A hitchhiker's guide to Piedrahita Andy Maloney
While Chris and Andy were working in England for the summer, Kris made arrangements to visit for a month. We knew that our friend Fiona (a kiwi vet and paraglider pilot working in England) had booked a cross country course in Piedrahita with Jockey Sanderson (the well-known flying guru) in early July. Kiwi pilot Russ Read was also due to visit Piedrahita at the same time, and promised to give us some cross-country flying tips for several hundred pounds less than Jockey charged (a few beers was mentioned...). With these inducements, I booked us on return flights to Madrid for the first 2 weeks in July, with car hire for the duration.
Our first nice suprise in Madrid was to find that the hire car company couldn't provide the medium size estate we'd booked, and gave us a massive people carrier instead (which turned out to be most useful ferrying people and paragliders 'up the hill').
We spent a baking hot day in Madrid, seeing some sights. Kris insisted on visiting the Art Museum, to see Picasso's 'Gurnica'. It appeared to be a huge canvas full of people looking very upset to find their noses and eyes attached to the wrong parts of their heads! Much of Picasso's paintings were like this- I suspect he has a severe undiagnosed dyslexia problem.
After a rather hot and uncomfortable night, all 3 of us squeezed into a single room of a small hotel, we headed towards Piedrahita, 120km or so west of Madrid. The first challenge was the impenetrable spaghetti of Madrid's motorway system. Roads appeared to have several names (the A25 could be signposted E36, M20, or something indecipherable in Spanish, for example). After a few false starts, we finally managed to escape in the right direction, over a mountain range, and onto the high plateau (at 1000m or so above sea level) where Piedrahita sat.
The main accommodation in Piedrahita was the 'Residencia', a large building with 4 to 8 bed bunkrooms, entirely populated by paraglider pilots of various nationalities. A nice suprise was to find that the room next to us contained friends from Kiwiland- Craig Collings, Grant Mittendorf, Sheralee Macdonald, and Jasmine Hill. Additionally, Angus and Gitti Tapper were staying in their campervan outside. With Fiona and Russ (who turned up later in the week), we made up about 3% of New Zealand's paraglider pilots (and more like 10% of the active pilots).
Piedrahita is a small Spanish town like many other small Spanish towns. Old stone buildings with old pantiled roofs crowd round a central square full of bars and small, shrivelled Spanish people. In the evening, tens of thousands of swifts scream around the rooftops, and hundreds of storks roost on every available roof ridge. Both the swifts and the storks turned out to be good thermal indicators during the day!
The population of Piedrahita seemed quite oblivious to the hoards of foreign pilots in town. Easy business opportunities such as a bus service up the hill to take off seemed quite beyond their scope, and anyone setting up a good restaurant would have made a killing! That's not to say restaurants weren't present plenty of them offered the local Spanish fare (deep fried everything) for very reasonable prices. Some even attempted to translate their menus to English, though what 'Squids to the Roman One' or 'Green Jews' were, I didn't dare find out!
Some of the local houses were available for renting, too. Craig, Grant, Sheralee, and Jasmine left the Residencia for a rented hovel thereafter known as the 'Kiwi house'. A green door on the street lead down a damp corridor to a building that was obviously built without any visits from a building inspector. Not a single straight line was visible, stone lintels leapt out to hit unwary heads, and some ominous cracks had appeared in the walls. I only felt safe knowing that it was probably over a hundred years old, so the probability of collapse whilst I was visiting was acceptably low!
The flying at Piedrahita turned out to be totally awesome. The road from Piedrahita winds up the side of a range to the South of the town. Suprisingly (for someone used to unsealed tracks up hills), it had a nice tar seal to the top, 15km and 900 vertical metres away. Our vehicle turned out to be popular with hitchers as well as the other Kiwis, and we recouped some of our costs charging a small fee to passengers.
At the top is a huge, friendly take off area, big enough for a hundred gliders to set up. (This was useful the following week, when the Nordic Open competition was held, with 140 pilots taking off in a short space of time). On our first day there, I took off into what seemed an unpromising sky. Partly overcast, and with weak cycles coming up, I expected a plummet. I nearly got one too (Kris did!), but then a low save over a rock promontory took me above take off, where I stayed for an hour working weak thermals, as the sky got better and better. Eventually, I headed west towards the town of El Barco, staying with the ridge. Monster thermals ("The size of Manchester!" as one Lancastrian pilot put it) took me to 3500m. A gap in the ridge at El Barco nearly had me landing, but a thermal that seemed to come from the river took me up to 3000m again, and I flew to the very last nice flat landing paddock in the narrowing valley beyond. Landing here seemed a good idea- this was my first flight since breaking my left leg 4 months previously at Takaka Hill. I did the first of what was to become my standard landing technique- Right leg down first, then bum slide to a halt. I phoned Chris for a retrieve (Useful having a non-flying boyfriend!), and checked my distance- 28km, and double my previous best!
