The Natural Park of the Sierra Subbética: Quick facts
Geography of the Sierra Subbética
The natural park of the Sierra Subbética covers 32,056 hectares and is the only one of the three in Cordoba that does not border any other Natural Parks.
To the north west is the capital city of Cordoba, to the east is the province of Jaén, and to the south east is the province of Granada.
At the southern extreme of the Natural Park is Iznajar, a village that also gives its name to the nearby reservoir, the largest in Andalusia in terms of capacity: 950 million cubic metres, with 100 kilometres of shoreline and 32 kilometres in length. The main tributary of the Guadalquivir river, the Genil, flows into the Iznajar reservoir.
The highest point in the Sierra Subbética and in the province of Cordoba is La Tiñosa, measuring 1,570 metres.
Walking in the Sierra Subbética
There are numerous paths and tracks in the Sierra Subbética Natural Park, some of which require a permit from the Provincial Department of the Environment, plus others which cross private land. In addition to some marked routes, such as the Vía Verde del Aceite converted railway track, there are many that are unmarked or visible due to their use by local walkers.
Routes range from gorges such as that which passes next to the town of Zuheros, to the highest peak in the province of Cordoba, to flat areas known as “poljes”, where large sheets of water form as a consequence of rains, resulting in spectacular growth of meadow plants and flowers.
On clear winter days, it is possible to see Sierra Nevada from several of the peaks within the Sierra Subbética.
Accommodation and gastronomy in the Sierra Subbética
The villages and small towns provide a variety of accommodation, from country cottages, to bed and breakfasts, and small to medium sized hotels. The widest choice is available in Priego de Cordoba, Cabra, Zuheros and Lucena.
Apart from the top quality olive oil, the local land offers a wide variety of products: from small game hunting (partridge and rabbit) to wild boar; goat stew and cheeses; lamb dishes; sherry type wines under the Montilla-Moriles label; and the Cordoba variety of cold tomato soup (salmorejo).
Local villages have a long tradition linked to sweets and cakes, ranging from the panecillos de cortijo from Luque, to mostachos and roscos de anís, as well as the mantecados from Rute or turrolate from Priego de Córdoba, which are often eaten at Chritmas with a glass of local aniseed based alcohols or liquors.
The intense agricultural use of the area, with particular emphasis on olive tree plantations, have caused the transformation of natural vegetation. This said, the limestone composition and the climatic conditions are such that the Natural Park can be considered a transition between the flora of Granada and that of Cordoba, and as a subsequence is home to several endemic species.
Indigenous plants in the Sierra Subbética Natural Park are typically Mediterranean, although of varying ecosystems. Forested areas are divided into two: oak groves accompanied by gorse, hawthorn and spurge, on the most exposed and sunniest areas of the Sierra; and the gall oak, found on the damper and less sunny northern facing slopes, together with Kermes Oak, buckthorn, and wild strawberry trees. Above the wooded areas, the dense vegetation includes Spanish broom and other varieties that are unique to this area of the province.
Altitude plays an important part in the plant life in the Sierra Subbética Natural Park, with different species found at different land heights. Trees and shrubs such as Spanish broom, hawthorn, Montpellier maple flourish above 800 metres, whereas above 1200 metres, several endemisms such as the echinospartum bossier can be spotted.
In spite of the few rivers flowing through the Natural Park, water is still an important element, thanks to natural springs such as the Zambra. The presence of deep canyons, such as the Bailón that overlooks Zuheros, are signs of a much more active river history. The lack of riverine thickets and dense riverbank vegetation is made up for by the appearance of poplars, willows, tares, hawthorns, and blackberry bushes.
According to studies, some 400 animal species can be found in the Sierra Subbética Natural Park, of which 155 are birds, 42 are mammals, 18 are reptiles, and the remainder are fish, butterflies and moths, crustaceans etc.
The low altitude wooded areas are home to a variety of wild animals, amongst which are the wild boar, the wild cat, rabbits, foxes, and whose location is dependent upon the nearby vegetation. The same can be said for resident and migratory birds, with the most outstanding representation being that of birds of prey: the golden eagle, the peregrine falcon (the largest colony in Andalusia, and the Park’s symbol) and the Griffon vulture (one of the largest colonies in southern Spain), short-toed eagles, black kites and Bonelli’s eagles. Non-birds of prey include the wood pigeon, the rock thrush, the dunnock, the kingfisher and the warbler. On higher ground, the mountain goat can be seen on occasions.
