Following a successful week in Majorca last year it was decided to repeat the dose on the Spanish mainland in 2011. Numbers were expanded slightly from eleven to fourteen but the affiliation was similar with Cumbria, Cleveland and Yorkshire Coast groups the main contributors. A booking had been made with Jonathan Neill of Aqua Ventura (see Strider 118 page 14) who lives on a picturesque organic farm, Hort de Gloria, near the hill village of Sella which nestles peacefully in the mountains inland from Benidorm.
He met our flight from Leeds Bradford on the Sunday lunchtime and whisked us back in time for a buffet lunch followed by a relaxing swim in the spring fed pool which was certainly cool enough to deter the less hardy. After meeting Violeta, his charming wife, and children, Isabella and Dylan we ambled the shortcut into Sella for a welcome beer or two before climbing up to the chapel overlooking the village with its numerous alleys and side streets. After admiring the stunning mountain views we returned in time to enjoy the first of the week’s superb meals of simple but tasty Mediterranean cuisine.
Also tending to our needs were David, Kat and Emma the three WWOOF-ers (World wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) an organisation that provides free board and accommodation to young people in return for their work on an organic farm. Exceptional was Kat in her knowledge and expertise in Yoga and her willingness to take several morning classes during the week for a few of those inclined – both experienced and beginners. Her patience and forbearance in the face of the ineptitude demonstrated by at least one beginner was magnificent!
The accommodation is simple but adequate in twin rooms either in the main farm house or in an extension overlooking the pool and near the terrace where we relaxed during and after meals and enjoyed the mountain views. Jonathan was the main guide for the week and such is the wealth of walking possibilities in the area travelling far to enjoy this is largely unnecessary. On the first morning we walked straight from the farm on a getting-to-know-you day of some 10 miles and 1700 ft of ascent.
After climbing through cultivated terraces we made our way towards and over the magnificently spiky Castellets ridge before finding a welcome irrigation reservoir for a cooling dip at lunchtime. With the heat taking its toll we descended under the mighty southern face of the Puig Campana to finish in the village of Finestrat where more beers were enjoyed. Transport back to base gave us plenty of time for swimming, R & R and sunbathing before another eagerly awaited supper.
The next day was the Buddhist walk, with a retreat passed early on, of some 15 miles and 3000+ ft on another hot day this time without cooling dips. We meandered in and out of high cols after starting a little way up the valley under towering cliffs offering numerous climbing options. The famous Bernia ridge was visible from afar and we salivated over the prospect of visiting it later in the week. After an elliptical route on some of the seemingly endless network of paths and tracks in Jonathan’s repertoire and a welcome rest for lunch at a cool high pass we returned to the van where the less fortunate had to hoof it back to Sella to the pub while the rest returned home for a more timely swim.
Now considered adequately fit we next attacked the high point of the week on the Aitana ridge circuit. Serra d’Aitana is the highest peak in the area at 1558m. and although we didn’t quite reach the summit which is occupied by a military radar dome we were treated to an excellent climb followed by a fine high level promenade finishing with the ‘rabbit run’ – a steep and shaley descent into Sella leading unerringly to our favourite bar!
The day started with a long ascent on forest tracks and recently cleared ancient shepherds’ paths to reach a fine view point above the Guadelest valley. Highlight of the climb was sight of a group of ibex, a species of wild goat, on the hill above us. Descending and traversing we eventually gained the main ridge via the narrow Pass of the Vixen or Fat Man’s Agony. Pausing for rest over lunch we admired some truly cavernous holes in the mountain then enjoyed a comfortable afternoon of strolling before the final steeps where the expert descenders were able to profile their skills.
With half the week gone and a cloudy day with impending rain on offer Jonathan announced to an incredulous audience that we would go sea kayaking. Protestations that we were long distance walkers were to no avail so up we packed and decamped down the hill to the sea at La Vila Jojoisa, kayaks galore in the trailer behind. After a fairly short dry land briefing mainly along the lines of ‘can you swim’, ‘put each end of the paddle in the water alternately’ we launched two to a canoe through the raging surf. Perhaps a slight exaggeration but it certainly wasn’t flat calm! Apparently one overturn out of six starts is an acceptable attrition rate!
