Fuenfría Valley Visitor Center on the road about 200m down from the Hospital – and take the ‘Water Way’ (Camino del Agua) back to town. More serious hikers could continue upwards from the Fuenfría Hospital (1345m) along the ‘Old Segovia Way’ (Camino Viejo de Segovia) to the top of the valley and Puerto de Fuenfría (1795m).

The Puricelli trail is an all-year round option, many sections offer generous shade in Summer and even in the most rigourous of Winters it’s rare to see more than 20-30cm of snow on the ground.

Evening in Winter among the tall pines on the Puricelli

Evening in Winter among the tall pines on the Puricelli

Puricelli in the fog

Puricelli in the fog

Puricelli in the snow

Puricelli in the snow

 

GPS track of the route (Puricelli trail plus Camino del Agua) here.

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Tino bikes to Puerto de Fuenfría..and back!

This past long hot Summer has been exhausting..in part due to the protracted heat that we have suffered, but also as a result of the high frequency of relatively strenuous outdoor activity that we have engaged in. Day-hiking, rock-climbing, biking, sleeping out overnight in the mountains, archery sessions in the forest – with homemade bows and arrows – and usually combined with biking, rope games in the trees, scrambling on rock ridges..you name it, we do it. My son not being so little anymore – he turned eight in July – means that the range and scope of activities we can take on is ever less restricted. The day when it’s me who can’t keep up looms ahead!

As an example of an activity that many an adult – and not just the clinically unfit – might think twice about undertaking is the bike ride that features in the video below: from our house in Cercedilla to the mountain pass of Puerto de Fuenfría and back, 26km round trip with just over 700m of elevation gain.

 

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica VI, Saxifraga – the Stonebreakers!

My last post on this subject is dedicated to a few flowers of the genus Saxifraga, literally translatable from Latin as ‘stone-breaker’ and commonly known in English as Saxifrage or Rockfoil. There is some debate as to the sense of the term stonebreaker – does it mean that the roots of the plant were believed to be capable of splitting rocks? or is it a reference to medicinal use against kidney stones? – but there can be no doubt about Saxifrage’s ability to survive in harsh alpine environments on scraps of shallow soil among the rocks and exposed to difficult meteorological conditions..all over the Arctic and as high as 4000m in the Alps.

Saxifraga paniculata, White Mountain Saxifrage, at 2200m in Vallibierna.

Saxifraga paniculata, White Mountain Saxifrage, at 2200m in Vallibierna, Central Pyrenees.

Saxifraga paniculata, known in English as White Mountain or Alpine Saxifrage and also Lifelong Saxifrage, is seen in the above image with its characteristic long red or green stems and small white-petal flowers. What you do not see is the plant base with its dense leaf clusters..visible in the following shot.

Saxifraga paniculata at 2650m, Ibon de O, Valle de Estós.

Saxifraga paniculata at 2650m, Ibon de O, Valle de Estós.

Most saxifrages tend to be similarly small flowers, 10-15mm in diameter, with white petals occasionally dappled with brighter-coloured specks. Saxifraga moschata, known in English as Musky Saxifrage, often has a greenish-yellow look about it although its petals can vary from white to pale pink. The leaf clusters of the plant base can resemble moss..whence the name.

Saxifraga moschata, at 2600m in Valle de Estós.

Saxifraga moschata, at 2600m in Valle de Estós.

Another well-known member of the genus is Saxifraga oppositifolia, known as Purple Saxifrage or Purple Mountain Saxifrage. Distinguished from the typically white-petal saxifrages by its pert purplish pinkness, it’s also an outstanding performer in terms of extreme survival.

Saxifraga oppositifolia, hanging out at 2750m on the South-facing slopes of Tuca de Clarabide, Central Pyrenees.

Saxifraga oppositifolia, hanging out at 2750m on the South-facing slopes of Tuca de Clarabide, Central Pyrenees.

