“ The Sierra de Andújar Nature Park, part of the vast Sierra Morena, boasts one of Andalucia's best preserved expanses of Mediterranean forest and scrubland. „
Tucked away between folds of greenish-yellowish hills (depending on the season), the Parque Natural Sierra de Andújar is a rugged, 750-square-kilometre chunk of the Sierra Morena, the modest mountain range which runs along the northern limits of Andalucía, separating the region from the plains to its north that stretch up towards the centre of Spain. Little-visited by tourists, it's home to not only the majority of the local towns' residents during the scorching summer months, but has a year-round wealth of animal life, including being one of the last remaining habitats of the Iberian Lynx, an extremely rare, endangered creature that only tends to emerge from the forests to get run over by cars twisting around the hillside bends.
Actually, that's not entirely true about the locals; although they do seem to desert the nearby towns in hordes come the pavement-melting months of July and August, the vast majority of the country houses are in the sierra, but outside the natural park itself, an expanse which is roughly hemmed in by the Jandula river, which runs down through the mountains before joining the Guadalquivir below, eventually flowing out into the Atlantic some time and distance to the south. Inside the park, there's very little development outside of the small hamlet that's built up around the Sanctuario de la Virgin de la Cabeza (the Virgin of the summit's Sanctuary, roughly - a church built in honour of a vision which came to a shepherd many moons ago atop a lofty peak). Small, sketchily-marked walking tracks cut through the scrubby forest and hillside, and a road winds up towards the Sanctuary and onwards across the park, but otherwise there's little to disturb the wildlife, and deer, boar and the aforementioned lynxes roam contentedly - it's especially common to see groups of the former crossing your path.
The park is accessed via Andújar, the town nearest this part of the Sierra Morena; leave the A4 motorway at the first westbound Andújar exit and follow the signs for the park over a couple of roundabouts, putting you on the road which will continue all the way to the Sanctuary, some forty-five minutes away. The distance isn't so great - about thirty kilometres - but the going gets especially twisty-turny as you get higher up. You really do need car access to get anything out of the park; public transport is somewhere between very limited and non-existent, and while you can walk into it from Andújar, it's a good hour or so's slog through not especially attractive farmland and the outskirts of the town before you get into open countryside.
The Sanctuary is at the centre of the park in more than one way; besides being a focal point, sitting up on the hill looking not unlike Dracula's castle (exquisite Renaissance architecture this is in all fairness not), it's the hub of one of Spain's largest religious celebrations, the multi-day Romeria at the end of April each year. Thousands of pilgrims travel up to the site by foot, horse or carreta (a wagon, essentially) on the Saturday, dressed in traditional clothing, eating and drinking in considerable quantities and taking all day to do it, before the main event on the Sunday, when the Virgin herself is paraded around the summit of the hill before vast crowds. It's a seriously big deal in this corner of Andalucía, and well worth being a part of. Outside of this period, it's a much quieter, slower-paced place, and the church rests in a rather distinct, contemplative atmosphere - views are spectacular from the platforms surrounding it, and the curious crypt, its walls lined with offerings to the Virgin, is an unusual sight. There are a couple of small hostales and cafes up here, although there's rarely much activity in the odd little hamlet that surrounds the hill upon which the Sanctuary is raised - a kind of toned-down, religious Portmerion. Kind of.
There are other points of interest in the park, however - most of them starting points for walking. The tourist office down in Andújar (or the visitor centre on the road up to the park) will provide you with a decent map (in Spanish) which details the principal walking routes around the park and has lots of nice pictures of deer, boar, wolves and the like scattered across it, apparently indicating their habitats. Hopefully they're not to scale, else you can expect to come across wild boars the size of small villages and what looks like a crocodile next to the reservoir. Promising.
On the main road, keep an eye out for El Jabali ("the boar"), a picnic area on the left about five minutes after you enter the park. A statue of the eponymous pig stands on a rock above the clearing, and there's a nice walk up to the Sanctuary from here, climbing steadily and sweatily upwards for about forty minutes. Alternatively, walk back down to the river and reservoir, a similar distance.
In a region that's big on awe-inspiring vistas from its natural and national parks, this isn't on a scale that'll compete with the Sierras Cazorla or Nevada, to the south-east - however, it's also less developed and traversed than these places, and its Romeria provides an enduring memory ofrural Spain.