HOMES ON THE RANGE
The jumbled villages in Spain’s Sierra Nevada region remain almost as the Moorish invaders left them, writes Colin Moore
IFEEL as if I am in a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. The only sound is the clip-clop of my walking pole on the rough village flagstones and my breathing, still heavy from the steep climb to 1432m from the valley below. The windows of the whitewashed homes of Capileira, in the Las Alpujarras region of Spain’s province of Andalucia, are firmly shuttered at noon, the doors closed. Yet I am certain I am being watched as I walk through narrow alleyways where water runs along an open drain in the middle of the path.
I push back my hat and squint, Eastwood-style, at an upper window. I wish I had a cheroot to chew on but a nonchalant swig from my water bottle must suffice.
Siesta in Spain is all-embracing, dividing the day not into three equal shifts of work, play and sleep, but into six shifts. And nowhere is the custom more evident, more completely followed, than in the rural villages of Las Alpujarras in southern Spain.
In an hour or so the village will be bustling, figures suddenly moving as though someone has reset a pause button. They will have lunched heartily in midafternoon and will be busy at work until well into the evening. And do not even think about an evening meal until 9pm.
It’s to bed late and up early, but there is another sleep session to come in the 24-hour cycle. At about 6.30am the workers drop into a coffee bar thick with cigarette smoke for a slice of bread ladled with olive oil, a short and strong black coffee and a large glass of cognac. Then it’s off to work until a second breakfast of cheese, cold meats and tomatoes is consumed mid-morning. There is plenty of fresh food despite the steep and seemingly arid hillsides of Las Alpujarras in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, an imposing line of snow-topped mountains visible from the Alhambra in faraway Granada.
On the south side of the Sierra Nevada lies one of the oddest, most picturesque crannies of Andalucia, this 70km-long, east-west jumble of valleys called Las Alpujarras, or La Alpujarra. Here, arid hillsides split by deep ravines alternate with oasis-like villages set by rapid streams and surrounded by vegetable gardens, orchards and woodlands.
When the indigenous Spanish got around to sending the Moors back to North Africa after their 800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, the retreating Arabs paused in the dry mountains near Granada and no one worried too much because they thought the land was useless.
But the Moors drew on their Moroccan heritage, built houses of stone and clay that were cool in the searing Mediterranean sun and easily warmed in the bitter cold of a Sierra Nevada winter.
And they built kilometre after kilometre of irrigation canals to carry water from high mountain streams to small fields terraced into the hillsides that grew bountiful crops of grain, fruit and vegetables.
And there they prospered, perhaps a tad too much, so in the 16th century when the region crowned its own king in defiance of the rulers of Granada, the tamers of Las Alpujarras hillsides were on short notice.
Legend has it that when the Moors were booted out of the kingdom of Granada and Las Alpujarras, they buried all their treasures in the land, ready for their return. And it’s true because although those who invaded their villages did not have the skills to maintain the aqueducts and grow crops, turning instead to livestock farming, they did know a well-built house when they saw one and kept the villages of Las Alpujarras pretty much as the Moors had left them.
The flat-roofed cubic buildings are constructed of packed earth and impermeable shale, covered by slate and crowned by a chimney pot with four openings. The usurpers added a legacy of their own, lime wash, and all the terraced villages of Las Alpujarras are a uniform and brilliant white, sitting spectacularly in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Hills can be tamed for agriculture but they are made for walking. In Las Alpujarras they are riddled with walking trails, connecting farmers to their fields, one village to another and marking trade routes to the coast.
Not surprisingly, some of the trans-European trails, such as the GR7, pass through Las Alpujarras. In my hotel in Bubion there are middle-aged walkers from The Netherlands, Germany and Britain. They come for a week or so and leave the hotel each morning on day walks.
One British company keeps a resident guide at Bubion who tells me he spent a season as a sea-kayak guide in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park. There is no shortage of walks or ready information. I choose to explore the Poqueira Valley on a 7km circular route that takes in the three villages of Pamaneira, Bubion and Capileira, each with its square-sided church built by the Arabs as a mosque and watchtower. I leave the villages to follow a trail around the terraced hillsides. It’s steep up and down and 7km soon feels like 27km. The old-time villagers must have been mighty fit . The footpaths are ancient and some of the benched tracks are supported by stone walls.
In some places there is a convenient fuente, a communal drinking trough. There are other troughs with water for animals and some with mineral water. One fuente I encounter has six outlets, each bringing water from a different spring and each with a distinctly different mineral taste.
Next day I catch a shuttle from Capileira into the 862sq km Sierra Nevada National Park. The shuttles, the only vehicles allowed in the park, go as far as Alto del Chorrillo at 2722m.
Above me is Mulhacen, at 3482m the highest peak on the Iberian Peninsula. It is stony and barren on the slopes but the Spanish ibex thrives. A shrine has been carved into the rock on the summit. Returning by a different route I meet a party of Austrian cycle tourists carrying their mountain bikes to the top. They will find that the path down has been deliberately strewn with large boulders to ensure they travel slowly and do not damage the fragile alpine terrain with heavy braking and skidding.
In the valley more than 1100m below, the shuttle stop is at Trevelez, the highest village and some say the most beautiful. Each year a full-course 42.2km marathon is run from Trevelez to the summit of Mulhacen and back.
Jesus is a born and bred Trevelez guide with a compact stature that suggests he could run to the top of Mt Everest and back without breaking a sweat. We ride his mountain bikes from Capileira around hillside trails and down to his village for lunch at his family’s hotel.
Las Alpujarras is famous for its smoked and dried hams and those dried in the mountain air of Trevelez have the best reputation of all. Ham, cheese, tomatoes, cold beer: this is civilised mountain biking and trekking. If there is any fault it is only in the lack of incentive to move on. Time for a siesta, perhaps. Colin Moore is the travel editor of the New Zealand outdoor recreation magazine Wilderness .
A walk in Las Alpujarras could begin in the Barranco de Poqueira, a deep gash in the Sierra Nevada, and traverse the picturesque Berber-style villages of Pampaneira, Bubion and Capileira. There are also eight colour-coded walking routes of 4km to 23km marked out in the Barranco de Poqueira. Several stretches of the route follow the GR7, a long-distance footpath running from Andorra to Algeciras, as well as part of the European E4 path from Greece to Andalucia. With rarely more than two hours between villages, there is plenty of food and water along the route. Several of the larger villages have small supermarkets and banks with ATMs. Las Alpujarras is also a jumping-off point for many Sierra Nevada routes.
Peak practice: Clockwise from main picture, an old stone bridge in the Sierra Nevada; a typical lime-washed village; a view to Mt Veleta; mountain ibex