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Thursday, August 21, 2008

El Rincón de Ademuz

An ancient sabina juniper. These are common at higher altitudes in the Mediterranean.

El Rincón de Ademuz

Living in a city, you don't often realize the incredible brightness of the reflected light of the moon. Most of the time you don't even take notice unless you happen to be on a rooftop terrace at night during a full moon. Besides all of the light pollution inherent in city life, being stuck crawling around at the bottom of canyons of tall buildings isn't exactly conducive to star gazing. When you are camping in the mountains on a clear summer evening, the light of the moon can be positively startling. When the moon rises above the mountains to the east, its reflected glare from the sun is like a huge spotlight searching you out among the rocks and pines, allowing you to see objects clearly that are not cast in the huge shadows. When you turn your back on the moon it sometimes looks like a bright pair of headlights are coming up behind you.

To arrive at this little shred of insight I had to travel a few hours by car to the Rincón de Ademuz, an appropriately named little corner of the Valencia Community which sits like an island in the province of Valencia in a sea of Castilla-La Mancha and Arragón, not that this little area is very Valenciano. Practically no one speaks Valenciano here and you have to think that they lean more towards Real Madrid than Valencia CF during the football season. So it's only a couple of hours away from Valencia but isolated culturally from the capital of the community. Coming up the highway from the south we leave Valencia and pass briefly through La Mancha before landing back again in Valencia at the town of Ademuz, population 1,100 give or take a few goat herders.

Our destination for this trip is the highest point in the Valencia Community, a little crest in these mountains called Alto de las Barracas which tops out at 1,836 meters. My friend, Nacho, is a photographer finishing up a book of photographs of Valencia and he needed a few shots up this way during the summer months. I was happy to tag along.

From Ademuz we headed up further into the mountains of this lost corner of Valencia, past the beautiful little village of Puebla de San Miguel (photo left). From here you have to wind up a rather tortuously steep road to arrive at the approach to Alto de Barracas and other destinations in this part of the mountains. The sabina junipers along this path are spectacular. Just about all of the more ancient trees in this area show evidence of the harsh climate and high winds which twist and turn the trunks and branches into impossible forms. There are a lot of olive and almond trees at the lower elevations planted on terraces built of stone. I was trying to imagine the amount of work it required to construct these stone terraces. They were probably centuries in the making.

After only thirty minutes of hiking we were mostly above the tree line. Looking out across the hilltops you see patches of bright green surrounded by the golden grasses. These spots of color are sabina rastrera, another juniper tree that hugs the ground. The dead versions of this bush-tree look like the bones of some prehistoric jellyfish, if prehistoric jellyfish had bones. From about 1,000 meters away I spotted a cairn on a ridge. I didn't know how to translate this word into Spanish but I told Nacho that it is a Scottish word (his wife is from Edinburgh) and is used to describe a memorial or a landmark. In this part of the highlands this cairn can be seen from all directions for miles and miles. I couldn't help myself and I added at least another meter to this heap of stone that could have been here for centuries. Now you can really see it from a distance! I love coming across cairns up in the mountains. They are like lighthouses for hikers and every bit as welcoming.

This whole part of the sierras is a haven for hikers and mountain bikes. Trails are easily marked and there are a lot to choose from. I'm not much of a hiker but I would love to return here on a bike where I will be able to do a lot more exploring. We couldn't find the path to Alto de las Barracas but it was standing right in front of us. It was an easy scramble up the last 400 meters or so. We took a few minutes to enjoy the great view from the top. This isn't like some formidable mountain peak. Just look at all the goat droppings on the ground to tell you this. We didn't see a single goat on this day but there was enough goat poop on the ground to make me think that this must be a major grazing area, at least at some point in the season.

After the pictures from the summit of the Valencia community, my friend needed a few night-time photos. We had a few hours to kill before it would be dark enough so we headed down to Puebla de San Miguel. We parked in the square next to the church and the only other public place was the Comisión de la Fiesta, which in these parts seems to serve as a community center-bar. We entered through a bead curtain and it looked like the whole town was inside—all 20 or so. A few people were standing at the bar, a another couple of groups of folks were sitting at the tables playing cribbage, and the kids were running around in packs. It seemed strange to me that out here in the boonies of the Valencia province no one was speaking Valenciano. I guess this means that I have assimilated into Valencian life.

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