There is a place (or is it perhaps paradise?) in the south of Spain that is different from any that I have ever visited before. I am referring here to the recently recovered the King’s Little Pathway (Caminito del Rey) located in Málaga.
In this article I will tell you the story of how one of the most dangerous trails in the world has not only managed to turn into a source of immense wealth, but has also become an example of heritage recovery that both strives for innovation and maintains the utmost respect towards its history and the environment. Is anyone afraid of heights?
EL CHORRO (MÁLAGA), THE BEGINNING OF THE 20TH CENTURY
Industrialisation began in the rural area of El Chorro in 1903 as a consequence of the new infrastructure that the railway line between Málaga and Córdoba provided. Rafael Benjumea Burín, drawing inspiration from Leopoldo Werner, both of whom engineers, had the idea to use the change in the water levels of the Guadalhorce river along the Gaitanes pass to construct an energy-generating waterfall.
The King’s Little Pathway is the narrow-gauge service railroad that was built for workers to get from the manmade Count of Guadalhorce Dam to the El Chorro hydro-electric plant. Being a service pathway, you may be wondering where its name as the king’s path came from. This is because King Alfonso XIII, attending the official opening of the dam in 1921, crossed the path that was previously built. It is from this moment on that it came to be known as the King’s Little Pathway.
Just looking at the site has a dizzying effect on the mind. It is hard to imagine how those sailors, hanging in mid-air suspended from ropes tied to the top of the 300 metre high cliff, put together the original path. Although this was a task that they were no-doubt accustomed to as working on the ships sometimes required them to go up to the very top of the masts to span sails, it is a feat that nevertheless does not cease to astound me.
In the 1920s, this path was built with cement mortar and was constructed following the beams of the railroad. Gradually, the King’s Little Pathway became part of the everyday life of the local population, to the point where it became the shortest way for the children to go back and forth from the school that was located in the vicinity of the dam.
Eventually, its importance as an industrial infrastructure declined to such an end that it was in a ruinous state by the end of the 20th century: nature, time and vandalism had all taken their toll. However, the King’s Little Pathway never lost its appeal, and hikers continued to visit it until a series of fatal accidents led authorities to close it down. It remained this way until it was given new life following the intervention that will be described in more detail below.
THE KING’S LITTLE PATHWAY. 300 METERS OF VERTIGO
The Gaitanes pass is a canyon carved out of rock by the Guadalhorce river. It is a mere 10 metres wide at some points, and up to 300 metres deep at others.
For over a century, the King’s Little Pathway has run along its walls. At present, the path is 7.7 km long, divided into 4.8 km of dirt trails and access ways, and 1.9 km of walkways anchored into the vertical walls of the gorge – the most well-known stretch of the itinerary.
The anthropological and architectural values of the landscape’s setting, as well as its relevance for fauna, flora and geology, are important to the area.
Besides the spectacular landscape, there are certain points along the itinerary that makes it a place full of surprises:
–The Ignacio Mena suspended bridge. This work of engineering spans a distance of a little over 30 metres and is built over a 105 metre straight drop down. It is one of the highest points along the path. Being a suspension bridge, it constantly sways and its grilled surface allows one to see the water of the Gaitanes pass down below.
–The valley. The two areas with walkways—Gaitanes and Gaitanejo—are separated by a beautiful trail that crosses the valley next to the waters of the El Chorro Reservoir.
–Fossils, walls of history. Millions of years ago, the walls of the gorge actually formed part of a sea basin. Seeing this, I had flashbacks to my first-year of high school geology lessons…
–The glass outlook. No 21st century pass of importance can go without this ‘attraction’. And yes, it is as scary as it seems.
AN INTERVENTION CONCEIVED OVER A THREE-YEAR PERIOD AND BUILT IN JUST ONE
As the architect, Luis Machuca, himself points out:
The design for the restoration of the King’s Little Pathway brings together all of the disciplines that architectural knowledge requires. In order to finance it, an environmental, an urban design and a territorial planning project have had to be put together along with a construction design document to build the walkways, control booths and visitor centres (which were already under construction when I first visited the site).
The restoration of the path is important not only as a tourism asset, it is also a way of recognising the history and heritage of the Gaitanes.
We have reached the goals set out for the project by using a construction system that is mimetic with the escarpment and adapts to the vertical topography: as it were a living creature that is latched onto the stone. Therefore, it is organic.
The reconstruction of the 1.5 km balcony is made out of a combination of wood and specifically designed steel elements embedded into the stone with the use of resins. The walkways, on their part, are fixed to the rock by means of an anchoring system, and there are stretches in which the path has glass flooring in order to gaze down into the gorge.
The preservation of the ancient infrastructure, maintaining it as a piece of industrial archaeology, and the construction system used for the new walkways, which is very respectful with the environment and has a minimal visual impact, both lend dignity to the place and turn it into an exceptional setting.
Another aspect that needed to be considered prior to the intervention was the management and maintenance of the King’s Little Pathway. Since they predicted a large number of visitors (which turned out to be accurate), maintenance had to be both easy and cheap – elements that were easily breakable had also to be easily fixable.
An interesting example of what I call “management in action” is that, since the materials for the intervention were transported in helicopters and then put in place by professional mountain climbers, the sizes of the elements were never larger than what could fit into the climbers’ back packs.
Listening to Luis Machuca talk about this project, I recall seeing in his eyes how much effort he had put into this work. It is no wonder that the management of the project was so exhausting, as it depended on effective coordination between all administrative levels.
THE AWARD CEREMONY OF THE EUROPEAN UNION PRIZE FOR CULTURAL HERITAGE / EUROPA NOSTRA
One of the activities that was part of the 26th Annual Members’ Meeting of Hispania Nostra, the association that oversees the preservation of heritage in Spain, was the local award ceremony of the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra that the King’s Little Pathway had received in 2016. In fact, it received a triple recognition with prizes in the category of ‘Conservation’; the jury’s ‘Grand Prix’; and the ‘Public Choice Award’.
This local award ceremony was also attended by Jan Adriansen, project manager from the rehabilitation project of the King’s Road across Filefjell in Norway, which won the Grand Prix of the European Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Awards in 2017. Like the King’s Little Pathway, it was also a service road – in this case it is a system of drivable roads that was constructed for use by horse and carriage. Here too they wanted to connect the process of restoring the historic road with tourism and business development.
Fantastic initiatives, congratulations to both!
It was a pleasure to have been witness to this well-earned recognition, to be able to walk along the King’s Little Pathway at sunset, and to have the chance to share the entire experience with you on heritagetimes.eu. So I’m three times lucky!
Hurray for the best of Heritage!!! 😉
Until the next post,
PS: Apart from the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra, the Caminito del Rey has also received the following awards:
– ‘Urbanismo: paisaje y ciudad’ of the Spanish Architecture and Urban Planning Biennale
-Architecture prize at the Arch-marathon, ‘Landscape design & open space’ (landscape and public space projects)
– Shortlisted for the European Award for Architectural Heritage Intervention AADIPA in category B Outdoor spaces
– Merit in Tourism in the category of ‘Emerging Destinations’, awarded by Andalucía del Turismo
Pictures taken Libe Fdez in May 2017, unless otherwise specified in the captions.