April 22, 2013. Day 6. The Alpujarras.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, a who’s who of those travelling, and our itinerary.
After a wonderful day in Granada, we now looked forward to a trip to Las Alpujarras, a mountainous region on the south side of the Sierra Nevada from Granada. It’s a very picturesque area dotted with white villages and scattered farms (cortijos). During our year in Granada (1987-88), Margaret and I had made the roughly 80-kilometre trip to Las Alpujarras several times, and fell in love with the area: its natural beauty, the melodious sound of its numerous streams and waterways, the gentle tinkling of goat and sheep bells, the smell of wood fire, the aroma of bread baked in wood-fired ovens, groves of olives, figs, citrus trees, almond, chestnut and oak trees, the crowing of roosters and chickens clucking round doorways… In all a tranquil retreat after the bustle of Granada. If you have transportation, you really shouldn’t miss Las Alpujarras!
The geography of Las Alpujarras is wonderfully varied: dramatic ravines, lush meadows, steep hillsides with fertile terraces fed by irrigation ditches built by Moorish farmers ages ago, and villages that could be taken for Berber communities in the Moroccan Rif. The comparison is fitting because Las Alpujarras were for centuries the home of Moorish farmers whose predecessors were in all likelihood Berbers who participated in the invasion of Visigothic Spain in the 8th century.
The area remained in relative obscurity as part of Muslim al-Andalus, but after the fall of Granada to the Christians (1492) the threat of forced conversion issued in 1499 provoked the Muslims of Las Alpujarras to rebel. The rebellion was put down and the threat of forced conversion became fact in 1501. Nevertheless, given the isolation of Las Alpujarras, the area became a refuge where the Moriscos (the name given to converted Muslims) retained their Moorish traditions, wore Moorish clothes, and continued to speak Arabic and practice their religion, Islam. However, during the 16th century, growing fears of a Turkish invasion, increased Church vigilance and Inquisitorial activity, the destruction of the local silk industry by export bans and increased taxes, and the confiscation of Moorish land led to an explosive and bloody two-year rebellion, 1568-70. After it was over, thousands of Moriscos were transferred to distant areas in Castile and replaced by Christians from Galicia, Asturias and León. It was an unhappy solution: Castilians suddenly found themselves with neighbours whose way of life was alien to them and Las Alpujarras were opened to people ill-equipped to take advantage of the agricultural infrastructure built by the Moors.
After the rebellion, Las Alpujarras slipped back into relative anonymity. Some intrepid travellers in the 19th century commented on its wildness, but it was a British hispanophile, Gerald Brennan, who did much to promote the area abroad with the publication in 1957 of South from Granada, an account of his experiences in the village of Yegen over 6 or 7 years between 1920 and 1934. In the 1960s, Las Alpujarras became popular with hippies and practitioners of alternative medicine and followers of various religious beliefs. Buddhism found a niche there, as did Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam. Lanjarón, at the western entry to Las Alpujarras, has attracted visitors to its thermal baths and its water, while Orgiva, a few kilometres to the east, is widely known for its yoga and well-being retreat.
A number of British expats have also settled there, including Chris Stewart one time drummer of the rock group Genesis. His book, Driving over Lemons (1999), is a lively and entertaining description of his and his wife’s experiences of living on a farm (cortijo) they bought in Las Alpujarras. It’s well worth a read.
Nowadays, Las Alpujarras have become a major tourist attraction for hiking, rock climbing/ scrambling, mountain biking and horse trekking, as well as a destination for bird watchers and herbalists.
http://www.alpujarras.eu/ Click Video for an attractive presentation of Las Alpujarras.
Getting ready to leave for Las Alpujarras, we first had to get our van out of the underground garage of our hotel, Monjas del Carmen. John had miraculously overcome the “problema gordo” (big problem: our hotel receptionist’s words) when we were nearly stuck descending the ramp two days before. See Travel 4. Now he had to get us out. It was with some trepidation that we boarded the van and there were lots of crossed fingers as we started the ascent. With side mirrors retracted, John gradually inched the vehicle up, slowly negotiated the curve, a jiggle here … a jiggle there… Finally, we had a clear straight run for the exit, and with a collective sigh of relief we made it onto the street. We still had one night remaining at Monjas del Carmen, but we decided that we would not tempt fate (or raise our blood pressures!) by trying to get the van back down the hotel’s garage. We would look for parking under a shopping mall on the outskirts of the city.
