Of Moors and Mountains

Trip Start May 06, 2008
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Trip End May 26, 2009


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Flag of Spain  , Andalusia,
Sunday, March 1, 2009

It was time to move on, so from Palomares we followed the coast south, past Almeria to the port of Motril, where we headed inland on the Granada road to a little town called Orgiva.  Orgiva nestles in a fertile valley between the Sierra de Lujar (rising to 1824m) and the Sierra Nevada (rising to 3483m). From our campsite (called, unoriginally, Camping Orgiva) we could see snow capped peaks both behind and in front of us, yet the sheltered valley was warm and sunny, the site shaded by 100 year old olive trees. The foothills around are a mass of almond blossom.
The town has several claims to a modest fame.  It is the administrative centre of the Alpujarras, a collection of isolated Moorish villages whose white houses cling to the mountainside in tiers, one above the other.  It was here that the Moors stayed longest before they were finally ousted and replaced by Christian settlers in 1609.  The river flowing through the valley formed a border between the Nationalists and the Republicans in the Spanish Civil war, and there are many tales of atrocities carried out by both sides, the most poignant perhaps the Romeo and Juliet style tale of a pair of young lovers, one from each side.  The lad's headless and mutilated body was found on the riverbank. 
 
More recently Orgiva has been brought to worldwide (?) attention as being the home base of Chris Stewart, one time Genesis drummer and author of "Driving over Lemons" and two sequels.  Whether as a result of his presence, or whether he came to this area because of them (I must read the book), the area is filled with New Age travellers, Spanish, German, French and English.  There were so many that we wondered whether "driving over lemons" should really be "wading through hippies". In the town of Orgiva, in the valley below, in the villages above and even in Granada itself, there were dreadlocks, flowing skirts and Turkish pantaloons, sandals, beads and babies.  These "expats" were such a contrast from the ones on the coast we mentioned in the last blog.  Here there were no demands for English or German food and drink, no coffee mornings or socials to discuss the state of the Euro. These people were living at one with nature and the community.  Although they hardly "blended in", (how do you blend in with a multicoloured rusting van conversion?) they did seem to be a natural part of the area.  One interesting by-product of the invasion is that every newsagent sells the Guardian and there weren't many Daily Mails!
 
The campsite also had its share of interesting characters.  There were a few who like ourselves were stopping for a week or so before travelling on, but there were none of the "I've been spending every winter here for the last 14 years" types.  There were two semi-permanent/regular visitors.  Patrick from Harrogate had been on the site two years and in the area for four years.  He had deserted the UK completely and runs a mountain bike hire business from his caravan.  Linda, also from Yorkshire, has been on the road for 40 years, starting with a good old VW dormobile, but currently living in the back of a little red Citroen van with a large hairy dog.  She had travelled all over Europe and has no intention of giving up.  Full of nervous energy, on the go all day, she was thin as a pin and looked much younger than the age she must have been.  Also on site was a pair of owls.  Someone told us they were barn owls, but we never saw them to confirm it.  However they would sit for most of the night at opposite ends of the site hooting and mewling to each other with a sound like a cat in pain.  Whether it was a mating call or a territorial dispute we do not know.  Domestic animals abounded.  There were four cats, one of which made himself at home in the caravan at every opportunity.  There was the depressed bitch that had lost her eight puppies and wandered around and around looking for food. She was all bone and teat, in need of a worming pill or two, but a really nice natured dog.  There was a little run of chickens by the campsite restaurant, some of which seemed to escape into the field at the back, and of course there was the herd (flock?) of about 100 goats in the field over the road. 
 
All in all it was a lovely spot, just four other units, peaceful and scenic, until Friday evening.  Then the Spaniards arrived.  The local caravan club was having a weekend rally.  A small van appeared and parked two pitches away, the woman not letting up from the moment she got out of the car to the moment she went to sleep. A campervan appeared with an identical woman.  The two men went off and had a drink. Two more arrived, then another.  They were still arriving at 11pm, all with loud women, this time joined by loud men.  Saturday morning more came.  We went out for the day.  On our return we found every available inch of the site covered with caravans and camper vans, including the access roads. An English couple had given up and fled.  We could not as we were trapped!
 
Spaniards are like Italians; they are incapable of having a conversation without shouting.  But unlike the more melodic tones of a loud Italian, Spaniards shriek. Groups of them stood around shouting and waving at each other as if world war three had broken out.  Children and dogs were running hither and thither.  One or two women were cooking.  Tables had been put together to form huge party arenas, empty bottles lying on the ground by the score.  No one was cleaning up.  Sunday morning the ladies loos looked like they had hosted a party of their own, with party poppers, wrappers and joke dog poo.  In the gents the poo was not fake.  Aren't Spanish men housetrained?  The washing up area was disgusting, with dirty sinks and grease blocked plugholes.  Someone had even emptied their barbecue into a laundry sink.
 
