subtitled 1 Couple, 98 Days, 1400 Miles On Europe’s GR5.
At age 57, Kathy Elkind and her husband decided to take 2018 off from “real life” and take a 1400 mile hike following the Grande Randonnee Cinq across the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Her travelogue is absorbing, observant and honest, and we have an excerpt to share with you!
Walking the Andalusía Coast to Coast Trail
If you’ve walked the Camino de Santiago and you’re looking for a new path and a new challenge or if you want to avoid the crowds on the Camino, check out the Andalusía Coast to Coast Trail located in southern Spain. It’s more work to follow the trail and to organize lodging, but the diversity of terrain, increased challenge, and cultural experiences are worth the extra effort to plan this trip.
In November of 2021, between Delta and Omicron, Jim, my husband, and I flew to Barcelona, then on to Malaga on the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean.
We stayed in Nerja, two hours by car up the coast from Malaga and six miles from the beginning of the trail, for two days to adjust our sixty-year-old bodies to the time change—and we wanted one last swim in the sea before winter.
Parador de Nerja, a government-sponsored inn right on the beach, provided rest and relaxation. Breakfasting on the terrace, we watched the sunrise shimmer over the sea with palm trees on the margins, and we knew we were not in Vermont’s stick season any longer.
On the second day of rest, we kayaked along the coast, explored the local museum to learn the expansive history of the Romans, the Visigoths, and 400 years of the Moorish occupation, and shopped for lunch and snack foods: Manchego cheese, bread, almonds, and chocolate bars.
With our packs (Jim’s forty-five liters, mine thirty-six liters) full of warm and waterproof layers, changes of clothes for after hiking, toilet kit, first-aid kit, water, and lunch, we took a cab up the coast to Playa de Maro. No one was on the beach at ten o’clock in the morning to bid us farewell, but we took a quick selfie with the Mediterranean in the background. We climbed a steep hill past stone ruins of a nineteenth-century sugarcane factory, then made our way through the small town of Maro and over the highway that leads to Granda.
After just thirty minutes of hiking, we stopped at Nerja Cave and took an audio tour of the expansive cavern. There we were awed by cave paintings from possibly 42,000 years ago that put the short-lived history of our own home into perspective. Then, shouldering our packs again, we walked into the first of six national parks: Parque Natural de Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama.
The Andalusian Coast to Coast (ACC) is a route composed of footpaths. Guy Hunter-Watts, author of the guidebook stored on our phones, pieced together tracks and trails to create a 260-mile walk divided into twenty-one days (stages) from village to village through the Andalusía. The average day is twelve and half miles of walking, the shortest being seven miles and the longest sixteen miles.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, as the shadows lengthened, we climbed the last hill into the town of Frigiliana, one of the famous pueblos blancos (white towns)—white stucco dwellings clustered together on the side of a mountain. Jim, with his high school Spanish, called when we were on the outskirts of town to let them know we were almost there. Because of Covid, almost all our contacts with hotel staff were online, which was sad but kept us safe.
After punching the door code and climbing two flights of stairs, we opened the last door, which led to a small whitewashed terrace with an expansive view of the mountains to the north, the white buildings clinging to the ridge in the foreground, and to the southwest the red glowing sun getting closer to dropping into the Mediterranean. Because the sun is so far south, in November it rises and sinks into the azure Mediterranean.
Socks washed and hung to dry, we sipped a beer wearing our puffy jackets and watched the last of the red fade to black and the lights of the village tinkle on. Walking in Spain is a puzzle in time management. Dinner at most restaurants does not begin until eight or even nine o’clock, which is past this walker’s bedtime. But with Google and persistence we found a restaurant that opened at seven o’clock; in the dark we climbed the narrow Moorish cobbled alleyways lined with potted geraniums that had a few red blossoms hanging on. We sat outside with wool blankets over our laps and enjoyed the local wine, calamari, and fresh sardines cooked in garlic.
The next day the trail followed farm tracks through orange, avocado, and olive groves, winding in and out of valleys. At eleven o’clock the trail entered the tiny village of Acebuchal. Café chairs and tables edged the dirt road and beckoned us to rest. The warm November sun and the crisp mountain air made it just comfortable enough to sit in short-sleeved shirts. Jim ordered café con leche and cheesecake, and I ordered agua con gas and chocolate almond torte. We were looking for pastries, but they only had cake. Oh well! The carbohydrates gave my sore muscles the energy they needed, and we continued on our way, climbing more steeply, up 2,000 feet through olive groves and pine-scented woods, and then descended into the next town of Cómpeta.
A tall square brick Moor tower located next to the Catholic church dominated Competa’s central square, Plaza de la Almijare. In the adjacent tiled courtyard stood an animated bronze statue of a young woman and a young man dancing but not touching. The next day at the local museum, we learned that young women and men were not allowed to converse except during festivals. We also learned that the town is best known for its sun-dried raisins and sweet muscatel wine.
