Little has changed in the villages of southern Spain’s Alpujarras mountains since the author of a classic travel book stopped by almost a century ago
As pilgrimages go, this wasn’t in the big league. More of a sidetrack really – which was fortunate, because things weren’t going too well. I had been wandering around the village of Yegen in southern Spain for half an hour, looking for traces of a famous former resident, and so far I’d drawn a blank.
I was beginning to think my diversion from the main roads of this dramatic region was a waste of time but then my luck changed. Wandering down yet another street of whitewashed houses in this sleepy settlement on the eastern side of the Alpujarras mountains, I spotted an old woman sitting on a doorstep. Dressed from head to toe in black, with a bowl of apricots in front of her and intent on her task of whipping out the stones with a fierce-looking knife, she seemed perfect. Probably never left the village in her life, I thought.
So I asked her in what was pretty good Spanish: “Donde es la casa de Gerald Brenan?” ("where is Gerald Brenan’s house?"). Surely everyone here would know of the young Englishman who fetched up here in the 1920s, fresh from the horrors of the Great War, and didn’t leave for years.
“Que?” the old woman croaked back at me. “La casa de Brenan,” I said. “Que?” she repeated. This was silly. “Bre-nan,” I shouted, thinking she might be deaf. “Brenan?” she came back at me. “Si, Brenan”. Still her face was a blank. Then I remembered where I was – in deepest Andalucía, where rural accents are thicker than a jar of local honey and not nearly as sweet.
“La casa de Bre-na,” I said, knocking off the final consonant in true local style. “Ay, Bre-na,” she said, pointing to a plaque on the wall of the next-door house. She must have thought I was stupid. Actually, even I thought I was stupid - but I had managed to find my goal.
It wasn’t much of a memento for the author of one of the finest travel books about Spain, South From Granada. But perhaps that’s the tribute he would have chosen – a simple plaque on a wall in a village that has clearly changed little in 80 years or more.
Brenan’s lyrical, insightful record of his days in these mountains predated by decades the efforts of the man who has ensured that you can’t think of the Alpujarras without thinking of lemons (and vice versa). Chris Stewart’s account of life on a farm in an upland valley, Driving Over Lemons, has fired the imagination of tens of thousands. But this still little-known region has so much more to offer than Stewart could begin to touch on his book.
True, citrus fruit trees dot the landscape of a mountain range that lies at the southern flank of the Sierra Nevada like a dog before its master. But throughout the 50 and more miles from Lanjarón in the west to Láujar de Andarax in the east, olive and almond trees are just as prevalent.
The western Alpujarras are all steep, wooded valleys and rock faces; the mountains grow higher and their flanks more exposed as you travel towards Trévelez, the starting point for treks to Spain’s highest mountain, Mulhacén, standing at well over 11,000ft.
Beyond Trévelez the landscape changes abruptly and dramatically. The olive terraces and mountains give way to rolling hills and, eventually, gulches; from here, east and south towards Almería, increasingly desert-like conditions suggest the Wild West; hardly surprising that so many of Hollywood’s spaghetti westerns were filmed here.
It’s the eastern influence that left its mark on the Alpujarras, though. This was the Moors’ last stronghold in Spain and they left a legacy of unique irrigation channels and a recognisable style of architecture.
Settlements in the high Alpujarras are uniform – low, stone houses, flat-roofed, with thick walls for coolness in summer and warmth in winter. The tinaos, partly enclosed galleries that lead from one row of houses to the next up the hill, are regular features and the roofed passageways they cover are gathering places for locals to sit and talk in the heat of summer.
The bigger, western towns of Lanjarón and Órgiva don’t hold too many attractions, but once you leave them behind, the villages of the high Alpujarras, spread across the hillsides like blobs of white paint on a greeny-brown canvas, are another matter. Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira are the main settlements, spectacularly sited on the edges of the beautiful Poqueira Gorge. All understandably draw their share of tourists, content to lose themselves in the mazy streets and shady little squares.
To the south, the dozen or so villages of the Taha, a Moorish word meaning ‘obedience’, have a very different feel. Mecina Fondales, Busquístar, Pitres, Ferreirola – all are sleepy and few offer anything more than a bar or two. But stumbling across one of the last half-lost corners of western Europe is rewarding. The views across the dome-topped white chimney pots towards the sierra and west along the valley floor are worth the lengthy drive, or hike to reach these hamlets.
There’s a palpable sense of a past age in these villages. I sat in the sun on a spring afternoon outside a bar and wondered how life was for Brenan almost a century ago. My lunch – bread, a plate of tomatoes, another of local ham and sausage and a bowl of life-giving thick soup, washed down with glasses of thin red wine – was probably much as he would have eaten over in Yegen. No wonder it took him 14 years to finally get out of the village.
Iberia and British Airways offer daily direct flights to Málaga (90 mins from the Alpujarras) from London. A number of low-cost operators like easyJet , BMI and Monarch fly there from London and regional airports. Iberia and BA also fly to Granada (45 mins) via Madrid.
Where to stay and eat
Hotel Nuevo Palas in Lanjarón is pleasant, was refurbished recently and has a restaurant and pool.
In Órgiva, Hotel Taray on the edge of town has comfortable bars and a restaurant in a cortijo setting, with large pool.
In Bubión, the Villa Turistica de Poqueira has good service and is clean and warm, though not luxurious. Friendly atmosphere, close to the heart of village.
In Capileira, the Mesón Poqueira restaurant has good value food and better views.
Mecina Fondales’s Hotel Albergue de Mecina offers characterful, typical Alpujarran architecture in a modern hotel on the edge of a beautiful, quiet village; high quality food and excellent value rooms.
Mesón Haraicel in Trevélez: in the town of 10,000, hams it serves Arab-influenced food.
Villa Turistica de Láujar in Láujar de Andarax is the best option for the eastern Alpujarras. There are plenty of activities available from this pleasant, though architecturally undistinguished hotel, and the food is good, and plentiful
Outdoor pursuits and gentler pastimes are well catered for: Walking, nature-trekking, climbing, mountain biking, horse riding, painting and photography are all easily arranged.
Ugíjar has a good Alpujarran museum and Capileira a smaller one
Buy jamón in Trévelez, ceramics in the western Alpujarras, baskets in Lanjarón, wines in Láujar and cheeses everywhere.