In a continent so littered with mountain ranges as Europe, from the high Tatras of Southern Poland and Slovakia, to the snow touched ski slopes of the French and Swiss Alps, it is perhaps not surprising that Spain rarely figures on lists of the continent’s top topographical nations. There is something of a dominant image of Spain as the European ‘King of beaches’, and, while this is perhaps a well-deserved epithet for the country that boasts the Mediterranean’s most visited coastline stretch in the Costa Del Sol, Spain’s back garden is an unexpected palimpsest of mountainous enclaves and awesome peaks. In fact, Spain’s position as the ‘second most mountainous country in Europe’ is oft noted by the geographer of the continent, and in terms of percentage to overall territory ratios, the Alpine country of Switzerland is the only European nation to pop Spain to the post on the ‘mountain covered land’ front.
The Spanish Pyrenees
In the north east, the Spanish Pyrenees, a range which dominates Spain’s small and land locked border country, Andorra, have made a real name for themselves on the European ski circuit. Home to more than thirty separate resorts, these rugged mountain vistas are a really unique geographical setting for winter sports, without the crowds that dominate the Swiss or Austrian slopes all season long. Historically the Pyrenees have acted as a sort of geographical gateway to the Iberian Peninsula, separating Spain from France with a wall of granite peaks that range from the provinces of Girona in the East, through Barcelona, toLleida in the West. What’s more, this Pyrenean enclave of mountainous terrain in offers an altogether unique experience for the keen hiker, with numerous lofty waterfalls and soaring precipitous passes, there’s a seriously rich array of walking routes to keep anyone busy.
The Sierra Nevada of Andalusia
Continuing to defy Spain’s long established image as Europe’s sun baked beach country, the southernmost mountain range is contrarian in both appearance and name. The Sierra Nevada (literally meaning ‘the snowy mountains’) of Andalusia, are an extensive range of high and harsh peaks that sit just to the back of Spain’s Mediterranean coastal cities and mark the begging of the Baetic System of mountains that stretches like a belt right across this southerly section of the Iberian peninsula. The Sierras are home to Spain’s highest continental peak, and one of the highest peaks in Europe as a whole (overshadowed only by Mount Blanc and the peaks of the Russian Caucasus), Mount Mulhacén. Here, climbers enjoy a range of routes, from the gentle south slope to the more demanding north ridge, and the peak can usually be scaled in just a day’s hike starting from the base camps at the mountain villages of Trevélez and Capileira.
However, perhaps Spain’s most awe inspiring of peaks is found near Barcelona, in Montserrat, where the geological protrusions evoke curiosity like nowhere else in the country, and enclose one of Spain’s most important religious sites. Here, the Benedictine monastery that’s nestled neatly into the folds of the imposing multi-peaked mountain that shadows above has been a centre of religious focus since it became the unexpected source of repeated reports of heavenly visions and miraculous happenings in the 9th century. The peak itself looms like a jagged wall over the surrounding land and can be climbed easily with help from the funicular railway that takes visitors some way up the mountain trail.
The Cantabrian Mountains
Continuing the theme of dramatic topography, the Cantabrian Mountains in Spain’s Northern coast lands are magnificent protrusions of curiously shaped peaks that have formed from the cumulative attrition of thousands of years of acidic rainfall that’s unique to the region. The ‘Picos de Europa’, or ‘Peaks of Europe’ are perhaps the most awesome of the ranges here and are littered with complex cave systems and literally unreachable plateaus and passes. The area is home to some of Europe’s rarest mountain dwelling wildlife; it is still possible observe the mountain wolf and brown bear in their natural habitat here. If you’re not the hiking type, and prefer something a little more relaxed, the area is also famed for its pungent local blue cheeses, made by the few remaining local sheep herders that make use of the unusual climate of the range’s subterranean passages to mature their dairy products to perfection.
So, forget the Spain of sun loungers and whitewash towns next to the sea, think instead of the Spain that’s home to majestic, awesome and sometimes formidable mountain ranges that really can hold their own on when it comes to exploring the roof of Europe. From the snowy Sierras in the South, to the soft cliff rises of the Cantabrian peaks in the North, there are so many mountains to explore in Spain it would be a shame to miss them!