With everyone eventually upright, making some sort of progress and learning to steer we progressed in rather zig-zag fashion towards the harbour where Jonathan displayed his sadistic side in conducting a voluntary (!) capsize and righting / re-entering exercise. Unfortunately conditions precluded the planned trip along the coast so with most now nicely soaked we enjoyed a happy half hour paddling alongside millionaire yacht row before disembarking and enjoying an al fresco lunch. Rain had now arrived so a suitable café was soon found followed by a pleasant sea side stroll after the shower and a swim for those inclined.
Day 5 and the week slipping away saw normal service resumed and the eagerly awaited Bernia ridge on offer. This required an hour’s drive, narrowly avoiding Benidorm on our right, to reach the start point at a car park next to the aptly named and later to be enjoyed Bernia bar. Our guide and drivers for the day were Laszlo, an expert climber and friendly Hungarian beanpole of a man who imparted much information in an unfailingly reassuring monotone, and Maria his charming lady. Split in two with a few opting for a less demanding day, the climb was initially well graded enabling a rapid ascent to la Font de la Barca, refuge and watering hole under the main ridge. Conditions at this point were poor with high wind and cloud on the tops making a summit attempt unlikely so the decision was made to initially circumnavigate the mountain and hope for improving weather.
An easy trod eastward under imposing crags took us to an impressive lunch spot at the entrance to a short tunnel through which we crawled emerging on the north side of the ridge. After a circuitous afternoon of considerable descent and re-ascent we eventually arrived at the west end near the site of the 16th Century Fort de Bernia. Fortunately with much clearer visibility we were able to climb to the high point at 1126m. enjoying some simple and pleasant scrambling on warm dry rock.Summit views were impressive and included the more difficult eastern section of the ridge where hard scrambling and abseiling are required in order to make progress. The day’s objective now reached we retraced our steps to the col, admired the fort and scooted back down to the bar – an interesting 8 hour day of perhaps 12 miles and 4,500 ft of climbing. The statistics seemed unimportant, however, after a few beers and a relaxing journey back to base.
Following dinner a few elected to visit the town where fiesta celebrations were getting into gear. The remainder were content with versions of scrabble and dominoes before turning in to prepare for the final day. This was to be an ascent of the Puig (pronounced Pooch) Campana, a conspicuous 1400m. massif which we had admired from all angles throughout the week. Its notched profile made it instantly recognisable from the western approaches and it was interesting to learn that the notch was created by the well known ancient giant Roldan. Having been told that his wife would die when the sun set behind the summit he created the notch so she could live a little longer. There must be a moral there somewhere!
It seems unlikely that many will climb the Puig directly from Hort de Gloria and also return there on foot at the end of the day. Jonathan was either impressed with our capabilities or sadistically trying to finish us off now that the end was in sight! Whatever – but virtually the entire team plus Emma, Kat, Roxy and Lunar set off with full water bottles initially on Day 1’s route. Roxy and her daughter Lunar are the farm’s two resident dogs who feel obliged to accompany anyone leaving the premises such is their addiction to exercise. Once the Castellets ridge had been bypassed the Collado del Pouet was soon reached following which it was a relatively simple route on good paths to the high and airy summit where views were only slightly reduced by the hazy conditions.
After an extended lunch stop we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from this superb vantage point, descended to the col and returned by a maze of ‘Jonathan’ paths which defied recollection eventually arriving back at the farm in time for beers and swimming in no particular order. As to be expected this certainly felt the hardest day of the week and, in due course, we were suitably rewarded by a feast of home made Pizza and Paella. Most felt obliged to visit the town later to view the fiesta proceedings but although it was interesting to see the locals at their dinner tables and to sample the free drinks on offer the thought of waiting until the early hours for the festivities to commence was too much after the exertions of the day. For some strange cultural reason the band was due to play from 01.00-05.00 followed by a procession but presumably this is possible only if you spend most of the afternoon in siesta!
The night was passed in relative peace despite the noise of music and fireworks taking the shortcut across the valley. All too soon it was time to rise and breakfast leisurely for the last time. A few enjoyed a last saunter on to the knoll above the farm followed by a final dip before packing and travelling back to the hurly burly of Alicante and eventually the drizzle at Leeds Bradford.
Roll on next year!