There's something rather magical about swimming in rivers and here in Inland Andalusia you are surprisingly spoilt for choice. Think of southern Spain in the height of summer and what springs to mind are images of arid, brown and rather dusty landscapes comprising sloping hills of the ubiquitous olive groves planted in regimental rows in the foothills of an imposing granite sierra. However it's a little known fact that Spain, after Switzerland, is the most mountainous country in Europe. The 'Costa' package tourists will find this hard to believe but venture inland and a whole new world will open up. Where we live, at Finca Retama Farmstead, just outside the achingly beautiful mountain town of Ronda, you are only ever a short drive through the surrounding Serranias and down onto the valley floor below where you can indulge in one of my favourite past-times which is river swimming. I have swum through the clear, crystal waters of Chile and New Zealand's south island, the gentle meanders of Jamaica, the gushing torrents of the high Andes, the muddy swells of the mighty Amazon and the babbling brooks of lowland Britain plus many many more so I feel well qualified to say that swimming in clean freshly fed rivers beats a pool, lake and even the sea...and here are a few reasons why. I love the sea, it's awesome power and beautiful coral reefs. I love to scuba dive and discover the delights of the depths but I always remain weary of its unpredictability, its mighty waves and perilous currents and undertows; in short: its ability to bite back! You never know quite where you are with the sea so it's not always a safe and relaxing environment in which to swim...especially if you have young kids with you. There is one other thing about the ocean that, in varying quantities, is a constant: salt! Salt leaves your body sticky, corrodes anything you may be wearing and, if left un-rinsed will chaff your skin as you walk from beach to car. It's not a fresh feeling.
Where we are
Pools are another option. We at www.fincaretama.com are lucky enough to have our own. For a private pool it is one of the biggest in the area (15 x 6 metres) and our kids and all our guests make ample use of it from March to November. Sure it's great to be able to do my lengths in the morning and race the kids from end to end. Most kids have a natural affinity with water and our boys are no exception. I once counted my youngest hauling himself in and out, in and out over fifty times during one typical session before he tired of diving, bombing, belly-flopping and any other variation thereof! But personally I soon tire of it's limits. After all it is a closed-circuit with the same water circulating through a sand filter and back out through the jets. Of course it is regularly topped up when evaporation takes the level to below the skimmers but it's very nature requires the addition of chlorine and acid in order to keep it clear and safe. In the right quantities this is perfectly harmless but it cannot be said to be pure. It is tap water to the river's natural spring variety.
For the best solution I like my water unadulterated, untainted; pure, fresh and clean without the salty deposits of the sea and missing the additives of a pool. For this you need a river and chosen carefully you can discover some gems unpolluted by garbage and unspoilt from pollution. Here are a few I swum earlier this summer. Packing the kids, grandma and a few towels (and snacks) into the back of the car we set off to meet our Spanish friends Maria-Jose, her husband Antonio and their son (also Antonio) at a swimming spot we'd never heard of before. A hour's drive along the scenic route from Ronda to Gaucin and then off down the wiggly road to the Genal valley will see you arriving at the lovely village of El Colmenar (aka; Estacion de Gaucin) where the Rio Guadiara has been dammed across it's ample width with a curtain of natural rock. It's all very sympathetically done without a 'lookie-lookie' trinket-seller or chiringuito in sight. There are a few basic 'brezo' shades on it's grassy banks but nothing more to suggest anything particularly organised. This is the way we like it and in no time the boys had slipped into the Andaluz Castillian of the classroom as they joined Antonio and his cousins in a splashing contest in the shallows of the river. Within a few metres you are in deep water and out of your depth and if you keep still enough you can see the baby barbol swimming between the rocky bed and your feet. We left the boys catching tiddlers and swum up river past the eucalyptus tree on which some youths had thoughtfully placed a high-dive platform and on to the bend a hundred metres on. How fresh and natural it felt and the waters were cool and refreshing without being cold. It was mid-September and the summer was still clinging on with some gusto. Later we dared each other to jump and dive off the platform into the waters 4 metres deep. This was how I remembered my childhood all those years ago. If you don't want to drive you can get the early morning train from Ronda or Benaojan-Montajaque to Estacion de Gaucin and stroll the last 5 minutes down to the river. It's a lovely scenic route either way but I suspect my train-loving boys will delight in the whole process of getting on this barely used local railway and it will give them something to look forward to when they tire of the river and want to head home.
A little bit closer to Finca Retama Holiday-lets off the scenic Ronda - Gaucin route by Jubrique (just opposite camping and bar Antonio) is a lovely stretch of the Genal river where, having honed our tastes and expectations from various other sites, we bought a blow-up dingy complete with oars and a much-needed foot pump. Stuffing it in a backpack and wading over a couple of shallow bends keep going for 10 minutes until you arrive beyond the little damn. As with the one in El Colmenar you can do some serious swimming for at least a kilometre up-river to the rocky waterfall. More fun is to paddle and tie up the boat when the kids want to jump out and swim. This time we bought nets and it wasn't long before we had a little bucket filled with tiddlers.
A regular favourite and one which combines the delights of fresh-water swimming with the comforts of shade, pic-nic benches, an open air bar and a great value chiringuito is the dammed river known as both the 'playita' (little beach) and Arroyosmolinos (mill-streams). Taking the Zahara turning off the main Seville road (20 minute drive from our vacation rentals) you drive a few kms until the village and it's tower are in sight before ducking off sharp left on the bend of the road which skirts the turquoise waters of the huge reservoir into which this lake flows. As this is a more official place you are charged a couple of euros each to enter and one for your car. Again the water is always clean and fresh as it flows off the hills behind passing through the dammed lake and on into the reservoir. There's a zip-wire which passes over the water, some climbing frames on the grassy banks and life guards in attendance. It's great for small kids as well as nervous parents as there are no currents and plenty of shallow water. The chiringuito serves one of the best 'menus' in the area with delicious pork casseroles, paellas, chicken dishes, a vegetarian option and often some type of fresh fish.
Finally...for those hard-core fans of mountain-fed water there's the bracingly cold Cueva del Gato (Cat Cave) off the road to Estacion de Benaojan and the closest to Finca Retama holiday rentals. Even in the heat of summer the water in this shaded pool remains consistently chilly. A few bravehearts overcome the initial shock as they wade in and the icy water inches up their torsos. Better to copy what the young lads do and climb the rocky overhang and leep the 10 metres into the deepest part of the pool. The wooden trip trap bridge that crosses the river has long since lost its supports so it is with care that you make your way to the other side, duck down under the railway and walk the few steps to the clearing around one side of the pool. So there are many from which to chose and many more we are yet to discover. As the cooler months set in and the boat and nets have been stored away for another year we are already poring over maps and websites plotting where we intend to indulge our freshwater swimming experiences when summer comes 'round again. Come and join us!!