Of the mammals in the Sierra Subbética, of particular note are the Mediterranean water shrew, in the most southerly confines of the Natural Park, the marten and Daubenton’s bat. Reptiles include the viperine snake and the Spanish pond turtle.
Human influence and activity
The Sierra Subbética encompasses the following municipalities, all of which are in the province of Cordoba: Cabra, Carcabuey, Doña Mencía, Iznájar, Priego de Córdoba, Rute, Luque and Zuheros. These highly attractive towns and villages are steeped in local traditions and customs. Other ancient settlements contain remnants of past human activity: idols from the Bronze Age, Iberian statues, Roman remains (including the mile post considered as the first road sign in the world), as well as Arabic pottery.
Many of the galleries or underground caves within the Natural Park have also either been inhabited or housed human remains. Of particular note is the Cueva de los Murciélagos, first discovered in 1897 but unexplored until 1937. It is made up of several caverns containing beautiful stalactites and stalagmites typical of karstic underground formations. Its true importance however is less to do with geology, and more to do with the wall paintings and archeological remnants dating back to the Neolithic.
In less ancient times, the first settlements in the area can be traced back to the Romans: Cabra (Igabro), Carcabuey (Alcobita) and Iznájar (Angeles or Soricaria). During the Muslim period, these same villages are consolidated, at the same time as the appearance of others such as Zuheros, with its labyrinth of narrow white streets, Priego de Córdoba y Luque, which following the re-conquest are surrounded by Castilian Spanish style defensive walls, and whose transformation is completed with Baroque style church decoration.
Historically, the local economy was based on agriculture and animal pasture: more recently, a high proportion of the total land surface is now used for small game private hunting. The most important agricultural harvest is that of the eating olive, since the flat terrain required for cereals such as corn and wheat is scarce. The almond is the only industrially cultivated fruit tree, whose demand has increased due to the elaboration of Christmas products in the area.
The breeding of grazing animals has been and is still one of the most important industries within the Natural Park. This activity has been carried out on an extensive basis, making the most of meadow and forested areas, plus olive tree pruning activities. Goats are the most commonly found animal: in addition to meat consumption, their milk is used for the making of local cheese. Sheep are also bred, both for their lamb as well as their wool.
The climate in the Sierra Subbética Natural Park is similar to that in the rest of the province of Cordoba: sub-continental and semi-arid, with mild winters and dry, hot summers.
This said, the differing contours of the area result in some contrasting weather variations, both in terms of temperature as well as in rainfall. For example, the Picacho de Cabra receives 1,000 millilitres of rainfall per year, whereas in Iznájar the figure reaches a mere 400 millilitres. Average summer temperatures vary from 9º to 29.5º, dropping somewhat in winter.
The Sierra Subbética Nature Park straddles the Bética mountain range, of limestone character and with typically jagged karstic formations that form steep slopes reaching 1,500 metres in height, narrow valleys and long stony ridges. This is due to the fact the Natural Park is where the European plate and the Eurasian plate collided during the Mesozoic and Tertiary periods.
Further unique features within the Natural Park are the sinkholes at Cerro de la Ermita, almost circular in shape and with steep sides, and limestone rock “poljes”, large flat-floored depressions within karst limestone, and where rainwater collects to form artificial pools. In the Sierra Subbética there are “poljes” at La Nava and at Fuenseca, although their drainage has been altered by human activity.
Due to its sediment based limestone geological formations of between 200 and 25 million years ago, the Sierra Subbética is a fossil spotter’s paradise. The limestone is a result of the accumulation of marine shells and skeletons at the bottom of a sea that extended inland towards the Iberian plate. It is not uncommon to come across ammonites and other marine molluscs, leading to the Park being recognized on a worldwide scale for the study of the evolution of marine fossils, and indeed resulting in the Park being included in European Geoparks Network.
Water and river systems
The Sierra Subbética Natural Park is a veritable reservoir thanks to the abundance of tributaries of the Río Genil to the south, and the Río Guadajoz to the north. The region acts as a connection between these two rivers.
The main tributary of the Río Guadalquivir, the Río Genil, is the source of the largest reservoir in Andalucía: known as Iznájar, it covers parts of the provinces of Cordoba, Malaga and Granada, has a capacity of over 950 million cubic metres, is 32 kilometres long, and has over 100 kilometres of shoreline.
On the surface of the Sierra Subbética, and due to the predominance of limestone rock, smaller rivers and streams are scarcer, and prone to drying up during hot summer periods.