On Wednesday I went hiking in the Guadarrama Mountains up to the Puerto de la Fuenfría (Coldspring Pass), about 45 kilometers/28 miles northwest of Madrid, Spain, following the old Roman road Via XXIV that links the cities of Toletum (Toledo) and Sagubia (Segovia) -- Madrid didn't exist two millennia ago. Although the Romans built fine roads, they haven't maintained them. At times, the stone pavement was pleasant if rough, but the farther up I got, the more eroded and fragmented it became, until the road resembled a rocky dry creek bed.
The portion of Via XXIV that has survived time is steep. It starts in a mountain meadow halfway up the Fuenfría Valley past Las Dehesas and continues for 4 kilometers/2.5 miles up to the pass, which is 1796 meters/5927 feet above sea level. I had hiked up to the trail from the train station in the mountain town of Cercedilla at the base of the valley. You can see the road, one of several trails through the mountains, and the Fuenfría Pass on the Google map here.
The hike was difficult but utterly gorgeous, surrounded by butterflies and bird songs. The photo is of Cerro Ventoso (Windy Mountain), which lies just east of the pass.
I made the trek it because I'm writing an article for a local magazine about the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, from Madrid. Almost 100,000 people hike that Camino each year, and almost all of them follow the French Road across northern Spain to Santiago de Campostela. Only a few dozen take the Madrid Road, though an enthusiastic organization of volunteers keeps it well marked and offers detailed guides for any would-be pilgrims.
The hardest segment is through the mountains north of Madrid, but up until 1788, when the higher but more direct Navacerrada Pass was opened to traffic, it was the only route available through the sierra that divides Old Castile from New Castile. It was traversed by kings, merchants, poets, armies, artists, travelers, herdsmen, migrant farmworkers -- and in Medieval times, thousands of pilgrims who were heading to Santiago de Campostela, 599 kilometers farther along the road from the Fuenfría Pass, according to the granite pilgrimage marker there. It's the highest point in the Camino from Madrid.
"Ultreia e suseia!" pilgrims used to proclaim in the Middle Ages. "Onward and upward!"