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.
Ten days in Andalusia, combining house hunting with photography. This time we more or less got the balance right and the photographs can be seen here and of the house hunting, more will be revealed later. Big plans. Suffice to say, third time lucky? I hope so!
We started the trip at Malaga airport where our hire car turned out to be a tiny Fiat 500, bright red with gorgeous retro styling inside. No problem finding that vehicle in a crowded car park!
The first leg of the trip was to Alhama de Granada where we stayed at the Hotel la Seguiriya, run by retired flamenco singer Paco Moyano. A lovely old townhouse with views over the gorge, a very welcoming host and the most beautiful, unspoiled town in Granada. The town dates from pre Roman times and boasts a hot spring within walking distance of the old town and an original Hamam a short drive away. The Hamam can also be accessed via a mile and a half walk through the most spectacular gorge, featuring a disused mill and an ancient hermitage carved into the cliff side. The old town boasts many outstanding tapas bars including one where they heat the place by shovelling burning coals underneath the tables in the bar!
From Alhama, we drove to Granada where we stayed at the Almunia del Valle, high up above the town in Monachil, where we ate the most amazing meal of the trip. The next day we anxiously checked weather forecasts in preparation for a drive across the Sierra Nevada to Mairena. The forecasts were good and the road was open so we set off, the Fiat groaning a bit at the hills, but reasonably confident of a fair crossing. This confidence dwindled dramatically as we got higher and the weather got worse. We saw by turn, rain, sleet, snow and impenetrable clouds before we got to the top and began the more gentle descent into Mairena. Only after we arrived did we discover a text from our hosts, Emma and David advising us not to attempt the drive as temperatures were plummeting and the steep roads become icy and very dangerous!
Emma and David run the Casa Rural las Chimeneas, an organic farm with several Casitas for the guests. They host yoga and walking holidays and author Chris Stewart of “Walking over Lemons” fame hosts a writing workshop there every summer. A delicious dinner was served in their restaurant and we got a personal guided tour not only of their farm, but of the olive press that gives them their olive oil and is run as a co-op to service the needs of the local community. Fabulous views from the village and some excellent walks available for every type of walker. Emma and David are very passionate about the community they live in and as a result enjoy the respect of the locals. The trend in the mountain villages has been downwards for years now, but the recession is beginning to drive younger folk back to their parents, bringing with them new, modern ideas about farming, so we may yet see some regeneration of these beautiful places. One idea that is not so popular is the trend for industrial scale greenhouses where vegetables are grown hydroponically, producing vast quantities of tasteless, chemical infused produce that undercuts the local farmers.
We travelled West after this part of the journey to Orgiva, a town that nestles in the fertile low Alpajurras, providing a gateway to the mountain villages and Granada from the South. Orgiva is a bustling working town with a large english ex-pat community. It has outstanding landscapes, to both North and South and appears to have its own ecosystem – the weather here was the equivalent of August in the UK!
From Orgiva we travelled back to Alhama de Granada for another look at the Arab Quarter, where I discovered the story of Elena de Cespedes, born a woman in the 15th century and later in life declared a man, married as a man and eventually tried and sentenced to 200 lashes and ten years working as a nurse in a prison hospital for the crimes of witchcraft, heresy and apostasy. Every year there is a cross dressing festival in her memory.
This was the last stop of the tour, we drove to Malaga and a flight home. I’d recommend any and all of these places as holiday destinations, we had a truly wonderful break where we met some delightful people who we will definitely be seeing again.
Pictures can be found in the Gallery under Landscape & Travel / Spain. Or click here!