When I realised at Christmas last year that despite spending an entire three months in Madrid I had barely stepped outside of the city centre, I promised myself I would explore the outskirts of the city as much as possible. As my return coincided with several weekends of glorious sunshine and a January detox that left me relatively alcohol-free and as such fresh and bubbly on weekends, it wasn´t hard to keep to my resolution. In fact, weekend excursions throughout January became essential in alleviating post-Christmas back-to-work blues. After the first week back, which was something of a bruising bump back to reality, I jumped at the chance of escaping to the mountains one Sunday.
Lucky enough to be going with a bunch of local spaniards, all well-acquainted with Madrid’s mountains, minimal preparation was required. Kitted out in borrowed thermals, with a hastily made sandwich in an otherwise empty backpack, I simply clambered bleary-eyed into the back of the car one morning. Settling myself comfortably in the backseat, I was expecting a fair drive to reach the mountains and as such was surprised when within 45 minutes we had left the motorway and were passing through pine forests and cobbled villages, winding round steep mountain curves. In less than an hour I was stepping out of the car into the midst of Sierra de Guadarrama, taking in gulpfuls of crisp, clean air.
The carpark where we stopped looks out over a lake, which is framed by tufts of heather and the bright greens of pine trees. A dramatic backdrop, the mountains extend far into the distance, the shrubs of greenery shrinking to sparse tufts higher up and the mountain face becoming motled, craggy rock peppered with patches of snow and ice. When we arrived, although the surface of the lake was slightly frosted with a thin sheet of ice, it still shimmered with the reflections of the mountains behind. We had chosen the perfect day to escape the city – the sun was burning high in the sky, which was a fantastic azur blue, fading to a powdery, pale colour just above the mountains. Contemplating the view, it was hard to believe we were hardly an hour away from the capital.
The route we took winds through Sierra de Guadarrama up to the summit of La Maliciosa. From the carpark you serpentine through a forest, traverse the mountain up to the crest and follow the ridge along to the peak. The meandering start traces mountain streams through the dappled lights of the pine trees, and is a welcome way to ease any unaccustomed legs back into the rhythm of hiking. After about an hour of gentle incline, the well-maintained path climbs from the shelter of the pine forest, dwindling rapidly to a narrow and rocky track that zig-zags steeply up the mountain face. After the hard slog to reach the snow-capped crest, any hopes for an easy stroll traversing the ridge to reach the top are quickly squashed. To reach the summit, you have to crunch your way across a diagonal slope. If your attention drifts from your footfalls for too long you are liable to end up either skating over a patch of ice concealed by fluffy, freshly fallen snow or sinking ankle deep into a brush of snow-covered heather.
The reward of the summit however more than justifies the climb. The panoramic view from the peak reaches far beyong the four towers of Madrid’s city centre. It is as if you are sitting right in the middle of Spain, gazing out as far as País Vasco, Valencia, Cadíz, Portugal… An endless horizon. Perched on a rock chomping down a baguette of tortilla de patatas, it was impossible to think of a place I’d rather be. More used to the rolling green hills of North Wales and Scotland, my eyes feasted on the rocky, snow-peaked mountains, the sprawling landscape dotted with villages and the electric blue sky. The air was crisp, dry and biting. As we had ascended, the temperature had dropped: trickling streams were iced over mid-flow and small waterfalls were frozen in motion to form opaque, spiky icicles. Although the sparkle of the sun reflecting on the snow made sunglasses essential, my fingers were numb inside my gloves and my cheeks flushed from the pricks of fresh air. We spent about 40 minutes on the top, accompanied by a pair of eagles swooping in effortless circles, before starting the descent.
It was a slippery and slidey start back across the ridge, and reaching the well-worn forest path was a welcome relief for weary and shakey legs. On returning to Madrid it was struggle enough just to get up the hill from Calle Lavapies to my flat and after a caña or two, I flopped into bed and sunk quickly into a heavy, dreamless sleep. During the following week, hills and stairs were somewhat problematic for stiff legs. In fact, it wasn’t until Wednesday that I started to walk normally again. Even so, when the alarm went off for work on Monday I woke up feeling revitalised and happy. After a blast of rugged countryside the weekend had seemed longer and the city less claustrophobic: well-worth a few days of aching legs.