On her first family walking holiday with children aged 6 and 8, Clare Dight heads to southern Spain
Take missteps in your stride on walking trips with kids
Something strange happens when you have a baby: the world beyond your front door suddenly becomes another universe and leaving the house a complex logistical operation.
Part of a bygone, kid-free era, the simple process of going for a walk is replaced by missions “outside” to buy supplies while scouting baby-changing facilities, which is perhaps why, when the kids are finally out of nappies, the idea of a family walking holiday holds a unique appeal.
Planning our spring vacation, I realise there’s a lot riding on its success: if I can pull off a walking holiday, my husband and I will be one step closer to regaining our much-missed freedom to explore destinations as opposed to arriving frazzled at a hotel and sticking to the beach as if clutching a lifebuoy. If it fails, my children, now aged 6 and 8, will never let me hear the end of it. “Remember that really boring holiday when Mum made us walk for miles … ”
The chosen destination for our brave experiment? Southern Spain in early April and the grassy mountain slopes around Malaga and Marbella.
While Andalusia’s Costa del Sol is best known for its beaches and huge resort developments, head inland and you’ll find a network of waymarked walking trails. I light on one of the newest, the GR 141, and after downloading the official guide, I dream of walking a circular route from or to the city of Ronda through some of the prettiest whitewashed villages in the Sierra de Grazalema. I imagine us, striding out in harmony with each other and nature, resting our weary limbs each night at a local bed and breakfast after a solid day’s hiking.
But if there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from family holidays, it’s that it pays to be down to earth and well-equipped. When we arrive at Malaga airport, the four of us are each carrying: a lightweight backpack; changes of sports clothing, which are quick to dry unlike denim; padded hiking socks and walking boots with gel insoles to protect against blisters; a rain mac; refillable water bottles; and, for the kids, binoculars and a whistle in case they (or we) somehow get lost. We also have a local walking guide, an extremely detailed map and a compass.
I’ve also packed four large bin bags in case of heavy rain. This worries my eldest daughter who asks me how she’ll be able to walk if she has a bag over her head. I try to reassure her that you split the top and wear it like a dress to keep your clothes and pack dry. She isn’t very impressed, especially when the 10-day weather forecast reveals that the mountains behind Marbella will be 10 degrees cooler than the coast, and that it is going to rain and rain and rain.
So, here’s the other thing I have learnt about family holidays: be flexible. We re-jig our plans. Instead of attempting to walk the pre-decided route from guesthouse to guesthouse, we’ll drive and attempt a half-day circular walk from each of the villages on our route. This also means we have to carry less, and if the rain is torrential, we can abandon our attempt at best-laid plans completely.
When arrive at the pretty mountain village of Zahara de la Sierra, which is recognisable from afar thanks to its 12th-century citadel rising from the top of a shard of rock, the mountains around us are shrouded in clouds.
We, however, are temporarily blessed with sunshine and so the children buy €5 (Dh21) walking sticks as we wander the cobbled village that once served as the frontier between Moorish southern Spain and Christendom. An influx of touring cyclists and ramblers is the only potential menace today.
The start of our first adventure is only a 20-minute drive away, and skirts the walkers’ paradise that is the nearby Garganta Verde, which requires permits to enter. Our walk will have far less fanfare but more importantly, it’s far enough: our guide predicts that it will take four hours, but on small legs it takes six, and I have to bribe the kids with toffees as we arrive at the steep closing stretches. Highlights include soaring griffon vultures with their distinctive dark brown wing feathers and a domestic farm with lambs and fat-bellied pigs. That evening, the girls are tired but excited for tomorrow’s adventure.
Unfortunately, that tomorrow never comes. Instead, we’re beaten by descending rain clouds and have to content ourselves with driving to Ronda, windscreen wipers full blast, to take a tourist route through the ancient city.
Staring down into the famous gorge that Ronda crowns and wandering the stands of its historic riding school and bull-ring, it’s by no means a wasted day, but we are soaked through and chilled to our bones. That night in bed over the noise of lashing rain I can hear the drifting sounds of flamenco guitar and tuneful regret.
Next morning, I admit defeat and we decide to head back down to the coast. We cheer as the temperature gauge on the car dashboard climbs from 10 to 19°C. The girls hit the beach and we warm up in a chiringuito. Next time …
For more on walking in Andalusia, visit www.gransendademalaga.es or www.malaga.es