We set off, having calibrated our GPS (aka Olivia). The sky was cloudy, but we had high hopes that it would clear by the time we were on the southern side of the Sierra Nevada. Soon we were heading south on highway N323 in the direction of the Mediterranean coastal town of Motril. On the way, we crossed over the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro, a pass where the unfortunate Boabdil, last Moorish ruler of Granada –casting a final lingering look at the Alhambra in the distance– is said to have paused and sighed deeply. Whereupon, his mother reproached him with the crushing rebuke: “Weep like a woman you who were unable to defend your kingdom like a man.”
At Beznar, about 25 kilometres on, we turned left on to the A 348 for Lanjarón and Orgiva, the two largest towns in the western end of Las Alpujarras. This picturesque road, twisting and turning through olive groves, vineyards, orange and lemon trees, hugs the hill sides.
It straightens out a bit through Lanjarón and then continues its serpentine course through more orchards to Orgiva. We didn’t stop at either town; we were anxious to get to our three favourites villages, the pearls of Las Alpujarras: Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira. Just before we reached Orgiva, we turned sharp left and started a steep, winding climb up the GR 421 threading our way through poplars, chestnuts, gnarled holm oaks and past the occasional eucalyptus. We drove besides water channels and there were potable springs, still a source of delicious water (a note of caution: not all the water is drinkable. “Agua no potable” means “not drinkable water”). Water is the lifeline of the Alpujarras, still irrigating orchards and small fields as it did when the Moors constructed the channels long ago.
Unfortunately, our views were limited because of a persistent mist that lifted only occasionally to allow us brief glimpses of the spectacular scenery.
“What a pity,” Margaret, John and I kept repeating, apologising to Leslie, Andrew and Alex for being unable to show them the magnificent views, which we knew were there from our previous visits. I was particularly sorry when we rounded a corner and couldn’t see, in a wedge-shaped cleft that extends upwards towards the peaks, Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira glistening white against the green trees and verdant hillsides on which they perched. What a photographic opportunity missed! (Note: photos taken this year are indicated by 2013; the other photos were taken on previous visits)
Alex: The drive up to Las Alpujarras was very beautiful even in the mist. I really enjoyed the views I could see, even the steep drops.
John: I love the drive up to Las Alpujarras even though it is a steep and sometimes narrow road that is well travelled by a number of vehicles of varying sizes. We had a misty day, which was a disappointment, but the trip was well worth it anyway.
Capileira is the last of the 3 white towns (Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira), but I think it is the most attractive. There were three highlights of this town for me: we found a great leather artisan, we had our best meal in Spain, and there is a really nice walk to take regardless of your fitness level.
We stopped briefly at Pampaneira, at the foot of the Poqueira barranco (ravine), and the lowest of the three villages at 1,058 metres,. Here the road forks, one going up to Bubión and Capileira, the other taking you to Pórtugos, Trevélez and beyond.
Pampaneira now lives mainly off tourism as does much of Las Alpujarras. Among the main village attractions for tourists are their traditions and festivals. Some traditions, such as the bloody “matanza” (the killing of the pigs between November and March), have virtually disappeared not necessarily because of tourist squeamishness but because villagers now can get pork cheaper at the local groceries without the trouble and expense of raising pigs. Other traditions, however, have been given a lifeline by tourists. Pampaneira, for example, has long been known for its artisan weaving, an art inherited from Moorish times. Colourful blankets, shawls and Alpujarra sweaters are perfect to snuggle into on the chilly evenings that descend on Las Alpujarras in winter. We didn’t buy blankets, shawls or sweaters in Pampaneira, but John did purchase goat bells the sound of which he has always associated with the Alpujarras.
We bypassed Bubión, where Margaret and I had rented a rustic cottage in 1988, and stopped at a small parking lot at the entrance to Capileira. Capileira cascades down the upper part of a hill which then drops vertiginously down to the Poqueiro ravine
In the steepest areas of the village, parts of streets pass under the terraces of the houses above, a characteristic of North African villages which can be found in many of the hillside villages of the region. Wandering through some streets, I was happy to see that Capileira hadn’t really changed: the same narrow, rough-paved streets, cube-shaped whitewashed houses with capped chimneys, geraniums covering narrow balconies or balanced on window ledges, hidden corners with fountains …
however, I missed the clucking chickens and the roosters, and I didn’t have to side step goat or sheep droppings, but maybe that was because we didn’t have time to walk through the whole village.
