We are off trekking again, accompanied by our two trusty Labradors, Griffin and Wallis. This time we are heading to the Alpujarras. It’s a narrow, 70Km valley that runs East/West from the heights of the Sierra Nevada until it falls into the Mediterranean Sea around Almeria. The arid hillsides are slashed by deep ravines and the sound of tumbling, rushing, cascading water is never far way. Natural springs leak out from the black earth but are unable to sustain a lush, green environment. Despite this, fruiting trees abound: orange and lemon, almonds, figs and mulberries as well as an overwhelming number of gnarled old figs. Smallholdings dot the hillsides guarded by packs of (mostly) chained mongrel dogs shepherding a mixture of sheep, cows and goats. Blinding white villages cling to the southern, sunny slopes, their prominent bell towers rising above the houses like pegs that keep the villages anchored in place. All around are magnificent views; to the south is the sea, some 50Km away, whilst, to the north, the proud peaks of the Sierra Nevada are still clad in their winter coat of snow. It’s a fabulous place to walk. Once again, we can breathe great lungfulls of fresh, clean mountain air and enjoy the sense of freedom and space that wandering in the high sierra grants to its visitors.
Our first stop was in Lanjaron, famous for its mineral water and spa treatments, although this is not strictly speaking in the Alpujarras. The town is sprawled wide and narrow across the mountain, half asleep at this time of year whilst it awaits the influx of visitors that summer will bring. Some, rather sensible, person has built a little ring road around the centre of town to keep anything bigger than a mule from trying to negotiate the streets. We soon regretted trying to drive the narrow alleyways; even with Debbie waving her arms and hands in instruction and with the wing mirrors retracted and me breathing in hard, we still had to suffer the ignominy of reversing back out the way we came in. Wrinkly faced locals observed us with stony faced contempt whilst fresh faced children rushed back to their parents to announce that the first tourist car of the year had got stuck in the streets heralding the start of another tourist season and rich pickings once again.
We had booked a Casita in the hills above Lanjaron that was serviced by ‘Woofers’. These are people (usually foreigners) who look after rental accommodation in return for free food and lodging rather like guard dogs. Our place didn’t require much in the way of servicing. It had a small room that tripled as a kitchen/sitting/dining area, a smaller room off it that was just large enough for a bed (that must have been brought in in pieces) and a shower room marginally wider than my shoulders complete with a toilet that could only be flushed by taking the top off the cistern and pulling a rusty sprig of metal. For the cold nights, a heater fired by a gas bottle was provided. But, despite having to eat breakfast standing up, it was cosy enough and the dogs had no complaints.
I’m afraid I don’t remember much of our first little trek as we were talking too much. We had hooked up with friends, David and Tamsin, who had rented a rustic little house for five weeks in an attempt to learn Spanish. We walked out of their place and up into the hills shrouded by cloud and light rain that obscured the wonderful landscape.
However, the weather the next day treated us more kindly and we walked a pleasant 2.5 hour circuit around the town of Capileira (1,432 metres) along the Poqueira Gorge and via its generating station. It was an easy re-introduction to the joys of trekking that stretched the legs and opened up the airways. Afterwards, we repaired to a local bar in the centre of town for a delicious and ridiculously cheap Tapas lunch.
The following morning we started our walk just outside Lanjaron and struck out for somewhere called Tello, about 2 hours into the hills. After a short while we ran into a herd of horned cattle grazing on the steep slopes around the path. The shepherd whistled at us loudly but to what purpose was something of a mystery. Was it to warn us that these were bulls? Or a command to keep our dogs under control? Obviously expendable and having removed any clothing that was remotely red, I was sent forward to clear the path. Fortunately, the animals mostly turned out to be Myrtles or Daisies rather than Pepe the People Destroyer. Adopting the same tactics as with all females, I found that a good slap on the backside soon made them vanish from my presence. From here, we continued upwards through a wood of trees blackened by fire that had killed everything above knee level until we came across a man made water course where we stopped in a small copse of Spanish Oak to allow the dogs to drink. Under the protection of the trees the air was shaded and cool and the area green and lush, nourished by the busy stream.
