A bike ride around the European Appalachians

At last I had time to dust off my mountain bike and took a ride around the Global Unesco Geopark Villuercas Ibores Jara. I was looking forward to trying one stage of the “Ruta de Los Apalaches” -the Appalachian trail” in English.

That is the name of the annual Mountain Bike Race that takes place in Alía in september, organized by Alía Extrema Cycling Group. This sporting event goes through some of the Geopoark’s highest summits from where to admire the so called appalachian relief.

Although the Appalachian mountain range is in America, there is a link with this area of Spain.

It turns out that the Geopark mountains are aking to the Appalachian of America; that is the reason why the Geopark Villuercas belongs to the well-known International Appalachian Trail organization-IAT

To my view, what makes this cycling route appealing is that you can get to stunning sites hidden from the tourists eyes.

On this occasion, one of Alía Extrema members, Fermín, joined me in this adventure.

We started the route from Alía early in the morning. Immediately, we went up -better said “climbing” – a two kilometres steeped hill which trail ended in the picturesque Peña Amarilla geosite – Yellow rock in English-. After a brief momment to take a breath and some photos, we took a well marked trail that drove us to the Guadarranque River. Once crossed, I saw myself “climbing” again a tough slope that drove us to Puerto de San Vicente, just in the Castilla La Mancha’s border.

Right there is located, without a doubt, one of the best Geopark’s sights: the Altamira viewpoint, from which to admire the outstanding appalachian relief I mentioned at the begining of this post. After taking some photos, we rode down through out a rugged path to get to the Guadarranque River again and get back to Alía.

Finally, we had completed 45 km! Superb morning! Though, it was too much for me. I was exhausted, but at the same time, eager to do another route around the Geopark and tell you all about it.

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Useful tips for a getaway along a Geopark

It is nearly three years since I launched this blog. During that time, I have already visited at least one third of the Villuercas- Ibores- Jara´s geosites, which includes the most iconic and appealing places of the Geopark of Extremadura. So, I believe it is time to share some useful recommendations for first-timers. Here they go three basic tips:

 

 

1- Visit the nearest interpretation center. 

Geopark Villuercas is not just famed for its natural marvels, but also is steeped in geology, history, culture and architecture. So, you shouldn´t simply go and observe its amazing landscape. The best option to bring home good knowledge of the Geopark is to delve into the story behind each geosite and each village by visiting the interpretation centers.

The main Geopark´s visitor center is located in Cañamero; however, in case we are far from there, there are museums and interpretation centers in 10 municipalities, in which the tourist can get a closer information about the must-see sites to visit.

 

 

2- Check out the geosites

Once you have finished our visit to the interpretation center, the next step is to get to the geosite we have previously learned about. Only in this way, you will make the most of all the resources the Geopark of Extremadura offers.

 

 

3- Relax and relish the moment.

Enjoy the natural beauty of the Geopark. Try their tasty and fantastic local gastronomy. Relax practicing birding, riding bicycle, hiking, fishing… I am sure that a geopark will never disappoint you!

Traveling through the ghost railroad

Bridge of Guadalupe in Geopark Villuercas

It is said that all roads lead to Rome, and I would add “so does to Guadalupe” because this holly village is the second pilgrimage destination in Spain -Santiago de Compostela is in first place. Despite its touristic value, the only way to get to this UNESCO world heritage site on public transport is by bus. There is no train.

Once a railroad – to connect this zone with Madrid- was planned, constructed 90% and officially abandoned in the 60s, leaving decommissioned stations and bridges which make attractive some routes along the Geopark Villuercas-Ibores-Jara such as the Vía Verde and The Camino Natural de las Villuercas.

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Old train station in Logrosán

The trail Via Verde goes along the old railroad from Villanueva de la Serena to Logrosán (56 km). From there on the path links with the Camino Natural de Las Villuercas throughout Puerto Llano to finish in Guadalupe (Puerto Llano-Guadalupe: 15 km).

Another interesting option is to start the route from Alía (Alía-Guadalupe: 15 km).

All these routes are suitable for hiking and biking.

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Decommissioned train station of Puerto Llano-Berzocana in Geopark Villuercas

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Tunnel of the old railroad near Guadalupe

Food matters in Villuercas Geopark

Menu at Parador de Guadalupe, food in the Villuercas Geopark

On top of its geosites, food is another appealing aspect of the Geopark Villuercas-Ibores-Jara. The famous Spanish tapas and innovative recipes, which make our mouth water anywhere and at any time, are savored much more intensively in this heaven of peace and tranquility. In addition, this region is also renowned for providing some of the best products and ingredients to the culinary Spanish tradition. As food really matters in Villuercas Geopark, I recommend a route which combines food and learning in this post.