We made two discoveries whilst wandering: an excellent leather shop and an outstanding restaurant. We didn’t know what to make of the leather shop when we saw the name: Joe Brown! An English expat? No, it turned out that José Moreno had spent some time in England and had decided that a translation of his name into English might get more attention for the shop. It worked for us.
In any case, Joe Brown made excellent leather articles, and although we hadn’t planned to buy leather goods, we ended up with many attractive purses and wallets, a handbag, and a beautiful leather skirt, all very reasonably priced.
Alex: There was place in Capileira with beautiful leather stuff like purses, bags, wallets and clothing. I bought a purse and change purse. It was beautiful leather.
John: The leather store is right on the main street and Joe Brown is happy to show you the quality of his work. I had told Leslie that Spain had wonderful leather goods and it was nice to be able to demonstrate that so early in the trip.
After shopping it was time for lunch. Following a recommendation by José Moreno, we headed for the nearby Corral del Castaño (Castaño = chestnut tree). We would have liked to eat on the terrace, but the mist still hung around, like an unwelcome guest. It was a Monday, and we were the only customers. The room was warm and intimate (there were actually three dining rooms in this 18th-century building) and we were shown to two neighbouring tables near the fireplace. And so began a gastronomic adventure against which we measured all the subsequent meals of our trip.
Using local produce whenever possible, Manuel, chef and co-owner, made every dish an experience: tempting cheese croquettes for starters, tasty almond and garlic soups, exquisite green salads, and the piece de resistance, a superb paletilla (shoulder blade) of lamb, accompanied by an excellent Rioja red and bottled water (from where else but Lanjarón). Dessert was mini éclairs with strawberries and a chocolate sauce sprinkled with sliced almonds: mouth-watering! The service was attentive and very friendly, table settings and tablecloth immaculate. There really was nothing to fault here. Not surprising that El Corral del Castaño is Michelin recommended (NB. Closed on Wednesdays, according to business card).
Alex: After shopping, we went to a restaurant with delicious things like cheese croquettes and lamb. It was all really good, and was one of my favourite restaurants.
John: The restaurant that I would recommend to anyone is called El Corral del Castaño. The almond soup I had was simply outstanding, and the shoulder of lamb (paletilla), a specialty of the house, was absolutely stupendous. These were followed by delicious eclairs with strawberries and chocolate sauce. All other meals in Spain were held up against this one for comparison. All this was reasonably priced, making this restaurant a “keeper” in every way.
After such a wonderful meal, a walk was in order.
El Corral del Castaño was fairly close to the far end of the village from our parking lot, and it took us only a few moments to find the path that we had followed on our way down to the barranco on previous visits to Capileira. The mist still hung around, and we couldn’t see down to the barranco, but it didn’t matter. It was a nostalgic walk, and we only strolled a couple of kilometres or so. But it was lovely to see that the path had not changed, the chestnut trees were still there, the almonds were in flower, the water channels flowed beside us following their allotted courses, the old cortijo still stood in its minute fields, we could still hear goat bells, and the cats we met were probably descendants of those which had greeted us on earlier visits.
If you are ever in Capileira, do look for this path; you won’t be disappointed.
John: To say that I left there stuffed would be an understatement, which is why I was so glad for the walk along an ancient path where you could see old farms and hear the sound of goat bells in the distance, a sound that I have always associated with this part of Spain.
Alex: We took a beautiful walk that would take you down to the valley if you wanted to. Today it was very misty so it was hard to see very far. On the walk we saw 3 cats, and we also heard goat bells.
It was late when we got back to Granada. We found parking just off the main Granada-Motril/ coast road, under a complex identified in my notes as Foster’s Hollywood Neptuno! It was a good 25-30 minute walk back to the hotel, and by the time we arrived we were ready for bed. It had been a long, but very rewarding day, and in retrospect the mist was no more than a minor set-back.
Some further images:
For some interesting photos with commentaries, see http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20140807-remote-romantic-southern-spain