When we reached the end of the trail we were supposed to return by the route we came but we spotted a rickety wooden bridge across the River Lanjaron and supposed that there must be a path the other side. Unable to find it, we decided to follow an irrigation channel that fed the cultivated terraces on that side of the gorge. This was much more like it. The views opened up, drawing the eye to distant mountain tops in the west that flowed down to the sea at Motril. The dogs enjoyed frolicking in the cool water that reached to their shoulders and we felt rather pleased with ourselves for discovering an unmarked route back to town. However, our smugness was short-lived as the watercourse clung to the edge of the hillside with a precipitous drop into the gorge a long way below us. Nevertheless, Debbie drew upon the wealth of her trekking experience to guide the party along the perilous edge of the precipice, where one simple slip would mean certain death, to the relative safety of the narrow, but still deadly dangerous, trail.
We now realised that this water course was running across the mountain rather than down and that if we continued to follow it we would probably end up in Granada sometime the next day. So we struck off downhill, fighting our way through terraces of squat olive trees, brambles and other spiky vegetation towards the sanctuary of a dirt road that looked as if it would end up back in town. The descent involved jumping down rocky walls, sliding along wet grass on our bottoms and removing thorns from flesh. I have to admit to the occasional swear word. So it was that we ended up back where we had started 5.5 hours later thinking that we wouldn’t do that again.
After another simple (late) lunch in a Tapas bar, we piled into the car and moved on to our next lodging. This was in the hamlet of Capilerilla, a short distance from the town of Pitres both of which are part of the 7 Andalusian villages known as La Taha. This is a truly beautiful area that clings to the hillsides so that we are always walking on a slope but the upside is that there are magnificent views from almost anywhere.
Capilerilla is a typically traditional Spanish hamlet having one road that finished in a dead end and a collection of small dwellings made from mud, stone and brick, with wooden beamed ceilings, slate roofs and sparkling white walls. Many are constructed on two levels so that animals may be held overnight below the family living space. On the edge of the little conurbation stood a small chapel dedicated to San Francisco presumably for those not willing or able to make the half kilometre walk down to the town of Pitres.
Our place was rather like Dr Who’s Tardis. Bigger on the inside than out. Standing in the road, we thought it unlikely that we would manage to squeeze ourselves, the dogs and our modest amount of kit within its seemingly tiny walls. However, once inside, we had a palace that hid a suite of light and airy rooms in which we could relax after a hard day’s walk. Most welcome was the wood burning stove that, whilst it guzzled €10 of firewood each evening, belted out heat which banished the chill of the night air and made our modest abode very cosy. We would retire to bed under a heap of coverings and dream peacefully.
Eager to experience a bit of local colour, we drove down to the large town of Orgiva where they held a local market every Thursday morning. Sadly, the market itself was a bit dull being full of stalls selling fruit and veg or bargain basement clothing. In the true style of stallholders the world over we got stiffed by the tomato seller who somehow managed to slip a handful of his poorest stock into our bag. Fortunately for him Debbie didn’t realise his crime until we were back at base though I would expect his ears were burning red hot as the authenticity his parentage was doubted in no uncertain terms.
However, all was not lost. The colour of the market place was provided by the Hippies. I hadn’t seen these 1960’s throwbacks for years but I now realise that they had all congregated in Orgiva to do what Hippies do best. Stick thin, as if they had recently sat for a Lowry portrait, they wandered around in brightly coloured, worn to clash, baggy clothing, wearing Jesus-creeper sandals and dreadlocked hair that resembled an insect nest. Some bought a single piece of fruit paid from a jumble of small coins held deep in pockets, some stood (or swayed) chatting with friends and some sat behind a tray of homemade scents or oils hoping for custom. My Mum had always told me not to stare at people but it was hard not to. The strange thing was that Orgiva seemed a relatively affluent place with its own compliment of sun glassed, armed and smart looking Policemen and I wouldn’t have thought they would tolerate a sizeable number of people living an ‘alternative lifestyle’ any more than would the good people of Chipping Norton. But what do I know?
