The sun came out the next day, so we decided to make for the trails again. The temperatures froze below zero but the sun was out, and anyone knows that when the sun is out in Spain, even the chilliest days seem pleasant. It’s the humidity, or lack thereof. It allows for large thermal swings. So, at night you can sit cozily by the fireplace protected from winter’s worst, and during the day you can take walks and enjoy the warmth of the sun. Sometimes you can even strip down to a T-shirt.
This morning was going to be decisively on the cooler side. All the same we planned to hike up to one of the most popular walking destinations in the area…the Cascada de Purgatorio, or the Cascade of Purgatory, a haunting name which would make any sane man think twice about visiting. But I had heard of creatures of all ages, sizes and physical conditions reach the spot, so I figured it couldn’t be all that trying a task. Plus, despite all these years of being an avid hiker in those parts, I had yet to make it up to the miniature waterfall and had heard such great things about it.
From an old bridge near the monastery called the Puente de Perdón, the walk is a slight ascent of about 7 kilometers. To that, you need to tack on two more kilometers from the apartment we were staying in. The cascade does not have an inn nearby, so there would be no roasted billy goat awaiting us. When going that deep into the forest, it’s advisable to take some sandwiches along. The most common kind comes in the form of a sub, which you make with the famous barra de pan, which we generically call French bread or baguettes. In Spain, like all European countries as far as I know, people take their bread seriously, and visit to any one of the many bakeries (panaderías) in this city will immediate make it clear just how impressive the offer is: baguettes, pan rústico, pan de leña, pan de centeno, gallego, banettes, de picos, and so on. To the foreigner, that is how you would expect it to be. It’s Europe, for chrissakes.
Now, while bread has been an integrated feature of the diet here, and the variety is endless, with each region specializing in a particular version, not long ago in Madrid, the choice in most places was shockingly limited, often to just one kind: the lowly pistola. This godforsaken specimen of baked dough is basically in the shape of a French bread, but it’s crispier on the outside, some would call that a euphemism for hard, and very light on the inside. The thing is they were almost insipid and had a lifespan of about three hours. Their biggest attribute was price. About twenty years ago you had your tahonas, which were bakeries that actually baked their own products, and your general panaderías, which usually supplied the population with the pistolas which had been previously baked in a factory outside of town and shuttled in in big cardboard boxes. It wasn’t very fancy, but neither was the bread.
Then came a revolution: the miniature oven. This reminded me the story that a history teacher back in school told us once (and to be honest I haven’t bothered to check if it is true or not), where the Coca-Cola company would introduce its products into African countries by offering stored a fridge or vending machine for free because the inhabitants were not familiar with cold soft drinks and would find them all the more appealing. The same thing happened to bread. Small ovens were installed to bake half-cooked dough and, voilá, warm loaves of bread. They sold like “warm loaves”.
Now gourmet bakeries mete out varieties using only the finest yeast and purest flour, and a dozen different types of grain. Some are pricey while others remain economical, but regardless, they are a lot cheaper than most things you would find back in the States. A loaf can go for as low as 35 centimes (about $0.40).
Where the Spanish excel, in bread making, they tend to stumble in the sandwich construction department. The biggest flaw has to do with their choice of sauce or dressing. Essentially, they don’t use one. Not even butter. Not even olive oil. Nor are they especially generous with the cold cuts. If you want a standard ham sub, they stingingly place a few slices in the thick baguette and let the bread act as a buffer and seasoning. That doesn’t do much for the flavor I can guarantee you that. I have never quite understood this custom, especially when the filling is a potato and eggs omelet, or fried calamari. Your tongue gets stuck to your throat after about three bites.
But that was the fare for the day. I made a few ham and cheese omelets hoping they would be a little juicier and keep the sandwiches from plugging up my esophagus. No one likes to choke to death, let alone by an oak tree near a stream.
The trip up to the waterfall was more or less straightforward. Just in case you are ever thinking of trekking up there, here is the general idea. First of all, don’t pay much attention to the signs. For the most part, they don’t lead you to your destination. Here’s what you do: you walk up from the bridge past a recreational area known as the presillas, which is a great grassy esplanade on the banks of pools of water that have been dammed up by small dikes. You keep walking along the main path until you pass some sheds, then over a small bridge. On the other side you take the path which veers left and uphill for about another kilometer max, where you turn off on the left. That leads up a very pretty stretch of oak trees and then pines. At first there is a climb, but after about ten minutes it begins to descend to another grassy opening, and another bridge. After crossing, turn right and walk along the tumbling river for another mile and a half. The path gets narrower and less accessible, and by the end you have to essentially scale a boulder or two to reach the cascade, tucked in the very end of a gorge. It’s a magnificent route, especially towards the end. The crowds in the summer must be considerable because even on a freezing Monday, two large groups regretfully ripped the silence to pieces. The forest is easily interrupted by the slightest sounds; humans can be major infringers; and the Spanish, who communicate normally at decibel levels that citizens of some countries would consider a yell, dashed any hopes of a moment of peaceful contemplation before the rushing water of Purgatory.