SPAIN gets under your skin and fingernails. It dries your eyes and your mouth. You can feel it in your hair and on your brow when your boots kick the dust of its white mountain tracks. You smell its wild herbs and warm winds drifting through pine woods. And when you sit in the baking sun on its rocky summits, gazing out across deep valleys and hazy plains, you think: I could live here . . .
I have two litres of water in the sack, a stick of fresh bread, a chorizo, a sharp knife and two oranges ??? windfalls ??? from the orchard of the casita we???ve rented in Orgiva. And I???m heading east along the silent valley of Arroya del Huenes from the parking area at Collado Sevilla, a few kilometres south of Granada. (Click pictures for high-res versions)
When the first mountain you climbed was Coniston Old Man (803m, 2,634ft), the Baja Monta??a don???t sound very low. But I???m getting pretty familiar with this area, and having climbed many of the big brutes to the east, I???m hoping that my targets for today will be a gentle reintroduction to the delights of Spain. Those targets are Pico del Tosoro (1,994m or 6,541ft) and Cerro del Mirador (2,069m or 6,788ft).
To my right looms the wonderfully majestic Cerro del Trevenque (2,097m, 6,879ft). Trevenque is the highest peak in the Baja Monta??a and dominates the landscape.
If I compiled a list of my five favourite hauntingly beautiful mountains, Trevenque (pictured below) would be up there with Shiehallion, Buachaille Etive Mor, Great Gable and the Matterhorn. There???s only one of those I haven???t climbed, and no prizes for guessing which ??? but I stood at its foot the day South Korea knocked Italy out of the World Cup. That didn???t go down too well in the local bars, I can tell you.
This is my fifth visit to the Sierra Nevada. Spain has worked its way into my soul. When Mr EasyJet drops me off at Malaga, it feels like I???m coming home. I could live here.
But my home is a cold, uncharitable country that has grown progressively peevish, nasty and intolerant in the past few years. Britain is a place where scorn and blame are poured on doctors and nurses for isolated aberrations in the health service; on teachers for schools that fail to compete; on the public sector because it escapes the clutches of private interests; on the unemployed because there are no decent jobs available; on immigrants who seek a better life for themselves and their families; and on social workers because they are easy targets in a system that has been pared to the bone.
In Britain, ???asylum seeker??? has become a derogatory term. Families fleeing persecution in conflicts ??? several of which were started by British politicians ??? are automatically branded illegal workshy benefits scroungers by the right-wing press.
Blame, blame, blame. Piled on deep. Even on the bloody badgers.
And at the other end of the spectrum we have the banks and the energy companies robbing us blind, private armies such as G4S and Serco riding roughshod over democratic law, and criminals Chris Huhne and Vicky Price elevated to celebrity status on their release from prison.
How does that work? If your wife or husband was convicted of perverting the course of justice would you expect TV presenters to be interviewing her or him on the comfy settee after their release? ???Oh, you???ve written a book about your experiences and the inequalities within the prison system ??? do tell us about it, dear.??? I don???t think so.
Hey. I tramp halfway along the 6km track from Collado Sevilla to Cortijuela ??? where my route strikes up into the hills ??? when I realise I could have driven the entire length and parked at the head of the valley. This dawns on me when two cars rumble past, leaving me covered in a film of white dust. I???m not disheartened because the views of Trevenque are spectacular and the sweet November air is thoroughly refreshing. And I rather like being covered in white dust.
At Cortijuela, believe it or not, there is a botanic garden, which must rank as one of the most remote and inaccessible botanic gardens in the world. Six mountain bikers are arguing noisily by a fountain outside the gate. The Spanish are very passionate when they converse, unlike we Brits. My command of Spanish is less than rudimentary, but I get the impression they are discussing Vicky Pryce???s new book.
My route today is an amalgamation and subsequent paring down of two routes in Andy Walmsley???s Walking in the Sierra Nevada (Cicerone), one of the most accurate and descriptive guidebooks on the area, if you ask me. I follow Andy???s route up through the piny forests to the Collado de Matas Verdes (col of the green shrubs), where a solitary three-fingered signpost points to places I???ve never seen on a map.
The col is the perfect place to have lunch. Collado de Matas Verdes is a pleasant green sward with pine trees behind and open vistas to the fore. It would also prove to be a perfect place to spend a night. Is it just me, or do other people stumble upon ideal campsites in the middle of the day or when they have no intention of camping?
The summit of Pico del Tesoro is a short climb to the north-west through scrub, wild herbs and boulders. Walmsley says that on the summit there is ???much evidence of cabra montes (ibex)???. He is not wrong. And like crusty cow pats, there is no problem if the evidence has spent some time in the sun.
I shuffle back down to Collado de Matas Verdes. Cerro del Mirador lies across to the east. Walmsley says, somewhat unflatteringly, that rather than being a peak in its own right, it???s ???only a bump on the side of the huge Loma de Dilar???. He also says it takes only thirty minutes to climb from Collado de Matas Verdes. That sounds like a challenge to a man who is easily goaded.
I???m sitting on the summit of Cerro del Mirador within 28 minutes. That might sound like bragging ??? but I was 57 last month and I have to keep pushing myself like an uncle on a dancefloor at a niece???s wedding because that???s the sort of person I???ve become. You should see me when the DJ plays Come on Eileen. I???m the bloke with the pint in his hand and the open shirt who always asks for the Irish Rover by the Pogues.
So I sit on the summit of Cerro del Mirador and gaze out across this fantastic panorama of forests and plains to the blue ridges of the Sierra Almijara and think: no country is perfect. Spain has its problems. There is inequality, poverty, unemployment, and a history of bloody conflict between the privileged and the dispossessed that resounds to this day.
But it???s a nice place to be ??? to breathe the air, to tramp through warm dust, to sit on a breezy peak in brilliant sunshine and drift through quiet forests to shaded valleys. And that???s in November.