After we had returned to our rooms and sworn at the Tomatoman, we strapped on our boots and headed uphill towards the village of Bubion. The trail was supposed to be along the GR7 route that runs the entire length of Spain but in this area the powers that be had failed to mark it in a way that a simple person can easily follow and we soon got lost amongst the myriad pathways that criss-cross the hillside. The maps of the area are not of the standard expected from British Ordinance Survey but we managed to decipher the hieroglyphics on our local map sufficiently to find a dirt road that eventually intersected with our desired route. It was an extremely pleasant walk through the dry, needle strewn bed of a pine forest that emerged on the top of a cliff overlooking Bubion. Here the view was gorgeous. Bubion lay below us, the white buildings tinged orange by the dying afternoon sun whilst further north the south facing, white settlement of Capileira was held in the palm of the surrounding dark green slopes of Poqueira Gorge. So compelling was the landscape that, had time been on our side, we could easily have sat here quietly enjoying the beautiful vista for some while. However, as daylight was fading, we scrambled down the steep slope and marched into the empty village to enjoy a hot chocolate with churros outside an empty bar.
The walk back was somewhat easier now that we knew which route to take and passed uneventfully other than running into a herd of goats of every colour being guided back to their nighttime enclosure by a surprisingly tall shepherd and his eclectic mix of dogs. Griffin and Wallis must have been tired at this point because, faced with an abundance of animals to chase, they obediently walked through the entire herd without showing much interest neither in the scraggy goats nor in the rear ends of the ‘sheep’ dogs. As I proudly passed the Shepherd, I told him, in my best Spanish, that my dogs were always this well behaved: ‘Mis perros siempre estan portase bien.’ He looked back uncomprehending.
For our next excursion, Debbie chose a circuit that took in two more of the seven villages of La Taha, Ferreirola and Busquistar. We parked next to the 17th century church that was firmly closed to believers and non believers alike for restoration. It needed a bit of attention, looking, not unlike a 1970s Fiat, as if it was held together only by paint. Across the street was the village wash house apparently still in working order. Water from the hillsides flowed through a central channel off which several scrubbing areas could be used to remove the sweat and grime of dirty clothing. Friday obviously wasn’t Dobie day here as the washroom was deserted. Either that or the modern convenience of washing machines has penetrated the very heart of traditional Andalucía. The streets were sufficiently narrow that neighbours had no need for telephones for communication – they had only to lean out of their windows to engage in intimate gossip and three old, black clad ladies struggling with two bags of anything would be sufficient to gridlock the entire village.
About 10 minutes out of the village was a natural spring. Usually this would hardly be worthy of comment so profligate is the Alpujarras in fresh springs but this one spouted water that was naturally carbonated. How does that happen? Can there be loads of little people under the earth working Sodastreams? The water is reputedly full of healing powers which was just what I needed for my much abused body. But how much should I drink? Would it be one gulp for a small swelling and two for a big one? The information was woefully absent. So I took a good swig. It tasted like San Pellegrino mineral water from the hills of Lombardy in Italy. However, I am sorry to report that the healing powers of the water have yet to take effect. Either that or I didn’t drink enough of the stuff.
We moved on and came across an area used for threshing wheat. This seemed like a good way of working off the frustrations of the day and if you went at it a little too hard, pulling the odd muscle, you could always nip back to the magically carbonated spring for a quick cure. How perfect peasant life must have been!
Further on, straddling the banks of the Rio Trevelez, was an old mill where once bread was made but now stood roofless, sad and abandoned, a relic of simple times before the invention of supermarkets and the long life loaf. At this point the fun stopped for a while as the route took us up the steep and rocky north facing side of the gorge until we reached a grassy plateau. Whilst we grabbed a quick rest we gazed across a large U shaped valley to the mountain range of Contraviesa looking a strange washed out green in the shafted sunlight. Looking back the way we had come, we were able to pick out all seven of the ring of little villages that comprise the settlements of La Taha. It was a beautiful view.
