Voted the best Greenway in Europe in 2009, La Vía Verde de la
Sierra runs for 36.5 km at the foot of the southernmost
mountains of Spain, between the Cádiz towns of Olvera and
Puerto Serrano, and in between, the Seville town of Coripe. It
traverses some of the most beautiful and spectacular
countryside in Andalucía, and follows a section of the old railway
line from Jerez to Setinil and Grazalema, first proposed by the
Cádiz authorities in 1888, but which progressed no further than
The railway has a fascinating history. The second
attempt at building it dates from the early 1900s when
a 130 km long wide-gauge railway was proposed by
the Jerez to Villamartin & Setinil Railway Company,
who invited interested parties and individuals to
subscribe via a share issue. The idea of the railway
was to carry wine and agricultural products from the
Jerez region to other parts of the country. The
company engaged a Jerez-born engineer, Antonio
Gallegos Sanchez, but at an estimated cost of 24
million pesetas, the project also fell by the wayside
through lack of funds.
In 1908 the government of Antonio Maura included
the Jerez to Setinil line in a proposed national railway
infrastructure, using a narrow-gauge width of one
metre, which would allow construction at a much
lower cost. This third attempt was thwarted by the
global economic crisis during and after the First World
War, together with internal social unrest due to the
Moroccan War, and the weakness of the government
at the time.
Attempt number four was instigated in 1925 by
Málaga-born Rafael Benjumea Burin, the Minister for
Development appointed by the dictatorship of General
Miguel Primo de Rivera. The Minister was an engineer by profession, and his
ambition was to create a railway system that would serve
military and strategic interests. The idea was to connect
more directly the naval bases at Cádiz and Cartagena.
Between 1926 and 1933, tens of millions of pesetas were
poured into the construction which was divided into three
phases, each being awarded to a different construction
company. Work was halted during the Civil War, recommenced
again at the end of the Second World War,
but due to a lack of impetus and momentum, together
with a change in the economic viability of the project, it
was finally abandoned in 1962. Not a single train ever ran
on the line.
For its time the 127 km line was, and still is, a magnificent
feat of engineering with fifty-five tunnels, seven long
bridges and viaducts, and numerous subsidiary
infrastructure works including embankments, trenches,
and drainage systems.
In 1993, the Provincial Council of Cádiz, in collaboration
with several other agencies, converted just over 36
kilometres of the line as part of a national ‘Via Verde’ or
Greenway programme, for the exclusive use of walkers,
cyclists, and horse-riders. Now in its twenty-sixth year,
there are over one-hundred routes throughout Spain
covering two-thousand kilometre of disused railway track.
The first time I cycled along this Greenway in 2015 I
used my own bicycle fitted with road tyres. Although it
has carried me on numerous tracks throughout
Europe, including the long-distance Danube path from
the source of the river in Germany to Budapest without
incident, on the Via Verde the tyres punctured
frequently and finally shredded. Small sections of the
route are smooth surfaced, but the major part is rough
chippings and gravel. Returning to the Greenway this
late April, I hired a mountain bike from Olvira, with
tyres not unlike those on a tractor. It proved to be the
sensible thing to do.
Out of bright sunlight into pitch black, the first tunnel
you enter is a little disorientating. Some tunnels have
dim automatic lighting activated by sensors, but most
have nothing. My laser torch has an optional handlebar
mounting bracket, making it simple to fit and remove
from a hire bike. Its presence made the journey
through the tunnel more comfortable. Some are a
kilometre long, and there are thirty of them! Swifts and
swallows were nesting in the tunnels, darting in and
out at break-neck speeds.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the ride is the spectacular
Peñón de Zaframagón nature reserve. As it came into
view some 12 km from Olvera, so did the Griffon
Vultures, slowly rising and falling in spirals on the
thermals. The sheer cliffs and the remote location make a perfect nesting site, and over two-hundred
breeding pairs are here, the largest colony in Europe.
To the untrained eye, the silhouette of a soaring eagle
and a vulture look indistinguishable, but that is where
any similarity ends. Eagles, often solitary, hunt and kill
their prey, whereas vultures are communal and feed
only on carrion. The Griffon Vulture, a metre in height
and with a wingspan of up to three-metres, is a huge
bird. Typically, they find a partner at about the age of
five and remain with that partner for life, which can
achieve thirty years.
Spring is a perfect time to visit, and at the nearby
Observatorio de Buitres de Zaframagón, I was able to
view in close-up day-old chicks in their nests, via
remote-controlled cameras on the mountainside.
Unusually, both parents feed the chicks and use the
same nest for life. As they grow, the young birds can
be seen strengthening their wings by constantly
flapping them, before they make their first and
frightening launch from the high cliffs and into flight.
The information officer at the Observatory excitedly
told me that a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles are nesting on
the cliffs for the first time in several years.
The smallest of Spain’s native eagles, it lives mainly in
warm mountain ranges with gorges and cliffs, and is
known to be an expert at hunting ‘on the wing’.
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