This small plant with its apparently delicate violet-pink blossoms holds a number of botanical records. It has been found growing at 83º40’N, on Kaffeklubben Island at the northernmost tip of Greenland..and the most northerly point of land in the Arctic. The limit for plant life in the Alps is traditionally considered to be around 3800m, but Purple Saxifrage – Saxifrage à feuilles opposées in French – has been found at 4070m on the South face of the Barre des Écrins (4122m), article here (in French), and, more amazing still, at 4507m on the rocky NE ridge of the Dom (4545m) in Switzerland, article here (in English). Incidentally the common German name for Saxifrage is Steinbrech..back to the ‘stonebreaker’ theme!

It’s tempting and typical to think of high mountain flowers as delicate and fragile, but the fact of the matter is that some of them are really tough little cookies!

 

PS: Of course there are hundreds of other flowering plants in the Pyrenees. I do not pretend to be an expert in botany nor did i set out with any intent to be comprehensive or exhaustive. In these posts i have included plants that i happen to have reasonably good photographs of; there are many others that i would have liked to include but did not..for one reason or another. In any case i think the posts are quite representative of what you can expect to see in the way of flowers during the Summer months in the Pyrenees.

For anybody who wants to know more, let me recommend:

Atlas de la Flora de los Pirineos, very comprehensive botanical listings, in Spanish, French, Catalan, Basque;

Herbario de Jaca, very comprehensive, official Government of Aragón site, only in Spanish;

Flores de Aragón, an introductory list, a bit more comprehensive than my posts, only in Spanish;

Flora Aragonesa, introductory but fairly comprehensive, part of Manuel Bernal’s blog, only in Spanish;

Flora de Aragón, comprehensive botanical listings, only in Spanish.

Also, even though it’s specific to the Alps and not Pyrenees, Florealpes continues to be a wonderful resource for the identification of European alpine flowers. Very comprehensive botanically, multiple search options, multiple photographs, only in French.

And let me not forget Wikipedia, wonderful botanical resource in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German..and many other languages.

 

 

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica V, Purplish-Pinky-Violet..!

The ‘colour’ of a flower is sometimes not so easy to define, either because it combines two or more colours or because the colour varies across a certain spectrum or because our words to describe colour fall short. For example, in the Red post it would be feasible to argue that none of those flowers are truly red..at least not in the sense that ‘roses are red’..even the Rhododendron has a certain pinky hint to its redness. In the mountains we find very few flowers with that deep redness characteristic of red roses. Blue, yellow and white are more readily defined. But here are some more flowers that defy colour characterisation..

Lilium martagon, the Martagon (or Turk's Cap) Lily.

Lilium martagon, the Martagon (or Turk’s Cap) Lily.

We’ve already seen the Lily (or Iris) in blue, white and yellow..here it is in purplish pink. Lilium martagon, known in English as Martagon Lily or Turk’s Cap Lily and in Spanish as simply Martagón or Lirio Llorón, has petals with a background colour that goes from near white to pink/violet and with dark purple or deep red spots..and large stamens that are usually reddish but sometimes present a bright orange colour.

Another flower that combines two quite different colours is the Alpine Aster, Aster alpinus, in Spanish simply Aster. At least here the colours do not vary so much..the petals are usually violet-lavender, occasionally straying to purplish-blue, with the defined yellow center.

Aster alpinus, the Alpine Aster, growing at 2100m in Vallibierna.

Aster alpinus, the Alpine Aster, growing at 2100m in Vallibierna.

Here’s another shot where some difference in colour can be appreciated in two flowers growing barely a meter apart..tho it may be due to camera optics or the angle of light hitting the flowers, or to a difference in the age of the flowers.

Two Asters looking a little bit different in colour.

Two Asters looking a little bit different in colour.

A flower which might possibly be confused with Aster alpinus is the often very similar, tho smaller and much rarer, Erigeron uniflorus (subsp. aragonensis?)..one of those true high mountain flowers generally found above 2200m and often on rocky ridges or close to summits. Also presenting some variation in the colour of its petals.

Erigeron uniflorus, sharing a spot of fertile ground with Silene acaulis at 2900m, Pico de Clarabide.

Erigeron uniflorus, sharing a spot of fertile ground with Silene acaulis at 2900m, Pico de Clarabide.

No common name in Spanish that i know of, Vergerette à une fleur in French, reputedly ‘One-flower Fleabane’ in English. Notice that in the above photograph, where you would expect a reddish pink, Silene acaulis looks decidedly purplish violet..!

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