FOOTLOOSE IN THE ALPUJARRAS

Trip Start Sep 2004
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Trip End Jun 2006


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Flag of Spain  , Andalusia,
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

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Date: June 2007     We flew to Granada, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada range, and experienced the very essence of Moorish culture, distilled in the magnificent Alhambra Palace. It's a stunning place, and you can spend all day there, but some of the tickets are timed entry, which wasn't immediately obvious.  Wandering around the old quarter was wonderful, and it seems that at every little cafe or bar they will give you tapas; even if you only buy a drink, out comes a little plate with something tasty (but not always recognizable) on it.  We headed for the bus station, intent on reaching our real destination - the Alpujarras-Valle de Lecrin - in good time, and like all bus stations around the globe, it was chaos.  Dave and I split up and walked up and down the bays looking for our bus, amidst the shouting and general hubbub of a busy terminus.  We found the right bus - the driver (already wearing his shades) was standing beside the door issuing tickets.  We got on, settled in our seats.  He checked his watch and got in and slammed the door shut - and like all bus stations, underneath the surface chaos was a well-oiled machine, and we set off dead on time.  He didn't hang about either - with the radio blaring, window and shirt open, we belted down the roads, putting the miles behind us as we started to climb into the mountains.  At the various stops there was no messing - he had a schedule to keep and by Jorge, he was going to keep it.  We swung around those bends as expertly as they come, although my eyes were so often shut I may have missed some of the stunning views. We were set down at the roadside in Bubion, in the Poqueira valley, a straggling village of white-painted squat houses where our accommodation Villa Turistica sat on the hillside, and we trudged with the cases up the last part of the street to the entrance.  It was a miniature village, built in the local style, comprising of little apartments with separate entrances.  The local authority have a strict rule - new buildings have to be made in the old style - which is utilizing the local stone, chestnut beams for the flat roofs (terraos) which are covered with a grey clay called 'launa', that looks a bit like tar.  Then they are topped with the peculiar tower-like chimneys, vented at the tops and covered with a slate to prevent the rain coming in.  Not that they get a lot of rain up there.  The Sierra Nevadas are the next highest massif in Europe, after the Alps, and the first fall of snow is usually October, lying until May, and by August most of it will have melted.  The Alpujarras became the refuge of the Moors, driven out of Grenada in the 12th century, and they settled in the high valleys, leaving their culture and their mark indelibly on the area.  The architecture is Moorish, and the terraces have smooth round platforms with upturned rims for threshing that dot the hillside everywhere you look.  The natural vegetation was replaced with crops and orchards  that were watered by a complex system of irrigation channels called acequias, which have been preserved and surprisingly are still used extensively today.

Walking out from Bubion, up to Capileira, along the Poqueira gorge and returning on the other side to Pampaneira is one of the prettiest trails we have ever walked.  The dazzlingly white villages almost recline on the slopes of the valley, and it feels as if time has stood still here.  There is an abandoned village - La Cebadilla - on the way up to the hydroelectric station that has a slightly forlorn look, and the silence is enveloping.  The HE station is hidden, higher up - it doesn't spoil the landscape.  Wild flowers and birds are in abundance, and I don't think I've ever seen so many butterflies - it is gorgeous.  The villages are sleepy, with narrow cobbled streets and airy squares, usually in front of the church, which is still the heart of the community.  Bright Berber rugs are still made here and are hung on the walls with local jarapas (throws); a marvellous splash of colour, along with the pots of geraniums and bougainvillea that festoon any available window ledge or wall. In Pampaneira there are still water channels running through the streets, built by the 'moriscos' before they were driven out again centuries ago. Tapas here is likely to be of the local ham, salt-cured and hung from the beams, and the heritage of the local gastronomy is a blend of Arab butcher and Christian cuisine. A couple of popular local dishes are 'Migas de pan' (fried breadcrumbs) and 'Plato Alpujarreno' (potatoes cooked in oil with local sausage) and different soups and stews, often featuring the very scrawny looking chickens that inhabit any nook or cranny. They also have a very good local wine called 'costas'. Pampaneira is the larger of the three villages, and has a tourism office with a working loom upstairs with local artifacts.  It is also where our interviewee, Epifania works; she runs a guiding company called Nevadensis with her husband, and she's a mine of local information.  Being originally a Swede, she speaks perfect English.
 

People are friendly but there is not much English spoken up here.  Orchards of apples, cherry, pears and peaches surround isolated cortijos, and many of them are fenced with old iron bedsteads and spring mattresses - waste not, want not, I suppose.  We were walking in early June, and the sun was hot - we got through a lot of water. Climbing up out of Bubion (and it is a climb, however, with enormous horse flies about, I shot up that rocky vertical trail with a personal best record), there is a terrific panorama of the valleys and the National Park (a UNESCO biosphere reserve), with the peak of Mulhacen (3,483m) looming. The National Park is well worth a visit - guided tours by minibus start from Capileira.  It is a fascinating place to visit, cooler of course because it is so high up, but we found it a great side-trip and break from our walking trails.

The Moors sub-divided the region into 'Tahas' based on logical geographical lines, and these persist today.  The paths are waymarked, but the Spanish as a nation are not walkers, and I still maintain that there is a distinct difference between unobtrusive and invisible for waymarkers. After walking along the top of the ridge for some time, we began to descend the slopes to Pitres (a sizable village with a school) then through three villages in La Taha - Mecina, Mecinilla and Fondales, which is near the bottom of the valley and the Rio Trevelez.  The villages retain their rural way of life - there are stone laundry troughs that were used until recently, and water fountains for anyone to use. The houses are still whitewashed, and we saw an older woman on the roof with a broom handle tied to a long-handled roller and a pot of whitewash, being directed by her husband who stood about on the ground. It was hotter and drier down here, and the waymarkers were hard to find.  After getting directions from an old gentleman who earnestly and with great determination and attendant hand-gestures explained - I only managed to understand one word in ten - we found our route up through Ferreirola towards Busquistar, which meant 'hidden garden' in the old tongue.  It was much rockier on this part, walking on paths cut into the gorge above the river.  You can still see abandoned terraces and threshing platforms, and wonder at the tenacity of these isolated people. At the very top of the valley is Trevelez, where the famous jamones come from - in 1962, Queen Elizabeth II granted the town the 'royal seal' for hams produced in the region.

We sat in the shade of a chestnut tree and waited for the bus to take us back to Bubion. It didn't come. We sat a bit longer, and eventually the next one arrived and took us back. There is so much to see here, so much history, that one visit is just not long enough to take it all in. No wonder walking holidays; walking and painting; walking and photography; and other combinations prosper here - it's a jewel of a destination.  We took a train to Almeria airport, through amazing countryside with walled hill towns in the distance, and wide open arid plains.  It reminded us that there is so much more to Spain than just the coast and the major cities.  The train was modern and comfortable, with the worst piped 'elevator muzak' I have ever heard. On we go to BARCELONA! ...see next blog
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