Thirty-six kilometres of dirt track winding around and up and down the hills of the Sierra de Grazalema, this is the Vía Verde de la Sierra, Cádiz. From Puerto Serrano to Olvera the track follows an old rail line running through olive groves and goat corrals, over valleys and under mountains, by streams and past abandoned stations. After completing the shorter Vía Verde of Seville in one day, the Grazalema track took me two days – though here, the longer the ride, the better.
The railway was originally dreamt to run some 120 kilometres from Jerez de la Frontera to Almargen – in the neighbouring province of Malaga – linking along the way provincial towns like Arcos de la Frontera, Bornos, Villamartin, to the city. Progress, integration, development, these were the dreams of Jerez’s own caudillo, Primo de Rivera, under whose command the works began. Progress, integration, development, those too were the dreams interrupted by another dictator, Franco Francisco, whose coup d’etat in 1936 led to all-out civil war and a decade of post-war destruction. The line was with the war postponed, forgotten in the postwar, and ultimately abandoned in the 1960s. Not a single train ever ran on this railway.
The track takes you through an impressive thirty tunnels and over four viaducts, all of them in still perfect condition. The only thing that this track needed for completion was iron rails and wooden sleepers, leaving you to wonder how life would have changed and been for these country towns had the line been laid. Now at least, the track can be enjoyed by hikers and bikers. A popular rest stop is a gigantic tree known as the Chaparro de la Vega, an oak under whose welcoming branches people have picnicked and siesta-ed for over two-hundred years.
The Grazalema region, though protected by Natural Park status, is also an agricultural region, and here there is money and livelihood in cheese. Goats are populous, sheep are many, and cows, there are a few. The cheese of the Sierra de Grazalema has become world-famous, particularly the white payoyo cheese for which Spainiards go loco. But whether it’s payoyo or another breed, whether its cured or young, and whether its pure-goat, or blended goat-sheep-and-cow, this sierra’s cheese is always quality cheese, and it has secured the region both tourism and production.
For the unlucky kid goat or the older cow, their fate is the vulture’s feast. Here there is one of the largest colonies of Griffon Vulture in Europe, located in El Peñon de Zaframagón, a rocky outcrop rising above the rail-way at its half-way point. Flying in circles above you, the vultures feed on the dead livestock of the area, though in previous times farmers across Europe were obliged to burn the remains of dead cattle for fear of provoking an outbreak of ‘mad cow’ disease, thus threatening the existence of this species. Now at least the vultures once again have their dead cattle, and here they have an outpost against further encroachment upon their habitat.
Culturally, geographically, and culinarily, the province of Cádiz is one of Andalusia’s richest. Between the sea and the sierra, in its sherry and its cheese, or in flamenco and husbandry, Cádiz offers all the diversity and depth of Andalusia in a nutshell.
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