It’s one of the best ski resorts in Southern Europe, and it’s also a great summer resort. But best of all, it’s right on our doorstep. We should enjoy it more.
Article by Vivion O’Kelly
Curiously, the highest mountain in continental Spain is not in the Pyrenees, as one might expect, but way down south in the province of Granada. This is the Mulhacén peak in Sierra Nevada (3,479 metres or 11,414 ft), and unlike in many Alpine ranges at more or less the same height, the snow here melts when the seasons change. This turns the entire National Park into a vast playground for ramblers, riders, paragliders, picnickers, star gazers and adventure seekers of all kinds during the summer months. Sierra Nevada is thus both a winter and summer resort.
In winter, it is one of Spain’s best-known ski resorts and the most southerly in Europe. As for size, it is some distance behind the big ones in the Pyrenees, but with more than 106 kilometres of pistes, 22 lifts, two cable cars and a longest run of 6.5 kilometres, this is still a very large resort. What makes the difference is its closeness to the southern coast of Granada province, and the fact that it’s an easy drive from the Costa del Sol. One can have breakfast in the warm sunshine of the coast, then pack one’s ski gear in the car and be in Sierra Nevada well before lunchtime.
The southern climate also makes for some quite warm days of skiing, sometimes too warm for the health of the snow. When this happens, the Sierra Nevada people are well equipped to make their own snow, so the fun seldom stops. For many skiers, the big, wide open slopes are considered better than those in the north, where trees and rocks are more prevalent.
But skiing is a lifestyle rather than just another pastime, and sliding down a slippery slope is only part of the package. For the serious skiers, the heart of a ski resort may be the ski village and all it offers, as much as the actual slopes. And we must not forget that many visitors to ski resorts do not go primarily to ski, but to accompany skiers and perhaps, do a little themselves. There are three ski schools in the area, from beginners to advanced.
Mention après ski and think of cosy bars and restaurants, saunas, gyms, sleigh rides, parties into the early hours and great shopping. Sierra Nevada has all of this, and more. Although only a half hour’s drive from Granada City, it is worth one’s while to stay in the resort itself, either in one of the luxury hotels or smaller hostals, to join in the night-time fun and to get to know like-minded people in a convivial ambience.
The ski season begins in December, and is filled right through to April with numerous and varied organised events in different disciplines, such as freestyle, Alpine, cross-country, snow running, snowboarding and mogul skiing (this last fairly new, meaning skiing on bumpy ground). Some of the championships are regional, such as the Andalucian Championship and Andalucian Cup, and some are national, as in the Spanish Championship and Cup. Most are held over weekends.
In summer, the snow melts and the entire National Park of Sierra Nevada turns into a major tourism destination of a different kind. There are many high mountain ranges to explore in Spain, but few with a sophisticated tourism infrastructure already in place. Sierra Nevada is one of these few.
Let’s begin with star gazing; not a very active pastime in that one maintains what Einstein would have called a totally inert frame of reference while looking through a large telescope. They have such a telescope in the Collado del Diablo observatory, just a few kilometres due south of the ski village, positioned in this place because in summer, the clear skies and clean air here offer some of the best views in Europe of the night sky. There are guided tours of the observatory on most summer weekends.
Orienteering, rambling and hiking are all basically the same activity, and can be done in Sierra Nevada when the snow melts. You can also do mountain biking or horseback riding, because all these activities, as well as mountain running and climbing, are offered as organised sports in Sierra Nevada. One of the classic running events is the Valeta Ascent, in reference to the second highest peak in the mountain range, at 3,400 metres. The race starts in Granada City and ends 50 kms later at the Valeta peak.
Climbing the Mulhacén peak, at 3,482 metres, is not easy in winter but doable in summer. It takes about three or four hours, starting from the Poqueira shelter, at 2,500 metres, where one can choose to spend the previous night. On a clear day, one can see the Atlas Mountains in Morocco from this peak. Another option is an organised climb of most of the mountain range’s peaks of more than 3,000 metres, which takes four days.
Sierra Nevada’s location and weather conditions make it ideal for the sport of paragliding. It is not for everybody, mainly because anybody weighing less than 40 and more than 120 kilos will be excluded. Horses are not as fussy, and one of the most pleasurable ways of touring the park is on horseback. A route of a couple of hours brings you to almost 3,000 metres.
A more leisurely pace is walking, which you can call hiking or rambling as bragging rights demand. A three-hour hike will take you to well over 3,000 metres, which is the last step before conquering the Valeta summit. There are also numerous mountain trails, known as the Melting Snow Routes, and these usually offer interesting landscape features such as streams, lagoons and plant formations.
As we can see, Sierra Nevada is much more than a ski resort. It is an attraction created by nature and built upon by nature lovers, because the very act of skiing or walking in the mountains is a natural response to nature. Before planning our next short break by the seaside, we should remember that Sierra Nevada, one of the foremost high-mountain and ski resorts in Europe, is just on our doorstep.