They stayed all day Sunday, shouting and laughing, playing games, drinking and eating.  Then suddenly they all packed up and went.  By 6pm we were back to normal.  The receptionist (Lolita she was called) was walking round picking up litter.  The facilities were cleaned, and by Monday morning it was if it had never happened.
 
We had three main reasons for coming to this area.  The Alpujarra villages, the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, and, of course, Granada and the Alhambra just 30 miles away. The climb up to the villages was amazing.  As we approached each bend we felt on top of the world, with views across the valley to the snow capped peaks beyond. Then round the corner the road led up even further, toward the snow capped peaks in the other direction.  We drove through a couple of villages to reach Pampaneira, one of the best preserved of the Moorish villages.  Narrow winding streets ducked and dived around the cliff face, geraniums hanging from pots on the balconies and each doorway sheltered by hanging Jarapas, the colourful hand woven rugs made in the village. The houses rise in steps, so that the roof of one house becomes the patio of the next one up.  The narrow streets sometimes seem to go through the middle of each house.  There was evidence of recent snow.  Streams ran through gullies in all the streets, the water icy and fresh.  Climbing the Poqueira valley we passed Bubion and reached Capileira, at the head of the tarmac road. From here pathways lead high into the mountains.  Lunch was an excellent set menu: soup, pork loin with patatas bravas and roast peppers, crème Catalan, bread and wine for 7 Euros each.
 
Then back down the valley, round the mountain edge and up the next valley.  On the way we passed the Fuente Agria, a natural spring coming from rocks laden with iron, the water metallic and almost fizzy, leaving a reddish orange stain on all it touched. The next valley led us up to Trevelez, which at 1,600m (5,248 ft) is the highest town in Spain (they claim in Europe but I am not so sure).  Here we were above the snow line, and there were large drifts in many of the side streets. The town is a bit of a cross between the Moorish villages we had seen and a more modern Spanish town, a not very successful mix.  It is here that many of the Serrano Hams are made,by  hanging up pigs' legs in the cold dry air for a couple of years until the meat becomes dry and leather-like.  It is very tasty, but extremely difficult to chew, especially with teeth like mine! There must be an endless quantity of pigs, yet we never saw any.  We passed a number of warehouses stacked with these hams, forklift trucks carrying pallets laden with them.  Every supermarket, deli and tapas bar in Spain has racks of them hanging up.
 
Granada was a complete contrast.  A modern bustling city still retaining the elegance of times past.  Its historical quarter, the Albaizin, and the Alhambra, remain unspoilt, although packed with tourists of course, even in February.  For those to whom the Alhambra means pantomime in Bradford the real thing is an eye opener. We had expected to be awestruck and that is exactly what we were.  Not just by its beauty but by the massive scale of it and by the contrasts within it. There is the massive fortress, the Alcazaba, at one end, the beautiful Nazrid palaces, the enormous baroque monstrosity of Carlos V palace, the peaceful gardens and then overlooking it all the Generalife, or summer palace. And everywhere there were streams and fountains, reflective pools, shady trees.  The ticket allows you a morning or an afternoon. We could have spent a week.
 
Beneath the Alhambra lies Albaizin, the old Moorish town. Here the streets are the width of a small bus.  We know because there was a constant stream of them fighting their way through the crowds.  When there was a gap to take in the scene we saw lovely old Moorish cottages and grander palaces, surrounding splendid but very private courtyards. Right under the wall of the Alhambra is Paseo del Padre Manjon, a large square filled with cafes and restaurants.  We had spotted this the previous day from on high and thought it a good place for lunch.  It was, but for the noise.  At one end of the square some youths had set up a break dancing and graffiti display, the music vibrating the very paving stones.  At each café wandering minstrels played guitar and sang, trying  hard to make themselves heard over the clamour. In the centre of the square were a couple of dozen hippy families chilling out with their dogs and even a black mule. And yet amongst all this there was still the occasional old Spanish granny sitting enjoying the sun.
 
Further up the hill we came to the church of San Nicolas.  Here there is a mirador with views to the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada behind.    
The square was just a heaving mass of New Age people, juggling, painting, selling beads and jossticks and just generally enjoying themselves.  One had to wade through them to get to he Mirador.  It was a bit like a New Age Montmartre.

Our final trip from Orgiva was up the Sierra Nevada towards the ski slopes.  From Granada the road climbs to nearly 3,000m (9,900 ft).  There was heavy snow still lying at the top and a car park had collapsed under an avalanche, so police were turning people back at about the 2500 metre mark.
Even at that height the scenery was marvellous.  The ski slopes were well populated by the "regulars" whilst families with young children were tobogganing with whatever smooth flat object they could lay their hands on.  Just like the UK a few weeks ago, but here, although the air temperature was down to 4, the sun was shining and hot.  The drawback with having no car park was that it was simply a drive up the mountain and back down again. 

Parking on the road was very limited and in most cases taken up by coaches, some of which had got stuck in the roadside drifts!  Nevertheless it was an experience not to be missed.
 
We have now moved on to Cordoba, another city steeped in history.  More about that in the next blog.
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