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Our first stop is the Cooperative Santa Catalina in Alía, a local olive oil industry which produces the distinctive variety “Virgen Extra” from the ancient olive trees surrounding the village. It is advisable to arrange a visit (+34 927 36 60 68 – coopsantacatalina@gmail.com) to taste its excellent range olive oil.

Thanks to the touristic push of the Geopark, this agricultural cooperative has reshaped its business model from distributing the production exclusively among their members to launch the new brand “Villalia” and export part of the production. Moreover, It joined the Geofood project leading by the norwegian Magma Geopark.

The company´s international sales are focused mainly in China.

After testing that wonderful and healthy olive oil in Alía, it is time to check how it is used for cooking. One of the best place to do that is the Parador of Guadalupe. Villalia is among the vital ingredients used by chef Francisco Moreno. He considers that cooking with local products and raw materials from the Geopark as olive oil, honey, cheese and meat is superb”.

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Starter at Parador de Guadalupe

The menu we had consisted of one small bottle of gazpacho, one smoked salmon toast with blackberries, two pieces of black pudding, one glass with Spanish potato salad and another glass filled with strawberry paté for starter. The main course was Iberian carpaccio dressed with the olive oil Villalia we already tested before in Alía. Its mixture of flavours was out of this world! Simply delicious!

By the way, we enjoyed this meal of kings at the cozy inner courtyard full of oranges trees of the Parador de Guadalupe.

Villuercas Geopark, most valuable touristic zone in 2017

The Geopark Villuercas-Ibores-Jara became the most valuable touristic zone of Extremadura in 2017, getting the best rating given by tourists, 8,46, according to a survey relesed by the Touristic Observatory of Extremadura.

This study is based on the result of hundred of satisfaction questionnaires distributed to all the touristic information offices and interpretation centers located across the lenght and breadh of  Extremadura.

Although the Spanish geopark is not nearly one of the most visited sites of the region, It is gaining visitors along the years who widely recognize having had an amazing experience.

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Table of cheeses from the Denomination of Origen Ibores
Hospitality was the aspect of this zone of the province of Cáceres that more attracted the attention of tourists getting the best mark, 9. Moreover, the Geopark gastronomy was head and shoulders over the rest of touristic sites, with an 8,4.

In general, the Extremadura touristic sector got the average rating of 8.

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Gates of the Geopark Visitor Centre in Cañamero

Geopark place named the most beauty and good village of Spain

Guadalupe, in the heart of the Villuercas-Ibores-Jara geopark, has won the national contest “Luce tu Pueblo” being named “the most beauty and good village of Spain”. The second pilgrimage site of the country got the first place in an online polling organized by the chocolat chain Ferrero Rocher, rewarding Guadalupe an imposing Christmas illumination.

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Installing the Christmas ilumination at the main square

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Interior of the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe

The recognition comes after being announced this historic village of the Caceres province is going to become new member of the prestigious Association of the Most Beautiful Villages in Spain from 1 January 2018 on thanks its architectural beauty, cultural heritage, valuable traditions and natural enviroment.

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Main square of Guadalupe

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Popular Architecture. Traditional balcony. Light bulbs installed

The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe is the crown jewel of the village. I have already wrote about it in “Guadalupe: an appealing Spanish pilgrimace place”. Tourists are not just astonish by the Monastery, but also the local gastronomy and the geopark Villuercas-Ibores-Jara. La Villuerca (1.600 meters high) and The Ark of Water are some of the must-see geosites just a few minutes driving or some hours hiking from Guadalupe.

 

My Geopark, photos and Rock and Roll

At last I had the opportunity of testing my brand new Kodak Pixpro AZ525 around the Villuercas-Ibores- Jara Geopark. As I am a newcomer in photography,  this kind of camera “bridge” – halfway between compact and reflex-  fits perfectly with my needs because enables me to practise easily with a wide range of functions (manual, automatic and Wi-Fi connection). The best of all is its price, significantly lower than the same category you can find of Canon and Nikon.

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Pic 1. Ibor River. F:3.6; ISO 100; V:1/43

First stop, The Ibor River. I lost count the number of photos I took by focusing and defocusing. I really loved it. Focusing allow you to obtain powerful and meaningful photos, big deal better than pics with just good composition (Pic 1). Getting good results is easier with the 52x optical zoom of my camera. However, it was disappointing when I attempted the “silk effect”, which means getting the water to look misty and smooth. (Pic 2) It was impossible. A tripod is needed among others settings. I´ll keep on trying!

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Pic 2. Ibor River. F:7.1; ISO:100; V:1/30

The following photos were taken with the automatic functions “Black and White” (pic3), the “Image color option” which emphasizes one color of the scene (Pic 4), the “Landscape mode” (pic 5) and the function “water reflections” (Pic 6)

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Finally, drinking a refreshing beer at one of the bars in Castañar, in which the time seems to stand still – both for its pieces of furniture and the regulars – was the best way to finish our photography trip. Good drink, company and the Rolling Stones sounding in the radio was a good end before falling back into monotony of our day to day in the city.

