The weather so far this trip has been changeable to say the least! We headed off in the morning to Trevelez, the (second) highest village in Spain at 1486 metres above sea level. The village is famous for its air cured hams and the marketplace is amply furnished with shops selling hams at eye watering expense. It is however, absolutely delicious and they’ll offer you a sample.
Leaving Trevelez we descended to La Taha, a collection of small villages in the neighbouring valley including Piters, Mecina, Ferreirola and Capilerilla and it was here that the trip really came to life. we took the road down to Ferreirola, a twisting, tiny, vertiginous trip that I would not recommend to the faint of heart – there is another much less problematic route in, from the South. It was on this road that we discovered La Cueva de Mora Luna, a cafe, piano bar of immense character between Mecina and Ferreirola. The menu comes with a story – a shaggy dog tale of epic nonsense spanning five centuries and involving invading forces too drunk to fight, lost treasure, disappearing priests, broken hearts and suicide. The food is fabulous, and the atmosphere marvellous.
We explored Ferreirola, one of the prettiest villages I’ve seen in Spain. It’s where Chris Stewart of “Driving over Lemons” fame holds his writing workshops, well worth visiting and it was on the (better) road out of town that I shot the landscape featured at the top of this post.
We ended the day in Pamaneira where I took this shot – the clouds were so close we could reach out and touch them, quite an eerie experience. Pamapaneira is worth a visit, it’s the lowest of the three white villages in the Poqueira valley and off the main street there are some wonderful shops, galleries and cafes that are not immediately obvious when you’re driving through.
Technical note – the monochrome image was taken with an iPhone and processed in Silver Efex Pro, with noise removed in Lightroom. The Panorama at the top of the post was shot with a 17-40mm lens and processed in Lightroom 6.
Taking a break from the apparently endless procession of jobs getting the house ready for rental this summer I decided to take a break from the hard work, take my camera and get to know some of the local villages. The white villages of the southern Alpujarras have an interesting story to tell. There are three villages in a cluster, north of Orgiva on the Rio Poqueira gorge almost a mile above sea level. The lowest village is Pampaneira and the highest, Capileira. The middle village which is where I spent most of Saturday afternoon is Bubion, which has a population of about 700 people.
Bubion dates from Roman times, but there is not much visible evidence of this. It was occupied by the Moors in the seventh century and held until 1568 when it fell to the Catholic Spanish. The Moors were partially banished at this stage, forcibly replaced by Christian settlers from elsewhere in Spain, but two Morisco families were allowed to stay in each village in order to pass on the knowledge of the sophisticated irrigation systems (acequias) which they had extended from the original Roman system to make the mountainsides easier to cultivate. These acequias are still in use today over most of the Alpujarras and in particular in our garden. We’re totally dependant on the water to maintain the lush green look that characterises this valley.
The other legacy of the Moors which remains highly visible in Andalusia is the architecture. The distinctive flat roofs and white plaster coating that protects the buildings have lasted for centuries and in these three villages almost all of the houses retain at least the external shell.
The next major upheaval in the area was the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 when the white villages remained under General Franco’s nationalist control despite republican success in the surrounding areas. It’s difficult these days to find out more detail about this period, but I’ll be following it up as it seems essential in achieving an understanding of the unique culture of this region. One legacy of this period is the practice of “Menu del dia”, where a proper meal is served in restaurants between certain hours of the afternoon at a fixed, bargain price. This was brought in by General Franco in order to ensure that the ordinary working people were able to afford one decent meal a day. A practice our own supposedly conservative government might learn from!
These days, the white villages boast a thriving tourist trade, the region is a designated Conjunto Histórico Artístico – a protected region of artistic and historical significance and it is possible to find people crafting the distinctive Alpujarran textiles used for rugs, wall hangings etc using the traditional methods – wooden looms that create a much superior product to the mass produced fakes that can be bought cheaply elsewhere.
The 28th February marks the end of winter in the Alpujarras and there is a festival which I suspect does not date back to Roman times involving the consumption of the traditional Alpujarran breakfast – the closest thing to a full English that I’ve encountered in all of my travels – Egg, Sausage, Bacon, Meat and Black pudding. Absolutely artery thickeningly delicious!
The mountain roads this weekend have been taken over by a procession of Mercedes, Audi, BMW vehicles largely owned by a class that appears to be completely oblivious to the recession, pouring into the villages to eat, drink and be merry. How much of this wealth trickles down to the occupants of the villages is not clear, certainly the restauranteurs were thriving, but the vertiginous alleys and backstreets behind the main road are all but deserted. Weirdly, this reminded me of nothing more than Hampstead village on a Sunday afternoon, but unlike Hampstead the atmosphere was friendly and inclusive. Even the watching police seemed disinclined to investigate the fitness of the post dining drivers to navigate safely home!
The white villages are easily accessible from our house just outside Orgiva and the quality of the restaurants easily exceeds the somewhat basic fare on offer in town. For food with a view, the white village experience is unbeatable.
The first day, in the desert sun…We’ve just driven from Ironbridge to Orgiva, Southern Spain. 1500 miles in three days, including a detour on day two to see our friends Alice and Jo, who run an excellent gite in the Dordogne.
On the third day, we woke up in Toledo and set off across the plains of La Mancha described in Cervantes’ epic Don Quixote. Obviously I was searching hard for windmills, and came across these by some weird serendipity. The trip through northern Spain had been notable for two things – the snow and the frequency of Repsol gas stations. Having confidently left Toledo with about quarter of a tank, after about an hour’s drive I started to fret. Not a gas station in sight. Eventually I decided to leave the highway and search for petrol instead of windmills. I found both within five minutes. These windmills were the only traditional ones I saw on the whole journey and they were on a hilltop about half a mile from the forecourt of the garage.