The walk took us past an old iron ore mining complex that ceased work in the 1970s and, I imagined, looks just like an abandoned forced labour camp of the former Soviet Union. We then descended once more to the river before climbing back to Busquistar. Once again, the village seemed deserted. I wondered whether, like in the Spaghetti Western movies, all the inhabitants hide in their homes, locking their doors, at the first sight of strangers approaching. So, in true Clint Eastwood style, we tethered the dogs to the railings next to a water bowl and went into the bar foraging for food and drink. The owner was obviously pleased to see us and produced a pleasant array of Tapas dishes to delight our palates whilst we sat in the shade on the terrace.
The walk back to Ferreirola was refreshingly simple, allowing us to discuss the trek that we would tackle the next day up into the high Sierra.
It started at Trevelez, the highest village in Spain, some 1,476 metres (4,800 feet) above sea level. It’s yet another village that clings to the steep hillsides so that there must be a good 100 metre difference in height between the bottom and the top buildings. The village feels like it is almost imprisoned being walled on either side by the vertiginous sides of a gorge and guarded by the face of the intimidating menace of the mountain of Mulhacen (3,482 metres/11,300 feet). We began our long ascent to Campinuela, a clutch of refuge huts beyond the tree line on the route to the Seven Lakes deep in the Sierra Nevada.
The trail, although relentlessly uphill, was not particularly taxing. The most difficult obstacles being the gates that define the boundaries of various properties that we passed through. These gates are usually constructed from old bedsprings that are held in place by a loop of wire. I was impressed by this imaginative recycling and made a mental note to mention it to Mr Cameron, should I ever meet him. Not only do they provide an obvious barrier to progress but, should someone or something (a blind cow for instance) bump into it, it will gently push said silly cow back into its pasture. It’s bound to be a vote winner.
The one aspect of this trek that we hadn’t taken into account was snow. The clue was someone we passed who was going downhill, clad in waterproof thermals and with snow shoes strapped to their backpack. As we passed, she looked as if she wanted to say something to us but thought better of it. What those words might have been we were soon to find out because, as we emerged from the tree line, we were confronted by deepening snow. In good intrepid style we ploughed onwards and upwards, not thinking for one moment that we wouldn’t be able to reach our destination with ease. However, once we began to find our feet plunging up to our knees in the white stuff we began to realise that further progress would be difficult and very slow. Debbie felt that it might even be dangerous and that this wasn’t the place to be injured. I disagreed of course. If she was to break a leg, I could easily carry her lightweight body down to safety. On the other hand, in the unlikely event that I broke my leg, she could use me as a sled. What could go wrong?
After I had conceded her argument, we sat on a rock and ate our lunch at 2,500 metres, bathing in the cold sunshine, looking at snow covered mountains whose flanks swept majestically all around us. To me, it brought back memories of holidays in the Alps. Of drinking a beer from the bottle and eating of bowl of rosti whilst catching a few rays. Debbie thinks it’s like Scotland: nice in a bleak sort of way but cold.
The final trek on our last day was a complete disaster. We set off on a circuit from Pampaneira that was supposed to take about 4 hours and went through the picturesque village of Capileira. To begin with the trail had collapsed in a landslip so we had to climb up loose shale and rock to regain the track. About 30 minutes later the trail disappeared altogether in thick bushes at the bottom of a ravine. No matter, we thought, we would make our way up to where we imagined we could pick up the route once again. This wasn’t the best idea as we found ourselves scrambling through trees with sharp branches, bushes with spikes that dug into our clothing and briars whose thorns punctured our skin. After 30 minutes of this, accompanied by quite a lot of swearing, we had only got deeper into unpleasant and unwelcome territory. With the pathway was nowhere in sight, we had little option but to give up and turn back. This was a last resort for us, never having been defeated before, and felt like total failure. On the steep sides of the gorge progress can only be made along a pathway. By the time we got back to where we started, we had consumed 3 and half hours to manage about a quarter of the distance: virtually the same time it should have taken to complete the entire circuit. A disappointing end to a wonderful week in the amazing Alpujarras.