“You will be sleeping in the crater of an ancient volcano, and tonight you will really see the earth is round”, our charismatic host Eckhart explained enigmatically as he led us to one of the four converted grain stores that would be our home in the verdant paradise of his garden. After a day walking the ‘ruta de los piratas’, discovering forgotten cliff-top forts and watchtowers – glimpses of a brutal past when this coastline was under attack from Barbary pirates – we were ready for some peaceful relaxation. Later, sitting on the cobbled floor of a century-old circular threshing floor sipping ice cold vino rosado, the sunset bathing everything in warm golden light, we chatted with our host, learning more about the tale of passion that would be the focus for our next route and re-living the rocky scramble down to the pirate haven of San Pedro the day before.
Winter doesn’t exist in this sunny corner of Spain. The Cabo de Gata, a semi-desert, is the driest place in Europe. A landscape of volcanic rock and inaccessible coves, accessed only on foot or by boat, it’s a world away from the congested resorts of those costas that have been scarred by mass tourism.
Walking along this wild coast reveals much of the area’s turbulent history: the land’s volcanic origin is evident from the strangely shaped rocks, and over the ages its beauty has attracted everyone from the Phoenicians to the Moors, all leaving traces of their efforts to tame the terrain.
After a wonderfully peaceful night in El Jardin de los Sueños, the aptly named ‘garden of dreams’, we set off on our next walk, stopping briefly in the Albardinal botanical gardens, then following the path along a hidden gully as we climbed higher and higher onto a large, windswept plain. Intrigued by the notorious crime of passion that inspired Lorca’s famous drama, Blood Wedding, our aim was the Cortijo del Fraile, a remote and abandoned farmstead – the scene of a dramatic wedding-day elopement by a bride and her lover, cut short by the lover’s brutal demise at the hands of her groom. Walking up to the remote cortijo, now an atmospheric ruin in the middle of nowhere, it’s easy to imagine the swirling clouds of dust as the desperate lovers galloped off into the night.
As well as inspiring Spain’s greatest poet, the cortijo and adjoining chapel have also been used as the location for a number of films, including several of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. We whistled Ennio Morricone’s theme tune as we rested in the shade of an ancient olive tree that may have borne witness to the original crime.
Turning our backs on this romantic setting, we headed back towards Rodalquilar, the small village at the centre of the Cabo de Gata Natural Park. The route takes you between high peaks scarred by gold mining, revealing the stunning colours of the volcanic rock. The area was first mined by the Romans before gold deposits were rediscovered and intensively explored in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the now-abandoned industrial remains sit just above the town. Walking through this strange landscape, exploring empty ruins housing nothing but lizards, peeking through tunnels leading to long-lost gold-mining townships felt like being an intruder on another film set, and it was impossible to resist the urge to run tentative fingers down a yellowy vein in the white rock while wondering if this is where fortune could still be found. Dusty and thirsty from our trek, we followed the track down into the village, arriving at Bar Crisol, where, with just a nod of acknowledgement, a welcome ice cold cerveza and a dish of home-cured olives arrived, our need seemingly obvious.
Moving on to our final location, San Jose, took us back along the coast, passing two restored waterwheels, or norias, hidden behind an oasis of palms at the edge of an obscure track. These wheels, a legacy from the Moorish period, had been used for over 1,000 years and were operated by an animal-powered mechanism which drew water up from the depths below. We peered into the echoing well shaft to soak up the history from the shadows.
Passing through the tiny fishing port of La Isleta and heading south, we stopped to enjoy a generous picnic in the limited shade of the Batería de San Felipe, another fortification against pirates left empty on the coast, before following the route up and up into the mountains past the twin peaks of El Fraile, highest point of the Cabo de Gata. The track zig-zagged relentlessly upwards until the views were literally breathtaking as we gazed down on seagulls flying below, a fine reward for our climb. Here the curved sandy beach of Los Genoveses beckoned seductively in the distance, but a strange reluctance to re-enter the world of people held us spellbound in the mystery of this stunning wilderness.