We set off oblivious of our destination and headed south, our first clue came when we turned off at the sign to Cabo de Gata.
At this point, Ken took the microphone and gave us a mine of information about the area. The word ‘mine’ is a pun, as you will see later.
Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park is the largest terrestrial-maritime reserve in the European Western Mediterranean Sea, covering 460 km2 including 120 km2 of the sea as a part of a Marine reserve. In 1997 it was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. (An environmental protected area set aside in order to allow life to naturally occur, untouched by humans.). In 2001 it was included among the Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance.
There are over 1,000 plants in the reserve, some of which are endemic to the park, including the Pink Snapdragon (Antirrhinum charidemi), known to the locals as the Dragoncillo del Cabo. The majority of the species are adapted for the semi-arid conditions, including the European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), Europe’s only native palm. Iberia’s largest population of jujube (Ziziphus zizyphus), a thorny shrub, populates the steppe.
Species found around the salt flats include: Flamingos; Grey and Purple Herons Storks; Cranes; Waders (including Avocets And Oystercatchers); and Overwintering Ducks.
Approximately 15 species of reptile are found in the park, including lizards, grass snakes and viper.
A dozen lookout towers dotted along the coast are evidence of attempts to repel Berber pirates. One example is the Tower Alumbres, which was built in 1509 to defend the Rodalquilar mines, from pirates..
At this point, Ken told us that we were heading for the village of Rodalquilar and proceeded to tell us its ‘gold rush’ history before our arrival. You will have already read this in the October newsletter, so no need to repeat here.
Then back onto the coach, where Ken revealed that we were on our way to Níjar, and again gave us some background.
In Níjar you can buy handmade Spanish rugs. These Jarapas are woven the traditional Andalucian way from recycled cotton and are machine washable. Then there is Níjar pottery, which still carries the remarkable Arabic design and colours and has a good reputation. There are five ceramic workshops in the lower part of the town and such is the fame of Níjar that many artists and craftsmen have come from many parts of the world to live and work here.
Some crafts in the area are unfortunately in decline, as is the case of esparto grass weaving.
Just outside Níjar we stopped at an amazing Garden Centre, dealing only in cactii – and what cactii!! I couldn’t resist buying a Buddha’s Temple, a cute little cactus with an unusual shape.
We spent about half an hour in Níjar itself where most of us – having been here before – stopped for a beer or a coffee, while others shopped or explored the village with a view to a future, longer visit.
Then back onto the coach on the way to our lunch destination. We followed a very narrow winding road with spectacular views. We were a bit apprehensive at times, especially when we could see a vehicle coming the other way. This involved the other vehicle having to find some space in which to stop so that we could proceed – as we were on the edge of the mountain, so to speak. Some of the group eventually drew the curtains and closed their eyes, but the rest of us enjoyed the thrill (as least I did !).
Ken finally revealed that we were on our way to Lucainena (at 542 m/1,778 ft) where we were to have lunch in a 5 star hotel.
The name Lucainena (pronounced Luke-a-nen-a) comes from a Roman, Lucanius, who built a villa here.
The Moors followed in the 15th century and built seven towers and a wall around the village so it became known as Lucainena of the Seven Towers. Later, when the wall and some of the towers came down, the name changed to Lucainena de las Torres.
In 1896 iron mining began and saw the population soar to 7,000, but the current population is only around 700. This was one of the more successful of the mining ventures in Almería, mainly because it had better planning and better investment.
A line ran from mines in the mountains of the Sierra Alhamilla to the coast at Agua Amarga. As the mines were 30km from the sea either an aerial cable or a railway was needed. Given the terrain, a cable was easier but it was a long way and reliability could be a problem so a railway was chosen.
There were several possible routes, all of them involving steep gorges. The one chosen went to Agua Amarga, (bitter water – a reflection of the quality of that liquid from the wells there). The railway line was completed in 1896.
At the same time it was found that the iron ore contained iron carbonate. This would have to be burnt off in what are known as calcination ovens.
Early in the Civil War in 1936, mining experienced a gradual decline. The mineral extraction ceased to be profitable and, in 1944, the mines were closed. Vestiges on the slopes of some hills are traces of old workings and eight ovens.
We arrived at last we settled down to lunch, with typical Andalucian dishes, cooked with fresh produce. This was in the recently refurbished Venta el Museo Hotel. The bar walls were decorated with various farming and mining artefacts and the restaurant was very elegant. The hotel itself boasts a gym, a sauna and a jacuzzi. This is another place to go back and visit as the village has an 18th century parish church, an old mill, and a fresh water fountain over the old hospital. The main square is also pretty with a bar and the town hall with its centenary tree.
However, for now, it was time to go home. But not back along the mountain road. This time we were going down past Sorbas and onto the motorway. Again, Ken had information for us about Karst and Gypsum and what is special about Sorbas. But that’s for another time. . . .