In the book “South of Granada” the author, Gerald Brenan writes about the troglodytes of Guadix, a murderous community of bandits found in the desert around Guadix, preying on the hapless traveller. Ever since I read the book I’ve been meaning to check the area out – after all he was in Andalusia in the 1920’s, so I figured the risk from bandits would be pretty minimal. This is what brought me to the cave dwellings of Benalua, a small town in the desert about 15 miles from Guadix.
Guadix is about 90 minutes drive from our house in Orgiva, we headed past Granada and then followed the motorway towards Almeira, after about 50 km Guadix is clearly signposted and you can drive good roads all the way to Benalua de Gaudix.
The desert itself is inhospitable, baking hot and inhabited only by scorpions and snakes. This is not a place to run out of petrol, we saw only two cars in the entire day and most of the farms by the river appeared to be uninhabited. Inevitably, my iPhone ran out of battery, but there was only one turning in this road, that led us to a spa resort – naturally the spa was closed.
The first thing you see on approaching Benalua is unexpected – a vast semi derelict ceramics factory. The earth around here is a soft clay – idea for digging into and perfect for making pottery. But we were here to see Cave dwellings and I made my way up to the highest point of the town so that I could spy out the landscape. Once there, I made my way to the end of a six foot high chain link fence and out towards the edge of a cliff and found in front of me a panoramic view of the cave dwellings of Benalua.
The makeshift shelters in the image at the top of the article are at the entrance to caves dug into the clay and are used to house goats. There are hundreds of these caves, some boasting driveways and gated enclosures, others housing less fortunate people, presumably dependant on the ceramics industry for survival. The caves are all clustered around one area and it is an eye opening sight.
I mean to go back to Benalua and the desert beyond, it is one of the strangest places I’ve seen in Andalusia and I’d like to go back when the sun is lower in the sky, there are some amazing landscapes out there and it is well worth the trouble to go prepared.
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!
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!
I haven’t really scratched the surface with this collection, but it has convinced me to go back and keep going back until I know the city well enough. My impressions are many and varied, there is architecture ranging from the extraordinary Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi, a gothic modernist masterpiece that for my money ranks as one of the most spectacular buildings I’ve ever seen. There is the brutalist modernity of the university district, typified by the hotel I stayed in, Hotel Rey Juan Carlos I. Be aware that this is primarily a conference hotel and looks and behaves like one. Impersonal, spectacular and brutal. Consumed one of the most disgusting hamburgers I’ve ever eaten and one of the nicest omelettes. Go figure.
The first evening was probably the best from the photographic perspective. I had decided to only take the Canon G1 X on the trip, a decision I didn’t regret since it is light and inconspicuous. I hightailed it to the Ramblas, Barcelona’s equivalent of Piccadilly, a street that is essentially pedestrian, lined with shops, bars and cafes, where people stroll, photographers photograph and life just carries on. The prices are high, but off the main drag, there are lots of cheaper, more friendly places to linger.
The harbour is well worth visiting. Avoid the shopping centre style area and head for the older parts which in January are much quieter and more interesting. I finally broke free of my conference on the Friday and headed downtown to photograph the Gaudi Cathedral. It is as wonderful as it is famous, but four blocks to the north east there is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau – a fabulous building designed by another of the Catalan modernists, Lluis Domenech i Montanet. Not quite as breathtaking as Sagrada Familia, but definitely in the same league. It is being restored at the moment and the site is inaccessible, but can still be viewed from the road and well worth the 15 minute walk to get there.
The whole collection of photographs from Barcelona can be viewed here. (http://electricalimage.com/galleries/travel/spain/barcelona/)
Las Alpajurras is a region of spain I’ve wanted to visit for years. Situated on the edge of the Sierra Nevada national park, it has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I based myself in Orviga, a small town at the base of the mountains with good access to the white villages of Capileira, Canar and Bubion and the Moorish town of Lanjeron.
I got lucky with the weather, blazing hot sun for five of the seven days I was there. I took a great many photographs without really having a theme, the landscapes came off best, but I have some ideas ready for when I return – this region of spain is teeming with wildlife and the farming methods in the mountains are thankfully not particularly modern. People routinely live over the age of 100 apparently and I’d like to capture the spirit of this wonderful country on camera.
This was the first time I’ve used a Canon 5D Full frame camera, so I can’t really write about this trip without raving about the technology. I got my hands on the new Mk III for the trip and have been frankly blown away. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of this camera’s abilities, but things that impressed me mightily were the AF point selection – the camera supports 26 AF assist points which gives so much more precision to the business of focussing. The picture above is a radical crop of a shot I took from about 75 metres away from the subject. The focus point was on the head. The combination of the 10.1 megapixel sensor and the extended AF points meant I was able to put the focus precisely where I wanted it and have pixels to spare even after such a radical crop.
I also loved the speed at which this camera focuses – in combination with an “L” series lens I found myself checking a couple of times to see if autofocus was switched on. Very impressive.
This picture is my favourite from the trip – yes, it is an HDR shot, but it is very close to the idea I had when I shot the three pictures it is made up from. I exposed first of all for the Sky and then for the mountains in the middle and finally the foreground. I was after the layers and as a technical challenge, trying to get the dynamic range or richness of a picture shot with film. Don’t know if I succeeded in that, but I do like this image!
I used Nik HDR Pro to do the HDR conversion and then tweaked it in Lightroom. I like Nik software a lot – it works well with Lightroom and is so intuitive to use.
I’ll be returning to Andalucia, hopefully in November for a few days, and will be spending less time on business and more on photography.
So, Las Alpajurras and a Canon 5D – what could possibly go wrong? ! I must admit, I love this part of the world and this trip has fired my imagination with a vengeance. There’s a lot to photograph and a lot to explore, I plan to go back many times in the next few years and see if I can do the place justice. Here’s hoping!