Buoyed up with a fantastic first flight, I was looking forward to the next day's flying. However, the next day, and the next two days after that were uncharacteristically wet, windy or both. At this point, we discovered the great advantage Piedrahita has over Manilla in Australia. There is lots to see on miserable days.
The town of Avila, some 55km east as the crow flies, was our first discovery. This was to be the goal for all our later flights, and is an outstandingly beautiful town surrounded by the only complete city walls in Europe. The Cathedral , built into the city wall, was filled with incredible catholic artworks to terrify the Spanish peasantry- like the Virgin Mary holding a decapitated baby. Such a happy religion!
Candalario, a village 50km west of Piedrahita, must be one of the prettiest in Spain. Narrow, winding streets went steeply uphill between chocolate box stone houses on a steep mountainside. Candalario is also a flying site- we did go up the road to look at the take off site, but it was pissing down with rain, and 50m visibility stopped us appreciating the view!
The best non-flying venue was the most beautiful swimming hole in the whole world, in the valley to the south of Piedrahita. We drove past the flying site, and to a village 15km beyond, and then took a track to the river. A footpath goes to an old drover's bridge, a single stone arch between granite cliffs, spanning a crystal clear river, with deep swimming holes, sunbaked granite slabs, and of course masses of beautiful wildflowers. Heaven on Earth! This beautiful spot is reason enough alone to revisit Piedrahita.
When the weather finally improved, it was back to Piedrahita for flying. By this time, 140 pilots had assembled for the Nordic Open. (Our own pilots Craig, Grant and Jasmine, also entered the competition, with Craig and Grant eventually finishing a creditable 4th and 6th places). The take off area had become distinctly crowded, and I tended to wait till the majority of the competition pilots had taken off before setting up and going. Even so, several times I found myself in the middle of the main gaggle feeling rather anxious! I prefer just a few thermal markers rather than a hundred plus! A memorable moment was one day when I passed through the main gaggle in a thermal on the ridge and headed towards the village of Villafranca, where I caught a thermal. The main gaggle spotted me and flew over, and soon I had a hundred or more gliders circling below. Unfortunately, most of them cored it better than me, and soon I was near the bottom!
Villafranca was the first major hurdle when flying east from Piedrahita. The main ridge of hills has a deep valley dissecting it, which has to be crossed. The best options are to head a little downwind of the village to pick up the village thermal, or to head right across the valley to a quarry, and hope for a low save off the dark rocks. Miss these, and the day ends at 10km. The local term for pilots landing here is Villafranca-wanker (a category I fitted several times!).
If you survive Villafranca, the next hurdle was the pass, about 6km further. The plains where Piedrahita sit funnel into a narrow pass, before opening out to a broad plain beyond, with mountains to the south. The wind speeds up over the pass, before descending over the back, so it is important to have good height before attempting a crossing. Another 2 of my flights stopped here. One of these was particularly frustrating, as Kris managed to get over the pass, and smashed his personal best with a 38km flight.
Our final flying day started inauspiciously, with my one and only bomb-out from take off. I had to hitch back up the hill (I got a lift with a group doing Jockey Sanderson's XC course, but no thanks to Jockey, who'd radioed the vehicle and told them to leave me there! Thanks Jockey). Anyway, my second flight was a lot better! I spent some time scratching small thermals on the ridge, sometimes thinking I would bomb out, but always getting back up to ridge height (Kris, meanwhile, got a thermal up to 3000m!). With very little height, I made a desperate dash towards the quarry at the far side of the gap, but before I got there a stonking thermal coming off the roofs of Villafranca took me up from 1200m (200m off the deck) to 3200m! I was joined by 4 or 5 other gliders, and let the thermal drift me towards the pass. Eventually, I high-tailed it downwind over the pass, catching a few thermals from hills as I went.
The wind had quite a northerly component, and kept me along the edge of the mountain range to the south of the plain. Thermals were reliable from every village I passed, and I rarely dropped below 2000m. This was far too high to appreciate the finer details of the landscape- I was disappointed to pass over a medieval castle in the foothills so high I could only just make it out! Looking down on the 2500m summits, complete with snow patches, was quite a thrill though.
5km to the south of Avila, I eventually landed. This wasn't because of lack of lift- I played around in a thermal over the last village for ages- but because I was in danger of being blown over 'Tiger Country'- a vast area of scrub, with few roads and no villages. The wind stopped me making headway to Avila, so I opted for a beer (with another pilot who'd landed nearby) in the village bar, whilst I waited for Chris to pick us up. I was riding on a high- at 52km it was 4 times as good as my pre-Piedrahita best! Kris had also beaten his best again, with a 42km flight. (These flights were put into perspective later, when an English pilot returned from a personal best flight of 270km!).
What better to finish a perfect day than an evening flight in dynamic wind, flying over the rooftops of Piedrahita as the sun sets. Memories like this will take me back there again.