We arrived in the Alpujarras on Thursday afternoon. It’s been nearly six months since the last visit and we were relieved to find the Cortijo exactly the way we’d left it. A little dusty and bitterly cold, but once the wood burner was fired up and a bottle of brandy opened, the warmth spread quickly through both house and mood.
We’re staying for three weeks; not tilting at windmills, but finishing off the house ready for rentals from Easter. Only furniture to buy now and a bit of pruning in the garden. Should even be some time for photography!
I just got back from a week in the Alpujarras, ostensibly working on the house, but finding time to do a bit of photography as well.
The Alpujarras are as different from the Costa del Sol as the Earth is from the Moon. January in the mountains is an experience not to be missed. As stunning as the Alpujarras are in spring, winter reveals another side entirely. The days can be warm and sunny, the nights uniformly freezing.
The landscape changes character too. The mountains, capped with snow and shrouded in clouds look formidable and demand a healthy respect. Walking in these hills, suitably clothed and equipped with compass, food and a map is an amazing experience. Even the view from the house, shown here, is breathtaking at this time of year and changes by the minute as the clouds throw shadows across the land turning it into some kind of enormous shadow theatre.
The people that live here, making a living off the land are the real tough guys, I’m not talking about the hippies, blow ins, criminals and flakes attracted by cheap North African drugs, rather the people that go back generations. The real tough guys.
Conditions here are brutal. Work is available in construction or….construction. Luckily food is cheap or many of the people now living on their wits would be starving. This is the sharp end of modern capitalism. The spanish economy harbours some massive companies, Santander, Repsol, Zara for example whose balance sheets are very healthy thank you very much. In the meantime, in Motril I saw people protesting under the watchful gaze of armed police outside the Banco Popular, at the Bank’s ruthlessly implemented repossession policy. By which I mean that ordinary folk are being evicted from their houses so that the Bank can maintain its shareholder value.
In a few months, the tourists will return and the local economies will begin to function again, the English the French and the Germans come back with armfuls of cash which will be spent in the many excellent restaurants, bars and coffee shops. For six months or so things will return to normal and then there will be another winter.
In the time I have spent in Orgiva, I have found the Spanish to be almost without exception, charming and hard working. The ex pats, occasionally reminiscent of the itinerant population of Casablanca before the second world war. As the once favourable pound to Euro exchange rate becomes a thing of history, the danger is that a new kind of normal is beginning to prevail. A normal where desperation overrides decency and the desire to get on the gravy train is stronger than the desire to provide a service. What we northern europeans have always held to be Third World pressures are making themselves felt very close to home. There is a lot of property for sale in the Alpujarras at knock down prices, but it takes nerves of steel and some real street savvy to make it work.
Casa de Almendras, photographed here in the condition we took it over, is a cortijo in the foothills of the Alpujarras, a little way out of Orgiva. There is a garden of oranges, lemons, figs and of course almonds!
Its taken us three failed attempts and ten months to identify and complete the purchase of a second home in the Alpujarras and to be honest, if I had known then what I know now, I might well have stopped in my tracks a lot earlier!
The process of buying in Spain is tortuous and approached from an english perspective, food for a nervous breakdown. Surveys? pah! Lawyers? pah! it can all be done in a week if you want to lose your shirt!
The cortijo is in the Rio Chico valley, just north of Orviga. Ten minutes walk into town, but with the most amazing views up the valley towards the Sierra Nevada and south towards the Sierra Luajar, an imposing mountain that cradles Orgiva in the low Alpujarras.
Orgiva itself is a proper working town, a bustling village playing host to many nationalities, about 80% Spanish to 20% foreigners. In the sixties and seventies, it was the hippy capital of Europe playing host to the notorious Dragon festival; the sons and daughters of those folk remain, manning the stalls in the street market and putting on slightly more sedate raves in the valley south of the town.
We’re renovating the cortijo over the next three months and will be spending a part of the christmas holidays there, preparing the place for a number of exciting projects we plan to run next year. It’s a very busy time and although I have managed to tear myself away from the renovations to do some serious photography, the coming months will provide many more opportunities.
The countryside is immense for landscape photography and I’m in my element here. I love the wildness of the hills and the sheer scale. It’s like the highlands of scotland without the midgees and with extra sun!
Beyond Orgiva it is possible to drive to Granada in 45 minutes and the seaside towns of Salobreña, Almuñecar and Nerja in 35 minutes in the opposite direction. Skiing is possible in the Sierra Nevada in winter and the area is famous for its walks during the spring and autumn months. in addition, the mountain villages of the high Alpujarras have to be seen, some of the oldest villages in Spain are here, including Yegan, the location made famous by Gerald Brennan in “South from Granada”.
A couple of points on photography – I brought with me a 100-400mm lens as well as a 70-200mm with 1.4 extender and a 17-40mm wide angle. I’ve used them all and really appreciated the extra length of the 400 mm. Additionally I brought a 24-70mm lens for people and places. It’s the only one I’ve barely used! This type of landscape can really shine with both wide angle and long lenses. The light is amazing here and having visited in Spring Summer and autumn, I know that doesn’t change.
The only downside of this whole expedition was the new baggage restrictions imposed by Easy Jet – 50 x 40 x 20cm is about 4cm smaller than the average rucksack style camera bag allowed for hand luggage so if you don’t want your lenses to go in the hold, you’ll need a smaller case. I have a Peli case that is almost exactly the right size, and a ThinkTank Urban Disguise that is slightly smaller. Both fit a truly amazing amount of kit and although the Peli case is heavy, it is virtually indestructible, so even if it were to go in the hold, I’d be pretty confident of getting my cameras intact at the other end!