The GR-7 passes through olive and almond orchards, grazing areas, native oak forests, tree plantations, cork-oak woodlands, quite arid and almost badland regions, and many small towns and villages. The grazed areas range from overgrazed landscapes to attractive hills where the grazing appears to be done at a sustainable level. The pleasant Mediterranean landscape with flower-filled fields and chaparral often reminded us of the landscape around our central-California home. Spain has been investing heavily in carbon-free energy sources, and the GR-7 passes commercial photovoltaic installations, numerous wind turbine farms and skirts the perimeter of Andasol, Europe’s first parabolic trough solar plant and one of the largest thermal solar power stations in the world.
The small towns in the first half of the walk were heavily influenced by their Moorish past with compact layouts, narrow winding streets, lots of tile work, and white-painted buildings. They are sometimes referred to as pueblos blancos and the words fit. In the later portions of the walk, the villages opened up a bit and tended to have both natural stone and colorfully painted structures and have wider, straighter streets. Most towns had one or more large open plazas, often with churches, fountains, and a collection of shops. The churches are almost exclusively Catholic, rather forbidding in appearance, and almost always locked up tight. Street signs are small to non-existent, so finding markets, bakeries, and cafes required paying attention or asking passers-by. There are centuries-old buildings, some dating back to Roman times, that are still being used as residences and shops. There are also many castles, some in ruins and others in reasonable repair, that add a dramatic element to the route.
In 2010 we through-hiked the HRP between the Atlantic and Mediterranean along the French/Spanish Border. Compared to the HRP, the GR-7 is much easier walking, more relaxed, has many more towns, but is not nearly as scenic. There was access to shops nearly every day on the GR-7 but not on the HRP. The walking on the HRP is primarily on footpaths and is often steep and rocky, so the trip is more physically demanding than the GR-7. If you have an opportunity to walk only one of these routes and you have the skills to do it, we think the HRP is a more rewarding trip although for us, the GR-7 was a completely satisfying experience as well.
This walk is not wilderness backpacking. Outside of northern Scandinavia, there is essentially no wilderness in Western Europe as we know it in the US. The GR-7 passes through areas that have been settled for millennia and have been affected and modified by human activities including extensive grazing, agricultural terracing, deforestation and so forth. It passes through towns that might be 2000 years old with buildings that have been in continuous use for a thousand years or more. Old wells have produced good water for tens of generations. The GR-7 passes through the village of Orce where a nearby archaeological site contains hominid stone tools dated to over a million years ago and are possibly the oldest found in Europe. Chain stores and restaurants are only found in the larger towns and shops in the small towns are still locally owned and operated. There is not much sprawl once you leave the immediate coast. Public transport is widespread and works. We find that hiking through settled landscapes like this is very different from and a great complement to the wilderness hiking we do at home.
One of the things that is refreshingly different in Spain compared to the US is that privately-owned lands are usually open to anyone who wants to walk through them. This means that while there are no wilderness areas, there are very large landscapes available to the walker to explore. In the US, private lands are rarely useable by the public.
We camped on 31 of the 34 nights we spent on the GR-7. We never camped in an official campsite, but rather wild-camped whenever it was time and a suitable site was available. Although we try to be discrete, we were often in very visible locations; we spent one night on a paved scenic overlook just 100 meters from the village at Castillo de Castellar, another on a public plaza behind the administration building in Bérchules, and yet another on the patio of an unused farmhouse. We camped in olive and almond groves and in a barn. We asked permission on the few occasions when somebody was around and were always granted leave to set up our tent; no one ever bothered us. We were quiet and did not build fires, and usually did not set up until dusk and were packed up again before sunrise.
Campsites sometimes took some time to find due to the terrain: too steep, too rocky, too much underbrush and so forth. However, we were always able to locate a place that was at least better than adequate and many sites were quite memorable. We saw few official campsites, either public or private.
Many of the towns had commercial lodging such as pensions, hotels, hostels, and B&B equivalents for those who prefer indoor accommodations. Although dated, the guidebook has helpful information on what lodging is available. A major downside of doing this trip without camping is that you will be forced to plan your days around the availability of lodging and there are several sections with extremely long distances between possible places to stay, so some camping is functionally mandatory unless occasional vehicular transport is arranged.
Food and Water
The route passes shops every day or two. With a bit of planning buying food was not a significant problem. However, essentially all grocery stores in rural Spain are closed daily from 2 PM until 5 PM, Saturday afternoon, and all day Sunday. Also, local fiestas of various kinds are common in Spain and every store in town closes on fiesta days. The stores themselves, however small, were usually extremely well stocked with a wide variety of foods useful to walkers, much more so than small town stores in England and the US. Bakeries, pastelería for pastries and panadería for bread, had much better offerings than those in England, but were not quite as fabulous as the patisseries in France.
Since we don’t carry a stove, we subsisted on our normal walking no-cook diet of bread, locally produced cheese, jamón serrano, yogurt, crackers, nuts, fresh fruit and vegetables, sausage, tuna, packaged pastries and cookies, juices, wine, and chocolate.
We frequently ate in the small town cafes. The quality of the food in these places, however modest they looked, was generally quite good and we had many very tasty meals. Since our Spanish is rudimentary and menus were usually non-existent, ordering was often a puzzle and often we simply asked the proprietor to feed us. We were never disappointed with this approach. On two occasions, someone had to phone the cook at home to come in to make us a meal. The cafes were almost all very friendly and kind to us. Overall, we spent approximately $20 US per person per day on food.
Finding water was easy. Towns and villages have public water sources called fonts, usually located in the square next to the church. The fonts are sometimes very old and sometimes very elaborately decorated. Rarely, these would be posted as non-potable, but the vast majority had good water. Farmhouses were also a source of water and there are many on the route. We never treated water, and we purchased water only in Venta Romana, where the well water is not very palatable.