North to Extremadura, the beautiful Sierra de Grazalema

It was time to head north. We’d promised ourselves a few days in Madrid before flying back to the Netherlands, but first we wanted to visit Extremadura. We had only one destination in mind, Trujillo, home of Francisco Pizarro, Conquistador and conqueror of the Incan Empire – a town built on looted silver and gold from Peru. It was a bit of a whim, and quite a distance, but after a couple of visits to Peru in 2012 and 2013, we were keen to see from where Pizarro and his band of cutthroats heralded.

Leaving Ronda behind, we set off early to loop through some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in Andalusia: the Sierra de Grazalema. Our route would take us through the mountains, along a narrow road that has more hairpin bends than you can count, and leads you over the 1357m Puerto de Las Palomas. It is a spectacular road to drive, the mountains in the crisp morning air, absolutely wonderful.

Zahara de la Sierra, Andalusia, Spain
Zahara de la Sierra, Andalusia, Spain

We headed towards the sleepy village of Grazalema, which nestles in a high altitude valley beneath a giant lump of limestone called Peñon Grande. It may be sleepy but the location is all drama. When I think of Andalusia the first thing that springs to mind is a relentless, sultry heat, but in the Sierra de Grazalema National Park the countryside is some of the greenest in the whole country. A bit of reading revealed that it has a unique microclimate created by the mountains, making this region the rainiest place in Spain.

The village was originally founded by North African Berbers, and it was they who introduced the sheep that you see all over this region. The wool industry became hugely important for the local economy, but today tourism, based around outdoor activities, is the major industry. We had a long journey ahead so we only had time to pause for a coffee before heading up and over the mountain towards Zahara de la Sierra.

The coffee turned out to be a very good idea, you don’t want to drive this mountain road without being fully alert. We reached the Puerto de Las Palomas (the Pass of the Doves) in one piece, but coming down the other side of the mountain range was more traumatic than going up. At least we could see our destination, the castle of Zahara de la Sierra was visible from miles away.

As defensive positions go, the fortifications at Zahara de la Sierra are as impressive and daunting as any I’ve ever seen. After lugging ourselves up to the top of the hill from the main square in the village I speak from experience. Out of breath we may have been but, from the windswept top of the Homage Tower, the views are absolutely stunning. If that wasn’t enough, standing on this spot you are standing in a place with an important history.

The castle of Zahara de la Sierra played a vital role in the Reconquista, the protracted conquest of Moorish Spain by Christian forces under the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1481 the Emirate of Granada, all that was left of the once mighty Moorish empire on the Iberian Peninsular, decided to seize Zahara de la Sierra from its Christian occupiers. This they did in a daring night raid, the unforeseen consequence of this was that it sparked the final phase of the Reconquista, the conquest of Granada.

The Homage Tower is all that is left of the castle that once stood on the craggy outcrop that literally towers over the town below; up here you get a real sense of why this was such an strategic place. The fertile valley below was a rich prize, and this place changed hands several times. From the top of the tower we could see the white knuckle route we had just driven, presumably it was just a rough donkey trail in 1481. We stopped for a bite to eat in the village square and then set off again to wend our way north towards Extremadura.

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