After only two days of walking, we purposely took a day off to rest our legs and learn more about the culture. The best part was sitting at a café in the central square and people watching. The propane truck arrived with horn blasting. An elderly woman in a blue skirt rolled her propane tank down the narrow, cobbled street to the truck, which was too wide to fit up the streets. She and the driver traded tanks, and he carried her new tank up to her house. A man selling lottery tickets called “Buena” across to his friends drinking café con leche next to us. And they returned the salutation. We noticed in every town that Buenos días is shortened to Buena. The lottery ticket salesman also called “Buena” to a woman in a fluorescent yellow vest sweeping the cobblestone streets—not regular cobble but black and white stones placed in intricate patterns of vines, shells, and flowers. There was very little trash for her to sweep up into her dustpan, mostly cigarette butts and a candy wrapper. The woman stopped and chatted with a shopkeeper just opening. Community, connection, and relaxation hovered in the air.
Suddenly, a white Range Rover charged into the central square. The strain of the engine caused everyone to stop what they are doing and look. We all watched the large vehicle squeeze into a narrow spot next to the propane truck. A man in pressed clothes walked into the bank. I assumed he was one of the many expats from the UK who have moved to these beautiful villages.
That evening, after a laborious afternoon of arranging ten nights of reservations, we dined at eight o’clock at Restaurante El Pilon. Jim had the bruschetta with mushrooms and garlic and a spinach salad studded with walnuts and plump raisins. I savored deep-roasted red-pepper soup and white fish, rice, and vegetables in a spicy coconut sauce. The menu had four vegetarian options along with seafood and meat dishes. If it had not been dark out, we would have had a spectacular view out the big windows that faced southwest toward the Mediterranean.
The fourth day of walking was the most difficult of the whole journey. We climbed out of the town of Sedella and continued to climb relentlessly for three hours, gaining 3,000 feet of altitude, heading toward the La Maroma massif and then hugging the southern flank. An hour into the climb we passed a small stone hut, built for foresters to sleep in. I ducked my head into the dark room and was astounded at how low the ceiling was. The shelter would keep the rain and wind at bay, but with ten foresters sleeping I imagined it would be cramped, loud, and aromatic.
As we climbed higher, my aching blister throbbed—second skin and moleskin helped. In the distance dogs barked off to the east, their anger echoing off the rock walls and adding to my discomfort. Eventually we made it up onto the first ridge and were presented with a panoramic view of the ridges, gullies, and streambeds we needed to cross.
We ate a lunch of hard-boiled eggs, cucumber, bread, cheese, and chocolate as we sat perched on a rock outcrop.
For the next five hours we climbed down into a valley then up onto a ridge—over and over. Most of the time we were on single-track shepherds’ paths. The aroma of rosemary, sage, and lavender came in bursts as we brushed by the arid plants.
In Riogordo that evening, as I lay on my twin bed, I was grateful not to be lying in the foresters’ stone hut as my legs ached, my blisters buzzed, and my whole body vibrated with chills. I was wrung out. Jim felt fine and went off to explore the town.
The next morning, I was renewed. I’m always amazed and grateful that a night’s sleep can heal the body. Day after day, my body adjusted to walking. I could do this.
For the next five days we walked toward Ronda, one of the most picturesque pueblos blancos. Along the way we passed towering spires with rock climbers clinging to the crevasses while griffon vultures rode the thermals. New and ancient olive groves were being harvested by motorized whackers and even a tractor that grabbed the trunk and shook the whole tree, dislodging olives that bounced onto tarps spread out on the ground. We stopped to take in the ninth-century ruins of a mountain refuge of a rebel against the Emirate of Córdoba.
We learned that many hotels did not serve breakfast until nine o’clock, thus we did not get on the trail until ten, and on the long days we raced the November sun setting. But we discovered that bars opened at eight o’clock in the morning and served coffee and toast with crushed tomatoes. Crusty men sitting at the bar drinking sherry or coffee glared at us as we walked in, but by the end of our breakfast we would get a small nod and “Buenos” as we left with our packs for a day of walking.
Ronda was a wonderful two-day rest from walking and a cultural haven. We stayed at Parador de Ronda, right on the edge of the gorge, with views to the west, where we were headed. We visited the archaeology museum and churches, and we took too many photos of the gorge and the Puente Nuevo with its amazing arches in the morning light, in the orange glow of the setting sun, and in the shadowy light of night. We dined on squid and black-ink pasta, sautéed mushrooms and garlic, goat cheese salad, and—the most intriguing—fried eggplant sticks drizzled with molasses.
Reprinted with permission from To Walk It Is To See It: 1 Couple, 98 Days, 1400 Miles on Europe’s GR5 by Kathy Elkind. Copyright © 2023 Kathy Elkind. All rights reserved.
To Walk It Is To See It by Kathy Elkind was published August 15 2023 by SheWrites Press and is available from all good booksellers, including