For a couple of months this winter we travelled around Spain in our campervan, not to laze around on the Costas, but to explore the lesser known Sierras and rural hinterland of this huge and diverse country. By late November this meant staying ahead of any rainy weather, so we crossed the Pyrenees from France and made a beeline for Huesca Province in the region of Aragon, one of the driest parts of the country. Huesca province lies to the west of the Pyrenees and incorporates the exterior ranges (known as the pre-Pyrenees) along with vast areas of steppe-land and crumbling badlands, reminiscent of the American West. This diversity of landscape is great for bird-life and hiking, and the many stunning Mudejar* towns and fortified villages add plenty of cultural interest too.
In late November 2015 Huesca was blessed with stunning clear weather, with temperatures reaching the low 20’s in the day and dropping to freezing at night. To make the most of it we decided to explore a range of sparsely populated hills called the Sierra de Guara which are protected as part of the Sierra de Guara y Canones Natural Park. Apart from our guidebook description of this area as wild, remote and little visited, we knew nothing else about the Guara and expected some nice walking but nothing exceptional. But the landscapes we found in the Guara were exceptional, and at times we felt, world class. Yet in Spain, a country with so much to offer in natural beauty, it is just another range of sierras, and little known except to Spanish tourists, French canyoneers and climbers.
The limestone of the Guara is deeply eroded by rivers, and the action of water percolating down through the strata, which dissolves the rock and hollows-out spectacular caves, pinnacles and crevices. On a larger scale the Guara massif is cut-through from east to west by three major rivers which have sculpted deep, sinuous canyons and draw canyoneers and climbers from far and wide.
Whether it was the gorgeous low-slanting sunshine illuminating yellow autumn oaks, the views of snowy Pyrenean summits against infinite blue, the clear turquoise rivers running deep in sculpted canyons or the Griffon vultures lifting and circling among limestone crags, we were left stunned by the Guara’s beauty. We spent the best part of 10 days exploring the region, based first in the fortified town of Alquezar, and later in the tiny village of Rodellar, and in that time hiked trails deep into the canyons and high onto the airy crests. It was incredibly rewarding, and all the more so for its unexpectedness. The preceding photos and those which follow were taken on our hikes in the Guara this winter, and will hopefully do some justice to this place that we might have fallen a little bit in love with.
Abandoned field terraces being reclaimed by nature.
High on the limestone crest above Rodellar with views towards the snowy Pyrenean summits.
Looking down into the mighty canyon of the Rio Mascun.
A Griffon vulture banks around to investigate us. We also saw the more elusive and enigmatic Lammergier.
While the Guara is rightly famous for its climbing and canyoning, walking is not as developed, although there are a number of well-marked routes. The strong point of hiking there for us was the sheer natural beauty coupled with the diversity of land-forms and landscape that can be experienced on any given hike. Editorial Alpina produces a walking map of the region, and tourist offices and signboards give information on local themed routes. The town of Alquezar (a destination in its own right) has a good range of facilities, but for a more low-key entry point the village of Rodellar has a few cafe-bars and two campsites. While the walks from Alquezar are worthwhile, Rodellar is closer to more spectacular canyon scenery. Both places get very busy with Spanish tourists and canyoneers in the peak summer months, and we found that our out-of-season visit in November was a great time to be there in 2015. Most of the time we had the trails to ourselves and we felt like we were exploring a lost world.
The fortified Mudejar town of Alquezar with its fort and labyrinthine lanes.
While we were in the Sierra de Guara we were discussing our options for long distance hikes for 2016, among which was the GR1. The discovery that the GR1 traverses a large section of the Guara was a strong factor in our final decision to walk the route. We promptly ordered the new GR1 guide by Cicerone online and had it sent to the local cafe-bar in Rodellar so we could start planning! We are very much looking forward to returning to explore the canyons, crags and abandoned villages in Spring. For anyone thinking of getting off the beaten track and visiting the Guara, the closest entry points are the towns of Huesca, Barbastro and the city of Zaragoza.
Barry birdwatching in the canyon below Alquezar. We were delighted to see wall-creeper on the canyon walls nearby, spotted by the red flashes on its wings.
* Mudejar is an architectural style perfected by Moorish craftsmen who stayed on in Spain after the Christian Re-conquest and built churches and cathedrals in the style they had used for Moorish buildings. The style uses intricate geometric brickwork, coloured tiles and horseshoe arches and is very evocative of the design of mosques and minarets in North Africa.