09 Feb Carboneras
If you take the coast road south from Bedar, you pass the tourist playas of Mojacar and then along a road that sweeps like a silver ribbon around the coastal Sierra Cabrera. The A5106 is a feat of engineering – fantastic views out to sea as you round another dramatic hairpin bend supported on stilts wedged into sheer slope. Not for the faint-hearted. After about 20km you reach Carboneras, another of the pure white settlements that hug the hillsides and dip their toes into the Mediterranean. Carboneras would be beautiful but for two things. Firstly, it’s outgrown itself; needy developments of tourist apartments have eaten up green space and spread their whitewashed ugliness up and onto the slopes that cradle the town. Secondly, and blighting this stunning coastal setting more fundamentally, are the massive cement factory and power station that sprawl across the southern edge of the town and seem to choke off the sunlight; dusty derricks, massive storage cylinders, chutes and warehouses are bad enough but the 656 feet high chimney is particularly ghastly, dominating every view from virtually every house. I had imagined a small village nestled round a port….
However, undaunted, we had in mind a walk, one of the Senderos Locales (SL) that you find all over Spain with their marker posts drilled into the ground (albeit not always consistently). The SL-166 starts south of the town and unfolds largely within sight of its industrial heartland – well, the massive chimney at least – nature and industry cheek by jowl. It takes in the ruggedly uneven coastline here at the northern edge of the Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata, a backdrop of the succession of sierras receding inland, the backmost snow-topped, and in the foreground a big flat plain sheltering behind the coastal ridge.
We did the walk back to front – not intentionally, of course! So we started with the climb up to the top of the Mesa Roldan that rises up steeply above the shore. On top of this table (mesa) of rock is a lighthouse, painted white and yellow, just like the lighthouses in Scotland – it seems Stevenson’s colour scheme (if it was his invention) matches that of any civic building in provincial Spain, always rendered cleanly in white and yellow. A little further along the Mesa are the remains of a huge circular stone tower built for defence. It was apparently an excellent point to observe approaching invaders but defensively a bit of a flop as it was too far back from the sea for its weaponry when fired to actually reach any marauding mariner! We lingered awhile up there to contemplate what was laid out before us: sea, cliff, mountain, river-bed and a vast plain of scrubby nothingness. The artist sketched. In the middle distance, a couple of purple patches drew our eyes. Like fields of lavender in high summer, we wondered if it was a trick of the light and if we were just seeing bare earth refracted to indigo by the angle of the sun.
The scrubby nothingness was nothing like we imagined; close up it comes to life. Underpinned by what seemed, to my amateur eye, to be a limestone pavement spread across the whole plain, it’s brimful of shrubs and wildflowers of delicate shapes and delicious shades. In this part of Spain there is a slender strain of lavender, whose subtle fragrance wafts from a flower-head of the most arresting lavender-hyacinth-Wedgewood blue, a blue I don’t remember seeing anywhere else. Alongside, emerging from swarthy, broad-leaved clumps, are stems about 3 feet tall bearing multiple buds of bell-shaped flowers of the palest pink and with stamens so absurdly long they must have been brushed with a glistening mascara of gold. A type of gorse trails down near the path, just one of the host of yellows that nature seems to favour and offer so generously. And as we walked through this quiet, succulent landscape we inhaled the sweet smell of wild thyme. Clumps of this compact, aromatic gem covered the floor of the wide Barranca del Hondo like carpet tiles. In full bloom, with their combination of pink and mauve held tightly on filigreed dark green leaves, they look like nature’s very own prototype for a piece of delicately woven Harris tweed, individual colours almost too strong and bold, but by their merging creating something wondrously subtle and pleasing. This was surely the purple haze we had spotted from up on the Mesa.
Completing the walk through gradually narrowing valleys, we came across fig trees, bereft of their leaves, crouching here and there, bare, misshapen skeletons, looking ancient and decrepit but budding from every branch and ready to rejuvenate. Overhung by fringes of grey rock, broad horizontal crusts of a whitish-blond mineral gash the slopes, perhaps what feeds the furnaces of the cement works. It was a joy, this walk; we soon forgot the chimney or at least didn’t notice it until the end when we ran out of trail much nearer the industrial perimeter than we had expected. Paying the price for having started out back to front, we faced a final trudge up the main road. But not even that could detract from the magic of SL 166. Next time we’ll do it the right way round.