In the last weeks of March, we took a trip to Albarracín, a small town in the south of rural Aragón. Tucked behind towering city walls on the curve of the Guadalaviar River, its quaint stone houses and sun soaked streets cling to the mountain side – a snapshot of ancient Spain. From the colourfully tiled cathedral tower, you can make out the faint boundaries of a sprawling pine forest to the south. It was here that we would spend the week, exploring Sierra de Albarracin and its endless sandstone boulders.
We booked an apartment with our friends Paddy and Sabrina, just a stone’s throw from the city walls and a few minutes by car along a winding road to the crags. Leaning out of the balcony window on our first evening, I leafed through our bouldering guides, hunting for problems I’d like to try the following day.
For our first taste of Albarracin bouldering, we ventured to Cabrerizo, a small, picturesque sector set on a cliff top with great views across the valley and some really nice problems to get us started. Cabrerizo is fairly accessible, as all the crags in Albarracin seem to be, with an abundance of pockets and a wealth of foot friendly ledges. I could see immediately why people online had described Albarracin bouldering as the closest you’ll get to an indoor gym on natural rock. A variety of problems with an emphasis on powerful moves through pockets and a lesser focus on sloper compression was a novelty I’d not previously experienced on trips to Fontainebleau. I made no delay in pulling on my climbing shoes, finding no shortage of problems to suit my style and grade throughout the afternoon.
Our second day in the mountains started early, with a steaming cafetiere and a thin sheaf of ice on the windscreen of our rental car. The temperatures in Albarracin are changeable in early spring, with mornings cool and crisp and afternoons warmer – we were lucky enough to enjoy clear skies and Spanish sunshine for most of the week. For our second morning in the valley, we headed to ‘Parking’. As the name would suggest, Parking spreads out from one of the main car parking areas, with boulders visible from the road. It offers a good variety of routes, with friendly landings and some really fun warm up blocs.
Nathan quickly set to work dispatching his projects, Paddy made good headway on a tricky 6a and Sabrina worked on nailing her technique. Bothered by a niggling finger injury in my left hand, I started the day slowly, managing to get by on some of the easier offerings with only a little jip from my pulley, comically taped to boxing glove sized proportions. As the day progressed and the blood flow slowed in my mummified hand, I opted to de-tape to work the moves on La Rave 7A, a dynamic problem from two sharp crimps. Though this probably wasn’t my smartest move, I was thrilled to take the tick and I returned home, buoyed, to some celebratory beers.
We woke to brilliant sunshine on the Thursday morning, enjoyed our usual cup of coffee on the balcony and set off into the hills to hunt for boulders. It became a running joke in the forest that you could tell the time to the exact minute by a careful pause and listen. Silence? It’s before 11am. Hark, the distant rumble of climbers unloading their pads in the carpark? Its bang on the turn of the hour. 11 seems to be the time that the crags get busy in Albarracin, and we enjoyed a morning session by ourselves on the sun terraces of Arrastradero, where we spent most of our time trying to figure out an especially tricky mantle top out.
Whilst Albarracin is more generous for hand and foot holds, top outs were more challenging, with rounded mantels often finishing in cramped shelves in the rock face. From the top of the terrace boulders, you have to wiggle your way free like an oversized, chalky caterpillar – a technique I never really honed.
An afternoon of bouldering weighing heavy on our shoulders, we made our way back to the car via one of the forests many trail systems, defined by small cairns and easily identifiable boulders. With the promise of a cold beer in the climbers bar at the foot of the mountain pass, we moved quickly, chattering about the days accomplishments and planning our next day on the rocks.
Our penultimate day in Albarracin was a rest day for me, my finger having got the best of me following my battle with La Rave and a burly 6C roof in Arrasterdero the day before. We headed to La Fuente, a more remote area of the forest with some promising problems for Nathan, Paddy and Sabrina.
Wandering beneath the towering pine, I took pictures of some hostile looking caterpillars in the dappled morning light. The forest felt a thousand miles away from the buzz of the town below. I felt a joy, light and simple to feel the sunshine on my face and the warm musty scent of pine needles warming on the trail. I joined Nathan under his project, offering encouragement and beta whilst Paddy and Sabrina focussed on volume further down the path, until the familiar tummy rumbles encouraged our retreat to the apartment for lunch.
Having survived the majority of the trip without serious injury, Paddy took an unlucky tumble on the decent to the van, twisting his ankle and writing off his plans to return to Techos in the afternoon. After lunch, he was kind enough to drop Nathan and I off at the carpark, and we made our way carefully towards the boulders, hunting for a 7C dyno that Nathan had spotted online. We spent the afternoon pulling our mats around the area, eyeing up the endless roofs and gawking at the infamous Cosmos 8A, even making time to sightsee at one of the areas well known painted caves, where Neolithic murals can be seen baked into the sandstone. In the last of the afternoon light, we made our way to the scenic Saltimbanqui boulder, which Nathan topped as the sun began its final descent below the mountain ridge.
On our last night in the mountains, we had hoped to catch sunset from the city walls, so we drove home and changed quickly into our hiking boots, heading back out in the waning light to scale the rocky promontory. We rose through town, admiring the endless display of colour from the stone houses and cosy taverns hanging off the hillside; taking in the warm hues of umber and orange dancing in the last of the Spanish sun.
To walk beneath Albarracin’s fortifications is to be transported back in time; to occupy a tableau of the middle ages, replete with looming martial defences and rich cultural influence. We wandered through courtyards built around ancient cherry trees pink in spring blossom, flanked by charming medieval houses, half expecting man to burst from any of the wooden balconies in full medieval hose, playing a ditty on a lute.
Following the line of The Torre del Andador, we scrambled up the mountainside, pausing only to survey the blinking lights of town from our rising vantage point. The Torre del Andador sits on top of the hill, custodian of the sprawling mass below and one of many strategic defences guarding the city from invading foe (though I can’t say we noticed many).
On that cool spring evening, it was difficult to picture such a sleepy settlement at the core of territorial battle; archers lining the defences, poised against the North African invaders who conquered the city centuries ago. As the last of the daylight faded to an inky blue, we dropped down to town to meet Sabrina and Paddy for our final night in the local bar, chatting the whole way down about our hopes to travel more and our plans to return to Albarracin as soon as we could, to once again forget the pressures of life at home in the fairytale mountain town we’d grown to love.