“The Sierra, like the moon, had two distinct faces: the north one aloof and cold in its shadow, a place of green thickets and alpine silence, whilst to the south the mountain was just a raw burnt rock, the cliffs stripped bare by the sun.” Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning’
After we had walked through the gardens we left the Palace and then the town and we drove south again towards our next intended destination, the fortress town of Manzanares El Real where we planned to see our final castle.
To get there we had to drive across the top of the mountain and shortly after leaving San Ildefonso we began to steadily climb the northern face of the peaks. At first the road was quite straight but then it began to twist and turn in a series of hairpin bends and at one thousand six hundred metres we crossed the snow line and the sides of the roads were piled high with snowplough clearances. The road continued to climb to one thousand eight hundred metres and there were stunning views at every turn.
Eventually we reached the top at a ski resort and mountain pass called Puerto de Navacerrada, the gateway to the long descent on the southern side down towards Madrid. We were right on schedule to complete our planned itinerary but at the top was a Guardia Civil patrol car and two policemen dressed in olive green who pulled us to a stop and then explained that the road was closed and that we would have to take a detour back down the northern side of the mountain. At least we assumed that was what they were saying because they didn’t understand a single word of English and I didn’t understand Spanish police instructions terribly well. I said “Madrid, Madrid” on the basis if you say it twice they might understand and it seemed to work because he pointed again to the alternative road that we would have to take.
We pulled over and examined the map and we knew that this was going to be a problem because this was going to add thirty kilometres to the journey and there certainly wasn’t enough fuel in the tank for that. We were at the top of the world and it looked a long way to the nearest town. Luckily it was all down hill from here so I used the throttle as little as possible and freewheeled down the safe sections. I knew that there was about thirty kilometres left in the tank but as we went down the steep bits the needle on the fuel gauge rushed headlong into the red zone and even though I knew this was because of uneven fuel distribution in the tank the situation certainly brought me out in a sweat and I didn’t enjoy this part of the drive as much as I should have done.
We passed through a few small villages but there was no sign of a garage and I began to wonder how I long it would take for someone to bring a petrol can to us from Madrid and how much this would cost but then we reached the pretty town of Rascafria sitting in a narrow valley surrounded by mountain peaks and after stopping and asking for directions we thankfully found a filling station and I put an extra couple of litres in more than we needed just to be on the safe side.
We had a drinks break in the town sitting in the sunshine at a pavement café to settle my jangling nerves and then resumed our journey. There was a safe route using the main A1 Madrid to Burgos road but feeling confident once more we choose to try the mountain passes again this time using the eastern route and we hoped that this wouldn’t be blocked and closed as well.
We climbed again, quite quickly this time and once we had reached two thousand metres we reached a mountain top plateau surrounded by snowy peaks and with uninterrupted view into the distance. The vegetation of the mountains was predominantly pine forests and copses of oak and holm oak in its lower slopes but here at the summit we drove through picturesque shrub-filled pastures. The mountains abound with a variety of life such as deer, roe and fallow deer, wild boar, badger, various types of weasel, the European wild cat, foxes and hares. There are also a great variety of waterfowl species in the mountain lakes and reservoirs, as well as magnificent birds of prey such as the Eastern Imperial Eagle and the Eurasian Black Vulture.
We were only thirty kilometres from Madrid but we were practically alone in a lonely natural wilderness.
We crossed the top and there were no Guardia Civil to send us back and after we passed through the town of Miraflores de la Sierra the road dropped quickly down to the shoreline of a shimmering blue reservoir and very soon we had reached the outskirts of Madrid and joined the motorway system that took us effortlessly back to the airport and the car rental return base where I was disappointed to leave the car with the fuel gauge needle still hovering irritatingly well above empty.
This had been an amazing week, we had driven nearly a thousand kilometres and in our circumnavigation of Madrid had seen some wonderful places, come across unexpected surprises, eaten good food and enjoyed the hospitality of the Castilian people every where that we went. Spain might appear from the tourist brochures to be no more than a clichéd whirl of flamenco, bullfights and overcrowded beaches but we are now beginning to fully appreciate the incredible variety and diversity that this huge country has to offer. It was disappointing to be catching a plane to come back home but there is always the return to see Madrid to look forward to later in the year.