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Pic 7. A bar in Castañar de Ibor. F:4.2; ISO:500; V:1/50

Photography route:

The geopark Villuercas with kids

It is said that Villuercas-Ibores-Jara Geopark is a huge theme park on geology, archeology, wildlife and plants. I agree with that simile and I would add, for the relief of parents who travel with kids, it is also an immense playground for children.

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My son behind his cousin enjoying the nature.

My son´s passion when we spend the weekend in Alía or Castañar de Ibor  is to go away the urban center, run around the dirt roads and observe animals. The time I spend in the countryside by seeing my 3-years-old enjoying the Geopark is by far better than go hiking or biking for hours alone or in company with others.

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The Geopark is an ideal place to go for a walk with children

Although this geopark is a newcomer, most of its geosites are safe. Hundreds of rural roads have been refurbished along with the improvement of signals and the installation of safety fences.

So, I recommend a visit around The Peña Amarilla and The Guadarranque´s bridge in Alía and the interpretation center of Castañar de Ibor. All the pics of this post were taken in my last visit to both places.

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Peña Amarilla in Alía. Obviously you will not get into the eye of the rock with children, but the view from the lookout point deserves a visit.

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Track located in the area of the Guadarranque´s bridge. Totally safe for going hiking with the family.

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Brand new bridge over the Guadarranque river

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My son throwing stones to the river. We had a good time there.

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On our way to the Caves of Castañar de Ibor after visiting its interpretation center. It is always a delicious walk with all the tracks recently refurbished

Giving flavour to the geopark

On the table: one glass of crianza red wine “Carabal” and one plate full of pieces of cheese and slices of ham. It was what I encountered going into the front-yard of my grandfather´s house during my last visit to Alía. Nothing is better than being with family.

That moment led me to write this post to explain My Geopark Villuercas-Ibores-Jara is not only an ideal place to go hiking, look for fossils and enjoy its landscapes, but it is also an area to delight a wide range of excellent local wines.

These products have been advertised very heavily by the Government of Extremadura. Both commercials ” The Ribera del Guadiana wine route” and “The cheese route” are two examples of an intensive advertising campaign quite well developed. These videos were produced by a friend of mine, the sole owner of A.S. Producciones. The wine route was largely filmed at the Carabal winery, in Alía.

Moreover, the Villuercas-Ibores-Jara Geopark is a source of inspiration. In Berzocana is located “El Brezo rojo“, a comfortable restaurant with innovative dishes created by its chef Pedro Galán. I recommend the sandwich named “El Geoparque” with one big sirloin steak seasoned with a special Ibores cheese  salsa. However, if you opt for a filling meal, I would order the roast lamb with honey and couscous. Simply delicious!

By the way, speaking about honey, the following video filmed by my childhood friend Abel Moyano (@AMoyanoPrieto), from Alía, is well worth a minute of your time. I am sure that most of you have never seen the honey being extracted from a beehive.

 

 

This newcomer wants to remain forever

Nature did a great job in the Spanish region where I live by leaving us ancestral rocks, high mountains, the deepest valleys and a wide range of minerals and fossils. The problem was that nobody had been brave enough to boost and make attractive the outstanding Villuercas-Ibores-Jara landscapes that we have always had before our eyes for thousands of years. Until now.

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2011 marked a point of no return. It was when this vast area located in the province of Cáceres was declared “Geopark”. My dreams then came true because I had always been convinced that this zone needed some kind of environmental protection to have a brighter future. The Villuercas county had endured a harmful emigration by the late ´80s. Since then the increasing lack of jobs, due to many factors, has made a deep dent in the local economy. In the aftermath, my family (including myself)  and  all my friends had to move from Alía whose population plummeted from 5.000 inhabitants to barely 1.000 inhabitants in just one decade.

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Nowadays the Villuercas Geopark is both a challenge and a chance. Tourism is predicted to become bread and butter for this area in the coming years overtaking the traditional farming sector. But at the same time, I do believe that those who will guarantee a better future for this often neglected zone in Spain are still at school. The Geopark is playing a central role at the schools of this area. I was fascinated when I visited the Cañamero local school “Fausto Maldonado” where the teachers familiarize the students with terms like “Trilobite“, “cloudina” and “cruziana“. Both students and teachers are crucial to enable this area to remain alive forever.

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Without a doubt, having landscapes like “The gorge of the Ruecas river” at just a 10- minutes-walk from the school of Cañamero help the teachers succeed in their educational programs and, on the other hand, discourage the students from leaving their villages.

This place is well worth a visit, so I suggest the following route:

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