Saturday morning and time to flee the city. Madrid is a modern metropolis of some four million people so its noise and pollution can wear you down. You have to get out into the Guadarrama Mountains to breathe real fresh air and hear birds sing.
Not many major cities of the world have a great mountain range so close. From our neighborhood in an eastern district we see the Guadarramas spread across the northern skyline. It takes just 40 minutes in our little Renault Clio to reach the nearest foothills.
For more than three decades these Saturday excusions have been a vital part of our lives, a renewal of mind and spirit. What began as exercise for our three youngest kids evolved into six-to-seven-hour hikes for a family that kept growing. We strived to reach summits - the highest, Peñalara, is 2,429 meters (7,965 ft.) above sea level - and explore new trails among the hundreds that criss-cross the 80-km. (64 miles)-long range and even extend as far as Portugal and France.
Now it’s only Rosina and me, and we’re just as happy in our senior years with three-hour strolls over grasslands and along river banks. On this day, we’ve brought a half-dozen preserve jars for refills at a local honey farm: today’s specials are multi-flor (mixed flowers), bosque (forest) and azahar (orange blossom). There’s always good conversation with the fiftyish farmer, Pablo, as honey is oozed out of his shiny metal tanks into our jars, because he is a naturalist, an expert archer and a teacher of Oriental meditation.
The bee farm is at the edge of our final hiking destination, the Upper Manzanares River Basin Regional Park, designated by the UNESCO as a biosphere reserve. More than 5,000 people are allowed to live here, many of them cattle owners who have settled amid year-round grazing spaces. Wildlife is everywhere, although mainly hidden during the day when humans are around. In 35 years of climbing we’ve only seen a few of the hundreds of deer that roam the range, caught one quick glance of a darting fox, and never saw more of the wild boar than their scat. Boar sightings especially are not missed: above a bar in the neighboring town Manzanares El Real there is a masive mounted head of a long-toothed boar hunted down in the area, and it gives one the shivers. Good thing they’re shy.
Bulls in the wild, they say, do not necessarily attack people, but they are unpredictable. In a flash we plunged into a cover of tall, thorny bushes that instantly shredded our arms. As he came after us, we kept flaying along, hoping he'd find this place too nasty even for his own tough hide. And so he did. He stopped, snorted at the edge of the brambles and ambled away down the mountainside. Right then our cover of thorns came to an end in a broad clearing.
When we related our harrowing adventure to a veteran hiker, he was unimpressed. “The bull probably wanted salt and thought you were bringing it to him, like his masters do.” It turns out that cattle can’t lick enough salt out of the rocks in that area, and need a steady supply. OK, but I’ll stick to our scarier, more interesting version.
Although summer has just ended it’s hot. We find a spot under a tree inside the park and unwrap egg-salad sandwiches and fruit. Then it’s time for a nap in in the shade of an evergreen. Another great day in the Guadarramas. And we can be home for tea.