John Weller took to the wild roads of Spain last summer to research a new guide, Wild Swimming Spain. Here he shares some of the adventures in the making of the book.
In my rear view mirror I catch a glimpse of the world disappearing far below me as I take yet another steep bend up the Sierra Cantabrica mountain range. I feel like James Bond with stunning mountain views above and beneath me. I bet 007 never drove a creaky 20-year old campervan, it’s his loss as far as I’m concerned. I’m on a Spanish swimming mission, I’m licensed to wild swim. Forget Spain’s busy, developed coastline - wild swimming in the rivers, deep pools, cascading waterfalls and shining lakes is the best way to escape the summer heat.
My first stop is Lago Ausente (Absent Lake) - a circular glacial lake set high in the mountains. I scramble over ancient limestone crags and stare open-mouthed at the turquoise lake below me. I have arrived at a wild swimmer’s paradise. The surface the water gleams and sparkles like millions of sapphires in the late afternoon Spanish sun. My whoops of joy echo around the rocks as I swim across the deep and refreshing waters. I turn and take one last look at the lake before I trek, tired and elated, back down the path to my van. I make a mental note to myself to return here one day.
"I feel like James Bond with stunning mountain views above and beneath me. I bet 007 never drove a creaky 20-year old campervan, it’s his loss as far as I’m concerned."
My elation is short-lived. You’re only as good as your next swim and I’m between swims. Luckily, I’ve planned my next dip at Os Pasos da Fraga, deep in the Galician hills. Tucked discreetly away in the north-western corner of Spain, just above Portugal, lies Galicia, a land of lush rolling hills threaded with sparkling crystalline rivers. The Spanish call this region ‘el país de los mil ríos’ (the country of a thousand rivers). Her gorse and heather-covered hills and mossy dry-stone walls are similar to Derbyshire or Cornwall, palm trees remind me I’m in Spain.
Os Pasos da Fraga is on the enchanting Río Verdugo, crossed by ancient, jagged stepping stones. I follow a narrow animal track which leads upstream until I discover a bend where the river slows and deepens. I eschew the formalities of swimwear and take a cautious dive from the riverbank into the cool, crystal-clear waters to enjoy a long solitary swim up and downstream. I feel gratified and rejuvenated, neither shaken nor stirred.
A long drive finds me back in civilisation and in the queue at the superb Luis Mariano bakery in the pretty Spanish village of Luesia. The doors open at 11am for magdalenas, delicious flat chocolate cakes and freshly baked bread – perfect for a picnic at nearby Pozo Pígalo. Set amongst pine forests, this deep green pool is great for swimming, with shallower water suitable for young children. I watch locals jump from the rocks, some climbing to well over 12m before plunging in.
In search of a wilder and more secluded swim, I follow the path north and criss-cross the Río Arba to the beautiful natural river pool Poza de Santa María. Here I swim in total isolation then lounge like a lizard on the sun-bleached rocks. I recommend good footwear for this walk and be prepared to get your feet wet. There are a few opportunities for dips along the way. If you venture further upriver from Poza de Santa María you’ll find a few more pozas (pools) to cool off in. Great walking trails in the local area.
Driving towards Pamplona, I arrive at the Embalse de Alloz at night and wake to the sight of the prettiest blue-green water imaginable, set in a patchwork of fields and backed by pine-covered hills. The silky water is perfect for a pre-breakfast swim, I feel like I’m floating in space, ‘flying without wings’. Sailing boats, canoes and windsurfers cruise around the lake. I could stay in the water forever. At Camping Aritzaleku enjoy panoramic views of the lake and from here you can swim out to a small island opposite.
Wild Swimming Spain: Discover the Most Beautiful Rivers, Lakes and Waterfalls of Spain by John Weller and Lola Culsán (£15.99, Wild Things Publishing) is available online and from all good bookshops. Also available as an app for iOS and Android.
Pictured: Cuevo del Gato
John Weller, April 2016