Pretty mountain towns flank the largest natural park in Spain
Created in 1989 the Parque Natural de las Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y las Villas is Spain’s largest natural park. With 23 picturesque villages and a staggering 214,336 hectares of land (the size of Luxembourg), Cazorla has one of the country’s most extensive forested zones.
Because of its sheltered location, between the stunning Montes Universales and the Sierra Nevada, this region was a haven for high altitude plants during the ice ages. This explains why, even today, these rugged mountain ranges, rising in places to well over 2,000 metres, are home to the Cazorla violet, the carnivorous Venus flytrap, several species of eagles and the wall lizard of Valverde, a reptile unique to this area, discovered in 1958. It’s no wonder the BBC has made countless nature documentaries here.
“Finding the park is easy: just follow the Guadalquivir River to its source,” friends told me, as I set off on a warm April day just before Easter, with bees droning softly over Bermuda buttercups that dusted the surrounding hillsides like powdered lemon. I drove until the scenery became an endless vista of olive trees stretched across the valleys like fishnet stockings, announcing the beginning of the oil-producing Province of Jaén. The silverleafed trees soon gave way to pines and oaks, and soft hills became sheer cliff faces and high valleys, called navas, covered in scarlet poppies and watered by countless springs.
A this point I knew I’d reached Cazorla. Some 300 kilometres from Madrid and half a day’s drive from the Costa del Sol, this pretty mountain conurbation which has been inhabited since the 3rd century BC buzzes with shops selling ceramics and leather goods and pensiones proposing reasonably-priced accommodation. Bodegas serve mouth-watering specialities like ‘embutidos caseros de monte’ (local home-made sausages), ‘gachamiga’ (made from flour, bread crumbs and bacon) and ‘chuleta de venado en salsa de almendras estilo Cazorla’ (deer chops served in a tasty almond sauce). As the park’s unofficial capital, Cazorla also makes an ideal base for exploring further afield. “We call our town ‘the basking lizard,’” Pedro at the local pastelería said as he sold me a deliciously fluffy ensaimada (pastry covered in icing sugar). When asked why, he replied: “Because it basks all day in the sun,” spreading his hands as if to say it was obvious.
Following Pedro’s advice, I parked just outside town near the Cortijo camping site and took the narrow lane which meanders down from here, past fountains cushioned in moss and the crenellated remains of medieval Yedra castle, to a plaza shaded with trees and crowned by the ruins of the church of Santa María. Built in the 16th century by Andrés de Vandelvira—the Renaissance-architect responsible for a host of magnificent edifices in nearby Ubeda—the church of Santa María was destroyed when Napoleon’s hordes hit town in the early 19th century. Its impressive shell now serves as a fabulous arena for open-air concerts in summer, while the cool web of alleys surrounding the plaza Santa María is home to a Gypsy enclave, whose members are famed throughout Spain for their prowess with horses. A cobbled shopping street leads from here to Cazorla’s main plaza. Surrounded by dignified old buildings and slightly less dignified bars, it is an ideal spot to sit out and watch the world go by.
Sitting at a sunny terrace, I ordered a snail tapa, which came oozing in garlic sauce with sprigs of parsley. Hunks of warm bread doubled as a fork to scoop up mouthfuls of this sapid local speciality, while the waiter Manolo described the Caracoles festival in May, when Cazorla’s narrow streets are festooned with thousands of lamps resembling snail shells.