Spanish Sierras: A Winter Drive in the Mountains

Embalse de Uzquiza, River Arlanzón, Burgos

Embalse de Uzquiza © 2013 Mufidah Kassalias

A few Sundays ago we woke to glorious sunshine, blue sky and the urge to go a-driving. After looking at the map we decided to head southeast towards the Embalse de Uzquiza, a large reservoir on the Arlanzón River which, in the process of its creation in 1989, caused the demise of three valley villages. Herramel, Villorobe and Uzquiza (which lives on in the name of the reservoir) were all demolished before being flooded by the vast body of water that accumulated after construction of the dam was complete.

To reach the reservoir we drove along the N-120 to the edge of the Sierra de la Demanda, a sub-range of the Iberian System, the large chain of mountain ranges that covers much of northeastern Spain. The reservoir has a 75 cubic hectometre capacity and you can get a good sense of its size, the largest of the two visible bodies of water, as well as the general terrain, on the below Google Maps image.

Google Maps—Burgos and Sierra de la Demanda

Burgos and Sierra de la Demanda, Google Maps

We walked across the dam to the side where the water tower sits, scrambled up the hillside and sat on lichen-covered rocks enjoying the full panorama of our surroundings. En route, I stopped to photograph some frosted leaves scattered across the trail. The temperatures were low that weekend, and being in the mountains it was even colder than Burgos.

Frosted Leaves

Frosted Leaves © 2013 Mufidah Kassalias

Leaving the reservoir we continued driving east, curious to see what was around each of the many bends in the road, and ended up in Pradoluengo, a small town nestled in the foothills of the mountains. As the light was beginning to fade the temperature plummeted, so we stayed in the car and took in the town from a distance. We saw the remains of industrial life, some large houses and a few locals walking to places unknown to us, huddled against the cold.

After returning that evening we resolved to drive back the next day. This time we planned to take a homemade lunch of tortilla and bread, set our alarms and went to bed early.

We woke to the thickest fog I’ve ever seen.

Hopeful the fog would clear we continued with our plans, making the tortilla and packing our bags. The fog, however, was persistent. We put everything in the car and drove to one of the big supermarkets in town in search of a gas canister to make some coffee to have with our tortilla. Unfortunately, there were none to be had so we drove to another of the big supermarkets. We weren’t in a hurry as we had no intention of heading towards the mountains in heavy fog. This time we got distracted in the electronics department and by the time we emerged we decided to at least drive the short distance out of town to Arlanzón, which was on the way to the reservoirs, where we could stop to enjoy our lunch. We were on the road for about five minutes when a small chink of blue broke through the predominantly grey sky and the fog began to lift, burning up as fast as we were driving.

We arrived in Arlanzón and parked beside the river which gives the village its name, and tucked into our tortilla (sitting in the car as it was much too cold to eat outside) before enjoying a warming coffee in the local taberna. Aside from the river and the bar there were only a handful of houses, one of which had a line of laundry slung across the side wall.


Laundry © 2013 Mufidah Kassalias

Leaving Arlanzón we drove on, past the Embalse de Uzquiza to the Embalse del Arlanzón, the smaller of the two reservoirs which was created when the first Arlanzón River dam was built following the last major flood in Burgos in 1930. The below photograph of a column in the arches beneath the Casa Consistorial doesn’t put it in perspective, but the lower of the two lines is approximately six feet high.

Burgos Floodlines 1874—1930

Burgos Floodlines 1874—1930 © 2013 Mufidah Kassalias

Although the fog was clearing as fast as we were driving, the sun only made a few brief appearances throughout the afternoon. By the time we reached the Embalse del Arlanzón the sky was covered with a thin layer of cloud in all directions.

Embalse del Arlanzón

Embalse del Arlanzón © 2013 Mufidah Kassalias

We continued on the BU-820 heading towards the N-234, which we knew would be an easy drive back to Burgos. What we didn’t realise was how tricky the remainder of the BU-820 was going to be. Mountain driving in winter is one thing if you have a 4×4, but when you’re driving a small car designed for zipping around Italian cities you have to be much more careful. Fortunately, Sean has experience driving a regular car on Mount Atalaya in Santa Fe (where he lived for a year), so he knew to drive slowly and deliberately through the peaks and valleys of the mountains. It took a couple hours for us to wind our way over the mountaintops and through the valleys, one of which felt more like an ancient gorge; the kind of place where it’s easy to imagine no one has been for years, and certainly the sort of place where you wouldn’t want to be lost and alone. And in all that time we only saw one car, which overtook us early on. By the time we turned off the BU-820 the scenery mellowed and the road was similar to the stretch preceding the Arlanzón Reservoir.

Our last stop was the village of Barbadillo del Pez, where we saw some sweet kittens hanging out with their mother on a makeshift bench outside the cottage in the below picture. I tried to photograph them, but they shot off into various corners at the first sign of my approach. Shortly afterwards the light began to fade and we headed back to Burgos, relieved to have survived an afternoon of driving through the Sierra de la Demanda on an icy day with the ever-present threat of returning fog, which only half an hour later began to spill over the Sierra de Covarrubias that runs alongside the N-234.


Cottages © 2013 Mufidah Kassalias

5 responses

  1. Mufidah,  Clicking on your photos from your great article re: your drive I was unable to view any of the pics.  Are you using a different way of sending them?  I will try again later using my phone, but am now on my computer and none of them click on.  Good article though and you guys, “Be Careful”  sounds like a pretty scary trip.  Love to both.  Mom/Helen


  2. The pictures are amazing but a little scary as far as the mountain drive is concerned. Stay in touch.